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Twelve Days

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Twelve Days

  Twelve Days

  Book 1

  The McRae's Series


  Teresa Hill

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  Please Note

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The reverse engineering, uploading, and/or distributing of this eBook via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

  Copyright © 2000, 2011 by Teresa Hill. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.


  Cover and eBook design by eBook Prep www.ebookprep.com

  Thank You.


  One year at Christmas, a couple I know received a call from a social worker desperate to find a temporary home for a little girl.

  My friends, it seems, were still on the county's approved list of foster parents, although they'd already decided not to take any more foster children into their home. They'd gotten their hearts broken once before by the system.

  But the social worker begged. It was Christmas, and the child had nowhere to go. In the end, my friends took the little girl into their home and their hearts. She came to them on Christmas Day, and I'm happy to say, she's been there ever since.

  It takes a special kind of courage to love a child who's not your own, at least not in any legally recognized terms. I admire people willing to take the risk. And of course, the writer in me couldn't help but think—a child in desperate need of a home at Christmas.... There must be a story of my own there. And here it is.

  What follows is fiction, but this book is dedicated with love to my friends Scott and Jan and to their daughter Krysta.

  Chapter 1

  On the first day of Christmas, eleven-year-old Emma sat in the backseat of the social worker's car, her little brother Zach on one side of her, baby Grace sleeping in a car seat on the other side.

  The light was fading fast, streetlights coming on, and the entire neighborhood glowed with the light of thousands of tiny Christmas bulbs strung on just about everything she could see. Snow was falling, big, fat flakes, and everything was so pretty.

  For a moment, Emma thought she might have stepped inside the pages of one of the Christmas books she read to Zach or that maybe she'd shrunk until she was an inch high and was living inside one of her most prized possessions—a snow globe.

  It was so beautiful there, inside the big, old, magical-looking house, so warm, so welcoming. Emma could make it snow anytime she wanted with just a turn of her wrist, a bit of magic that never failed to delight Zach and the baby. She thought nothing bad could happen in a place like that and often wished she could find a way to live inside the little ball of glass.

  Blinking through the fading light and the gently falling snow, she thought for a moment the neighborhood they were driving through looked oddly familiar, though she was sure she'd never been here before. She would have remembered the big, old houses reaching toward the sky, with all those odd angles and shapes, the fancy trim and silly frills that seemed to belong to another place and time.

  Rich people's houses, she thought, the knot in her stomach growing a bit tighter. What would anybody with a house like that want with her and Zach and the baby?

  Zach leaned closer to the window, his nose pressed flat against it, fogging a little circle of glass. "It's almos' Chris'mas. Ever'body has their tree and stuff up."

  "I know, Zach." There were wreaths on doors and on the old-fashioned black lampposts topped with fancy metal curls, the lights perched delicately on top. There were stars made of bright Christmas lights, even Christmas trees in people's yards.

  Emma had never seen people go to so much trouble for Christmas. They must have spent hours. And the money... It must take a lot of money to decorate a house like this just for Christmas. She couldn't imagine what the insides of those houses must be like. She and Zach and the baby didn't need anything fancy. Just a place where they could stay together. She couldn't bear it if they were separated. Emma had to make sure that didn't happen.

  The social worker pulled the car into a long driveway and at first Emma thought they were going to the house on the right, all castlelike and fairy-talish.

  Aunt Miriam—that's what she'd told them to call her—turned off the car and pocketed the keys. She twisted around in her seat and said, "Let me make sure someone's here before we take the baby out in the cold, okay?"

  Emma nodded, knowing they were running out of chances.

  "Zach," Aunt Miriam said. "You stay in your seat belt and in that backseat. Emma, don't let him near the steering wheel or the gearshift. Cars aren't playthings. I'll be right there on the porch. You yell if you need me."

  "Yes, ma'am." Emma put her arm around Zach. She could take care of him and the baby. If someone would just give them a place to stay and something to eat, she could take care of everything else.

  Aunt Miriam got out of the car. A blast of cold air came in before she got the door shut again. Emma shivered a bit. This had to work, she thought, closing her eyes and wishing, praying. This might be their last chance.

  Zach brushed past her to get to the window on the other side of the car.

  "Zach!" she scolded.

  "I gotta see! I gotta see the house," he said, then wailed, "Oh, no!"

  "What?" Emma leaned over the sleeping baby to look herself. It was like all the other houses, big and expensive, certainly like no place they'd ever lived.

  "Chris'mas!" Zach cried.


  "It isn't comin' here," he cried. "No Chris'mas."

  "Oh," Emma said, realizing now what was different about this house.

  She should have known they didn't belong in a place like this. From the moment they pulled into the neighborhood, it had all seemed too good to be true.

  The nice lady from social services had brought them to the only house on the street with no Christmas lights, no tree, no ribbons, no bows, no fake reindeer statues decked out in lights on the lawn.

  Christmas wasn't coming here.

  Emma didn't believe it was coming for her and Zach and the baby, either.

  * * *

  The doorbell rang, disturbing all the silence in Rachel McRae's house, and she honestly thought about ignoring it, as she often did these days.

  She was sitting in her great-grandmother's rocking chair deep in the corner of the living room, in what she now realized was near darkness. When had it gotten so dark? Surprised, she looked at the clock on the wall. Five-thirty? She frowned. Where had the day gone?

  Sam would be home soon. Maybe. She hadn't even started dinner, hadn't done much of anything. She'd slowly retreated from everyone and everything over the past few weeks. Once again, she found herself at the end of a long day in which she'd done nothing. It all seemed to be too much for her lately. She had the odd feeling that the world was moving too fast all around her and she couldn't quite keep up.

  The doorbell rang again, and Rachel decided
it would be easier just to open the door and deal with whoever was there this time.

  Moving slowly and quietly through the house, she flicked on the overhead light and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. At the front door she flipped on the porch light and pulled open the door, finding her aunt, a kind-hearted, sixty-something-year-old woman with more energy than most half her age, standing on the porch.

  "Aunt Miriam? Hi."

  "Hello, dear." Her aunt smiled. "How are you?"

  "Fine," Rachel said.

  "You threw a lovely party for your father and all of us over the weekend."

  "Thank you." It had been her father's sixtieth birthday, which had turned into a family reunion somehow. Her family welcomed any excuse to get together. "Do you want to come inside?"

  "Not just yet. I just wanted to make sure you were home. I brought you something," Miriam said, turning and heading for her car.

  "Oh, okay. Do you need help?" She crossed her arms in front of her, shivering a bit in the cold.

  "No, we can get ourselves inside, Rachel."


  Rachel frowned. She wondered who Miriam could have brought to visit. It couldn't be family, because they'd all been here over the weekend, all forty-six of them for brunch on Sunday. She'd spent Monday putting the house back together after everyone left. It wouldn't get messed up again until the family came for Christmas. Rachel and her husband, Sam, weren't messy at all, and it was just the two of them, probably it always would be.

  Neat, clean, and quiet, that was Rachel's life. Her sister Gail, who had four children, the oldest of whom was twelve, actually said she envied Rachel at one point over the weekend when the chaos level hit its peak.


  Rachel had nearly broken down. She'd hidden in the laundry room, wiping away her tears. Sam had caught her coming out. As he always did lately when he saw that she'd been crying, he stiffened. His whole body went on alert, sending out all those signals that said, "Don't start, Rachel. Not now."

  Not ever, she supposed. They weren't going to talk about it. It didn't matter if they did. Nothing would change. So many bad things had happened, and there were no children in this house. Probably, there never would be. How in the world was she supposed to accept that? How was she supposed to go on?

  Rachel crossed her arms in front of her, shivering a bit from the cold, and walked to the edge of the porch. That's when she saw the little face inside the car pressed against the window. A nose smashed flat against the glass. A mouth. A child-size hand.

  For a second, Rachel thought it was Will, that Miriam had brought Will back to them, when Rachel had given up on that ever happening. But the door opened, and a boy much smaller than Will hopped out. He was four or five, Rachel guessed. She had lots of nephews and cousins. She knew about little boys.

  Will was eleven, so tall and lanky, with arms and legs too big for the rest of him. He'd been too skinny and wary at first, but then he'd crawled inside of Rachel and taken root there, growing and changing and blossoming, right there in Rachel's lonely heart. She'd forgotten how much she'd always wanted a baby, and remembered that she simply wanted children.

  And then Miriam had taken him away. Rachel and Sam knew they'd likely never see him again.

  This wasn't Will. Looking up again, Rachel saw a second child climb out of the car, a girl in a thin sweater, an ill-fitting dress that was too short and showed her thin legs and bony knees. She must be freezing, Rachel thought.

  The girl took the little boy's hand, and they stood staring at Rachel and the house. She couldn't help but wonder if they were scared. They had to be cold, and she'd bet they hadn't had enough to eat lately, maybe not for a long, long time. It hurt to think about that, hurt in places Rachel hadn't hurt for a long, long time, places in her heart she thought had died. It would be better if all those sad, lonely corners of her heart just shriveled up and died. Miriam knew that. She had to understand. So Rachel couldn't understand why her aunt was doing this to her.

  Then, in the worst betrayal of all, her aunt leaned into the car and came out with a baby in her arms.

  "Oh." Rachel closed her eyes. A baby.

  Miriam walked right up to Rachel and put the child into her arms, giving Rachel no choice but to take it.

  The other two children gazed up at Rachel waiting for her reaction, their own expressions hard to read. Sadness, uncertainty, fear? Little children shouldn't ever be afraid.

  So although Rachel wanted to shove the baby back into her aunt's arms and run inside, locking the door behind her, she didn't. Not at first. She didn't want the children to think she was rejecting them. She wasn't. She was rejecting pain and her own memories and the most dangerous thing of all. Hope.

  For years, Rachel had had a dream. An utterly illusive fantasy that one day she'd open her front door and someone would put a baby in her arms. It was her own personal version of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. They could put her on national television if they wanted, broadcast live from her front porch, if she ever won the baby sweepstakes.

  A little shiver ran down Rachel's spine. She'd had the baby dream just a few days ago. It had snowed in her dream, she remembered, and it was snowing today. She'd missed that, too; there was a soft, pristine white blanket of snow covering the ground, and it was cold. Just like in her dream.

  The dream, too, always started with the doorbell ringing. Sometimes Rachel opened the door and saw no one. Then she looked down and found a basket at her feet, an oval-shaped basket filled with something that might have been mistaken for laundry. But the linens would wiggle, and she'd pull them aside and find the baby waiting for her. In a basket at her front door, like a present.

  Sometimes—the last time she had the dream in fact—she opened the door and found a person standing there. She didn't know who, didn't see anything except the baby in that person's arms. She held out her arms and found them filled with a warm, soft, sweet-smelling baby. Right there, on an otherwise absolutely ordinary day.

  Just like today.

  "Miriam?" Rachel protested as her aunt herded the children inside, as if she still lived here.

  "Inside, Rachel. These children are cold and tired. They're probably hungry by now, too."

  "I hungry," the little boy piped up.

  "See," Miriam said, as if that excused everything.

  "You didn't stop by for me to feed them," Rachel pointed out.

  "No, but I know you would never turn away a hungry child. Your mother raised you better than that."

  "And surely your mother raised you better than this," Rachel said, about to be seduced by the warm weight of the baby in her arms.

  They all traipsed down the front hall and to the right, to the big kitchen. Miriam walked right to the refrigerator and opened it.

  "Oh, Rachel. You've been baking already." Miriam turned to the boy and the girl. "You have never had anything as delicious as pumpkin bread made with my mother's recipe. She used to live in this house. I did, too. I used to sit in this kitchen, right where you are, Emma, and watch her bake. We'd have a fire, and the whole house would smell so good, and then when it was finally done, we'd put real whipped cream over it. The bread would be hot enough to melt the cream, and it would run down the sides, like ice cream. It's delicious."

  "Bread?" the boy said, obviously not impressed.

  "More like cake," Miriam explained. She'd already gotten the bread out of the refrigerator and was headed to the cabinet for plates. "You do like cake, don't you, Zach?"

  "Uh-huh." He nodded vigorously.

  Oh, God, Rachel thought. He was hungry. And he was so thin. He didn't have a warm coat, either. He just had a thin jacket, like the girl. Emma and Zach, she thought. Hungry and cold. In her house.

  "You can't do this, Miriam," Rachel complained.

  "In a minute, dear." She put slices of bread in the microwave to warm, and found the whipped cream. And then when the bread was ready, put a generous dollop on each slice. She got out the m
ilk, asked Rachel for glasses, and when Rachel provided them, she poured milk for the children and settled them on stools at the breakfast bar. "We'll just be in the other room, all right?"

  Zach obviously had no problem with that. He was digging into the pumpkin bread, the whipped cream drizzling down the sides, just as Miriam promised. Emma looked more cautious, more aware of what was going on.

  "We'll be right back," Miriam assured her.

  Rachel followed her to the living room. She shoved the baby at Miriam and was so mad she was shaking. "What do you think you're doing?"

  "I know you and Sam are still smarting over losing Will. I know you're still worried about him, Rachel, and I'm sorry, dear. I am so sorry."

  "Sorry? We loved him, Miriam. I can't sleep at night for wondering what's happening to him now. What his so-called mother's doing to him."

  "She hasn't missed a beat so far. I checked this morning with Will's teacher, with his mother's counselor, her employer. So far, she's doing great."

  "So far? What does that mean?" Rachel was relieved, but still so angry, so worried. "It means nothing, Miriam. Nothing except that the pressure hasn't gotten to her yet, or she hasn't let some awful man move in with them yet. Or that she's still worried enough that someday she might actually lose Will for good that she hasn't let herself mess up yet, but she will. You know she will, and she'll hurt him. I'm so scared that she's going to hurt him."

  "I'm sorry. Rachel, if it were up to me, Will would be with you and Sam. You know that. But so far, no one's appointed me God of Baxter County. Judge Forrester's that, and he thinks Will's mother deserves another chance."

  "I hate this," Rachel said. "I hate it, and I can't do it again. You know that. Sam told you that."

  "I know. Believe me, if there was anything else I could do, I would. But I don't have anyplace else to take these kids."

  "Oh, come on, Miriam. Don't try that with me."

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