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By:Shelley Shepard Gray

“No. I just want toast.”

“Daughter, you should eat more.”

As expected, Mary ignored her father. “Katie hasn’t come over lately.”

“That’s because she’s been busy. As have I.”

“Well, I don’t know her. Not too good.”

It didn’t escape Jonathan’s notice that his daughter wrinkled her nose when she spoke their neighbor’s name. “You certainly do too know her.”

“Not well. I don’t see why we want her here. I don’t.”

All brusque and business, Winnie shooed Mary and little Hannah, who’d just appeared, toward the table. “Sit down, now. It is time to eat.”

But the ever-curious Hannah stopped in her tracks. “Who do we not want here?”

“No one,” Winnie said as she shuffled Hannah to the broad oak bench. “I’m making you an egg. Eat some toast while you’re waiting.”

Obediently, she picked up a piece of toast. But to Jonathan’s dismay, Hannah was not to be put off, either. “Who, who, who?”

Just as Jonathan was about to tell the youngest to be quiet, Mary answered. “Katie Brenneman.”

Suspiciously quiet, Winnie slipped an egg onto a plate and placed it in front of Hannah.

Hannah looked at them all with wide eyes. “Why don’t we want Katie here?”

“I want her here,” Winnie said.

“I don’t. And you don’t either, Hannah,” Mary proclaimed.

“Yes, I do. I like Katie.” Smiling sweetly, Hannah speared the egg with her fork. “Katie gives me cookies at gatherings. And she always has a friendly smile.”

Sounding far older than her years, Mary said, “Cookies do not make for a nice person.”

“Why not?”

Jonathan could not take any more. “Katie is indeed a nice person, and that is all we will say about that. It is sinful the way you two are gossiping.”

“I’m not gossiping and telling tales,” Mary retorted, obviously offended. “I’m only telling you my feelings. Can’t I even do that?”

“Of course you can. But you mustn’t say those things about Katie.”

“Why not? Why must we not have feelings about Katie Brenneman?”

“Daughters, eat your breakfast and get ready for school. We’ve had enough talk for now, I think.”

While Hannah busied herself with butter and jam, Mary narrowed her eyes. “But—”

Winnie turned away from the sink. “Listen to your father, Mary.”

As silence filled the room again, Jonathan stood up. “I’m going outside,” he murmured as he walked to the hooks by the door. Before any of the girls could ask another question, he slipped on his coat and walked out into the crisp, cool air. Into the type of day that Sarah had always enjoyed.

He’d never told her how much he far preferred the hot, long days of summer.

In fact, he’d never told her much about his tastes and wants. Instead, each had ventured into married life determined to be as busy as possible. Sarah had been terribly independent, always going wherever she needed to go. He’d never thought much about the dangers of her driving the buggy so much.

Maybe if he had, she’d still be with him. Maybe if he’d tried harder to tell her how much he liked her being at home, she’d still be there. But now, of course, it was far too late.

With a sigh, Holly Norris signed the letter with “Your friend, Holly,” then slipped the piece of stationery into the envelope and addressed it to the McClusky General Store.

“Well, Brandon, I don’t know if Katie will ever see this, but at least I’ll know I tried.” She looked fondly at her older brother. “Right?”

If Brandon heard, he gave no notice. Today was one of his bad days. Four months ago, he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Since then, his health had been steadily declining. At first, the doctors had talked about chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But after several scans and exhaustive tests, it was obvious that he was never going to get better. Actually, it was becoming obvious that Holly was about to lose him very soon.

Every time she thought about Brandon dying, Holly choked up. He was the only family she had left. Their mother died of breast cancer four years ago. And their dad—well, neither of them had heard from Graham Norris in almost a decade.

For most of her life, it had only just been she and Brandon.

And lately, it had just been her. She’d never felt so alone.

For a few hours each day, Brandon would regain consciousness. Luckily, she was always there to witness it.

Holly mentally thanked her boss, Dr. Kinter, for allowing her to take a leave of absence from her job as a veterinary assistant. What would she do if Brandon woke up, only to find no one was sitting by his side?