“I can’t believe he’s really going.” Penelope Pembroke gripped the steering wheel of her SUV as she made the sharp right turn down the road leading to the Possum Hollow School.
Her best-friend-since-high school, Mary Lynn Hargrove, wife of Amaryllis, Arkansas’s long-time mayor, grimaced. “Fr. Loeffler’s been here for a long time.”
“Thirty-six years. He baptized Bradley and buried Mum. I’m glad he was still around to marry Bradley and Rosabel.”
“He deserves to retire, don’t you think? Especially after what he told us on Sunday about the heart thing and all.”
Penelope sighed. “He’s part of the town, even the Protestant part. It won’t be the same without him.” She pointed the car so that it straddled a pothole in the narrow road. “That needs fixing.”
“I’ll mention it to Harry, but it’s the county’s responsibility.”
“They don’t blessed do squat out here.”
Mary Lynn shook her head and murmured, “Little pitchers,” referring to Ellie and Evie sitting quietly in the back seat. With their father in jail awaiting trial for his involvement in the murder of their mother, they’d been taken briefly to a foster home in the northwestern part of the state. Then, with Jeremiah Hadden’s cousin Archie arrested for killing the girls’ mother, almost killing Principal George Harris, and kidnapping Miss Maude Pendleton, social worker Tonya Cisneros had pulled strings to get Ellie and Evie returned to the Hargroves, hopefully forever.
“You two all right?” Penelope said over her shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am,” replied ten-year-old Ellie.
“Everyone will be glad to see you back,” Mary Lynn assured her. “And Evie will be just fine with Miss Carol in the kindergarten room.”
Mary Lynn sighed. “And I’ll be just down the hall, Ellie.”
“Everything is going to be just fine,” Penelope added, hoping it was the truth.
In the school parking lot, she headed to her usual space. “Here we are. It’s early, so you girls can stay with me in the library if you like.”
Mary Lynn opened the back door, unfastened four-year-old Evie’s seatbelt and boosted her out of the car. “There you go.” She smoothed the girl’s short curls, light brown like her sister’s, and adjusted the blue and purple plaid bow holding it away from her face. Ellie came around the car and took Evie’s hand.
Penelope noticed Ellie hesitated at the school’s front door, long-since repaired since Archie Hadden’s shotgun had shattered the glass. “It’s unlocked,” she said, pushing it open.
Ellie squared her shoulders and stepped through, pulling Evie after her. George Harris stood in front of the display case replacing the red and green Christmas decorations with plastic snowflakes and snowmen.
“Good morning, girls,” he said, turning toward them. “We’re real glad you’re back.”
Ellie ducked her head.
“Are you ready to go to kindergarten?” He stooped with some residual difficulty after his recovery from the gunshot wound inflicted by Archie Hadden, and addressed Evie. “I happen to know Miss Carol has a desk waiting for you right up close to hers.”
Evie quivered with excitement. “Weally?”
“Miss Mary gave me this.” She thrust a bright pink backpack in front of her. “It’s got lots and lots of school stuff inside.”
“That’s fine.” The principal stood up. “And I see you have one, too, Ellie.”
The girl nodded.
“I have some good news,” George went on. “Tammy Turney is coming back next month.”
“Oh, wonderful! But what about her fiancé?” Mary Lynn brushed an imaginary thread from the shoulder of Ellie’s brand-new camel-brown coat which exactly matched her sister’s.
“He’s been released from the VA hospital, and they’re getting married next week. He’s taking a medical discharge and planning to use his military benefits to go to school in Little Rock. He wants to get a degree in occupational therapy and work in a VA with other wounded vets.”
“What about…his legs?” Penelope’s voice dropped to a whisper.
“Well, he lost both of them below the knee—that’s an unfortunate fact. But Tammy says he’s learned to walk well with his prostheses, and while they’re honeymooning, they’ll pick up his new car with hand controls.”
“Technology can do anything these days,” Mary Lynn said.
“So we’re being sprung,” Penelope said. “I’ll miss this place, but I have to admit just managing the B&B is going to be enough.” She put her hands on the girls’ shoulders. “Well, come on girls, let’s get this day started. Or maybe I should say this new year.”
After school, Evie chattered about her day all the way to the car and most of the way into town. Even Ellie was more talkative. George Hollis had done damage control before the holidays, just on the off chance the girls would be back. The other children knew the shooting and kidnapping were closed topics—forever. They also knew, because they were Possum Hollow children, too, that Jeremiah and Archie Hadden were in jail and not likely to get out soon. Loyalty to their own kind—and perhaps kin—dictated that wouldn’t be talked about either, especially around Ellie and Evie.
Penelope let Mary Lynn and the girls off in front of the Hargrove house. “See you same time tomorrow.”
“It was hard enough getting me ready to go at that gosh-awful hour,” Mary Lynn said, sticking her head back in the car after Ellie and Evie scampered up the walk.
“The perils of motherhood.”
Mary Lynn smiled. “I can only hope.”
“Jeremiah will give up his parental rights to you and Harry. It’s either that or have them terminated and let the girls go to foster care. He knows he isn’t coming out of there before either one of them turns eighteen.”
“That’s what Tonya says. Well, I’ve got to go start supper. See you, Pen.”
Jake Kelley, Penelope’s father, straightened from the oven where he’d just slipped in the chicken his daughter had left ready to bake. “How was your day?”
“Busy. But Tammy Turney is coming back, so my days at the school are numbered.”
“She and her fiancé are getting married. He’ll commute to school in Little Rock.”
“Double amputee, right?”
“Apparently getting along fine.”
“Things have come a long way since so many boys came home from our war like that.” Jake poured two mugs of coffee and sat down at the table. “Some did okay, some not so well.”
“People look at disabilities differently these days, too.”
“That’s true. Less pity, more admiration for the come-back.”
“I have to admit I’ll be glad to be home more. So will Mary Lynn.”
“How did the little girls get along today?”
“Great. Evie talked a mile a minute nearly all the way home.” Penelope wrapped her hands around the warm mug. “I still can’t believe Fr. Loeffler is leaving.”
“He’s almost my age, Nellie. He should retire with time left to enjoy it.”
“You didn’t want to retire after your stroke.”
“No, I didn’t, and I was pretty hot about being replaced at the Garden Market. But in the end, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I enjoy life more every day the good Lord gives.”
“You worked hard, Daddy. You deserve it.”
“And so does John Loeffler.”
“Laura Barton is going to live with her sister in Eldorado when he goes, so the parish will have to find another housekeeper for the new priest.” Penelope sipped her coffee. “I wonder who he’ll be?”
Fr. John Loeffler said his last Mass at St. Hyacinth’s on the first Sunday in March. When the parishioners filed into the pews the following Sunday, they were greeted by a much younger face that someone whispered was way too good-looking to be a good priest.
Penelope, freed from her responsibilities at Possum Hollow School when Tammy Turney—now MacMurray—returned the first of February, had organized lunch in the parish hall to welcome the new pastor. He’d slipped into the rectory earlier in the week, unannounced and unnoticed, but now he moved comfortably among his new flock, his curly black hair falling over his high forehead with decidedly unsanctified abandon.
“Kristopher with a K,” Penelope heard him say to Mrs. Pfieffer with a P.
“It’s Polish. I’m second generation. My grandfather came to this country after World War II with his wife. It wasn’t just the Jews who fled Europe. Whole villages had been destroyed and their populations all but wiped out. Many people just didn’t have the heart to rebuild and start over in a place occupied by a country—Russia, in the case of Poland—whose occupation might not be much better than the Nazis.”
“Why didn’t your grandfather taken an Americanized name?” someone asked.
Kristopher’s smile, revealing even white teeth, dazzled his listeners. “I get asked that all the time. My uncle did change his name as an adult when he finished college and went into business. Brown. That’s a good American name. But my grandfather is proud of his name, and so is my father. And so, as a matter of fact, am I. The Dombrowskis were prominent in Spokojna Dolina for generations before the war. Helped to found it even. The name translates to Peaceful Valley, because that’s what it was.”
The hall buzzed.
“The chalice I used for communion this morning was a gift from my grandfather when I was ordained.”
“Did it come from Poland?” Harry asked, joining Mary Lynn with Evie in his arms. He set the child down and wiped his forehead. Ellie edged closer to her sister.
“Who’s going to keep house for you?” Mary Lynn asked.
“To answer your question, Mayor Hargrove, yes, it did, and there’s a story behind it. And to answer yours, Mrs. Hargrove, my sister will be here next week. Ivana is a widow. She has a nine-year-old son, Will, whose father died in a trucking accident when Will was just a few weeks old. She’s been keeping house for me ever since I finished seminary and the diocese had no problem with her coming along to Amaryllis.”
“We’ll welcome her,” Penelope said. “And her little boy, too. We have a good school here in town. He’ll do well there.”
“I’m sure Ivana will be glad to hear it. She dotes on Will. We both do, I guess.” He greeted two or three other people who stopped to speak to him before turning back to Penelope. “Mrs. Pembroke, right? The B&B.”
“Are these your granddaughters, Mayor?” Fr. Dombrowski bent over and made a silly face, sending Evie into a fit of giggles.
“It’s a long story,” Mary Lynn said. “We’re hoping to adopt them soon.”
“Wonderful!” The young priest made a face at Ellie, too, eliciting only a small smile.
“This is my father, Jake Kelley,” Penelope said as Jake joined the group.
Oh, Mr. Kelley and I have already met.”
“Really?” Penelope glanced at her father, her eyebrows lifting. “He didn’t mention it.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “She’ll have me in the old folks home before evening,” he said.
The young priest laughed. “Actually, I stopped in at Rose’s Bakery for some kolaches for breakfast the morning after I arrived, and Mr. Kelley and two of his friends were having coffee. They invited me to join them.”
“The Toney Twins,” Mary Lynn said. “Lucky you.”
“They were, um…interesting characters,” said Fr. Dombrowski. “But not Catholic, I understand.”
“Not much of anything,” Penelope said, “except rich and eccentric.”
Jake wagged a finger at her. “Now, Nellie, that’s not very nice.”
“They did make a large donation when we restored the old school as a community center,” Mary Lynn said.
Penelope flushed. “They did that all right. But did I ever mention I saw them talking to that Snively character before he picketed our Christmas program?”
“Snively?” asked the new priest.
“Harrison Snively, the low-life who tried to shut down our Christmas program at the new community center we worked so hard to get going. Brought in a bunch of heathens to protest and scared the little kids coming to participate.”
“He left pretty quick,” Harry reminded her. “After the bikers roared up.”
“Bikers?” Fr. Dombrowski shook his head. “The Bishop didn’t mention this was such an interesting place.”
“It’s the best place in the world,” Penelope said firmly. Or at least, it used to be. Now I just sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering what’s going to happen next.
Sam sat at the kitchen table eating a piece of chess pie. “I came for lunch, but there wasn’t any.”
Jake grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Had lunch at the parish hall to welcome our new priest. Good to see you, son.”
“Thanks, Mr. Kelley…Jake.”
“I’ll make you a sandwich,” Penelope said, setting down her purse.
“I already had one. This is dessert.”
“You make yourself right at home, don’t you?”
Jake chuckled. “I’m going to watch TV.”
When he’d gone, Sam circled Penelope’s wrist and pulled her into his lap. “Hello, Nell.”
“Hello yourself. Where’ve you been now?”
“Around. I thought I’d get back for the Valentine Dance, but it didn’t work out. You wear that red dress again?”
Penelope struggled only briefly as Sam’s lips sought her neck. “You didn’t even send me a card.”
“I thought about you. Does that count?”
“It shouldn’t.” She snuggled against him. “Oh, Sam, I missed you.”
“Missed you, too.”
“How long will you be here this time?”
“You never know.”
“That’s the problem. I never know anything.”
Sam stroked her shoulders and back and put his lips against her hair. “Neither do I, Nell.”
“I’m not complaining. Not really.”
“Let’s go in the parlor. There’s more room.”
“More room for more trouble.” But she got up and went with him.
On the sofa beneath the front windows, with the streaming sunlight warming their bodies, Sam got down to business. “Sometimes I lie awake at night and try to remember how warm and soft you are.” His hands, however, didn’t wander.
Penelope gave herself up to the feelings his touch engendered. “Sometimes I wake up in the night and smell your aftershave.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“I don’t even open my eyes, because I don’t want to know you’re not there.”
“Someday, Nell.” He felt inside the neck of her sweater and pulled out the locket he’d given her for Christmas. “Mae hyn yn fy annwyl.”
This is my beloved. “Am I really your beloved, Sam?” She straightened to meet his navy blue eyes.
He traced her lips with one finger, then moved in for the kill.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she murmured, waiting for him to kiss her again.
“Sure I did.”
She laid her head against his broad chest. “I never take it off. The necklace, I mean. And I haven’t shown it to anyone yet. It’s just too personal.”
“It’s meant to be personal, just between you and me.” He kissed her again. “So, you have a new priest.”
“I told you the last time you called that Fr. Loeffler was retiring.”
“Right. Who’s the new one?”
“Fr. Kristopher Dombrowski. Kristopher with a K. Thirty-ish, good-looking, very personable.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I know things, remember? It’s the name.”
“He said his uncle changed his name to Brown for business purposes.”
“People do that sometimes.”
“He said his grandfather was proud of the name, that it meant something where they came from in Poland.”
“That’s good, too.”
“He talked like his grandfather was still alive and said he gave him the chalice he’s using now when he was ordained. That’s sort of a custom. But you know that.”
“I know that.”
“You’d like him.”
“I’ll drop by and meet him sometime.”
“His widowed sister is coming to keep house for him. She has a little boy about nine.”
“This is a good town to raise a kid in.”
“You think so? So much has happened in the last few years, starting with that mess at Pembroke Point.”
“Things happen everywhere, Nell.”
“Daddy says I just never realized what was going on all the years I was growing up here. But moonshine out in the Hollow doesn’t seem very dire compared to drug-running, art theft, kidnapping, bombing, and murder.”
“It’s not. But the drug-runners will move on after a while. In fact, this latest fiasco was probably their swan song.”
“You mean Darby Dolan? I don’t think she’ll ever go to trial.”
“Her lawyers will run out of legal maneuvers eventually, and she’ll be convicted of murdering those three people. And, if her husband’s body ever turns up, the prosecutor will tack on accessory to his murder.” Sam stretched. “How are Evie and Ellie?”
“They were a little apprehensive about going back to school at Possum Hollow, but they’ve settled in. Tammy Turney—Tammy MacMurray picks them up every morning now that Mary Lynn and I don’t go out there.”
“Are the Hargroves going to adopt them?”
“They want to. It’s a matter of their father giving up his rights to them. I don’t know where that stands. Oh, and Miss Maude still goes to the school, too. Did I mention that the last time I talked to you—over a month ago?”
Sam chuckled. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, she’s so useful out there, so George asked her if she’d keep coming. The children adore her, and what she does frees up Tammy for other things. Tammy and Mac are living in the guest house attached to the old Pendleton place, so it makes things convenient.”
“I thought you were terrified of Miss Maude in high school.”
“We all were, and she meant for us to be. But children have a sixth sense, and they know she reads stories like they never heard them before. Besides, she’s something of a folk hero to them for surviving time with Archie Hadden. Him they were really scared of.”
“So everyone is living happily ever after.”
Penelope put her face against his shoulder again. “Almost, Sam.” She felt his arms go around her again and sighed.