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Chapter 20

“Hot chocolate? Please don’t tell me that you’re buttering me so that I’ll give in to whatever outrageous request you’re about to make.”

Brian handed a mug of steaming hot cocoa to his mom. “Ye of little faith. Seriously, with all that’s been going on, I thought you could use a little pampering.”

He sounded so much like his dad that Ginny struggled to hold back the tears. “Bless you my child. How could I have doubted you. A roaring fire and hot chocolate. On a bitterly cold evening, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

“It would be better if Dad were here. I miss him.”

“Me, too. I miss so many things about him. His laughter, his wacky sense of humor, his calm demeanor in the face of chaos, his generosity, his work ethic and his sense of fairness among other things. After today, I could really use his shoulder to lean on and his advice would be welcomed."

"I'm not as wise as Dad, but I'll listen."

“I’ve gotten myself into a situation that I’m not qualified to deal with. I’m a teacher not a social worker or a therapist. Dysfunctional families and mental issues need to be handled by professionals.

“The Northrop's?"

She gave him a synopsis of her conversation with Teresa.

"I suspect that George and Ruth Northrop did what they believed was right for Christine. They took her to a therapist, but the treatment was a temporary solution.

“So, what are you thinking? Did Julie leave home because of Christine?”

“It’s more complicated than that. Julie sensed that a pregnancy outside of marriage would complicate the family dynamics. As much as she loved Ruth, she believed that protecting Molly was her priority. She must have been terrified when she learned that her illness was terminal. Who does one turn to when your family is estranged?"

Brian frowned. "Good question. She turned to you. Maybe it wasn't fair, but she depended on your compassion. She knew you would protect Molly."

“With Julie gone, and her family and Sean’s family involved, I’m not sure that Molly can be protected. She’s curious. How do you think she will respond when she learns that her so-called protectors lied to her?”

Brian shook his head. “I don’t have an answer to that question.”

“I think she deserves the truth. What do you think your dad’s advice would be?”

“Dad had a soft spot for kids, and as you said, he didn’t mind a little chaos. I think he would applaud your actions. Take it a day at the time, that’s what he always told me.” As an afterthought, he said, “Today must have been a doozy. What did you find out about Sean and his parents intentions?”

“Charles Cantrell knows Sean and his parents. He is convinced that they want what’s best for Molly. He claims that they would have been thrilled and welcoming of a granddaughter if Sean’s circumstances, and theirs, were different. Sean’s impending marriage, and his dad’s locked-in contract, prohibit raising a child in a stable and secure environment. Sean’s parents are terribly disappointed that he has willingly given up his parental rights, but their hands are tied.

“The elder Kendrick’s will be spending the next two and a half years in London. The community they live in is currently experiencing political turmoil, so they question the advisability of raising a grieving child in such a chaotic environment.”

“That’s sad news for the Kendrick’s, but isn’t it good news for Molly? She doesn’t know the Kendrick’s. She does know you, and you can provide a stable home for her. If you move forward with an adoption, I’m sure that you will encourage a relationship between the Kendrick’s and Molly.”

“She has family, Brian. Even if the Kendrick’s agree to the adoption, there’s Christine Snipes. There’s no way to predict what she will do. If she starts making demands, an adoption could be a long drawn out process. Molly doesn’t need to be dragged through a long and contentious court battle.”

“With Christine’s unstable mental condition, I can’t believe that a judge would even grant her visitation rights.”

“I realize that there are no guarantees, but I want to eliminate as many obstacles as I can before I move forward.”

“That’s probably wise.”

“Teresa recommended that I read a book titled Sweet Justice. She claims that the main character in the book is a mirror image of Christine.

“I ordered the book from Amazon earlier this evening. I’m not easily persuaded by wild theories, but some of Teresa’s arguments rang true.”

“Sounds intriguing. Be sure to keep me posted.”

“I will.”

“What about the fire bug? Any suspects?”

She shook her head.

“Doesn’t it stand to reason that he or she could be retaliating for perceived insults or actions. What about the guy who raped Christine? Is he still in prison?”

She shrugged. “I assume so.”

“Mom, that was . . . what . . . twenty-five years ago? You should find out if he’s still incarcerated. If I were investigating the fire, I would look at individuals who harbor a grudge against the Northrop’s.”

“Christine didn’t testify against Kevin Levinson, and neither did her parents.”

“But, wasn’t she the last girl he raped? Maybe Levinson believes Christine turned him in.

“If he was angry with Christine, he could have started a fire at her home.”

“Maybe. Maybe not."

"What if the rumors that Christine had a relationship with him are true? Christine is a known liar. If she stayed in touch with him, she could have spun a story that implicated her parents. Isn’t it worth asking a few questions?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure how to go about checking the release date of prisoners.”

“You can go online and find out, but I recommend talking to Nick or Charles about you suspicions. Let them talk to the police. Now, I’ve got to get some shut-eye. I have a long day tomorrow.”

“Thanks again for the hot cocoa, and thanks for being a sounding board. Don’t forget that we’re going to decorate the Christmas tree Sunday afternoon. Tuesday, Molly and I are going Christmas shopping. You’ll be on your own for dinner.”

“No problem. Cal and I will be here working on a computer project. We’ll order pizza.”

Town Center wasn’t the newest or flashiest mall in New Holland, but it was Ginny’s favorite place to shop for Christmas gifts. The mall manager, if he or she was responsible for selecting the Christmas decorations, managed to create a festive environment year after year. The decorations changed periodically but the beautifully decorated 16-foot tree in the mall’s rotunda was always the centerpiece.

This year the tree was surrounded by artificial snow drifts that looked surprisingly real. A sleigh filled with gaily colored gifts stood close by. Scheduled performances by local choral groups were on tap for two, four and six o’clock Monday through Saturday. The singers, festive in their brightly-colored scarfs, circled the tree and entertained the shoppers with carols and other popular Christmas songs.

Oversized wreaths, with flowing red ribbons were hung in some of the shop windows, and other windows had Christmas themed displays. Weary shoppers could buy peppermint cocoa, spiced cider and sugar cookies at Santa’s Workshop, a kiosk painted seasonal colors. The man and woman manning the kiosk were wearing elf suits and hats.

Earlier in the week, when Ginny asked Molly if she’d been to Town Center during December, Molly reminded her that her mom had been sick the previous Christmas. “I might have been to the mall when I was five, but I’m not sure.” As soon as she saw the tree, her eyes grew as big as saucers. “Ginny, I have been here. I remember the tree and singers. Will there be singers today?”

“At four. By the time we grab a cup of hot cocoa at Santa’s Workshop, the singers should be arriving. We better hurry, though, there’s probably a line.”

There was. While they were waiting, Ginny scanned the crowd. Since the incident at Simon’s Coffee Shop, she was more aware of her surroundings. She was surprised to see Susan, Charles and Nell’s daughter, barreling toward them.

“Hi, Ginny. I’m Susan Danielson, Charles and Nell’s daughter.”

“Hi.” She put her hand on Molly’s shoulder. “This young lady is Molly Davidson, Ruth Northrop’s great granddaughter.”

Susan’s gaze turned to Molly. “I’ve heard so much about you, Molly. You are as adorable as my parents and Nick claim. How do you like the Christmas tree?”

“It’s beautiful, but I like the one at Ginny’s house better. I helped decorate it.”

“Smart girl. Bigger isn’t always better. Christmas is a very special time when you’re young. I have wonderful memories of helping my mom and dad decorate our tree, and decorating the sugar cookies Mom baked. Which reminds me, Nick gave me one of the cookies you baked at Abigail’s. It was delicious. I need you to come to my house and teach me how to bake. I’m a terrific decorator, but I don’t have a knack for baking.”

“I bet Abigail would teach you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Ginny, I was hoping that Nick would introduce you to me Friday night. I’m sorry you couldn’t make it.”

Ginny frowned. “Friday night? I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“The awards dinner.”

“I’m still in the dark, Susan. I don’t know anything about an awards dinner.”

“Oh, my gosh. I have a habit of putting my foot in my mouth. The city council holds an awards banquet every two years to honor local citizens who contribute to the welfare of New Holland’s residents. Nick was recognized for his pro bono work with single mothers and troubled teens who don’t have resources. Nick shies away from what he calls undeserved recognition, but I assumed that Melanie would notify his clients that Nick was being honored.”

“Don’t be too quick to judge Melanie, Susan. Maybe she let his New Holland clients know. I’m from Archdale, and I barely keep up with what’s happening in my own town.”

“That’s probably it.”

Molly piped up, “Mommy used to say that Nick should be crowned king.”

Susan agreed wholeheartedly. “At the very least, a prince? Nick is a prince among men.”

Ginny was puzzled by Susan’s obvious adoration for her ex. What kind of game was she playing? Not her business. She needed to change the subject. “Did you find any bargains today, Susan?”

“I avoid the hustle and bustle by shopping early. This year my shopping was done by December 6th. I’m here for the four o’clock performance of the youth group from my church.” She glanced at her watch. “If you and Molly are going to stroll over and listen, do you mind if I join you. It’s so much more fun if you’re with someone.”

What could Ginny say? She wasn’t brought up to be rude.

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