For three years, I traveled home by bus for the Christmas holidays. My sister thought I was crazy to put myself through the emotions this trip caused. Dad offered to buy my plane ticket, not understanding that money wasn’t the issue. The trip was my tribute to the sweet baby who was no longer mine, and I needed to make the journey in this way. Honoring her memory settled my soul and made me feel close to her in a way that I couldn’t when I had to concentrate on driving.
Some said it was morbid to retrace the route to my hometown in the Rockies, to travel the same roads I’d traveled with her inside of me. But I relished the trip as a way of renewing my wavering belief that the choice I’d made was the right one.
In the middle of my sophomore year at a small midwestern college, I wasn’t the right person to give her the best in life. Although I was sure of my love for her, I knew I couldn’t provide her with a stable life. So I’d returned to the sanctuary of my parents’ home for the last six weeks of my pregnancy. . . .
Suddenly, the bus rattled through a pothole, and I was jostled from my reverie, taking a look outside. The afternoon sun shone weakly through low gray clouds that threatened snow before the night was over. The prairie grass was brown and matted, lying low as if hugging the ground for warmth.
The traffic alongside the bus had increased, which meant we were approaching another town. The repetition of short stops and cookie-cutter bus stations was soothing. I liked knowing that not too many miles farther along the road would be a well-lit, warm room where I could stretch my legs and buy a cup of cocoa.
Bus travel was as anonymous as I wanted it to be. I made the decision to either talk with my fellow passengers, or maintain my distance. On this particular trip, I was thankful that the bus wasn’t too crowded, and for several hours, I enjoyed a whole seat to myself. Mostly, I was just glad that the other travelers were also going solo—military personnel, college students, and seniors—not families.
Christmas was always the hardest time of year for me. Seeing happy families enjoying each other chipped away at my belief that I’d done the right thing. I worried that her adoptive parents couldn’t possibly love her as much as I did. That year, my baby would be almost two. To save my sanity, I’d been having to pretend that toddlers were invisible. At shopping malls, I kept my eyes straight ahead, not daring to let my gaze dip down to the huge eyes, rounded cheeks, and dimpled smiles beaming up at me from strollers and carriages everywhere.
After another short stop, at which I got off the bus momentarily to take advantage of the station’s rest rooms, my bus’s departure was announced over the intercom, and I hurried back aboard. The bus creaked and moaned as it waddled away from the station. One more city left behind us.
Settling into my seat once again, I concentrated on the passing scenery through the window. Ten minutes passed in pleasant viewing before I heard the baby’s first cry.
Someone with a small child must’ve boarded at the last city. Whenever I heard a baby’s cry, my whole body went on alert, fighting my natural impulse to get close to that sound. The fussing sounds spun my thoughts back to the reason for my trek.
Three years before, I’d hoped for a quiet holiday spent in the loving atmosphere of family in my childhood home. My baby had had different ideas.
Content with the last-minute excitement of holiday baking and gift wrapping, I’d ignored the first labor twinges and promised myself that I’d put my feet up as soon as the next batch of cookies was done. But before I realized what was happening, Mama had taken one look at my hand bracing my lower back, bundled me into the car, and driven me to the local hospital. She’d stayed right by my side, whispering words of encouragement and telling me how proud she was of me. I’d clung to her words as tightly as I’d clung to her hand.
Not prepared for how the act of giving birth would touch my soul’s most primal depths, I’d started wishing that I could keep the baby, that I’d find a way to make a life for us. But Mama brought me back to reality. From then on, I’d tried to believe that letting my baby be adopted was truly the best choice—for both of us.
For one fleeting moment at five minutes past midnight on December twenty-fourth, I’d seen my daughter’s sweet face, and then she was gone. Gone forever.
Now, from behind me, the baby’s cries grew louder, and I heard the low rumble of a man’s soothing voice. I told myself not to turn around, not to make eye contact with the child. My cardinal rule was not to get involved with other people’s children; I knew my heart wasn’t strong enough.
But the cries tugged at my hardened mother’s heart. I could see passengers with deepening frowns craning their necks to see what the problem was. Being inside the bus was more personal than being at the mall. Once those doors closed and the wheels started rolling, an intimate environment was created. As inhabitants of that special world, we couldn’t truly separate ourselves from inevitably interacting with each other in some way or another.
I looked out the window, searching for anything of interest to distract me. If the child’s father soothed it quickly enough, I’d be able to maintain my distance. And so I counted telephone poles, telling myself that if I reached one hundred and the baby was still fussing, then—and only then—I would go back and offer to help. Although I wasn’t sure what exactly I thought I could do better than the child’s father could. All I knew was that if the situation were reversed, I’d want someone to offer to help me.
And so I counted—ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.
And the baby’s cries only grew louder, more high-pitched.
I knew then that I couldn’t avoid the situation any longer, and my stomach knotted with nerves. I scooted to the aisle and glanced back. A small head covered with blond curls swung into the aisle and disappeared, cradled in a dark-haired man’s arms.
Why did I feel compelled to help? What was drawing me to this baby—drawing me enough to make me put aside my rules about children?
As if he knew I was watching him, the man looked up suddenly and connected with my gaze. His eyes were the deepest blue I’d ever seen, but it was his look of mute appeal that went straight to my heart. Automatically, my legs propelled me toward the back of the bus. As I approached, I noticed that the seats around him were suddenly vacant.
Abreast of his seat, I spotted the baby, who seemed dwarfed by the big man’s arms. She was older than I’d first thought—probably close to two years old.
About my daughter’s age.
That thought sliced through me, and I sucked in a deep breath, resting a hand on the back of the seat to steady myself.
Could I do this?
Hesitating, I sat down across the aisle from him and smiled. “Hello, my name is Janet. Please don’t think I’m trying to butt in, but I was just wondering if you might need a hand.”
At the sound of my voice, the baby quieted, twisted around in his arms, and focused dark brown eyes on me. Clad in denim overalls and a pink turtleneck, snuggling against his chest, she stared at me, her breathing erratic with shuddering sobs.
At the instant change in the baby’s demeanor, the man’s eyes grew wide and he smiled, causing a dimple to wink in his left cheek. “What do you know? I think we should listen to the nice lady, don’t you, sweetie?” He glanced at me. “Keep doing whatever it is you just did, Janet. It obviously works. I’m Rob, by the way . . . Rob Petrie.”
I pulled my gaze from the little girl’s. “Pleasure to meet you, Rob. And what’s your daughter’s name?”
“My niece. Her name is Grace.”
“Grace,” I repeated, liking the sound as I said it. “A pretty name for a very unhappy little lady.” Instantly, I felt sorry for this man who, judging from the way he held her too tightly, obviously didn’t have much experience with toddlers.
“She’s got an ear infection, I’m afraid, and the doctor advised against making the trip by plane.” He gazed down at the child fondly and brushed a tear from her cheek. “I thought that the bus would be quieter than the train. So, here we are.”
My ticket took me through Denver, too. We’d be sharing the same bus for at least another twelve hours, maybe enough time to become better acquainted.
Grace struggled to sit upright in his arms. Her eyes hadn’t left my face since I’d sat down, and I discovered that I couldn’t look away from her, either. She was a little beauty, all right. She didn’t look much like her uncle, though, so maybe she took after her mother. The thought of who my own daughter favored flashed through my mind then suddenly, but I hastily pushed it back down deep inside of me.
“You know, she might actually feel better if she’s seated upright.” My suggestion was hesitant; I was wondering if I should be telling him what to do. After all, what did I know about taking care of a child? “My nephew, Devon, gets them, too. My sister, Claire, always props him up with extra pillows when he sleeps. Something about less pressure on the eardrum.”
He nodded, adjusted Grace’s position, and she snuggled her head on his shoulder. His large hand awkwardly patted her back, and immediately, her eyelids grew heavy.
“Does the trick every time,” I whispered, smiling. “She’s almost asleep.” Relief shot through me, and I stood, ready to return to my seat.
“Janet!” His voice was quiet, but it held an unmistakable note of panic.
I stopped, quickly checking Grace’s face, and then my gaze went to his. He was ruggedly handsome, his dark hair curling around his ears, and, judging by his jeans-clad legs jammed against the back of the seat ahead of him, well over six feet tall.
“Um, would you mind sitting back here with us? I’m a complete novice to this sort of thing, and more than willing to listen to any pointers you can offer.”
Again, my stomach clenched. I’d thought I was done, that my foray into contact with children had ended. But one look at Grace’s sweet face, and my resolve wavered. This was, after all, the perfect opportunity for me to test my abilities—a temporary interaction with a definite time constraint. Once the bus reached his or my destination, our association would be over for good.
“Let me get my things, and I’ll be right back.”
I quickly walked several rows forward, gathered my jacket, carry-on satchel, and the lightweight blanket I used for these trips. I returned and set my belongings on the adjacent seat. Then there seemed to be nothing to say.
“I really appreciate this,” Rob said. “All I want right now is to get her safely to my parents’ house.”
“Where are her parents?”
He stiffened, and the baby moaned at his sudden movement. He automatically rubbed circles on her back, whispering quietly. I liked how natural his responses seemed. If he was indeed a rookie, at least his instincts were good.
“Look, if I’m being nosy, just tell me. I come from a big family in a small town. We’re used to talking about everybody’s business.”
He angled his lean body, stretching one leg into the aisle, and rested his head against the seat. “My brother and his wife were killed last week in an automobile accident. Thank God, Grace wasn’t with them. She was still at the daycare center, waiting to be picked up. They were on their way to get her.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Immediately, I said a silent prayer that my two sisters and one brother were all happy and healthy.
He dipped his chin in acknowledgment. “Mom wanted to fly out to get her, but Dad’s recovering from hip replacement surgery. I had vacation time due me, so I flew east to straighten out their affairs.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment.
For the first time, I noticed the lines of exhaustion around his eyes and mouth. I tried to imagine myself in a similar situation and knew that not living close to his brother’s family had probably made Rob’s worse. The poor child! How scared she must’ve been, and probably still was. The people she loved and trusted had disappeared, and now an inexperienced bachelor uncle was doing his best to take care of her needs.
Impulsively, I leaned over and tucked my blanket around the sleeping baby and tossed the rest over Rob’s long legs. He’d fallen asleep, and his head nodded close to hers—dark waves almost touching golden curls. Outside, darkness was gathering, and I gazed out at the flickering lights of an unnamed city on the Kansas prairie. Soon, my eyelids drooped, as well.
A deep voice called my name, and I thought I was dreaming. I reached for my blanket, but my fingers came up empty. The jostling movement and monotonous purr of tires on wet pavement reminded me suddenly of where I was.
“Janet, you awake?” Rob spoke again.
I opened my eyes and turned my head slowly, wincing at the stiffness in my neck. “Barely.”
“I need to. . . .” He jerked his head toward the back of the bus. “Can you hold Grace for a minute?”
My fingers yearned to touch her curls, my arms waited for her warm weight, but I panicked, doubting the wisdom of those thoughts. “Maybe you can lay her on the seat.”
“Didn’t you say that lying flat would hurt her ears more?”
“So, I did,” I mumbled, momentarily frustrated because he was obviously a good listener. “Sure, pass her over.” I sat up straighter and opened my arms to the sleeping girl. When Rob leaned close, I smelled musk, warm flannel, and a scent that was uniquely his—a masculine blend that sent shivers of awareness through me.
Grace arched her back at the movement and then snuggled her body to my chest. My senses were achingly overloaded by her closeness—warmth from where she’d cuddled with Rob, baby shampoo, and fresh, sweet skin. Instantaneous peace settled over my anxious heart, and I could do nothing but stare down at her innocent face. This child was single-handedly crumbling the aged stone wall around my heart.
When Rob returned, he held out his hands to take her from me.
“Oh, I don’t mind holding her for a while.” Even to my own ears, my voice sounded a bit shaky. “Stretch your legs a bit.”
He leaned an elbow on the seat in front of me and arched his back. “Thanks. I had no idea that having a little one around can be so tiring. She’s small, but demanding.”
“It won’t always be like that. The poor little thing’s just trying to make sense of a senseless world.”
“You’re right. And I’m a poor substitute for the great mom that Molly was.” His gaze flickered away to the window, and he swallowed hard before continuing. “Stupid drunk driver.”
I reached out my hand and covered his, trying not to notice how solid he felt. “You’re doing what needs to be done, Rob. And you’re doing it with Grace’s welfare in mind.” I removed my hand and made a sweeping gesture. “Not everyone chooses to travel by bus these days.”
He chuckled and sat back in his seat, smiling at me. “I appreciate your kind words. You sound like you’ve had practice calming people down. Is that talent connected to your job, by any chance?”
“Not really.” I smiled. “I just finished my degree in education, actually. Now I’m facing a decision about teaching right away, or enrolling in a master’s program.”
“From the sound of your voice, I’d guess that further studies is not the favored option?”
I couldn’t admit to him that my real reason for that stemmed from my not wanting to be responsible for other people’s children, a feeling I’d thought would go away with enough time, but hadn’t.
“Well, I’m tired of living the student life, except. . . .”
“That sounds like a big ‘except.’ ”
“Last semester, my senior project got me interested in library science. If I focused on a master’s in that, I could see my way toward extending my poverty lifestyle.”
“Personally, I think that people should go after whatever interests them. After what I’ve experienced, I’ll never tell anyone to delay their dreams.”
His voice was filled with such sadness that I wasn’t sure how to respond. This man intrigued me like no one else I’d met recently.
“What job did you leave to help your family?”
“I’ve been writing grants for my city’s school district for the past two years.” He looked at his hands, then back at me. “But what I’d really like to do is concentrate on my woodworking.”
“You build things, like chairs and tables?”
He grinned. “No, I carve artistic pieces from chunks of wood using a lathe. So far, I’ve been doing it in my spare time, but my brother’s death has changed my way of thinking. I realize now that we have no control over our time on this earth, and that we need to grab every moment we get and just enjoy it. I’ve decided I’m not going to waste my time any longer doing a job that I don’t love.”
For a moment, my mind flashed to my own indecision about which direction I’d take next. Rob’s words resonated with something deep inside of me, and I knew suddenly that I would have to think a lot more about my choice.
Grace shifted in my arms then. I loved the feeling of her small, warm body snuggled close, so trusting and calming. I moved her higher up on my shoulder and gently patted her back.
Rob frowned and leaned forward. “Is she getting heavy?”
“Not too heavy,” I quickly answered, wanting to keep her as long as I could, but not willing to tell him why. I never knew how people would react to a woman who’d given away her own child, so not many people outside of my immediate family knew about my daughter. “My nieces and nephews are all past this age, and holding her brings back fond memories for me.”
The other passengers must’ve been asleep by then, because ours was the only conversation I could hear. The swaying movements of the bus, muted lighting, and the darkness outside the windows all combined to create a special, cozy, intimate world, and we talked in low voices, sharing our lives.
I learned that he lived in a midsized town in Washington, rode in a bicycle club, loved to read legal thrillers, and had a weakness for his mom’s homemade shortbread. I shared with him my passion for quilting, my love of Celtic music, and the prize I’d won in the children’s division at the county fair for my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Rob was easy to talk to. I surprised myself with how much I shared with this man whom I’d only known for less than three hours.
Then the bus slowed and turned off the highway. I peered out the window and saw blurry images.
“Rob, did you know that it’s snowing?”
He leaned close and looked out my window. “By the looks of the road, it’s been coming down for a while. I’m going to ask the driver what’s up.” He rose, swung into the aisle, and walked toward the front of the bus.
I couldn’t resist a peek as his lean body moved away from me. His jeans accented long, muscular legs and narrow hips.
As the bus jerked to a stop at a red light, Grace stirred and raised her head, blinking sleepy eyes in my direction. A sinking feeling in my stomach hit. What if she panicked at waking in the arms of a stranger and started to fuss? What would I do? All my doubts about being around other people’s children surfaced again suddenly, and I vowed to put distance between Rob and this sweet little girl and myself the first chance I got. What had I been thinking, sitting here and holding this sleeping girl, letting her baby scent and sounds wrap themselves around my heart? She sat up and looked around, then focused wide eyes on my face.
“Hello, Grace. Do you remember me?”
“Wady.” She nodded, but her gaze moved, her eyes obviously searching for her uncle.
I lifted her in my arms and turned her toward the front of the bus. “Look, there’s your uncle, Grace. Can you see him?”
Just then, Rob straightened from talking to the driver and started back toward us. He spotted Grace and raised his hand in a wave. Her chubby legs bounced in my lap, and she held her arms up for him.
His last few steps were rushed, and with a wide grin on his face, he scooped her up into a tight hug. “Hey, Gracie girl, you’re awake!”
Grace giggled and clamped her arms around his neck. Their affection for each other was obvious, and I was amazed at how naturally he seemed to handle her after only a week.
Rob lowered himself into his seat and set Grace in his lap. “The driver told me we’re making an unscheduled stop to allow the snowplows to clear the highway ahead.”
My first thought was of how the delay would affect my sister’s picking me up at my destination. “Did the driver tell you how long the delay would be?”
“No, I don’t think he knows, himself, really. I guess it all depends on how deep the snow is.”
“Of course, you’re right.”
“Hungee, Wob,” Grace piped up.
“Me, too, kiddo.” He tapped her tiny nose with his fingertip, making her smile. “When we get to the station, we’ll find some food.”
He reached under the seat, pulled out a backpack, and grabbed a bottle from the side pouch. “One request filled. Apple juice for the little lady.”
Grace snuggled against his chest and happily drank her juice from the bottle, sucking noisily.
Rob looked over at me, noticing that my gaze was riveted to Grace, and gave me a sheepish look. “I know all the books say I should be encouraging her to use a cup, but I figure she’s had enough changes in her young life for a while.”
My gaze raised to his eyes and I smiled. “I think you’re doing a wonderful job, Rob. She’s obviously fond of you, and you’re so gentle with her. Not everything follows a schedule in a book.”
“Yeah, I’m amazed at how much she means to me.” He ruffled her hair, his blue eyes softening as he gazed down at her in his arms. “Leaving her with my folks is going to be harder than I thought.”
The bus squealed to a stop suddenly, and the driver stood to make the announcement about the delay. Right then and there, I silently vowed to use this stop to separate myself from Rob and Grace. Already, I felt a bond with the mismatched pair, and worried that I was becoming too attached to them. All around us, the other passengers gathered their belongings and disembarked.
“You coming?” Rob asked.
I peered under my seat, pretending to be looking for something. “I’ll be along in a minute. My hairbrush must’ve fallen.” Inwardly, I cursed myself for being a coward.
“Okay. See you inside, then.”
He smiled and was gone.
I slowly gathered my things and dawdled until I was the last person off the bus. I don’t know how I’d expected to keep my distance from them in the bus station of a small town in western Kansas. By the time I’d finished using the ladies’ room, most of the other passengers had already staked out their areas. I bent over the drinking fountain, scanning the empty seats that were still available, hoping for one on the opposite side of the waiting area from where Rob and Grace already sat.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him waving at me. When I pretended not to see, he stood and called my name.
I was trapped.
As I reluctantly walked over to join them, I told myself that this togetherness was a good thing, that I’d learn to interact with a small child without experiencing the overwhelming regret I’d always felt in the past.
But why did this particular child have to come with such an attractive man attached?
Rob grinned and pointed when I finally stood before him. “We saved you a seat. Did you find your hairbrush?”
“Oh, yes. Thanks.” I dumped my stuff on the floor and sat in the molded plastic chair beside him, looking around at the room. “There’s not much to this station, is there?”
“You’re right about that. Luckily, though, I spotted a vending machine when I first came in.” He scooted to the edge of his seat. “Will you stay with Grace while I get us some snacks?”
“Sure. But here—let me give you some money.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.” He squatted in front of Grace’s chair. “I’ll be right back, honey. I’m just going over to that machine over there to get you some food. Okay?”
She nodded solemnly. I noticed that her gaze followed his every step across the room to the vending machine, and every step back to us. I tried to imagine what she was thinking. Was she worried that her uncle, the only constant in her upturned life, would now also disappear like her parents had? Suddenly, I remembered what Rob had said earlier about leaving her with his parents, and thought that no amount of explaining would take away her fear when that happened. Had Rob thought of that? Had he made plans for how to make that transition as smooth for Grace as he possibly could?
I stiffened at my thoughts and told myself that it was none of my business. By this time tomorrow, I’d be swept up into the holiday celebrations of my own boisterous family, and these few hours would’ve faded into nothing more than a pleasant, fleeting memory.
Rob stopped in front of me. “What’s wrong, Janet? You have such a sad look on your face.”
I pushed my gloomy thoughts away and forced a smile. “Oh, I was just thinking about how to let my sister know about the delay.”
He sat down next to me. “Well, as soon as we know what the new arrival time is, you can borrow my cell phone. Now, for more important decisions.” He held out his hands to me, filled with cellophane-wrapped snacks from the vending machine. “For our snacking pleasure, our choices are crackers and cheese, or crackers and peanut butter.”
Grace held out her hand. “Cwackers and cheese!”
Rob quirked an eyebrow at her. “How do we ask, Gracie?”
“That’s better, sweetie.” He quickly unwrapped one end of the package and gave her two crackers. Then he leaned close, mischief dancing in his eyes. “I’m saving the good stuff for later. I’ve got candy bars hidden for when she falls asleep again.”
“Ah, the privileges of adulthood.” Rather than let the delay upset him, he was going to make it fun.
We nibbled our way through the dry cracker sandwiches, encouraging Grace to eat a couple more. Looking around, I noticed that several of the other passengers were engaged in conversation with people nearby or across from them. Suddenly, the waiting room had a congenial atmosphere about it.
“Janet, where do you think I should change her diaper?” Rob’s brow was wrinkled into a frown as he glanced dubiously at the seats around us.
“Well, I saw a changing station in the women’s rest room. Do you think she’ll let me take her?” As soon as I spoke, I worried that he’d think I was being too forward.
“I don’t know. But it’s got to be better than out here.” He grabbed the backpack and stood, picking her up, and started off across the waiting room. “You need a clean diaper, Gracie. Janet’s going to take you into the ladies’ room and change you. Will that be okay?”
I followed closely behind, admiring the way he stated the situation in a matter-of-fact tone. This man was a natural at fatherhood; I knew he’d make some lucky woman a great husband one day.
We stopped at the rest room door. Grace clutched Rob’s arm tightly, looking anxiously at the two of us.
“There’s a nice place for you to lay down while I change you, Grace, and then we’ll come right back out to your uncle.” I hoped my voice was calm and reassuring to her.
“That’s right, sweetie. I’ll wait right here by the door,” Rob soothed gently.
Grace looked at me for a long moment, then held out her arms to me.
My heart filled with such joy at her gesture. I felt like I’d won a major victory. And in a sense, I had—I’d earned this small child’s trust. At that moment, the walls around my heart that had kept me blocked off from babies and small children for so very long, were gone. They’d been knocked flat by this innocent little girl.
The diaper change was accomplished quickly, and the three of us were soon settled back in our chairs. Snow continued to fall outside, drifting along the edges of the windows. We talked quietly about nothing of importance. As the minutes stretched to hours, people walked the floor or visited the snack machine, sharing idle comments about our common experience of being stranded.
I stifled a yawn.
“Sleepy?” Rob whispered, trying not to disturb Grace, who was curled up in the seat next to him with her head nestled on his folded coat. “Why don’t you lean against my shoulder and get some rest?” He slid his arm along the back of my chair.
I pulled my blanket from under my purse and tossed it over us. “Only if you promise to close your eyes, too.”
Getting comfortable on the plastic chairs seemed impossible, and I doubted that I’d be able to sleep. But resting my cheek against Rob’s warm chest and listening to his slow, even breathing was the perfect sedative. I was out in moments.
A little while later, a loud bang assaulted my ears, and I slowly came awake, aware that my arm was slung across Rob’s stomach. His cheek rested against my head, his arm wrapped around my shoulders. I opened my eyes and saw an elderly woman staring intently at us. Looking around without moving my head, I realized that the waiting room was now very crowded. Maybe another bus had been forced to stop. Slowly, my gaze came back to the woman, who still stared.
“You have a lovely family,” she said. “Treasure them.”
I hesitated about correcting her wrong assumption, but, not wanting to wake Rob, I just mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Rob stiffened and stretched, letting out a low moan. I wondered if he’d heard the woman’s words, too. I sat up gingerly, bracing a hand against my lower back. Turning to him, I was nervous about how intimately we’d been entwined just a few moments earlier.
“Did you sleep?”
“I must have. My arm’s all tingly.” He shook his arm and grimaced, his eyes widening as he looked around. “Wow. This room really filled up. I’ll go check on the situation. Be right back.” He patted my knee before standing and striding away.
I liked how he trusted me to watch out for Grace. I glanced over at her and saw that she was still asleep. My jacket had slipped off her legs and I straightened it. That’s when I met the elderly woman’s gaze again.
“Did your bus get stopped here, too?” I asked her.
She nodded. “Snow was coming down real thick a couple hours ago. It’s stopped now.”
I turned my head and looked out the window. The sky was still overcast, but the clouds were higher and the far horizon had lightened with the coming dawn. Glancing at my watch, I was surprised to see that it was almost six o’clock in the morning. I really had slept longer than I’d thought.
I arched my back and reached my arms over my head, trying to work out the kinks. “These chairs aren’t too comfortable.”
The woman’s eyes twinkled. “You looked real peaceful sleeping when I sat down. A good man always could put a smile on my face.”
I opened my mouth to correct her, but spotted Rob headed in our direction.
He came over to me and said, “Our driver says the road’s been cleared and we’ll leave in about ten minutes. I just remembered about the candy bars. I could use a little something about now.”
“So could I. What did you get?”
He looked at Grace, then back at me. “They’re in my coat pocket.”
I looked at her and giggled. “Maybe it’s just as well. Chocolate’s not the best choice for breakfast. Are there any more crackers?”
“Nope, I finished them off before I fell asleep.” He leaned close to the window and looked outside. “Hey, there’s a drive-through a couple of blocks away. What do you like on your hamburger?”
“Could you see if there’s anything with eggs? And don’t forget—”
“I know, milk for Grace.” Hesitating, he glanced down at her. “Janet, will you. . . .”
I waved my hands in a shooing motion. “Go on, I’ll watch her. Just hurry back so the bus doesn’t leave you behind.”
He scooped up my blanket, wrapped it around his shoulders, and jogged outside and down the street. I had to laugh at the silly image he made.
“That’s a considerate man. You best hold on to him.”
“Yes, he is.” I hadn’t taken my eyes off of Rob’s retreating figure. But I knew I had to set this woman straight. “But he’s not my man, and we’re not a family. We met tonight on the bus and we’re just making the best of this sudden change in our travel plans.”
She shook her gray curls, a doubting look on her face. “That’s not the impression I got from him. He looks at you like you’re someone special.”
Grace moaned, “Wob?”
I knelt down in front of her chair and rubbed her back, talking softly. My thoughts whirled with what the woman had said. Did Rob look at me with an emotion stronger than gratitude? We certainly worked well as a team, and had almost developed an understanding about what was needed.
So why was I listening to this stranger? Rob and I had separate lives and we’d be saying good-bye to each other within a few hours. So I concentrated on gentling Grace back to sleep, but she wasn’t having it.
I sat in Rob’s chair and brushed her tangled curls. “Uncle Rob went to get us breakfast. He’ll be right back, sweetie.”
She sat upright, her head swiveling in all directions. When she couldn’t see Rob anywhere, her chin started to quiver.
The elderly woman seated across from us leaned forward in her chair. “Hello, sweetheart. And how old are you?”
Grace shrunk back from the well-intentioned woman and looked up at me, tears pooling in her eyes. “Wady?”
Poor thing! She was disoriented, and I was the only familiar face in the room. “I’m here, Grace. Shall we see if Uncle Rob is coming?” I held my arms out to her, and she scrambled into them.
I stood with her and moved toward the door. “Let’s look through the window. Do you see all that white stuff on the ground? It’s called snow.”
I talked about anything and everything that I could see, hoping that the sound of my voice would keep her calm until Rob returned. With surprise, I realized that my natural response had been to figure out what would soothe her, and somehow, I’d succeeded.
Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker for passengers to Denver to start boarding. I glanced down the street and spotted Rob heading back. I pointed him out to his niece.
“Look, Grace, Uncle Rob is coming.”
She pressed her nose up against the window, her eyes watching every step he took.
Rob swung the door open, cold air clinging to him, and stopped when he saw us waiting expectantly, a grin spreading across his handsome face.
“What a welcoming committee!”
Grace leaned away from me with her arms held up to him. “Unca Wob!”
Rob dropped the sack of food onto the nearest chair and reached for her. “Hey, punkin, you’re awake!” He rubbed noses with her and she giggled. Cradling her head to his chest, he looked at me. “Is everything okay?”
I nodded, too overcome with emotion at the picture they made together to speak. How could he not see how much she needed him, that he was her family now? Immediately, I shoved my thoughts aside. “Our bus is boarding. We need to hurry.”
I grabbed the sack and the blanket and hurried back to our seats. Maybe back on the bus, with the aisle between us, separating us, I’d be able to begin the separation process again. I tried hard not to think of the woman’s comments about her impression of Rob’s feelings.
But I couldn’t help wondering—
Were the three of us like a family?
Why was I even listening to a stranger?
Within minutes, we’d settled into seats in about the middle of the bus, mine across the aisle from them. Rob distributed our breakfast sandwiches, and silence reigned as the three of us ate hungrily. Then the driver’s radio crackled, and he held a short, muffled conversation.
“Folks, can I get your attention? We’re going to board additional passengers from the other bus. Please stow your belongings under the seats and make room for as many people as possible.”
Rob turned his head and looked at me. “Why don’t you move over with us, Janet? Grace doesn’t need a seat all to herself.”
There was no argument I could give him. And, if I was honest with myself, I was glad he’d asked. I didn’t really want to miss a minute of our remaining time together. People shuffled in, stowed their belongings, and soon, almost all the seats were filled. The driver thanked everyone for cooperating and announced that we should arrive in Denver by lunchtime, weather permitting.
I gasped and turned to Rob. “I forgot to call my sister.”
He reached for his coat under the seat and pulled out a cell phone. “That’s because we were too busy eating. Go ahead and use it first.”
I looked at the phone in his hand, then back at him. “Instructions, please?”
He chuckled. “Tell me the number and I’ll punch it in.”
Within a few moments, I was relating the story of our storm delay to Claire. Before I hung up, I urged her to confirm my bus’s arrival time before leaving the house. “I’m anxious to see you, too. ‘Bye.” I handed the phone back to Rob, suddenly saddened because our time together was waning.
He started to punch in his parents’ number, and Grace wanted to play, too. I lifted her into my lap to give him more room and started a game of pat-a-cake with her. Her eyes lit up, and she played along. I tried not to listen, but I overheard Rob reassuring his parents that the two of them were fine.
“How’s Dad? . . . If the weather turns, we’ll grab a cab. I don’t want you driving in the snow, Mom. Promise me? . . . See you soon.” He dropped the phone back into his coat pocket and rubbed a hand over his face. “So, your sister’s picking you up in Denver?”
I shook my head. “My stop is the one after Denver.”
He started to say something, but Grace scrambled into his lap and demanded his attention. I told myself it was just as well that our destinations were different. Saying good-bye in the presence of our families would be awkward, at best. Ours was just a temporary alliance, after all, and I’d known all along that it would end.
For the next several hours, Grace occupied all of our time and attention. She was full of energy and had fun moving between our laps. Rob and I didn’t share any more personal details, but several times, I found his intense gaze focused on me.
Outside, the storm had cleared, and blue skies filled the bus windows. The snow on the roadway had been melted by the morning sunshine.
“Want juice!” Grace demanded.
Rob searched through the backpack and held up an empty bottle. “Sorry, sweetie, but you drank it all. Anyway, we’ll be there soon.”
“No!” She started to whimper.
“I think this is where I come in.” I kept my voice light, grabbed my satchel, and pulled out a half-full bottle of water. “She can finish this. My water is her water.”
Rob turned a grateful smile my way. “Thanks, Janet.”
My heart melted. Suddenly, I wished I could be two years old and demand to have what I wanted. I wanted Rob to smile at me like that, always.
Then the driver announced our bus’s arrival at the Denver station in five minutes. Rob passed Grace to me so he could gather up their belongings.
I held her close as she finished her water, savoring the weight of her body pressed against my chest. It was hard to believe that I’d only known these two less than twenty-four hours. Suddenly, I was glad I’d impulsively introduced myself. I knew I’d always remember this bus trip with fondness.
Rob turned to me then, a serious look on his face. “There’s so much I didn’t say, Janet. How can I ever thank you for all your help?”
The brakes squealed, and the bus jerked to a stop.
“You just did. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ride with both of you.” My throat tightened and I brushed my lips against Grace’s curls. “You’ll never know how much this has meant to me.”
His gaze flickered to outside the window. “There’re my folks.”
I turned to look out. “Where?”
He leaned close, bringing his head close to mine. “By the benches. Dad’s sitting in the wheelchair.” The elderly gentleman slumped in his seat, his eyes closed. “Janet, they look so old. How are they ever going to manage with an energetic toddler?”
I immediately thought of my parents, and how their grandchildren kept them young at heart. “I’ve seen what my nieces and nephews do for my folks. You’ll be surprised by the changes that take place once they’re around her for a while.”
He sat forward and looked out the window again, then stood. He reached for Grace and I lifted her up to him. He grabbed my hand and held on.
“Come meet my folks,” he said.
I hesitated, uncertain of his intentions. “Rob, I shouldn’t get off the bus. This isn’t my stop.”
“It’ll only be for a second. Do it for Grace.”
“Meeting you will take some of my parents’ focus off of her.”
He sounded so logical, and I had no argument. I followed as he led me down the aisle. As soon as we’d descended the steps, I tried to pull away, but he gripped me tighter. Maybe he was nervous about how this meeting would go.
In a moment, we were across the expanse of asphalt and I stood back from the exchange of hugs and exclamations of welcome. Then suddenly, Rob wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me forward.
“Mom, Dad, I want you to meet Janet, who helped Grace and me on this trip. Janet, these are my parents, Howard and Judy. Hey, I don’t even know your last name.”
I extended my hand. “It’s Vanvolkenburg, Janet Vanvolkenburg. Glad to meet you. Your son and granddaughter made great travelling companions.”
Behind me, I heard the driver call for passengers to board. My gaze flew to Rob’s, hoping for the strength to say good-bye before the tears that stung the backs of my eyes flowed.
“Well, good luck to you all. Thanks for breakfast, Rob.” I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. “ ‘Bye, Grace.”
She waved a hand. “Bye, wady.”
I waved and spun on my heels, quickly walking back to my seat in the bus. Calling myself all kinds of fool, I watched as they collected their luggage and moved slowly toward the parking lot. Rob turned once, raised a hand in my direction, and I waved back.
Thirty minutes later when the bus pulled into the Eagle Pass station, all signs of my recent tears were gone. I told myself that I should be happy for the experience of meeting Rob, but I couldn’t help wishing for more time with him. Claire and Chloe, her youngest daughter, spotted me as soon as I stepped down from the bus, and I was instantly swept up into big hugs and the latest news of my family.
Arriving at Claire’s house, more family greeted me, and there wasn’t a single moment to myself for hours. As we cleared the table from dinner, Claire pulled me aside and asked me how the trip had been this year.
“You aren’t as sad as you’ve been the past years,” she observed.
“I know. I think this will be my last bus trip.”
My sister has the ability to put volumes of meaning in a single word. “I spent some time on the bus with a darling little girl, and I guess I just finally realized that parents aren’t only created through giving birth. I’m finally at peace with my decision to let my baby be adopted.”
“I don’t understand.” Claire was surprised. “Could you tell she was adopted?”
The phone rang once and was picked up in the other room.
“She’d recently lost her parents. I watched her uncle act as their stand-in, and he gave her everything she needed.”
Claire’s oldest, Matthew, stuck his head into the room. “Call for you, Aunt Janet. It’s a Rob Petrie.”
I sucked in my breath and reached a hand out to steady myself on the counter. How had he gotten this number?
“Thanks, Matthew. Claire, can I take it in Darren’s office?”
“If I say yes, you’re giving me details when you’re done.”
Suddenly, I felt carefree. Rob had called. “Sure. We’ll talk later.”
Carefully, I closed the door to the office and grabbed the phone. “Hello, Rob. How did you get my number here?”
“Remember, it was on my cell phone. I punched the number into memory.”
“Well, it’s certainly great to hear your voice. How are things going with Grace and your parents?” I settled into a chair and waited for his reply.
“I wish I could be positive. Everything’s tentative. She’s shy with them and clinging to me. Mom’s giving her a bath right now, though, so I’ve got a ten-minute break. There’re lots of breakable things in the house that Grace could accidentally knock over.” He took a deep breath. “I miss you.”
Hearing his words surprised me. I knew that we’d gotten along well, but I hadn’t hoped for anything more. Then the words of the elderly woman in the station echoed through my thoughts.
“I miss you, too, Rob.”
“Watching that bus drive away forced me to realize that we’d developed a special bond on that trip. I keep turning to ask your advice and you’re not next to me. Tell me I’m not crazy, Janet.”
I felt the first glimmerings of hope. “You’re not crazy, Rob. I felt it, too, but I don’t know where we go from here.”
“We have to spend time together. Does your family do a Christmas Eve or a Christmas Day celebration?”
“Christmas Day. Why?”
His voice was confident. “Because you’re spending Christmas Eve here, then. I’ll pick you up and you should plan to spend the night.”
“Wait, Rob. Won’t your parents object to a stranger coming for the family holiday?” He was moving so fast, but I liked his confidence that what we felt for each other was real.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain it to them.” His voice grew husky suddenly. “I need you here because I value your opinion, and I have a big decision to make.”
“I don’t think I can leave Grace with them. I want to raise her myself—maybe with your help, if things work out the way I’m hoping they will.”
My heart stopped, then raced. He was offering me the opportunity to be a mom, and a chance at a real family. Before I could answer, I heard him laughing at someone in the background. His muffled voice said a few words, and then I made out my name.
“Grace wants to give you a good-night kiss,” he told me. Next, I heard a loud smacking noise.
I couldn’t believe how much I missed them. “Tell her night-night from me.”
“I will. So, what do you think? Are you willing to see where this will lead?”
I felt like shouting, but I kept my voice calm. “Very willing. I like you, Rob, very much. I agree it seems sudden, but I trust what I feel.”
That Christmas was three years ago. Rob and I were married on December twenty-ninth that year, and moved into a small house halfway between Denver and Eagle Pass. I have a part-time job at the city library, and Rob is happy working out of our garage, turning wooden objects into bowls and vases. Grace started school this fall, and she is thriving. Her younger brother, Jonah, will celebrate his first birthday soon. As the holidays approach each year, I still remember my first baby and send her and her parents loving thoughts. I’ve learned that families are created in more ways than we can possibly imagine, love and caring being the important factors.
Nowadays, when a bus drives by, Rob and I share a special look, ever grateful for that fateful, snowy trip.