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Despite her frets and fears, Franklin came safely back to Hanny exactly seventeen months after he left. Maybe a little surprised, yet immensely pleased, to find she was still there for him upon his return. She would have waited even longer, she told him the night he proposed, forever if she’d had to.
“I love you, Hanny, but you know that, don’t you?”
How often had she heard him say those precious words? Say them with eyes shining in a way which made words themselves unnecessary. Of course Franklin loved her. He showed his love everyday of their life together. Showed it in the quiet way he held her as she cried when they learned she’d never be able to give him a child, to make them a family.
“You’re the only family I’ll ever need, Sweetheart,” he’d murmured as he pulled her close. He went on to assure her with other endearments she’d barely heard. Endearments drowned out by her sobs of desolation. Endearments she didn’t need him to say to know they were true. In the end, being wrapped in the comfort of his arms was enough. He was all the family Hanny needed too.
Franklin proved his love to her night after night during their marriage when he drew her into his embrace and made love to her with great desire and even greater care.
“See you are all I need, Hanny,” he’d tell her afterward, cradling her body against his and brushing the passion soaked hair back from her temple. “You’re all I ever, ever need. You and the endless love you bring to me.”
“Christmas shopping for the children was such a trial for me this year,” Margaret began. “Not that I’m complaining, but their wants and needs are always so specific, you know.”
“What?” Hanny glanced up and blinked. Looking across her kitchen for a moment, she got up to fetch a couple of coffee cups. Placing one in front of her sister, she kept one for herself. “Margaret,” she whispered her voice low and serious, “can you keep a secret?”
“Yes, Hanny.” Margaret cast her a smile which didn’t quite include her eyes. “I believe I can.”
“This time he's coming, you know. I’m just sure of it.”
“Who, Hanny? Who's coming?”
Margaret stared into her cup.
“He will be here shortly. Sooner than you think,” Hanny proclaimed with a quick nod of her head.
“Yes, Hanny,” Margaret answered finally.
“Now that you’re here, I'd so much like for you to stay. I know he'd like to see you again too. If only for a moment…”
“Of course.” A look of hopelessness flashed across the younger woman’s face. “I…I’d like to see him too. Someday…”
“Is something wrong, Margaret?” Hanny asked her eyes wide with innocence. “You sound sad.”
Margaret only fidgeted with the gloves that lay on the table next to her handbag.
“I know, Margaret.” Once again Hanny placed a hand on her sister's arm. “This may be hard for you right now, but, please, for my sake, try to understand. This is something very special.”
“I'll try, Hanny. I surely will try.” Margaret stared into her sister's earnest face. “I'll try,” she said again then squared her shoulders. “So, Hanny. What have you been doing with yourself lately?”
“Oh, I've been very busy. The house needed cleaning and I wanted my things ready. You know. It's best to have things in order when you go away.” Margaret raised her head in surprise, but her sister was already on her way across the kitchen. “Let me show you the dress I plan to wear,” she called over her shoulder.
Hanny disappeared into her bedroom for only a moment, and when she returned, carried a large white box.
“Look here, Margaret, isn't it beautiful?” She pulled the blue cotton dress from its wrappings. “Won't Franklin just love the color?” Shaking fingers smoothed the small white collar.
Margaret remained silent. The dress held tightly against her, Hanny danced slowly around the room.
“That's very nice, Hanny,” she said at last, suddenly embarrassed, as if she desperately wanted to change the subject. “You should come over to our house tomorrow for Christmas dinner. I'll have George pick you up,” she added quickly.
Hanny made no answer as she caught her reflection in the mirror by the door. “Should I wear my hair up?” she asked, gathering the thin strands into a pile at the back of her head. She turned to face her sister, her voice taking on a strange urgency. “Yes, I think I'd like to wear my hair up. Remember that, please, Margaret.”
“I'll remember, Hanny,” she said softly, a sad cast hovering around her eyes. “I'll remember. Oh, Hanny,” she breathed then shook herself as if to push off a suffocating despair.
“Don’t be sad, Margaret. Please don’t be sad.” Settling the dress back into its wrappings, she left the top off the box then returned to her chair.
A horn blast cut through the resulting silence and Margaret stared toward the door with a blank look. Until a new sense of purpose took hold.
“Well, I must leave,” she stated firmly as she stood. “George is waiting.” Despite the words, she lingered to cast a gentle gaze toward her sister before turning to collect her things.
“If you must,” Hanny replied. Taking her sister's arm, she walked her to the door. “I understand. As you said, George is waiting.”
“I'll see you tomorrow.” Margaret leaned in to kiss a wrinkled cheek. “For dinner.”
“Well…no, Dear,” Hanny began, but found herself alone. Sweet tears glistened in her eyes as she shrugged feeble shoulders. “No matter. There will be time enough later.”
She returned the pot to the stove then, carefully cleared the table, shaking her head when she saw Margaret's refreshments remained virtually untouched.
“That Margaret,” she chuckled. “She always did eat like a bird.”
Reaching to clear one last spoon, the task of cleaning up became enormously overwhelming as fresh pain assaulted her fingers. The dishes grew heavy as she carried them to the sink. Slowly, deliberately, she eased them onto the counter, then inched her way to the nearest chair, releasing a thankful sigh when she sank into its support.
Out in the yard, a playful breeze rattled against the window, darted among the treetops then slowed to lead barren branches in a graceful dance. Stray leaves, still whole despite winter's slaughter, jumped and skittered by in accompanying rhythm.
As the night sounds faded away, a tiny smile crept across thin lips. Breaths coming in labored rasps, she let her head fall back as a youthful grace settled upon now peaceful features. She recalled the very first time she walked through the kitchen door of this house with her new husband as if it were yesterday. Especially the way he turned to secure the lock behind them.
With patient expectation, she watched that same door now, no longer afraid as a faint sound, like the shiver of silver bells in the wind, sang in her ears.
And then he was there, framed in the moonlight. Her beloved Franklin.
Moving into the room, he extended his hand toward her. “Are you ready, Hanny?”
She smiled and grasped anxiously with outstretched fingers.
“I've missed you so, my love.” She rose from her chair. “Yes. I'm ready.”
A gentle hand, warm, firm and sure, closed around hers. “Shall we go then, Sweetheart? Together?”
“Yes, my love,” she whispered. “Yes, my love. Together.”
Outside the first joyful sounds of Christmas could be heard, as the people of the little town of Winslow awoke to greet the holiday.
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