Chapter 1

March 20, 1914

Chicago, Illinois

Audra Dillon smiled at the old house in front of her; mismatched windows seemed to wink at her as she approached The Winchester Home for Children. As she walked up the stairs, she pulled the pin from her wide brimmed hat, knowing she would be bombarded as soon as she opened the door. Carefully balancing the hat, basket of muffins and books that filled her arms, she opened the door. Screams, laughter and clacks against the wooden floor assailed her ears, only deepening her smile.

"Oh you're here!" Aunt Vera smiled, in pursuit of someone when she came upon Audra in the entryway.

"Yes ma'am, sorry I'm late. Aunt Marty caught me before I left. I think she might still be talking to Olivia."

"When will that sister of mine realize you're happy?" Aunt Vera asked, shaking her head. "Well, it's no matter now. You'd best give me those muffins so you can get up to 3A. Jessie said breakfast will be ready in ten minutes, make sure they're all down here." Not waiting for any response, she moved back through the dining room. It seemed like Aunt Vera had forgotten all about whoever she was chasing, something that happened quite often.

Audra wasted no time, simply dropping the books and hat by the door before pulling up her skirts to head upstairs. "Good morning Miss Audra," Lizzy greeted, passing her on the stairs.

"Good morning, Lizzy! How is that tooth?" Audra stopped and bent down to the little girl beside her.

The seven year old smiled brightly, wiggling the loose tooth with her tongue. Audra grinned at the show, "Well, I think a nice crisp apple might have that out today."

"But then what will I wiggle when I'm bored?" Lizzy asked, confusion and wonder clouding her brown eyes. Audra almost reminded her that she hadn't had something to wiggle in her boredom two weeks ago, but decided she needed to get upstairs. Instead, she pulled her into a hug, unable to resist the petite brunette.

"You will have other loose teeth, I promise. Have you washed for breakfast?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Very good, I'll see you at the table, love." Audra gave her a quick pat on the bottom and watched her skip down the remaining stairs, her brown curls bouncing on her back as she went. When she was down the stairs, Audra continued her assent, passing several other children on the way, greeting them as she went.

"Good morning boys!" Audra sang once inside the door marked 3A. Three little boys gazed up at her from their beds. "Let's get a move on! Breakfast is ten minutes and Aunt Vera won't be happy if she has to wait for you. Joey, go and wash your face and hands." The boy with blonde hair and deep brown eyes didn't move from his bed, his eyes wide and confused.

Deciding on a different tact, Audra stepped further into the room and knelt beside his bed. "Joseph Arnold, you get out of this bed and wash your face or you'll miss breakfast and won't be given anything to eat until lunch," she said in a soft, but firm voice.

"I miss my Momma!" the boy wailed. Audra sighed, pulling him close. She should have recognized the look in his eyes, but getting them ready in only ten minutes was less time than usual. Joey had come to Winchester only six months earlier after the tragic deaths of his parents in an accident. Some mornings were better than others for this grief stricken seven year old.

"Billy, pull on your trousers and wash your face and hands. Quick now, come on!" She cuddled Joey against her, dictating orders over his head. "Parker, you go after Billy, good job! Excellent hustle my boys! Now, Billy, go downstairs and ask Miss Jessie to give me five extra minutes, then go and find your seat at the table."

"Yes Miss Audra," the sandy blonde replied, racing from the room as if he'd been given a secret mission.

Audra got to work on Joey, scrubbing his cheeks pink before pulling on his pants and shirt. His tears subsided and he obeyed when she told him how much she loved him, and then instructed him to scoot. "Come now Parker, get those shoes on."

"I can't," he mumbled. The six year old stood in uncertainty and Audra had to hold in a smile. He had chocolate brown hair which was ruffled and mussed from a night's sleep. His shirt hung off of his slim shoulders. His ears were a bit large for his head, and a crooked smile was usually fixed on his small face, but not at this moment. It was unusual for Audra to tell Parker something twice, but knowing she had to be just as firm with his as the other children, she moved closer.

"Parker, breakfast is about to be served, and if you want a blueberry muffin, you need to put those shoes on right now." She looked down at his chocolate brown hair, his chin pulled all the way to his chest. Audra hunkered down again and brought his eyes to meet her own, a single tear falling from eyes that matched the color of his hair.

"Please don't make me wear them Miss Audra, they pinch my toes."

"Oh, Parker! I'm sorry, of course you don't have to wear them! Get a pair of socks down and I'll carry you down on my back."

An instant smile lighted his face as he limped to his drawers. Audra couldn't help her own smile as she watched him. He was truly a joyful child despite all that had happened to him. Parker had been with them for a little more than four years, dropped on their porch when he was just two years of age. Audra had fallen in love with him the moment he curled into her lap and fell asleep. He had easily become one of her favorites, and while she didn't favor him outwardly, knowing the havoc that would cause, she couldn't help the extra measure of love she felt for him inside.

"Ready Miss Audra!" he was already perched on the bed, ready for pick up. She turned and let him hop on. After he had his grip, he planted a kiss on Audra's cheek.

"And what was that for?"

"Because I love you so much."

Audra laughed, tightening her grasp for a minute, giving a backward hug, "I love you too."

"Oh Miss Audra, I know that!" he sighed, making Audra laugh even harder. They reached the bottom step just as Jessie rang the bell. Children ran past them toward the dining room, sounding like a stampede of angry cattle. When Parker swung down from Audra and joined everyone else, she found her seat just as quickly.

"Edward!" Aunt Vera snapped. "Why do I see your hand reaching for food when we've not yet said grace?"

"Sorry Aunt Vera," the older boy answered, pulling back his hand.

"Your apology is accepted Edward, but I would like to take this time to remind all of you, that we eat like gentlemen and ladies around this table. I expect your behavior to be polite, and when we're polite, we thank the person who gives us our food. Now, would you please give thanks for us, Eddie?"

Eddie nodded and gave thanks for the food and all they had at the orphanage. When he said amen, all eyes went to Aunt Vera, who gave directions to pass the food. Audra watched proudly as the children worked and waited patiently for their turn. She loved every minute she spent at the orphanage and always found herself wondering how some of their parents could have ever let them go. Bright eyes and unique smiles glowed from every child around the table. Sure, they had their days of bad moods, hurt feelings, and memories of pasts that were more horrible than Audra liked to think, but how could a parent just let go of all the good?

Audra would not trade one minute that she had spent at the orphanage. Aunt Vera had brought her to help when she turned sixteen, and she had spent most of her time in the creaking old house ever since. She had witnessed the loss of numerous teeth, been there to dry the eyes of those who's knees had been scraped and hair pulled, and received the most incredible hugs for absolutely no reason. Love poured from the children in this house, and it was her intention to pour it right back in. Nothing could tear her away from these children, they had become her life, and would remain that way. She would never leave them.

I was going to wait to post this one...but, I was too excited and couldn't. SO! Here it is. Please, please, please tell me what you think! Enjoy!