She waited patiently for her turn, then set the Thanksgiving decorations she’d scooped up on the counter.

“Merry Christmas,” Christie said automatically before she looked up and saw it was Teri. “What are you doing here?” she demanded in a fierce whisper.

“You didn’t return any of my phone calls,” Teri whispered back. “I didn’t know if you were alive or dead.”

“Alive. I’ve been working a lot of extra hours. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is the Christmas season.”

“I noticed.”

Christie’s supervisor approached the register and placed a Closed sign behind Teri. “Lane Three is opening up,” she told the other customers. “Christie, take your lunch break now.”

“So soon?” Christie asked. “Shouldn’t Cookie go first?”

“No, she shouldn’t,” Teri inserted. “I asked your supervisor to give you your break so you and I could talk.”


“What was I supposed to do?”

“Fine. I should’ve known you wouldn’t leave well enough alone.” Christie slapped the sales items in a white plastic bag and handed it to Teri, then collected payment. When she’d finished, Christie checked her watch. “This isn’t going to take long, is it?”

“That depends on you,” Teri responded.

They decided to eat at the fast-food place near the store. Once they’d ordered, they were fortunate enough to find a vacant table, although the place was busy. Christie opened her container of chicken nuggets and the small peel-away top on the dipping sauce. Teri watched her sister with a look of envy.

Teri was being careful about her weight because of the pregnancy, so she’d ordered a Caesar salad. Her weight gain at her last doctor’s appointment had been substantial. Okay, her diet hadn’t been ideal. She cheated a bit now and then. Nevertheless, she didn’t deserve to gain seven pounds in a single month. She’d protested loudly, but her obstetrician had dismissed her cries that the scale had been tampered with. Reluctantly Teri tore open the low-fat dressing packet and poured it over the romaine lettuce.

“I guess this has to do with James,” Christie said with the air of someone resigned to an unpleasant conversation.

“Well, actually…”

“He told you, didn’t he?” Her sister bit savagely into a nugget.

Something had obviously happened between her sister and James, during their encounter last week, and Christie assumed Teri knew all about it. James, of course, hadn’t said a word.


“First,” Christie stated emphatically, leaning forward. “I wasn’t drunk.”

“Okay,” Teri murmured, wondering how to ferret out information without letting on that she had no idea what Christie was talking about.

“He’s got to stop doing this.”

“I agree,” Teri said firmly. “This can’t continue.”

Christie looked more than a little surprised to find Teri taking her side. “It’s embarrassing, you know.”


Christie leaned even closer and lowered her voice. “When James parks the limousine at The Pink Poodle, everyone stares out the window and asks questions. It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out he’s there because of me.”

This was beginning to make sense. “You mean he never goes inside?”

“Never.” As if her appetite had completely abandoned her, Christie pushed away the remaining chicken nuggets. “You wouldn’t believe the way Larry and the others were gawking.”

“I can imagine.”

“Eventually James moved around to the side of the building where I’d parked my car.”

The scene was taking shape in Teri’s mind. “So, when you came out, he figured you’d had too much to drink.”

“But he was wrong,” Christie insisted. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Teri nodded sagely.

“Besides, I thought he’d left. One of the guys said he saw the car drive away. How was I supposed to know he’d only moved it?” Christie reached for her napkin and began to shred it. “If waiting for me wasn’t bad enough, he followed me home.”

“Did anyone from The Pink Poodle see?”

Christie shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope not.” She gazed at the strips of paper, then wadded them up. “Tell him something for me, will you?”

“Ah…I, uh…” Teri would rather not serve as a messenger between them, although she was certainly eager to keep track of what was going on.

Before she could argue, Christie raised her hand. “All you have to do is tell James I don’t want to see him again.”

“You’re sure about that?”

Her sister’s hesitation was brief. “Positive,” she muttered. “I don’t like him,” she continued as though convincing herself. “He’s a stuffed shirt…. All that formality drives me insane.”

Teri frowned. That wasn’t the impression she had.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Christie said.

“Look at you how?”

“Like…like you don’t believe me.”

She gestured vaguely. “I can’t help remembering how worried you were when we found out James had been kidnapped.”

Christie swallowed and glanced away. When she did speak, her voice was almost a whisper. “He might be stuffy, but he’s a real gentleman, you know?”

“Yes,” Teri agreed softly. She remembered her own reaction to James at their first meeting. So tall and frightfully thin, so formal and reserved. In the beginning his manner had irritated her until she realized what a good friend he was to her husband. He cared for Bobby, looked after him and saw that her absentminded husband reached his appointments on time. Bobby needed James, relied on him. And James had been a friend to her, too. Not only that, his actions during the kidnapping were nothing short of heroic, as Rachel could attest.

“Just a minute,” Teri said. “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying here. Because—as we’ve discussed before—you don’t seem to like men who treat you with respect.”

“I…” Christie leaned away from the table, apparently studying something on the floor. She’d taken Teri’s napkin and begun to shred it, too. “I don’t know how to relate to a man who doesn’t abuse me in one way or another,” she said bluntly.

“Listen, Christie…”

“Men have used me my entire life. You’d think I’d hate them all by now.” For a moment she looked as if she might dissolve into tears. “I meet one of these losers and I immediately want to fix his life and make everything right. I always figure that once I do, he’ll love me and cherish me forever.” She gave Teri a watery smile. “How come I can see the pattern but I can’t break it?”

“Guess what, Christie, we share more than the same genes.”

“But you have Bobby and he loves you and—”

“Talk about déjà vu.” Sighing, Teri placed both hands on her stomach. “I tried to send Bobby away. I felt the same things you do. I didn’t want him to love me, and I did everything I could to keep him out of my life.”

Christie shook her head. “You’re just saying that because you think it’ll make me feel better. You’ve always made good decisions. You have a career and friends and…now you have Bobby and a real family.” Her gaze fell to Teri’s stomach and her eyes softened with longing.

“And you’re afraid you’ll be stuck with losers for the rest of your life.”

Her sister didn’t respond.

“So you reject any decent guy who comes around.” Teri didn’t mean to sound sarcastic. “Listen, Christie, you say you want to break the pattern. James is your chance to do it.”

Christie still didn’t speak.

“He’s attracted to you.”

Her sister shook her head again. “No, he isn’t. Otherwise—”

“Otherwise he wouldn’t have driven down to The Pink Poodle and waited outside for you,” Teri said, cutting her off. “Why else would James do that?”

Christie gave an unenthusiastic shrug.

“He wants to talk to you,” Teri explained as if speaking to a third-grader. “That’s why he did it.”

Gathering up the pieces of her second shredded napkin, Christie swallowed several times. “It’s too late.”

“I doubt that.”

Her sister’s eyes were suddenly hopeful.

“I can try to help,” Teri said. “If you want, I’ll arrange an opportunity for the two of you to meet.”


“Dinner,” she suggested. “Bobby and I can invite you both to dinner.”

Christie instantly dismissed the idea. “That would be awkward for everyone.”

True, Teri thought, but that way she’d have a close-up view of the proceedings. However, discretion won out over curiosity. “Okay, then, see James on your own,” she said mildly.

Christie seemed to be considering that. “You really think I should?” she finally asked.

“I do.” Teri offered her a smile of encouragement. She wanted Christie to experience the same happiness she’d found with Bobby. “Will you do it?” she prodded.

Christie nodded, tentatively at first, then more vigorously. Teri was relieved to see the light of anticipation back in her sister’s eyes.


Olivia sipped her tea and enjoyed the sheer luxury of being home in the middle of a workweek. She’d taken a medical leave of absence from the courthouse, and this was the longest she’d been at home since the children were born. Under normal circumstances, she’d be presiding over her courtroom right now, hearing cases, making judgments that would affect the lives of people in her community. Olivia took her job as a family court judge seriously, which was probably the reason some of her decisions had been controversial.

Once she’d denied a divorce on a technicality when it was obvious to her, but seemingly to no one else, that the young couple standing before her was still in love. She’d followed her heart and her instincts. Same with a joint custody situation in which she’d ruled that the kids would stay in the house, with the parents moving back and forth.

Olivia returned her teacup to the saucer and stretched out her legs so they rested on the footstool. She admired her fuzzy new slippers, a gift from Grace. Her dressing gown was from Grace, as well. The sun shone warmly into the room and, childish as it sounded, she felt as if it were shining just for her.

“You need anything else?” Jack called from the kitchen. He was home on his lunch break in order to coax her to eat. Her appetite was practically nonexistent.

Olivia sipped a little more of her tea. “I’m good, thanks.”

“How about some Christmas cookies?” The day before, Justine had brought over a batch of Charlotte’s special Russian Tea Cookies. Her Christmas baking was a family tradition.