For a short while Rachel had been convinced they were going to kill her and James and dump their bodies somewhere. They spoke in a language she didn’t understand—Russian, she’d later learned—and frankly, she was grateful for her lack of comprehension. She was terrified enough.

Knowing she might be dead within a few hours, Rachel analyzed her life. Well, not analysis exactly; more like an instantaneous assessment. Oddly, she remembered thinking she hadn’t made her bed that morning because she was running late. The one time she’d left her bed unmade! After her body was found, or her disappearance noticed, all those deputies would traipse through her bedroom and figure she was a slob.

With that rather trivial concern established, her mind had immediately shifted from the mundane to the momentous. All at once it came to her that she might never see Bruce Peyton or his twelve-year-old daughter, Jolene, again. That was when she knew with complete certainty that she loved Bruce. At the time she’d been practically engaged to Nate Olsen, a navy chief. Only it wasn’t Nate who flashed into her mind. Suddenly it became crucial to stay alive. She needed to tell Bruce she loved him. She wanted to be Jolene’s stepmother and have other children with him and spend the rest of their lives together.

Once they’d admitted their love, everything had fallen swiftly into place. When they’d discussed a wedding date, Jolene, with a young girl’s sense of the romantic, had chosen Valentine’s Day.

Rachel wasn’t sure she could get everything organized by then and favored a spring wedding, but Bruce insisted they should be married and living as husband and wife before the end of the year.

So Jolene was campaigning for February, Bruce said December and Rachel wanted April. In a spirit of compromise Rachel and Bruce agreed on Valentine’s Day. Jolene felt vindicated.

Lately, however, two and a half months seemed too far away. Rachel was ready to be Bruce’s wife and Jolene’s full-time mother. Now.

A shadow moved and Rachel automatically tensed. She quickly realized the movement came from a security guard rounding the corner. Exhaling sharply, she walked toward the exit at a faster pace.

Bruce stood waiting for her at the outside entrance, pacing back and forth. When he saw her approach, he smiled—a slow, easy smile that crinkled the corners of his blue eyes and heightened the appeal of his all-American good looks.

“You’re later than you said you’d be,” he told her when she stepped into the cold night air, the mall door swinging shut behind her. The lights in the parking lot shone with a steady, reassuring glow. “I was getting worried.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Rachel hated the thought of him waiting in the cold. She’d told him she could make her own way home, but Bruce came for her as often as he could, intent on making sure she got to her car safely. The kidnapping had frightened him as much as it had her. She’d suggested he come inside the mall to wait, but he declined, preferring to sit in his car and listen to the radio until Rachel finished work.

Rachel cupped her warm hands over his cold ears and reached up to kiss him.

“Mmm,” he whispered. He brought her close and clung to her for a moment before reluctantly letting her go.

“I missed you,” Rachel said.

“I missed you, too,” he murmured, taking her hand. “How much longer are you going to be working these late nights?”

Rachel knew he’d rather she spent the evenings with him and Jolene, but this time of year was just too hectic.

“After Christmas everything slows down,” she said. She assured him of this at least once a day.

Bruce tucked her arm in his and they walked to her car. It was silly for him to come at all, and yet she appreciated his vigilance. Eventually he would believe she was safe. Eventually she’d feel safe again, too. The trauma of the kidnapping would stay with them both, but the possibility of anything like that happening again was remote at best.

“Christmas.” Bruce gave a disgruntled sigh.

“Don’t bah-humbug me, Bruce Peyton. I love Christmas and Jolene does, too.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand why women are so crazy about holidays. Especially Christmas.”

“It isn’t necessary that you understand.”

He laughed. “You’ve had quite an influence on my daughter. She said almost the identical thing to me.”

Jolene and Rachel had shared a special relationship for years. Because she’d grown up without a mother, too, Rachel recognized the girl’s need for a close connection with an adult friend who could occasionally act as a maternal figure. She’d willingly stepped into that role when Jolene was in first grade, six years ago.

Rachel slipped her arm around Bruce’s waist and leaned against him.

“Have you had anything to eat since lunch?” he asked.

At his question Rachel realized how hungry she was and her stomach growled in response. “No, I didn’t.”

“The Taco House is in business now,” he said. The restaurant, formerly The Taco Shack, had reopened earlier that week, and long lines had been reported. Rachel was eager to try it, but not late on a Friday night when she’d been on her feet most of the day.

“No, thanks. I’m too tired. Maybe next week?” She’d read in the Chronicle that the new restaurant was owned by the same couple who’d run The Taco Shack, which had been one of their favorite places to eat. When it closed, Rachel had been extremely disappointed. It had seemed to echo the end of her relationship with Bruce, too.

“What do you want to do about dinner?”

“I’ve got a couple of chicken pot pies in my freezer. I’ll pop them in the microwave,” she replied. “That way I can relax.”

“I can’t stay long,” Bruce said.

“Where’s Jolene?”

“Roller skating with her friends. She has a ten-thirty curfew tonight, and Carrie’s mom is driving her home.”

“Okay, that gives us about an hour.”

They grinned at each other.

Rachel got into her car and Bruce waited until she’d locked the door. Then he sprinted over to his own. He followed her home, arriving at almost the same time she did.

Opening her front door, Rachel collected the mail and the paper and set everything on the kitchen counter. She hung up her coat and Bruce’s.

He turned on the television. As was his custom he made himself at home, slumping on her sofa with his legs stretched out. He flicked through channels with the remote control, stopping occasionally at a talk show or newscast.

Bruce wasn’t romantic; he didn’t shower her with words of love. But Rachel knew how deeply he loved her. She didn’t doubt the sincerity of his feelings. Not for a minute. Not for even a second.

While the pies heated in the microwave, she sorted through the mail, which included a number of Christmas cards and, as always, bills. She hesitated when she saw the San Diego return address on a square red envelope. Even though there wasn’t a name, the APO address instantly told her who the card was from.

Nate Olsen.

They’d dated for about three years. He was the navy man she’d met through the Dog and Bachelor Auction sponsored by the local humane society. For a while she thought she was in love with him, and he with her, until she discovered that Nate was more interested in how a relationship with her could advance his political career. He was from a wealthy, well-connected family, and marriage to an “ordinary” woman like her would heighten his appeal to the voters.

“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked as he came into the kitchen.

She considered hiding the fact that Nate had contacted her, but decided against it. Their relationship had to be open and honest from the very beginning.

“It looks like Nate sent me a Christmas card.”

Bruce’s gaze held hers, although he didn’t reveal his thoughts. “Are you going to open it?”


Bruce didn’t comment.

“Would you rather I didn’t?”

He shrugged as if it were of little concern. “Might as well read it,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes. “A small display of jealousy wouldn’t be amiss, you know.”

Bruce sent her a lopsided grin. “You’re wearing my engagement ring, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“You love me,” he said with unwavering confidence.

She couldn’t disagree.

“You had your chance to marry Nate. As I recall, I actually encouraged you to accept his proposal. He certainly had more to offer you than I ever will.”

“And as you recall, that infuriated me.” It still did. What Bruce had to offer her was a love as unconditional as another person’s love could be.

His grin widened. “You love me,” he said again, “and that’s not going to change.”

Playfully Rachel wagged her index finger at him. “Don’t be so sure of yourself, Bruce Peyton. It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.”

Bruce got a soda cracker from the box on the counter behind her and bit into it. “You won’t. Or you would’ve already done it.”

“Really?” She carefully slit the red envelope. Sliding out the glittery Christmas card, she opened it so Bruce couldn’t see what Nate had written. She lingered over each word.

“So?” he asked after a long moment.

Purposely she closed the card and set it aside.

“What did he say?” Bruce asked, following her to the microwave.

“Are you sure you want to know?” she asked.

“If you feel like telling me.”

She took a deep breath. “Nate said he’ll always love me and that losing me has been the turning point in his life. He begged me to reconsider.”

Bruce put down the soda cracker and his eyes darkened.

The timer buzzed; Rachel removed the pies. “You can read it for yourself if you want,” she said as she retrieved two plates from the kitchen cupboard.

Bruce declined with a shake of his head. “He addressed it to you.”

“I’m giving you permission to look at it.”

Again, he declined.

“You’re not so cocky now, are you?” she teased, bringing the plates to the small kitchen table.

“You’re marrying me,” he stated flatly, but he didn’t sound as confident as he had earlier.

She derived a small degree of satisfaction from the way his arrogance had suddenly diminished. But she’d made her choice and, in her heart, she knew it was the right one. Her future was with Bruce and Jolene and whatever children they might have.

“Bruce,” she said as they sat down. She purposely changed the subject. “I’d like to get pregnant soon.”

He blinked hard. “How soon? Tonight? I’m certainly willing but you’re the one who says—”

“After the wedding.”

“Uh…” His gaze traveled back to the Christmas card, which still lay on the kitchen counter.

Rachel stood and handed the card to Bruce, who took it with some reluctance.

He opened it slowly, read the two short lines. When he finished he raised his eyes to hers. “All he says is Merry Christmas, Nate.” He frowned. “Where’s all that garbage about him never loving another woman?”