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Courtney was too stunned to respond.

“I didn’t thank you properly, but maybe I can help you with your dad. Do you think it’d be all right if I came to your grandmother’s house after football practice?”

It required a monumental effort to simply nod. The final bell rang for homeroom.

“Gotta go,” Andrew said. “See you later.” He hurried down the hall.

Courtney dashed into her own classroom, marveling that one person could experience so many emotions in such a short time.

As soon as Mike dropped her off at Grams’s after school, Courtney raced upstairs to her computer and logged on.

“Any word?” her grandmother shouted from the foot of the stairs.

Her heart fell when she hurriedly scanned her in-box. Nothing from her father. “No,” she called back, dispirited.

The phone rang and normally Courtney would’ve answered it, but she wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. Not even Andrew. Despite what she’d said about getting through whatever you had to, she didn’t think she could. She couldn’t lose her father. There weren’t enough chocolate chip cookies or skeins of yarn or comforting words to see her through that.

“Yes, yes, of course, I’ll get her right away.” She could hear her grandmother’s voice. “Courtney, phone,” she yelled even as Courtney walked down the stairs. “Someone wants to talk to you.” Smiling, she held out the receiver.

The minute Courtney heard her father, she burst into tears of joy. The phone connection wasn’t the greatest as her dad poured out his story of being stranded in the jungle for five days with no way to get in touch. There’d been torrential rains while they were surveying but he was safe. He was sorry to have caused his family so much worry.

The tears had yet to dry on her cheeks when Andrew arrived. Courtney was on the phone with Julianna and had just finished talking to Jason.

“I have company and I need to go,” she told her sister, glancing self-consciously at Andrew. He stood awkwardly in the living room, being fussed over by Grams.

“Boy or girl?” Julianna pressed.

“It’s a B,” she muttered.


“Yes,” she hissed. It was clear she’d told her sister far more than she should have.

“Then get off the phone and entertain your company,” Julianna teased.

Grams was a gracious hostess. She’d seated Andrew on the sofa and chatted away with him as though he was a longtime family friend.

Courtney walked shyly into the room, and Grams smiled over at her. “I was just telling Andrew that you heard from your father.”

“I was talking to my sister.” Embarrassed, she pointed to the ancient black phone at the foot of the stairs.

“Is this the young man you mentioned?” Grams asked, lowering her voice as if Andrew couldn’t hear the question. “The one you’re knitting the socks for?”

Courtney wished she could snap her fingers and vanish, like the witch on that old TV series Grams sometimes watched. Her face felt hot and she glared at her grandmother.

“She knit a lovely pair for her dad,” her grandmother was saying. “Those were navy blue, but these are green and—” She looked quizzically at Courtney. “Oh, dear, was that supposed to be a surprise?” Getting up with uncharacteristic agility, Grams scurried to the kitchen.

Andrew stood, his eyes holding hers. “You’re knitting me socks?”

Courtney nodded. “I’m just finishing up the gusset on the second one, but it’s nearly done.”

“That’s the coolest thing anyone’s ever done for me. It’s really…sweet.”

Sweet. He thought of her as sweet. That was the last thing Courtney wanted.



Bethanne’s invitation to visit was a welcome reprieve in the middle of Elise’s week. Bethanne had asked if she’d help check her budget. Elise was no expert, but she was willing to do what she could. She was also grateful for an excuse to get out of the house.

Neither Aurora nor David ever mentioned Maverick in her presence. Unfortunately her grandsons, oblivious to the tension between their estranged grandparents, dragged his name into practically every conversation. Maverick was playing in some poker game in the Carry Bean, as the boys called it. She wished him well, but she couldn’t be part of his life. Their second attempt at being a couple was as much of a failure as the first. No, it was over for good.

The bus dropped her off a block from Bethanne’s. She liked the other woman and found that they had more in common than anyone might expect. As divorced mothers, they’d been left to deal with the children and the house and everything else. Well, no need to dwell on that old history now, she decided.

The Hamlins’ neighborhood was a busy one, and the house itself was charming. Elise walked up the steps and rang the doorbell, admiring the garden as she did. She’d just leaned over to take a closer look at a huge, coppery chrysanthemum when a smiling Bethanne opened the door. A pot of tea and a plate of brownies waited on the kitchen table.

“Thank you for doing this,” Bethanne said, handing over a spiral notebook. “I asked you because this whole party business was your idea and…well, because you seem so clear-headed and sensible to me.” She sighed. “I’ve gone over these figures a dozen times and after a while, everything starts to blur.”

“I know what you mean.”

Bethanne had listed her monthly expenses in one column and the total alimony and child support she received from Grant in another. On a separate page, she’d set out the anticipated income from the parties she’d booked, including the deposits already paid, and the costs for each.

Elise looked over all the lists and glanced up to see Bethanne watching her. “You need to charge more for your parties,” she said decisively. Before Bethanne could protest, she asked, “What’s your hourly wage?”

“I—I don’t know. I just add twenty percent to the cost of each party and that’s what I charge.”

Elise shook her head. “That’s not near enough. Don’t forget, you’re putting your creative genius behind each event.”

“Creative genius,” Bethanne repeated. “Oh, I like the sound of that.”

“It’s true.” Elise refused to diminish Bethanne’s talent. “You’re offering something unique. No party is like any other. Each one’s exclusively designed around the child’s interests. But if you feel you might be pricing yourself out of a job…”

“I do,” she murmured. “People can’t afford to pay me an outrageous fee on top of all their other expenses.”

“Then standardize the parties. Make up a list of your favorites, the ones you’ve already created, and offer those when people call to inquire. Establish a price for each one, and give them the option of a standard party or a customized one.”

Bethanne’s eyes lit up. “Of course…of course. I should’ve thought of that.” She smiled. “I can buy supplies in bulk and save money that way, too. Not to mention time.”

“You might also contract with a local bakery, for the cakes.”

They looked at each other and both spoke at the same moment. “Alix.”

“Alix,” Elise repeated, “would be perfect. Plus she’d be bringing business into the French Café and that’s a feather in her cap.”

“Fabulous.” Bethanne jumped up and gave Elise an impulsive hug. “Thank you, thank you, Elise. You’re the real genius here.”

Elise smiled with pleasure. Before she left, she reminded Bethanne to pay herself better. “Start with twenty dollars an hour,” she said. “And your hours should include your preparation time, plus cleanup and driving.”

Bethanne promised she would.

Later, on the bus ride home, Elise felt the satisfaction of having helped a friend. But it wasn’t a one-way street by any means; she’d learned from Bethanne too. The younger woman’s lack of bitterness and anger toward Grant impressed her. When Elise had commented on her calm acceptance, Bethanne said she considered it a gift that had come to her because of the divorce.

In Elise’s view, divorce didn’t mean anything except gut-wrenching emotional agony. But Bethanne had found nuggets of wisdom buried in the pain and suffering Grant’s betrayal had brought into her life.

When Elise entered the house, she thought no one was home. Then she heard the sound of the television. Since it was a bright, sunny afternoon, she couldn’t imagine why the entire family would be staring at the TV.

“What’s going on?” she asked, as she stood just inside the family room.

“Shh.” Luke beckoned her in. “Grandpa’s on TV,” he whispered.

“Mom.” Aurora glanced over her shoulder. “Sit with me. Dad’s playing poker on national TV.”

“No, thank you.” Elise whirled around so fast, she nearly lost her balance. Television or not, it didn’t matter. Gambling was gambling. There’d be no stopping Maverick now that he’d made it all the way to national television. He’d live on that high for months to come, thinking he was invincible—that he couldn’t lose.

“Mom?” A short time later, Aurora tapped gently on her bedroom door. “Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Elise was determined to say something about allowing the children to…to admire their grandfather when it was obvious he had a problem.

“You looked upset when you got home.”

Elise had made no effort to hide her feelings, but the entire family had been so absorbed in watching Maverick that it surprised her anyone had noticed.


“It would be best if we didn’t discuss your father.” She’d said this before and needed to say it again. Only a couple of hours earlier she’d marveled at Bethanne’s attitude toward Grant. Elise wanted to find that same kind of peace with Maverick, and hadn’t.

Aurora sat on the edge of Elise’s bed. “I think we should discuss Dad one last time.”

Elise’s nod was reluctant.

“Don’t you want to know if he won or lost?”

“Not really.” She reached for her knitting, needing something to occupy her hands.

“He wore his lucky socks.”

“There is no such thing as luck.” Aurora was more like her father than Elise had known. “They’re simply hand-knit socks,” she said, more sharply than she’d intended.

“Dad didn’t want you to know.” Her daughter spoke in a voice so low Elise had to strain to hear.

Frowning, she paused in her knitting and raised her head. “Know what?” she asked.

Aurora clasped her hands together and stared down at the carpet. “He’s dying.”


“He has a rare form of leukemia. Don’t ask me to repeat the medical name, because I don’t know if I can even pronounce it. Those afternoons he was away? He was going in for blood transfusions. He only has about a year left. Two years possibly, but no one’s placing any bets.” She smiled sadly when she realized what she’d said.