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“Dying?” It felt as if Elise’s heart had stopped beating.

“He came to Seattle because he wanted to get to know me and the family while he still could.” Tears shone in her eyes. “He didn’t gamble until that one day, when he entered the poker competition. He swore to me he hadn’t, and I believe him.”

“But why did he do it then?” Elise demanded. “And don’t tell me it was for my sake, because I refuse to believe it.”

Aurora shook her head as if she didn’t know what to say. “That’s what he told me.”

“Dying,” Elise repeated slowly. Everything became very clear to her in those few moments. Her mind scanned the last months. She should’ve understood that something was wrong; in his whole life, Maverick had never been content to sit and do nothing, yet he’d spent hours sitting in the car, waiting for her. She’d accepted that without question, as she had his sudden need to see his daughter.

“A year…”

Aurora nodded. “He loves you, Mom. He’s told me that a dozen times, and I know it’s true.”

Elise swallowed the thickness in her throat. “I love him, too.”

“I know.”

Without invitation Luke wandered into the bedroom, feet dragging. He fell into his mother’s lap, sighing dejectedly.

“What’s the matter?” Elise asked.

“You don’t know?” he exclaimed. “Grandpa lost.”

Elise stretched out her arms to her grandson, and Luke slid away from his mother and walked over to her. Holding the boy close, she shut her eyes and mused that her ex-husband was no luckier in cards than he was in life.



On a Friday evening in mid-September, when both Andrew and Annie were busy with school activities, Paul phoned and suggested a movie. Bethanne agreed, although he wanted to see a fast-paced action-adventure she normally wouldn’t have chosen. Whenever there were violent scenes Bethanne had to close her eyes. But every time the hero seemed to be facing certain death, he managed to escape. Still, the loud pounding music heightened her anxiety. Could things possibly end well?

During a brief lull in the action, she thought about Grant. She hadn’t told Paul—or anyone—that she’d run into him in the bank parking lot. The episode had an almost unreal quality to it.

Bethanne realized with a sense of something approaching sorrow that the affair—and the divorce—had cost him dearly. His children were, for all intents and purposes, estranged from him. Annie talked to her father now and then, but her attitude was more insolent than it should have been. Andrew was still refusing to have much to do with him, despite a couple of attempts by his father to patch up the relationship. Bethanne hoped that in time Andrew would find it in his heart to forgive Grant.

Bethanne experienced a familiar sadness over the loss of her marriage. Grant had changed, but she didn’t know when those changes had taken place, hadn’t even recognized what was happening. The man he was now wasn’t the man she’d married or the husband who’d stayed with her in the labor room and walked the floors when the children were sick. Perhaps she’d contributed to whatever went wrong. That wasn’t something she’d been willing to acknowledge before. Caught up in her own small world, involved with their children, perhaps Bethanne hadn’t paid enough attention to her marriage. Eventually she and Grant had become strangers to each other.

Glancing over at Paul, she discovered he was studying her instead of watching the screen. “You okay?” he whispered.

She nodded, but could tell he didn’t believe her. They went for coffee following the movie—which did end happily. At least the hero had survived.

They sat across from each other in a booth at Denny’s, and the waitress smiled admiringly at Paul as she brought their coffee. There was a lot to admire, to find attractive about him. The waitress’s smile clarified what Bethanne had been feeling lately.

“You seem to be deep in thought,” he said.

“Well, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”

“About what?” Paul asked absently as he reached for a sugar packet. He looked up as he stirred it into his coffee.

She shrugged and experienced a brief surge of sadness. “You’re not dating anyone, are you?”

“You mean besides you?”

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, we’re not dating. We’re seeing each other as friends.”

“Why the frown? I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“We’ve got a problem, Paul.” She decided to be direct. “We’ve come to rely on each other. I consider you safe and I’m fairly sure you feel the same way about me.”

He seemed about to argue with her, but had the good sense to wait.

“If we don’t do something soon, there’s a danger of us becoming so emotionally dependent, we’ll pass up other opportunities, with other people.” Although she made it sound like a possibility, Bethanne feared it was already a reality, especially for him. “I don’t want that to happen.”

“I don’t, either,” he agreed, but with reluctance.

“It’s time we went out into the dating world without training wheels.” Bethanne tried to make a joke of it. She wished she’d thought this through more carefully.

The waitress refilled their coffee and Paul reached for his, sipping it pensively. “Is there someone you want to get involved with?”

“No, but this isn’t about me.”

“Then what is it about? I don’t understand, Bethanne. I hoped—I hoped we could become more than friends, damn it,” he said, sounding frustrated. “I was afraid of this. You’re worried about the age difference, aren’t you?”

“No—okay, a little, but that’s not the point. Much as I care about you, I don’t think our relationship is emotionally healthy.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

She didn’t want to repeat everything she’d already said. “Let’s stop relying on each other for a while. I’m not doing you any favors. You should be seeing other women, finding someone who can be everything to you.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he argued. “You’re the one person who understood how I felt when Tiffany left me. We’re the injured parties, and it’s only natural that we’d have a lot in common. Now you’re saying we should walk away from all that.”

“I’m not explaining myself well.”

“Yes, you are. I’m getting the message loud and clear. You want us to stop seeing each other but I don’t understand why, especially now. It’s…it’s like before.”

“I’m not Tiffany!”

“Then why do I have this knot in my gut? Why do I feel the same things I did when she told me she was in love with another man? This is just another rejection.”

“No, it’s not.” She’d done a terrible job of conveying her feelings. “I want us to stay friends. I also want you to get out there and date someone else.”

“Why?” he demanded. “I like you.”

“I like you, too. But I think we should stop seeing each other for a while.”

She smiled and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “You’re a wonderful man, Paul, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. But it’s time for us to let go a little. To explore relationships with other people.”

“This isn’t a rejection?” he asked sardonically. “It sure as hell sounds like one.”

“Being more independent doesn’t mean we can’t talk or give each other emotional support. I want us to have a healthy relationship. I want us to be real friends.” Bethanne glanced around the Denny’s, afraid their conversation was entertainment for half the restaurant. She leaned toward him. “I want you to date a wonderful woman who’s crazy about you.”

“I thought that was you.”

Bethanne sighed. “You don’t know how easy it would be to fall in love with you. I’m halfway there already.”

Her words obviously pleased him, as some of the intensity left his face. “What’s stopping you?”

“My conscience,” she told him. “I’m not the right woman for you.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” he said again, just as stubbornly.

“The thing is, there’s a corollary.”

He scowled, then slowly said, “In other words, I’m not the right man for you, either.”

She nodded. “I should’ve said something earlier, but I didn’t have the courage to let you go. Your friendship’s been really important to me.” She paused to take a deep breath. “I hope you’ll find a woman you’ll have children with. You’ll make a terrific father.” Both Andrew and Annie, who’d met him a number of times, thought the world of him.

“Fine, but I still plan to see you. And call you.” He would, too, especially at first, but when he opened his eyes to other relationships those calls would probably become farther apart. If that happened, it would be hard.

“You were absolutely wonderful for my self-esteem,” she told him, feeling almost tearful. “After Grant left, I was convinced no man would ever find me attractive again.”

“I did,” he said, then added softly, sweetly. “I do.”

“Thank you for that.”

“Will you see other men?” he asked. “Because I’m not going out into the great unknown all by myself.”

Bethanne managed a smile.

“I imagine that, given time, I will,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m ready just yet.” She’d take it slow, get on her feet financially, build her business. That was her first priority, aside from taking care of her children. One thing she’d learned through all of this was that she didn’t need a man in her life. After twenty years as Grant’s wife, she was finding her own identity. That might be a cliché these days, but like all clichés it was based in truth.

Part of that new identity was seeing herself as a business-woman. Two days earlier, she’d been contacted by a friend of a friend who wanted to know if Bethanne did catering. She didn’t, but she knew someone who did. That conversation gave her an idea. Bethanne was good at organizing parties and social events. So far, all she’d booked were children’s birthday parties, but she wanted to expand, do more, connect with other professionals. The possibilities were endless and would be beneficial for all concerned. She might even end up becoming a wedding consultant. What was a wedding except one big party?

“I’ll date someone else if you will too,” Paul agreed after a lengthy silence.

That was all the assurance Bethanne needed. “I think that would be wise for us both.”

Like a youngster with an assignment, Paul propped his elbows on the table and said, “Any suggestions where to start?”

Bethanne smothered a giggle. “What about your office?”