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This had been an especially difficult summer for me as I learned to consider needs and concerns other than my own. It was a financial stretch to help Margaret and Matt, but I badly wanted to give back to my sister and her family for all the sacrifices they’d made on my behalf.

Later, with Mom, I came to understand that our roles were now reversed. It was time for me to take care of her. The paperwork, finances and everything else involved in getting Mom settled in assisted living had been time-consuming and often frustrating. But my parents had always handled those details for me, during my bouts of cancer. I received the very best treatment available because my parents fought for me. Now it was my turn.

My third emotional lesson was perhaps the most painful. It came when Brad told me about Janice. I’d just about dissolved into a puddle of self-pity because the man I loved had broken off our relationship. Only later, when I looked past the pain I was suffering, did I understand that Brad had done this out of love for his son. Reconciling with Janice wasn’t what he wanted, but he loved Cody enough to put aside his own wants in an effort to give him the family he needed. I failed to be as noble. Granted, once I recognized his motives, I felt less hurt, but I wasn’t nearly as gracious or understanding as I could have been.

The bell above the door jangled and I had my first customer of the day. I half expected Margaret to rush out. She seemed occupied with order forms, so I placed the check on my desk and hurried into the shop.

Brad stood just inside and my heart seized at the sight of him. Margaret’s smile had nothing on mine. “Hello, handsome,” I said.

“Hello, beautiful.”

We stood there smiling at each other for the longest moment, until he held his arms out to me. I didn’t need a second invitation. My feet barely touched the ground as I ran into his embrace. Anyone who happened to be strolling past my shop window would’ve seen two people in love. Brad and I were entwined, arms around each other, kissing, kissing, kissing.

When we finally managed to break apart, it was with reluctance. “You’re so right,” I cried, running my hands over his face, needing to touch him. “I behaved like a jealous fool, and I lied, I lied. There’s no one else. Brad, forgive me. I’m sorry.”

“I am, too—for what I said last week. I could no more walk away from you than I could one of Alix’s chocolate éclairs.”

I laughed and poked my finger into his ribs. Then because it felt so good to be with him again, I wrapped my arms around him and held on tight.

“So there isn’t another guy?” he murmured. “There never was?”

“No one. You’re the one and only love of my life.”

“Forever?” he asked.

I looked into his eyes and whispered, “That could be arranged.”

His shoulders relaxed. “I was hoping you’d say that. It’s time, Lydia. Time for you and me. I came too close to losing you. I love you, Lydia. I’ve never stopped. Cody loves you. Chase loves you, I—”

I brought my lips to his, interrupting him. He didn’t need to say another word.

His hold around my waist tightened as he lifted me from the floor. “Does this mean you’ll marry me, Lydia Hoffman?”

“It does.” I wanted to qualify my response with a warning or two. The cancer could return. I wasn’t sure I could have children or that it was advisable. But I said none of this. Our marriage wasn’t about me—it was about Brad, Cody and me. Chase, too, for that matter. We were going to be a family.

“Lydia?” Margaret said, stepping out of the office, her voice tentative.

I smiled over at my sister. “How would you feel about being my maid of honor?” I asked her.

She turned to Brad, then to me. “You’re getting married?”

I nodded. “Are you up for a wedding?”

“You bet I am!” she cried.

I draped my arms around Brad and pressed my head to his shoulder.

I swear there was fairy dust floating all over that room.



Maverick had, according to Aurora, returned from the poker tournament in the Caribbean, but he’d made no effort to contact Elise. She didn’t ask, but she thought Aurora had told her father that Elise knew about his cancer. Countless times in the few weeks before their last encounter, Maverick had invited her to come to his apartment, but she’d repeatedly refused.

In light of that conversation, he didn’t invite her again, and she didn’t blame him. She regretted that outburst now. When she could stand the silence no longer, Elise decided to go and see him.

The building was a new one, in a lovely area close to Aurora’s, as well as Seattle’s downtown area. She noticed that it was also close to a number of medical facilities.

The heaviness that had settled over her once she’d learned of Maverick’s leukemia grew more burdensome each day. She felt hurt that Maverick had kept this information from her and yet she understood why he’d been so reticent. Late at night, as they’d cuddled up together in her single bed, Elise had often sensed that he wanted to tell her something. A dozen times she’d felt it, but she’d suspected that he wanted to confess he’d been gambling again. She hadn’t been willing to hear that, so she’d pretended to be asleep. Their private nighttime moments were too precious to ruin.

The doorman was kind enough to show her where to press the button connected with her ex-husband’s telephone. Maverick answered on the second ring, sounding tired.

“It’s me. Can I come up?” Elise asked in a subdued voice.

“Of course.” A buzzer rang and the lobby door opened. Maverick’s condo was on the fifteenth floor. When she stepped out of the elevator, he stood in his doorway, waiting for her.

She nearly faltered when she saw his welcoming smile. All she’d done for weeks was harangue him with her bitterness. She felt such guilt, such an awareness of opportunities missed. Seeing him now, knowing he was dying, she burst into uncharacteristic tears. She couldn’t help it. Her shoulders quaked and she covered her mouth with both hands.

Her emotion had an immediate effect on him. Maverick wrapped his arms around her and brought her into the apartment. He closed the door with one foot, still hugging her.

“Elise, Elise,” he whispered, cradling her face between his large hands. “What’s wrong with you? My gutsy girl doesn’t weep.”

“I…feel…so…bad.” His sympathy, his soft crooning, only made her feel worse.

“About what?” His gaze searched hers.

“Everything—oh, Maverick, I’ve been so bitter and so spiteful toward you.”

“I gave you plenty of reasons.”

“I was never the right wife for you and—”

“Nor was I the right husband for you.”

“I love you,” she sobbed. At one time she’d tried to deny it, but she loved Maverick, heart and soul. When she’d learned about his visit, she hadn’t wanted to see him because she’d recognized the truth—and it had terrified her.

Gathering her close, Maverick kissed the top of her head. “I’ve always loved you. Always.”

She looked up at him through tear-filled eyes. “I know, but—”

“Why do you think I never remarried?”

She’d wondered and had never wanted to ask. His question implied that he’d had opportunities, and maybe other romances; she had no difficulty believing it. But none of that mattered. Not even the gambling mattered anymore.

“All those wasted years…all those empty, empty years,” she said brokenly. “Now…now it’s too late…. Aurora told me—she told me you’re…dying.” It was difficult to say the word.

A deep sigh expanded his chest. “I was afraid she would.”

“No, no, I needed to know.” But she’d made it impossible for Maverick to tell her himself.

“I’m so sorry.” Her sobbing increased. She couldn’t tolerate the fact that she was about to lose Maverick so soon after finding him again.

His hold on her tightened. “I’m not dead yet.”

If she hadn’t been immersed in grief she might have smiled at his wry tone.

She took a long, shuddering breath. “I know…but I regret so much. I’m not sure where to start.”

“We both have regrets, my darling.”

Elise clung to him. That he could refer to her as his “darling” after the way she’d treated him said a great deal about this man she loved. This forgiving, passionate and often reckless man. A man who saw the best in others, who laughed at himself—a man who loved her.

“I…do want to move in with you,” Elise announced. “If you’ll have me.”

She felt his smile before she saw it. “I’d rather you married me again,” he said.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”

He tilted her chin and gazed deeply into her eyes. “I’ll probably keep gambling as long as I’m able to.”

She agreed with a half nod. Gambling was an important part of his life. She loved Maverick; loving him meant accepting him for the man he was.

“I’m sorry you lost the poker tournament,” she whispered. “For your sake.”

“You saw me on television?”

She shook her head. “Aurora and the boys told me.”

“Second place wasn’t so bad.”

His spirits were unusually high. “You have a good attitude about it,” she murmured. But then, he’d always been an optimist.

“Let’s get married as soon as we can,” he said. “Next month? Maybe over Thanksgiving?”

When she nodded, he said, “We have a lot to do to get ready for the wedding. I want to buy you a diamond ring.”

“Maverick, no! “

He frowned. “Are we going to start our marriage with an argument?”

“No, but a plain gold band will do nicely.”

He shook his head. “Let me take care of that. I also want to hire Bethanne to arrange everything for us.”

“I don’t know if she’s equipped to manage that yet,” Elise said, although she was grateful he’d thought of her friend.

Elise offered no resistance when Maverick silenced her with a kiss. In his arms, she had no doubts or questions. If he wanted to hire Bethanne, then that was what they’d do. After all, their wedding was really just a party—wasn’t that what Bethanne had said about weddings? A celebration. She smiled at the image of a dinosaur-shaped wedding cake or Alice in Wonderland decorations.

“Yes, let’s ask Bethanne,” she agreed. “And I’ll have Aurora be my maid of honor,” Elise said, arms around his middle and smiling up at him.

“I want you to invite your knitting group.”

“What about my reading club?” she asked.

“As many of your friends as you desire.”

She frowned. All this expense was an extravagance. “It isn’t necessary,” she insisted one last time. “I’d be happy just to—”