“All right, since you want to know I’ll tell you, but you aren’t going to like it.” Chet stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Although it was well past seven the streets were busy. Several people were forced to walk around them. “I wanted you to go to my apartment tonight for one reason and one reason only. I planned to seduce you.”

Monica went pale. “I see.”

“Apparently you don’t. Good-bye, Monica.” Having said that he turned and walked away, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the sidewalk.

Chapter 10

“Mom, I need another dollar.” Timmy raced up to the table at the pizza parlor, his face bright and his eyes sparkling with excitement. “I’m blowing the brains out of the Laser Man.”

“I don’t think this is the kind of video game I want you playing.”

“Mom,” he protested, “I was just kidding. I’m winning, or I was until just now, but I need another dollar. Hurry, I gotta get back before someone else gets the machine.”

Luckily the pizza parlor wasn’t overly crowded, although a handful of kids had gathered around a row of video games against the back wall. Jody didn’t know how they could play at all with the lights so dim.

“Just a little while longer,” Jody said, rummaging through her purse for yet another dollar. Timmy’s easy acceptance of this outing with Glen had come as a welcome relief.

“Here.” Glen held out a fistful of change to her son. “Take what you need.”

“All these?” Coins spilled over Timmy’s small hands. His eyes were round with disbelief as he hurriedly pocketed the change. “Gee, thanks.”

“I want you to enjoy yourself.”

“I will. Thanks, Glen,” he said, walking backward. He turned abruptly, eager to get back to his prize machine.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Jody felt obliged to say. She didn’t want Glen to spoil Timmy, especially if they were to continue seeing each other. Her son might come to look upon Glen as his own personal Santa Claus.

“I have an ulterior motive,” Glen told her, his eyes brimming with a smile. “If Timmy’s busy with the video machines, we’ll have a chance to talk.”

Jody already guessed as much, but was uncomfortable having him say it out loud. Agreeing to this outing had been an enormous decision for her.

She’d been afraid to accept, but more afraid not to. Afraid of what she was becoming, afraid of what she already was. She’d stood in one place for so long she feared she’d rooted there like the flower garden she so carefully tended. Bit by bit, Glen was urging her forward. Each step was agony. Each step momentous.

“It hasn’t been so bad, now, has it?” Glen asked, coaxing her into admitting the truth. Even that didn’t come easy.

“It has been fun,” she agreed. Timmy had certainly enjoyed himself, downing an amazing five pieces of sausage and pepperoni pizza and a huge cola. Jody didn’t know where he managed to put it all. Generally when they ordered a medium-size pizza it was enough for two meals.

“Would you feel comfortable enough to go out with me again?” Glen asked, and his eyes held hers steadily until she couldn’t bear it any longer and looked away.

Glen was pressing his advantage and deliberately pushing her, forcing her to stretch her boundaries. This was only the beginning, she realized with a hundred forming regrets. From here on out it would only get more difficult, more threatening.

It certainly wasn’t going to get any easier. Soon Glen would want to hold her and kiss her, and if she continued to date him, he’d consider it a natural conclusion to their spending time together.

He hadn’t made any secret of what he was after. He wanted a wife and a family, and he’d said so from the first. Part of her attraction was her son. Glen and Timmy got along like gang busters. Glen was literally the answer to her son’s prayer. That was the crux of the problem. Jody wasn’t dating Glen for herself, but for her son. Now she had to learn to do so for herself.

“I was able to get two tickets to The Nutcracker.”

“The Nutcracker?” Jody repeated, her voice no more than a breath of sound. The ballet was performed each December by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and was said to be both charming and brilliant. For years Jody had heard how captivating the costumes and music were. Everyone she’d ever known who’d attended had come away filled with the Christmas spirit. Since Jeff’s death, Christmas had been a season to endure, not one to enjoy. Something told her this year it would be different.

“They’re for this Thursday night. I realize it’s a week night, but I was lucky to get those.”

“I . . .” The temptation was strong, stronger than she expected. “I’m honored that you’d ask me,” she said, hedging, trying to decide if she should continue this relationship.

“Then you’ll come?”

A tension-filled minute passed before she agreed with a short nod of her head.

Jody watched the play of glad emotions on Glen’s face, watched how he struggled to disguise his excitement, and in that moment she realized she’d crossed the line.

This was the beginning for them.

Everything else that had led up to this moment had been a prelude of what was to come. The time was right. It had been for a good long while, but she’d been too stubborn to accept it. As odd as it sounded, she was too comfortable in her grief to recognize what was happening.

There was no turning back now. Any qualms she experienced would need to be met head-on, one at a time.

Glen must have realized how momentous her decision was because he reached across the table for her hand, squeezing her fingers. “You won’t regret this,” he whispered. “I promise.”

“I don’t know why you want to go out with me,” she said, her voice small and trembling. She bit into her bottom lip in an effort to keep it still.

“You don’t understand?” Glen frowned as if dumbfounded by the question. “You’re a beautiful woman, a woman of character and strength. Every time I’m with you I’m struck by your courage.”

Jody laughed nervously. “Then why am I frightened out of my wits?”

“Because this is all so new, but I’m not going to push you into anything you don’t want. Oh, I’ll prod and poke and nudge you along from time to time, but you have my word, I won’t rush you into anything you don’t want.”

“Mom.” Timmy’s voice echoed across the room sounding as though it came from the bottom of a tin drum. He raced back to the table, skidding to a stop. “When are we going to get our Christmas tree? I was talking to George, he’s the kid who showed me how to beat Laser Man, and his family’s already got theirs, and you know what? They went to this farm, but this isn’t the kind with cows and pigs, this is a farm with Christmas trees. And guess what?” he asked, dragging in a deep breath. “They cut it down themselves. We could do that, couldn’t we, Mom?”

“Ah . . .” Jody wasn’t sure how she’d manage chopping down a tree, but she was up to the challenge. “I’ll see if I can find out about the tree farm.”

“I know where there’s one,” Glen volunteered. “It’s a ways north, but if you wanted, the three of us could make a day of it. We’ll leave early Saturday morning, get the tree, and then decorate it in the afternoon.”

“That’d be great,” Timmy said, so pleased he could barely stand still.

“How does that sound to you?” Glen asked, looking expectantly at her. What else could she say? Little by little Glen was easing his way into their lives. Jody was uneasy with that, and at the same time eager.

“It sounds like a lot of fun.”

Glen’s eyes met hers and a slow, satisfied smile started to form.

Monica’s fingers bounced against the keyboard like clumps of hail hitting the sidewalk. Her hands kept pace with her thoughts, which sped at a record hundred words or more a minute.

She’d been stunned by what Chet had said to her. So shocked she hadn’t had time to react. Not then. Reaction had set in later that evening as she rode the bus home. She’d tossed and turned most of the night, her indignation scaling previously unreached thresholds of fury.

Chet Costello was everything she’d originally assumed. He was much worse than she, in her innocence, had suspected. Egotistical, untrustworthy, why, the man was a blight on decency.

He’d planned to seduce her, to break down her defenses and use her body for his own selfish satisfaction. As if she’d have allowed such a thing! As soon as he realized she would have nothing more to do with him, he couldn’t be rid of her fast enough. Without a qualm he’d cast her aside like so much dirty laundry.

The one glitch in his plan was that he hadn’t expected her to be a virgin. As if she were the kind of woman who’d fall into bed with him! And to think she’d actually been—it pained her to admit this—attracted to that scoundrel.

Thank heaven her father was away for the morning. To think she’d actually toyed with the idea of introducing Chet to her father, of bringing him into their family home. That would have been a disaster. Her father had always been an excellent judge of character and he would have seen through Chet in an instant.

Monica drew in a deep, wobbly breath as her resentment flared bright and then slowly burned itself out. She covered her face with both hands and attempted to pull herself together, which was difficult when she was shaking so badly.

After several moments had passed, Monica straightened, grabbed the sheet from the printer, and crumpled it. Having vented her feelings, there was no need to mail the letter. Any further communication between them whatsoever was completely unnecessary. Her hand automatically reached for the mustard-seed necklace dangling from her neck, fingering it. She’d worn the piece every day since Chet had bought it for her, until it had become habit.

Chet had made his views on life plain. If anything she should be grateful that he’d put an end to this madness when he had. One small part of her, however, refused to conform. One small rebellious corner of her soul yearned for the discoveries he would have shown her.

The thought terrified Monica into accepting how far she’d slid toward sin.

Well, she was safe. He was out of her life now. Good riddance was all she could say.

A knock came softly from the outer door.

“Come in,” she snapped, then realized she sounded like an old shrew, and said it again, softer this time. Church secretaries weren’t supposed to be confrontational.

Michael opened the door and stepped inside. “Hello, Monica.”

“Hello,” she said, tossing the crumpled-up letter into the wastebasket.

“Your father said I’d find you here.” He stepped into the office, his stance doubtful. His gaze hesitantly met hers as if he were unsure of himself.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, working hard to keep the impatience out of her voice. All she needed now was for him to load her down with extra work. Having wasted a good portion of the morning writing Chet and telling him exactly what she thought of him left her with a backlog of unfinished church business.