“I see you took my advice about your hairstyle,” Chet said, and sauntered into the office as if he were right at home.

“What are you doing here?” She glanced anxiously toward her father’s office, forgetting he wasn’t there.

“Don’t worry, he’s off visiting Mrs. McWilliams.”

“How . . . how do you know that?”

Chet laughed lightly and rearranged the figurines that made up the nativity scene she’d set in a froth of angel hair, switching the camels and the mules. “I know just about everything there is to know about you.”

Playing a game of cat and mouse with him was beyond her. Chet was much too clever for her. “Why are you here?”

“To see you. Why else? I’m not exactly the type of guy who frequents churches.”

She was on her feet without knowing how she got there. Clenching her hands together in front of her, she drew in a steadying breath. “Why do you want to see me?”

“I figured I owed you an apology.”

His willingness to admit it surprised her. “Then I accept your regrets,” she informed him, sitting back down. “You don’t need to trouble yourself further.”

“I came for another reason,” he said, easing himself onto the corner of her desk as if he had every right to do so.

“What’s that?” Monica placed her hands on the keyboard, ready to resume her task although heaven knew she couldn’t have typed had her life depended on it.

“You planning on seeing that milquetoast choir director again?”

“I . . . I don’t believe that’s any concern of yours.”

“Perhaps not, but if you do, you’re cheating him and you’re hurting yourself.”

Monica had taken about as much of his advice as she could tolerate. “What gives you the right to say those kinds of things to me?” she demanded.

“I know you, sweetheart.”

She hated it when he called her that and he knew it. He was purposely trying to irritate her.

“You’ve got fire in your blood, not milk. You’ve sampled desire. Now that you know what it is to be weak with wanting a man, you won’t be able to accept second best. Not anymore—it’s too late for that.”

“You have your nerve.”

“You’re right,” he agreed readily enough, “I do.” He stood and walked around to her side of the desk.

Monica watched him, not knowing what to expect. Every nerve was at full attention. A siren was blaring in her head, blocking out all sensible thought.

When he reached for her, she didn’t offer the least bit of resistance. As it never failed to do, his touch rippled through her, snapping her senses to life. He roughly lowered his mouth to hers where he planted desperate, hungry kisses.

She resisted him at first, attempting to jerk her mouth from his, but he wouldn’t allow it, trapping her face. Her stand against him was pitifully weak, and soon she was as much a participant in the exchange as he was.

Slowly he eased himself away from her. “Heaven help me,” he whispered and Monica was convinced he didn’t mean this as a prayer.

Something attracted his attention and he jerked his head around. “Someone’s coming,” he whispered.

Monica was too startled to do anything.

“Whoever it is, get rid of them,” he instructed, slipping behind the door that led to her father’s office.

Get rid of them, Monica thought in panic. She wasn’t accustomed to playing these ridiculous cops-and-robbers games. She hadn’t a clue of what to say or do.

The door opened just then and Michael strolled inside. He smiled at her warmly. “I hope I’m not catching you at a bad time.”

“Bad time,” she repeated with a phony laugh. “Of course not. Come on in, Michael.”

Chapter 11

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” Pam asked, leading Scotty by the hand into Leah’s house. “After all the trouble I’ve gone through for this silly Christmas party of Doug’s, who’d believe my baby-sitter would come down with the flu? At the last minute, no less. It was the oddest thing. One minute she was fine and the next she was sick.”

“You should have brought over Diane and Jason too,” Leah said.

Pam laughed outright at that. “Even my mother won’t take all three at once.” Flustered and in a rush, she set everything down on the sofa and started unpacking the items she’d brought along for her middle son. Sorting through the brown paper sack, Pam removed Scotty’s pajamas, an extra set of clothes for the morning, his stuffed dinosaur and a tattered yellow blanket. “He’s mostly given up his blanky, but he might need a bit of security to sleep in an unfamiliar bed.”

“I’ll make sure he has it with him.”

“I brought along some extra training pants,” Pam said, setting out a stack of them.

“I don’t wet,” Scotty said, his fists braced against his small hips. “I’m a big boy.”

“I forgot his potty seat,” Pam cried. “Oh, well, you’ll just have to hold him over the toilet.”

“Don’t worry, Scotty and I’ll figure everything out as we go. Isn’t that right, bud?”

“Right.” She held out her hand for him to slap, which he did with enthusiasm, his arm making a high arch into the air.

Pam straightened and held back her hair with both hands. “I hope to heaven that’s everything. Here’s the number where Doug and I’ll be,” she said, pulling a slip of paper from her coat pocket. Getting down on her knees, she wrapped her arms around her three-year-old. “Promise me you’ll be an extra good boy for Auntie Leah?”

Scotty clung to her neck and planted a wet kiss on her cheek.

“We’re going to have a great time, aren’t we, Scotty?” Leah urged, knowing how bad Pam felt to be leaving him in an unfamiliar setting.

Scotty nodded, but looked uncertain when his mother left. Pam was halfway out the front door when she turned back. “He probably needs to go now.”

“Pam,” Leah said, ushering her friend out of the house, “scoot, otherwise you’ll miss your hair appointment.”

“I’m hurrying—”

“Stop looking so worried. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

Scotty was standing at the window, his mouth pressed to the cold glass as he watched his mother pull out of the driveway. He looked at Leah and his bottom lip started to tremble.

“Scotty, how about helping me with lunch?” she asked, holding out her hand. “You can decide what to fix for Uncle Andrew, all right?”

The boy shook his head, smearing his lip prints from one pane to the next.

“Are you hungry?”

Once more Scotty shook his head. “I want my mommy.”

“She’s going out to dinner with your daddy and his friends from work.”

“I want to go too.”

“This dinner is only for mommies and daddies.”

Apparently this wasn’t what Scotty wanted to hear because the tears started in earnest. He was breaking her heart, standing with his back to the window, rubbing his eyes and sobbing softly. She couldn’t bear to see her godson weeping so pitifully, so she lifted him into her arms to comfort him. Scotty buried his face in her shoulder, snuffling into her expensive cashmere sweater. Leah smiled to herself and shook her head. This was what it meant to be a mother, to be loved and needed. She’d treasure every moment of the time with this precious little boy.

It took Leah only a few moments to get Scotty interested in helping her assemble sandwiches. Andrew arrived about the time the boy was licking the jelly off the knife and sticking it back inside the jar.

“So we have company,” he said, removing his jacket and hanging it on the peg just inside the door.

Scotty looked at her husband as an unknown entity, his big dark eyes following Andrew’s movements around the kitchen as Leah explained Pam’s sorry predicament.

“Peanut butter and jelly?” Andrew grumbled under his breath, eyeing their lunch.

“That was what Scotty wanted us to have.”

“You sure he didn’t suggest pastrami on rye?” Andrew mumbled out of the corner of his mouth.

“Scotty made the peanut butter and jelly all by himself,” Leah said, urging her husband to compliment the boy on his efforts. There was more peanut butter on the countertop than the bread, but Scotty had done it himself and beamed with pride.

“So I noticed.” Andrew skeptically lifted one corner of the bread. The peanut butter was spread so thin the white bread showed through. He looked at Leah and they both burst into laughter. It wasn’t especially funny, but they seemed to find it so.

Scotty studied them as if he didn’t know what to make of the two. Leah kissed his chubby cheek and set the sandwich and a small glass of milk down on the table. Moving out the chair, Scotty climbed onto the seat. He knelt on the cushion and leaned against the glass tabletop, his small hands circling the glass.

“Apparently lunch is served,” Andrew said, bowing and gallantly gesturing for Leah to take her place at the table. He held out the chair for her, then seated himself.

After sampling the sandwich, Andrew eyed Leah. “Is Scotty choosing the dinner menu as well?”

“Hot dogs and macaroni and cheese,” Scotty said with his mouth full of food.

Andrew looked at Leah and there was something so crestfallen in his eyes that she couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing. Andrew didn’t know what she found so funny, but soon he was laughing too. Scotty, who hadn’t a clue of what was going on, joined in, milk dribbling out of the corner of his mouth.

Mercy looked down upon the scene from where she was lounging on top of the double-wide refrigerator. Her scheme had worked beautifully, although she did feel mildly guilty about inflicting Pam’s baby-sitter with the virus.

Scotty’s visit with Leah and Andrew was going much better than she’d anticipated. So well that it was all Mercy could do not to stand up and cheer. The sound of Leah and Andrew’s laughter brightened the room like floodlights on an empty stage.

The kitchen radiated with the warmth of their happiness. The dim, dark pall of melancholy faded as the joy was slowly released, circling the room with tails of light. The gloom, discouragement, and despair that marked this house lifted like dissipating fog over the Golden Gate Bridge revealing the sound structure of this marriage, and the deep, profound love Leah and Andrew shared.

This was what Mercy had waited for so impatiently.

Joy.

Her gaze wandered closely over Leah and the emotion she read in the young woman’s face deeply stirred her soul. At last they were making progress. The light was on, the mist had lifted.

It was a beginning.

The lunch was over and Leah lifted Scotty from the chair, washed his hands and face, and carried him into the guest bedroom. Knowing his penchant for amusing himself instead of napping, she sat in the rocking chair and held him in her lap. Scotty chose a book and she read to him until he dozed off.

For a long time after Scotty was asleep, Leah continued to hold him, enjoying these rare moments of peace and the ecstasy of having a child in her arms.

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