Mercy had done everything possible, but she hadn’t been able to help. It was the most frustrating case she had ever encountered.

If only Mercy could sit down and talk to Leah, face to face. If only Mercy could explain to this woman of the earth that she must find serenity within herself before her prayer could be answered. But that was impossible.

And so they both wept.

Leah cried silent tears standing guard over her friend’s child while Mercy wept openly, unable to contain her sorrow at this feeling of helplessness.

“Married.” The word went through Chet like a bullet, with much the same effect. He bolted off the bed and stood, the sour taste of panic filling his mouth.

“It seems the logical thing to do,” Monica said, her voice as sweet as chocolate-dipped caramels.

Chet rubbed his hand down his face, hoping that would set matters straight in his mind. It didn’t. If anything, his thoughts filled with pure terror. “Sweetheart, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m not the marrying kind.”

“That’s the point,” Monica continued softly, “I’m not either. It seems we’re perfect for each other.”

“You’re not the marrying kind? Don’t be ridiculous.” She remained on the bed, so beautiful he had to force himself to look away. Otherwise he just might find himself considering her ridiculous suggestion. Much more of this sexual teasing they’d been exchanging and he’d find himself agreeing to just about anything.

“I’m twenty-five years old and have never been asked,” she reminded him.

“Michael’s chomping at the bit, waiting for the opportunity,” Chet muttered. He couldn’t believe he’d said that, not after the fretful evening he’d spent thinking about Monica cheek to cheek with the other man. He quickly glanced about the room, making sure he wasn’t leaving anything behind, such as his heart and a good portion of common sense. He looped his leg over the windowsill, eager to make his escape before he found himself actually discussing the possibility of marriage. The mere thought sent cold chills down his spine.

“You’re leaving?” Monica was kneeling on top of the mattress. Her eyes were wide and pleading. “Don’t go. Please.”

The “please” had cost her a good deal, but Chet knew that if he didn’t make his escape then and there, it would be too late. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d find himself agreeing to this asinine scheme of hers.

As it was, their ongoing relationship continued to confound him. He’d never meant to see her again after she’d lectured him on the misery brought on by the evils of alcohol. Little by little he’d knowingly allowed himself to be drawn to this preacher’s daughter. They’d been a hair’s breadth from making love only moments earlier. She didn’t seem to realize how close they’d come.

“I should have realized,” she said in a small, pitiful voice, “that you wouldn’t want to marry me.”

Chet groaned inwardly. He was prepared to slip into the night as unnoticed as when he’d first arrived, but she’d managed to do it again. This woman knew exactly which cords to pull to reach him. It happened like this each and every time they met. Much more of this and she’d have the threads wrapped so securely around his heart there’d be no escape.

“It isn’t that,” he said, his back to her. Looking at her was dangerous, especially now with her lips swollen from his kisses and her hair all mussed up. He’d never known a woman who looked more beautiful when her hair wasn’t combed.

“Then what is it?” she asked. From the nearness of her voice he knew she’d moved off the bed and was standing almost directly behind him.

Nothing but the truth would satisfy her, Chet realized, yet he hesitated, knowing she’d argue with the devil himself.

“Tell me exactly what it is then,” she demanded, and he noticed she was regaining some of her natural pluck.

“Listen, sweetheart,” he said, knowing she disliked the affectionate term, “I’m not good enough for you.”

Until he’d met Monica his life had been reduced to wild weekends, blown paychecks, and cheap thrills with a cocktail waitress. He’d been shot, beaten, and chased down by a jealous husband. Not exactly pick-of-the-litter husband material for a minister’s daughter, but there was no telling Monica anything. He’d learned that the hard way.

“Don’t say that.” Her arms came up under his and she looped her hands on his shoulders, then flattened the side of her face against his back. She felt so good and warm pressed to him that for an instant he was nearly swayed.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she insisted. “Don’t you realize how much you’ve taught me? I was a prude until we met and now I know what it means to be in love. You’ve made me proud to be a woman.”

“Lessons rarely come cheap.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her arms slipped away from him and Chet was eternally grateful. He slipped out of the window, landing with a thud on the hard ground below.

Turning around to face her was a mistake in what was proving to be a long line of tactical errors. Her eyes were bright with tears and her lower lip was trembling. Something sharp and painful twisted in his gut. He could deal far easier with her anger than he could her tears.

“I’m not going to marry you, Monica,” he told her harshly. “So get that idea out of your head right now. It’s just not going to happen.”

She was silent for a moment, then nodded. “You can’t get much clearer than that. Good night, Chet.” Her voice was soft and a little broken.

She had her hooks in him good and deep. The best thing for him to do was to get out while the getting was good. Working as a private investigator, Chet had developed a sixth sense for these things. The time to leave was about five minutes ago.

“I’ll see you around,” he tossed over his shoulder. He waited for her to close the window, but she didn’t and he was left to wonder exactly how long she stood there watching him.

Fighting himself he made it all the way to his car, which he’d parked two streets over. He didn’t want anyone to see his vehicle and connect Monica with him.

He unlocked the door and sat in the front seat and battled with himself until he accepted that he wasn’t going to be able to leave matters unfinished between them.

He slammed his fist against the steering wheel, climbed out of the car, and retraced the same route he had taken only moments earlier. He came by the side of the darkened church and toward the back side of the house where Monica’s bedroom was situated.

Her room was dark. He hesitated, then carefully made his way to the window, tapping lightly against the glass pane. He heard her climb out of the bed and pull up the sash.

Neither of them spoke right away. It was as if they were both unsure of what to say. After coming all the way back, Chet hadn’t any more of a clue than when he left the car. Apparently Monica didn’t either.

“I volunteered to be a bell ringer,” she whispered. He couldn’t see her face as clearly as he would have liked, but he could tell from the soft catch in her voice that she’d been crying.

Damn fool woman. She should have known better than to fall in love with the likes of him.

“When?” he found himself asking, already anxious to see her again. They were playing a no-win game, but for the life of him Chet couldn’t make himself walk away from her.

“Tomorrow afternoon between two and three.”

“Same street as before?”

“Yes.” The last part was barely discernible. “Chet,” she said more clearly, but he heard the hesitation in her voice. He heard the pain too, but ignored it as best he could, which was near impossible.

“Yeah?” he prompted when she didn’t immediately continue.

She was kneeling, he noticed, her face only a short distance from his own. “Do you . . . are you in love with me?”

It didn’t take him long to respond. “I don’t know.” It was the honest-to-God truth. What did someone like him know about love? Damn little to be sure.

“You can’t be any more articulate than that?” The righteous ring was back in her voice and he found himself smiling.

“I like you,” he said, realizing what an inadequate phrase that was.

“In other words I turn you on?”

He wasn’t sure he liked her vernacular, but he wasn’t in any position to be arguing since he was the one who’d taught her everything she knew about the sexual part of her nature. He never figured she’d be such a fast learner.

“It’s more than that,” was about all he was willing to admit.

“How much more?”

He should have known she wouldn’t leave that alone. “I don’t know,” he said, raising his voice more than he’d intended. His words seemed to echo like thunder in the silence of the night. All they needed now was to wake her old man. “I just don’t know,” he repeated, softer this time. “Listen, Monica, it doesn’t help to phrase the same question in different ways, the answer’s going to be the same. I don’t know about love. I’ve never been in love before, so how am I supposed to know if what I feel for you is any different than what I’ve felt in the past?”

“But surely you’ve had some experience with love.”

His laugh was low and husky. “Experience I’ve got, lots of that, but mainly it’s of the physical nature.”

“In other words if . . . if we’d made love, then you might be able to tell me exactly what your feelings are towards me.” The stiff indignation was back as inflexible as always.

“Not exactly.” It did his heart good to hear the outrage in her voice, although he’d never known a woman who could irritate him faster. By the same token he’d never known a woman who did the other things to him she did either. The problem was, he still hadn’t figured out whether he liked it or not. Mostly he liked it, he reasoned, otherwise he wouldn’t keep coming back for more.

“I have my principles, Chet Costello, and I can tell you right now that I refuse to sleep with any man until after we’re married.”

Laughing was a gross error and he knew it, but he couldn’t help himself. He could have had her any number of times. The only thing that had stopped him was knowing that neither one of them would be the same afterward.

Monica was innocent in the ways of men and he refused to take from her what rightly belonged to another. His thoughts were abruptly ended when Monica slammed the window shut, practically in his face.

Her eyes glared out at him accusingly.

He shouldn’t have laughed and knew it even as the amusement escaped his throat. As means of an apology, he pressed his fingertips to his lips and then set his open hand against the cold windowpane.

Monica’s angry gaze held his in what little light the moon afforded. After a moment, she pantomimed his action and poised her hand on the other side of the glass against his.

Reluctantly, he dropped his hand and turned away from her while he had the strength. He didn’t know where the relationship was leading and as far as he could see they were striding down a dead-end street, but for the life of him he couldn’t make himself terminate it. Maybe he did love her; he didn’t ever want to think about the consequences of that.

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