Her father smiled at that and settled back in his chair. “I suspect he didn’t listen to you.”

“No, quite the opposite. He laughed.” She did too then, at the memory. Softly, sadly. “We met again by accident later and several times more by design.

“I couldn’t understand what it was I found so intriguing about him. He’s not like anyone I’ve ever known.”

“You’ve been raised in the church. Your experience with the world has been limited.”

She reached for a tissue and twisted it between her fingers. “He’s a former policeman and has lived a hard life. He’s done things neither of us would ever dream of doing. He’s been shot and sometimes carries a gun, although he doesn’t realize I know that.”

“A gun?”

“At first glance he looks rough and mean,” she hurried to explain, “but on the inside . . . I don’t think I could have found a better man to love. He was honest when he didn’t need to be, and gentle. There were any number of times he could have seduced me and didn’t.”

“I see.”

The strain in her father’s voice produced a small smile. She shouldn’t have told him that part. Any father would have reacted the same.

“He’s so damn noble I could cry . . . and have,” she said, clenching her fists.

“I take it he’s the one who insisted you not see each other again?”

Monica nodded. “He never said he loved me, but I know he does. He loves me so much he was willing to send me away rather than take the chance of hurting me.”

“Monica,” her father pleaded, “why didn’t you bring him to meet me?”

It was a question that had plagued her as well. One she’d repeatedly asked herself the last few days. Chet had claimed he wanted it to end before there were more regrets, but she’d stewed in them for days. She feared Chet had assumed she was ashamed of him and that simply wasn’t the case.

“I don’t know why I didn’t introduce you. I guess I was afraid you’d think ill of him, or me.”

“But, Monica, you love this man. That would have been enough of a character endorsement for me. Your mother and I raised you and if you can’t judge a man’s worth by now then you wouldn’t be our daughter.”

“Oh, Dad, I wish I’d done so many things differently and now it’s too late. Forgive me for not trusting you. I’ve been wrong about so much.”

Her father patted her knee once more. “There’s a special man for you. Remember how hurt you were when you learned Patrick was engaged.”

Patrick. She’d nearly forgotten about him. It was laughable to think she’d been anything close to loving her former boyfriend. Her pride had been hurt at Patrick’s surprise announcement. Far more than her ego was involved this time, and Monica sincerely doubted that she’d ever be the same again.

Chapter 16

“Hey, man, you don’t look so good,” Lou, the Blue Goose bartender said as he poured Chet another shot glass of Kentucky bourbon.

“If you’re looking for a pretty face,” Chet muttered, “call Trixie.”

“You got the flu?”

“Yeah,” Chet said, thinking that would get Lou off his back. He wasn’t interested in company or conversation.

“Then get the hell out of here,” Lou continued. “No one wants to be sick for Christmas.”

Christmas. It was just another day like all the others as far as Chet was concerned. Christmas was for families and he didn’t have one. No one bought him gifts, and there certainly wasn’t anyone he cared enough to buy one for other than . . . His thoughts came to a grinding halt.

Funny how a woman could mess up a man’s mind. He’d known Monica what . . . two, three weeks? He’d lost count and within that short amount of time she’d managed to worm her way into his heart until she was like a virus that had spread to every part of his body.

He couldn’t eat or sleep for want of her. He couldn’t close his eyes without his head filling up with thoughts of her. Nor could he get the image of her out of his mind. The one of her standing at the end of the pier, the wind ruffling her hair, her beautiful eyes bright with tears . . . and love. A love so damn strong it was like a torchlight beaming directly at him.

That final picture of her would haunt him to the grave. He didn’t know how he was going to get through the rest of his life without her.

The rest of his life. Chet nearly laughed out loud. What life? That was the real question. He was sick to death of the endless lies, the constant need for charades, flirting with disaster.

That’s how it’d started with Monica. A game, because she irritated him. One diversion too many and this time he was paying the piper in spades.

The empty days stretched out before him, followed by cruel nights staked out in some dark alley or a cheap hotel room crawling with loneliness.

The rest of his life was reserved in hell. He was born there and had spent a good majority of his carelessly lived existence there, except for one brief furlough with a preacher’s daughter. Just long enough for him to taste what could have been his, so he’d know exactly what it was he’d thrown away.

He emptied his drink, slapped the money down on the bar, and stood. The room spun and he shook his head, hoping that would help. It was too damn early in the afternoon to be drunk.

When he left the Blue Goose the cold hit him like a sharp claw. He squinted in the sunlight, cursing it as much as he cursed himself. The only person he had to blame for this was himself.

This was what he got for involving himself with a missionary. He’d known from the first time he kissed Monica that something like this would happen. It hadn’t stopped him from seeing her again. It hadn’t stopped him from caring. Nor had it stopped him from nearly screwing up her life.

The walk back to his office did him good. He was beginning to think he might be able to pull himself together and accomplish something by the end of the day, when he strolled past the department store window. Santa was there, and a long line of kids were waiting for him to listen to their wish lists. A little boy was squirming in his lap.

Something about the kid reached out and grabbed Chet by the gut. Perhaps it was the boy’s eyes, maybe it was the color of the kid’s hair, which was close to his own. It came to Chet then as unwelcome pain. If his life had been different, he might have had a son.

That fantasy along with everything else had been destroyed years ago when he’d been brash and naive enough to believe in justice and truth. Years ago before Tom was murdered, before he hadn’t been able to save his partner.

He forced himself to keep walking until he reached his building. His office lacked welcome, but Chet had wasted enough time already. He had work to do.

He sorted through his mail and tossed it unopened into the garbage. Reaching over the top of his desk, he pushed the button for his answering machine. A series of impersonal beeps followed. No one wanted him, not even his clients.

What he needed, Chet decided, was a change of scene. He should have left this stinking city years ago. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure what it was that had prompted him to stay.

His mind made up, he pulled the phone from its jack, stuck it in the bottom desk drawer, and then searched through his filing cabinet for his lease, wishing he could remember the terms.

A knock sounded at his door.

“It’s open,” he shouted, shuffling though his papers. He made decent money, but had never gotten around to hiring himself a secretary. He wished now that he had.

“I’m looking for Chet Costello.”

“You found him.” He looked up and damn near swallowed his tongue. It was Monica’s father.

Lloyd Fischer grinned in recognition. “So it was you? I was guessing, you see. Monica didn’t give me your surname. Then again, I didn’t ask.”

“What can I do for you, Reverend Fischer?” Chet asked crisply. He wasn’t going to put up with an interrogation. Fact was, he wasn’t up to much more of anything.

“We’re working at the Mission House,” the older man explained, looking around the room. His eyes revealed neither approval nor disapproval, just mild curiosity.

“What can I do for you?” Chet pressed a second time.

The question seemed to take the reverend by surprise and he reverted his attention to Chet. “I’m not exactly sure. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“I was just on my way out.” The last thing Chet wanted was a lengthy conversation with Monica’s father.

“This won’t take more than a couple of minutes,” he said, and helped himself to a chair.

The reverend was being deliberately obtuse, and Chet gritted his teeth with impatience.

“When was the last time you saw my daughter?”

“Tuesday.” Chet made a point of looking at his watch as if he needed to be someplace important soon. “If Monica didn’t give you my name, how’d you find me?”

“I read your license, remember?”

He was losing it, Chet mused. He’d forgotten the old coot had caught him coming out of the side yard that night and had asked to see his identification.

“My daughter’s badly hurt, you know.”

For one wild second Chet assumed Monica had been injured and the fear that seared through him burned hotter than the bullet he’d taken years earlier.

“Life’s tough and then you die,” Chet stated unemotionally.

The man grinned as if he easily saw through Chet’s ploy. The grin irritated Chet. “Listen, I have work to do.”

“Monica claims you love her. Is that true?”

“No.” The pain of the lie pricked his heart, but he ignored it. “Listen, if you’re worried about what happened between us, let me assure you nothing did. Now, if you don’t mind I’ve got an appointment.”

“Yes, I suppose you do,” the reverend said, slowly getting to his feet. He extended his hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you, young man. It’s plain to see why Monica thinks so highly of you.”

Chet’s chest tightened with a crippling ache as they exchanged hand shakes. “You should be beating the hell out of me for having ever touched your daughter.”

The other man’s eyes gentled as he slowly shook his head. “I was young once myself, you know, and deeply in love. Monica’s a woman and old enough to know her own heart. I’m not here to judge you or my daughter. I came out of curiosity to meet you. And thank you.”

“Thank me?” Lloyd Fischer was offering him gratitude when Chet had expected condemnation.

“Oh, yes, you’ve helped Monica tremendously.” The minister looked older now than he had when Chet first saw him the fateful day he’d met Monica. Weary and burdened. “If there’s ever anything I can do for you,” he continued, “please don’t hesitate to come see me.”

“Sure,” Chet said, but a man who’d lived the life he’d lived, and done the things he had, didn’t make social calls to preachers.

He walked Monica’s father to the door, and opened it for him, anxious for him to leave. If Lloyd Fischer stayed much longer, Chet just might start to believe in the impossible.

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