“I agree,” Jody said, slipping into the chair across from her mother. She didn’t drop by to visit her mother as often as she had before her father’s death earlier in the year. Her childhood home stirred far too many memories. Privately Jody wondered how her mother managed. Perhaps it wasn’t so difficult to understand. Jody continued to live in the tiny two-bedroom house she and Jeff had purchased when she’d first learned she was pregnant with Timmy. Giving up even this small part of her life with her late husband was more than she could have borne.

“Where’s Timmy this evening?” Helen Chandler wanted to know.

Jody smiled although she knew her mother didn’t understand her amusement. “He’s spending the night with Rick Trenton.”

“I thought it was Ricky.”

“They’re in the fourth grade this year and suddenly Ricky is Rick. Timmy is Tim to all his friends now too. He’s growing up more and more.”

“I didn’t think that sort of thing happened until junior high.”

Jody had been amazed herself. “Kids mature much faster these days. Generally Rick spends the night with us, but his mother just had a baby and Timmy’s enthralled with the little tyke. He . . . he went so far as to suggest that I remarry so he could have a brother.”

“He said that, did he?”

“I don’t mind telling you, Mom, it threw me for a loop. I found a letter in Timmy’s binder. His class was assigned to write a letter and he opted to address his to God.”

“That grandson of mine is one smart cookie. What did he have to say?”

Jody stirred a spoonful of sugar into her tea with enough energy for some to slosh over the rim of the delicate china cup. “He wrote about needing a dad.”

Helen Chandler grew quiet at that. Jody expected her mother to laugh or perhaps lecture, but she hadn’t expected her to say nothing.

“You don’t have any comment to make?” she asked, eyeing her mother speculatively.

“Of course I do, but I’m not so sure you want to hear it.”

At this point Jody was more than willing to listen to words of wisdom. She’d thought of little else but the letter from the moment it had slipped from Timmy’s binder. The conversation with her son had served to disconcert her even more. This hadn’t been an impulse; he’d been serious.

“Go ahead, Mom, say what you want and I’ll listen.”

Her mother smiled and reached for Jody’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I don’t think I fully appreciated your grief when Jeff died. I ached for you and would have given anything to bring Jeff back, but the depth of your pain escaped me until . . . until this past year.” She paused as if she needed to steel herself. “After Ralph died I knew what you’d endured. The death of a loved one is the sharpest pain a human can experience. I felt like a piece of myself had died with your father.”

“Oh, Mom.” Jody’s grip on her mother’s hand tightened, to let the gesture say what she couldn’t because of the huge constriction blocking her throat. They were close, had always been close. Jody had been an only child and the bond had been firm and strong between her and her parents.

“I can appreciate far more the agony you endured when you lost Jeff. I understand why your grief has lingered all these years, but I also know Timmy is right. The time is long past due for you to get on with your life.”

“But—”

“Listen, please, and when I’ve finished you can say what you wish.

“Take the love you and Jeff shared and place it in the most tender part of your heart. Treasure the few short years you had together as a precious gift God gave you and then offer it back to Him in gratitude that you found such a special man to love.”

Tears rolled unchecked down Jody’s cheeks. She’d assumed the well was dry after spending the night looking through the photo album, but they returned fresh and hot, streaming down her face.

“In my heart I know Jeff wouldn’t have wanted you to grieve this way.”

“I know that too,” Jody whispered, struggling to check the emotion. She’d wanted to be strong when she spoke to her mother, but it took only a few words for her to realize how weak she actually was.

“Meeting other men, even marrying again, doesn’t mean you have to stop loving Jeff,” her mother continued.

“I don’t think I could ever stop loving him.”

“I understand that. It would be impossible for me to stop loving your father.”

“It is time for me to start dating again, isn’t it?” Even as Jody made the suggestion, she couldn’t help wondering if she was doing the right thing. It didn’t feel right, but then nothing had from the moment she’d received word Jeff was gone. It seemed as if her world had been knocked off its orbit and would never right itself. Now her mother and her son were saying different. There was a new life waiting for her and the possibility of finding love again, if she were willing to put the past behind her and march forward.

“It’s past time,” her mother told her gently. “I’m sure you’ve been asked out over the years. You’re a beautiful young woman.”

Jody nodded, twisting a tissue with her hands. “Glen Richardson surprised me last week with an invitation to dinner. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“I don’t believe I’ve heard you mention his name before.”

“He’s one of the attorneys at the firm. I don’t work directly with him, but it seems we continually bump into each other at the copy machine. It’s become something of a joke.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Heavens, Mother, I don’t remember. I made up some ridiculous excuse, but he said he’d ask again and he probably will.”

“And when he does?” her mother prompted.

“When he does,” Jody said, clenching the tissue in both hands, “I’ll . . . I’ll promise to think about it.”

“Jody Marie Potter!”

Jody laughed and relaxed against the back of her chair. “Oh, all right. One date, just to test the waters.”

Her mother smiled broadly, looking downright pleased with herself.

The phone was ringing when Jody let herself into her house later that same night. Setting down her purse, she hurried into the kitchen and caught it on the fourth ring, just before the answering machine took over.

“Hello,” she said, her voice shaking with breathlessness.

“Jody?”

The voice was strangely familiar. “Yes?”

“This is Glen . . . Glen Richardson. I hope I didn’t catch you at an inconvenient time.”

Jody’s shoulders sagged against the wall. “No. I just unlocked the door and had to run to catch the phone.”

“The funniest thing just happened. I was thinking of calling you and for the life of me, I couldn’t find your number. Then I walked into the kitchen and found it attached to the phone. Heaven only knows how it got there. It seemed fate was telling me to give you a jingle,” Glen said, sounding confused even now. “And to think I caught you just as you walked in the door.”

“I just got back from visiting my mother.”

“I suppose you’ve already had dinner.”

“I’m sorry, Glen, but we ordered Chinese take-out.” He sounded so bewildered that she almost felt sorry for him. “What are you doing, sitting home alone on a Friday night?”

“My best gal turned me down for a date.”

It took Jody a moment to realize he was talking about her, leading her to wonder what excuse she’d given him earlier.

“I was thinking I should suggest a deli sandwich and a couple of sodas for the next time we meet at the copy machine. Larry Williams warned me that you don’t date often.”

Often. The last time she’d gone out with a man, she’d ended up marrying him. Jeff had been persistent too, she remembered, unwilling to take no for an answer. He’d wooed her carefully and when they’d fallen in love, it was the kind of love that was meant to last a lifetime. She might marry again, even give birth to another child, but she’d never stop loving Jeff. This was her vow, to his memory and to the extraordinary love they shared.

“Jody?” Glen said, interrupting her thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I got distracted.”

“I know it’s short notice and all, but how about a movie? I understand there’re several good ones playing. How would you feel about that? I could meet you at the theater if that’d make you more comfortable,” he added, rushing the words together in his eagerness.

So soon. It was happening so fast, much faster than she’d expected. Much too soon, long before she was ready. Then she remembered her mother’s words about placing the love she shared with Jeff in the most tender part of her heart. She didn’t know what to make of him finding her number pasted on his telephone.

“A movie,” she repeated. There was a six-plex less than a mile from her house. “Ah, all right.”

“Great,” Glen said, sounding a little like Timmy when she’d given in on something he’d really wanted. “This is just great. I promise you, you won’t be sorry. Just you wait and see.”

Jody wondered if that were possible.

Chapter 5

Shirley loved old white churches with tall steeples and huge bells. In the Reverend Lloyd Fischer’s church she felt a certain kinship with this righteous man of God. She was waiting for her two compatriots in the choir loft, which was situated up the winding stairway in the back of the old church. The freshly polished pews gleamed in the moonlight and the scent of lemon oil wafted toward her.

She frowned as she viewed the magnificent old organ. It would take a minor miracle to keep Mercy away from this. The public address system didn’t bear thinking about.

“Shirley?” Goodness arrived first, agitated and impatient, racing up and down the center aisle.

“Up here.”

Goodness joined her, hurling herself over the wooden railing of the choir loft. “Where’s Mercy? She should have been here by now.”

“I’m sure she will be soon.”

No sooner had Shirley spoken than Mercy appeared. “I’m up here. No one bothered to tell me Leah Lundberg’s a night owl.” She sagged into one of the choir chairs and tilted back her head. “I’m bushed. Leah had me running from one end of the shopping mall to the next. After she found her friend an absolutely delightful party dress, she took off on her own and shopped for hours. I didn’t know a single human being possessed so much energy.”

“We’re all learning lessons about earthlings,” Shirley maintained. Her own experiences had been exhausting as well.

“You’re telling me,” Goodness joined in. “All Monica’s done since Chet kissed her is stew in the juices of her self-righteousness. She’s convinced God never intended a good Christian woman to experience desire. I think it must be the first time she was ever kissed, I mean really kissed. I don’t mind telling you, this whole situation has got me plenty worried.”

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