"We chose the first Saturday in August,” Joe said. "The fourth.”

"August,” Paul repeated slowly. In less than a year his son would be a married man.

"I’m nearly twenty-two, Dad,” Joe said, sounding a little defensive. "I’ve got a good line on a job with King County up in Seattle. I know you had your doubts when I decided to get my degree in environmental health, but I’m not going to have a problem finding a decent job.”

"What about you, Annie?” Paul found it important to ask questions rather than analyze his feelings. He felt lost, as if he were in a dark room and didn’t know where to locate the light switch. The darkness seemed to be closing in around him, pressing against his heart. This was supposed to be his time with his son.

"I’ll need another year of school for my teaching degree,” Annie explained in a small voice. "I’ve already inquired about doing my student teaching in the Seattle area, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be any problem.”

"It seems you’ve got everything all figured out.” Although he knew he was being selfish, Paul didn’t want to share his son. Not this Christmas. Not when he’d been looking forward to this time with Joe.

Joe and Annie gazed wistfully into each other’s eyes. Ah, young love. How well Paul remembered the days he was courting Barbara and how they’d struggled to make ends meet while he was in seminary. Each Sunday they’d traveled to a different outlying church. Barbara would play the piano and lead the congregational singing, and he’d preach a rousing sermon. God had smiled down on their efforts and blessed them abundantly—for a time. And then the blessings had been abruptly cut off.

"You don’t mind my being gone for Christmas, do you, Dad?” Joe asked.

Paul shook his head. "Don’t you worry about me, son, I’ll be fine.”

"You won’t spend the day alone?”

Given that he couldn’t be with Joe, Paul preferred his own company. It seemed people crowded him from all sides. He loved his daughter, but when he visited, he found himself making excuses to leave after only an hour.

"Bethany will have me over, I’m sure,” he said in answer to his son’s question.

"There are a dozen or more people in the church who would fight to have you spend Christmas Day with them.”

"Of course,” Paul assured Joe. What he didn’t explain was that he wasn’t interested in squandering Christmas with church friends. He’d looked forward to spending this precious holiday with his only son. He’d thought about various activities for the two of them. Hiking. Maybe they’d fish a while. A few panfried lake trout were sure to cure what ailed him.

"We’d like your blessing on our marriage,” Annie said.

Paul smiled. She was such a pretty thing, he could well understand his son falling for her. He was being selfish to want to hold on to Joe himself.

"You have my heartfelt congratulations, my blessing,” Paul offered. "And my love. This calls for a celebration. Grab a jacket, I’m taking everyone out to dinner.”

Joe and Annie’s young faces brightened with wide smiles.

Several hours later Paul tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Sleeping was becoming more and more of a problem of late. He never had much trouble drifting off, but he’d soon jerk awake and spend fruitless hours fighting to go back to sleep.

He threw aside the blankets and reached for his robe, then climbed down the stairs to the kitchen. He took a glass from the cupboard and was pouring himself some milk when Joe joined him.

"Hi.” Joe rubbed a hand down his face and yawned.

"Did I wake you?”

"No, I was up, thinking about, you know, life.”

"Life?”

"Mine and Annie’s.”

"Ah.” Paul scooted out a chair at the cluttered kitchen table, and Joe soon joined him.

"Was it like this with you and Mom?” Joe wanted to know. "Did you love her so much that you wondered why it took you so long to realize you were in love?”

"Yes,” Paul said, and chuckled. "Your mother was the one who defined our relationship.”

Joe straightened and pressed a hand over his pajama-clad chest. "It’s the same way with Annie and me. I don’t know what I was thinking we’d do after we finished school. I guess I wasn’t thinking, because one day she asked me straight out what I was going to do after graduation. I told her and then she started to cry and for the life of me I couldn’t make her tell me why.

"The next afternoon she returned everything I’d ever given her. I’d telling you, Dad, you could have knocked me over with a Popsicle stick. Here I thought we had a wonderful relationship, and for no reason I could understand, Annie wanted to break it off.”

"That was when you decided to marry her?”

"No,” Joe admitted. "First off I had to know what I’d done that was so terribly wrong. I don’t lose my cool often, but she really ruffled my feathers. I met her in the library one evening and asked her point-blank what I’d done, and Dad, I swear her answer tied me up in knots so tight, I didn’t think I’d ever get my head straight again.”

"What did she say?”

"That’s the crazy part. She assured me I hadn’t done anything.”

"But why did she break up with you?”

"That’s what I insisted upon knowing. It was her answer that turned my life around. She looked at me with those big, beautiful eyes of hers and said she realized after our talk that she wasn’t going to have a part in my future.

"I wanted to argue with her right then and there, wondering where she’d ever come up with anything so stupid, but she wouldn’t let me. She was close to crying by then, so she asked that I let her finish. She said she realized when I told her about the job in Seattle that I had no intention of including her in the rest of my life.”

"Did you?” It sounded to Paul as if his future daughter-in-law might be guilty of a little manipulation. He wondered if his son realized this.

"That’s just it. Of course I did. I naturally assumed that Annie would be there with me. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Annie. She’s a part of me now. That’s why I took it so hard when she severed the relationship.”

What Paul noticed, and what hurt more than he dared show, was that not once during this painful time had Joe sought him out for his advice. Not once had his son contacted him to talk about this special young woman he loved.

Paul didn’t think his son was looking for him to comment, and if he had been, Paul wasn’t sure what he would have said. He might have said something wholesome about the benefits of love, something he could have used in a sermon one day. Fortunately he was saved from having to say anything. The phone rang.

"Who’d be calling this time of night?” Joe asked.

Paul didn’t wonder anymore. Calls this late almost always meant unwelcome news. He walked into his small office and reached for the receiver, not wanting to disturb Annie, whom he presumed was sleeping.

"Hello.”

"Reverend Morris?” Bernard Bartelli’s voice trembled from the other end of the line. "I’m sorry to wake you.”

"I was up, don’t worry about it, Bernard. Now tell me what’s happened.” A part of Paul prayed that Madge had been released from her physical agony, yet he understood better than some how devastating that would be to those she’d left behind.

"It’s Madge,” Bernard said, struggling to keep his voice even. "She felt so much better after your visit and was up and walking around. Then she fell. I’m at the hospital. The doctor thinks she might have broken her hip.”

Paul closed his eyes in pain and frustration. "I’m so sorry.”

"Why would this happen to Madge?” Bernard demanded. "Why would God ask her to suffer more? Hasn’t she already suffered enough?”

"I assure you, Mr. Nichols, I didn’t leave a message on your answering machine,” Maureen said, and drew in a shaky breath, determined to settle this matter once and for all. "But I did intend to contact you.” It just so happened that her mother had beaten her to the punch.

Her words were met with a brief silence. "In other words, you didn’t call me, but you planned on doing so.”

"That’s right.”

"Then who left the message?”

"Actually, I’m fairly certain it was my mother,” she said. "But since I’ve got you on the line, I’d like to ask you about riding lessons for my daughter.”

Thom Nichols rattled off the details as if he’d given them out a hundred times that same afternoon and could recite them backward if asked. Maureen wrote down the pertinent information.

"My daughter’s twelve,” she said.

"I have a twelve-year-old myself,” came Thom’s companionable reply. "They can be quite a handful, can’t they?”

"Oh, yes.”

Thom told her about a recent incident with his daughter and Maureen found herself doodling, drawing a series of looped circles. She’d recently read an article that claimed there was some deep sexual meaning in doodles. Frankly, she had never been one to talk on the phone and draw silly, nonsensical symbols. All at once it was as if she were another Georgia O’Keeffe. She didn’t know if it was the man or the sorry state of her sex life.

Thom Nichols was the friendly sort, she noted, and he liked to talk. Maureen found herself smiling once or twice, and before she realized what she was doing, she’d agreed to drive out to Nichols’s Riding Stables the following day and meet Thom and his daughter.

If everything met with Maureen’s approval, she’d sign Karen up for riding classes. That was what Maureen had agreed to, but as she replaced the receiver she realized she barely knew one end of a horse from the other. What she could find to approve or disapprove would fit on the head of a thumbtack.

Karen arrived home an hour later. She burst into the front door and demanded, "What’s for dinner?”

"What do you want?”

"Steak and lobster.”

"Well, you’re getting spaghetti.”

"I like spaghetti.”

"With green beans and a tossed salad.”

Karen shook her head in a way that made Maureen want to laugh. "Mom, you’re ruining a perfectly good dinner with all that green stuff again.”

"I thought we’d take a drive tomorrow,” she announced casually as Karen set the table.

"That sounds like fun. Where do you want to go?” Karen stuffed bread sticks into a water glass and carried it over to their place settings.

Maureen hesitated, wondering how much she should say. She had the funny feeling she was traipsing around a pool of quicksand—one wrong step and she’d be stuck for life.

"I don’t want you to get your hopes up. We’re just going to check out this place and see if we can fit riding lessons into our budget.”

Karen went stock still. "Riding lessons?” she whispered with such rapture, one would think she’d stepped through the gates of heaven to walk on streets of pure gold. "On a real, live horse?”

***

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