He raised his hands and drew in a steadying breath. "Sorry. The lunatic in this situation is me. I don’t know you, I’m not even sure I want to know you, and yet I spent the vast majority of the night wishing like hell I’d kissed you.”

The man said the most shocking things. To complicate everything, he was serious. His eyes were as dark as a moonless night. One thing was certain: he wasn’t happy about any of this.

"I like you, Joy,” he continued. "I like the way your eyes light up when you’re happy. I like the way you have no compunction about giving advice to an official in a basketball game. And most of all, I like the way you wind melting cheese around your fork and then lift it to your mouth.”

She smiled and looked down at the sidewalk. "But you wish to hell you didn’t like me.”

He was silent for a moment. "Something like that.”

"So,” she said, when suggestions weren’t immediately forthcoming, "what do you intend to do about it?”

"That’s just it. I don’t know.”

They strolled past a small neighborhood park and by tacit agreement turned into it. Joy walked over to the swing set she’d played on as a young girl. She recalled the summer days she’d sat on those very swings, arched her back, and aimed her feet for the sky. She’d been a dreamer then. She still was.

"I used to play here as a little girl,” she told him. "My mother would bring my brothers and me. I’ll never forget those Saturday afternoons in Lion’s Park.”

They sat on a bench, and Ted reached for her hand. "I want to kiss you,” he said, his words soft and coaxing.

"Here?” She looked around, certain any number of people would be watching them. "Now?”

"I know it’s crazy. Do you mind?”

Did she mind? The question was ludicrous enough to make her want to laugh out loud.

"I suppose it would be all right,” she told him, and closed her eyes. Nothing happened for the longest time. Her eyes fluttered open. "You changed your mind?”

"Not exactly.” He continued to look down on her.

"What?”

"Relax,” he suggested "You look like a virgin sacrifice about to be offered up to the gods.”

She ignored the latter part of his comment. "Relax,” she echoed, and sagged her shoulders, slouching forward. "Is that better?”

"A little.” He sounded as if he were lying.

"Why do you want to kiss me, anyway?” She had a right to know that much, especially if he was going to insult her in the process. Virgin sacrifice indeed!

"It’s a test.”

Frankly, Joy didn’t like the sound of this. Tests had never excited her, whereas the thought of Ted kissing her did.

He lifted one of her hands and balanced it atop his shoulder.

Two could play this game. She reached for his arm and tucked it around the curve of her waist.

He inclined his head approvingly. He claimed her free hand and set it on the opposite shoulder, then joined his at the small of her back.

Neither moved, content for the moment to hold each other loosely. Time swelled and throbbed between them, and after a moment or two Joy could no longer feel her breath. Ted didn’t seem to be breathing, either.

She half expected him to pull away and laugh the whole thing off, but neither of them was laughing at the moment. They weren’t doing much of anything except waiting, wondering. It was as though they were both afraid of what lay beyond this first kiss.

Slowly, as if he expected her to stop him, he lowered his mouth to hers. Joy sighed softly when his lips settled over hers. The kiss was a leisurely exercise in introducing himself to her, in learning the shape and feel of her mouth, of acquainting his to her.

The kiss changed gradually, subtly, almost without notice, until it became something deep and urgent. Urgent on both their parts. The intensity of it took Joy’s breath away and sent her pulse into double time.

She dragged her mouth from his, needing time to think this through, needing time to analyze what she was allowing to happen. Needing time to gauge the wisdom of it all.

Ted directed her mouth back to his and kissed her again with a need and depth that rocked her senses. He stopped abruptly and laid his forehead against hers.

"That answers that,” he whispered.

"It does?” As far as Joy was concerned, it resurrected far more questions than answers.

"I want to see you again. Dinner, dancing, whatever you want.”

"I’m free most any night.” She should call for a counseling appointment right then and there. Something was drastically wrong with her to agree to date a man already involved with someone else.

"Monday. I’ll pick you up on my way home from work.”

With her eyes closed, she nodded. She had the distinct impression she was going to regret this.

"What do you mean, there’s something wrong with Dad?” Bethany demanded, her voice sounding shrill and disbelieving through the telephone wire.

Joe raised his eyes to the ceiling. Having this conversation over the phone wasn’t ideal, but he needed to discuss the problem with his sister, and he didn’t want to spring it on her when she arrived for dinner. "Listen to me, Bethany, Dad just isn’t himself.”

"You mean physically?”

"No and yes. He’s lost weight.”

"Let me put you on hold,” she said impatiently.

Elevator music hummed over the wire while his sister caught the second call. She was back almost immediately. "Sorry to keep you waiting,” she mumbled. "Now what was it you were saying?”

"It’s about Dad. I found him cleaning the garage in the middle of the day. Mrs. Johnson told me he hadn’t even come into the office, and he had an elders’ meeting that afternoon. If I hadn’t found him when I did, he would have completely missed the meeting.”

"Dad miss an elders’ meeting?”

"Yes, Dad.”

"But he’s always been so conscientious about his leadership role in the church.”

"That’s not the half of it. Mrs. Johnson says he’s consistently late for meetings. He isn’t eating right, and to tell you the truth, he doesn’t look good.” Joe brushed the hair off his forehead. "On top of everything else, the house is a mess. I’ve never known Dad to be so untidy. There’s mail all over the kitchen. Annie found a notice from the electric company that said if he didn’t pay the bill in five days, they are going to cut off his electricity.”

"My heavens. Has it been paid?”

"No. I showed it to him and he mumbled something about taking care of it right away. I told him I’d do it for him, and Annie and I went down personally and paid it.”

"He’s beginning to sound like an absentminded professor,” Bethany commented.

"I think it’s more than that.”

"What do you mean?’

"He’s not the same, Beth. When was the last time you saw him?”

Bethany paused. "Longer than it should have been. I know we’re only an hour or so away, but we’re so busy and—”

"I know, we all are. Dad could come see you, too.”

"I’ve invited him over countless times, but he always has an excuse.” Beth heaved a deep sigh, and Joe could almost picture his sister worrying her lower lip, mulling over the situation. "He misses Mom.”

"We all miss Mom.”

"Maybe he needs a housekeeper. Somebody to come in a couple of times a week to clean up, keep him organized so there’s not another one of those electric bill incidents.”

"A housekeeper.” That sounded like a workable solution to Joe, something positive they could do to help their father. Maybe matters weren’t as bad as he thought.

"When are you and Annie heading north?” Bethany wanted to know.

"Not until the twenty-third, but to be honest, I don’t feel good about leaving Dad like this. He likes Annie and everything. I mean, it’d be impossible not to love her, she’s wonderful, but I wish we’d thought our plans through more carefully.”

"Here comes another call,” Beth said impatiently. "Damn.”

Her impatience was cut off by a violin concerto as Joe was placed on hold. He mentally twiddled his thumbs until his sister came back on the line.

"Sorry,” she mumbled. "Listen, Eric and I’ll be over tomorrow evening for dinner. Go ahead and approach Dad about this housekeeper thing. Don’t be obvious about it, just sound him out and then we can talk about it later, all right?”

"Great.” Already Joe felt better. His big sister had a way of making matters right. He was grateful he had her to bounce his concerns off, otherwise he wouldn’t have known what to do.

Paul Morris sat in his den. Books littered the floor, and he sighed as he set aside one volume and reached for another. He treasured his books and had spent many an evening in this very room, reading over thoughts of great minds and forming his own.

It was time to think about scheduling another series of sermons. He generally planned them up to six months in advance. One year he’d spent nearly nine months in the Gospel of John alone. Steve Tenny had suggested he write up his sermon notes and submit them for publication.

Paul had toyed with the idea for a time, but that was right before Barbara had been diagnosed with cancer; afterward, both their lives had become a crazed circus ride.

Those notes were in a binder on the shelf. Paul stood and reached for the binder and read through the first few pages. How proud he’d been of his insights, of the applications he’d made. As he read over the first few pages, he didn’t see what all the fuss had been about. This wasn’t any better or any worse than what he’d been preaching for the last twenty years.

Discouraged, he set the binder aside, determined to forget the project. Better yet, he’d throw the whole thing away.

He picked up his detailed notes and tossed them into the wastepaper basket.

A knock sounded against the door. "Come in,” he said without much enthusiasm. Sometimes Mrs. Johnson came looking for him at the house, and he wished to avoid her as much as he could. The woman who’d served as his secretary all these years had become something of a pest lately.

He smiled when Joe entered the den. "Joe. I thought you and Annie were going grocery shopping for our dinner with your sister and Eric.”

Joe frowned. "We finished that hours ago.”

Paul looked at his watch. The time had slipped past without him noticing. That seemed to be happening more often of late.

"We were thinking about buying you a Christmas tree.”

"A tree?” Paul repeated. "Don’t bother, son. It’s just going to be me this year, and heaven knows it’d probably become a fire hazard before I find the time to take it down.”

Joe wore a hurt, little-boy look. "We’ve always had a tree, Dad.”

It was all Paul could do to keep from reminding his son that Joe had always spent Christmas with him. "If you insist, buy me one of those small trees the grocery store sells in the flower pots. The ones that are already decorated. That would suit me just fine.”

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***