"Don’t look so worried,” she said. "It’s probably nothing.”

"Probably,” Karen agreed, but her gaze didn’t waver from the letter.

Maureen read over the three brief paragraphs—twice, the second time slowly, absorbing each word carefully to be sure there was no misunderstanding.

"Well?” Karen prodded. "What’s he want?”

"It says here that according to the terms of the divorce settlement, he has been assigned certain holidays for visitation.”

"So? He’s never wanted me for any of them before.”

"I know, but apparently he’s had a change of heart.” Maureen didn’t care to speculate what had brought all that about. "It says here that he’s coming to pick you up on Christmas Eve and that he’ll bring you back to the house early Christmas morning.”

Karen’s mouth formed into a small O. "Is that all?”

Maureen nodded. Her hand trembled as she folded the letter and returned it to the envelope.

"You don’t care if I spend Christmas Eve with Dad, do you?”

"Of course I don’t mind,” Maureen said, lying through clenched teeth. Brian didn’t deserve time with Karen. He’d contributed practically nothing to her upbringing, financially or emotionally. When it came to ranking him as a father, he didn’t rate any higher than he had as a husband.

By the time Thom arrived Maureen felt as if she needed to talk to her attorney, Susan Gold, and find out what Karen’s rights were in all this. She was on the phone on what seemed permanent hold when Karen let him into the house.

"I’ll only be a minute,” she said, cupping her hand over the mouthpiece.

Karen and Thom were talking, and her daughter was sending little glances her way as if she’d rather be listening to what Maureen was saying instead of entertaining Thom. Maureen tossed her a desperate plea for patience.

The receptionist came back on the line a minute later and informed Maureen that Susan was in court for the afternoon and would be tied up with this current case until after the holidays. She did promise to relay the message to Susan, however.

"Well, that’s just Jim dandy,” Maureen muttered, and replaced the telephone receiver. She placed her hands over her face and tried to calm her pounding heart. If there was any way she could get out of this trip, she’d do it. Karen’s welfare was more important than anything, even her job.

"Maureen,” Thom said gently, "you’ve had some distressing news?”

"Not really,” she said, offering Karen a reassuring smile. She didn’t want her daughter to overhear the conversation. "Could you get my suitcase for me, sweetheart?”

"It’s too heavy for me, remember?” Karen looked guilelessly from Thom to her and back again.

"Not this time. It’s only an overnight case.”

"Oh.” Karen sounded terribly disappointed.

"I got a letter from my husband’s attorney,” Maureen whispered as soon as Karen was out of earshot. "He wants Karen to spend Christmas Eve with him.”

"And you object to that?”

"No…yes,” she revised heatedly. "You’d have to know Brian to understand why this distresses me so much. He’s going to hurt Karen the same way he hurt me. He’ll build up her hopes, ply her with promises he has no intention of keeping. I can see it all happening, and I refuse to sit by and do nothing.”

"Do you have any legal grounds on which to refuse him?”

Maureen shook her head. "But the moral grounds should be enough.” She felt vehement about that.

"How does Karen feel about seeing her father?”

As if by magic, Karen appeared carrying Maureen’s suitcase. "Here you go, Mom,” she said brightly. She plopped down on the sofa and folded her arms over her chest. "I was just thinking, Mom, about going to Dad’s for Christmas Eve.”

"Yes, sweetheart?”

"Should I take his new wife and baby a Christmas gift?”

13

"Sit down and we’ll have a cup of coffee before your flight boards,” Thom suggested. He scooted into the both across from her. "You’re as wound up as a tight spring.”

"I can’t help it.” Maureen had been in turmoil from the moment the letter arrived from Brian’s attorney.

"It seems to me Karen isn’t nearly as upset as you are.”

"Of course she isn’t,” Maureen said, irritated that he didn’t appreciate her circumstances. He couldn’t. His marriage had been a loving, healthy relationship. He couldn’t possibly understand what she and Karen had endured because of Brian.

"Then it seems to me you should let Karen go and enjoy herself.”

"You don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head.

A waitress arrived with plastic menus tucked under her arm. She carried the coffeepot with her.

"Just coffee,” Thom told her.

"Brian will only hurt Karen,” she insisted under her breath once the waitress had filled the mugs and left. "Never having gone through a divorce, you can’t appreciate what all this means. Brian left us. He turned his back and walked away.” What she didn’t say was that he’d emptied their bank account on his way out the door.

"Tell me about Brian,” Thom suggested. "Then maybe I will understand.”

"I don’t want to talk about him. Every time I do my blood pressure soars and I overdose on antacid tablets.”

Thom grinned. "It seems to me you’re all riled up as it is.”

That was true enough. "All right,” she said. She owed him that much for the way he’d helped Karen. For the way he’d helped her.

Maureen drew in a deep breath as she sorted through the memories. Many of them had been tainted by her bitterness over the years, and she wanted to be as fair as possible. Although heaven knew Brian didn’t deserve that.

"We met in college. I was shy and didn’t have a lot of friends. Brian and I were in a math class together. I’ve always been good with numbers, and Brian was in way over his head and failing badly. He went to the teacher for help, and she suggested he talk to me.”

"You tutored him.”

"Yes.”

"Did he pass the class?”

Maureen nodded. "Yes, but just barely. He was so pleased, he asked me out to dinner. I hadn’t dated very much in high school, and Brian was outgoing and popular. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have him pay attention to me.”

"How long did you date before you were married?”

"Three years. What upsets me now, as I look back, is that I knew the kind of person Brian was from the beginning. He changed his major five times. Even then he fluttered from one interest to another. He couldn’t seem to hold a job more than a couple of months.

"There was always a good reason he had to quit, you understand. No matter where he worked, there was someone who had it in for him. Another favorite excuse was an incompetent co-worker he couldn’t bear to be around.

"Once, I was away for a week…. I don’t remember what, a family obligation, I think.” She paused and cupped her hand around the mug. It hurt even now to confess this. "When I came back a friend told me she’d seen Brian with some other girl. I didn’t believe her. I thought she was jealous and trying to break us up so she could have Brian for herself.”

"He had affairs?” The question was asked in the gentlest of voices as if carefully peeling back the bandage from a half-healed wound.

"Affairs?” Maureen laughed. "Where do you want me to start?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. "Six months after we were married a burly truck driver stopped me in the parking lot outside our apartment building. He asked me to give a message to my husband. I was to tell Brian to stay away from his wife, and if he didn’t the trucker claimed he’d kill Brian.”

"You told Brian?”

"Of course. I was scared out of my wits. This guy was serious. Brian convinced me he had the wrong guy, and like a gullible fool”—she paused and raised her eyes to the ceiling—"I believed him.” It astonished her how dense she’d been, how long it had taken her to wake up and accept reality. Denial was sometimes underrated as far as she was concerned.

"When did you realize the truth?” This too came in the same gentle, caring voice, almost as if Thom were afraid of hurting her by asking.

"It took far longer than it should have. I saw him with another woman. I don’t think I would have believed it otherwise. Later, after I’d dried my eyes and composed myself, I confronted him.” She stopped, remembering that scene and how naive she’d been.

"He admitted he was involved with the other woman, but claimed she was older and had set out to seduce him. He cried and told me how sorry he was, and then he begged me not to divorce him.”

"Were you planning to leave him?” he asked.

"I don’t know what I would have done. It was shortly afterward that we decided to have Karen. He was attentive and loving for a while, but that soon changed. This time I was a little smarter, a little wiser.”

"The affairs continued?”

Maureen nodded. "After a while I began to pick up cues when he was going into another relationship. All at once his appearance would be important, and he’d spend more time in front of a mirror.”

"Did you confront him?”

"Naturally. He denied everything. He claimed I was imagining things, that I’d become obsessively jealous. We had some real humdinger fights. Dear God, I can’t believe I stayed in that sick marriage as long as I did. The love was gone long before the marriage ended.”

"How was he with Karen?”

Maureen stiffened. "The same way he is with every other woman in his life. He used her. He’d build up her hopes with promises he had no intention of keeping.”

"He left you.”

"Yes.” It was the one thing that plagued Maureen the most about her divorce. Brian had walked out on her. After years of infidelity, years of mental abuse, he’d had the unmitigated gall to empty the savings account she’d struggled so hard to build and leave her. It rankled still.

Thom didn’t say anything for a brief moment, then asked, "The divorce was messy?”

"As messy as I could make it.” Maureen had turned the other cheek with Brian far too often. In the beginning, revenge was what gave her the incentive to get out bed each morning. It motivated her now.

By the time the divorce was final, Maureen was relatively confident it would take Brian and his live-in lover the better part of the next ten years to pay off the attorney’s fees. She wanted him to be miserable, as miserable as he’d made her.

Thom frowned. "How did Karen stand up through all of this?”

"As well as could be expected.” Maureen had done her best to shield her daughter from the worst of the divorce. If she had any regrets, it was that Karen had been hurt in all this. She soothed her conscience by blaming Brian.

***

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