14

"Here, what do you think?” Joy asked, holding up a frilly pink dress that didn’t look big enough to fit a doll, let alone a child. The skirt had a white apron trimmed with a lacy ruffle. Just the sort of thing women, no matter what age, enjoyed dressing in.

"It’s pretty, but it’s not my color,” Ted teased.

"It’s not for you! The dress is perfect for my niece, Ellen Joy.” She added it to the stack of items in Ted’s arms.

They were Christmas shopping, and like every other man Ted knew, he wasn’t keen on crowds and malls. But he discovered that anything, even plowing his way through cranky last-minute shoppers, was fun with Joy.

"You’re not buying anything?” she commented.

"How can I, when you’re buying out the store?”

"Oh, dear, you’re right. I’ve been thoughtless, haven’t I? I dragged you into the children’s section and didn’t give you a chance to look for anything you wanted. I’ve been completely selfish.”

He stopped her by pressing a hand to her forearm. "I finished my shopping weeks ago.”

She looked at him and blinked as if she weren’t sure she’d heard him correctly. "You did?”

"You seem to forget I’m an engineer. I like my life neat and orderly…most of the time,” he amended. What he didn’t tell her was that a few years back he’d left everything until Christmas Eve. The only store open had been a corner grocery. No one could say his gifts hadn’t been creative. His boss had enjoyed the standing rib roast, and his grandmother had gotten a real kick out of the twelve pairs of multicolored panty hose. This year he’d ordered almost everything through a fancy mail-order catalog Blythe had recommended. It had been expensive, but hassle free.

"I love Christmas,” Joy said, and her eyes brightened.

Ted discovered he couldn’t be with Joy for any length of time and not want to kiss her. He couldn’t look at her and not be affected. He’d never felt this way about a woman, never been this keen for one’s company. It was as if were incomplete when they were apart.

For the last few months he’d assumed he was in love with Blythe. She was smart and energetic. He’d realized one day that thirty was fast approaching and had decided it was time he started thinking about settling down. He’d admired Blythe for her beauty and her brains. Not a bad start. It wasn’t until he’d spent time with Joy that he’d realized what the other woman was missing.

Heart.

Joy possessed a generosity of spirit that drew others to her the way a child is attracted to something bright and fun. Ted discovered that, like everyone else, he was no exception.

Every time he was with Joy, he came away feeling better about himself in some small way. This was her gift, her God-given talent: to draw out the best in others.

It didn’t surprise him that the residents at Wilshire Grove talked about her as if she were the greatest thing since the invention of the juicer.

"Uncle,” he muttered, shifting the load of goodies in his arms.

"You want to buy something for your uncle?” Joy asked.

"No, ‘uncle’ as in I need a break,” Ted said as if he’d already endured more than should be asked of any one male. "A man can only take so much of this shopping business.”

Ted didn’t know who it was who’d claimed women were the weaker sex, but apparently they’d never ventured into a shopping mall with one.

Joy laughed, and Ted realized this was something else he loved about her. The sound of her laughter had an almost musical chime to it, as if it were magical.

"We can leave any time,” she assured him. "You’ve been a good sport. I’ll pay for these things, and we can find some place to sit down. I’d hate to have you poop out on me so early.”

"This is early?” Ted asked, feigning astonishment. "We’ve been here for hours.”

"One hour,” she corrected.

"You’re joking.”

"It was only an hour,” she told him. "Maybe a cup of coffee will revive you.”

Actually Ted wasn’t half as bushed as he was letting on.

They left the mall and found a quaint Italian restaurant on a side street. The hostess seated them at a table with a red-checkered tablecloth by a corner. Since it was nearly noon, they decided to order lunch.

"Everything looks wonderful,” Joy said, scanning the menu.

Ted offered a couple of suggestions.

"I’ll try the veal scallopini,” she said, and sighed as if the decision had been an exhausting one. She closed her eyes momentarily. "I can’t believe this is happening.”

"What?” he teased. "That you’re eating Italian?”

"No, that I’m with you!”

"I know I’m quite the catch, but—”

"You know what I mean. It’s like this is all unreal. I feel like I’m going to wake up and discover this is a dream. You’re still planning to come tomorrow night, aren’t you?” she asked, changing the subject. "And please, oh, please, promise me you won’t believe a single word my brothers tell you about me.”

"How could I doubt your very own brothers?” Ted asked innocently.

"Ted!”

He laughed, enjoying her discomfort. He loved the way…He realized a good portion of the morning he’d been telling himself all the things he loved about Joy. Her enthusiasm and optimism for life, her laughter and appreciation of the little things. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might be in love with her.

Ted wasn’t a man who gave his heart easily. But from the moment Edith had crankily decided to ease out of her parking space and smash into Blythe’s car, he felt as if he’d been smacked over the head by fate.

"My brothers take delight in embarrassing me,” she told him, waving a bread stick at him, "especially Billy. They’re both married now, and they seem to think I should be, too, so be prepared for that.”

"They’re going to marry us? Tomorrow evening?”

"No.” She giggled. "But they’re going to make hints along those lines. Usually I say something silly, but the last time I upset my mother, and then—”

Curiosity got the better of him. "You upset your mother? What did you say?”

"I was joking. I said something about not being able to marry Jack until he got approval from the parole board.”

Ted did a poor job of smothering a laugh. "And just who’s this Jack?”

"A friend…former friend,” she amended.

"How good a friend?”

Joy wove the bread stick between her fingers with amazing dexterity. "You sound jealous.”

"I am. Now tell me about Jack.”

"We dated a couple of times, is all. He’d been married before, and, well, I didn’t like the kind of father he was. I figured if he ignored his children, then he wouldn’t treat a woman any differently, so I broke it off before it ever got started.”

"Smart woman.”

"You’re only saying that because you’d rather I wasn’t dating Jack,” she said, cocking her head to one side.

"True.” He wasn’t going to lie about it. He’d be damn uncomfortable if she were involved in a relationship now. Of all her concerns, it was the one about Blythe he understood best. Ironically, she refused to discuss the other woman, although he’d broached the subject a number of times. Joy wouldn’t let him explain what was going on between him and his fellow engineer.

Two hours later, after leaving Joy, he discovered he was still smiling. After their busy morning, he decided to spend a lazy afternoon in front of the television. He kicked off his shoes and flopped down on the sofa, contemplating a nap. Although the college football game was supposed to be between the top-rated national teams, he found his attention wandering.

Was he in love with Joy? Hell if he knew. But he felt like standing up on the coffee table and pounding his chest and letting loose with a yell that would rival Tarzan’s.

When the doorbell chimed, he leaped up, hoping it might be Joy. It was impossible, but damn it all, he wanted it to be Joy. It didn’t seem right that the two of them were apart.

When he opened his door, the last person he expected to see was Blythe. Well, all the better. It was time they sat down and talked. Not that he hadn’t tried. One would think it would be a simple matter to clear the air, but she’d put him off a number of time.

"Hello, Blythe.”

"Ted.” Her hands were buried in the pockets of her jacket. "I’m sorry to drop in unannounced this way. Do you have a few moments?”

"Of course.” He stepped aside to let her into the apartment. Something was wrong. She was pale and quiet, and her eyes were red and blotchy as if she’d been crying.

"Thanks,” she said. She sat on the edge of the sofa, and Ted sat next to her. He reached for his remote control and turned off the television.

"Is something wrong?” he asked. He’d never seen Blythe like this.

"I haven’t seen much of you lately, so I’m not sure how you’re going to feel about this.”

"It’s true we need to talk,” he said, not yet registering the second part of her statement. Then it hit him. "How I’m going to feel about what?” he asked.

She pulled a ragged tissue from inside her pocket and blew her nose. "I went to the doctor recently. As you know, I haven’t been feeling well.”

"What’s wrong?” Ted asked, growing concerned.

She covered her face with both hands. "I can’t believe I was so stupid.” Slowly she lowered her hands and with effort composed herself. She started to speak once and then stopped, briefly closed her eyes, and began again.

"Blythe?”

"I’m pregnant, Ted, and you’re the baby’s father.”

"Do you want me to leave the night-light on for you?” Karen’s grandmother asked.

Karen hesitated. "No, that’s for little kids. I don’t need a night-light.”

"How about the nightmares?” Beverly Shields sat on the edge of the mattress and carefully tucked the blankets around Karen’s shoulders.

"I haven’t had one in a while,” Karen told her. She didn’t mention the one the evening her dad had phoned. It was the first time Paula had spent the night. She’d awakened everyone with her crying and felt terrible afterward, wondering what Paula would think of her. But Paula had told her about the nightmares she’d had after her mother had died. That made Karen feel better. She’d liked Paula even better afterward. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t tell her new friend, she decided. Paula understood.

"Your mother will be back before you know it.”

Karen nodded. "Dad wants me to spend Christmas Eve with him,” she said in an effort to detain her grandma. She really did want the night-light on and regretted flippantly saying she should turn it off.

"Your dad called?”

"No, his attorney wrote Mom a letter.”

***

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