"Would you rather have an appointment?”

"No,” was Maureen’s automatic response. She couldn’t afford the time off work or the additional attorney’s fees. Not once had she been in the law firm’s office when it hadn’t cost her two hundred dollars or more. "It’s just a quick question having to do with the divorce settlement.”

"Hold, please.”

Maureen was left to twiddle her thumbs for several elongated seconds before the receptionist returned. "Glenn Crest can speak to you now.”

"Thank you,” she said, and waited for the senior partner to pick up the receiver. It seemed to her that she remembered meeting Glenn early on in her divorce proceedings. He was older, well established, and knowledgeable. She trusted him.

"Hello, Ms. Woods, it’s good to hear from you again,” he greeted her in a smooth voice. "How may I help you?”

"It has to do with Karen, my daughter.”

"Yes.”

Maureen could hear him shuffling papers and hoped he had her file in front of him and was quickly reviewing the case. Since she owed her soul to legal fees, she sincerely hoped Glenn could help her. "My ex-husband’s attorney sent me a letter. Brian wants Karen to spend Christmas Eve with him.”

"According to the terms of your agreement—”

"I know all about the terms,” she said, cutting him off. "But he owes me months of back child support.”

"I’m afraid there aren’t any stipulations regarding late child support and visitation rights.”

Maureen already knew that, but she still hoped. "You don’t understand,” she said, the frustration getting the better of her. "I’m afraid…I’m afraid.” The words skidded to a halt in her mind as she stepped directly in front of her worst fear.

"Yes, Ms. Woods?”

"I’m afraid,” she repeated shakily, "that Brian’s going to ask for full custody of Karen.”

Paul woke to the sound of birds chirping. It amazed him how beautiful a morning could be and that he could be a part of that beauty.

He dressed, climbed out of the tent, and brewed coffee in a blue enamel pot. Cradling the mug of steaming coffee in his hands, he sat on the edge of the picnic table and made plans for his day.

After breakfast he’d go on a hike, the same one he’d taken with Joe several years back. The five-mile trek was sure to tire him out, so when he returned to his campsite, he’d take a leisurely nap and soak in the sun.

He’d worry later on about what he’d pack for the hike. Breakfast had never excited him, and he was satisfied with a granola bar.

His plans made, Paul rinsed out the coffeepot and changed into his hiking boots. He was about to start on the hike when He heard the sound of another camper stirring.

Paul could see the tent, which was several spaces down from his own. The privately owned grounds didn’t get much business in the winter months, he knew. As far as he could tell, he and his neighbor were the only two campers on the grounds. Of course, with Christmas less than a week away, business was probably off. Not many folks were thinking about the great outdoors this time of the year.

Paul loaded his backpack, settled it in the middle of his back, and reached for his walking stick. He started down the dirt road past the occupied campsite, just as the tent flap opened and a burly man stepped out. The man stretched his arms high above his head and yawned loudly.

Paul hesitated.

It couldn’t be. If he hadn’t known better, he’d think the camper was none other than Steve Tenny.

The two men eyed each other suspiciously.

"Paul?”

"Steve?”

"What are you doing here?” Paul demanded. He wanted to accuse Steve of finding his letter of resignation and following him out of town, but that was ridiculous.

"Camping,” Steve answered.

"By yourself?”

Steve nodded. "The city gets to me every now and again, and I need to escape for a few days. It seems to me I’ve invited you along a number of times.”

Paul nodded. "I’m here for the fresh air,” he said, unwilling to tell his friend the whole truth. Although he wasn’t entirely sure what the whole truth was.

"We’re going to have to go a lot farther than this for some fresh air,” Steve commented dryly.

Paul couldn’t agree with him more. The Los Angeles smog was better in the winter months, but it had followed him a hundred miles or more.

"Actually, I came here to clear my head,” Paul announced to his friend.

"Clear your head?”

Paul’s hand tightened around the walking stick. "I wrote out my letter of resignation,” he announced. Folks would find out soon enough. Steve would discover the envelope waiting for him when he arrived home anyway. There wasn’t any need to keep it a secret.

"Resigned?” Steve echoed, the word low and stunned. "You?” He wandered around the campsite as if he’d lost his sense of direction. He looked at Paul and shook his head slowly, as if he were having trouble taking it in. "This is going to take some getting used to, I’m afraid. Sit down a minute, will you? I need a cup of coffee.”

Paul had half a mind to say he was just leaving for a favorite hiking trail, but it was clear the church elder was shaken by his news. It didn’t seem fair to announce his intentions and then casually walk away.

As it turned out, Paul brewed the coffee while Steve ambled around, paused, and scratched his head every now and again.

"You’re sure about this?” he asked at one point.

"Sure I made the right decision?” Paul asked, rephrasing his friend’s question. "Yes.”

"Do you mind if I ask why?”

Actually Paul did. He didn’t want anyone to talk him out of it. The decision was made, and he felt strongly that he’d done the right thing.

"I’d prefer not to talk about it, Steve. No offense.”

"None taken,” Steve assured him. He sat on a folding chair and clung to the cup of coffee as if it were all that stood between him and ruin.

"It’s time I moved on,” Paul offered, wanting to break the stilted silence.

"Have you decided upon another church?”

"No,” Paul admitted. "I need a break.”

"What are you going to do?”

Other than take a few days for camping and a little hiking, he hadn’t given the matter much thought. He probably should start thinking about it soon. He’d need a way to support himself and help pay the last of Joe’s college expenses. Funny, the thought of what he’d do for money had never occurred to him until this moment.

"I don’t know what I’ll do with myself,” he admitted. He took a drink of coffee and set the mug aside, eager to be on his way.

"Where you headed?” Steve asked next.

Paul told him about the hiking trail.

"I don’t suppose you’d like company?” Steve asked hopefully. "Listen, if you’d rather not have me along, just say the word. I know I can be a real nuisance at times.”

"What makes you say that?” Paul asked, genuinely surprised.

"We used to spend quite a bit of time together, don’t you remember? Then Barbara got sick and, I don’t know, everything changed.”

Paul didn’t feel any comment was necessary. "You’re welcome to come along if you like,” he told his old friend. He wasn’t seeking company, but he didn’t have the heart to turn Steve down.

Paul’s generosity was rewarded with a big smile from Steve. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed Steve’s companionship. As Steve had said, the two had grown apart following Barbara’s illness and death. The fault was his own, Paul realized with regret.

As if he understood that Paul had been seeking solitude, Steve didn’t seem inclined to talk on the hike, which took all of the morning and a small part of the afternoon.

Steve strolled back to his campsite and dropped onto the folding chair. "Guess I’m not in as good a shape as I thought,” he muttered. "I think I’ll rest up and then find a phone and call Myrna. She tends to worry if she doesn’t hear from me.”

"I’ll talk to you later, then,” Paul said.

Steve hesitated. "I’m not going to say anything to Myrna about what you told me, about you resigning from the church.”

"It’s fine, Steve. Everyone will learn about it sooner or later.”

"I suppose you’re right,” he agreed with some reluctance, "but I was thinking that if you were to change your mind, then the fewer people who know about it the better.”

"I’m not going to change my mind,” Paul said with confidence.

Paul decided to rest himself. He cushioned a rock with his sleeping bag and leaned against it to soak up the sun. he heard Steve drive off and smiled softly to himself. His friend didn’t realize how fortunate he was to have a wife, even if that meant he had to leave a campground to phone her.

He was half dozing when he heard a car approach. At first he assumed it was Steve returning, but the engine sound didn’t match the clunker his friend drove.

Paul opened one eye to find a familiar-looking car slowly making its way down the dirt road. It took him a moment or two to realize the vehicle belonged to Leta Johnson, his secretary. Former secretary, he reminded himself.

Paul stood when Leta parked and climbed out of the car. She glared at him, fairly sizzling with righteous indignation.

"If you want to resign, that’s fine with me,” she snapped, slapping down the sealed envelopes on the top of the picnic table. "But you can damn well mail your own letters. As a matter of interest, Bernard Bartelli phoned. Madge hasn’t much longer to live. He asked for you. Just exactly what am I supposed to tell that dear man? Tell me, Paul.”

Her voice broke, and Paul realized he’d been a fool to think he could run away from his responsibilities.

"Tell him I’m on my way to the hospital right now,” Paul said, and started to gather up his equipment.

16

Karen was on the phone when Maureen walked in the door that evening after work. She was tired and frustrated and in no mood to cook dinner. The Christmas tree wasn’t up yet, and she had a stack of cards left to write, and if she didn’t mail them the following morning, it was doubtful they’d arrive before Christmas.

She set down her briefcase and her purse and saw her daughter give her a look rife with guilt. Without being obvious, Maureen listened in to half of the conversation. She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, removed the chicken breasts she intended to roast, and set them on the counter.

"Sure, that will be fine.” Karen’s gaze followed Maureen around the kitchen.

"Okay,” Karen added, and nodded. Her face lit up with a bright smile. "Don’t worry, okay? I’ll tell Mom.”

Brian.

It could only be her ex-husband, Maureen decided. He’d gone behind her back and telephoned Karen when he knew Maureen wouldn’t be there to act as a buffer. The man had sunk to new levels of deceit.

***

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