"I’m looking forward to it, too.”

Maureen wasn’t going to scold Karen for speaking to Brian, but she wanted to make sure this sort of thing didn’t happen again.

All contact with their daughter was to be arranged with Maureen in advance. It wasn’t Karen’s fault that Brian had gone against the provisions stated in the divorce settlement. He knew the terms as well as she did. The next time her ex-husband called when Karen was home alone, Karen would be instructed to phone him back. Brian could talk to Karen only when Maureen was present, and he damn well knew it.

"I can’t wait,” Karen whispered excitedly into the mouthpiece.

So Brian was up to his old tricks, Maureen mused. No doubt he was making promises he had no intention of keeping. Then again…Her stomach tightened as she considered the alternative. Perhaps he would make his promises good. If he intended on fighting her for custody of Karen, then he’d need their daughter’s cooperation. What better way than to give her the things Maureen couldn’t? He was married with a baby, and Karen loved babies. It would be just like him to plot to steal their daughter away from her. How he’d love to collect child support payments from her!

A moment or so later, Karen hung up the phone. She didn’t say anything right away. Then: "That was Dad.”

Although Maureen was so tense she felt as if she were about to be sick, she managed a smile. "What did he have to say?”

Karen avoided meeting Maureen’s eyes. "Not much. He said he’d be by about six on Christmas Eve to pick me up. We’re going to his house for dinner, and then we’re going to open gifts.”

"I’d rather you hadn’t talked to him, Karen,” Maureen said in gentle tones, wanting to be sure her daughter understood that she wasn’t upset with her. The wrongdoing was all Brian’s.

Karen sat at the kitchen table and propped her face in her hands. "I’d figured you’d say that. Dad thought you would, too.”

Already Brian was trying to pit her daughter against her.

"All he wanted to do was tell me what time he was picking me up. You don’t need to make a federal case out of it.”

"I don’t mean to sound petty,” Maureen said stiffly, "but the terms of the divorce were set this way for a reason.”

"Yes, so you could make Dad’s life miserable.” Karen leaped out of the chair with enough force to send it toppling backward. "You want to keep me away from him. You want to punish him because he’s got a good life and you don’t.”

"Karen.” Maureen couldn’t believe what she was hearing. "That’s not true.”

"Did you ever stop to think,” Karen said, her eyes bright with tears, "that you were punishing me, too? I love Dad. I miss him sometimes. I know he wasn’t a very good husband, and he may not be a very good father, but you seem to forget something, Mom. He’s the only dad I’ve got.”

"But—”

"Do you have to spoil what little time I have with him? Do you?”

"I didn’t mean—”

"Why do you think Dad hasn’t seen me in over a year? I know why…because you make it as difficult as you can for him to have visitation rights.”

"Did he tell you that?” Maureen demanded.

"No. He didn’t have to, I’ve seen it myself.” Karen’s face was tinged red. "I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” she insisted, and raced from the kitchen.

The silence was like that after an atomic blast. Maureen braced her hands against the counter and waited for the feelings of guilt and anger to pass. An odd combination of emotions warred with each other, battling for dominance. What Karen said was basically true. She had made it as difficult as she could for Karen to visit her father, but it was for Karen’s own protection. She couldn’t expect a twelve-year-old to understand or appreciate that.

Maureen set the two chicken breasts in the oven and then sank onto the chair. The conversation with Karen played itself back in her mind. Her daughter was almost a teenager, certainly old enough to form her own opinions.

Karen had admitted Brian hadn’t been a very good husband. That was putting it mildly. She seemed to know where he ranked in the father department, too. Nevertheless, she looked forward to spending time with him. It went without saying that she was anxious to meet her half brother.

It hurt to think of Brian with another child. The fact that he still had the power to wound her amazed Maureen. In some way she felt cheated; Karen was right about that, too. For to all outward appearances Brian, the liar, the cheat, the thief, had a better life than she had.

Maureen waited until her nerves had settled down before she approached her daughter. She knocked politely on Karen’s bedroom door and waited.

"Who is it?”

Maureen played along. "Mom. Can we talk a moment?” She opened the door and looked inside the room.

Her daughter was sprawled across her mattress with the portable phone pressed to her ear. She wore another one of those guilty looks, and Maureen guessed that she was talking long distance to Paula.

"When you’re finished speaking to Paula, I’d like a word with you myself.”

"All right.”

No more than a couple of minutes later, Karen reappeared in the kitchen. Her face was marked with red smudges, and she held herself stiffly.

"How’s Paula?”

"Fine.”

"Did she offer you any pearls of wisdom you care to pass along?” Maureen asked next. She was sinking lower than she thought. Here she was, well over thirty, seeking counsel from a pair of twelve-year-olds.

"Not really.”

Maureen sucked in her breath and decided the only way to get this over with was to say what needed to be said. "I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

Karen regarded her suspiciously. "Then I can go to Dad’s on Christmas Eve without you making a big deal over it?”

"Yes,” Maureen said, and added generously, "And I want you to enjoy yourself and to spoil your half brother with lots and lots of attention.”

"You do?”

Maureen discovered it was true. Karen deserved this time with her father and his new family. She’d been cheated enough already.

Maureen’s feelings toward Brian hadn’t changed and wouldn’t. Her ex-husband was a two-timing bastard. It was the reason they were divorced.

"What about you, Mom? Will you be all right by yourself?”

"Of course,” Maureen said automatically. It was then that she realized what Karen being with Brian and his family meant.

She was going to be alone on Christmas Eve.

Catherine checked her compact living room a second time to be sure everything was in its proper place. She hadn’t done much decorating for Christmas. A tiny artificial tree with shiny red bulbs served as a centerpiece on her small table. The Christmas cards she’d received, she’d hung on the wall in a festive display. She tried to look at the apartment through Blythe’s young eyes and hoped it passed muster.

Catherine had phoned Ted’s fiancée that morning to ask her to tea. Blythe had seemed surprised, first to hear from Catherine and then by the invitation. She’d been a tad hesitant but eventually had agreed to come.

Catherine was grateful. Since this was to be her grandson’s wife, it was important that the two of them understand and appreciate each other.

They’d started off on the wrong foot. Catherine blamed herself for that. She’d been extra critical. The woman who’d sat next to Ted when he’d announced their engagement was even more subdued from the one she’d first met. Catherine imagined the pregnancy had something to do with that.

A baby.

So she was to be a great-grandmother. The thought excited her, although she already was a grandmother and great-grandmother many times over. But this unborn child shared part of her love for Earl.

Blythe arrived right on time.

"Welcome,” Catherine greeted the young woman with a wide grin. "Please come in. I’ve already got the tea brewing.”

Blythe stepped into the small apartment and looked around as if she expected someone else would be there as well. It seemed to Catherine that she looked mildly relieved to find it was just the two of them.

They sat next to each other, and Catherine poured the tea and handed Blythe the delicate china cup, her finest. "I imagine you’re curious why I asked you here on such short notice.”

"Frankly, I am,” Blythe admitted.

Catherine noted that the other woman seemed a bit peaked. Apparently Blythe wasn’t having an easy time with the pregnancy. First ones were often difficult. Her own, so many years in the past, certainly had been.

"I have a gift for you.” Catherine reached for the small wrapped package on the corner of the end table. "I’ve cherished this for over fifty years. To be honest, I never intended to part with it, but after giving the matter some thought, I’ve decided I want you to have it.”

Blythe frowned as she tore away the bow and the ribbon. She lifted the lid and stared into the bed of black velvet. "This is the cameo you wore the day we first met.”

"Yes.” Catherine was pleased she remembered it.

"It’s lovely,” Blythe whispered, and raised wide questioning eyes to Catherine.

"It was a gift from my first husband, Earl Standish.” She settled back on the sofa and relaxed, holding the teacup and saucer in her hands. "We met shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and were married several months later. That was many years ago now.”

"You said Earl Standish was your first husband? I didn’t realize…Ted told me you were married for forty years to Frank Goodwin.”

"Forty-three very good years,” she elaborated. "Frank was a dear, sweet man and he loved me, and I loved him. I bore Frank two sons, and we had a wonderful life together, but all those years, Frank knew that I never stopped loving Earl. I couldn’t stop loving him.”

"But why were you married to Frank…” Blythe hesitated, clearly confused.

"Earl died in the war.” Even now, fifty years after having received that horrible telegram from the War Department, Catherine could barely speak the words without her heart twisting with pain.

"I’m sorry.”

Catherine nodded instead of speaking. She needed a few moments to compose herself before explaining. "He was an Airborne Ranger. He parachuted into France on June 6, 1944. You probably don’t know the significance of that day, do you?”

Blythe shook her head.

"It was D-Day, the day the Allied troops invaded France—the turning point of the Second World War. A little less than a year later, and the Axis powers surrendered. The war was over.” Except for Catherine. A war waged within her for years following the news of Earl’s death. It was as if her very heart had been ripped from her that fateful morning in June. As if her own life were over as a single bullet stole her beloved husband from her.

"I thought Ted was related to you through his mother.”

"Emma was Earl’s and my daughter,” Catherine explained. Emma was the reason Catherine had gone on living. The reason she’d gotten out of bed in the morning and struggled through each new day. In the beginning she’d dragged the pain of the last one with her until the load became so heavy, the grief so burdensome, she couldn’t continue. That was when she’d made her peace, such as it was.

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