She didn’t want to plague her parents with her problems, but she couldn’t go on like this much longer. Brian always could jerk her chain. Always could make her miserable.

Maureen waited until Karen was asleep and hoped her mother was awake when she punched out the button that predialed her parents’ home phone.

It rang three times before a male voice answered. "Nichols’s Riding Stables.”

"Thom?” Dumbfounded, Maureen stared down at the telephone. She’d been avoiding him since their last conversation. He talked about forgiveness while all she could think about was revenge. Being with Thom made her feel petty and vindictive.

"Maureen? This is a pleasant surprise.”

"But I didn’t dial your number,” she insisted.

He chuckled. "It seems we’ve had this telephone conversation before. You did dial it. Otherwise why would I have answered the phone?”

"But—”

"You’ve got me now.”

She smiled. The sound of his voice worked wonders on her tired, achy muscles, especially her neck.

"Something’s on your mind?”

How well this man knew her.

"It’s Brian. I’m convinced he’s going to fight me for custody of Karen.”

Thom was silent long enough for her to know he’d taken her concerns seriously. "Are you sure you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill?” he asked.

"I wish I were. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Brian hasn’t seen Karen in over a year. All at once he’s willing to pay attorney fees and fight like a bullmoose to have his daughter spend Christmas with him.”

"Perhaps he’s had a change of heart.”

"If that’s the case, one would think he’d pay me the back child support payments he owes me.”

"Perhaps,” Thom agreed. "Go on.”

"He phoned Karen when he knew I wouldn’t be home.” She drew in a deep, steadying breath at the fresh wave of anger and frustration. "According to the terms of our settlement, all contact with Karen is to have prior approval from me.”

"That seems pretty severe.”

"He agreed to those terms,” Maureen said, and knew she sounded defensive.

"All right, let’s look past that. Brian contacted Karen without prior notice or approval from you.”

"Yes.” She could hear the panic level rise in her voice. "I don’t know what he said to her. I could only hear what Karen said, but it sounded like, oh, I don’t know, like he planned on showing her a wonderful Christmas.”

Thom was silent for a time. "This worries you?”

"Of course it does. Don’t you see? Brian’s the type of man who only thinks about one person, and that’s himself. If he’s being good to Karen, there’s a reason.”

"People change, Maureen.”

"Not Brian. The man is—” She bit off saying a choice word. "He’s going to take Karen away from me. The more I analyze what’s happening, the more I realize what he’s doing. If he’s looking to get back at me, there’s no better way than through Karen.”

"Why don’t you ask him?” Thom suggested. "If you’re that worried, and clearly you are, then call him right now and ask. Wouldn’t you rather deal with the truth than suffer with speculation?”

"Ask Brian?” she repeated. It was probably the most dangerous thing she could do. "I can’t do that. If he isn’t already thinking along those lines, why give him the idea? You don’t know my ex-husband. If he even suspects something would worry me, he’d play up on it and make me as miserable as possible.”

"Maureen, you’ve been divorced a long time.”

"What’s that got to do with anything?”

"Brian’s remarried.”

"Yes, and he has a son, too, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

"I think it must. He’s supporting a wife and his son and supposedly Karen.”

"I sincerely doubt he’s supporting anyone. Wanna bet he’s home with the baby while wife number two brings in the paycheck?” She sounded cynical and bitter, but with damn good reason.

"Maureen,” Thom said, dragging out her name in that thoughtful way of his, "have you given any more thought to what I said the other night?”

"About what?” She was stalling, not wanting to admit his words had hounded her ever since.

"Forgiveness.”

"I don’t believe it’s possible, Thom. I have thought about it, almost constantly. But you have no way of realizing how much Brian hurt me and Karen.”

"But I do,” he countered. "I see it in your eyes when you speak of him. I look at Karen and wonder how any man could turn his back on his own daughter.”

Maureen felt tears stinging the backs of her eyes.

"Where does it stop, Maureen?”

"What do you mean?”

"You phone the attorney about him with a list of wrongdoings. He contacts his attorney about you. Who suffers in all this?”

Maureen already knew the answer to this. She’d faced it that evening. "Karen,” she said in a small, weak voice.

"You’re hurting, too, but you need to realize that most of that pain is self-inflicted. Don’t forgive Brian because he deserves it. Don’t do it because he’s asking you to pardon him for all the ugly, hurtful wrongs.”

Maureen wouldn’t live to see that day. "Don’t worry, it’d never happen.”

"Do it for you,” Thom advised softly. "And for Karen.”

"I’ll try,” she promised. He made it sound so easy, as if all she had to do was let nearly fifteen years of accumulated resentments roll off her back like rainwater off a mallard.

"Now if Karen’s going to be with her dad, what are you doing Christmas Eve?” Thom asked.

"Nothing much.” For a time she’d thought she’d join her parents, but they had already made plans with longtime family friends. They’d invited Maureen to join them, but she didn’t want to intrude. She’d made an excuse, and they’d accepted it.

"Would you like to come out to the ranch?” Thom asked. "Paula and I would love to have you.”

The offer was by far the most tempting one she’d had. "I’d like to, but…”

"What’s holding you back?”

"I’d rather be close by in case Karen phones.” Maureen didn’t anticipate any trouble between father and daughter, but she wasn’t taking any chances.

"You’re sure?”

"Yes,” she told him reluctantly, "but thanks for the invitation.” The way it looked, she’d have a peaceful evening home by herself. That was fine. She could bake sugar cookies and decorate them for Christmas Day. If she got really ambitious, she just might whip up a batch of fudge.

They spoke for a few moments longer, and when Maureen hung up, she thanked whatever it was that had caused her to dial Thom’s phone number instead of her mother’s.

She knew she’d live through the horrors of the damned the minute her daughter drove off with her ex-husband if she didn’t have some peace of mind on the subject. She reached for the phone book and looked up Brian’s number. A woman answered. Maureen hadn’t met Brian’s new wife. The fact was, she pitied the poor woman.

"This is Maureen Woods,” she said stiffly.

An awkward silence followed.

"Just a moment, please, and I’ll get Brian.”

A polite little thing, Maureen mused. She only hoped Brian didn’t overly abuse her.

Her ex-husband came on the line almost immediately. "Maureen?” he demanded crossly.

"Yes.”

"What do you want now? More money? Lawyers’ fees? Or wasn’t fifteen years of making my life hell good enough for you?”

Maureen nearly bit her tongue in half to keep from rising to the bait. "None of that,” she said without emotion. "Just a question.” However, getting the words out of her mouth proved to be damn near impossible.

"What?”

She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. "Do you or do you not intend to seek custody of Karen?”

Her words were followed by a short, static-filled silence. "Got you worried, do I?”

How he’d love to see her crawl on her knees and beg. Maureen was convinced he’d sell his soul just to see her squirm. At the moment she was prepared to do all three.

"Yes,” she admitted, hoping none of the emotion bled into her voice. "I’m worried.”

He hesitated, seeming to enjoy her discomfort, and then he said, "Don’t be. We both know Karen’s better off with you than me. I’ll raise her if you want, but I doubt that you do.”

With that he hung up the phone.

18

Catherine couldn’t remember a time the Wilshire Grove Retirement Center looked more festive. Swags of evergreen were draped about the room and festooned with huge red bows of velvet. Several long tables were connected and covered with a lace tablecloth, the center’s finest. A series of silver platters filled with a variety of homemade cookies graced the tables. The sterling-silver punch bowl was at one end and the matching coffee and tea service at the other.

Emily and Thelma, two of the most hardworking members of the library committee, stepped back and admired their handiwork.

"It’s lovely,” Emily said.

Catherine couldn’t agree with her more. "I couldn’t have done it without you two, and Joy.”

Joy had seen to most of the wall decorations and had been at the center until all hours of the night. Catherine didn’t know what time the resident service director had finally gone home. All she knew was that she’d gone up to her apartment close to eleven and Joy had assured Catherine that she was nearly finished. She’d promised to leave for home soon. But from the lush display of decorations, Catherine realized Joy must have been there half the night or longer.

The subject of her thoughts strolled in the door, wearing a bright smile. Of all that she admired about Joy Palmer, Catherine was most in awe of her inner strength. This business with Ted must have been painful and terribly disappointing, but each day, despite her own unhappiness, Joy had come to work with a smile on her face and in her heart.

"The decorations are beautiful,” Catherine said enthusiastically, wanting Joy to know how much she appreciated the extra work the other woman put into the literary tea.

"I thought you promised to leave when we all went up to bed,” Thelma reminded her.

"I did,” Joy said, "but I just couldn’t leave them alone.” She scanned the room. "Has anyone seen Charles this morning?”

"He’s been ready for the tea since before six,” Emily told her.

"I’ll drop my jacket and purse off in my office and be right back.” She disappeared, and Catherine walked over to the table and fanned out the paper napkins.

"Are we going to start soon?” Charles strolled up beside her and asked impatiently. "I’ve been eyeing those chocolate-chip cookies of yours all morning. Seems to me the man who’s going to collect the donations might need a bit of nourishment beforehand.”

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