"I brought along something I thought might help,” Paul said, handing the worn book to Madge. "It was Barbara’s, and she read it often. I’d like you to have it, and pray you find the same solace Barbara did in the psalms.”

Madge lovingly ran her gnarled hand over the top of the leather-bound book. "Psalms and Proverbs.”

"The words were a comfort to her, especially on the nights she couldn’t sleep.”

"What a beautiful thing, to bring us your own saintly wife’s book,” Bernard said. He reached inside his back pocket, brought out a wrinkled white handkerchief, and blew his large nose. Paul thought that the older man’s eyes shone with unshed tears.

"I’ll treasure this little book and be sure it’s returned to you when the time comes.”

Paul drank from his mug. He had nothing to offer these godly people, but Barbara had reached out from the grave and lent him a hand when he needed it.

"Now tell us about Joe,” Madge said after taking one small sip of her tea. The mug wobbled as if it were too heavy for her to lift. Bernard gently removed it from her hand and set it aside.

"I came to ask about you,” Paul said, barely able to watch the tender way in which these two cared for each other.

"Joe will be home from college soon now, won’t he?”

"Soon.” Paul was eager for his son’s arrival. Joe’s homecoming was the one bright spot in Paul’s holiday. The two would be together, and it would almost be as it had been in years past when Barbara was alive.

His son was a subject he found easy to discuss. He told the Bartellis about Joe’s classes. As he finished speaking, he realized Madge had fallen asleep, and he dropped his voice.

"Bless you, Reverend,” Bernard said, his face revealing his gratitude. "I swear this is the first time Madge’s slept in nearly two days.”

"How are you holding up?” Paul asked the older man.

Bernard’s gaze skittered away from Paul, and he seemed uncomfortable with the question. "I’m not the one suffering.”

"But in many ways Madge’s cancer is as demanding on you.”

"I don’t mind taking care of her,” he said, and his voice was stiff with pride. "I do a better job than those people in the hospital. At least when I touch her, I do it with love. To those doctors and nurses Madge is just another old woman. To me she’s the woman I fell in love with and married all those years ago.”

"What about your children? Are they coming home for Christmas?”

Bernard set his mug back on the tray, being careful not to make the least bit of sound for fear of disturbing his wife’s precious rest. "No. They’re spread out all over the country, and we don’t want them risking the drive or taking on the expense of a plane trip.” He lowered his head and focused on his folded hands. "The doctors told me they weren’t sure how much longer Madge would last. Maybe six months more, but it could be over as soon as three. The children will want to be here then.”

"Of course.” Paul glanced at his watch. "Perhaps it would be best if I left now.”

Bernard nodded. "I can’t thank you enough for stopping by.”

"I’ll come again,” Paul promised. "Possibly in a couple of days.”

"We’d both appreciate that.” Bernard stood slowly, seeming to have some trouble. "We don’t mean to be a burden to you.”

"You’re never that.” Bernard and Madge had unselfishly volunteered their efforts over the years. Now it was Paul’s turn to return a small portion of all they’d given him and his family.

Paul left, and not wanting to cook himself something for dinner, he stopped off at a fast-food restaurant and ordered something quick, easy, and tasteless.

When he arrived at the house, the first thing he noticed was that the kitchen lights were on. Had be been careless and left them on that morning? He really did need to be more attentive to details.

Letting himself in by the back door, he tossed the grease-smeared white bag on the kitchen table and hung up his sweater.

"Dad?”

Paul’s heart raced with excitement. "Joe? Is that you?

"Dad!” His son rushed into the kitchen and hugged him excitedly. "Dad, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

A lovely blue-eyed young woman stood across the kitchen. Joe crossed to her and placed his arm around her shoulders. "Dad, I’d like you to meet Annie,” he said, smiling brightly at his father. "I’ve asked her to be my wife.”

It shouldn’t have surprised Joy Palmer that Ted Griffin was romantically involved. He was tall, dark, and good-looking, and her heart raced like a stock car every time she laid eyes on him.

She did admit to a certain curiosity about the type of woman he’d date, so she did what she generally did when he came around. She watched and waited and made sure she had an unobstructed view of him.

His girlfriend was sophisticated and beautiful, Joy noted, but she didn’t study the woman long. No need to give herself a bigger complex than the one she already had. Catherine’s grandson was a hunk. It made sense that he’d date a woman who qualified as a beauty queen.

Catherine had been so anxious about this meeting and had wanted to make a good impression. Joy hoped everything had gone well.

Just before dinner, when Joy was preparing to leave for the day, she found Catherine sitting in the library. An unopened book was balanced on her lap.

"Well, Catherine,” Joy said, standing in the doorway, "You’re certainly looking pensive.”

"Joy.” The older woman’s eyes brightened. "I thought you’d left by now.”

"I had a few odds and ends to clear up. How’d the meeting go with your grandson and his friend?”

"Just fine.”

"I caught a glimpse of her, and she’s a beautiful woman.”

Catherine nodded. "She seems…”

"Yes?” Joy prompted. It wasn’t like Catherine to let something fade. The woman was as spry as someone fifteen years her junior.

"It’s nothing,” Catherine murmured, and shook her head. "You have a nice evening now.”

"I probably won’t do anything more exciting than sit home and watch the Lakers take on the Chicago Bulls.”

"You like basketball?”

"I love it,” Joy confessed.

Catherine brightened considerably. "Ted’s always talking about the Lakers. It seems he’s a fan himself. You’ve met my grandson, haven’t you?”

Joy could feel the heat rise up her neck. "Not formally.”

"But, my dear, you must. I’ll make a point of seeing to it the next time he stops by. You two have a lot in common.”

"Ah, I guess I’d better go now,” Joy said, anxious to make her getaway. She and Ted had a lot in common! It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. Sure, they both might enjoy professional basketball. But she couldn’t picture Ted Griffin with his feet propped up on her coffee table, a big bowl of popcorn in his lap. She couldn’t see him thrusting his arms in the air over a three-point play and shouting with joy. With Joy.

Not the Ted Griffin who dated the picture-perfect woman she’d seen an hour or so earlier. No, men like Catherine Goodwin’s grandson wouldn’t be interested in someone like her. Joy was too much her own person to worry about having every hair in place and what her makeup looked like after eight hours on the job. She didn’t have the creams and eye shadows necessary to be counted among the truly lovely. Besides, she was much too spontaneous for the sophisticated crowd he probably favored.

The problem was Joy’s romantic heart. She did so love to dream. That’s what there was between her and Ted. A silly romantic dream.

Joy stopped in her office just long enough to pick up her sweater and her purse. She would have gone directly to the employee parking lot if she hadn’t seen Charles sitting, staring longingly out the window.

She crossed the large room and sat next to the old man. "It’s time for dinner,” she told him softly.

It was as if she hadn’t spoken.

"I was just heading home,” Joy told him, as if they were carrying on a normal two-sided conversation. "The Lakers are playing tonight, and I’ve been saving my energy so I could cheer them on.”

Then Charles smiled briefly, but his gaze didn’t leave the large picture window that gave a panoramic view of Wilshire Boulevard.

Joy leaned in closer and gently squeezed his hand. "I’ll see you in the morning.”

She’d turned away before she heard him speak. His voice was low and scratchy, as if it had been a long time since he’d used it.

"Night, Joy.”

It was the little things like Charles wishing her a good evening that caused Joy to love her job so much. Whistling a favorite Christmas carol, she hurried out to the parking lot. If she didn’t hurry, she’d be late for the opening tip-off.

After tossing her purse onto the backseat of Edith, her ’57 Chevrolet, Joy started the cranky engine. She knew she should have traded in this car for something more modern years ago, but she really loved antiques.

"Come on, old girl,” she said when the battery didn’t immediately fire to life. "One more time for the Gipper,” she encouraged.

Edith responded with a low whine.

"You were just fine this morning,” Joy reminded her. "Remember, I fed you gas and oil and promised you a wax job this weekend.”

Edith’s only answer was another sick-sounding whine, followed by an even sicker choke.

"All right,” Joy muttered, "be that way. I’ll call triple A, and those big men with the large mean truck will come and want to know all about your private parts.”

Disgruntled, Joy climbed out of her car. She couldn’t imagine what could possibly be wrong. Her father, who happened to be the world’s greatest mechanic, kept Edith in top running condition. Unfortunately her father had tickets to the basketball game that evening, and she’d be stuck calling for a tow truck.

Joy was walking back toward the retirement center when a flashy red spots car pulled up. The door opened, and Ted Griffin got out.

Joy hesitated, wondering what Catherine’s grandson was doing back so soon.

"I’ll only be a minute, sweetheart,” he told the woman inside. He straightened and glanced casually at Joy. His eyes widened, and all at once he started running toward her.

Ted Griffin grabbed Joy around the waist and pulled her out of the path of her very own vehicle. Edith, apparently under her own power, merrily plowed into the side of his car, then sat there purring as if her engine were as finely tuned as an expensive European model’s.

5

"Oh, my goodness. Oh, dear.” Joy raced to Ted’s fancy sports car to examine the damage. "Edith,” she cried, angrily slapping her hand against her vehicle’s shiny trunk, "what’s gotten into you?”

"What the hell happened?” Blythe leaped out of the passenger side and glared indignantly at Joy.

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