- Those Christmas Angels
“Is that Anne or Mary speaking?”
“Anne,” she confessed with a laugh.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Okay, come to my car with me. I brought a sketch.”
They left the hotel, and Anne handed the valet her claim check. He brought her car around, and at Anne’s instruction, parked it by the outside curb to avoid delaying anyone who was pulling into the portico. The Cadillac was one of the few things she’d gotten as part of the divorce settlement. Roy said that was because Burton had wanted it to look as if he’d been fair.
“As I explained, this isn’t one of my landscapes,” Anne said, opening the door. Because of the size of the painting, she’d brought along her sketchbook. It lay on the passenger seat, and Anne picked it up and opened it to the sketch of the angel.
For a long moment Marta didn’t say anything. “This is the sketch you painted from?”
“Yes, in a huge rush.” She told her the size of the canvas. While on the ferry, she’d shaded in the sketch, using pencils. “Like I said this morning, I just finished the painting. I’m sure the oil is still wet.” Then, because she regretted showing her art to such a renowned professional, Anne quickly added, “Listen, it’s all right if you don’t like it.”
“Like it?” Marta said, meeting her gaze. “I love it. This is incredible. I realize it’s only a sketch, but if the painting’s anything like this, you have a real winner on your hands. Maybe it’s my state of mind, I don’t know,” she said, staring down at the pad, “but I feel like…like I’ve been touched by God just looking at it.”
Anne could hardly believe Marta had said that….
“I’m stopping by your place first thing tomorrow, and if this painting is half as good as I think it’ll be, I’m taking it back to New York. Agreed?”
“I can get eight or nine for this.”
Marta grinned. “Thousand.”
“Eight or nine thousand?” Anne knew she had to be dreaming.
“Maybe more. Now, I have to tell you that as the dealer, I take a percentage, but you could still end up with four or five thousand dollars.”
Anne wanted to throw her arms in the air and scream for joy. Instead, she clasped both hands over her mouth and silently said a prayer of gratitude.
Now that her father was working, Julie always stopped at the mailbox on her way home. For obvious reasons, she no longer accompanied him or rode her bicycle—her brand-new bicycle—to and from school. As she strolled toward the house on Monday, she shuffled through the day’s collection of bills, notices, Christmas cards and the usual junk mail—and paused at the thick manila envelope addressed to her. Julie hesitated in midstep. The return address was that of a well-known Seattle law firm.
Tearing it open, Julie juggled the house keys, the rest of the mail and her backpack as she extracted a letter and a thick wad of paper. Using her shoulder to open the door, she nearly fell into the house when she realized what she was reading.
A settlement offer.
From Roy Fletcher.
Julie scanned the details and by the time she’d finished she could hardly breathe. Mr. High-and-Mighty wanted to buy her off. He was willing to spend twenty-five thousand dollars to shut her up. Julie couldn’t believe it, couldn’t comprehend why anyone would go to such outlandish lengths to get rid of her, especially when she’d assured him she had no intention of suing.
She didn’t want his money. She didn’t want anything from him. His offer was the biggest insult of her life.
Pacing now, she stomped from one end of the living room to the other. She knew it wasn’t a good idea to try to reason with Fletcher, especially when she felt like this, but she couldn’t stand still and she couldn’t stay home. She had to do something before she exploded with indignation. This pent-up energy had to go somewhere.
Her thoughts continued to churn as she tossed her car keys in the air and deftly caught them. Good idea or not, her mind was made up. She was going to tell Mr. Big Bucks exactly what he could do with his “settlement offer.”
Julie was so angry she barely noticed the ten-mile drive in heavy traffic. Naturally there wasn’t a single parking space available anywhere at Fletcher Industries. With no other option, she pulled into a handicapped spot.
Arms swinging at her sides, every step filled with determination, Julie headed for the company’s headquarters. In the back of her mind a small voice whispered that this was probably a mistake. She didn’t care. She was beyond caring.
She stormed into the building, past the security guard, a young man with impressive biceps. Jason, she recalled. She’d met him last week. “Miss,” he said, stopping her. “You have to check in here first.”
Julie waved her hand at him as he moved out from behind his desk. “You don’t want to mess with me just now.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you onto the elevator until you’ve been cleared by security.”
“Hey, man, that’s Mr. Wilcoff’s daughter,” a second guard said, coming around the corner. “How you doin’?” he asked, as if they were the best of friends.
Julie vaguely remembered him from the day of her accident. Roy Fletcher had spoken to him briefly when he’d dropped off her bike at the office complex.
Julie smiled at the first guard. “You remember me, don’t you, Jason?” she said. “I came here with my dad about a week ago. How’s it going?”
“Okay, I guess,” he said, eyeing her skeptically.
For once Julie was grateful for the family resemblance.
“Yeah, I remember you now,” he said after a moment. “Do you have an appointment with your father?”
Julie smiled—and lied through her teeth. She had an appointment, all right, an appointment with justice. “I do. I apologize if I was rude earlier.”
“No problem.” Eager to please his boss, the guard returned to his desk and reached for his phone. “I’ll let him know you’re coming.”
“Thanks,” Julie said, and swallowed a plea not to call him, after all. She stopped briefly at the company directory to find the location of Fletcher’s office. Just as she’d suspected—top floor. Rushing, she pressed the elevator button and glanced at her watch, trying to gauge how much time she had before she was found out. Once her father knew she was in the building, he’d wonder where she was—and what she was doing.
At the top floor she stepped out of the elevator and faced a large desk. An efficient-looking middle-aged woman glanced up, her expression surprised.
“May I help you?” she asked politely.
“I’m here to see Mr. Fletcher.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
This paragon who guarded the lion’s den knew exactly when Fletcher’s appointments were scheduled, and Julie wasn’t on any list.
“Oh, yes,” she muttered, and without wasting another second, Julie bolted for the huge floor-to-ceiling double doors. Without bothering to knock, she turned the knob and barreled inside.
Fletcher was on the phone. Startled, he looked up. His gaze met hers and he didn’t so much as blink. She gave him credit for that. Tall as she was, angry as she was, Julie knew she made an intimidating sight.
“I’ll need to call you back,” Fletcher said smoothly. “My office has been invaded and I have a feeling this is going to take longer than you’ll want to wait.”
“Mr. Fletcher, I’m sorry, she just…came in.” Ms. Johnson entered the office seconds after Julie. The older woman was clearly flustered; presumably nothing like this had ever happened before. “I’ve contacted security—they’re on their way up.”
“Good plan.” Fletcher rose from his seat, leaning forward on his desk, his eyes never leaving Julie.
“Should I stay with you?” his assistant asked nervously.
“I’ll be fine, Ms. Johnson.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Julie muttered.
Fletcher waved his assistant out of the room and returned his attention to Julie. “You had something you wanted to say?”
“Your settlement offer arrived!” she said. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Why?” He cocked one brow as if to suggest it should be obvious.
“I told you I wasn’t going to sue!”
“Are you so cynical that you don’t trust anyone? So cynical you think you can buy your way out of everything?”
“Money is the universal language.”
Julie folded her arms. “Listen to me, Fletcher, and listen hard. I don’t want your money.” She spoke slowly and emphatically so that even a man as emotionally obtuse as this one would get the point.
He angled his head sideways and stared at the ceiling. “Where have I heard that before?” Then, as though he was bored and ready to end the conversation, he said, “You want the money. Everyone wants the money. Just sign the agreement and cash the check. You can be outraged all over again—and twenty-five thousand dollars richer.”
Julie’s mouth sagged open. “You don’t get it, do you? I’m not cashing the check. I’m not signing the settlement.”
“Of course you’re not signing the settlement,” he snapped, his eyes so cold that for an instant she actually shivered.
She caught her breath and stepped back. “It isn’t just me you distrust,” she whispered. He wasn’t capable of trusting a single, solitary person. Some elemental betrayal had waylaid him in the past, and he’d never recovered, never moved beyond it. She didn’t know what had happened; in fact, she didn’t want to know. But right now they were at an impasse unless she could think of some way to settle this, some way that suited them both.
“All right,” Julie said. “Tell you what I’ll do.”
“Ah, the bargaining begins. Are you sure you don’t want your attorney here?”
“I don’t have an attorney. Now listen, because I’m only going to say this once.”
“The schoolteacher speaks.” He’d folded his arms and she relaxed hers.
“I’ll sign your stupid agreement.”
He flashed her a knowing, sarcastic grin. “I thought you’d come to your senses sooner or later.”
“With one stipulation.”
His smile vanished.
“I want a signed statement from you in which you concede that you caused the accident and—” she wagged her finger at his Cross pen “—I’d like a written apology.”
His eyes narrowed and, if possible, grew even colder. Hands pressed on the top of his desk, he leaned forward again. “I didn’t cause the accident and there’s no way I’ll apologize for something I didn’t do.”
She’d figured that would make him mad. Good. Maybe he’d understand how she felt. “Explain the damage to my bike, then,” she said, forcing her voice to remain calm.