His lips thinned. “I can’t.”

“What does it matter? You get what you want and I get what I want.”

“What exactly do you want?” he demanded.

“I already told you. And I already stated that I was only saying it once.”

“Good luck, sister, because you’re not getting any apology from me.”

“Okay,” she said cheerfully, and then because she enjoyed riling him, she added, “Shall I have my attorney call yours?”

“I thought you didn’t have an attorney,” he challenged as if he’d welcome the opportunity to call her a boldfaced liar.

“I don’t, at least not yet, but I imagine I won’t have any problem finding one who’d be willing to take you to court.”

“Julie…” Her father rushed into the room and stopped midway between Julie and Fletcher’s desk. He spread his arms between the two of them, trying to assess the situation.

He looked at his boss first. “Mr. Fletcher, I apologize that my daughter burst into your office.”

“Dad, you’d better hear me out before you apologize to that man.” She gestured wildly at Fletcher. “He tried to buy me off with a settlement offer!”

“I know, honey.”

“You know?”

Her father nodded. “Mr. Fletcher told me it was in the works, but it’s none of my affair, so I didn’t say anything.”

“You involved my father in this?” Julie hissed at Fletcher.

“Sweetheart,” her father said in the gentlest of tones, “perhaps it would be best if you left now.”

“Not yet.” Julie was going to stand her ground. As far as she was concerned, this conversation was a long way from over.

Her father glanced apologetically at his employer. “I’m afraid Julie’s got a temper, sir.”

“Dad!”

“She takes after her mother in that.”

Julie was horrified to hear her father saying such a thing to a man who’d insulted her.

“I’m sorry, Jules,” her father continued, “but you don’t leave me any other choice.” That said, he attempted to hoist her fireman-style over his shoulder and forcibly remove her from the office. Julie didn’t try to fight him, but she was too heavy for him to carry. He did manage to lift her several inches off the ground.

“Dad! Put me down!”

Either she weighed more than he’d assumed or he was willing to listen, because he set her down on the carpet.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Julie, get out of this office,” he said in a low, irate voice. “Now.”

She could only imagine how amused Fletcher must be. “Not until this is settled,” she said, glaring at her father’s employer.

Suddenly her father walked behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. The shock of it caught her unawares and she toppled back against him. Satisfied, he started to drag her out of the room, the heels of her shoes making tracks in the plush carpeting.

“Let me go!” she cried. When she looked up, she saw Roy Fletcher grinning widely. “Don’t you dare laugh,” she warned, stretching out her arm and pointing at him.

“Bye-bye, Ms. Wilcoff.” He waved and had the audacity to laugh outright.

“We aren’t finished!” she shouted. “Daddy, for the love of heaven, let go of me.”

“Not until we’re in the elevator,” her father said. He dragged her through the large double doors.

Fletcher walked around his desk. Julie wanted it understood that he hadn’t heard the last of her. “Furthermore, you owe me an apology!”

Fletcher’s assistant stood at her own desk, eyes twinkling. “Nice to have met you, Ms. Wilcoff.”

“You, too,” Julie said, smiling weakly.

The elevator arrived. “This is your last chance, Fletcher!” she yelled.

“No, Julie,” her father said as he entered the elevator car. The doors slid closed. “This is your last chance. I don’t want you ever pulling anything like this again. Is that clear?”

She nodded. It was ridiculous to be chastised by her father at the age of thirty, but at the moment she felt more like twelve.

It seemed to take two lifetimes for the elevator to descend to the lobby. The silence was so tense it almost crackled—like static electricity. One glance at her father, who was the calmest man she’d ever known, told her he was furious.

“You will apologize,” he said just before the doors slid open.

She’d need to think about that.

“Your car’s going to be towed,” he announced without inflection. “You took a handicapped parking space and you know better.”

She resisted stamping her foot. Yes, she did know better.

“You can either wait for me to get off work to drive you home or you can take the bus. There’s one every half hour.”

Staying on Fletcher Industries property one second longer was intolerable. “I’d rather walk,” she muttered. It would help her work off some of her anger.

“I thought you might decide that.”

“He’s an unreasonable man, Dad.”

Her father didn’t answer. “Jason,” he said to the guard who’d first questioned her. “Until you hear otherwise, my daughter is banned from the building.”

Jason nodded grimly, as if to suggest she’d better not enter this lobby again, not on his watch. “Yes, sir!”

Great. If her father had anything to say about it, the next time she set foot on Fletcher property she’d likely be shot on sight.

Nine

Roy sat back down at his desk and for the first time in months—years—he burst out laughing. He laughed without restraint. Then he returned to work, stared at his computer screen and started to laugh all over again.

The phone rang and Ms. Johnson interrupted his laugh-fest. “Your mother’s on line one.”

His mother? Not until Roy picked up the receiver did he recall that he’d just seen her the week before. He generally heard from her once a month; any more often was unusual. She’d said something about wanting him to see one of her paintings, but he’d told her he’d do that on Christmas Day.

“Hello, Mom.”

The line was silent.

“Mom?”

“Roy, is that you? You don’t sound like yourself.”

“It’s me,” he said. “What’s up?”

“Are you…” She paused, apparently searching for the right word. “You’re not laughing, are you?”

“Laughing?” he repeated, trying to sober his voice. “I was earlier.”

“A joke?” she asked.

“Actually, it was a woman. Her father’s employed here and she stormed into my office filled with righteous indignation about some nonsense or other. I have to tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything funnier.” Humor overtook him again and he burst into waves of laughter as he described Julie’s outrage. Soon his mother was laughing, too. She seemed to find the scene as hilarious as he did.

“What can I do for you?” Roy asked as he wiped his eyes.

“I wanted to make arrangements to come and paint,” she said.

“I thought you wanted me to come to your house—to look at one of your paintings.”

She had him completely confused now. Did his mother believe he was going to let her do custodial work? “What do you want to paint?”

“The lobby windows,” she said as if it should be perfectly obvious. “Remember? We talked about this a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to paint a holiday scene on the lobby windows.”

In Roy’s opinion, Christmas wasn’t all that different from any other day of the year. He’d do his duty and spend it with his mother; they’d exchange gifts against a background of decorations that brought back painful memories for him—painful because they were good. The truth was, he no longer cared much for Christmas. The holidays didn’t even resemble what he’d once known, those warm, happy times, joking with his parents, feeling their love for him and for each other. That had been a façade, he now realized. His father had become cynical and jaded as the years passed. Roy hadn’t seen that until it was too late. Far too late.

“Oh, yes. Now that you’ve reminded me, I do remember. You can paint whatever you want, Mother,” he told her. “I’ve already let the security people know.”

“I have a wonderful idea.”

She started to detail her plans—something about angels—but he cut her off. “Mother, this isn’t the Sistine Chapel. Don’t worry about it.”

“I know, but…well, I was thinking I’d paint a religious scene with angels similar to the one in this painting I was telling you about. You wouldn’t mind that, would you?”

There was no point in arguing with her even if he did object. “All right, paint your angels. I’ll have the windows cleaned.”

Her appreciative sigh came over the telephone line. “Thank you, Roy. I’ll be there Wednesday.”

“Fine.”

“I’m not going to bother you,” she assured him. “You won’t even know I’m there.”

This seemed to be his day for dealing with irrational women. He could hear the determination in his mother’s voice. For whatever reason, she felt it was important to paint a Christmas scene, and not just any scene, either. But if painting angels on his windows made her happy, then he guessed there was no harm in it.

“Fine, Mother, come and do as you wish.”

“I promise you’re going to love my Christmas angels.”

Roy rolled his eyes. “I’m sure I will, Mother.”

She seemed to be in a chatty mood and went on about dinner with her college friend. “I’m not keeping you from anything, am I?” she asked after talking nonstop for several minutes. “I know how busy you are.”

For the first time in a very long while, Roy found he actually liked speaking to his mother—as much as he was capable of liking anything other than business. “It’s fine, Mom.”

For some reason, she seemed to get choked up over that and quickly ended the conversation. He replaced the receiver and stared down at his phone, hardly knowing what to make of his mother. Women. He’d never understand them.

Roy worked for another half hour and then realized he wasn’t in the mood. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he was leaving the office. Any file he needed could be accessed from the computer at his condo—a sprawling five-thousand-square-foot penthouse suite overlooking Lake Washington.

As Roy left the elevator and walked into the lobby, he saw a truck towing a vehicle away from the handicapped parking slot.

Jason, the security guard, wore a satisfied grin. “Ms. Wilcoff’s car,” he said, answering Roy’s unspoken question. “In her rush to get in to see you, she parked illegally. Her father wasn’t willing to make allowances.”

He was enjoying this more all the time. “Where is she?”

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