“The only person she embarrassed was herself,” Roy said.

“At least she was woman enough to admit it.”

Roy looked thoughtfully at his executive assistant. She’d spoken frankly in a way he’d never expected. “What are you suggesting?”

“I’m saying that perhaps it’s time…” She hesitated.

“Go on,” he urged. He might as well hear it all.

“Perhaps,” she said, “you should talk to Julie about this.”

Roy nodded, swallowing hard. Perhaps she was right.

When she was this angry, the best thing for Julie to do was run—as if a pack of wolves was after her. The minute she got home, she tossed aside her shorts and changed into running gear. After a few perfunctory warm-up exercises, she took off. As her shoes hit the pavement, her thoughts chased each other around and around. Six miles passed, six pounding, breathless miles, before she found some measure of serenity. By then, her calves ached and her lungs burned. It was pitch-dark as she ran back to her neighborhood, cheered by the bright display of Christmas lights on the homes along her route.

As she rounded the corner to her house, she noticed a dark sedan parked in front. Her father was home, too; she saw his light blue car in the garage beside hers.

Instead of waiting for her inside the house, Roy Fletcher sat on the top porch step. She came up the walkway, bent over and braced her hands against her knees as she caught her breath. “What are you doing here?” she asked between gasps. If he wanted to resume their argument, she’d walk into the house and slam the door.

Roy stood and brushed his hands against his sides. “I don’t know. It seemed like a nice afternoon for a drive.”

“Sure it did,” she said sarcastically, still breathing hard.

“Would you believe I just happened to be in the neighborhood?”

She shook her head.

“All right,” he said. “Ms. Johnson suggested the two of us talk.”

“Talk…” Julie straightened, not hiding her shock. The great Mr. Roy Fletcher was here to make peace.

“This time I was the one out of line.” Apologies didn’t come naturally to this man; he seemed to have trouble saying the words.

Julie stared into his eyes to see if she could judge his sincerity. As far as she could tell, he meant it. She smiled and offered him her hand. He took it, then smiled back—a smile that was warm and lazy and completely sexy.

“Furthermore, I’m willing to make up for my rudeness,” he told her.

“Really? And how do you intend to do that?”



He pulled a BlackBerry out of his pocket and looked up, meeting her eyes. “What about tonight?”

Although tempted, Julie already had dinner in the Crock-Pot and test papers to grade. “Another night would be better.”

He frowned, then suggested, “Friday? That works for me.”

“Sorry, I’ve got a game.”

“What sort of game?”

“I’m the girls’ soccer coach.”

“Oh.” He scrolled down his appointment calendar. “Saturday evening is free from seven o’clock on.”

“Yes, but…” Julie paused. “Isn’t that the parade of ships?” This was one of her favorite Christmas traditions. Last year, she and her father had managed to get her mother down to the waterfront. It had been a highlight of the season for so many years, and she hated to miss it. Especially now, when the event held such a significant memory for her.

Roy glanced up. “Yes, I believe Saturday night is the annual Christmas parade of ships.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to see that, would you?” she asked hesitantly.

“Actually I would. I have a good view of Lake Washington if you’d like to see it from my condo.”

“Dinner, too?”

Grinning, he nodded.

“Wonderful.” Julie was thrilled not only with the opportunity to view the boats festooned with their Christmas lights but to know Roy better. His coming here was encouraging. Then a thought sobered her. They continued to trip over the matter of that settlement again and again. “You have to agree to one thing first.”

“Fine, let’s hear it.”

She threw back her shoulders. “If you say a word about the settlement or mention money even once, I’m out of there.”

He seemed about to argue. “If you insist,” he finally said.

“I do.”

“Then I guess I have to agree.”

“Good.” She smiled and raised both hands, palms up. “See? That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

“As a matter of fact,” he said with another grin, “it was.”

Julie laughed, walking past him and into the house. She opened the front door and looked over her shoulder, silently inviting him inside. “I should ask my father to escort you from the house, just so you know how it feels.”

“Yes, well—”

“Never mind.” Her father sat in the living room reading the evening paper. He lowered it as Julie walked in, Roy Fletcher a few steps behind.

“Dad, make Mr. Fletcher welcome while I shower, okay?”

Her father’s eyes widened. “What’s this?”

“We made peace,” Julie explained.

Dean turned to Julie and then his employer. “Somehow, I knew you would.” He set his newspaper aside. “Do you play poker, Mr. Fletcher?”

“Now and then. I might be a little rusty.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem.” Her father rubbed his hands together and gave a stagy wink. “I’ll get a deck.”


Anne couldn’t stop smiling. Everything was working out so well between her son and Julie Wilcoff. With Eleanor Johnson, Roy’s assistant, feeding her information, Anne had learned that he’d gone to Julie’s yesterday afternoon—even though he’d thrown her out of his office. Her son had actually sought out this delightful and strong-willed young woman.

That alone was enough to make Anne weak with joy, but then she’d found out that Roy had gone a step further and asked Julie for a date. He’d invited her to his home on Saturday! Ms. Johnson was busy contacting caterers. He was having Julie over for dinner, and then they were going to watch the Christmas parade of ships.

This was almost more than Anne had dared to hope, the best early Christmas gift she could ever receive.

Although Anne had only met Julie briefly, she’d taken an instant liking to the young woman. Julie wasn’t at all what she’d expected, although that didn’t matter. Julie was nearly as tall as her son and solidly built, but as Anne had learned a long time ago, it was character and not appearance that counted. Roy had fallen for a pretty face and an empty heart once, and he’d suffered the consequences. So had Anne….

“Oh, my,” she murmured aloud, irritated with herself. Describing Julie as “solid” made her sound dumpy and unattractive, and nothing could be further from the truth. She just wasn’t Aimee, who was petite and blond and delicate. Julie was none of those things, and that was all to the good. Besides, solid applied to her character, solid and direct, unlike Aimee’s wispy charm.

Anne had spent a second day at the office, finishing her angels. Home now, her spirits soaring, she stood barefoot in the kitchen chopping vegetables for a huge salad when the phone rang. She automatically checked her caller ID and noticed the New York area code.

It could only be Marta.

“Hello,” Anne said, pleased to hear from her friend. The possibility that the angel painting might sell for an astronomical eight thousand dollars—or more—had set her heart racing with hope and excitement.

“Anne, it’s Marta. How are you?”

“Fabulous! It was so nice to see you. I’ve been feeling great ever since.”

“I’m glad,” Marta said.

“How are you?” Anne was concerned about her friend’s marital situation.

“I’m doing fine.”

Somehow Anne doubted that. “And Jack?”

Marta hesitated. “He’s still being Jack.”

Anne knew then. Marta hadn’t confronted her husband, because the potential aftermath of bringing the truth into the open outweighed the pain. Anne didn’t blame Marta. Not so long ago she’d faced a similar situation; she understood and sympathized.

“I’m calling about the painting,” Marta said brightly. A little too brightly.

Anne held her breath. “Did my angel sell?”

“It’s not for sale,” Marta said flatly.

Taken aback, Anne said nothing.

“Paintings are always more attractive when the artist refuses to sell, my dear.”

“Oh.” To Anne’s way of thinking, that was dishonest.

“It is your personal favorite, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes, but…” Four thousand dollars was half a year’s worth of mortgage payments. Anne had begun to hope, to do something she’d told herself she never would, and that was to count on selling one of her paintings. “I would like to sell the angel….”

“But only if the price is right.”

“Well, yes…”

“That’s what I told her.”


“Mrs. Gould. She’s one of the Berkshire Goulds. She’s got oodles and oodles of money.”

“She likes my angel?” Anne was almost afraid to hope.

“Likes her?” Marta asked, laughing. “Evelyn is determined to have her, but I wouldn’t sell. I explained the situation and told her I needed to discuss it with you first.”

“Has she offered eight thousand dollars?”


Anne’s heart fell. If an extremely wealthy woman hadn’t offered that much for a painting she supposedly wanted, then perhaps she wasn’t interested, after all.

“She offered more.” Marta giggled.

“Ten thousand?” Anne whispered.


“And you turned her down?”

“Of course I did. I had to confer with you. Besides, if we cave too easily, she might suspect you really want to sell it.”

“Oh, Marta, I don’t know if we’re doing the right thing.”

“Trust me, Anne. I’ve been in this business for years. I know how to work this buyer. Furthermore, my commission from this sale is my Christmas gift to you.”

Anne was astonished. “I can’t let you do that!”

“Yes, you can and you will.”

“But I want to make it on my own, Marta.” This was one of the very reasons Anne had chosen to paint under the name of Mary Fleming. She didn’t want her friends’ charity.

“If you knew Mrs. Gould, you’d know that she’s—”

“I’m talking about the commission.”

The line went quiet for a moment. “Actually,” Marta confessed, “I might end up moving in with you at some point, and I was hoping to pave the way in case that happened.”