“My guess is there’s a reason you’re telling me this.”

In response, she kissed the side of his neck. “The way I feel now is the same way I felt earlier when I saw that fish fly. I didn’t believe it, although I saw it with my own eyes. I felt a little ridiculous. And I wanted to deny it, pretend it hadn’t happened. Then, as I said, someone else confirmed what I’d seen and I realized I hadn’t imagined it, after all.”

“So…” Perhaps it was the scent of her perfume that clogged his brain. But for the life of him, Roy didn’t know what she was talking about or where this rather unusual story was taking him.

“I left quickly because I had to get away to think about it.”

Ah, Roy was beginning to understand, and his hold on her tightened. “You want to leave?”

“I should.”

“What if I asked you to stay?” Now he was the one kissing her, dropping light kisses along the side of her neck, hoping to lure her into spending the night. They were both adults who knew what they wanted, and he wasn’t interested in pretending otherwise.

Her answer was a long time in coming and held a pleading quality. “Don’t ask.”

“All right.” Difficult as it was, he relaxed his grip.

She stood up from his lap and Roy immediately missed the closeness. He got to his feet, ready to protest when she retrieved her coat from the closet.

“I don’t want you to go.”

She smiled, walked over to where he stood and kissed him on the mouth. “I don’t want to go, either.”

“Then stay.” He bit his tongue before he made the mistake of saying more. This decision had to be hers.

For just a moment, Roy thought he’d succeeded, but then he watched a renewed determination settle over her. “I can’t. I just saw a fish fly through the air.”

He didn’t know what it was about that stupid fish, but it appeared to have some significance for her.

“I can’t quite believe what’s happened,” she said, “but I’m afraid I’m falling in love with you.”

Love? Roy’s heart fell. That was the last thing he wanted to hear.

Seventeen

Julie stepped back from the freshly cut Christmas tree her father had grudgingly set up in a corner of the living room. This was probably the most difficult part of the Christmas season for him.

And for her.

Her mother had particularly loved their little tree-trimming ceremony. Just a year ago, the three of them had decorated the tree together. Andy Williams’s Christmas album had played in the background and the smell of popped corn had permeated the air.

“It’s perfect,” Julie announced.

Her father shrugged. “If you say so. I brought the decorations up from the basement.” He studied the tree, and Julie had the feeling that if she hadn’t made the effort this year, he’d be willing to forgo Christmas altogether.

“Did you find the Christmas CDs?” she asked.

“Nope.”

Julie suspected he hadn’t looked. They were no doubt packed away with the decorations.

“I think I’ll see how the Huskies are doing.” He picked up the remote. The University of Washington football team was her father’s favorite.

“You aren’t going to help decorate?” Julie hated the thought of doing it all by herself, but she didn’t want to force her father to participate. Lectures from her wouldn’t do any good, as Emily’s e-mail had reminded her that morning.

Her father’s eyes grew sad. “I’m sorry, Kitten, but I just don’t have the heart for it this year.”

He hardly ever called her Kitten, a name from her childhood, and she blinked away tears. After everything they’d endured, Julie couldn’t complain about his unwillingness to take part in an activity that brought back memories he might not be ready to face. “That’s okay,” she told him, although her heart was breaking. This was hard, so much harder than she’d realized it would be.

“I can do it,” Julie said more to convince herself than her father. Maybe it wouldn’t be as painful if he stayed in the room. “You can be my adviser.”

He acquiesced with a reluctant nod. Settling down in his usual chair, he flipped through several channels, then found the Huskies game.

Humming “Deck the Halls” to herself, Julie located the string of lights and began to weave it around the base of the evergreen, working her way upward. This task had always been reserved for her father. Afterward, Julie and Emily—before her twin sister’s marriage—along with their mother, took over the task of hanging the decorations. It had been an important tradition, representing a time of family fun, laughter and music. Now it seemed bleak and sad….

“Did you check those lights before you started putting them on the tree?” her father asked during the first commercial break.

“Uh…”

“I can see that you didn’t.” He clambered out of his chair. “Oh, all right, I’ll do the lights, but that’s it.”

“Thanks, Dad!”

“I should’ve known,” he muttered. “All you wanted me to do was put up the tree, you said. Well, I did that. Next thing you know, I’m stringing the lights. Are you plotting against me?”

“Would I do that?” she asked in a singsong voice that didn’t conceal her amusement.

Since there wasn’t much she could do while he strung the lights, Julie went into the kitchen and put a package of popcorn in the microwave. It was cheating, she supposed; her mother had done it the old-fashioned way. Still, popcorn was popcorn.

“If you’re going to be popping corn, I want the buttered kind.”

“Yes, Dad.”

He was almost finished with the lights by the time she returned to the living room, carrying a large bowl filled to overflowing with popcorn. She set it in the center of the coffee table and got down on all fours to sort through the boxes he’d brought up from the basement. Pulling out the small stack of CDs held together by a rubber band, she placed it conspicuously beside the bowl.

“Oh, go ahead, then. Put one on.”

She smiled and did exactly that, choosing a selection of instrumental Christmas classics.

Her father plugged in the lights. “I’ll probably be hanging the ornaments, too,” he grumbled. He paused long enough to grab a handful of popcorn. “Did I ever tell you about Christmas the first year your mother and I were married? We were too poor to afford a tree. A friend gave your mother a poinsettia, and we put our gifts under that.” He smiled at the memory. “It was the most pitiful-looking thing, but you’d have thought it was as grand as a fifteen-foot tree.”

Of all the gifts Julie had received through the years, perhaps the best was the fact that her parents had loved each other deeply.

“What I remember was all of us attending Christmas Eve services and then coming home and opening one gift each.” Julie and Emily were eight years old before they realized that the one gift they were allowed to open always turned out to be pajamas.

“I’m going to miss Mom’s turkey stuffing,” Julie said, sitting back on her heels. For both Thanksgiving and Christmas, her mother had prepared the traditional turkey. Every year she fretted over her stuffing and every year she outdid herself.

“Yours wasn’t bad,” her father assured her.

Like her mother, Julie had worried excessively over her first attempt at cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. “Thanks, Dad. I guess I must’ve picked up something all those years I spent helping Mom.” It felt good to be able to talk freely about her mother. Her father seemed to revel in it, too, although she knew he’d felt wary about reliving the past. Sharing memories made missing her less painful, and Julie knew that these memories would get them through the Christmas season. There would be poignant, tearful moments, but happy ones, too.

“Are you cooking a turkey for Christmas?” her father asked.

Julie hadn’t given the matter much thought. Christmas was still two weeks away, and it seemed a bit early to be thinking about what she’d serve. “I suppose.”

“Seems to me we had leftover turkey for at least a week after Thanksgiving.”

Julie took out the ornaments, examining each one. “Would you rather I made something else?”

“No, no, I like my turkey. It just seems a waste to buy a big bird for the two of us.”

“I could find a smaller one.”

“Or…maybe we should invite a few guests.”

“Guests? Who?” All their family was on the East Coast. Emily was in Florida, and longtime friends had their own families.

“What about Roy and his mother?”

He’d led into that suggestion with such ease Julie hadn’t seen it coming. For a moment, she was too surprised to respond.

“What do you think?” he asked, watching her.

“Well,” she said cautiously, “I don’t know.”

Her father brought the stepladder from the kitchen as he continued his task. “I met Anne this week, and she’s a sensible woman.”

Julie had liked Roy’s mother immensely—and she’d been given real insight into Anne’s son. On Saturday evening, she’d gone to his home with a new awareness of him, an appreciation for the man he was. Consequently her guard had been down. She’d felt as if her heart would shatter with joy when he kissed her. More than that, she’d sensed there could be a profound connection between them. But she had no way of knowing if Roy felt the same things she did. She believed he did, but that could be just wishful thinking.

“You’re not saying anything.” Her father frowned at her over the top of his reading glasses as he stood on the stepladder by the tree.

“That might be nice, but I’m not sure they’ll accept.”

“It won’t do any harm to ask.”

She agreed. This suggestion was unlike her father—but then it dawned on Julie that he might be saying something else. “You like Mrs. Fletcher, Dad?” It was logical; after all, he was alone, and so was Roy’s mother.

Her father paused, the string of lights dangling between his hands. “I know what you’re thinking, Julie.”

“Dad, Mrs. Fletcher is a wonderful woman.”

“I know she is, but I want to make something clear right now, and this is important. Anne Fletcher could never interest me romantically. No woman could replace your mother.”

“Dad, I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t,” he said, cutting her off. “But it’s best to tell you that I don’t plan to remarry, ever. I loved your mother, and frankly, there’s no room in my heart for anyone else.”

“You might feel differently down the road. Mom wouldn’t want you to be lonely.”

“I won’t be. I have every intention of working as long as I can and living a productive life.”

“I certainly hope so,” she teased.

“But I’ll live the rest of my life alone.”

“That decision is yours.”

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