“I appreciate your understanding, Julie. At some point, you and your sister might feel inclined to match me up, but it’s not what I want.”
He nodded, apparently relieved.
Julie scooped up a handful of popcorn and had just started to chew when her father glanced up again. “You were home earlier than I expected last night. Was everything okay between you and Roy?”
She swallowed quickly. “It went really well.”
“Are you going out with him again?”
Roy hadn’t asked, but she’d come to the conclusion that he would. “I think so,” and then she added, because it was true, “I hope so. Does that bother you?”
Her father grinned. “It’s a little late to be asking me that.”
“Yeah, I suppose it is. I like him, Dad.”
Her father’s grin broadened. “I guessed as much. You’ve been walking on air for the last few days.”
“Is it that noticeable?”
Her father chuckled and was about to say something else when the doorbell rang.
Julie stood, brushed off her jeans and hurried to the door. Roy Fletcher stood on the other side. She felt a surge of joy at the sight of him.
“Hi,” he said a bit sheepishly.
“Doing anything special?”
She nodded and reached for his hand, pulling him into the foyer. “Want to help?”
“Maybe.” He wrapped his arms around her waist. Nuzzling her neck with his cold nose, he whispered, “I woke up this morning and realized I missed you. By the way—” he dropped a kiss on her forehead “—I bought tickets for a Christmas concert, if you’re interested.”
“I’d love it.” Happy chills raced down Julie’s back and she sighed as he kissed her jaw, moving toward her lips. They were deeply involved in a kiss when Julie heard her father behind her.
“Yup,” he said gleefully. “I’d say my Julie likes Mr. Roy Fletcher.”
“I’d say she does, too,” Mercy shouted, and exchanged a high five with Goodness. “Just look at the two of them.”
Frowning, Shirley stood back, arms crossed. “It was too easy.”
“What do you mean?” Mercy demanded. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been working hard to bring these two humans together. And I think I did a very good job.”
Shirley shook her head. “There’s trouble in the making, I can feel it. I’m telling you something’s going to happen that none of us will like.”
“Well, don’t go looking for it,” Goodness warned.
“I’m not,” the oldest of the trio insisted, “but I can sense it coming.”
“Don’t say that,” Mercy cried, covering both ears. “Roy and Julie are perfect together. They’re falling in love, exactly like we planned.”
“I wish I could agree,” Shirley said. “But experience tells me it was too easy. Mark my words, they’re about to hit a major snag.”
“You’re just upset about that salmon,” Mercy pouted.
Goodness wasn’t thrilled about the fish free-for-all in Pike Place Market, but any chastisement would only encourage Mercy to misbehave. After Julie and Anne had left, Mercy had gone amok. Fish had been flying in all directions. Staff and customers were shouting and shrieking; chaos was rampant. It’d taken both Shirley and Goodness to get her out of the fish market.
“What could go wrong?” Goodness asked.
“Yes, just look at them,” Mercy said. Roy and Julie had started to place the ornaments on the tree. Between each carefully hung bauble, they’d pause and exchange kisses and munch popcorn. “He’s even telling her about Christmases he had as a boy. We all know he doesn’t often talk about his parents.”
“Speaking of parents,” Goodness said, glancing around. “Where’s Dean?”
“He made an excuse to leave and give them privacy.”
“That’s very considerate.”
Shirley continued to frown. “I wish I had a better feeling about all of this.”
So did Goodness, but she’d come to respect her friend’s premonitions. She could only wonder what would happen next.
It was beginning to look and feel like Christmas, Anne thought as she walked out to her rural mailbox. The neighbors, whose house could barely be seen in the distance, had strung a multicolored strand of outside lights along their roofline. A six-foot-tall Frosty the Snowman stood forlornly in their front yard. Snow was a rare commodity in the Pacific Northwest, and a fake snowman was all there was likely to be.
As Anne strolled back up the meandering driveway that led to her cottage, she browsed through the assortment of holiday cards, bills and sale flyers. She’d been so busy with her artwork and traveling into Seattle that the mail had sat forgotten in her box for three days. Pouring herself a cup of tea, she settled at the small round table in her cozy kitchen and opened the top envelope.
It was clearly a Christmas card, an expensive one, judging by the large vellum envelope. Anne opened it and slid out the card. The scene was of snow and geese and a decorated Christmas tree in the middle of a pristine meadow. Curious now, she looked inside and gasped as she read the embossed name. A sharp pain slashed through her and she held her breath, closing her eyes at such blatant cruelty.
Burton and Aimee Fletcher
This Christmas card was obviously Burton’s way of reminding Anne of what he’d done to her. Not that she needed reminders…She didn’t know why her ex-husband hated her so much. Perhaps it was because, thanks to Aimee and the divorce, Burton had lost his son. Was he blaming her for that?
Refusing to dwell on the reasons for such unkindness, she tossed the card aside and reached for the rest of her mail. Her hands shook as she struggled to regain her composure. How sad that five years after their divorce, her ex-husband was still trying to upset her. Well, Anne wasn’t going to let him. Then it occurred to her that perhaps it hadn’t been Burton at all, but Aimee. If so, Anne couldn’t begin to figure out why the other woman would want to hurt her.
Although she tried not to let the Christmas card bother her, Anne couldn’t stop thinking about it. The fact that she hadn’t recognized the return address told her Burton and Aimee had moved from the oceanfront home Anne had loved so much. She could just imagine the new house. No expense would have been spared; Burton was all too willing to spend his money on Aimee. It thrilled him to have a beautiful young woman on his arm. A woman dressed in designer clothes, wearing lavish jewelry that spoke of her husband’s success. He’d done exceptionally well over the years. Twice now, she’d heard his name in conjunction with famous Hollywood stars and their very public divorces.
The phone rang. Anne wasn’t in the mood to talk, and decided to let the answering machine pick up. Out of curiosity, she glanced at caller ID. When she saw it was Marta’s New York number, she jerked up the receiver.
Anne had been waiting anxiously ever since their last conversation. The temptation to contact her had been almost overwhelming, but she hadn’t given in. If Marta had sold the angel painting—or wanted to discuss her marriage—she would’ve called.
“Hi, Marta,” Anne said, rushing her words together.
“Merry Christmas, Anne.”
Anne so wanted this to be good news. She needed it after that dreadful Christmas card.
“How are you?” Anne asked.
Marta hesitated. “Okay, I think. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Of course I do.” From the tone of her friend’s voice Anne suspected the call had to do with Marta’s husband and not the painting.
Marta sighed, a despairing sound. “I confronted Jack. I tried to follow your advice and casually mention that I knew about the affair. Unfortunately it didn’t work. I came unglued.”
“What happened?” Anne asked softly.
“You suggested I simply tell Jack I knew what he was doing and that I was protecting myself financially. That seemed so reasonable at the time, and I thought I could do it. I really did. But when the moment came, I burst into tears and called him every foul name in the book. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry. I’ve never been one to say those kinds of things.”
“This is your life and your marriage, and your heart’s breaking.” Anne had struggled with this same vicious anger herself. Her self-esteem had been destroyed; she’d come to the end of her composure, no longer the complacent wife. Her self-recrimination had been as bitter as her resentment and her fury.
“I had no idea I was so furious.”
“I didn’t, either, when it happened to me,” Anne consoled her. She hadn’t turned on Burton, though. Instead, she’d wept until there were no more tears left and all that remained was her anger.
“On the other hand,” Marta said with strained cheerfulness, “I took your advice and had everything planned before I spoke to him.”
“I saw an attorney and had our joint assets frozen right away.”
Anne approved. “That was smart—and practical.”
“My attorney advised me to wait a week until he had everything in place. Then Jack came home smelling of her perfume and I went ballistic.”
This was so unlike Marta that Anne could scarcely picture her friend in that kind of state. “How did he react?”
Marta’s laugh was short. “Of course he denied everything.”
Just like Burton had, accusing Anne of having a filthy mind, of being insecure and ridiculous. In the beginning, she’d felt dreadful for suspecting such terrible things about her husband. Burton had insisted on an apology and in her innocence, Anne had given him one. Her face burned with mortification at the memory.
“Burton denied everything, too.”
“Then I told him about seeing an attorney,” Marta said, her voice quavering, “and…and then I threw him out.”
In every likelihood, Jack had immediately gone to the other woman, but Anne didn’t mention that.
“He…he didn’t want to leave. He kept trying to reason with me but I wouldn’t listen. He said I was imagining things—and this is the crazy part—for a moment I actually believed him. Here he was, hours late, smelling of perfume and denying everything, and because I so badly wanted to believe him, I…I almost did.”
“Of course you wanted to believe him. Jack’s your husband.”
Marta paused. “That first night was so dreadful. Jack called the apartment ten times. I wouldn’t answer the phone and he left messages for me, pleading with me to hear him out.” She released a soft hiccuping sob.
“When was that?”
“Three days ago.”
“How long has it been since you talked to him?”
“Since that night…I just can’t. I thought maybe I’d blown everything out of proportion and, Anne, I’m no longer sure what to believe. I know he’s involved with someone else, but I so desperately want him back that I’ve decided I can’t trust my own feelings. If I talk to him, I’m afraid he’ll manage to convince me that this is all nonsense and I’ll take him back.”
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