“What are you going to do?”

“Right now, nothing. I’ve hired a private investigator. It sounds so stupid, so clichéd. You’re the only person I’d admit this to, but I’m paying a man outrageous fees to follow my husband around and photograph him with another woman. Is that sick or what?”

“Oh, Marta. Of course it isn’t. A detective might be the only means you have of learning the truth.” Early on, before the breakup of her own marriage, Anne had considered the same thing. In retrospect she wished she’d done it. Photographic evidence might have opened her eyes to what Burton was doing.

“All I want is for this to go away. I think now I should’ve waited until after Christmas, but, Anne, I couldn’t. I couldn’t endure this for another second. I couldn’t pretend and look the other way anymore.”

“I’m so sorry, Marta,” Anne told her friend. “I wouldn’t have wished this on you for anything.”

“Oh, Anne, I don’t know what to do. Christmas is only a week away. I can’t deal with this and the holidays, too. What am I going to tell our friends? How can I possibly face everyone?” The questions came between deep sobs.

“Oh, Marta, I’m so sorry,” she said again.

“Why is this happening to me?”

Anne had asked herself the same question hundreds of times. “Would you like to fly out to Seattle? Stay with me and take a few days to collect your thoughts. Let your attorney know you’re coming and just get on a plane.”

“I can’t believe you’d do that for me,” Marta said, and continued to sob.

“I’ve walked in your shoes. I know how hard this is. What do you want to do?”

“Would you mind terribly coming to New York? I’d pay for your ticket. I just need someone with me—someone who understands.”

“Of course I wouldn’t mind! I’ll check on flights the minute we get off the phone.” Roy wouldn’t care; Anne was sure of that. Her son would be just as happy to spend Christmas Day at Julie’s. With Anne in New York, he’d be free to do so.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you, Anne. I’d fly out and join you, but I don’t want to leave. There’s no telling what Jack would do if I were to vacate the house.”

Naturally her friend was right. “That’s fine, Marta. I’ll come to New York for Christmas and be your moral support.”

“Thank you,” her friend whispered again. “I don’t know how I’d cope if it wasn’t for you.”

“We’ll have a wonderful Christmas,” Anne tried to assure her, although she knew what Marta was experiencing. The pain and shock…

“Oh, Anne, I’m just shocked that Jack would be so stupid.”

“He might come to his senses yet.”

“I’m not counting on it,” Marta said. “He seemed so sincere, so horrified. He kept insisting I was wrong. I never knew he was capable of such lies.”

It hurt just to listen to her friend’s agony. Anne didn’t have the heart to tell her that the pain, even when dulled by time, had a way of resurfacing when you least expected it. Anne had felt its sting only moments earlier when she’d opened her mail.

Marta grew quiet, as if she was composing herself. She took a deep, audible breath. “I’ve been so caught up in my own troubles I forgot to mention what’s been going on with your painting.”

Although she was dying to know, Anne was prepared to put it off. “That’s not important now.”

“But it is.”

“Did Mrs. Gould decide against it?” Anne asked. She’d never been comfortable with letting the buyer assume she had no intention of selling her angel.

“No, she’s more interested than ever, but now there’s another prospective buyer.”

“That’s wonderful,” Anne said excitedly.

“This one claims she’ll match or beat anything Mrs. Gould offers.”

“Are you saying that two customers have gotten into a bidding war?” Anne was almost afraid to guess what this could mean financially.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“How…how much?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“Yes!” she cried. “Tell me.”

“Well, first of all,” Marta teased, “I’m not positive the artist’s willing to sell it.”

“Oh, Marta.” Anne couldn’t help it; she giggled.

“It’s an incredible painting, and everyone who sees it is drawn to it. Your angel has become the most talked-about piece in our gallery. She’s aroused more interest than anything else on display, and of course, the fact that it’s December is a plus. You couldn’t have painted her at a more appropriate time.”

Anne’s heart swelled with pride. “Oh, you’re making me feel so good!”

“That’s what the painting does, you know. People look at your angel and they feel better about life.”

“Has she helped you?” Anne asked.

“Oh, yes,” Marta replied. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s a soothing quality about your angel. It’s…almost as if I were standing close to God.”

Anne regretted having given the angel up so quickly. Even now, she didn’t know if she’d imagined the vision or it had actually happened. She chose to believe the angel had been real, but who was to know?

“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts.”

“I…I’m not sure,” Anne admitted.

“Well, let me know before I make a deal.”

While Anne loved the angel, ten thousand dollars or more for one of her pieces would go a long way toward establishing her credibility in the art world—and paying her mortgage.

“I’ve been offered twenty-five thousand for it,” Marta announced.

Anne felt faint. “How much?”

“You heard me right.”

“I—I can’t believe it! You’ve got to be making this up.”

“No, and the bid is climbing.”

“Marta, I have no idea what to say.”

“Just call and tell me when your flight’s coming in and I’ll be there to pick you up, check in hand. We do want to sell this painting, don’t we?”

Because she knew it was the right thing, Anne said, “Yes, we do.” Burton would probably never hear about her success, but that didn’t matter. Anne Fletcher was an artist and an unusual one at that. She could support herself with what she made on her paintings.

Nineteen

Roy caught himself whistling as he dressed for work Monday morning. He took a long look at himself in the mirror and saw something he hadn’t seen in years. Happiness. It had sneaked up on him and could only be attributed to his relationship with Julie. He liked the way she made him feel, the way she challenged him and made him laugh. He liked her warmth and honesty. He’d discovered that he wanted to be with her more and more—all the time, in fact. And this had happened in only a few weeks. He often found himself impatient when they were apart, eager to be with her again. Suddenly he wanted—no, needed—to hear the sound of her voice.

Without further thought he picked up the phone.

Julie answered on the second ring.

“What are you doing?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

“Roy, it’s six o’clock in the morning. I’m getting ready for school. What do you suppose I’m doing?”

“I was hoping you were thinking of me.” He straddled a kitchen chair, grabbing his coffee mug. The best Colombian coffee and conversation with Julie—not a bad way to start his day.

“I was thinking of you,” she admitted reluctantly.

“Will you have dinner with me tonight?”

“I’ve got a game.”

“After the game?”

“I’d love to.”

His heart soared at her excitement. Then again, it could be an echo of his own joy. He shook his head. This was crazy. He knew better than to let himself be swayed by feelings, especially feelings for a woman. Hadn’t he learned that by now? Yet here he was, falling head over heels for Julie and he was doing it with his eyes wide open. A rational voice in his mind urged him to resist before he made another costly mistake. But a louder and more persistent voice promised him Julie was different….

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Do we have to go anywhere?” she asked. “Dad’s meeting some friends tonight. I can cook.”

“After teaching all day and coaching a soccer game, you won’t feel like cooking. Let me take you out.”

“Nonsense. I’ll start a stew in the Crock-Pot and it’ll be ready when I get home from school.”

Roy hadn’t had regular home-cooked meals since he was a teenager. His mother, no matter how busy she was, had insisted on dinners together as a family. More often than not, his father had business to attend to, but Roy had always eaten with his mother, at least until he left for college in Seattle.

“Unless you don’t want stew? I just thought it was a great wintertime meal and—”

“Your stew’s wonderful,” he assured her. She could serve dill pickles and he wouldn’t have cared. All Roy wanted was to spend time with Julie. He had no idea where this was going and for the moment contented himself with the thrill of the ride.

They agreed to meet at her house at seven. Roy found himself watching the clock all day. The morning seemed to crawl by, and his mind wasn’t on his various meetings or the decisions he had to make. Even Ms. Johnson commented.

Roy brushed away her concern. He didn’t admit it was Julie Wilcoff who occupied his thoughts, but he suspected Ms. Johnson had guessed as much.

That evening, at one minute to seven, Roy stood on Julie’s front porch, clutching a bottle of excellent wine, and rang the doorbell. She answered immediately, her hair still wet from the shower. She’d combed it away from her face, and he noticed again how lovely she was, even without makeup. Her skin was smooth and healthy, her eyes bright, and her lips, with only the slightest color, looked as if they ached to be kissed. He knew he ached to kiss her. She wore slacks and a green sweater, and just seeing her turned his blood to steam. This was what he’d been fantasizing about all day, what he’d wanted from the moment he’d climbed out of bed that morning.

“You’re right on time,” she said, reaching for his free hand. With a slight tug she brought him into the house.

Roy saw that he’d been standing on the porch like a schoolboy, simply staring at her. He knew he should wait before he kissed her, but he couldn’t stop himself. He set the wine on a hallway table crowded with gloves and unopened mail and, without removing his coat, brought her into his arms.

Julie went to him willingly and when their lips met, it was the first time that day he’d felt completely relaxed. She melted against him and he felt the soft fullness of her breasts against his chest. His head swam. The sensation their kisses evoked in him nearly sent him over the edge.

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