Mercy pointed toward the other room. “You’ll never guess who just arrived.”

“Not Anne,” Shirley cried.

“No, worse,” Mercy said. “It’s Julie.”


Julie stepped off the elevator and strolled toward Ms. Johnson, the guardian of Roy’s office. For two days, she’d wrestled with the question of what she should do. She dreaded giving him her answer, but now that she was here, she was more convinced than ever that she’d made the right decision.

Her natural inclination was to accept Roy’s invitation and move in with him. He was correct about one thing: it was what they both wanted. Deep down, she clung to the hope that one day he’d love her. She suspected he already did, or had begun to, anyway, but refused to acknowledge his feelings. Moving in with him had been easy to rationalize. In the end, however, after a lengthy talk with her sister, Julie had to admit that she wanted more out of their relationship. The hard part would be convincing Roy that they both needed more time.

“Ms. Wilcoff.” His assistant looked up, startled. “Did I know you were coming?”

“No, no, I stopped here on my way home from school. Is Roy busy?”

The woman, who was rarely flustered, seemed so now. “Let me check.” Rather than use the intercom, she scurried away from her desk and disappeared behind Roy’s office door.

When Jason, the downstairs security guard, had let Julie into the building without so much as a raised eyebrow, she should’ve realized there was a problem. The guard had worn a funny look, as if he knew something she didn’t. Julie had wanted to ask him, but decided against it. Now Ms. Johnson was behaving in a peculiar manner, too.

A moment later, she reappeared. “He asked me to show you right in, but…”

“But?” Julie prompted when the woman hesitated. “Is Roy having a bad day?”

The older woman nodded. “You could say that. On second thought, seeing you might be exactly what he needs.”

Now that Julie had arrived at her decision, she felt an urgency to get this conversation over with as quickly as possible. Delaying it might give her just enough time to change her mind.

Roy was sitting at his desk when she entered his office. He looked up and smiled, but she noticed that the warmth she’d grown to expect was missing.

“Should I come back later?” she asked uncertainly.

“No.” He motioned for her to take a seat.

“I probably should’ve phoned first.”

“Probably,” he agreed. He relaxed in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. And waited.

“I thought I should let you know what I’ve decided.”

He nodded, his expression unchanged.

The tightness in Julie’s throat increased. She leaned forward just a little and tucked her hands beneath her thighs, something she did when she was nervous. “I guess there’s only one way to say this…”

“You’re not accepting my invitation,” he finished for her.


“Any particular reason?”

“Several, but I do want you to know how tempted I was.”

“That’s neither here nor there, is it?”

“Well, no—”

“Unless, of course, you’re figuring I’ll up the ante.”

Anger flared instantly, but Julie mentally counted to ten before responding. “No, Roy, I’m not figuring you’ll up the ante.” She stood. “I think it’d be best if we talked about this another time.”

“Now’s as good as any,” he said.

She leaned closer to his desk, desperately searching his face for the reason he’d changed. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Me?” he demanded.

“You’re looking at me like…like I’ve sprouted horns or something.”

He laughed, but even his laughter sounded sarcastic. “All right, I’ll play your little game. What would it take to get you into my condo? A monthly allowance? Jewelry? Just tell me and I’ll arrange it.”

“Don’t insult me!”

“Is a thousand a week enough? You can quit teaching, live a life of luxury.”

“I like my job!”

He snorted. “Don’t give up teaching, then. Why should I care as long as you’re there when I want you?”

Julie was beginning to feel sick. “I think I’d better leave.”

“Don’t go,” he said, although he didn’t offer her a reason to stay.

“What happened?” she asked, and made a sweeping gesture with her right arm. “Something must have happened.”

“You mean other than an unexpected visit from my stepmother?” He dragged out the last word, as if even saying it was repugnant.

“Oh.” He was talking about Aimee—which explained a great deal. “So you’re back to that.”

He arched one brow. “That?”

“All women are users and manipulators and not to be trusted, and therefore you ridicule every female you meet.” She’d had enough. When Roy was in this frame of mind, there was no reasoning with him, as she knew from experience. She turned to leave.

Roy bolted out of his chair. “Where are you going?”

She ignored the question. “Perhaps we can talk when you’re feeling less…angry.”

“No, I want this settled today.”

“Then it’s settled. You have my answer.” She started toward the door.

“I don’t accept that.”

Julie faced him and slowly shook her head. “You know what? There are some things you can’t buy, and I’m one of them.”

He scoffed. “You’ll change your mind.”

Rather than argue with him, she simply walked away. She was so furious her head felt about to explode. Mingled with the anger was a profound hurt. Roy didn’t respect her, let alone love her. He viewed her as an object he could control—and then discard when he’d finished.

“Julie?” Ms. Johnson stood as Julie walked by.

Numb now, she only half heard the other woman. All Julie wanted was to escape. She hurried toward the elevators, hitting the down button.

“I shouldn’t have let you see him,” Ms. Johnson said anxiously. “He hasn’t had a good afternoon.”

“Don’t make excuses for him,” Julie told her, stepping into the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, she slumped against the wall. Everything had become clear. She knew that some people were unable to move past the pain inflicted by others. They carried it with them for the rest of their lives, and everyone they met, everything they accomplished, was blighted by that pain. Roy, sadly, was one of those people.

When the elevator reached the lobby, Julie straightened, eager to get away from Fletcher Industries—and Fletcher. When the doors slid open, Jason stood directly in front of her, legs braced apart, hands on his hips.

“Mr. Fletcher would like to see you,” he announced.

“Tell him another time would be better,” Julie said, attempting to get past him.

“He insisted. I’m sorry, Ms. Wilcoff, but I have my orders.”

“Which are what? Shoot me on sight if I refuse to talk to your boss? This is illegal confinement, in case you weren’t aware of it.”

A smile cracked Jason’s tight lips. “Just talk to him, all right?”

“I’m supposed to take the elevator up to his office?”

Jason nodded.

“I won’t do that.”

Jason’s eyes pleaded with her. “As a personal favor to me, would you just do it?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Ms. Wilcoff, he called down here himself and asked me to keep you in the building.”

Despite her anguish, Julie laughed. “That’s quite a contrast to his earlier commands, isn’t it?”

“Can’t help that.” He shrugged. “I will say this—you’ve certainly made my job interesting.”

Julie gave an exasperated sigh. Talking to Roy, especially now, wasn’t going to solve anything. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” When it looked as if Jason was about to detain her, Julie leaped agilely to the right and then just as quickly to the left. To her astonishment, without the least bit of effort, she sprinted past the guard.

Jason appeared stunned. “How’d you do that?” he asked, chasing after her.

She was at the door, pushing it open, when he reached her. He stretched out his arms, lunged forward—and froze in place. “I can’t move,” he cried. “Something’s holding me back.”

“Good try, Jason,” she said as she walked outside, taking a moment to admire Anne’s angel windows. Too bad Roy didn’t understand the spirit of Christmas—or the nature of faith and love—the way his mother did.

“I’m not joking!”

The door closed behind her as she bolted toward the visitor parking lot. She glanced over her shoulder once to find Jason still in that odd position, one leg stretched out as if stepping forward to grab her. When he noticed her watching him, he called out for help. Smiling, Julie simply shook her head. He certainly had an inventive approach to getting her sympathy.

After she drove away from Fletcher Industries, Julie headed toward the school. It was almost dark now, but she needed to vent her frustration, so she changed into running gear and jogged toward the track. After doing a couple of quick laps, she left the field and took one of her usual routes in a friendly neighborhood near the school. Generally she avoided running in the dark, but her gear had reflective tape so she could be seen by oncoming traffic.

Her feet hit the pavement in a rhythm that matched the pounding of her heart. Her thoughts, however, flew at a far greater speed. Anger was soon replaced by sadness. Sadness became regret…and resignation. As she approached the five-mile marker, she became aware of a car driving behind her.

It could only be Roy.

He eased his car alongside her and lowered the passenger window. “You have a hard time following directions, don’t you?”

“Not at all.” She slowed to a clipped walk, her arms swinging. “Why would you say that?”

“What did you do to Jason?”

“I didn’t do a thing to him.”

Roy brought his sedan to a stop, parked it by the curb and then jumped out. Jogging around the front of the vehicle, he joined her. “That’s not what he told me.”

“Believe what you want.” She tried to hide how hard she was breathing—and how pleased she was to see him. Because, in spite of everything, she was. But that wasn’t going to change the situation.

“Come on, Julie, be reasonable. If you want an apology, you’ve got one. I was rude and arrogant.” He paced his walk to hers.

“Yes, you were.”

“Thank you for being so gracious,” he muttered.

“I don’t think we’ve got anything left to discuss. You have my answer.”

“I want you to reconsider.”

“It wouldn’t work,” she said, and she meant it. She stopped walking, and at the risk of letting down her guard, raised her hand to his cheek. “In the beginning, living together would’ve been wonderful—”