“It still can be.”

“But it wouldn’t last.”

“Nothing lasts forever, and we’d be foolish to think otherwise.”

“My parents’ love for each other did.”

“Mine didn’t.”

Julie shrugged. “I’m sorry for you, sorry for them, but I can’t let what happened between your mother and father taint my life. I’m falling in love with you, Roy, and I want it all.”

With an angry sigh of frustration, he threw back his head to stare at the dark sky. “Julie, come on! I’m willing to give you whatever you want.”

“But that’s just the point—you aren’t.”

He placed his hand over hers and brought it to his lips, kissing the tender skin of her palm. “We could have something good. Who cares if it doesn’t last a lifetime?”

“I care, Roy. I’m sorry, I really am. It would be so easy to let you persuade me, but in the end I’d have nothing left except a broken heart.” He couldn’t possibly know how much she already loved him.

Roy released her hand. “You’re like all the rest, aren’t you? You want to control me, get your hands on my success and make it your own. Naturally, your term for this is love. I’m supposed to marry you and promise to spend the rest of my life with you? Well, you can forget that.”

“Oh, yeah, the old marriage trap. It’s worked for thousands of years, but it’s not good enough for you. Silly me—refusing to settle for anything less than love and commitment.” She gestured wildly with one hand.

“I can’t do it, Julie.”

“I know.”

“Then there’s nothing more to say.”

“Obviously not.” Her throat constricted with sadness.

Neither moved. Neither wanted to be the first to turn away, Julie suspected, or to acknowledge that this relationship was over almost before it had begun.

Finally she was the one who turned and, with tears burning her eyes, ran in the opposite direction.

Twenty-Two

Saturday afternoon, Christmas music played softly in the background as Anne pulled her suitcase from the closet and laid it on her bed. She sang along with her favorite carols as she started to take sweaters from her dresser drawers. Since Marta had sent her the airline ticket online, she’d had two additional phone conversations with her. Things seemed to be looking up. Jack had made numerous attempts to speak to her and she’d agreed to meet with him—after she got the report from the private investigator. Needless to say, she didn’t tell him that part; Jack had no idea his wife was having him followed. Their conversation would depend on what the investigator discovered. Still, Jack’s willingness—indeed frantic desire—to get his wife back boded well, Anne thought. She was grateful Marta could benefit from her experience.

Marta hadn’t given Anne any new details regarding the sale of her angel portrait. However, from everything her friend had told her, the news was good. The painting would definitely sell, and for a high price, too.

A noise in the living room startled Anne, and she paused to listen again. Someone was in her home. “Who’s there?” she called out, a little nervous. She tried to remember where she’d left her portable phone.

“Mother?”

“Roy?” She hurried out of the bedroom. “What are you doing here?” Her son’s appearance shocked her. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two and looked as if he’d slept in his clothes.

“Frankly, I don’t know,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “I started driving and then all of a sudden I was on a ferry, headed to your place. I guess I just need to talk.”

“My goodness, what’s happened?” she asked, resisting the urge to take him in her arms.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d already left for New York or not.”

“I fly out in the morning. Now, sit down and tell me what’s wrong.” For once he didn’t argue. She directed him into her kitchen, sat him down at the small table and immediately started cooking. At times like this, food could be a wonderful comfort. She put on a pot of coffee, then took out a pan and set it on the stove. After that, she retrieved two eggs from the refrigerator. When she saw that she was paying more attention to creating the perfect omelet than to her son, she stopped. She pulled out a chair and sat across from Roy.

“What is it?” she asked gently.

“I asked Julie to move in with me,” he mumbled.

Anne sighed heavily. That wasn’t what she wanted for her son; in fact, she saw it as a mistake for both of them, but young people always thought they knew best.

“You don’t approve. Julie knew her father wouldn’t, either, not that it matters, anyway.”

“She turned you down?”

“Lock, stock and barrel. I guess I should be grateful.”

He certainly didn’t look grateful. If anything, Roy seemed distraught. Immediate questions came to mind, but Anne avoided asking, knowing Roy would explain everything in his own time. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I. Julie insists on what she calls love and, of course, marriage.” He spit out the words as if they tasted foul.

“You’ve had setbacks before,” Anne said, hardly able to credit this kind of reaction to a simple rejection. Privately Anne was cheering Julie for having the courage to hold out for what she wanted. It couldn’t have been easy to turn him down. When Roy went after something, he did it with a determination that was difficult to ignore.

“This is more than a setback.”

“How do you mean?”

Roy rubbed a hand tiredly down his face and shook his head. “I was foolish enough to believe she was different.”

“Julie is different. She’s special. I know you think every woman’s like Aimee, but you’re wrong.”

“No, Mother, in Julie’s case I’m right.”

“Julie isn’t anything like Aimee,” she said adamantly.

“She just proved to me she is.”

“What are you talking about?” He’d have to show her the evidence before Anne would believe him. Although she didn’t know Julie well, Anne had sensed genuine goodness in her. She felt, too, that Julie had attained the spiritual and emotional insights that only someone who’d suffered could fully understand.

Roy reached inside his jacket and pulled out a wad of folded papers. “Read this.”

Anne took the papers, opening them on the table. She put on her reading glasses and quickly scanned the contents. As far as she could see, it was a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo. “It’s some sort of settlement offer,” she said. “Oh, here’s Julie’s name.”

“I know what it is,” Roy barked, then cast her an apologetic glance. “Remember when I ran into her?”

“Yes, of course, your car collided with her bike. It’s a miracle she wasn’t hurt.”

He gave an unpleasant laugh. “Correction, Mother. She was hurt twenty-five-thousand dollars’ worth.”

Anne snatched up the papers and skimmed them again.

“She signed the settlement offer,” he pointed out. “A check’s already been issued to her in the amount stated.”

Anne knew that wasn’t possible. Yet there was Julie’s signature, plain as day.

Roy focused his gaze on the kitchen wall. “I pressured her at first, believing it was best to deal with the incident quickly rather than have her come back and bite me later. She repeatedly refused, and after a while I started to trust her.

“I finally decided she wasn’t a gold digger. She had me convinced that money didn’t mean a thing to her—and now this.”

“Roy, I don’t think—”

“You’re holding the evidence in your hand,” he countered, his voice raised in anger.

Only he wasn’t really angry, Anne realized; he was hurt and disillusioned and growing more so by the minute. Oh, this was dreadful. It was as if God had broken a promise. Anne had felt so sure that Julie was the woman she’d been praying for all these years and now this…this betrayal.

“All along, Julie was holding out for more money.” He rubbed his eyes as if he was exhausted. “I forgot about the settlement when we started dating.” He expelled a shaky breath. “Then she declined to move in with me, and that was the end of our fine romance. Except that I remembered we hadn’t settled her so-called accident and I contacted her again.”

Anne didn’t say anything, waiting for him to continue his story.

“She wouldn’t talk to me about it.”

Anne silently applauded; perhaps everything wasn’t lost, after all.

“The thing is, Mother, I thought she was different, that I could trust her.”

Anne reached across the table and patted his hand.

“Then she proved I can’t.”

“Roy, let’s not be hasty here. Yes, it looks bad, but let’s face it—if Julie was interested in your money, she would’ve moved in with you. Don’t make the mistake of judging her too harshly.”

“Harshly?” he snapped. “It isn’t just about the money. I went over to her place to see her, to talk to her. I hoped we could find a way to compromise…. All I wanted was for the two of us to be together.”

Anne bit her lower lip, afraid of what he’d say next.

“I told her if she didn’t want to move in with me, I’d be willing to set her up in her own apartment.”

After a moment, Anne managed to speak. “She wasn’t interested in that, either, I take it.”

“Not at all.”

Anne smiled to herself. Perhaps, just perhaps, Julie was everything she’d hoped for. Surely God wouldn’t be so cruel as to send another Aimee into Roy’s life.

“I reminded her that I wasn’t offering marriage, but she could have the next-best thing. I made it clear that this was my final offer. If she said no, I was walking out that door once and for all.”

“She was willing to accept that?”

He hung his head. “Apparently so. Then I brought up the settlement. I told her I wasn’t upping the ante. If she was going to get anything out of me, she’d better sign.”

“You left the papers with her?”

“Yes,” he said bitterly. “I had my attorney contact her. This afternoon I got the signed papers by messenger, with the attorney’s notice that the check had been mailed.”

Roy looked so disheartened Anne ached once again to take him in her arms the way she had when he was small. He’d come to her for solace, but there was nothing she could do or say to ease this pain. Julie hadn’t turned out to be the woman Anne had hoped, after all.

“She has her money, then?”

He nodded. “It’s what she always wanted. Twenty-five thousand—no strings. I’ll say one thing for her,” he muttered cynically. “She was good.”

Anne’s shoulders sagged with disappointment. “Live and learn,” she said under her breath.

“She came in right after Aimee that afternoon,” Roy said, speaking almost to himself.

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