Anne leaned closer, certain she’d misunderstood. “Aimee was five years ago.”

“No, Aimee was three days ago.”

Anne thought her heart had stopped beating. She needed a couple of minutes to calm herself before she asked, “Aimee came to see you? Recently?”

Roy’s gaze darted to hers. “I didn’t mean to say anything—I shouldn’t have. I apologize, Mom, for bringing up unpleasant memories.”

“Tell me,” Anne insisted.

Roy tilted back his chair, staring at the ceiling. “She stopped by the office, unannounced and unwelcome.”

“Whatever for?”

“Why does Aimee do anything?” Roy said sarcastically. “She wanted something.”

“What?”

Roy shook his head as if to say he still didn’t really believe it. “She came with some ridiculous story about my father loving me and wanting to see me again.”

“I know Burton’s tried to contact you,” Anne said.

“Who told you that?”

She didn’t want to get his assistant in trouble, but Ms. Johnson had volunteered the information. “It wouldn’t do you any harm to talk to him, you know.”

“I don’t have anything to say to the man,” Roy said bluntly.

Anne felt herself go rigid. “It’s been five years since you last talked to your father. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think it’s time you two called a truce.” As difficult as it was, she gave Aimee credit for supporting Burton’s desire to make peace with his son.

“We don’t have anything in common.”

“He’s your father.”

“He betrayed us both.”

Anne didn’t have a response to that. She wasn’t in any position to defend Burton, and wouldn’t. “At least Aimee tried to help.”

Roy snickered. “Don’t go painting her in any chivalrous light. She had her own agenda. She always has. I should’ve recognized it at the time, but fool that I am, I took her at face value.”

“What do you mean?”

Roy looked away, as if he’d said more than he intended. “I called Dad.”

“Oh, Roy, I’m so glad you did.” Part of that was a lie, but for Roy’s sake she was grateful. A son, no matter what his age, needed his father.

He shook his head. “The conversation didn’t go well, but I did learn an important piece of information.”

Anne waited for him to explain.

“Aimee wants something big and expensive for Christmas, and Dad told her if he was going to plunk down thousands of dollars, she could do something for him.”

“I see.”

“He got what he wanted,” Roy murmured. “I phoned him, just like she knew I would.”

Aimee’s manipulativeness had left Roy deeply cynical toward women; Julie’s actions, unfortunately, had only confirmed that cynicism.

“How is your father?” Anne asked despite herself.

“You honestly care?” Roy’s eyes were skeptical. “The man betrayed you, cheated you, and now you’re concerned about his well-being? Don’t be, Mother. Dad is getting exactly what he deserves.”

“And what’s that?”

He laughed. “Aimee. She’s spending money faster than he can earn it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

He cast her a doubting look.

Anne grinned. “Okay, that’s not entirely true. But I really don’t harbor any ill will toward your father. I’ve gotten on with my life. After the divorce, I felt used up and old, but now…” She got to her feet, still talking, and poured them each a coffee. “Well, the thing is, I found a whole new part of myself. I believe that our world was created with a sense of order. For every loss, there’s a gain. Sometimes we’re so blinded by the loss that we don’t see the gain, don’t recognize the gift.” She paused, handing him his cup. “There’s a wonderful gift for you in Aimee’s betrayal, and one day you’ll discover it.”

Roy gazed at her with puzzlement and what seemed to be renewed respect. “You’re a better person than I’ll ever be.”

Anne hated to ask again, but she was curious about her ex-husband. “Is your father…well?”

“What you really mean is, does he have any regrets?” Roy supplied for her.

There was some truth in that. “I don’t think your father would admit any regrets to you, would he?”

Roy agreed. “Not in so many words, but it was easy enough to read between the lines.”

Anne held her breath. So often she’d speculated about Burton and his new life. “Other than financially, is everything as it should be?”

“I don’t think so. My guess is that Dad’s having trouble keeping up with Aimee, uh, physically. Now that he’s in his sixties, his work pace is taking its toll. He didn’t sound happy.”

“How did he sound?”

“Tired, exasperated, overworked.”

“I thought your father would’ve retired by now.”

“He can’t,” Roy said, “not with the speed at which Aimee is spending his money, and that’s only the half of it.”

“What do you mean?”

Roy shrugged and she thought for a moment that he wasn’t going to tell her. “It also seems that Aimee’s taken a liking to some of his clients—men who are seeking comfort after their divorces.”

Anne was shocked. “Your father actually told you that?”

“Not exactly, but close.” He shook his head in disgust. “She spouted all these platitudes about loving my father and building a bridge between us, and it was all lies.” A muscle leaped in the side of his jaw. “She came with a purpose, which she advanced with her lies. She wanted something from me, just the same as Julie did.”

Obviously, it was Julie who was on his mind. “No matter what papers Julie signed,” Anne said, “I still don’t think she’s anything like Aimee.”

“I’ve been fooled before, and I’m not going to let it happen again.”

“I know.” It broke her heart to admit that. “I wish I wasn’t leaving you over Christmas.”

He frowned, and then smiled. “Do you honestly think it bothers me? Christmas doesn’t mean a thing to me.”

“But, Roy, it should.” Her heart ached for her only child. Nothing had worked out as she’d hoped. Her prayers, like so many before, had gone unanswered. Roy would be alone on Christmas Day.

Twenty-Three

Three days before Christmas, Julie knew this was destined to be the worst one of her life. She was already dealing with the loss of her mother and now she’d lost Roy, too.

Even her twin sister’s call hadn’t raised her spirits. Julie ended the conversation and then wandered into the living room, where her father sat watching the evening news.

One look at her, and Dean grabbed the remote control and muted the volume. “That bad?”

“I feel just awful.”

“Because of Fletcher?”

Slumping into the chair next to him, Julie nodded. “I don’t know what happened. I went to see him on Wednesday afternoon, and it was as if he’d shut me out of his life.” Julie still didn’t understand it. He’d been so cold and defensive; nothing she said had reached him. And their second meeting, a day later, was even worse.

“Is it the settlement money?”

She shrugged. She’d never intended to accept a dime of that settlement, but Roy had angered her so much she’d agreed to his terms out of pure frustration. He seemed to believe all women were greedy for money and power.

“I was tired of fighting with him,” she said in a subdued voice.

“I know. Fletcher’s gone far in the business world by the sheer strength of his determination.”

“Only in this instance, he’s wrong.”

“I know, Kitten.”

Her last angry exchange with Roy lingered in her mind. Furious, she’d signed those stupid papers. It was what he’d expected, what he’d demanded she do—and so she had. But oh, how she regretted it. She hated to end their relationship on such a negative note, but what choice did she have? Roy had cast her from his life as if she meant nothing.

“I don’t know if he’s capable of love,” she murmured, hoping her father had some consolation to offer.

“Every human has the capacity to love,” he said with such confidence that her heart surged with hope. “But a person’s ability to love is only equal to his or her openness in receiving it.”

Julie valued her father’s wisdom. He was right; nothing she could say or do at this point had the potential to reach Roy. He had certain beliefs about her and about all women, and he’d made certain assumptions as a result.

“I’d like one last opportunity to talk to him,” she said. Not because she expected to change his mind. That seemed doubtful. All she wanted was an opportunity to undo the damage they’d inflicted on each other.

Her father seemed to weigh her words. “Do you think seeing him again is wise?”

“I…don’t know. Probably not,” she said, but the need still burned within her. “I just feel so bad about the way we ended everything….”

“Fletcher’s been out of the office for a few days, but he’s back now.”

“It’s almost Christmas and…in the spirit of the holidays I thought…”

“You thought he might listen?”

“At least long enough to understand my reasons.”

“Do you want to do this for you or for Fletcher?” her father asked.

The question was a valid one. Julie mulled it over, then answered as honestly as she could. “I don’t know. I guess it’s for me. I don’t feel right leaving things the way they are. I can’t imagine he’ll see me, but I have to try.”

“Then write him a letter.”

“A letter,” Julie repeated. “I doubt he’d read it.”

“Does that matter?” her father asked. “You’ll have said what you feel is necessary. Then you can let him go.”

“True,” she admitted, the idea taking shape. The more she thought about it, the more she realized how much had been left unsaid.

“Whether Fletcher reads it or not is up to him,” her father said. “When feelings run this strong, sometimes letters are the best form of communication. There’s less room for misunderstanding or argument.”

Julie immediately felt relieved. Writing Roy, explaining her thoughts and emotions, was a solution she hadn’t considered before. She might never learn if he’d read her letter, but she’d have the satisfaction of knowing she’d done everything she could. If he responded, good; that would mean there was still a chance. If, as she expected, she never heard from him again, she could find peace in the knowledge that she’d tried.

“Oh, Dad, I don’t think I appreciate you nearly enough.”

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