“What are you going to do?” Heidi asked curiously.
Beth needed to think. At first she’d been numb with shock, but now she was angry. “He planned this. He knew all along.”
“Beth, that’s not fair. How could he have?”
“We never exchanged last names. And he changed his first name, didn’t he? He tricked me.”
Heidi shook her head. “Didn’t you tell me you shortened your name to Beth after your divorce?”
“I did,” she admitted. “I wanted to make a fresh start, so I decided that from then on, I’d just use Beth.”
“Perhaps John did the same thing,” Heidi suggested.
Beth wasn’t willing to concede the point. “His middle name is Peter,” she said grudgingly. “It never occured to me…”
“He is gorgeous, though.”
“His good looks are the only thing he has going for him,” Beth mumbled.
“That isn’t what you told me earlier.”
“What do you mean?” Heidi wasn’t usually this argumentative. Clearly, she was taking Peter/John’s side, and that infuriated Beth.
“Don’t you remember what you said last week?” Heidi asked. “You told me Peter is everything your first husband wasn’t.”
“I said that?” What an idiot she’d been. What an imbecile. She’d allowed John to make a fool of her. He knew who she was. He had to have known. How could he not? But maybe…just maybe, he didn’t. Could they have found each other online? No one would believe something this random could actually happen. It was more than bizarre. It was completely and totally implausible…wasn’t it?
“You can’t leave him standing there waiting for you like that,” Heidi insisted. “That would be cruel.”
Beth didn’t respond, still trying to figure out how this had happened. It dawned on her that he couldn’t have known, since he’d been the one to suggest she meet him outside the gazebo. If he’d known, he would never have given her the opportunity to see him first and then walk away. Unlikely though it seemed, she had to conclude that he was as much in the dark as she was.
“Did you hear me?” Heidi demanded. “You have to call him on his cell.”
“No, you have to,” Beth said frantically.
“I beg your pardon?” Heidi looked confused.
“Use my phone.” She thrust it at her friend.
“Why me? Beth, you’re the one who should talk to him, not me.” She refused to accept the phone.
“I can’t…He’ll recognize my voice.” He would, too. It might’ve been almost ten years since the divorce, but that wouldn’t matter. John would know her voice the same way she would his.
“You don’t want him to find out it’s you?” Heidi asked, sounding even more confused.
“No. Not yet. I need to think.” This awkward situation had to be handled delicately or John might assume she’d tricked him—which was what she’d suspected about him.
“Here—I’ll do it,” Heidi said and snatched the phone away from her. “What should I tell him?”
Beth hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I—I’m not sure.”
“Should I say something came up at the last minute and you had to leave?”
“But if he asks what it is…” Beth was growing desperate.
“He won’t,” Heidi said. “Anyway, something did come up, so it isn’t like you’re lying.”
Beth shrugged helplessly.
“Give me his cell phone number.” Heidi held out her hand.
Digging through her purse, Beth nearly dumped the entire contents in the snow.
“Relax,” Heidi said in an annoyingly calm voice. “Re-e-lax.”
Beth scowled at her, and as soon as she found the crumpled slip of paper with his phone number, she slapped it in Heidi’s hand.
Heidi punched out the number, holding the phone close to Beth’s ear.
Peter/John answered on the first ring. “Hello.”
“Is this Peter?”
“Beth? Where are you?”
Heidi glanced at Beth, who gestured for her to continue speaking. “I’m so sorry, Peter, but I can’t make it. Something, uh, came up—at the last minute and I can’t keep our appointment. I’m so disappointed.” This last part was said with feeling.
“I am, too,” Peter responded. “I didn’t know what to think when you didn’t show up at four.”
“I’d like to meet you. I really would—just not now. Can we arrange another time?”
Beth glared at her friend. She made a frenzied cutting motion with one hand but Heidi ignored her, turning her back on Beth.
Beth hurried around in order to face her. Once more, she made exaggerated cutting motions, using both hands to emphasize the point.
“Next Friday, after Christmas, would be perfect,” Heidi went on to say. “Since I was the one who let you down, please come to my place. Yes, yes, I’m sure.”
Beth’s mouth fell open. Her friend had really crossed the line with that one. Before she could stop her, Heidi rattled off Beth’s address.
A moment later, Heidi clicked the cell phone shut and returned it to Beth.
“Have you gone insane?” Beth cried. “You gave him my address!”
“Well, yes, that’s what you wanted me to do, isn’t it?”
“No…yes. Oh, I don’t know.” Beth’s ears felt frozen and she covered them with her hands. She didn’t dare put on her hat until they were far from the gazebo.
“That gives you six days to prepare him.”
“You’re worried about John?” Some friend Heidi had turned out to be!
“Not John,” Heidi explained patiently. “I’m concerned about Peter, the man you fell in love with over the last six months.”
Then it hit Beth, something she’d completely forgotten. “He’s married.”
“What do you mean, he’s married?”
“A friend told me she’d heard John remarried and if that’s the case, he’s either divorced a second time or cheating on his wife.” A sick feeling attacked her stomach.
“My guess is that your friend was talking about some other John.”
“It can’t be…” Or could it? Beth no longer knew. All she did know was that she had six days to sort this out before she confronted Peter/John with the truth.
Early Saturday morning, Carter tiptoed down to the laundry room as quietly as he could. After working late at the pizza place he managed, his father hadn’t come home until way past Carter’s bedtime. Carter had lain awake, worrying that his father would somehow discover Rusty in the house. If he did, he just might take the dog away in the middle of the night.
When Carter heard the garage door close, he’d prayed really hard that Rusty wouldn’t bark at the strange noise. The dog seemed to have a sixth sense about things like that, because he stayed quiet all night.
Carter could hear his parents talking, and even though he’d had his ear against the door, he couldn’t make out their words. All he knew was that after about ten minutes they went to bed. Then and only then was Carter able to sleep.
In the morning, he sneaked down the hallway and freed Rusty from the laundry room. Rusty wanted outside, and Carter let him into the backyard to do his business. As soon as he’d finished, Rusty hurried back onto the porch, where Carter waited for him.
“Are you hungry, boy?” Carter asked softly. No one else in the house was awake. He bent down and stroked the rich auburn fur of his new best friend. Then he led Rusty back into the laundry room and filled his water dish. He gave him a bowl of Wheaties with milk because they didn’t have any dog food.
Rusty seemed to like the cereal and when he’d licked the bowl clean, Carter returned to his bedroom. The dog walked politely beside him. Without being asked, Carter made his bed, dressed and brushed his teeth, too. All the while, Rusty lay on his bedroom rug, his eyes never leaving Carter.
When he heard his parents stir, Carter was ready. He knew it would take a lot of fast talking to convince his father to let him keep Rusty. His one hope was that once he heard Rusty had followed him home, he’d understand that this was a special dog. This was the dog God had sent Carter.
Through his partially open door, he could hear his father step into the kitchen and immediately start making coffee. Rusty dashed out of the bedroom before Carter could stop him. He raced after the dog but it was too late. Rusty skidded into the kitchen, his long tail wagging excitedly.
His father caught sight of Rusty and bent down to pet him. “Where did you come from, boy?” he asked.
“Hi, Dad,” Carter said tentatively.
“Do you have a friend spending the night?” David asked, glancing at his son.
Carter swallowed hard. “Rusty’s my friend.”
“Rusty?” his father repeated.
“I named him after the dog you had when you were a kid. You told me about him, remember?”
Slowly his father nodded. “Where did you get the dog, Carter?”
Carter’s mother came into the kitchen just then, tying the sash on her housecoat. She looked uneasily from Carter to his father. “I meant to tell you about Rusty last night, David,” she said, pouring them each a cup of coffee.
“I suppose it slipped your mind,” David commented, frowning.
“No. I decided you were too tired and didn’t need to deal with another problem. We couldn’t do anything until morning anyway.”
His father turned to Carter. “Where did you get the dog?” he asked a second time.
“He was in the schoolyard, but Dad, this is a special dog. Really special. Out of all the kids there, Rusty came to me.”
“Did you feed him?”
“He was starving, Dad! And his coat was all muddy and…he needs a family.”
“You gave him something to eat, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Carter bit his lip. “I fed him a Twinkie and then Bailey let me have her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.” Because he wanted his father to know his sister hadn’t willingly donated her sandwich, he explained. “I traded my Saturday TV privileges, though, so Bailey would give me her sandwich.”
“Carter,” his father said gently. “Rusty came to you because he thought you’d feed him.”
“Not at first,” Carter insisted. “He didn’t know about the Twinkie.”
“He could probably smell it in your pocket. Dogs have a keen sense of smell.”
“As for him following you home?”
“Yes, he…Rusty’s not just any dog. He’s smart and he listens and he understands, too.”
His father crouched down so they were eye to eye. “Did you encourage him to follow you?” he asked.
“He followed the bus! I told you, Dad—he’s smart.”
Reaching out, his father rested a hand on Carter’s shoulder. “Rusty could see that you liked him.”
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