“Guess not,” Chet mumbled, unwilling to be drawn into a conversation, but he could tell from the way the kid was hanging around that he wasn’t going to have much of a choice.

“You’d think Lou would close up shop,” Billy said next.

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Chet sipped from his coffee. It was dark, thick, and potent enough to satisfy a Cajun.

“Apparently you don’t know Lou,” Chet commented.

“Not very well,” Billy agreed.

Thinking he might divert the kid’s attention, Chet swiveled around in his chair and concentrated on the television. The national evening news was on, forecasting gloom and doom. Chet had heard enough of that.

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“Mind if I change the channel?” he asked.

“Be my guest,” Billy said, handing him the controller.

Chet worked his way through the stations. Nothing appealed to him, not even a rerun of a play-off football game telecast earlier that week.

“Hey, go back, would you?” Billy asked. “I have a friend who was picked up by the pros. He’s a defensive lineman for the Redskins.”

Disgusted, Chet handed the remote control back to the bartender. So much for that idea. Oblivious to Chet’s ugly mood, Billy punched the controller until he found the play-off game.

The kid focused his attention on the screen, which suited Chet just fine as long as he left him alone.

Before he realized it, Chet had turned around on his bar stool and was watching the game himself. So this was what his life had boiled down to—sitting in some bar on Christmas Eve, talking to a kid he didn’t know and didn’t want to know and watching reruns of old football games on television.

At halftime Billy disappeared into the back storeroom. Chet cradled the coffee mug in his hands and studied the television screen. The commentator was the well-known former coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, John Madden.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Chet Costello,” the TV commentator said.

Chet’s head snapped up. He was losing it. The television was actually talking to him.

“Yes, I’m talking to you,” John Madden said again. “You’re the biggest fool I’ve ever seen.”

By that time Chet was on his feet. He stared down at his drink, thinking the kid had played a cruel joke on him and laced it with some mind-bending drug.

“Quit looking at your drink,” the former coach told him. “It’s only coffee.”

Other men claimed to see pink elephants, but not Chet. Oh, no, that would have been too easy. He had to have some voice come out of a television to chastise him.

“You’re in love with Monica Fischer, and she’s in love with you. So what’s the problem? You think you’re being noble, don’t you? Wrong. You’re a fool.”

Chet had had enough. He didn’t need this. Slamming his cup down on the bar, he started out the door.

“Go ahead and run,” the voice said, sounding so close he swore he could feel the breath against the back of his neck. “It’s what you’ve been doing for most of your life.”

“Shut up,” Chet shouted.

The couple in the back of the room glared over at him, and Billy, who was hauling a box of pretzels to the front, stopped in his tracks.

“Something wrong?” the kid asked.

Chet shook his head and slammed out of the bar. “Damn,” he muttered, running his hand down his face. It was worse than he imagined. Monica had decided ruining his sleep wasn’t bad enough, now she’d taken on his waking hours as well.

He was putting an end to that right now. With purpose directing his steps, he walked to the parking garage and drove to her house.

The streets were full of parked cars. The Blue Goose might be less than busy, but Lloyd Fischer’s church was doing a bumper business. Light spilled out of the church, and the parsonage was dark, all but one small light in the front of the house. Music filled the night, traditional Christmas carols played on an old-time pipe organ.

Chet found a place to park on the street, half a block down from the church. Several people were walking toward the building. There was a family with two small children in tow, and an older couple, holding hands, smiling up at each other.

Chet stayed where he was, hidden in the shadows. One thing he knew, he wasn’t walking into that church. He was deciding what he was going to do when he spied Monica coming out of the parsonage. The porch light went on as the light in the living room was extinguished. Her silhouette was framed in the warm glow of the single bulb on the porch.

She seemed to be in something of a hurry, Chet noted. Rushing across the street, he met up with her on the sidewalk.

She stopped when she saw him. Surprise worked its way across her features, starting with her eyes and then her mouth. She opened it as if to say something, then closed it again. She hugged sheet music against her breast and seemed to be waiting.

Chet didn’t know what he intended to say. It was too damn hard not to bring her directly into his arms, hold her against him, and breathe in her softness.

“Whatever you’ve done has got to stop,” he said between clenched teeth.

“Done?” she echoed, and blinked as if she didn’t understand what he was saying.

“Leave me alone,” he ordered.

She nodded once and waited, apparently for an explanation.

“I can’t eat or sleep, and now I’m hearing voices as well.”

“Voices?” The edges of her mouth quivered with amusement. “And what did these voices say?”

“That I was a fool for walking away from you.” Chet rammed his fingers into his hair.

Monica smiled boldly at that and Chet swore he’d never seen a woman more beautiful. He shouldn’t have come, and now that he was here, God help him, he didn’t know how he was ever going to leave.

“I wish I could claim credit for that, but I can’t,” she said softly. “Dad told me he suspected you were drinking heavily. My guess is that it was the liquor talking.”

“Not this time,” he argued. “I haven’t had a drop all day.”

“I can’t help you, Chet,” she said sadly and raised her fingers as if to touch his face. He meant to jerk away, but found he couldn’t. As it never failed to do, her touch rippled through him like an electrical current. Her softness had branded his life and his heart. There was no escape. He could run to the far ends of the world and every breath he drew, every beat of his heart would be for her.

Capturing her wrist, he roughly drew her palm to his mouth where he planted a series of tender kisses.

“Dear God, Monica,” he said, hauling her into his arms. He buried his face in the delicate curve of her neck and drew in several deep, uneven breaths. “I can’t make myself leave you. I tried. God knows I tried.”

The sheet music she’d been holding fell to the sidewalk as she clung to him. He felt her trembling, her tears moistening his face and her breath coming in soft gasps that fanned his throat.

He held her against him, his chin resting on the crown of her head. His eyes were tightly closed. “We’ll get married, just the way you want, although I can’t help but feel you’re getting the bum end of this deal.”

Chapter 19

“You’re my real-life dad?” Timmy asked, staring up at Jeff with wide, disbelieving eyes.

“Yes, son, I’m your father.” Although Jeff answered Timmy, his gaze was leveled on Jody, his look expectant and filled with nervous anticipation.

Her pulse had yet to right itself, and the dizziness from the frantic beat of her heart continued. He was terribly thin, she noticed. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes seemed to sink back into his head. This was a man she didn’t know and barely recognized as the one she’d loved.

Jeff seemed greedy for the sight of Timmy and her, staring at the two of them as if he couldn’t quite believe this moment was real.

Timmy opened the screen door and Jeff walked inside the house, pausing in front of Jody.

Her eyes begged him to convince her this was happening and that he was as real as he seemed. She’d been under a good deal of stress and she feared that this was all a figment of her imagination. Some dream she’d wake from with a start. When Jeff had first disappeared she’d repeatedly dreamed of a moment like this when they’d be reunited. Then she’d wake with a heavy heart and the loneliness would close in and swallow her.

Her hand trembled as she worked up the necessary courage to touch him. She laid her fingers against his forearm. He felt solid and real. Warm and alive.

Alive. Jeff was alive.

“Where were you?” she asked in a sobbing breath, pressing her hands to her throat. “Why did you leave us? Why?” The questions crowded on top of each other, damming her mind and her tongue. The only one to escape was the least important.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked, and Jody realized how terribly shaky he was. “I’m a bit weak yet,” Jeff explained.

It was all Jody could do to nod.

Timmy took Jeff by the hand and led him to the sofa. “You don’t look like my dad,” he commented, carefully studying his father. “You’re too old.”

“I feel like I’m about a hundred,” Jeff said, examining his son. He cupped Timmy’s face and his eyes filled with tears. “Not a day passed that I didn’t think about and pray for you. I carried the picture of you with me through the months. I swear it was what kept me alive. I could endure anything as long as I remembered my wife and my son.”

“Where were you?” Timmy asked, sinking onto the cushion next to his father.

Trembling almost uncontrollably, Jody sat in the chair across from them both, her legs too numb to continue to support her.

“I was in a Russian prison,” Jeff explained. “It’s a miracle I was released.”

“You were in Russia?” Jody repeated in a breathless whisper.

“I’d gone to Germany on business and on a fluke decided to visit East Berlin. I was curious about the other side of the wall, but doubted that I’d be able to make it through the border with an American passport. It was surprisingly easy to obtain fake identification.”

“You went through all that trouble because you were curious about East Berlin?” Jody found the entire story unbelievable and a fermenting kind of anger took hold of her. He’d risked everything for some crazy need to look at life on the other side of the wall?

“I was young and stupid, so incredibly stupid,” Jeff said, the regret weighing down his voice. “My German was passable, and all I intended to do was wander into a few shops and get a look around. I was heading back to the border when I stumbled upon two soldiers beating a teenager. They would have killed him. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing and so I intervened. That proved to be a costly mistake.”

Jody’s anger dissipated. He’d paid a terrible price for his curiosity, and consequently so had she and Timmy.

“I was taken in for questioning and soon arrested,” Jeff continued.

“Why didn’t you contact the embassy?” Jody demanded. He could have saved them both this agony.

“I wasn’t allowed. And when they discovered I was an American with a false passport my fate was sealed. I was a spy, and tried as one. I wasn’t able to talk to an attorney, and the trial, such as it was, lasted all of two minutes. Before I fully understood what was happening to me, I was shipped off to a prison camp in Russia.”

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