Joe frowned. He’d always known his father to be a tyrant about punctuality. This wasn’t typical of the man who’d raised him.
"That doesn’t sound like Dad.”
"I’ve known your father a good many years, Joe, and I’m telling you right now, something isn’t right. It’s like…it’s like he’s given up.”
"He misses Mom,” Joe said, more to himself than Mrs. Johnson.
"But it’s been two years now, and I’d have thought matters would get better. Instead they’ve gradually grown worse. My own Floyd’s been gone seven years. I know how difficult it is to lose one’s mate.”
"I don’t know what to tell you,” Joe admitted.
"Frankly, I’m worried. There isn’t anyone I can talk to about this. I thought to phone your sister, but this sort of thing is difficult to discuss without being able to look the person in the eye, if you know what I mean.”
Joe wasn’t sure he did, but he nodded anyway.
"With you coming home for the holidays and all, I decided to wait. I was hoping you might know something I don’t.”
"I wish there was something I could tell you,” Joe said, at a loss.
"This morning is a perfect example,” the secretary continued. "I don’t have a clue where Pastor Morris might be. He hasn’t even come into the office, and there’s a meeting of the elders at two. What am I supposed to tell them if he doesn’t show?”
Joe hadn’t a clue. Leta Johnson looked at him with wide, beseeching eyes, and he felt he had to say something. "Let me think about this, Mrs. Johnson. I’ll get back to you.”
"Thank you, Joe,” she said, and sounded relieved.
Joe left the church, his head buzzing. He returned to the house and found Annie in the kitchen, washing dishes. She’d wiped down the countertops and cleared the mess off the table. It seemed with his mother gone, his father used the tabletop and counters as a filing cabinet. Odds and ends of mail were tucked in every conceivable corner. This troubled Joe, since he’d always known his father to be neat and orderly.
"I can’t find my dad,” he told Annie.
"I heard him come back to the house early this morning. Maybe he’s still in bed.”
"No,” Joe said, growing concerned, "I already checked.”
"Just a minute,” Annie said, gazing out the kitchen window. "I think that might be your dad outside. It looks like he’s in the garage.”
"The garage?” Joe asked. He gave Annie a puzzled look and wandered outside. Annie followed.
Sure enough, his father was busy sorting through a stack of cardboard boxes that had been in precisely that spot for fifteen or more years.
"Howdy, Joe,” Paul said cheerfully. "Annie.” He pushed up the sleeves of his sweater.
"What are you doing?” Joe asked, not knowing what to think.
Paul laughed and braced his hands against his hips. "What does it look like? I’m cleaning out this mess. I’ve got more junk than some of those disposal centers. It’s time to clear some of this garbage out of here.”
"Why not? It seemed like a perfectly good day to do a little cleaning.”
Joe looked over to where his father had set their fishing gear. "I put that aside for you,” his dad said, pointing toward the two poles. "You should take that stuff with you.”
His father gave him an odd look, then leaned over and sorted through another stack of boxes, lifting one and then another. "I hear there’s good fishing in Seattle.”
"Dad,” Joe said, not understanding any of this. "Mrs. Johnson said you have an elders’ meeting this afternoon.”
Paul straightened and frowned. "The meeting’s this afternoon?”
"That’s what she said. You haven’t been into the office yet.”
Paul Morris rotated his shoulders. "I meant to get over there earlier, then got sidetracked. I’ll wash up now and meet with the elders.”
He walked past Joe on his way into the house.
"Joe.” Annie pressed her hand to his forearm. "What’s wrong with your father?”
"I don’t know. But I think I’d better phone my sister. Maybe she’ll know what to do.”
"I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Maureen mumbled as she shifted papers outside of her briefcase and set them on the car seat next to her. It was no small exaggeration to say she’d practically rearranged her entire work schedule to fit Karen’s riding lessons into her already full week.
For the next several weeks Tuesday and Thursday afternoons would be a nightmare for her. She had to leave the bank at two, which meant she had to arrive at six in the morning. She was forced into giving up half her usual lunch hour as well in order to make up for time away from her desk. In addition, she brought her work home with her.
No sane woman would do this. Only a mother would agree to a schedule like this. A desperate mother.
On the bright side, Karen hadn’t woken once with a nightmare from the moment Maureen had casually mentioned Nichols’s Riding Stables. If the remedy for Karen’s bad dreams was a few riding lessons, then Maureen would gladly shorten her lunch hour for the rest of her life.
Uncomfortable working in her car, Maureen shifted her position numerous times. She managed to prop her calculator on the dashboard and shuffle papers around her steering wheel in order to make notes where needed.
Two minutes after their arrival, Karen had disappeared inside the barn, looking for Thom Nichols’s daughter and the new kittens. Maureen would have followed her, but she didn’t think it would be a good idea to go traipsing into unknown territory in two-inch heels. Apparently Karen knew where she was headed.
Maureen was just beginning to think it might do her good to get out of the car and stretch her legs when a knock sounded against the car window.
Thom Nichols stood outside, his profile silhouetted against the last of the sunlight. Her heart did an immediate somersault, and not because he’d frightened her. It wasn’t that she was attracted to him, she told herself. The cowboy fantasy, along with everything else romantic, had died a slow, painful death with Brian’s deceit.
"Hello,” she said as she rolled down her car window. She made sure her voice revealed little of what she was feeling. She was friendly, but not overly so. Cool. Collected.
"There’s no need for you to wait in the car by yourself,” Thom said.
"That’s all right,” she returned hurriedly, wanting to avoid spending time alone with him. "I was just catching up on some paperwork.”
Thom looked to the sky as if some message were written in the clouds. "Daylight’s about gone. Might as well come inside my office and have a cup of coffee with me. I’d be happy for the company.”
Maureen would have found an excuse if it hadn’t been for the last part about welcoming her companionship. He was lonely, the same way she was lonely. Only he was willing to admit it, whereas she preferred to ignore the obvious.
At their first meeting, he’d explained that his wife had died three years earlier. After he’d told a little about himself, he seemed to want her to share something about herself. Maureen hadn’t. She rarely discussed her personal life with anyone.
Her head was telling her one thing as she stored the papers inside her briefcase, and her heart was saying something entirely contradictory. Why shouldn’t she enjoy a cup of coffee with a man? Thom Nichols, her head told her, was more than just a man. He was rugged and solid, and those piercing blue eyes of his seemed to look straight through her.
It was unnerving. She’d looked at him and had the uncontrollable urge to weep. Thus far she’d managed to control her emotions. Thank God. She didn’t even want to imagine what he would think of her if she started weeping for absolutely no reason.
"Ken’s giving the kids their lesson this afternoon,” Thom explained as he led her into a small office just inside the barn door. He took two large mugs off a Peg-Board on the wall and poured them each coffee.
Maureen cradled the mug between her hands and stared into the dark depths. After being holed up inside her car for the better part of an hour, she was grateful to be up and about. However, she wasn’t sure spending time with Thom was necessarily good for her peace of mind.
"It seems Karen and Paula have hit it off like gangbusters,” he commented, rolling the lone chair her way and inclining his lean hips against the edge of his desk. He stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles.
Avoiding eye contact, Maureen nodded. "We’ve recently moved, and it’s been hard on Karen. She hasn’t made new friends as easily as I thought she would.”
"Paula could use a friend. She’s getting to the age where she misses her mother.”
"How are the kittens?” Maureen asked, quickly changing the subject. This man made her nervous in ways she’d forgotten. It’d been so long since she’d been around a man that she didn’t know how to behave. She’d been a college student when she’d first met Brian, which was more years ago than she wanted to remember.
"Those kittens are as cute as a bug’s ear.”
Maureen’s smile waned, and she looked at her watch.
"Ken will have the kids back in about thirty minutes,” he said, and Maureen swore the man read her thoughts. "Do I make you nervous?”
"Yes,” she admitted defensively.
This appeared to amuse him. He crossed and recrossed his ankles. "Why’s that?”
"I…I don’t really know.”
"Sure you do, but you’re afraid to admit it. That’s all right, I don’t blame you. Fact is, I like you, Maureen Woods.”
"You like me?” Maureen wondered exactly what that entailed.
"Well, you’re as prickly as a cactus—”
"So you see me as a challenge,” Maureen said, wishing now she’d stayed inside her car. "Listen, my ex-husband taught me everything I need to know about—”
"I’m not your ex-husband,” he said gently, interrupting her. Then, as if they were carrying on a perfectly casual conversation, he sipped his coffee and announced, "I’d like to date you.”
The words exploded like tiny firecrackers in her mind. They vibrated within her and echoed through the empty years she’d spent since her divorce.
"I don’t think so.” No one in her right mind would voluntarily set herself up for the kind of heartache Brian had inflicted upon her and Karen. The endless list of lies. The hurt. The infidelity.
Maureen should have guessed this was a man who didn’t take no easily. She didn’t know how to tell him she was afraid. Afraid of falling in love again. Afraid of making herself vulnerable. Afraid of being afraid.
"Date again? You’ve got to be joking. I haven’t got time for a relationship.”
"Maureen,” he said gently, softly, "there’s no reason to be scared.”