Thom smiled, and faced with the potency of his appeal, Maureen forced herself to look away. "The girls insisted on preparing us a romantic dinner,” he explained. "They’ve taken care of everything themselves.”
No sooner had he finished than Michael Bolton’s low, sultry voice crooned over the stereo. From the corner of her eye, Maureen saw the two twelve-year-olds sticking their heads out from the kitchen door, studying Maureen and Thom. They appeared to be waiting for something to happen.
"We want you to talk and hold hands and whatever it is people do when they fall in love,” Paula instructed. She help up a wooden spoon caked in red sauce. "Dinner will be ready in about…” She turned around, apparently needing Karen to supply the answer. "Twenty-two minutes,” she informed them.
Maureen grew decidedly uncomfortable. She sipped her wine, and it seemed to go straight to her head.
"Don’t look so worried,” Thom said, leaning back and relaxing. "The girls just wanted to have some fun, and when I told them they could cook dinner, they concocted the idea of creating a romantic interlude for the two of us.”
"Psst, Dad,” Paula said from the kitchen doorway. "You’re supposed to ask Maureen to dance now.”
"I keep forgetting my cue,” he whispered. Standing, he offered her his hand. "Shall we?”
"I…I’m not very good at this sort of thing.”
"I’m not, either,” he assured her.
Maureen decided she couldn’t very well disappoint the girls, since they were looking on eagerly. She placed her hand in Thom’s and stood. It amazed her how easily she slipped into his arms. It was as if she’d been doing it for half her life. As if this were exactly where she belonged. As if this were where she intended to stay for a very long time.
Thom pressed his cheek to hers. "This isn’t so bad now, is it?”
"No,” she admitted. She dared not close her eyes. Dared not allow herself to feel comfortable in a man’s arms again. Rarely had she felt more awkward. She moved as if she had two left feet, as though dancing required far more talent than she possessed.
"Relax,” Thom advised.
"I’m trying,” she muttered. Her life was too good to tamper with now, she reminded herself. She’d need a team of psychologists to explain why she would willing allow herself to be drawn into a second relationship. She refused to relinquish her freedom, refused to hand her heart to someone else who had the power to destroy her.
Thom’s hold on her tightened perceptively. "Block out your ex-husband from your mind,” he whispered close to her ear. "When I’m holding you, I’d prefer it if you thought about me.”
Maureen felt a panic attack approaching. "This isn’t going to work.”
"Yes, it is,” he said gently but insistently. "Close your eyes.”
"If I do—” She bit off the rest of what she was going to say when Thom’s lips found her neck. Shivers of awareness scooted down her arms.
She could feel his smile against her cool skin. "That’s better,” he murmured seductively, "much better.”
Almost against her will, Maureen’s eyes drifted closed. Her head nestled closer to his, and any pretense of dancing became exactly that.
"He’s going to kiss her now.” Maureen recognized her daughter’s voice.
"No, he isn’t,” Thom said in a stage whisper. "Not when he’s got an audience.”
The sound that followed sounded suspiciously like the closing of a door. Maureen waited a moment, but Thom seemed content to do nothing more than hold her.
"Are you going to kiss me?” she asked.
"Do you want me to?”
"I don’t know.” She knew exactly what she wanted, but she wasn’t willing to ask for it.
She felt his shoulders move with a silent laugh. "I’m going to kiss you, and when I do, you’re going to remember it for a good long while. When I do, you won’t ever confuse me with another man again, understand?”
"Now tell me true, Maureen Woods, do you or do you not want me to kiss you?”
She broke away just enough to look him in the eyes. Her gaze fell on the table with the polished silver and the two place settings. At some point when she hadn’t noticed, the girls had come in and lit the candles. No man had ever wooed her this way. No man had ever taken such time and care to court her. Not even Brian.
"Do you?” Thom pressed, growing impatient.
Maureen’s gaze was drawn back to him. She smiled shyly and nodded. She wanted his kiss. Wanted it desperately. "Please, oh, please.”
"Dad’s going to be all right,” Joe told his sister confidently. "I feel a whole lot better about everything since we talked to him.” He smiled at Annie, who sat on the other side of the living room, reading a magazine. He was making one final phone call to his sister before leaving town. Now that matters were straight with his father, there wasn’t any need to stick around California any longer. Annie, understandably, was eager to see her family.
"You’re sure about Dad?” Bethany pressed.
"Eric seems to think we might be glossing over the facts here. Even when he tries to convince us otherwise, Dad doesn’t seem like his old self.”
"Will any of us ever be the same after losing Mom?” Joe asked. He didn’t mean to sound impatient, but he’d talked to Annie and they’d decided that morning to head out early. He didn’t want to change their plans again.
"No, I guess we won’t,” Bethany admitted reluctantly. "Have you told Dad you’re leaving yet?”
"No. He’s disappeared again. Mrs. Johnson said he left shortly after lunch and didn’t say where he was going. He’ll be back before dinner. Annie and I’ll tell him then.”
Paul hated the smell of a hospital. It was sickness and death and hopelessness and pain all mingled with disinfectant and medications. Even when Barbara was home for brief periods, the scent had never left her skin and hair.
It assaulted him when he walked into the Westside Medical Hospital like a wave of August heat. He stopped in the foyer, uncertain for a moment if he could continue.
By the sheer force of his guilt and shame, he made his way toward the elevator and Madge Bartelli’s room. He expected to find Bernard either in the waiting room reserved for families or at Madge’s bedside, but Madge’s husband was neither place.
Madge must have heard him enter the room because her head rolled across the pillow toward Paul. Even in her agony she offered him a weak smile. "Hello, Pastor.”
"Hello, Madge.” At her bedside was the worn leather volume of Psalms he’d lent her. Barbara had read it often in those final weeks. When the pain was the worst, he’d read the words of comfort to her, but he’d found little solace himself.
"How nice of you to come.”
He should have been to visit her much sooner and far more often. "Joe’s home.” That was the only excuse he could think to offer, weak as it was. He wanted to beg her to forgive his weakness, but he didn’t come to burden her with his guilt.
"I understand he’s marrying.” Her words were so weak, they were barely audible.
"This summer, it seems.”
"Ah,” she said, and closed her eyes, "I’ll miss the wedding.”
After all his years of schooling, after all his years of counseling and training, Paul discovered he hadn’t an answer to that.
"Give him and his bride-to-be my love.”
How frail she was, Paul noted, and sinking more each day. He wondered if her children would arrive in time and prayed they would.
He had done precious little of that in the last few weeks. He discovered he couldn’t talk to God the way he had before Barbara’s death. He had a chip on his shoulder, he guessed, although a pastor generally wasn’t supposed to possess negative feelings. After all, what possible good would it do to be angry with almighty God?
"Where’s Bernard?” Paul asked, afraid if he waited much longer she’d slip into a state of semiconsciousness.
"Chapel, I think. Talk to him, will you, Pastor? He’s having a difficult time letting me go, and he must.”
"Sleep now,” Paul whispered. He claimed the fragile hand in his own and patted it. He couldn’t tell this sweet, godly woman that he hadn’t been able to relinquish his wife yet. Barbara was two years in the ground, and he clung to each memory of his wife until his life was so filled with stumbling blocks, he was no earthly good to anyone.
How long he sat at Madge’s bedside he didn’t know. Time lost meaning. He might even have slept some, he didn’t know. But when he next looked up, Paul discovered Bernard standing across from him. The older man’s shoulders were slumped forward as if standing upright were almost more than he could manage.
"She’s resting comfortably now,” Paul whispered.
Bernard nodded and sank onto the chair on the opposite side of the hospital bed.
Paul wondered when Bernard had last eaten. Or slept a full night through. He hadn’t, Paul recalled. Not for weeks on end. He’d survived on bitter coffee out of a machine and stale sandwiches.
Paul came around to where Bernard was sitting. He didn’t ask how the other man was holding up; he knew. He didn’t ask about Madge’s condition; he knew that, too.
"Let me buy you something to eat,” he offered.
Bernard shook his head. "I’m not hungry.”
Paul wrapped his arms around Bernard and gently pulled his head to his shoulder as if he were cradling a child.
A sob came from deep inside the older man’s chest. It took some time to work its way up his parched throat, and when it was released it sounded like the cry of a wounded animal. One sob followed another and then another, until Bernard’s shoulders heaved with emotion.
"I’ve loved Madge for nearly fifty years,” he wailed.
"I know,” Paul said soothingly.
"How will I ever live without her?”
"You’ll learn,” Paul assured him. His only hope was that his friend would learn better than he had.
"She’s ready,” Bernard said again, sobbing stronger now. "But I’m not. I can’t let her go. God help me, I can’t let her go.”
"I know all about that, too,” Paul whispered brokenly.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Joy had made her decision about Ted and stuck to it in spite of his persuasive arguments.
After he’d left her, she’d expected a feeling of elation. A sense of well-being all the self-help books described when one responded with emotional maturity.
Joy had taken care of her inner child, seen to her own emotional needs without surrendering to the risky desires of her insecurities. It wasn’t necessary for anyone to tell her Ted was the type who’d only hurt her in the end. That much was obvious from the moment she’d seen him walk out the door with Blythe Holmes on his arm.