She had several talented players. Most of the girls had been involved with soccer from the age of five, and they knew how to play as a team. At halftime, they were ahead three to two.

Their audience had grown, Julie saw as she sent her girls back onto the field for the second half of the game. Darkness descended earlier and earlier these days, and the field lights came on automatically. As they did, she saw a lone figure standing by the chain-link fence at the far end of the field. It couldn’t be. Roy Fletcher? Surely she was mistaken. Why would he attend one of her games?

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Julie felt the blood rush to her face and then just as quickly drain away. He’d been to the house for dinner two nights in a row, and played cards with her father both times. He’d apparently enjoyed the meals, although she’d never thought of Roy Fletcher as the kind of man who’d appreciate a bowl of black-bean soup and buttery corn bread. He’d surprised her by accepting and then eating two big bowlfuls, all the while praising her cooking skills. He’d been equally enthusiastic about Wednesday’s Crock-Pot stew. Now he’d shown up at her soccer game.

The two teams were tied in the third quarter, but Abraham Lincoln managed to pull off a win with a last-second goal, ending the match with a score of four to three. Julie went into the locker room with the team, but she didn’t expect Roy to be waiting for her when she finished nearly an hour later, after the girls had showered, changed and cleaned up.

Locking the room, she carried the soccer balls to the equipment area, then headed toward the faculty parking lot. As she stepped from the building and into the darkness of late afternoon, she saw Roy silhouetted against one of the lights. He’d pulled his vehicle around to where she’d parked and leaned casually against the fender as if he had nothing better to do.

“I wondered if you’d gotten lost in there.” He straightened as she approached and moved toward her.

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“Hi.” His being here flustered Julie. Roy Fletcher was a very important man, far too important to spend valuable time watching her coach a soccer game. “I thought I saw you.” That wasn’t the most intelligent comment she’d ever made, but she couldn’t think of anything better.

“I didn’t get here until halftime.”

“You didn’t need to come. I certainly didn’t expect you to.”

“I didn’t expect to come, either,” he confessed. His hands were plunged deep in his overcoat pockets. “It’s been years since I attended a soccer match. This afternoon, a business associate sent me a report about our overseas sales, and I suddenly started thinking about European soccer.”

“They take it very seriously over there.”

“Seems to me your girls do, too.”

“True.” She nodded slowly. “My team works hard and winning is important, but it’s about far more than that.”

“I disagree,” he countered. “Winning is everything.”

“Perhaps in your line of work.”

“In every line of work. In everything. Look at soccer. Each game counts and—”

Julie held up her hand. Life and business were intense for Roy. Or maybe life was business in his view. “Now isn’t the time to be having this conversation,” she said briskly. Julie was tired and cold and in no state to reason with Roy Fletcher. If he wanted to argue, she’d prefer to be at her best, and currently she was far from it.

“You’re right,” he murmured as he walked her to her car.

“You came, and I’d like to thank you for that,” she said.

“That’s the weird part,” Roy went on. “I got sidetracked there for a moment. As I said, I was looking at European sales figures, and I started thinking about soccer. Then I remembered that you were coaching a game this afternoon and I had this strange urge to come and watch.”

She noticed the urge hadn’t been to come and see her. “Strange urge or not, I’m honored you were here.” She told herself it was ludicrous to feel disappointed that she hadn’t been the reason.

“It was an excellent game.”

“Thank you on behalf of my team.” She inserted the key into her lock, anxious now to get home and under a hot shower.

“And you’re an excellent coach.”

Again she smiled her appreciation. She tossed her backpack on the passenger seat. She didn’t want to be rude by climbing into her car and driving away, but Roy didn’t seem to have anything else to say.

As it turned out, Julie was wrong about that.

“Do you enjoy clam chowder?” he asked unexpectedly.

“Yes, I do.” It was one of her favorite soups.

“There’s a little hole-in-the-wall café not far from here. They used to serve the most incredible clam chowder. I don’t even know if the café’s still open. I haven’t been there in years, but I’m willing to look if you are.”

Julie wanted to be sure she understood what he was asking her. “Are you inviting me to dinner?” He seemed nervous about this, but she must be misreading him. Roy Fletcher had nothing to be nervous about.

“Yes, I guess I am asking you to dinner.” He brushed a hand across his face. “Like I said, I don’t know if the café’s still open. I ate there in college quite a lot. The food was cheap and good.”

Money certainly wasn’t something he needed to worry about now.

The differences between them—between his fame and wealth and her middle-class obscurity—would probably be a factor if they were to continue seeing each other. In a flash Julie understood; it was more than dinner he was asking her about. He did want to see her, get to know her, and he was asking if she felt the same way about him.

The look in his eyes was intense. “I like what I know about you, Julie.”

She was bewildered and a little shaken. Roy Fletcher was interested in dating her, a thirty-year-old teacher with few marriage prospects. “Other than your tendency to be arrogant, I like you, too.”

He grinned. “You have your faults.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“The word stubborn comes to mind.”

“I’m stubborn when I happen to be right.” She wasn’t letting that one pass.

He smiled. “I think that’s a conversation we should reserve for another time,” he said, echoing her earlier remark. “Agreed?”

She nodded. “I can go to dinner dressed like this?” She had on a nylon blue-and-white running suit—the Abraham Lincoln school colors. Her name was printed across the back with the silkscreen of a wolf, the team symbol.

“Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me and then I’ll drive you back here to pick up your car when we’re finished.”

“Sounds good.”

Once they were in the neighborhood, it took Roy fifteen minutes to find the café. The restaurant had moved in the eight years since he’d last eaten there. They sat in a booth in a far corner, ordered clam chowder and coffee and discussed movies, politics, the stock market, the state of the economy and a thousand other things. Before she realized it, the café was closing.

As Julie undressed for bed that night, she could hardly believe they’d had so much to talk about. For three hours, they’d chatted nonstop, as if they’d known each other their entire lives. She felt genuinely comfortable with him, enjoying his warmth and wit, qualities she wouldn’t have guessed he had a couple of weeks ago. After a quick e-mail to Emily, she went to bed.

If anything surprised her, it was the fact that Roy didn’t kiss her when he dropped her off at the school to get her car. He wanted to—she was sure of it—and she wanted him to, but…

“Are we still on for tomorrow night?” he’d asked.

Julie was looking forward to it more than ever. “Yes. As far as I’m concerned. What about you?”

“Oh, yes.”

That was when she thought he might kiss her. He didn’t, but she had the distinct impression he intended to make up for it while they watched the Christmas ships.

Fifteen

Anne Fletcher strolled leisurely along the Seattle waterfront on her way to Pike Place Market. Julie Wilcoff was meeting her at the seafood stand at noon. Christmas was only two weeks away, and the city was festive with holiday decorations and full of contagious excitement. Even the leaden sky couldn’t dampen Anne’s spirits. Despite being alone, she felt the goodwill and joy of others as they went about their business.

Walking up the tiered stairway called Hill Climb from the waterfront area to the market, Anne paused to look back over Elliot Bay, watching as the green-and-white Washington State Ferry glided toward the pier. On a clear day she’d be able to see the snow-crested tops of the Olympic Mountains to the east and the Cascade Mountains to the west. Until the divorce, California had been Anne’s only home. She’d loved living on the ocean; her daily routine had included long walks on the beach. That was a habit she’d continued when she came to Washington.

The move north had been a financial necessity, as well as a practical choice. Roy lived close by, and while she treasured her independence, she needed the security of having her only child near at hand. It was a plus that property values in the more sparsely populated San Juan Islands were low enough to allow her to purchase a small cottage. The contentment she derived from her daily walks had rejuvenated her spirits and helped her recover in those first dreadful months after the divorce.

Seattle and the Puget Sound area were beginning to feel like home. Anne had told Roy she was reasonably happy, and it was true. She’d found satisfaction in her art, and seeing her son fall in love again brought renewed hope for the future.

As Anne made her way through the tide of shoppers and tourists, she discovered Julie waiting for her. The girl was as tall as her father, whom Anne had met the afternoon she’d painted the company window. She’d be a good match for Roy, physically and mentally. She smiled as she recalled her first meeting with Julie, a memory inextricably connected with her painting on the window. That painting had created something of a stir, according to Eleanor Johnson, Roy’s assistant. Fletcher Industries employees had reacted to the angels over Bethlehem the same way Marta had responded to her portrait of the angel. Ms. Johnson claimed the artwork was the talk of the building. Everyone loved it, she said. Knowing her art pleased others filled Anne with a sense of joy.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Fletcher.”

The greeting caught Anne unawares, involved in her thoughts as she was. “Julie, hello!” Anne leaned forward to kiss Julie on the cheek. “Call me Anne, please.”

“All right.”

She slipped her arm through Julie’s, and they strolled into the market. “I can’t resist taking a peek, can you?” The aisles between the vendors’ stalls were crowded with customers buying seafood, vegetables and flowers, both fresh and dried. Arts and crafts shops were located downstairs.

“I love it here,” Julie told her. “My mother used to bring my sister and me to the market on special occasions when we were little. She’d purchase a fresh salmon just so we could see the young men toss them back and forth.”

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