“I’ll get them a check right after Christmas,” Harry said, unable to hide his pleasure.

“It’s all taken care of, Dad,” Donna said. “I knew you’d want the unit, so Rich and I put it on our credit card.”

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“I’ll get the check to you then. Immediately.” The fact that they’d used credit bothered him; he couldn’t help it.

Donna gestured magnanimously. “Consider it your Christmas gift.”

Harry wouldn’t allow his daughter to do that; still, the certainty of acquiring the unit afforded him real peace of mind.

“That’s wonderful news,” Rosalie agreed, nodding vigorously.

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“It’s even better than you realize,” Donna said. “I’ll be here the entire time to help you move.”

“What about school?” Harry asked.

Donna smiled. “That’s my other surprise. I’m retiring. As of now.”

Harry stared at her. “But…it’s the middle of the school year.”

“Actually, this is a good news/bad news situation,” Rich explained. “Donna needs knee-replacement surgery.”

Their daughter nodded. “I guess that’s what I get from all those years of crawling around on the floor with my kindergarten classes. It isn’t extensive surgery, but it’ll require several weeks of rehab. I’d already decided to retire at the end of this school year. But with the wedding, the surgery and the baby, Rich and I felt it made more sense to do it now.”

“I think this is wonderful,” Rosalie said again.

Rosalie had always supported their children’s decisions, even when they gave Harry pause. She was loyal to a fault; he loved that about her.

“The paperwork’s been turned in and everything’s a go.”

“You should’ve told us,” Rosalie chastised.

“I couldn’t until I got the final word. I didn’t mean to hide it from you, Mom, but I know how you worry.”

While Donna claimed it was the surgery, the wedding and the baby, Harry suspected there was another reason his daughter had chosen to retire early. “So you’ll help us pack up the house,” he said.

“Absolutely. Lorraine, too.”

This was welcome news to Harry. His prayer had been answered—they had a place at Liberty Orchard now. And his daughters would both be here. If God should choose to bring him home, Harry could be assured that Rosalie would be well looked after.

This was going to be the best Christmas of his life. And the last…

Nineteen

Beth yawned. It’d been a long day, beginning with church that morning and then brunch with her family. Now, at almost ten, she was tired and ready for bed. She’d logged on to World of Warcraft a little while ago and was disappointed to discover that Peter wasn’t online. Still, she felt relieved that they’d decided to postpone their meeting until after New Year’s. That gave her time to make a few decisions, time to assess the situation and consider how to deal with what she’d learned.

The doorbell chimed. Beth frowned, wondering who’d stop by this late at night.

When she checked the peephole, she saw a lovely woman standing in the hallway. Whoever it was had the most incredible blue eyes. Beth didn’t recognize her. But even though she didn’t know who this woman was, she unlatched the door and opened it.

Instead of the woman she’d seen through the peephole, a man stood there in front of her. Not just any man. John Nicodemus, her ex-husband.

Peter.

If Beth was shocked, it was nothing compared to the look on Peter’s face.

“Marybeth?” he whispered as if he couldn’t seem to find his voice. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here.”

“No, you don’t,” he argued.

“Are you looking for Borincana?” she asked.

Peter went pale.

“You’re Timixie,” she added. It was obvious that they both needed to sit down, so she stepped out of the doorway and waved him inside.

Peter moved into the living room and sank heavily onto the sofa. Elbows balanced on his knees, he thrust his fingers through his hair and stared down at the floor.

Beth understood exactly how he felt because she’d experienced the very same mix of emotions when she’d seen him in Leavenworth. It had felt as if the sidewalk had started to crumble beneath her feet. The shock had been followed by anger and disbelief.

Yesterday in Leavenworth, she’d suspected him of somehow arranging this. As she watched his face, she could see that he was feeling doubt, incredulity, suspicion—just as she had.

“How can this be?” he murmured after several minutes.

“I asked myself that, too.”

His eyes narrowed. “How long have you known?”

She wanted it understood that she hadn’t arranged this, any more than he had. “Since Leavenworth.”

His mouth tightened. “You were there?”

Beth nodded. “You were standing by the gazebo, exactly as we’d agreed. Then I saw that red rose and I nearly fainted.”

“Who was on the phone?” he demanded. “I would’ve recognized your voice.”

“My friend Heidi. She’s a new friend—you never met her.”

He straightened, then leaned back against the sofa as he absorbed her words.

“Why are you here?” she asked. Beth studied him carefully. He was even more attractive than she remembered. The years had matured him, and his features had lost their boyish quality. He looked more serious now, more…adult. They’d both been so juvenile and irrational, so quick to get out of the relationship. Beth had felt blindsided by the pain of it and she thought that John…Peter might have been, too. Certainly, his online confidences suggested as much.

“I shouldn’t have come,” he muttered. “The whole time I was driving here, I couldn’t figure out why I was doing this.”

Beth didn’t understand it, either. They’d already said they’d wait until after New Year’s.

He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again and looked directly at her. “This afternoon we made our plans but all of a sudden that wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I was afraid that if we delayed meeting again, neither of us would ever be ready. It was just too easy to keep putting it off.”

Beth could see that was true.

“Once I made the decision, waiting even an hour seemed intolerable. I had your address from the phone call in Leavenworth—thanks to your friend, as it turns out. I decided to meet you and I didn’t care that it was after nine at night and I was coming uninvited.”

“Only you had met me.”

“Well, I could hardly know that, could I?” he snapped, then seemed to regret his outburst. “How did something like this happen?” he asked helplessly.

She responded with a question of her own. “When did John become Peter?”

“When I began working in the corporate office at Starbucks. There were four Johns, so I decided to use my middle name and I just got used to it. The only people who call me John these days are my parents.”

In other words, his name change had come about in a perfectly rational way—it was certainly no attempt at subterfuge.

“What about you, Marybeth?”

“Marybeth became Beth after the divorce.”

He regarded her skeptically. “Any particular reason?”

“I wanted a new start, and Marybeth sounded so childish and outdated to me, so I shortened it to Beth. The only people who still call me Marybeth are my family.”

“I see.” He rubbed his face. “I don’t mean to be forward here, but I could use a cup of coffee.”

“Of course. I’m sorry, I should’ve asked.” She stood and took two steps toward the kitchen before abruptly turning back. “How’d you do that, by the way?”

“Do what?”

“I checked the peephole in my door before I unlocked it and there was a woman on the other side.”

“A woman?” He wore a puzzled frown.

“She was attractive and had blond hair and striking blue eyes.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Obviously.”

He met her gaze head-on. “I was the only one there, Beth. Maybe you should have your eyesight examined.”

“Maybe you should—” She clamped her mouth shut. They had too many other things to discuss. An argument would be pointless; it didn’t matter what or whom she’d seen—or thought she’d seen. “Give me a minute to make that coffee.”

Unexpectedly, Peter followed her into the kitchen. “What just happened back there?” he asked with obvious surprise.

“What do you mean?” She efficiently measured the grounds and poured water into the coffeemaker.

“You dropped the discussion.”

Confused, Beth glanced over at him. “What discussion?”

“It used to be that you absolutely had to be right,” he told her. “You’d go ten miles out of your way to prove how right you were and how wrong I was.”

“I did?” Beth didn’t remember it like that.

“You always had a point to prove.”

“Yes, well, people change.”

Peter didn’t speak for some time. “I’ve changed, too.”

“I’m sure we both have.” For the better, although she didn’t say that. After six months of being his partner on WoW, she knew this man, knew important things about his character, and he wasn’t like her ex-husband at all.

The coffee started to drip and Beth got two mugs from the cupboard. Staring down at the kitchen counter, she gathered her courage to ask him a question.

“Did you mean what you said this afternoon about…still loving me?” The words seemed to stick in her throat.

“Yes.”

She wished he’d elaborate—and a moment later he did.

“I never stopped loving you, Marybeth. That was one of the problems. For years, the people closest to me have encouraged me to find someone else and remarry. I tried.”

She jerked up her head. “So it’s true?” Abruptly her heart sank, and she actually felt ill. “You did marry again.”

“No,” he returned vehemently. “Who told you that?”

“A friend. Well, sort of a friend. Lisa Carroll. Remember her?”

“Yeah.” Peter frowned. “She told you that?” When Beth nodded, he pressed his palms on the kitchen counter. “That isn’t even close to being true. Why would she do that?” He paused. “What about you? Have you…did you find someone else?”

Beth shrugged, unwilling to disclose that she’d been practically a hermit in the dating world. “I went out some. No one for long.”

“I occasionally dated, too,” he confessed. “Including Lisa,” he added in a low voice. “For about two weeks.”

Well, that explains it, Beth thought—but didn’t say.

“No one clicked with me,” she said after a brief silence.

He offered her a sad smile. “No one clicked with me, either.”

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