Joyce Fischer had found a table at the ultra-busy Nordstrom Cafe by the time Beth got to the store. As soon as she appeared, her mother waved to catch her attention.
Beth felt wonderful and couldn't have disguised her mood had she tried.
"Hello, Mom," she said, giving her mother a quick hug.
"I took the liberty of ordering for you, dear. I just got two of what we usually order."
"That's fine." Beth only had an hour for lunch and although she would've liked to try something new rather than her standard soup du jour and turkey sandwich, she didn't object.
Taking off her coat, Beth draped it over her chair.
"You're positively glowing. What's going on?" Her mother looked like she was about to rub her hands together in glee. "Is it that young man from the computer game?"
"We're going to meet." Beth wasn't sure how and why the situation had changed. Just as she was losing hope that they'd ever take a chance, Peter had stepped forward. Without understanding why it had happened, she realized that a transformation had taken place.
They'd logged on to play World of Warcraft last night and after a while had started exchanging messages again. In the beginning it wasn't anything special, just their normal chitchat. Then out of the blue Peter had made a startling admission.
"He's divorced," Beth informed her mother.
"Well, dear, so are you."
"I know...That's not the point. Peter and I were talking."
"On the phone?"
"No, no, online. That's the only way we've communicated so far."
Her mother frowned, then decided not to make whatever comment hovered on the tip of her tongue. "Go on," she urged instead. "I want to hear everything."
"Well," Beth said, eager now. "He told me that it's taken him some time to get over the divorce, but he thinks he's ready to move on."
"How long has it been?" her mother asked. "I mean, since his divorce was final."
Beth frowned. Her mother was right; that was an important question. "I didn't ask him."
"You should, dear. If it's been less than a year, it might be best to move slowly and carefully in this relationship." Then, as if she regretted having given advice, she shook her head. "Follow your heart. Don't listen to a thing I say."
Beth thought cynically that this was all part of the wager her parents had. Her mother didn't care if Peter was the brother of Frankenstein's monster as long as he showed up. "You really want him there for Christmas, don't you?"
Her mother's eyes brightened. "Is there any possibility that might happen?"
Beth shrugged. Despite her mother's bet - and personally she felt Joyce deserved to lose - she'd like it if Peter could spend Christmas with her. She wanted to invite him, but it was a lot to ask of someone she hadn't even met. Everything depended on this weekend.
Her mother waved one hand impatiently. "So you told him you're divorced, too?"
"Yes, of course, and then we both started talking so fast it was hard for my fingers to keep up with my thoughts." Peter had been deeply hurt by his wife, who'd more or less kicked him out of the house and excluded him from her life. It'd been painful and harsh, and he'd taken the breakup of his marriage hard.
Beth understood. She'd experienced the same grief over the death of her own marriage. In the course of their conversation, they'd talked about regrets and all the things they might've done to save their marriages. Based on the few details Peter had divulged, Beth regarded his ex-wife as cold and calculating.
She talked about John in ways she never had with anyone else, including her parents. It was as though a festering blister had burst inside her and she spewed out the devastating pain of her own divorce.
The game was forgotten as they continued talking. It was after midnight when Peter reminded her that they both needed to be at work in the morning. Reluctantly Beth had signed off.
"What else did he say?" her mother asked. "Did you tell him your real name is Marybeth?"
"Hardly," she cried, annoyed that her mother would ask such an inane question. "And don't you tell him, either."
"So you did invite him for Christmas?" Her mother looked pleased beyond measure.
"No...not yet." The optimism Beth felt was a sign of her excitement about the way their relationship was developing. No man had interested her this much since college, when she'd first met John. Peter gave her hope. Maybe this wouldn't go anywhere, but at least she was finally taking a risk. Finally willing to try again.
The server brought their lunches, giving Beth a respite from her mother's relentless questioning. She tasted her cream of broccoli soup, and it took a few minutes for the conversation to return to Peter.
"You do expect to introduce him to your family, don't you?" Her mother smiled expectantly at Beth, the turkey sandwich poised in front of her mouth.
"If things go well." She nodded. "We have a lot in common, Peter and me."
"That's wonderful, dear."
Beth felt the giddy sensation of everything coming together at last. "I never dreamed that after all these months we'd connect the way we have."
"Well?" Her mother paused. "When are you going to meet?" Before Beth could answer, she added, "Soon, I hope."
"Is tomorrow soon enough for you?"
"Saturday? But I thought you were going to Leavenworth with Heidi."
"You're meeting Peter there?"
Beth nodded. Peter seemed to be a closet romantic, although she suspected he'd never admit it. He was the one who'd wanted to have this initial meeting right away. He'd mentioned getting together on Saturday for lunch, and Beth had said she'd be in Leavenworth. Undeterred, Peter had suggested meeting there.
"But how will that work when you don't know what he looks like? Good grief, Beth, do you have any idea how crowded that town can get, especially this time of year?"
"We've got it all figured out. Heidi and Sam and I are taking the train with the kids and - "
"Peter will meet you on the train?" her mother broke in.
"Not exactly. The train sold out weeks ago, so Peter's taking the bus. We arrive at eleven and, depending on the weather, he should get in around noon."
"The train's always late."
"Oh, ye of little faith."
"I have a lot of faith," her mother said. "But I happen to be practical, too."
"We took that into consideration, Mother. The bus could be late, too, you know."
"Yes, of course."
"We're meeting by the gazebo in the center of town at four o'clock."
"Why not earlier?" her mother demanded.
Beth sighed. "I'm there to spend the day with Heidi, remember? Besides, if this doesn't work out..."
"Fine," Joyce said dismissively. "But how will you recognize each other?"
Beth described their plan. Peter would be carrying a single long-stemmed red rose and wearing a baseball cap with a Seahawks emblem. She, meanwhile, would be wearing a full-length navy wool coat and a red knit hat and muffler.
They should be able to find each other without difficulty. Then they'd watch the tree-lighting ceremony together. The train was scheduled to depart at six-thirty; his bus would leave shortly after that. They'd spend just a couple of hours in each other's company - a safe length of time whether the meeting went well or not. He hadn't said so, but Beth had the distinct feeling that if this meeting did go well, Peter would ask to see her again on Sunday.
"You sound so hopeful," her mother said.
"I am." Beth had a positive feeling about this.
"What if...what if Peter isn't as good-looking as you expect?" She seemed genuinely concerned that this might be a possibility.
"It doesn't matter." John had been drop-dead gorgeous. She'd been the envy of all her friends, and what she'd discovered was that good looks made very little difference. Most important was character. Moral fiber, sense of honor and kindness were far more compelling qualities in Beth's eyes.
"You say that now," her mother warned, "but you might change your mind once you meet him."
"Perhaps." But even as she said it, Beth was convinced that her feelings wouldn't change. If there was anything she'd learned from her divorce, it was that looks could be deceiving. John had been completely self-absorbed, selfish, irresponsible.... It was pointless to rehash his shortcomings, of which there'd been plenty.
They finished their lunch and because she had a few minutes to spare, Beth and her mother did some window-shopping. Seattle was a magical city at Christmastime. Beth loved the festive air - the decorations everywhere, the cheerful crowds, the music. Entertainers sang and played instruments. She and Joyce stopped to listen to a violinist whose rendition of "Silent Night" was exquisite as people bustled to and from stores with their bags and packages. The cold wind stung her face and she glanced up at the sky for any sign of snow. Her step was lighter and for the first time in years she felt a rush of joyful anticipation about Christmas.
Her mother wasn't the only one to notice her improved mood. Lloyd, the attorney who'd introduced her to the World of Warcraft, commented on it when she returned from lunch.
"You seem to be mighty happy about something," he said, smiling at her.
"I am," she responded cryptically.
At closing time, she hurried home. As soon as she was back in her condo, Beth logged online, hoping Peter would be there.
Did you have a good day? he typed.
Great. What about you?
He didn't reply immediately. It couldn't have been better, he eventually wrote. Thank you for listening while I poured out my woes about my marriage last night. I don't often talk about it. I wouldn't have with you, but in all fairness I felt you needed to know.
Peter, thank you, she hurriedly typed back. I can't tell you how freeing it was for me to tell you about my divorce. It's not a subject I bring up lightly. I felt like such a failure when we split up and that feeling never went away.
I know. That's how I felt when my marriage ended, too.
It seems we have even more in common than we realized, she told him.
I was thinking the same thing.
They chatted for most of an hour until Beth's stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten dinner. Peter couldn't stay online long because he was seeing a friend, so they ended their conversation.
It was just as well, because Beth had to call Heidi and let her friend know there'd been a small change in plans.
After she reached her, Beth explained that she'd be seeing Peter in Leavenworth and said she hoped Heidi didn't mind.
"Mind? Of course I don't mind," Heidi told her. "I think it's so romantic that you two will meet up there. All we need now is some snow for the day to be absolutely perfect."
Snow in Santa's Village - that would indeed be marvelous.
"I wonder if I'm expecting too much," she said, suddenly anxious.
"How can you help it?" Heidi asked. "He does seem too good to be true."
No dating service could have set her up with a more suitable candidate. They agreed on practically everything they'd discussed. In the past week, Beth had learned that they both read the same books, liked the same kinds of food - Mexican and Chinese - and adored anchovies on Caesar salad but not pizza. Granted, those might be superficial similarities, but unlike John, Peter was responsible and dedicated, both qualities she admired. She knew this from his loyalty to his friends, his seriousness about his career - as a coffee buyer at Starbucks - his affection toward his parents and many other examples she'd gleaned.
Maybe he was too good to be true, as Heidi had said. But Beth's instincts told her that Peter was a man she wanted to know better, a man worth knowing better. Not that her instincts had been what you'd call reliable in the past. So, before things went any further, she had to learn if this could become a viable relationship - and there was only one way to find out.
In other words, Beth was counting on their face-to-face meeting to tell her whether these feelings for Peter were real - or just a fantasy concocted during their online adventures.