Leavenworth was everything Beth had imagined it would be. When the train pulled in, the sun was shining, and the freshly fallen snow glistened brightly. The entire town was a Christmas wonderland, unlike anything she'd ever seen. Main Street was closed to cars, and in the center of the wide street, burn barrels had been set up, where people could gather to warm their hands. Children were sledding down the short slope next to the gazebo, while a group of costumed carolers entertained the crowd.
It was at this gazebo that Beth Fischer would be meeting Peter in a few hours.
Once they were off the train, Heidi, Sam, two-year-old Adam and Beth toured the area. Adam wanted to go sledding, so Sam quickly purchased a round plastic sled. Soon father and son were gliding down the incline while Heidi took photographs.
"I'll put one of these in our Christmas letter," she told Beth excitedly.
"Isn't it a little late to be mailing out cards?" Beth teased. Heidi was always late. In fact, last year's Christmas cards had arrived in mid-January. Heidi had said that Beth should either consider them very late or exceptionally early.
Beth had been too nervous to eat all day and seeing a vendor selling roasted chestnuts, she purchased a small bag to share with her friend.
Heidi bit into one. "Hey, these aren't bad. They're kind of sweet."
Beth tried one, too, and then another. Now she could say she'd tasted chestnuts roasting on an open fire, just like the Christmas song said.
As they strolled down the street taking in the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, Beth found herself studying faces. She wondered if Peter's bus had come in yet. Could that tall, handsome man be him? When a little girl leaped into his arms, Beth decided it probably wasn't.
"Are you sorry you agreed to meet Peter so late in the day?"
"Yes," she said tersely.
Soon after that, Sam caught up with them. Adam, bundled from head to foot, was asleep in his father's arms, exhausted from their outing in the snow.
"We were just talking about Beth's appointment," Heidi told her husband.
"I hope you and your WoW partner have a way to connect if something goes wrong," the ever-practical Sam said. "There must be a thousand people here this afternoon."
"Peter e-mailed me his cell phone number."
"Did you give him yours?" Heidi asked.
"No, I didn't think of it." That wasn't completely accurate. "Actually, I meant to, but we started talking and I forgot."
"That's not a good sign," Sam began. "What if - "
"Sam," Heidi interrupted. "Everything's going to work out fine."
Beth hoped her friend was right. "You'll come with me, won't you?" she asked Heidi. The time was growing closer. At three o'clock, it started to snow. Clouds obscured the sky as dusk fell over the town; by four-thirty it would be completely dark.
"Come with you?" Heidi repeated. "You're kidding, aren't you?"
"Heidi, please. I'm so nervous I'm about to throw up."
"This should be interesting. All you've had to eat is a couple of roasted chestnuts."
"Don't joke," Beth muttered. "I'm serious."
"Okay," Heidi said. "I'll come if you really want me to, but I'm only going to stay long enough for the two of you to meet."
"What if we don't like each other?" Beth asked, feeling a sense of dread. She was bringing so many hopes, so much yearning, to this encounter that she was afraid she'd set herself up for failure.
The night before, as they exchanged instant messages, Peter was the one who'd seemed anxious.
They'd tried to reassure each other. That was when he'd given her his phone number. Online they had so much to talk about, and Beth sincerely hoped the chemistry that seemed to spark between them on the screen translated into real life.
At ten minutes to four, Beth and Heidi made their way toward the gazebo, where Peter would be waiting for her. She'd know him by the long-stemmed red rose and his Seahawks hat.
"This is the most romantic date I've ever heard about," Heidi said dreamily.
Beth slipped her arm through Heidi's. "I'm so grateful you're here."
They stood in the background because Beth was feeling shy and a bit shaky, which could've been low blood sugar, Heidi told her. In any event, her plan was to wait for him and then casually walk up and introduce herself.
"There he is!" Heidi said, pointing toward a cluster of people near the gazebo.
"Where? Where? I don't see him." And then she did.
"Beth, oh my goodness, look at him! He's gorgeous."
Beth froze and her heart sank to her knees. Her stomach pitched wildly. "He's that, all right," she whispered numbly.
"How did you get so lucky?" Heidi was too excited to notice Beth's complete lack of enthusiasm.
"I don't know," Beth said, her voice low and emotionless.
Heidi turned to stare at her. "What's the matter with you? Peter looks like he stepped off the pages of a romance novel."
"He does, doesn't he?" Beth murmured. Then she covered her face with both hands and turned away. Whipping the red hat off her head, she quickly unwrapped the telltale scarf from around her neck, as well.
"Beth, what's wrong?" Heidi asked.
"What's wrong?" Beth repeated. "You want me to tell you what's wrong? That Peter is an imposter!"
"How can he be an imposter when you've never met him before?"
"His name isn't Peter," she choked out. "It's John Nicodemus and he's my ex-husband."
That news seemed to shock her friend. "What?"
"Let's get out of here before he sees me," Beth urged. Heidi couldn't possibly have known what John looked like, because she and Heidi hadn't met until five years ago - and she certainly didn't keep wedding photos at her desk or in her condo.
Together they hurried around the corner and Beth flattened herself against the side of a building.
"What are you going to do?" Heidi asked curiously.
Beth needed to think. At first she'd been numb with shock, but now she was angry. "He planned this. He knew all along."
"Beth, that's not fair. How could he have?"
"We never exchanged last names. And he changed his first name, didn't he? He tricked me."
Heidi shook her head. "Didn't you tell me you shortened your name to Beth after your divorce?"
"I did," she admitted. "I wanted to make a fresh start, so I decided that from then on, I'd just use Beth."
"Perhaps John did the same thing," Heidi suggested.
Beth wasn't willing to concede the point. "His middle name is Peter," she said grudgingly. "It never occured to me..."
"He is gorgeous, though."
"His good looks are the only thing he has going for him," Beth mumbled.
"That isn't what you told me earlier."
"What do you mean?" Heidi wasn't usually this argumentative. Clearly, she was taking Peter/John's side, and that infuriated Beth.
"Don't you remember what you said last week?" Heidi asked. "You told me Peter is everything your first husband wasn't."
"I said that?" What an idiot she'd been. What an imbecile. She'd allowed John to make a fool of her. He knew who she was. He had to have known. How could he not? But maybe...just maybe, he didn't. Could they have found each other online? No one would believe something this random could actually happen. It was more than bizarre. It was completely and totally implausible...wasn't it?
"You can't leave him standing there waiting for you like that," Heidi insisted. "That would be cruel."
Beth didn't respond, still trying to figure out how this had happened. It dawned on her that he couldn't have known, since he'd been the one to suggest she meet him outside the gazebo. If he'd known, he would never have given her the opportunity to see him first and then walk away. Unlikely though it seemed, she had to conclude that he was as much in the dark as she was.
"Did you hear me?" Heidi demanded. "You have to call him on his cell."
"No, you have to," Beth said frantically.
"I beg your pardon?" Heidi looked confused.
"Use my phone." She thrust it at her friend.
"Why me? Beth, you're the one who should talk to him, not me." She refused to accept the phone.
"I can't...He'll recognize my voice." He would, too. It might've been almost ten years since the divorce, but that wouldn't matter. John would know her voice the same way she would his.
"You don't want him to find out it's you?" Heidi asked, sounding even more confused.
"No. Not yet. I need to think." This awkward situation had to be handled delicately or John might assume she'd tricked him - which was what she'd suspected about him.
"Here - I'll do it," Heidi said and snatched the phone away from her. "What should I tell him?"
Beth hadn't thought that far ahead. "I - I'm not sure."
"Should I say something came up at the last minute and you had to leave?"
"But if he asks what it is..." Beth was growing desperate.
"He won't," Heidi said. "Anyway, something did come up, so it isn't like you're lying."
Beth shrugged helplessly.
"Give me his cell phone number." Heidi held out her hand.
Digging through her purse, Beth nearly dumped the entire contents in the snow.
"Relax," Heidi said in an annoyingly calm voice. "Re-e-lax."
Beth scowled at her, and as soon as she found the crumpled slip of paper with his phone number, she slapped it in Heidi's hand.
Heidi punched out the number, holding the phone close to Beth's ear.
Peter/John answered on the first ring. "Hello."
"Is this Peter?"
"Beth? Where are you?"
Heidi glanced at Beth, who gestured for her to continue speaking. "I'm so sorry, Peter, but I can't make it. Something, uh, came up - at the last minute and I can't keep our appointment. I'm so disappointed." This last part was said with feeling.
"I am, too," Peter responded. "I didn't know what to think when you didn't show up at four."
"I'd like to meet you. I really would - just not now. Can we arrange another time?"
Beth glared at her friend. She made a frenzied cutting motion with one hand but Heidi ignored her, turning her back on Beth.
Beth hurried around in order to face her. Once more, she made exaggerated cutting motions, using both hands to emphasize the point.
"Next Friday, after Christmas, would be perfect," Heidi went on to say. "Since I was the one who let you down, please come to my place. Yes, yes, I'm sure."
Beth's mouth fell open. Her friend had really crossed the line with that one. Before she could stop her, Heidi rattled off Beth's address.
A moment later, Heidi clicked the cell phone shut and returned it to Beth.
"Have you gone insane?" Beth cried. "You gave him my address!"
"Well, yes, that's what you wanted me to do, isn't it?"
"No...yes. Oh, I don't know." Beth's ears felt frozen and she covered them with her hands. She didn't dare put on her hat until they were far from the gazebo.
"That gives you six days to prepare him."
"You're worried about John?" Some friend Heidi had turned out to be!
"Not John," Heidi explained patiently. "I'm concerned about Peter, the man you fell in love with over the last six months."
Then it hit Beth, something she'd completely forgotten. "He's married."
"What do you mean, he's married?"
"A friend told me she'd heard John remarried and if that's the case, he's either divorced a second time or cheating on his wife." A sick feeling attacked her stomach.
"My guess is that your friend was talking about some other John."
"It can't be..." Or could it? Beth no longer knew. All she did know was that she had six days to sort this out before she confronted Peter/John with the truth.