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.
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?"
"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."
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.
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."
"Mostly I was afraid." Because she needed something to do with her hands, she filled the two mugs with coffee, welcoming the distraction.
Peter reached for his mug and she automatically opened her refrigerator and took out the milk.
He smiled. "You remember that I take milk in my coffee."
"How could I forget?" she asked, a smile tugging at the corners of her own mouth. "Don't you remember we had that huge fight over milk? I'd forgotten to pick some up on my way home."
Peter threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. "I was pretty unreasonable back then."
She'd thought the same thing. He'd accused her of intentionally forgetting the milk, apparently convinced that she'd done it in retaliation, since he'd been right in a silly argument they'd had the day before. It'd all been so stupid, so adolescent.
Peter poured a dollop of milk into his coffee, then returned the carton to the refrigerator. Beth watched in amazement. While they were married, he'd driven her to the brink of insanity by leaving everything out. He left drawers open, newspapers on the floor, dirty dishes everywhere.
When she complained, he'd accused her of being too fastidious and a "neat freak." Beth hadn't seen herself as either; however she'd considered him lazy and disorganized - and had told him so.
They both sipped their coffee for a couple of minutes, leaning casually against the kitchen counters. Despite her relaxed pose, Beth felt anything but.
"Did you mean what you said?" Peter gazed at her over the top of his mug.
She knew what he was asking. "I always loved you. Even when I filed for divorce, I loved you. I couldn't live with you, but that didn't change how I felt about you."
He chuckled softly and nodded. "It was the same with me. You were driving me crazy."
"We did it to each other." Beth set her mug on the counter. "So," she said, sighing. "This afternoon you said you don't want to look back and that it's time to move forward."
He nodded again. "It's time for both of us to let go of the past, Marybeth."
"And...what about the future?"
He didn't answer right away. He glanced at her, his eyes uncertain, then looked away. "In other words, you're asking where we go from here."
"It's a fair question, don't you think?"
"I agree. Only I'm not sure what to say. Is it just a coincidence that we've been online together for the past six months and neither of us realized it?"
"I never dreamed it could be you," she said. "I didn't set this up...I wouldn't know how."
"I believe you. I couldn't have, either."
Suddenly she recalled the conversation she'd had with her mother and the fact that Joyce had even lit a candle in church on her behalf. She took a deep breath. "It seems to me that we were brought back together for a reason."
Beth's heart pounded frantically as Peter put down his mug and walked around the counter to stand in front of her. He settled his hands on her shoulders and stared into her eyes.
"If you're willing to give us another chance, I think we should do it," he said in an urgent voice.
Beth gave him a tentative smile. "I'm willing."
That was when he kissed her. As he lowered his mouth to hers, Beth closed her eyes and slipped her arms around him. His lips were soft, pliable, warm. The years fell away, and it was as if they were college students again, hungry for each other, desperately in love and ready to take on dragons and warriors and despots and worse.
Beth eased her mouth from his. "Do you want to spend Christmas with me and my family?" she asked, smiling up at him.
Peter laughed. "If you'll spend New Year's with mine."
"Very clever, Goodness," Mercy said, sitting on the counter in Beth Fischer's kitchen, swinging her feet.
"I had to do something," Goodness told her. "Peter and Beth were content to delay their meeting, so I had to put an end to that." She turned to Mercy and smiled. "I've learned men are much more suggestible than women."
"I've discovered the same thing," Shirley said, joining them. "That wasn't all, though. Stepping in front of Peter when he arrived at Beth's so she saw your face instead of his was brilliant."
"Tricky, too." Mercy's voice was admiring. Goodness had to reveal herself to Beth, yet remain hidden from Peter. Not an easy task and if Gabriel ever found out, she'd never hear the end of it.
"Gabriel will be pleased when he learns Beth and Peter are together again."
"I think he will, too," Goodness said.
Her mission had been completed.
The candle Joyce Fischer had lit in the church flickered one last time and then went out.