Beth wasn't imagining it. The relationship between her and Peter had shifted since the night of her mother's call. That'd been two days ago, and whenever they logged on to the game she lowered her guard a fraction more. So did Peter.

The biggest difference was that they chatted far more than strictly necessary. And their messaging didn't concern the game as much as it did each other.


You're right on time, I notice, he wrote when she logged on.

Beth kicked off her shoes as she settled into the chair by her desk. She set aside the soda she was drinking in order to respond. You're ahead of schedule.

I was anxious.

Beth read his words and leaned away from her desk. She wasn't sure how to decipher that comment. Did Peter mean he was anticipating her arrival? Or was he implying that he was worried she'd be late? It was hard to tell.

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Anxious why? she asked, preferring the direct approach.

To talk to you.

Now that they'd reached level forty in World of Warcraft, the option to purchase a mount had been offered to them. It was a big advantage and one they'd been considering. Any particular reason? she asked, wondering if that was what he wanted to discuss.


That didn't tell her anything. Would you care to explain?

His reply didn't come for a couple of minutes, as if he needed to think about it first. So this obviously wasn't about the possibility of adding a mount to their list of resources.

We've been partners - how long? he asked instead.

Six months.

It seems longer.

Again Beth didn't know what to make of that. Really?

I trust you.

She laughed. As well you should. I've covered your butt often enough, oh mighty Timixie.

I've covered yours, too.

For which I'm most grateful.

That's only appropriate.

Beth laughed, enjoying the light, teasing quality of their exchange. She typed quickly. Are you going to chatter all night or are we going to play?

Can't we do both?

Beth felt a rush of warmth. It was a pleasant sensation and one she'd almost forgotten. Talking with the opposite sex was awkward for her, except in situations that didn't involve potentially romantic expectations - with family, for instance, or male colleagues or friends like Sam. She felt comfortable with Peter, at ease. Although they hadn't even spoken on the phone, let alone face-to-face, it was the first time she'd had that kind of reaction to a man since John.

Despite what her mother said, Beth had dated after her divorce; she just hadn't done it successfully. Most social conversations with men felt stilted. She struggled with how much to say or not to say.

Her record was three dates with the same man. Luke Whitcomb. He'd been a nice guy, entertaining and funny. His sense of humor had carried her for the three dates.

She probably would've accepted a fourth except that he'd admitted their relationship wasn't working for him. He'd been sincere when he said they should call it quits before either of them got hurt.

Well, surprise, surprise. Luke's rejection had cut deep and served, once again, to convince Beth that she was incapable of ever attracting another man. Afterward she'd steered away from dating at all and a couple of weeks later, she'd found the World of Warcraft and since then, almost her entire social life had been as a Night Elf and hunter.

Now there was Peter, a man she'd never actually met. His family had suggested he "get a life," so it was highly probably that he was single, too. Beth wanted to ask him, only she couldn't figure out how to do it without being obvious. A straightforward question about his marital status seemed out of line at this stage.

They'd been into the game for about ten minutes when Peter sent her another message. This might be a stupid question but are you...single, married, whatever?

He'd asked her.

Beth's relief was instantaneous. Single.

Me, too. Age?

Is this an interrogation? she typed back.

Sort of. Do you mind?

Not really. She didn't, because in the process she was learning more about him.

I'll tell if you will.

All right.

I'm edging toward thirty, he typed. Which is one reason my family is after me to meet someone.

Me, too. Her heart really started to pound then. Perhaps that candle her mother had lit in church was working. Perhaps, in some quirky way, her prayer had taken effect.

Peter was single; she was single.

He lived in Seattle and she lived in Seattle.

He was close to her age and a professional, just as she was.

This almost sounded too good to be true.

My family says it's time I met someone, she typed next.

They do? He seemed as astonished as she felt - as if he, too, was finding this a bit too coincidental. Eerie, even.

A moment later, he typed, What's wrong with you?

Well, he was direct enough, but she'd been pretty honest with him, too. She toyed with the idea of telling him she'd been married and divorced, and then remembered Heidi's advice. It wasn't necessary to blurt out everything on the first date - even if this wasn't exactly a date.

I spend too much time playing computer games. She smiled as her fingers skipped effortlessly over the keyboard.

I've got the same problem, came his reply.

Silly though it was, Beth felt sure they were both smiling. Their conversation went on for another hour, and she was shocked to realize the game had become secondary.

That night when Beth crawled into bed and drew the blanket over her shoulders, she fell into an easy, peaceful sleep. She woke with a feeling of expectation, as if something wonderful was about to happen. Keeping her eyes closed, she tried to hang on to that sensation for as long as she could, afraid reality would chase it away.

The phone rang while she dressed for work. Call display told her it was her mother.

"Hi, Mom," she said, answering the phone while fastening an earring.

"You sound happy."

"I am - well, kind of."

Her mother's hesitation was brief. "Does this have anything to do with the man you met on that computer game you're always playing?"

Beth found it hard to believe she'd actually mentioned Peter to her mother. She'd done it on impulse - a bad impulse - hoping to shut down a barrage of veiled criticism and heavy-handed encouragement. Normally her mother would be the last person she'd tell. "We haven't even met, Mom," she finally confessed. "At least not in the flesh."

"What's the holdup?"

"He hasn't suggested we meet outside the game," Beth said, which in her opinion was a perfectly logical explanation. In her mother's generation, the men always did the asking. She figured this was an excuse even her marriage-obsessed mother would accept.

"Then you suggest it."

So much for that. "Mother!"

"I'm serious," Joyce said. "Why beat around the bush? You're a woman who knows what she wants. Now go and get it."

Beth thought about asking Peter. Why not? One of them had to break the ice. "I'd like to meet him but I don't want to appear forward."

"Marybeth, you don't have much time. Maybe he's shy. Maybe he's waiting for you to bring it up. Show a bit of initiative, will you? It's later than you think."

"Trust me, Mother, Peter isn't shy." She knew this from the way he attacked their enemies on WoW.

"Then why wait?"

Beth nibbled on her lower lip. "I don't want to rush into anything."

"But it's already December twentieth. Christmas is right around the corner."

This wasn't making sense. "Why is it so important that Peter join us for Christmas?" Beth asked, beginning to have some suspicions.

"It isn't important...Well, in a manner of speaking it is. Your father and I have this wager."

"Mother!" Her parents constantly made small bets with each other. Most of the time Beth found this habit of theirs amusing. Not now, though. Not when their wager was about her. "You'd better tell me everything."

"Okay..." Her mother inhaled deeply. "Last Christmas, your father said that at the rate you were going you'd never remarry."

"And you disagreed with him."

"Of course I did! Marybeth, you have no idea what an attractive young woman you are. You should be happy."

"I am happy," she insisted.

"I disagree. You just think you are."

Beth rolled her eyes, knowing it wouldn't do any good to argue.

"You should be dating," her mother continued.

"And getting married and becoming a mother." The litany was a familiar one.

"Yes," Joyce Fischer said. "I hate the idea that you've got nothing more pressing to go home to than that darned computer game."

"You don't understand, Mom. Peter and I are at level forty and - " She stopped. There was no point in explaining further.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Never mind."

"Does this have anything to do with bringing Peter to dinner on Christmas Day?" her mother wanted to know.

"Nothing whatsoever."

"But that's the important thing here. Otherwise your father..."

"Yes?" Beth murmured.

"Otherwise I'll be hauling the garbage out to the curb every Wednesday for the next six months."

"A fate worse than death," Beth muttered sarcastically.

"It isn't that I mind dealing with the garbage," her mother went on, "but I do mind losing another bet to your father, especially when you're so close to actually having a date for Christmas."

Beth didn't consider herself close at all. In her desperation to win this bet, Joyce was being completely unreasonable.

"Promise me you'll ask Peter," her mother pleaded.

This had gone on long enough. "I'll do no such thing."

"If not for my sake, then your own, Marybeth."

"No!" That was final, too.

The silence that followed weakened her resolve. "Don't you realize how ridiculous you're being?" Beth said. "Peter's practically a stranger."

"Just meet him," Joyce wheedled. "That's all I ask. Whether he comes to Christmas dinner or not is entirely up to you. All I ask is that the two of you connect. Promise me that much."

While she'd never openly admit it, Beth was curious about her online partner. She couldn't help it. She wondered if he was being pressured by his family about meeting her, too. It was worth asking.

She ended the conversation with her mother by booking a lunch date for later in the week.

That evening, as soon as Beth got home from work, she logged on to the game. Peter came on ten minutes after that. The first thing he did was ask about the amount of gold they'd accumulated toward their purchase of a mount. The fact that he avoided the kind of personal comment they'd exchanged the night before was telling. She suspected he was uncomfortable with the way their conversation had turned toward the personal. It had unsettled her, too, and at the same time excited her.

Beth took his cue and simply answered his question.

They played for an hour, but neither one seemed focused on the game.

I need to leave early, she typed in.

Do you have a hot date?

It wasn't a date at all. Beth was meeting Heidi to go over the details of their weekend in Leavenworth. An appointment, she told him.

Business or pleasure?

He was getting mighty inquisitive. Pleasure, she answered.

There was a slight pause. Have fun.

You, too.

No problem meeting tomorrow night?

He'd never asked before. None.

Good. Talk to you then.

Beth put Borincana safely away and exited the game. The happy feeling that had greeted her that morning had completely evaporated. She didn't understand what had happened with Peter or why. Was he backing off, losing interest? He'd been eager to confirm that she'd be playing tomorrow, though, so he might just prefer his romance virtual. He might be afraid of taking their relationship into the realms of reality.

What a sorry lot they were, both of them more comfortable in the guise of a fantasy character than dealing with real life. They were two sad, lonely people reaching out at Christmas, wanting to connect and too afraid to try.

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