"All right,” Joe agreed easily enough, and Paul was grateful. "By the way,” Joe said, helping himself to a chair, "how’s Mrs. Bartelli doing?”
Paul looked away. He didn’t want to think about Madge and Bernard. "About as well as can be expected,” he murmured. "I doubt she’ll be home again.”
"Then she’s going to die soon?”
"Probably.” Once again God would turn his back on a grieving family and yank away a loved one who had prayed desperately for healing, the way Paul had prayed for Barbara.
"That’s too bad.” Joe raised his feet and set them on the ottoman. "Say, Dad, since Annie’s doing the cooking for tomorrow night’s dinner, I thought I’d help straighten up the place a bit.”
Paul looked around. True, books were stacked here and there, but it wasn’t so bad. "Do you think it needs it?”
"Kind of,” Joe said.
His son always had been the diplomatic one in the family.
"Fact is, I was thinking you could use someone who came in once or twice a week to clean for you.”
Paul laughed. His own voice sounded rusty and odd to him. It must have been longer than he realized since he’d really laughed.
"What’s that mean?” Joe asked, smiling himself.
"I don’t need any housekeeper. Good grief, what would they do?”
"We could find someone who’d fix your dinner now and again.”
"Why would I want anyone to do that?” Paul asked, seriously wanting to know. "I’m a good cook.” He stood and slapped his son across the shoulders. "It’s a nice thought, and I appreciate it, but no thanks.”
The night closed in around Maureen with thick, dark hands. She shivered with cold and rubbed the length of her arms in an effort to keep her blood circulating. It seemed hours since she’d wandered away from the stables, but it couldn’t possibly have been that long, could it?
"Help,” she called out, forcing the panic from her voice. Her throat felt raw from calling. It was useless. No one knew where she was. No one was going to find her.
Her name came faintly, like a warm whisper from the distance.
She bolted upright and stood on top of the rock. "Here,” she shouted, cupping her mouth. "I’m over here!”
"Keep talking.” The whisper became a tad stronger.
"This way,” she shouted a second time, louder. A beam of light appeared, and Maureen carefully scooted down the rock and headed toward it.
"Here.” The beacon was much brighter now and the voice recognizable. Thom. She should have known he’d be the one to find her. Her treacherous heart reacted with a solid jolt of happiness.
As she approached, he lowered the flashlight to the ground. "Are you hurt?” he asked, his voice gentle with concern.
"No, no, I’m fine.” She longed to rush into his arms, bury herself in his warmth, but she managed to restrain herself. Instead she waited for the well-deserved lecture about wandering off without telling anyone where she was going.
It never came.
"I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you,” she said, genuinely apologetic. It had been foolish and risky. She should have known better.
"If you’re going to apologize to anyone, try Karen. She’s nearly frantic.”
"Oh, no.” Maureen had warned her daughter against doing this very thing countless times. Her own actions had been stupid and irresponsible.
"I had to leave Midnight back on the trail.” He shucked off his lambskin-lined jacket and draped it over her shoulders. It felt warm against her chilled skin. His scent circled her like the smoke from a lazy fire, and it felt as if his arms were around her, comforting her.
Taking his time, his fingers holding hers, Thom carefully guided her over the rocky path toward the trail. She held on to him firmly, afraid to let go. With her hand in his she felt secure and safe.
"Aren’t you angry with me?” she asked when the silence grew too much for her. Heaven knew he had every right.
"Should I be?”
"Yes,” she said crossly. "I was reckless and foolish, and it seems to me—”
"It seems to me,” he interrupted, "you’re angry enough with yourself. You don’t need me lecturing you when you’re doing such a fine job of it.”
They reached the narrow trail. Midnight, his dark gelding, was tied to a tree, waiting impatiently. Thom smoothed his hand down the horse’s long, sleek neck and spoke soothingly to the gelding. Maureen recognized the same calming, comforting voice. It rankled her pride that he spoke to his horse in the same gentle tones as he did her!
With an ease and grace she envied, he lifted himself onto the saddle. The leather creaked as it accepted his weight, and Midnight sidestepped twice, seemingly eager to head back to the barn.
Maureen wondered exactly what she was supposed to do when Thom slipped his foot free of the stirrup, leaned forward, and offered her his assistance.
She studied his extended hand for a moment. "You want me to climb on behind you?” she asked, and grimaced at the squeaky, nervous way her voice reverberated into the night. She’d never ridden horseback in her life.
"Yes.” She noticed he didn’t offer her any advice or instructions.
Luckily she had on a pants suit. She lifted her left foot and placed it inside the stirrup, but it was so high off the ground that it would have taken a forklift to heave her all the way up to where Thom was.
With one foot trapped three feet off the ground, she hopped around on her good foot in an effort to gain her balance. "Don’t you dare laugh,” she admonished.
"I wouldn’t dream of it.”
But she could already hear the amusement in his voice.
"Give me your hand,” he instructed, and when she pressed her smooth palm in his callused one, he hoisted her upward. Her one foot flailed in midair for a moment or two before she was able to boost it over Midnight’s back.
Thom sat forward in his saddle, giving her just enough space to rest her buttocks.
"Comfortable?” he asked.
"No problem,” she assured him, gripping the saddle behind her in an effort to keep from wrapping her arms around his waist. Their positions were intimate enough. She wore his jacket, and that alone felt as if she were in his arms. If she touched him, she might have to deal with the emotions his kisses had roused. To the best of her ability, she pushed every thought of his kiss from her mind and settled as far back in the saddle as was possible.
Thom pulled on the reins. "You might want to hold on to my waist.”
"I’m fine,” she said confidently. Her fingers bit into the hard leather saddle.
Midnight took off in an easy trot. Within the first few seconds Maureen recognized it was either hold on to Thom or else slip straight off Midnight’s back. As it was, she felt as if she were sitting on a trampoline. Her buttocks lifted several inches off the saddle and slammed down repeatedly.
Immediately her arms shot out and went around Thom in an octopus grip. Her head jerked up and down until her teeth felt as if they were about to fall out.
Thom patted her hands, which were joined at his stomach. "That isn’t so bad, now, is it?”
He’d nearly unsaddled her on purpose in an effort to get her to hold him. Maureen was sure of it. She noticed that Midnight’s gait was much more relaxed now, and she sat relatively comfortably behind him.
Maureen would have chastised Thom, but just then they trotted into the yard and Karen came racing toward them.
"Mom,” she cried, "where were you?”
"Lost,” she muttered. "I did something none of us should ever do. I went for a walk without telling anyone where I was going.”
"You’re restricted for a week,” Karen said, sounding dead serious, then ruined her feigned outrage by giggling. "I was worried until Mr. Nichols decided to look for you. Paula told me he wouldn’t come back until he’d found you.”
A man of his word. Maureen didn’t know there were any left in this world. She’d been married to a man who’d often bartered with the truth, a man who’d traded away his integrity and destroyed their marriage for a few moments’ pleasure with another woman.
"Come inside the house,” Thom said. He slipped from Midnight’s back and reached up to help Maureen down. It seemed his hands gripped her about the waist several seconds longer than necessary.
"Inside the house?” she asked once her feet were planted firmly on solid ground. Ken led Midnight into the barn.
"You’re half frozen. You need something warm.”
She wanted to argue, tell him the car heater would chase away any chill, but the words never made it to her lips.
"Great idea,” Karen said, "and while you’re talking to my mom you might say a few words about letting people know where she’s going.”
"I might,” Thom agreed, then whispered for Maureen’s benefit, "but don’t worry, I won’t.”
He led the way into the house. The coffee was already brewed, and he poured them each a cup. The girls had mysteriously disappeared.
"About Friday night,” Thom said, bracing his lean hip against the kitchen counter. Maureen was sitting down, more shaken from the episode of being lost and found than she cared to admit.
"The telephone call from your ex-husband.”
"What about it?” she asked defensively.
"I think we should talk about it.”
"I don’t.” Maureen had no intention of rehashing the unpleasant encounter with Brain, especially not with Thom.
"Not what was said between you and your ex, but what happened to us after the call. We were just getting to the point where we could communicate, really communicate.”
That wasn’t the way Maureen remembered it. As she recalled, it wasn’t talking they’d been involved in when the phone rang.
"Nothing happened, nor will it again,” she announced in her firmest voice. She’d made a mistake by lowering her guard once with this man, and he’d taken quick advantage. She had no intention of repeating the error.
"You’re wrong,” Thom said gently. "Something did happen. Something very good. It’s unfortunate that it ended when it did.”
"Unfortunate” wasn’t the word she’d use. Brian’s call was a blatant reminder of her past mistakes. She would never allow another man to hurt her the way Brain had.
Thom set aside his mug, walked over to the table, and straddled a chair. He folded his arms over the back and smiled at her. "Don’t look so worried, I’m a patient man. I’ve been waiting a long time for you. I can wait a little longer for you to trust me.”
Waiting a long time for you. Maureen lowered her gaze, afraid of what he might read in her eyes. "Why me?”
It took him a moment to compose his thoughts. "That first afternoon when we talked on the phone, I realized you were as lonely as I was. We both had daughters about the same age. We’d both walked the floors, fretted, and worried if we were doing a good enough job as single parents.” He flexed his hands as if searching for something just outside of his reach. "There was a sadness in you. I’ve known that, too. I realize you don’t want to discuss your marriage. Not yet. I’m hoping that sometime in the future you’ll change your mind. When you do, I’ll be here, ready to listen.”