Leta didn’t leave. She hedged as if she weren’t sure what to say, then finally blurted out, "Do you want me to ask someone else to be with the Bartellis?”

"Someone else?” He was their pastor. But he wasn’t there when they needed him.

"Steve Tenny or another one of the elders,” she suggested.

Paul stared at her and realized how badly he’d failed the people he’d guided spiritually all these years. "Yes,” he whispered, "perhaps that would be best.”

Leta closed the door softly, and Paul pressed his elbows against his desk and hung his head as the shame and guilt pummeled him. Working on his sermon now was impossible. He felt bone dry. He had nothing to say.

Some time later Paul found himself sitting in the back row of the sanctuary. The church was semidark. What light was available was muted by the stained glass. For a long time he did nothing but sit.

Two of the lambs he had vowed to shepherd had needed him, and he had turned his back on them. He’d surrendered his duties to another because he’d been unable to cope with all that was involved with Madge’s illness.

It would have been easier, he mused, if the cancer that ate away at Madge Bartelli wasn’t the same rare type that had claimed Barbara. One he knew so intimately himself. He recognized each stage, relived the agonies.

He couldn’t do this anymore. Couldn’t face Madge, knowing her pain. Couldn’t console Bernard when he’d found no consolation himself.

He’d failed these two people he loved. Failed God. Failed himself.

The heaviness in his chest was almost unbearable.

He’d learned to live without Barbara, but he didn’t know if he could live with the man that he’d become without her.

Catherine was absolutely delighted. She didn’t know what was developing between Joy and her grandson, but whatever it was looked promising. The sparkle was back in his eyes, and when he’d winked at her, it was all she could do to keep from clapping her hands and laughing outright. That boy was up to something.

On the other hand, Joy looked thoroughly confused and more than a little flustered by the attention Ted was paying her. Her cheeks had glowed an unnatural shade of pink when she’d stood to leave the library.

Catherine might be an interfering old woman, but she’d certainly like to know what was happening between these two people she loved so dearly.

Someone tapped on her apartment door. She rarely kept it locked, and most people knew that. Ted stuck his head inside.

"Howdy, Grandma.”

"Ted,” she said, absolutely delighted to see him. "You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

"I don’t suppose you have any of those chocolate-chip cookies left over from the other day, do you?”

Catherine grinned. "I imagine I could dig up a couple, if you promise not to ruin your dinner.”

"Promise,” he said, coming inside the apartment and making himself at home.

Catherine moved into her tiny kitchen and brought out two cookies on a plate. Her head buzzed with questions about him and Joy, but she didn’t want him to think she was prying.

"I see you’ve met our Joy,” she said casually, and sat across from him.

Ted gobbled down both cookies before he answered. "She’s about the stubbornest woman I’ve yet to meet.”

"Joy Palmer?”

"You don’t know her the way I do.” His eyes flashed with humor. "I’d like to get to know her a whole lot better, but she’s resisting me. Personally, I don’t understand how she can continue to ignore my charm and good looks.”

Catherine laughed. "Maybe she keeps stumbling over your humility.”

Ted grinned and thoughtfully rubbed the side of his jaw. "Perhaps that’s the problem.”

"There isn’t a man or woman here who isn’t crazy about Joy,” Catherine told him. "She’s much more than the resident service director. She’s our friend and our advocate. When I first moved to Wilshire Grove it wasn’t an easy adjustment for me to make. I’m too independent. I like things my own way, but Joy was there to smooth away the rough edges, to make the transition as uncomplicated as possible.”

"I’m taking her out.”

Catherine tried not to show how pleased she was, but doubted that she succeeded. "That’s wonderful.”

Ted grew thoughtful. "You don’t think my interest in her is a psychological male thing having to do with the fear of relinquishing my freedom, do you?”

Catherine wasn’t sure she followed that entirely. "Ah, I don’t think so.”

He beamed her a wide smile. "Good. I didn’t think so, either.” He leaned back and relaxed once more. "I want my date with her to be special. Do you have any recommendations?”

Catherine thought about it for several moments, then nodded. "The antique car show. As you might have guessed, Joy has an appreciation for older things.”

There was a knock at Catherine’s front door. She waited for whomever it was to let themselves inside. A second knock followed, this one louder and more insistent.

Catherine stood and crossed the room. It was Blythe Holmes.

"Hello, Mrs. Goodwin,” she said. She refused to meet Catherine’s gaze as she surveyed the living room. "I’m looking for Ted.”

"Blythe.” Ted was on his feet. "What are you doing here?”

"Shucks,” Paula said with a dramatic sigh, "I thought we might find them already kissing.”

"It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” Karen returned in a loud whisper. The two girls had their elbows wrapped around each other’s necks.

"Would you two kindly stop talking about us like we can’t hear you?” Maureen said crankily. It was mildly disconcerting to have two twelve-year-olds discussing her love life, as if she had one. A few innocent kisses shared with Thom Nichols hardly constituted a sexual relationship.

"Actually, I wanted to know if Karen could spend the night on Friday.” Paula addressed herself to Maureen. "I already asked my dad, and he said I had to get your permission first, but he said it was fine with him.”

Maureen didn’t dare look at her daughter staring at her so hopefully. If she refused, it would crush Karen’s heart. It wasn’t as if she had other plans.

"I suppose it would be all right.”

"I’ll pick up Karen,” Thom offered.

"But that means you’ll need to drive into the city.”

"No problem. I promised Paula I’d drive her around and show her the Christmas decorations. There’s a list of addresses in the paper, and it’s sort of a tradition we have.”

"Karen would enjoy that.”

"Wanna come?” The offer, uttered under his breath, was low and seductive.

"Ah, thanks, but no.”

He laughed, but this too was for her ears alone. "I’ll miss you. Don’t worry, I’ll show our girls a good time.”

Maureen changed her mind a dozen times or more before Thom arrived to pick Karen up Friday evening. Viewing the Christmas lights was something she’d always wanted to do, and the temptation to join him and the girls was strong.

When she was with him, Maureen found it easy to forget her resolve. He was gentle and patient and a good father—everything that Brian had never been, except perhaps in the beginning and on rare occasions afterward. It irritated her how quickly she was pulled into the force of his personality.

Shortly after seven Thom and Paula called for Karen, who’d packed enough clothes for a two-week visit. The thought of spending an entire day at the ranch with her favorite twenty-five horses and newfound best friend was like being granted a weekend pass to paradise.

"Hello again,” Maureen said, stepping aside to allow Thom into her home.

"Gone off on any long walks by yourself lately?” he asked, removing his Stetson. His presence seemed to fill the small house.

"A gentleman wouldn’t remind me of that.”

Thom’s grin was off center. "I never claimed to be a gentleman.”

Karen and Paula came out of the bedroom hauling Karen’s three packed overnight bags.

"You’d think she was moving in,” Maureen joked, then added, "No need to worry, there’re some Barbie dolls and enough clothes to bankrupt Ken in there as well.”

"You sure you won’t change your mind and come with us?” Thom asked.

Maureen was tempted. More tempted than she cared to admit, even to herself. "No thanks. I’ve got a full evening planned.”

"A hot date?” He actually looked worried. Maureen could have kissed him for that.

"Not exactly. I’m going to give my hair a hot oil treatment, change the polish on my nails, and read a murder mystery I’ve been saving. A woman murders her ex-husband and gets away with it,” she said with a laugh.

"I’ll give you a call in the morning,” Thom promised, and then he did the most unexpected thing. He leaned forward and kissed her. It wasn’t even a real kiss, more a peck on the cheek. A way of telling her he wanted her to enjoy her evening alone. A way of saying he was going to miss her. A way of saying he couldn’t wait until he could see her again.

Maureen pressed her hand against her cheek for several minutes after they’d left. Then a smile touched her lips, one that grew until she was on the verge of giggling like a schoolgirl.

On her way into the bathroom to run a tub of hot, sudsy water, Maureen paused and reached for the phone. Her mother answered right away.

"Hello, Mom, it’s me.”

"Maureen. My goodness, I haven’t heard from you in ages! I thought now that you lived closer we’d see more of you. I’m sorry we weren’t able to take Karen out for her riding lesson the other day.”

"It was no problem, everything worked out. But I did want to talk over something with you. I didn’t say anything earlier because I was afraid you and I might have words over it.”

"But, honey, what did I do?” Her mother sounded shocked and confused, and Maureen felt mildly guilty. Everything had turned out for the good, and Karen hadn’t suffered from a nightmare in weeks.

"It’s all right, Mom. Don’t worry about it,” Maureen hurried to reassure her mother. "But I really wish you hadn’t phoned Thom Nichols and given him my name. I was going to call about the riding lessons for Karen, really I was, but before I could—”

"I didn’t phone Thom Nichols,” Beverly Shields insisted.

"You didn’t?”

"No. How could I? You took the brochure, remember?”

"But then who did?”

"Shirley?” Mercy called sweetly. "You want to tell us all about a certain phone call to Nichols’s Riding Stables? Goodness and I are all ears.”

"I?” Shirley pressed a hand over her breast and wore a shocked look, as if she would never be caught doing anything so underhanded.

As far as Mercy was concerned, the older prayer ambassador did a poor job of feigning innocence.

"And after the lectures she’s been giving us about keeping our feathers in a row.”