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The Mistletoe Affair

The Mistletoe Affair

Аннотация

    "A gripping story about moving beyond loss, grief, and failure. Katherine is a spirited and brave heroine. Her desire to solve her problems without a man's help makes her a memorable character. Hopefully, Jared will change from a love'em and leave'em type guy to a family man before he loses Katherine. That this story occurs at Christmas only adds to the delight…" – Robin Lee for Romance Reviews Today


Judith Gilbert The Mistletoe Affair

    Copyright ©2005 by Judith Gilbert

Chapter One

    “You know what? How's Santa gonna land without Grandpa's runway lights?” five-year-old Matt asked.
    Katherine Cahill squinted from Friday's midday sun and pointed to the candy-cane lights that hugged the walkways of her mother's Houston home. She did not relish the idea of climbing this roof as she did at their home in Sugar Land. With her fingers crossed, she prayed her son would believe Santa now had adequate lights to land safely.
    His dark eyebrows furrowed. “You gonna put ‘em on the roof so Santa and Rudolph can see real good like Grandpa used to do?"
    Matt's ‘like Grandpa used to do’ brought back a rush of painful memories of the loving father who had lost a long battle to cancer ten months ago. She'd made a promise to look after everyone. Their first Christmas without him would be especially hard for everyone, unless she made it right. She intended to help both Matt and her mother, who recently underwent painful hip surgery, have a wonderful Christmas. That's what Dad would have wanted her to do.
    Staring at the two-story mountain of a house with its steep-pitched roof, she muttered, “Piece a cake.” For Matt, she would attempt anything, and that included continuing her father's tradition of putting lights on the roof.
    She knelt beside her son on the sidewalk and tickled his belly. “Would I let you down?"
    He wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed. “Can I go skate with Jimmy? He's waitin’ for me."
    Katherine nodded. “Grandma's exercising her hip, so be quiet when you go inside for your helmet and kneepads."
    “I will.” His little corduroy-covered legs scampered toward the front porch to grab his gear, and Katherine headed to the garage for her own gear.
    After fumbling through the garage, she placed the extension ladder against the side of the house, crammed icicle light clips in her jeans and climbed to the eave. Stepping onto the shingles, she scaled the roof until she reached the summit.
    She leaned over to attach clips to the eaves, and her feet slipped on several loose shingles. Her breath caught in her throat. She steadied herself and made a mental note to repair them.
    “You need any help up there, ma'am? Mrs. Taylor across the street saw you slip and almost fainted,” said a deep masculine voice from down below.
    Startled, Katherine dropped the clip and landed with a plop onto her butt. Shading her eyes from the sun, she stared toward the house across the street and met the gaze from human eyeballs peeking between blinds. Katherine lifted her hand and waved at Mrs. Taylor.
    Dropping her gaze, she gingerly peered over the edge of the roof, while still trying to defy gravity and stay glued to the shingles. She looked in the direction of the baritone voice and spotted a man in jeans and corduroy shirt staring up at her from the base of the ladder. The pale December sunlight glinted off his hair, highlighting darker, almost-auburn strands amid the blond.
    “I live next door to Mrs. Taylor, ma'am. She called and said she'll never make it to her seventy-fifth birthday if I don't let her know you're okay."
    He lifted his hand and waved to Mrs. Taylor before turning back to Katherine. “Why don't you get your husband to do this, so you don't get hurt?"
    She imagined Paul attempting to hang lights for the first time and chuckled. “Ex-husbands take a dim view of calls to help their ex-wives."
    “You're divorced?” He frowned, narrowing his eyes. “Your mother never mentioned that particular detail. She wanted me to meet her family this Christmas, especially Matt."
    His sharp tone, coupled with the suspicious glances he threw Katherine's way, made her angry. “I bet you're the only man in town my mother's missed feeding that tidbit to."
    A brow shot up. “Is that a fact?” He lifted his chin and stared back like she'd turned into a people eating alien.
    What's with men? They automatically assume every divorcee wants to club them and drag them down the aisle. In her case, the assumption bordered on ludicrous. One two-timing husband had cured her for life.
    “Well, maybe you should hire a man to do this for you,” he said.
    “I don't need one,” she huffed. “Women do a lot of things, including hanging lights."
    He started up the ladder. “I'm Jared Randall by the way, and you must be Katherine."
    Her gaze reluctantly traveled across his broad chest and down his arms. She wondered how often he worked out. He shifted to wrap his palms around the rungs of the ladder, and hard-packed muscles bulged against the thick, ribbed fabric of his red shirt.
    “Yes, I'm Katherine Cahill.” When he stepped onto the roof, she raised her hand palm up to halt his advance, and stared into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. “What do you think you're doing, Mr. Randall?"
    “Call me Jared.” He grinned and the dimple in his right cheek deepened. “Trying to rescue you."
    “Really?” She lifted her chin another inch, even as her attention shifted to his incredible mouth. “I can assure you, I don't need rescuing."
    “Sorry, but I don't agree. I think you need some serious help here."
    “You're crazy,” she snapped back.
    He raised an eyebrow, as he climbed up beside her. “That little statement could be considered libelous."
    She frowned. “Worse than crazy, you're an attorney, right?"
    He sat down beside her on the roof. “Guilty as charged,” he answered, leisurely stretching his long legs in front of him.
    Just what I need, another attorney in my life, especially one two times bigger, and three times more stubborn.
    Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and scooted away, even more determined to show him she didn't need a man's help.
    “Thanks for your concern, but no thanks. It's okay for you to leave."
    He shook his head. “I'm afraid I can't do that."
    “Why not?"
    “I'm running for City Council. It wouldn't look good if I walked away and you fell."
    “I won't fall.” She nibbled her lower lip. “Honestly, I'm doing fine."
    “Is that a fact? That's not what the evidence says. You almost fell awhile ago.” He patted the asphalt shingles beneath him. “If you don't mind, I'll stay put in case you need me."
    She pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.” Scooting her bottom a long distance from him, she stood and moved further up the roof, daring him to interfere. She continued placing icicle clips on the eaves.
    Half way up one side, her feet suddenly hit another loose shingle and flew out from under her. She landed flat on her back, before she could utter a scream, her body picked up momentum, sliding toward the edge of the roof. As she sailed past him, he flung out his arm, grabbed and caught her.
    She closed her eyes and tried not to notice that his large hand held onto the area of her bra sitting right between her cleavage. Don't let Matt see me like this. The ambulance would have been better.
    Furious, embarrassed, and knowing she could not spend all day suspended like this with her eyes glued shut, she ripped them open and glared into the laughing cobalt eyes watching her. To her utter shame, her nipples hardened into points and her face flushed hot. “Let go of my bra… you manhandling chauvinist."
    “Manhandling chauvinist?” His jaw muscles worked fighting a grin. “Well, if that isn't gratitude for you. I'm not the one that fell on her backside and almost rolled off a two-story house."
    She gasped, as her breasts swelled against his palm.
    “Are you in pain?” he asked. “I'm trying not to hurt you."
    Blushing, she shook her head. “Please, let go."
    “Do you know what will happen if I do?"
    At this embarrassing moment, she didn't care what might happen. She prayed he'd drop her.
    He breathed deeply, reached under her arms and pulled her to him. “Upsie Daisy."
    “I'm not Daisy.” Safe again, yet not safe at all, her body lay on top of his in a wicked pose. Her legs hugged his firm thighs.
    Once he relaxed his grip on her, she jerked and rolled to the side of him, her arm sprawled across his waist for safety. With her hip pressed against the hard, grainy shingles, she raised her head and gave him a look that would have withered a saint.
    He rolled his blue eyes. “That does it. I've tried to reason with you, but it isn't working. I don't care if your mother doesn't want you to know she called me, too. She said you have vertigo and have no business on this roof, so I'm carrying you off right now.” Prying her fingers from his belt, he stood and tossed her over his shoulder like a rolled up carpet.
    All the breath rushed from her lungs. Vertigo? I don't have vertigo! Can't this arrogant gorilla see my mother's matchmaking? Why couldn't he mind his own business? What must the neighbors be thinking?
    She remembered where he'd touched her, and her face grew hot. A series of tingles raced up her thighs as his hands held her firmly against him. Why did her traitorous body shame her and respond to his manhandling? Mortified, she kicked her feet.
    “Hold still.” He swatted her wriggling behind. “Stop squirming before we both fall."
    Upside down, she had a close up view of his tight buns as he purposefully strode across the roof and climbed down the ladder. She stared at the compelling sight; her anger mounting with each agile move he made. By the time he touched her feet to the ground, her temper flared out of control.
    She smoothed her shirt, crossed her arms and stared up at him. His six-foot-plus frame dwarfed her five-foot-four body. “I couldn't let you fall, but I'm sorry if I offended you on the roof.” His eyes widened. “Lord, looks like Mrs. Taylor's taking shots of us."
    Shots! Stunned, she spun and a flashbulb exploded in her face, temporarily blinding her. Bright red dots floated like dust moats in her eyes. She knew it-Candid Camera.
    The eyes that had stared at her through the blinds now had a body to go with them. A fragile, white-haired lady with support hose ringing her ankles stood in front of them.
    Jared introduced Katherine to her mother's new neighbor, Mrs. Taylor. “She does articles for our local newsletter,” he explained.
    Katherine imagined a still-frame of her large, round butt, flopped over Jared's beefcake shoulder. Or maybe stills of him spanking her rear-end.
    “Thank goodness Jared stayed on that roof like he promised. I almost fainted, but I got some nice pictures of the rescue.” Mrs. Taylor winked. “Isn't he a sweetheart?"
    Katherine glanced up at him and returned his gaze. “Oh, he's something else all right.” Ha!
    He chuckled.
    “You must be here visitin’ your mama. Once she's completely recovered, I'm writing a human-interest article on her fall and the operation to put a pin in her hip. Tell her I said hello.” Mrs. Taylor shoved her mini-camera into her dress pocket and shuffled along the walkway. “Nice to meet you, Katherine. I gotta get these developed. See ya."
    Jared turned to Katherine and extended his hand.
    “What?” she asked staring at his large open palm.
    “Give me the clips so I can get this done."
    She shook her head in amazement. The man didn't know when to quit. She felt perfectly capable of doing it herself and if she needed help, she certainly wouldn't choose him. “You don't seriously believe I'd do that?” She withdrew the clips and teasingly held them in her hand, waving them like a red flag before a bull. “I do not have vertigo. I'll put the clips and lights up myself and prove it."
    “Uh huh.” He stood there giving her an I-know-you're-lying stare.
    Suddenly, without warning, he yanked the clips from her hand.
    Surprised, she jumped back and bumped the ladder. It slid across the eaves, making a beeline for the ground. Quick as the thunderstorms that sprouted on the Texas skyline, Jared grabbed for the ladder. She spun to help and her elbow collided with his nose, making a muffled thud.
    He grunted, shoved the ladder up against the house and glanced over his shoulder at her.
    She gave him another withering look. Her eyes flew wide, and her stomach churned when her gaze dropped below the level of his sardonic eyes.
    Drops of blood dripped from his nose.
    Her heart pounded. She'd never hurt another human being in her life. “Oh, my God.” Eyes burning with remorse, she lifted her hand and reached toward his face. “Let me help."
    “No, it's okay.” He held her hand still and wiped at the drops with his fingers. “It kind of matches my red shirt.” He winced, stroking her hand with his thumb.
    “I'm so sorry,” she whispered.
    “Relax, it's no big deal. I've had worse injuries on the football field."
    Tears stung her eyes and escaped onto her cheeks. “What's wrong with me? You thought you were helping. Oh, hell, you were helping, but when you said my mother called you, I went postal."
    “What did you do to my Mom?” Matt demanded from the sidewalk. “Mom, did ya sock him? Want me ta sock him, too?” He placed his hands on his hips, stood with his legs in a wide stance and wore a fierce expression.
    Katherine smiled with pride at her pint-size hero. Her gaze dropped further. Her eyes widened, and her face heated from chin to brow with embarrassment.
    There stood her five-year-old son and his friend Jimmy wearing Super Maxi-pads taped to their knees.
    This can't be happening!
    “Neat, huh?” Matt followed her gaze down and grinned. “We couldn't find our kneepads, so we borrowed yours."
    Her hands flew to her hips. “Matthew Everett Cahill, we need to have a serious talk, young man."
    Matt turned his head slightly and looked at Jared. “Uh oh. She used my whole name. I'm in big trouble.” His little eyebrows shot up. “I should a asked to borrow ‘em, right?"
    “From what I know about women, Matt, you'd have been in trouble either way you jumped on this one."
    The trickle of blood from Jared's nose suddenly turned into a small stream. He shoved the back of his hand under his nose and knelt beside Matt. “You want to let me have one of those?"
    Katherine wished an earthquake would erupt underneath her feet, open the ground and swallow her whole. Her jaw sagged, as Matt nodded and extended his knee.
    Jared reached down, took a small knife from his pocket, cut the tape and extracted a Super Maxi-pad. He held it under his nose and paraded down the walk waving over his shoulder.
    Katherine squinted against the afternoon light, peering after him. Was he still smiling?
    “I'll be back soon as I put some ice on this and clean up. Don't you climb that ladder."
    Her surprised squint turned to a scowl. Who the hell did he think he was-John Wayne?
    “Matt, you're my ‘official helper'. Don't let your mom get hurt while I'm gone,” he yelled from the curb.
    Matt grinned. “I'll make her stay off the roof."
    “Too late, I'm about to hit the roof again, this time in anger."

* * * *

    Twenty-minutes later, Jared returned. Standing on the sidewalk, he looked around for Katherine, but only saw Matt. Jared marveled at how fast Katherine had changed Matt into jeans, a stripped shirt and windbreaker. The boy had Katherine's porcelain complexion and jet-black hair. Jared knelt beside him so they were eye-to-eye. “I wanted to make sure you knew your mother didn't sock me. She accidentally elbowed me."
    “I know. She told me."
    “Did she spank you?"
    He shook his head. “I get timeout sometimes, but she don't spank me. She said to ask before I borrow. ‘Cause I didn't know I did wrong."
    Not knowing that he'd done wrong never helped Jared as a child. He ruffled Matt's dark hair. Katherine's doing a great job raising Matt. “You believed in your heart your mom faced trouble. You did a brave thing standing up for her against a grownup."
    The boy's grin spread from ear-to-ear. “Mom called me her knight in shining armor-like King Arthur in my storybook."
    Jared thought of the names he'd been called growing up-none of them repeatable in public. He smiled at Matt's infectious grin. “I bet your dad will be proud when he hears it."
    Matt's gaze lowered and his bottom lip stuck out.
    Placing his finger under the boy's small chin, Jared lifted his face and grimaced at the anger and sadness in Matt's eyes. “Okay ‘official helper',” Jared said, clearing his throat, “let's get these lights on the roof and talk about fun things to do this holiday."
    Matt giggled. “What exactly does an ‘official helper’ do?"
    Jared rubbed his chin. “Supervise me. That means you watch me from the ground. Don't let me goof off. If I miss a spot, you yell where it is. You have to yell really loud, can you do that?"
    “Yes, sir,” Matt said, his head bobbing up and down.
    Jared smiled at the serious expression on the boy's face. “How about letting your mother know before we get started?"

* * * *

    “Mom, I've never felt so embarrassed in all my born days, and to top it off, now I'm sounding like Dad when I swore I'd never use his sayings.” Katherine huffed and couldn't help but hear an extra twang as she ranted.
    Katherine's mother stood at the sink in the kitchen wiping tears of laughter from her eyes with a dishtowel. “And such a long life, too. All thirty-one-years."
    “Don't laugh. There's nothing funny,” Katherine said.
    “Dear, I didn't know it would turn out like that."
    “I felt humiliated. From now on, no more matchmaking from you, and I'm keeping those sanitary pads under lock and key for the rest of my life.” As she fingered the plastic tablecloth, she squirmed in her chair. “How can I face that man again?"
    Her mother clucked. “He's a prominent attorney. I'm sure, in his line of work, he's seen and heard it all. Besides, real men don't care about a silly thing like those pads."
    Katherine sighed. “Well, I certainly do. Every time I look at him, I'll see him walking down the street like that."
    “I'm sorry. I can't help it.” Her mother grabbed the dishtowel and held it over her mouth to stifle another fit of laughter. The absurdity of the situation suddenly hit Katherine, and she laughed harder than her mother. Their laughter stopped when they heard heavy footsteps stomping on the roof.
    Katherine glanced at the ceiling and gulped.
    He's back.
    After her mother plugged in the coffeepot, she turned toward Katherine. “He'll be finished soon.” She opened the vacuum-sealed cookie jar on the counter. It hissed, and the smell of oatmeal and coconut escaped, turning the kitchen into a culinary delight. Taking the cookies out one by one, she arranged them in a circle on a platter and set them in the middle of the table.
    Katherine stared in amazement. “What are you doing?"
    “Hmm, getting ready to offer him coffee and cookies, dear. He'll be hungry after he gets through. It's the least we can do after he's done us a favor."
    “Please don't get any more ideas.” Her mother wore a matchmaking gleam in her hazel eyes. Katherine shook her head in warning. “I don't want to date him or anything like that."
    “Gracious! You young folks today. Whatever happened to talking, walking and getting to know someone as friends first? Besides, I don't think you have anything to worry about. He doesn't date much either.” The coffeepot finished spurting and her mother poured them a cup.
    Katherine wondered why he didn't date much. He might be gay. She didn't want to find out he was gay. Not that she cared, of course. His sexual preference didn't matter to her. Hell, she wasn't interested in him in the least.
    As if she read Katherine's mind, her mother smoothed her dress down and smiled. “He's definitely not gay. His fiancée jilted him a year ago right at the altar, at least that's what I heard folks say.” She paused. “Course, mind you, I'm not one to gossip.” She shook her head. “He hasn't dated any decent women that I know of since that terrible thing happened to him."
    That didn't sound good. “Meaning what?” she said casually around sips. “He dates indecent women?” She held the steaming cup to her nose, and inhaled deeply, enjoying the fresh hazelnut wafting from the brown liquid.
    Her mother blushed and lowered her voice. “Not exactly indecent, mind you, but they have a reputation for being kind of wild, if you know what I mean."
    Katherine set her cup down and frowned. She knew what her mother meant only too well. He preferred the kind of women her ex-husband kept as mistresses.
    “I told you, he's a prominent attorney. Wins every case.” Her mother pointed to the magazine rack. “He's got offices in New York and Texas.” Katherine stood, walked to the rack hanging on the wall and lifted People magazine out. Jared Randall's wolfish smile stared back at her from the cover. A supermodel draped on each of his tuxedo-clad arms, helping him celebrate after winning another whopping divorce settlement for a major movie star.
    After replacing the magazine, she spun around and shook her head.
    “Don't you get that sour look on your face, Katherine Marisa Cahill. There's nothing wrong with Jared. He helps around the house when things tear up on me. The man's just looking in the wrong places for what he really needs. As for you, you don't want to look ‘cause you got singed.” Her mother touched her hip and grimaced.
    Katherine moved to her side. “You've been on your feet too long. Rest.” She helped her to a chair.
    Her mother swatted at Katherine's hands. “I'm not an invalid. They put a pin in my hip. It's bionic now."
    A picture of her mother jumping over hurdles popped into Katherine's head and she chuckled. “Bionic, huh?"
    Katherine reached down and rubbed her mother's hands, remembering the fall in the tub that necessitated the emergency surgery. “I came home three weeks early to help you with the cooking and shopping for Christmas. Please, let me be your arms and legs this year. I don't want you overdoing it."
    The back door swung open and Matt sped into the kitchen. “I made sure he didn't miss any spots.” Matt beamed. “We tested ‘em. Santa can land fine now."
    She dragged her gaze to the door and froze. Jared stood watching her. The smile he wore gave him an air of innocence, but the look in his eyes made a tingling start in the base of her skull. His gaze trailed down her body to her toes before it meandered back up. The seductive grin hadn't changed a bit when he finally met her eyes again. She swallowed unevenly. He knew what he was doing to her, saw the way her shirt lifted and fell on shallow breaths.
    Is this his hobby, she wondered angrily, making women swoon for his own macho-entertainment?
    He's no good. Definitely, no good.
    Good for her or not, her breath still came short and shallow. The top of her knees banged against the table leg, as she jerked away. Traitorous body. Fortunately for her, no one noticed her agitation.
    Her mother coughed.
    Katherine's face flushed even hotter and stared down, away from the others.
    You'd better tread carefully, Katherine girl, lest you jump from the frying pan into the fire.
    She glanced down to find Matt gazing at her. He looked down at the dirt covering his hands, which happened to be where her grim stare ended. Matt backed up a step and placed his little hand in Jared's huge one. “We gotta go wash after we've been outside, or Mom will get mad.” He led Jared down the carpeted hall.
    Her face still burned from embarrassment when they returned. Matt led Jared to stand in front of her for an ‘official hand inspection'. She had her dad to thank for the predicament she found herself in right now. He always laughed and obediently stood behind Matt to set an example for his grandson. Her throat went dry at the mischief in Jared's eyes and the thought of touching and feeling the warmth of his skin.
    “Smells good in here,” Jared remarked innocently, holding his hands out.
    Oh my stars!

Chapter Two

    Jared wore black denim, a rich-chocolate shirt and smelled of mint soap from washing up. Katherine didn't touch the broad hands he extended. His long, thick fingers made her thoughts turn to distinctly unwelcomed ideas. She studied them with reluctant interest. At least on his hands his skin had a tan. A fleeting thought of where else he might be tanned made her blush and pronounce them clean.
    He regarded her with amusement and whispered, “Chicken,” before he moved aside for Matt to have his turn.
    She glanced to the side. Her mother winked at Katherine and patted the chair, motioning for Matt to sit beside her. Jared remained standing around the table, looking down at her with that dark, arched brow and the hint of a roguish smile.
    Where were her manners? Katherine leapt from her chair and offered Jared a seat, sloshed some coffee into a cup and shoved it in front of him. He reached out, she pushed it forward, wanting to keep distance between them, and the cup toppled over.
    It spilled across the table. Katherine stared at the spreading mess. Jared's eyes were reflected back at her in the creamy brown pool of coffee. Eyes she could drown in. She turned, grabbed paper towels, wadded them up and sopped up the puddle. Tossing the wet mess in the trashcan, she turned, topped his cup again and handed everyone napkins. Anything to keep her clumsy hands occupied.
    Jared held his cup close to his chest, as if protecting it. He frowned every once in a while like she represented the plague moving in his direction. How could she blame him? She'd suddenly turned into the biggest butter-fingered klutz in Texas.
    “Help yourself to some cookies,” she said.
    Jared reached out to the plate piled with still-warm cookies and removed his unsettling gaze from her. She breathed a sigh of relief. From the gallon container, she poured Matt a glass of milk, set it in front of him and smiled when he helped himself to three of the largest cookies.
    “She baked these,” her mother said, smiling at Jared. “They have raisins and coconut. Matt loves them."
    Katherine rolled her eyes, silently pleading. Please. No matchmaking.
    Jared picked out a plump, juicy raisin, rolled it between his fingers and plopped it into his mouth, before he took a bite of the cookie. “These taste even better than they smell."
    Everyone nibbled on cookies, except Matt. He inhaled one and came up for air, looking expectantly at Katherine. “You know what?"
    She almost spilled her coffee and Jared gave her the plague look again. Oh, no. Please. Not, “You know what?” Say anything but “You know what?” Last time Matt said that, she climbed a ladder, almost fell off a two-story roof and bloodied Jared's nose. She held her breath.
    “What?” Jared asked, taking another bite of cookie.
    “We gotta get a Christmas tree.” Matt held his hands up as high as they could reach. “A real big one. For big presents."
    Katherine exhaled slowly, relieved. Surely she could handle getting a tree for Matt. What could possibly go wrong?
    She thought about the toys hidden in the closet, none that came fully assembled. She convinced herself that men did this to get even with women. First, the instructions were written for mechanical engineers. Second, parts were always left when she finished and she'd have to start all over to figure out exactly where those parts belonged. She did not look forward to putting Matt's toys together at all.
    Jared glanced at her. “You want to go this afternoon around five and get a tree, or do you have something else planned?” he asked in a casual tone, never taking his eyes off her.
    Going anywhere with him spelled trouble. Maybe he thought because she was divorced, and he assumed she had been celibate for a long time she was an easy lay, like the women he dated. But, he couldn't know she'd stayed celibate. She gazed at him and bit her lower lip. Could he? I mean a thing like not having sex for a very long time, that doesn't show, does it?
    “We can manage. Thank you.” She lifted her chin so he'd get her message.
    Jared sipped his coffee, watching her intensely over the rim. “You're doing it again."
    “Doing what?"
    “Reading something into my actions that I never intended, like when I stopped your fall and accidentally grabbed your you-know-whats."
    Katherine gasped. She choked on her cookie and gulped down a stream of hot coffee, fighting for air.
    Her mother placed the back of her hand over her mouth, hiding a fit of laughter.
    Matt turned and beat between Katherine's shoulder blades. He repeated what he'd heard her say for years when he swallowed wrong. “Did that cookie have a bone in it?"
    She wiped at the water filling her eyes. “Yes, it did, but you made it better.” She coughed again. “Thanks, Matt."
    Jared leaned toward her. “Are you all right? Your face is really flushed. How about more coffee?"
    She shook her head and whispered, “I'm fine. Really."
    He fell silent a few seconds before suggesting, “If this afternoon's not convenient, I'd be willing to change it to some other day."
    I'll bet you are. “We wouldn't dream of making you change your plans. We'll be fine without your help."
    “Dear.” Her mother turned toward her with a dreamy, far-away look Katherine recognized immediately. That twinkle in her eyes meant one thing. Matchmaking. “What Jared's offering sounds like a good idea. How are you going to fit a tree into that small car of yours?"
    Katherine didn't want any part of what Jared might be offering-especially with his ‘bad-boy’ reputation. “Other families manage and we will, too."
    Jared pursed his lips. “I don't think you can manage the tree by yourself.” Lifting his hands, he moved them upward. “Matt wants a big tree. You'll need a truck like mine to get it home."
    “You have a truck!” Matt said to Jared. Her son turned toward her with excitement dancing in his eyes. “Mom, I'd love to ride in his truck, can we?"
    “Maybe we can ride in it some other time.” She straightened her shoulders and glared at Jared.
    He rolled his eyes. “I'm picking mine up today. Katherine might as well come along and let Matt select his tree."
    Her mother nodded. “I still think that's a wonderful idea, Katherine. It'll be fun to let Matt ride in a truck."
    Everyone was against her. Katherine breathed deeply and nodded, surprised at the flash of male triumph that flitted across Jared's face.
    “While you're gone, I'll do my exercises again. When you come back we can finish the plans for our tree-trimming party.” Her mother turned to Matt. “Would you like a party?"
    He clapped his hands. “Yes, ma'am, just like when Grandpa lived here.” Matt looked at Jared. “He's in heaven, but he sees us."
    Katherine's heart squeezed tight in her chest. It had already been ten months. When would the knee-jerk reaction stop?
    Tears glistened in her mother's eyes. “That's right, Matt, and we're going to have a good time this Christmas for him. You go with them this afternoon and get that special tree you want for Grandpa."
    Katherine slumped in her chair.
    What is Jared-the lonely divorcee welcome wagon?

* * * *

    Five o'clock, right on time. Jared Randall watched Katherine stroll from the house. She bent over to zip up Matt's coat. Jared stifled a groan when her rounded jean-clad bottom bobbed temptingly in the air. Secured with a clip in the back, strands of her long black hair escaped and fluttered in the breeze.
    He opened the passenger door and stepped back to let them in. She propelled Matt like a missile onto the middle seat and jumped in behind him. Jared shut her door and climbed in his side, wondering why she was so prickly about this.
    Before he started the pickup, he glanced over. Katherine zipped her jacket part of the way up and hugged the truck door. If she got any closer, she'd plop out onto the pavement for sure. She half-turned and started to buckle Matt's seat belt, however Jared beat her to it. “I got it. Relax."
    He turned on the radio, and they listened to Matt attempting to sing Christmas carols for several miles. The temperature during the day stayed at sixty degrees, but it dropped to forty at night. He wished the weather would turn cold, so it would seem more like Christmas. Houston weather differed from hometown New York, where he'd spent years practicing law. Everything was different, which is why he'd moved here in the first place. Nice people. Quiet lives. His engagement to Shannon had proved even he was different. He'd thought he had found someone to love him back. Someone to share his dreams, build a future with. He clenched his jaw. He'd been wrong. Since then, if he wanted sex, willing women were easy to find and even easier to leave and forget.
    He glanced over again at the icy beauty. Her rosy cheek appeared practically pasted to the window. He looked back at the road with a silent grunt. She could sit on the roof for all he cared. She didn't have anything to worry about from him. The last thing he wanted was to get mixed up with her. Hell, he liked his women to at least be approachable. But she sure made the scenery more beautiful with those rich jade eyes, ebony hair and silky, smooth skin-not to mention those lush, sweet curves. If she knew how much he enjoyed touching her body, she would brain him with a rolling pin.
    Now that the singing from between them had stopped, he glanced down at the source of small snoring sounds. Matt snuggled deeper onto his arm. A warm feeling of tenderness filled Jared's chest. The little boy reminded Jared of himself as a child with the broken family and absent father. Matt was resting his eyes until they got there, as Jared used to put it.
    Katherine glanced over at him and Matt, clutched her shoulder bag tighter to her chest, turned her head and stared out the window. The look she threw Jared reminded him of a rattler about to strike.
    He glanced down at Matt again and straightened his coat, remembering once again how he stood up for his mom today. How could a man leave a boy like Matt? More incredulous, how could his father not see his son every chance he got? He ground his back teeth together. What if Matt's father was like his-never gave a damn about his son?
    Turning his head, he glanced at Katherine, wondering why she'd gotten divorced. As an attorney, he'd seen some flimsy excuses. Were her excuses flimsy? That thought brought him up short. Whatever the reasons, they were certainly none of his business. Don't even go there, he warned himself.
    “You sure are quiet over there,” he said. “You fall out that door and I'll have to administer mouth-to-mouth.” He chuckled when she scooted across the leather away from the door.
    He'd never seen anyone so jittery around a man. Did she dislike all men, or just him? She must have a problem. He liked his women a little calmer and a whole lot more sure of themselves sexually. No pretending about what they wanted. No shyness about being a woman. They articulated loud and clear their desire for a man to take them to bed.
    He glanced at Katherine again. No, sir, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell he would make a fool of himself over her. She wasn't his type.

* * * *

    “But, I want this one,” Matt said, standing in the tree lot.
    Katherine stared at the beautiful, gigantic, silvery-blue tree. Her father always bought traditional green ones that smelled like evergreen. She bent, lifted the branches of the Arizona Cypress and sniffed, enjoying the same sharp, pungent evergreen scent that brought back so many happy memories. But the idea of not holding to the traditional past bothered her.
    A gentle breeze drifted through the tree-lot tent, carrying with it the smells of pine, woodchips from trimming the base of the trees, and cedar. She moved to stand beside a twin to this tree only vivid green instead of silvery-blue. “How about this one?” she coaxed.
    Matt crossed his arms.
    Jared rounded the corner. His boots crunched as he walked on the pea gravel covering the ground. “I've loaded mine into the truck. I thought I'd come and see if you need any help.” He slowed his steps, stopped in front of them and glanced quizzically from Matt to Katherine. “What's going on?"
    “We need help,” Matt said.
    “We don't need help,” she corrected.
    Jared directed his attention to Matt. He hunkered down next to him. “What's the problem, pal?"
    Matt reached to touch his tree and attempted to hug the branches. “I want this one. But Mom wants that one.” He pointed to the mate to his tree, decked in its natural greenery.
    Jared stood up and scratched his head. He stared at Katherine. “I don't get it. It's the same tree only one's green and the other has been flocked with a dab of white. Both are beautiful, full and healthy."
    Of all the nerve, she could swear he smirked at her. She decided to tell him to mind his own business when he turned to look at Matt.
    “Tell you what.” He put his hand on Matt's shoulder. “Why don't we let your mom explain why you can't have the tree you have your heart set on?"
    They both turned to face her and suddenly she felt like the Grinch who stole Christmas.
    “My dad always-.” She gulped and stared at their blank-faced responses, fighting tears of loss and frustration. “I think we should uphold-."
    How did she explain sentiment, wanting-no needing everything to stay the same? How did she explain that she refused to admit her father had died? If she could keep everything the same, he would still be there. A part of him… Her eyes burned with tears, but she kept them at bay.
    A man like Jared wouldn't understand her feelings of loneliness, and she didn't want Matt aware of her grief. She looked at Matt's hopeful expression and came to a mother's decision. It would make her feel better to keep everything the same. But she wouldn't risk spoiling Matt's Christmas.
    What would her father have done if she'd wanted that Arizona Cypress? She looked at the sky, feeling his approval. Damn right-he'd have moved heaven and earth to give it to her.
    Katherine knelt beside her son. She tickled his belly. “Would I ever let you down?"
    Matt's laughter said she'd made the right decision.
    She giggled at the sound of his happiness. “I changed my mind. Load the silvery-blue tree for me and Matt, please."
    As they walked back to the truck, she rationalized her decision over again. After all, one small change isn't much of a concession. Everything else is the same. And she intended to keep it that way this Christmas.
    Jared offered her a devastating smile as he shoved the tree into the bed of the truck.
    He bent, lowered his mouth to her ear and whispered, “You made Matt happy. I suspect you sacrificed something back there to make that happen."
    Her stomach fluttered as his warm breath caressed her neck. She stepped away from him and shrugged. “That's what moms do."
    Jared hooked his hands in his coat pockets and frowned. His eyes clouded with sadness. “Not all moms."
    His jaw clenched, and Katherine saw something vulnerable behind the sardonic strength she'd seen so far. Caught up in what she saw, but could not understand, she lifted her hand to touch him. What am I doing? She snatched it back to her side, making a fist.
    She didn't need another man messing up her life or Matt's-especially a man like Jared Randall.

* * * *

    At seven-thirty, Jared turned into her mother's driveway, parked and killed the lights. Katherine and Matt walked to the back of the truck and waited for Jared to finish a conversation he'd received on his cell phone during their ride home.
    Katherine didn't mean to eavesdrop, but she found it impossible not to from where she stood. He flirted outrageously, and from the tone of his voice, he seemed very familiar with whoever spoke on the other end. Ever so often, he chuckled deep in his throat. The intimate sounds made gooseflesh ripple up Katherine's arms. He finally asked, “Can't you sleep?” and laughed wickedly at the caller's response. “Yeah, I'll deliver that sleeping pill quick as I'm through here. Don't you start without me.” He hung up and tossed the phone onto the seat. Katherine recognized the unwanted pangs of longing that jabbed at her. Since the divorce, she missed having this kind of interaction with a man.
    He sauntered around to the rear bumper and bent at the waist. Metal clanged while he lowered the tailgate. The move defined his well-developed shoulders and broad back.
    When he tugged on the trunk of the tree, she stepped forward. “Let me help."
    Jared turned to face her, rubbed his nose with his hand and grimaced. “With your track record?” He crooked his little finger and motioned Matt forward. “I think I'm safer with my ‘official helper'."
    For some reason she didn't understand, his remark hurt, and she flinched as if he'd hit her.
    He put his hand under her chin, tilted her head up, looked deep into her eyes and whispered, “Hey, I was joking. Matt's proud of his tree. He wants to help me carry it.” He winked. “Why don't you find the stand for this monster?"
    She opened the wrought-iron gate that lead to the house, continuing up the walkway. The toe of her boot accidentally kicked the old, battered rocker on the porch. She muttered at the semi-darkness and dim porch light. The cluttered little porch grew deadly in the dark, and she felt grateful her mother left the light on for them. But she wondered why she hadn't turned on the Christmas lights.
    Her fingers brushed the prickly leaves of the holly wreath hanging over the oak door. These little touches made her feel warm and happy. She hoped things would never change. The temperature had dropped since this afternoon. She hugged her jacket against the brisk night air. It felt like Christmas. Shivering, she jammed the key into the lock and wrestled with the heavy door, opening it wide enough for the tree.
    Propping the door open, she walked through the entryway and shrugged out of her jacket. Inside the darkened living room, she found her mother slumped in a chair. “I thought you were going to exercise."
    She flipped the lamp switch on. Her mother raised her hand to cover her eyes. Moving closer, she noticed her mother's eyes were bloodshot and swollen from crying.
    Katherine rushed to her side and knelt. “Is your bionic part hurting you?” she whispered, touching her mother's thick, baby-soft hair.
    Her mother struggled to smile. “No. In two weeks, I'll be back on the golf course, good as new."
    “Okay, what's wrong, Mom?"
    “I'm moody, like an old lady right now, and I can't blame it on hormones anymore."
    Katherine didn't buy that for one minute. She wanted to cheer her mother up. When they were alone, they could talk about the problem really bothering her. She leaned forward with a smile. “Matt found his tree. But, I wanted to warn you, it's not the traditional green Dad always bought, so I don't know if you'll like it."
    Sitting up, her mother wiped her eyes. “Nonsense, if my grandson picked it, I'll love it."
    Katherine nodded-that's exactly what Dad would have said-and rose from her knees.
    “Are they right behind you?” her mother asked.
    “Oh, my God!” Katherine said. She turned on her heels toward the nearby hallway.
    “Where are you running to?"
    She glanced back over her shoulder. “To get the stand and Christmas boxes from the attic. If we're going to finish planning that tree-trimming party, we better take an inventory of what works and doesn't work. I only want to make one trip to the mall tomorrow for decorations."
    Racing to the hall, she grabbed the rope hanging down from the trap door and yanked hard. The extension ladder groaned to life. It fell with a thud from the attic onto the carpet. She took two steps up the incline and in her hurry, stumbled. Her knee banged into the side, jamming the sharp wooden edge into her shin. With a shrill cry, she crumpled onto the step, holding her knee to her chest and rubbing it.
    Jared's voice called from the arched doorway, “Are you all right?"
    She tried to place her full weight on her knee and winced. “I'm fine."
    He crossed the hall in three steps and joined her on the ladder. “You aren't fine. You have no business climbing."
    Wiggling her leg around, she winced again. “It's just sore."
    His arms went over hers. He propelled her back to the carpet, speaking in her ear the whole way, whispering the most infuriating things in the most sensual rumble. She trembled from the jolt of heat his touch generated.
    “Your mother's had enough grief. She doesn't need you hurting yourself."
    She thought of her father's three years of illness, the trips home to nurse him and help her mother cope with his impending death, the merciful end that released him from his pain, and finally, the scare from her mother's accident and emergency surgery. A twinge of guilt, along with a rush of resentment hit her. The man didn't know the first thing about love and loss. “Where do you get off talking to me like that? I'm trying to help my mother."
    “I know you are, but stop taking chances that might get you hurt."
    Marching up the ladder, he disappeared in the attic and returned with two large boxes marked ‘Christmas Decorations'. He deposited them on the carpet, went back and retrieved three more. “That's all,” he said, laying the last one down.
    Katherine stared at the pile glumly. So much for her traditional Christmas. It was not tradition to have a stranger get her son's Christmas tree, or have him climb into the attic and retrieve Dad's Christmas boxes, and it was definitely not tradition for her body to hum with desire like this. She kept her distance from him as they carried the dusty boxes into the living room.
    Her mother stood at the window ooh'ing and aah'ing over the unusual tree. Matt sat beside her on the floor lapping up the praise his grandma lavished on him.
    They rummaged through the boxes until they located the stand. She placed it in front of the picture window and turned. Her gaze lowered to Jared's tight rear end and thick, muscular thighs as they bent and carefully lifted the huge tree. Straightening, he turned and his gaze locked with Katherine's. Self-conscious at having him catch her staring, she took a quick uneven breath.
    His eyes shone with unmistakable male interest, moving his gaze over her body sensually. He lowered the tree effortlessly into the slot. She quickly bent to tighten the bolts, but she could still feel his hot gaze on her.
    They stood in silence, admiring the majesty of the most beautiful tree she'd ever seen grace their living room. The white of the tree, against the backdrop of the royal blue draperies framing the window took on a life of its own.
    Looking at Matt, Katherine grinned. “Why don't we turn on the Christmas lights and go outside to watch them?"
    Matt made a beeline for the front door, while Katherine flipped the switch. They stepped outside to a white wonderland that blinked and sparkled like warm tidings of cheer in the night, illuminating the walks and outlining the house.
    “Wow! Santa's flashing runway."
    Katherine felt everything would be fine this Christmas. A sweet smile and serenity filled her mother's eyes and face when the lights twinkled. She hugged her mother, bent and ruffled Matt's dark hair.
    “Jared, how about some dinner after that hard work?” her mother asked.
    Katherine's head popped up. Dinner?
    Her face heated.
    Hell. What is he-a permanent houseguest?

Chapter Three

    “I'd love to have dinner with you,” Jared grinned, he'd seen a twinge on Katherine's face when her mother had issued the invitation, so he thought he'd just tweak the lion's tail. “How's that leaky pipe I replaced under your bathroom sink? Is it giving you trouble, Grace?"
    “It's been bone dry under there. You did a good job. Course I have a small roof leak I meant to call you about. We might have to wait until it rains to find it."
    He shook his head. “We better stop it before it rains and does damage. I'll check it in the next couple of days."
    Jared and her mother discussing house repairs like an everyday occurrence baffled Katherine. She picked up another piece of the puzzle of who Jared really was and found it didn't fit the image she'd already formed, especially in light of that cell phone conversation.
    They made their way back to the living room, and Katherine toed the carpet with her boot. “All we're having is leftover roast beef. It's nothing fancy.” He probably ate all his meals at posh restaurants. “We can throw in a kosher pickle for style."
    “And homemade peach cobbler. My daughter can really cook, Jared."
    She scowled at her mom, trying to get her to stop shooting compliments like Cupid's arrows, particularly when they were misdirected. Why doesn't Mom put a neon sign on my forehead that flashes ‘She's Available’ twenty-four hours a day? “I wouldn't brag too much, Mom. The recipe's pretty simple, mix the ingredients in a bowl, dump them in a pan and bake.” With her busy schedule, every meal she served required no fuss and a bare minimum of preparation time spent in the kitchen-preferably twenty-minutes.
    Her mom beamed at Katherine's scowl as they all walked into the kitchen.
    After heating and dishing out the dinner, Katherine squirmed in her chair again. She wanted to scream, listening to her mother carry on a polite but pointed conversation, prying personal information out of Jared.
    “You look awfully young to have a law practice in downtown Houston and a branch office in New York."
    Jared's gaze speared Katherine's. Amusement lit up his face as he turned his attention back to her mother. “I guess I am, but I've worked hard to make it happen."
    “How old did you say you were, Jared?"
    Katherine grimaced. I'm going to kill her.
    “Old enough to avoid the obvious, Grace.” He chuckled and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Thirty-four."
    “And how'd you end up with Harriet's place, God rest her soul?"
    “Harriet was my aunt. When she died about a year ago, she willed me the property."
    Her mother smiled at Jared. “Why didn't you sell it?"
    He grinned back. “I didn't want to."
    “Why would a big, strapping young man like yourself want to live in a quiet neighborhood like ours?"
    “Harriet talked about this neighborhood all the time. I came here and enjoyed the people so much that I decided to keep the house-at least for awhile. I divide my time between Harriet's, a penthouse in New York and a ranch I own in Katy, Texas."
    “You own a ranch, too?"
    He nodded and glanced at Katherine, who wanted to crawl under the table-and stay. The rapid staccato questions fired by her mom continued for twenty more minutes, interwoven with equally embarrassing personal facts about Katherine.
    “So, Jared, you missed your high school prom and always regretted it. That's too bad."
    That's it. I can't stand this Barbara Walter's routine one second more. Katherine glared at her mother. “His favorite color is green. He went to college on a football scholarship. Oh, and he gets hives when he eats strawberries. Anything else you want to know?"
    “Dear, we must show interest in our guest, or he'll think we're rude."
    Jared wiped his mouth with the napkin again, but she saw his grin, all directed at Katherine.
    “Mom, I want another sandwich and a pickle,” Matt said.
    Katherine passed the platter, glad for the diversion.
    Her mother turned her head toward Jared. “Are your parents still living?"
    Katherine stared at Jared when he didn't answer right away. His eyes blinked, his mouth tightened and his usually sardonic, lazy eyes grew angry and hard. What was that all about?
    “No, they're both dead,” he said coldly.
    “I'm sorry,” Katherine whispered. He looked up and their gaze held. For a brief moment, they shared some painful emotion that tugged at her heart. An emotion she could not understand.
    Wrenching her gaze away, she assaulted Matt's food with a knife and fork. She shredded it into an unrecognizable heap.
    Matt stared at his plate, his mouth wide open. “I don't like it tiny."
    Jared placed his hands over the top of his own plate, guarding its contents against any invasion into his territory with her pulverizing knife. She felt her face grow hot. “I'll get you another sandwich and pickle, Matt."
    Katherine appreciated a man with a good appetite. Jared put away a large salad, two sandwiches, three pickles and two helpings of hot cobbler. She hated to admit it, but he even looked sexy when he chewed. The way his jaw tightened and his muscles flexed made his profile stronger.
    “You know what?” Matt said in between bites.
    Gasping, Katherine dropped her fork, and it clanged against her plate.
    Her mother and Jared stared. Katherine lifted her fork, speared a bite of pickle and shoved it into her mouth.
    Please let it be something I can do. Let it be something I can do on the ground, something I can lift by myself without Hercules over there-she glanced at Jared-having to assist. I do not want to depend on him every time Matt says, “You know what?"
    “What, pal?” Jared asked.
    Matt glanced at her and placed his finger on his chin. “We gotta find Santa and tell him we're at Grandma's again. He might deliver our presents wrong."
    She breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness. Finally, something she could do by herself.

* * * *

    Jared watched Katherine throughout the meal.
    He couldn't figure out exactly why she fascinated him, but she definitely did. And her anything-but-subtle mother made sure he learned even more fascinating tidbits about her daughter during their conversation.
    Katherine, he decided, was an enigma. And he loved a mysterious woman.
    She certainly didn't fear tackling this two-story house, even though she had no business climbing, according to Grace. Katherine loved outdoor sports, which indicated her adventurous nature. But she'd planned her accounting career path carefully, passed exams and obtained her license as a Financial Planner. She owned her own investment firm, an overachiever, like himself.
    She looked pretty, except when she got that soft, dreamy look in her eyes watching Matt or her mother. With love shining in her jade eyes, she changed into the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Radiant in fact.
    He fought the memory of her sprawled on top of him on that roof, her thighs squeezing his. He wondered if she wore that same sensual look in the throes of passion. She was also the most infuriating woman he'd even met, he reminded himself, forcing the erotic thoughts from his mind.
    Jared didn't know what to make of this enigma, or the fact she'd been divorced for two years. The ‘don't-bother-me-look’ Katherine shot his way when he tried to help, and the way she fought her mother's attempts at matchmaking told him she didn't need or want anyone-especially him.
    Well, she needed him to meet Matt's newest request, although she didn't know it yet. A little favor he did for a friend who normally played Santa would allow him to be intimately involved in making Matt's wish come true.
    “I know where you can find Santa and his schedule for the week.” He provided the name of the mall, the location and the times Santa would appear.
    Matt squirmed in his chair like fire ants invaded his pants. “Can we go tomorrow?"
    Jared didn't appreciate the wary look Katherine gave him, which did not correlate with her words. “Thanks a lot."
    “Yes, we've got to go shopping in the mall, so we'll drop by and visit with Santa.” She turned toward Jared. “You don't need to take us. I can manage this on my own. Thanks."
    There went the enigma again. Thank you on one hand, cold-shoulder on the other. Fascinating.
    “Oh, I had no intention of volunteering.” He enjoyed the tempting picture her full, bow-shaped mouth formed as it flew open to say something, but closed instead. Positively kissable. “But, I would like to take everyone riding around the neighborhoods to see the lights next Saturday night.” Matt almost flew out of his chair in his excitement, begging to go. Katherine rolled her eyes, smiled faintly, and reluctantly nodded in agreement.
    Jared grinned at her unwilling smile, and caught his breath when her tongue licked her lush lips. No, he wouldn't offer to take her to the mall. He couldn't possibly be in two places at once; he had no intention of taking them to see Santa since he was Santa.
    Maybe she'd sit on his lap and tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas.

* * * *

    After Matt finished his bubble bath, Katherine dried him and the drowned bathroom floor. She dressed him in his favorite teddy bear pajamas and carried him to bed. His warm, chubby arms went around her neck and gave her a hug. He snuggled under the mountain of covers while she lay beside him and read.
    “Do you think I need to tell Santa my list of toys when I see him tomorrow?” he asked.
    She scrunched up her forehead in confusion. “You already saw Santa and told him what you wanted for Christmas. I don't think you need to repeat the list."
    “Maybe he forgot me."
    She rubbed the tiny worry lines between his eyes. “How could anyone who meets you possibly forget you, Matt? You're pretty special.” Since he believed it was important to keep Santa informed of his whereabouts, she wanted to reassure him. “I think you need to tell him whose house you're visiting and everything will be fine."
    He beamed at her. “You know who else said I'm special?"
    “Grandma,” she guessed.
    He giggled. “No. I mean someone new, today.” He paused. “Mr. Randall said I'm special. We're pals. I like spending time with him, ‘cause he really likes me. He's not like Dad."
    Hugging Matt, she wanted to make up for all the pain she knew his father caused him. Why couldn't Paul spend time with his son? Why couldn't he love his son?
    Minutes later, Matt yawned and closed his eyes. Half asleep he cuddled against her on the bed. “You like Mr. Randall?"
    Katherine breathed deeply and lifted her shoulder blades, rotating them back to relieve the tension that question caused. Did she like Jared? Something about him irritated the heck out of her every time she laid eyes on him. Her mother shoving him down her throat didn't help. Jared liked Matt and went out of his way to please him. She certainly liked that.
    Did she like Jared? Well, she didn't hate him. But she didn't want to get involved with a man like him. From what she'd seen and heard, he was cut from the same skirt-chasing cloth as her faithless ex-husband.
    “I like him. I think he's a good man.” Not good for her, but the memory of lying atop him on the roof snuck into her mind. Hmm, he'd give her a hell of a ride though.
    She kissed her son goodnight.
    He yawned again and rolled to face the wall. His voice muffled with sleep as he said, “Good. ‘Cause he's got horses and wants to show me how to sit on ‘em."
    Damn, caught again.

* * * *

    Katherine stood in her nightgown and robe and studied the photos lining the mantle in the living room. A smile tugged at her lips when she spotted the one of she and her dad decked out for fishing. Next to it stood the photo of the first fish she'd ever caught. She laughed at the goofy expression on her six-year old face. The fish looked like a very large minnow, too small for eating, and she'd begged him to let her keep it. He'd given in to her and allowed her to carry it around until all the neighborhood cats started following her. She laughed again until tears formed in her eyes. The fish stank so badly that he took it away from her. They held an elaborate funeral for it so she'd stop crying. She touched her finger to the glass framing the photo and rubbed the smile on her father's face. “I really miss those summer fishing trips, Dad."
    She turned from the pictures and gazed out the window at the moonlit star-filled night, wishing she hadn't stopped fishing after her father died. But she couldn't shake the loneliness when she thought about trying to go fishing without him.
    The teakettle whistled and she hurried to the kitchen. She prepared two cups of herbal tea. Taking them back to the living room, she placed one on the coffee table beside her mother's chair and rested hers on the carpet.
    Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Katherine reviewed the lists they'd worked up earlier for the party and inhaled the tangy scent of honey and lemon as she sipped her tea. She looked up when her mother entered and took a seat. With her legs curled up under her, Grace looked almost exactly as Katherine remember her mother twenty-years ago. At fifty-six, her Mom was still an attractive woman, she realized in mild surprise.
    “You want to review these?” Katherine held up the list of invitees to the party.
    Her mother nodded. “Oh, yes. We don't have much time, because I doubt Matt will put up with a naked Christmas tree for very long."
    They both chuckled. Katherine could already hear his, “You know what?” followed by Jared's attempted rescue.
    After reviewing the list of names they'd prepared earlier, she looked at her mother. “Okay, we have a headcount of twenty-five so far.” Instead of smiling, her mother closed her eyes, and her chin quivered. “Mom, what's wrong? If you're too tired, we can do this some other time."
    Her mother glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner as it chimed. “Heavens, it's only nine-thirty, child. I'm not tired in the least. My neighbors look forward to this yearly get together, and I'm excited about having them over. I thought we'd do it Tuesday. I know that's only four days from now, but everyone's just waiting for the ‘official date’ so they know when to show up."
    “Well, let's hop to it and get this done.” Katherine tore the papers from her notebook, trying not to notice that Jared's name stood out at the top. “I'll leave the lists on the end-table for you to review in case we've forgotten anyone, or you decide you want to change what I'm making for the party."
    Katherine glanced at her mother who stared blankly at the window. What was wrong? Was she missing Dad? She looked so far away at times. Her mother couldn't be worried about the expense of the party; Katherine had always paid this for her parents.
    “Why don't we do something festive with the tree?” her mother said. “Maybe buy new decorations and follow a classic color scheme of white, gold and cranberry."
    Katherine pointed to the five boxes scattered around the living room. “What's wrong with using what we have?"
    “What's in those boxes is a hodgepodge of decorations we've bought or made over a time-span of thirty-years. We need a change.” Her mother's eyes filled with tears.
    “But it's tradition. I thought you'd want to keep everything the same."
    “I understand why you would want that, but it can't ever be the same, dear. That time is gone.” Her mother popped a tissue from the box and wiped her eyes. “The one constant in this house is love. That will always remain."
    Tears burned Katherine's eyes as her mother continued. “I appreciate your coming to help early this Christmas, but I'm concerned that you're trying to live in the past, Katherine. Christmas traditions are one thing, but I've often thought you're putting your whole life and Matt's little life on hold, waiting for your lost love to return."
    Katherine's pulse raced at the chilling and absurd thought. Paul's love was a farce from the beginning, their divorce a godsend. Loving Matt and keeping their family just the two of them was the only sensible thing to do.
    She had herself to blame for her mother believing that she pined for her ex-husband. Thinking Paul loved her, Katherine had married him; later she learned he'd married her to please his parents. She discovered that from the day they said their vows, she'd shared her husband with his mistress. Shamed, she lied to her parents, and to everyone else about the state of her marriage. When it became necessary, she lied about the reason for their divorce. The only ones who knew the truth were she and Paul-and all the women he'd been with. What a secret to share.
    “I'm not waiting for Paul,” she whispered.
    Standing, her mother walked to the window. With a firm hand, she pulled back the curtain and looked out. “I don't believe you.” She paused. “Will Paul be here this Christmas?"
    Katherine hoped Paul would not come and ruin Matt's Christmas. “I don't know if he'll make it or not. Of course, we hope so, but he's very busy."
    Her mother turned from the window wearing an angry scowl. “And you're not busy? If Paul took more interest in Matt, I might understand your hope. I would even encourage it, but he can't manage to spend time with his son. I'm worried that you aren't even trying to move on with your life."
    Katherine avoided her gaze. “I have moved on. I bought a house, and started a business that has expanded to include three partners.” She looked at her mother. “How can you possibly believe I'm not moving on with my life?"
    Her mother narrowed her eyes and stared at her. “That's your physical life, but how have you moved on with your emotional life? How often have you dated since the divorce?"
    “I'm raising my son. Right now he's my whole world."
    “And what about when Matt grows up and leaves for a life of his own? What life will you have after he's gone?"
    She chuckled. “I think I have a little bit of time before that happens."
    “Trust me, Katherine. Life flies away like dust in a whirlwind. That time will come before you know it. What's wrong with reaching out for something new? Not only for Matt, but for yourself, for that woman deep inside you."
    Katherine gasped and automatically thought of Jared. Was this why her mother kept pushing them together? “Mom, I'm not ready for a relationship, or anything permanent, at least not right now."
    “You used to have dreams for yourself, Katherine. Don't you still want a marriage and more babies to hold in your arms?"
    She blinked, a single tear fell from her eye, remembering those innocent dreams that had died. “Of course I do, but I need more time.” Maybe forever.
    “More time to waste moping for Paul?"
    If believing that would keep her mother from matchmaking and throwing Katherine at Jared, what did it hurt to go along with the lie? Hell, Paul didn't want a wife to crimp his style. No danger there. Katherine nodded.
    Her mother grew quiet, crossed the room and hugged Katherine.
    Rubbing the arms that held her so tenderly, Katherine whispered, “I love you, Mom. I'm calling it a night, I'm beat.” She headed up the stairs with questions zinging through her mind.
    Her mother had never talked to her this way. Oh they'd had the normal mother-daughter talk about boys and sex, but nothing like trying to open these old wounds. Maybe she should have confided in her. No why add that burden to her, particularly when she was already still upset. Whatever the reason behind this mother-daughter talk, it had something to do with Mom crying earlier, she knew it.

* * * *

    Raised voices filtered to the upper floor through a vent from the living room and woke Katherine from a restless sleep. The pain in Jared's eyes haunted her dreams throughout the night and his words, “Not all moms” echoed in her subconscious. Sitting up, she tried hard to make out the muffled conversation.
    Her mother said, “It's almost eleven. Be quiet, or you'll wake Katherine."
    A masculine voice quieted, but the words were still plainly audible. “Why can't you go to the party, Grace? Will you tell me why?"
    Katherine made her way down the stairs and stood where she could see them, but they didn't notice her. She strained to listen and follow the conversation between her mother and a tall, thin-framed man, dressed in a casual pair of gray slacks and a burgundy pullover.
    “Thomas, I told you my daughter's home. Besides, I don't want to leave her alone, and then there's Matt. What would he do if I went to a party?"
    “Bring them along. You know they're welcome."
    “Katherine wouldn't approve, and I can't ask her."
    “You can't stop your life like this either!"
    “Thomas, you have to understand-"
    He shook his head. “I will never understand."
    Katherine entered the living room. The shocked look on her mother's face made her wonder about Thomas. “Where ever the party is, we accept.” She smiled, extended her hand and introduced herself, noting the gray around his temples, the full head of dark hair and his over six-foot frame.
    “I'm Thomas Hughes, one of Grace's neighbors. I'm pleased to meet you, Katherine."
    Her mother seemed flustered and blushed. “Katherine, you don't need to do this. It's just a birthday party the neighbors are throwing at the church for Mrs. Taylor, nothing fancy. I'd be sittin’ anyway."
    “Except for a slow waltz or two,” Thomas added.
    Smiling, Katherine recalled Jared's joke. She felt glad her stunt on the roof hadn't kept Mrs. Taylor from making her seventy-fifth birthday. “Matt and I would love to go."
    Thomas glanced at her mother. “I'd better be going. Pleased to meet you, Katherine."
    Katherine stared at her mom walking arm-in-arm to the door, escorting him out. She wondered from the conversation she'd overheard if he was much more than a friendly neighbor to her mother. She heard the door close and her mother returned.
    “I'm sorry we woke you, dear."
    Katherine bit her lower lip. “I don't know how to ask except right out. Is something going on between you and Thomas Hughes?"
    Crossing the room to her chair, her mother sat down. “No, sweetie. He's the dearest friend I have. His wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer four years ago. Later, when your father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Thomas understood the pain and trauma I faced each day. I leaned on him as a friend, and we shared a lot of pain. Both our loved ones died within two months of each other."
    Katherine rubbed her forehead. “I must have met him at the funeral, but I can't remember, everything's a blur. I'm glad you could lean on someone like him, Mom."
    “He came the night before the funeral to pay his respects. He's a dear friend, Katherine, nothing more. Don't play matchmaker, and I won't either. Go back to bed and get some sleep."
    Making her way back to the comfortable bed that beckoned, she didn't recall seeing Thomas's name on the guest list for the tree-trimming party. She'd pencil him in tomorrow.
    The thought that her mother had lied about her relationship with Thomas Hughes seemed ridiculous. Dad had been dead ten months, and Mom didn't seem the type to fall in love that fast. Besides, what reason would she have to lie?

* * * *

    “We've been at this shopping mall forever. Do we have to rest again? Santa's gonna leave, and I'll miss him.” Matt dropped his chin to his chest and sighed.
    “He stays late on Saturday. I promise you we'll see him today.” Smiling wearily, Katherine placed her packages on the bench and collapsed next to Matt. “We're almost finished. We need to buy an angel for the top of the tree from the store right over there.” She pointed to the specialty shop behind them, holding out the final carrots for his sacrifice. “We'll have pizza at the food court. Afterwards, we'll go see Santa.
    They'd made a lot of progress in two hours in spite of trips to the bathroom, trips to stow packages in the car and frequent rest breaks on the benches. She'd bought angel hair, beautiful ropes of gold and crystal beads, miniature candle lights with cranberry and gold lamp bases. In addition, she found delicate, white doves and Christmas ornaments of antique white, gold and luscious cranberry spun silk. Everything new, like her mom wanted, rather than the family tradition.
    “We've rested enough,” Matt said as he pulled on her hand.
    Katherine laughed. “Slave driver."
    They stood and he released her hand. He looked up at her and rolled his eyes. “Come on."
    She gathered her packages, and they hurried to the specialty shop. After five minutes of walking up and down aisles hunting for the right angel, Matt gasped and pointed to the top of a display tree way in the back of the store. “Isn't she beautiful?” He pulled Katherine's arm, and they moved in unison.
    Poised above the tree, hovering in mid-air, a white apparition of light appeared. Her blond hair circled with a garland of white beads; her silk wings outstretched and ribbed with the same pattern of beads that rimmed the neckline of her full-flowing gown. Handmade, delicate, lace and netting overlay her gown and formed the sleeves of her dress. In her right hand she held a gold staff, topped with a gold star, and from it sprang thin gold filaments that held tiny stars at each end.
    “Can I make a wish?” Matt asked with his voice full of excitement.
    “That's on evening stars,” she reminded him.
    He pointed. “She's got bunches of stars."
    “Okay, but don't tell me, or it won't come true.” From the sad expression on his face, she imagined she knew Matt's wish. He probably missed his father and wanted him back in his life.
    He turned to her and took her hand. “You make one."
    Looking up at the angelic face topping the tree, she wished that Matt would have the father he wanted so badly, one who would love him and spend time with him, totally disregarding that he'd also be a husband to her.
    Katherine swallowed hard and stared at the perfect being depicted by the porcelain figure. She felt in her heart that somehow this Christmas would be special. “Yes, Matt, she's perfect.” Katherine retrieved the box containing the angel from the shelf. “And she's ours."

* * * *

    Jared couldn't keep his eyes off Katherine as she made her way toward Santa's North Pole Station. A strand of black hair fell casually across her cheek, bringing his attention to her flashing, jade eyes and her parted lips tinted with a pink lipstick called.-? Well, if the shade she wore wasn't called ‘tantalizing’ it should be, because it tantalized him to no end, wondering what it might be like to kiss her.
    A smile tugged at his lips watching her head his way. Skillfully dodging a toddler, Katherine held large bags in both hands and carried on a conversation with Matt, who wore an infectious grin. A tall overweight man turned a corner too sharply and plowed into her, almost knocking her backwards. Jared's hands fisted when the jerk placed his beefy arms around Katherine. After a brief nod and a smile at the buffoon, she continued through the minefield, jabbering to Matt like nothing happened.
    She wore casual black slacks, flats and a blue crewneck sweater peaked from the collar of her blazer. The snug outfit reminded him of her perfectly proportioned figure.
    A new line of expectant children, laughing, crying, screaming and wetting, drew his attention from Katherine and Matt. He glanced up after some time and saw Matt make his way to the head of the line. He came forward and sat on Jared's lap. Katherine smiled and waved from the sidelines.
    “Ho-ho-ho. Have you been a good boy this year?"
    Matt nodded, his eyes flickering with excitement.
    Jared smiled. “And what do you want Santa to bring you, little boy?"
    He grabbed a handful of Jared's white beard none too gently, causing Jared to lean forward. “I knew you wouldn't remember. I told Mom you wouldn't remember me ‘cause I'm at Grandma's for Christmas. Mom thinks I'm special, so there's no way you could forget me, but she's wrong.” His brows furrowed. “Do you need me to go over what I want again?"
    Prying Matt's fingers from his beard, Jared tried to diffuse his blunder and remove the hurt he saw in Matt's eyes. “Matt, I haven't forgotten you."
    His mouth rounded. “You remembered my name."
    “Of course I do. I have elves around the world that help me keep up with where kids live so we don't goof up any of the orders. I thought you might have forgotten something when you told me the first time. Do you want to add to your list?"
    Matt shook his head and put his arm around Jared's shoulder. Pressing his chubby legs further up the padded Santa belly, Matt leaned close and whispered in his ear. “Can you do something for grownups, or you only help us kids?"
    Jared furrowed his glued-on white bushy eyebrows. “I specialize in kids, because they're the ones who ask for help each year, but I can help grownups, too. They never ask. Do you want me to help some grownup?” He gazed at Katherine, who smiled at them from the sidelines again. A vivid picture of her on his lap flashed into his mind.
    Placing his finger over his own lips, Matt said, “Shhh. It's a secret. Mom would never ask for your help, but she needs it."
    “Okay, it's a secret,” Jared whispered back, excited to hear how he could help Katherine. “What can I do for your Mom?"
    “Bring her a baby."

Chapter Four

    Jared's mouth dropped open. Matt can't mean what I think he means. There are baby dogs, cats, horses and baby dolls-an endless list of what a kid could mean. And they all frolicked playfully in his mind. He leaned closer. “What kind of baby?"
    “I don't think Mom would be choosy, so a boy or a girl baby would be fine. Just born, you know. Not old, like me."
    Jared swallowed hard, his heart moving into his throat. Okay, big mouth, you got yourself into this mess, you should never have said Santa helps grownups, too. How do you get yourself out of it, without letting Matt down and really disillusioning him about this whole Santa thing? “A real baby? Why would you think your mom wants a real baby? Did she tell you she wanted one?"
    Matt shook his head again. “I'm smart. I figured out what Mom needs by myself. She cries sometimes, and I heard Grandma say last night that I'd be growing up and leaving so Mom wouldn't have anyone. Mom told Grandma that she dreams of babies. I want her to have a baby so she won't cry, or be alone."
    Jared glanced at Katherine. So, her mother was pressuring her to marry again. All the more reason to stay away from Katherine. He was not in the market for a wife. Well, he knew that telling Matt it would be a long time before he grew up and left wouldn't solve this dilemma completely. He cleared his throat in as Santa-like way as possible. “But, Matt, in order for your mom to get a baby, she'd need to be married. How about your father?"
    Matt frowned. “Can't we have a new dad? He's the one that made her cry, and I don't think he likes either of us very much."
    Jared felt the heat in his face as his jaw muscle worked. He could understand Matt's dad not liking Katherine. Hell, they were divorced, and one of the ‘Ten Commandments of Divorce’ seemed to say: “Don't like your ex.” Or at least from all the bad-mouthing his client's did, that seemed true to him.
    He knew kids of divorce often thought the divorce was due to them, and that the more-absent parent didn't like them. But why would Matt think his father didn't like him? “Why would you say your dad doesn't like you, Matt?"
    “He calls and cancels our visits. Besides, I can tell. I feel it.” Matt pointed to his own heart.
    Jared tightened his arm around Matt's shoulder. So, that's how it is. Damn. Okay, now you know. What are you going to do about it, Santa? He moved Matt to his other knee. Think, Jared. Think. “Matt, it takes nine months to have a baby."
    “Are you sure? Jimmy's mom had one, and she went to the hospital and got it in a day."
    Jared tried not to laugh, but smiled at him instead. “Jimmy's mom carried the baby inside her for nine months before they went to the hospital to have the baby. It really takes nine months. Santa wouldn't lie to you about something like that.” Jared watched as Matt stared over his padded Santa shoulder for a moment, scrunching his forehead-deep in thought. Oh, hell. You said the baby was inside. Please don't let Matt ask if Jimmy's mom swallowed the baby, or how it got inside to begin with. Jared felt sweat roll down his back, waiting for Matt's response.
    “It does?"
    Jared nodded, praying it would end there.
    “How long does it take to start one?"
    Wonderful. Jared stared through the wisps of cobwebby eyebrows glumly. It would have been better if the boy had stuck with “inside.” Now he had moved on to “start one." Jared chuckled. “Not long, but it takes two grownups to start a baby, Matt, a man and a woman, and both grownups need to be willing to have a baby.” At least that's how it's supposed to work, he thought, and felt the muscles tighten along his spine. He shifted again, trying to avoid the uneasy and unexpected tension. Which was the reason he'd never have a child, he supposed. Not even one as special as Matt. He never could imagine a woman he could make that kind of commitment with.
    Matt grabbed his beard again and almost yanked it off. Jared held a death grip on the part still attached to his ears and face. “You're Santa. You gotta do something to talk her into it for her own good."
    Jared groaned. You're digging your grave a little deeper. A vivid picture of Katherine shooting him when he tried to explain why they needed to sleep together flashed before his eyes. When Jared said, “We need to start a baby,” a bullet from her pistol lodged in his groin. Jared, you are a dead man if you breathe one word of this to Katherine.
    He took a deep breath, held it, exhaled and slowly dislodged Matt's tight fingers from his Santa beard again. He glanced at Katherine and shook his head. Man-oh-man, he wanted to help Matt. But from the way Katherine acted around him, her husband must have really done a number on her. He could think of only one solution-talk Matt into something less drastic than Katherine starting a baby.
    “Matt, do you know what I think your mother really needs?"
    “What?"
    The trusting expression on Matt's face made Jared realize the awesome responsibility he had to get this right. “I think she cries because she's lonesome for someone her own age to have fun with-what grownups call dates. All she needs to do is date. If it works out, they'll get married, you'll have a new dad, and later on your mom can have those babies she wants."
    Matt scratched his head. “You really think it'll work?"
    Jared nodded. If Matt saw his mom dating a couple of times, and happy, even though he had no idea how he could pull that off with that jittery woman, Matt would think Santa had kept his promise. It was a win-win situation. Would it work? It had better. Because he sure as hell wouldn't get Katherine pregnant so Matt would still believe in Santa.
    He looked at the domed-skylight above the mall atrium feeling trapped by his own big mouth. If I ever get so dumb as to play Santa again, shoot me dead, or zap me with a bolt of merciful lightning.
    Reaching into the bag by his chair, he removed the mistletoe he'd bought to hang from the mirror in his truck. He needed all the help he could get with Katherine. “Shhh. This is our little secret, Matt. Give this mistletoe to your grandma and tell her you got it from Santa. She'll know what to do with it."
    Matt hugged Jared, grabbed the mistletoe and stuffed it into his pocket. “It's a love potion,” Matt whispered. “I learned about love potions from TV.” He grinned, his eyes flickering once again with excitement. “I knew you wouldn't let me down, Santa."

* * * *

    Katherine spotted Mrs. Taylor, the ‘birthday-lady', as they entered the party. “Are you sure pants are appropriate for a dance at a church?” Katherine asked, stowing her and Matt's coats on a back table. She looked down at the pale, blue-beaded, mohair cardigan that hugged the knees of her satin drawstring pants. “I should have worn a dress.” Tightening the backs of her pearl earrings, she shifted her weight from one heel to the other.
    Her mother smiled. “Stop fidgeting, dear. It's Saturday night, not Sunday morning. Pants are fine and you look lovely in them. Besides this birthday party is very casual.” She glanced at Katherine's outfit, moved closer, and whispered, “Your beads sparkle like starlight, so does your headband. You'll turn some heads tonight whether you're ready for a social life or not."
    Katherine blushed and stared down at the winking beads that reflected the candlelight flickering from the centerpieces. She inhaled the heady scent of cranberry that filled the room. Great, I look like I'm wearing a flashing neon sign that says, “I'm available." Frowning, she straightened the clasp on the pearls her mother wore. One good thing-it couldn't be classified as a real date if Jared did show up at the dance and feign any interest in her.
    “Did you see the size of Matt's eyes when you set your potato salad on the buffet table and he spotted that multi-tiered chocolate cake?” Her mother chuckled and waved to Mrs. Taylor, whose trusty camera sat poised in front of her at the head table.
    The DJ announced nostalgic music had been requested for the program, rather than traditional Christmas music. Katherine smiled, recognizing her mother and father's favorite song. The heart rendering refrains of “Love Me Tender” flowed from the turntable of the stereo and voices of people dancing on the hardwood floor and milling around the room joined in to sing the beautiful words. She glanced at her mother, knowing the waterworks would start any minute. Reaching into her beaded bag, she retrieved a tissue, and pressed it into her mother's palm.
    Her mother stood in a lovely floral dress, dabbing at the corners of her eyes. “I love old movies and old songs, don't you? They don't write them like they used to.” She looked up and grinned like the cat that swallowed the pet canary.
    Turning to see what her mother looked so thrilled about, Katherine's gaze rested on a charcoal and blue-striped silk tie nestled against a light, blue shirt. Her gaze climbed up to a dimpled, clean-shaven chin and stopped at a full mouth, which wore an inviting smile that ignited warmth deep in her stomach. Her mouth went dry and her tongue licked her lips. Finally lifting her eyes the rest of the way, she met a smoldering blue gaze. Her voice failed her, and she exhaled a sigh of relief when her mother broke the heady spell.
    “Jared, I'm so glad you could make it."
    His smile broadened, and that irresistible dimple in his right cheek deepened. “Ladies, you look beautiful.” He glanced down at Matt, who sported dress pants and a shirt. “You look real grown up tonight, pal."
    Matt giggled.
    “I was beginning to think my daughter wouldn't have anyone but old folks to dance with tonight, Jared."
    Dance? She tried to think of some way to avoid Jared holding her in his arms. One thing she knew-her body didn't want to cooperate with her mind tonight. Her mind kept reminding her, ‘He's cut from the same cloth as Paul, and you know how that ended.’ Her body kept shouting, I don't care. And from the way his gaze inventoried the length of her body, he knew the attraction burning in the atmosphere around them. A burning his blue eyes said he wanted to ignite.
    Relief flooded Katherine's mind when Mrs. Taylor approached them with her camera to capture her celebration on film. Everyone wished her a happy birthday. Mrs. Taylor took a picture of Katherine's mother and Matt. “Jared, stand next to Katherine, so I can get a picture of the two of you."
    Katherine's body stiffened. She rotated her shoulders to relieve the tension.
    “I swear. Young folks today don't know how to have a good time. Pretend you like one another, and you're having fun at my birthday party.” She orchestrated the picture she wanted. “Jared, wrap your arm around Katherine's waist and lean in close. Katherine, don't look so sour, dear."
    She swallowed hard. Jared's hand touched her, felt its way around her waist, inched past her back and held her. He pulled her against his firm, warm body.
    “Say cheese!"
    She'd like to scream ‘Help’ instead and stop the emotions his touch aroused. Emotions she hadn't felt in years. Emotions she tried to fight. Looking straight at the lens, she forced a smile and inhaled slowly as the camera exploded before her eyes. As red dots floated in her horizon, Jared released her abruptly and she shuddered at the sudden chill. Mrs. Taylor smiled and moved on to some other unsuspecting scrapbook memory.
    Grabbing Matt's hand, her mother strolled toward the tables. “I think I'll save us a spot and sit with Matt while you and Jared fix our plates."
    Katherine's mouth flew open. Her mother intended for Jared to join them at their table.
    Turning to face her, his gaze held hers fast. His finger pressed underneath her chin and closed her mouth then moved back-and-forth leisurely across her bottom lip. “Grace is putting you in a bad spot again. I hate fix-ups, too. I won't share another meal with you and your family unless I'm welcome by everyone.” He removed his hand from her face and waited.
    The tingling aftershocks of his touching her mouth made her blush. How could she explain to Matt that she refused to let Jared eat at their table because she didn't trust herself with him? Let alone how to tell Jared that he made her all jumpy? How could she punish either of them like that? Besides, what could possibly happen with Matt and her mother as chaperones? “Let's hit the buffet. You're welcome to eat with my family."
    “Hey, Jared.” A beautiful leggy blond tottered up behind him in the buffet line. She stood in navy heels, her sparkling V-neck dress drawing attention to her breasts. Bending slightly, she stuffed a piece of paper in his pants pocket. “My new number. I figured that's why you never called after that night we were together,” she said in a sultry whisper.
    He turned and gave her the once over as her slender body slithered away. Jared glanced at Katherine, smiled and shrugged.
    Katherine jerked her head around to the buffet table to avoid looking at his Don Juan-type grin. Adding a dinosaur sized turkey leg to one of the plates, she turned to Jared and shoved a napkin in his hand. “Matt has trouble with drool, too."
    She'd bet her life Jared didn't even remember Miss Busty's name. If she didn't write it along with her phone number, he'd have no idea the identity of the woman who had propositioned him with a second one-night stand.
    His eyes lit with mischief. “I never claimed to be a saint, Katherine-just a red-blooded, one-hundred-percent careful male."
    Jerk, she wanted to add. Ignoring him, she concentrated on shoving dressing, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry salad mold and yeast rolls onto plates. His hand reached out and held hers still. Cranberries dripped over the sides of the over-stuffed plates onto the table. She blushed, grabbed paper napkins and cleaned up the excess.
    Taking the soiled napkins from her, Jared retrieved the crumpled paper the ditzy-blond shoved in his pocket. He added it to the pile and threw the whole mess away. “Katherine, I didn't ask for her phone number. She approached me, remember?"
    “What's her name?” she snapped, wanting to prove her point, later wishing she could reel the question back in. Why should she care if the rumors about him being a rutting tomcat were true? She wasn't in love with him, only physically attracted to him. Strongly physically attracted, her mind corrected.
    He hesitated.
    They each picked up two plates loaded with food and began weaving through the crowds to their table. “I'm not the type of man who sleeps with a woman and trashes her name. But the lady didn't seem particular about who watched her throw herself at me. My guess is she saw you with me, got jealous and thought she could hurt you. I think I need to prove something to you. Katherine, turn around and look at me. Please."
    She reluctantly turned toward him.
    “Her name's Laura Brown. She works at an art gallery downtown.” His gaze searched her face. “And you look surprised as hell that I know anything at all about her.” He shook his head.
    A lady almost bumped into Katherine as she turned back around. She moved to the side to avoid her and quickly continued forward. “Actually, I'm amazed you knew her name."
    Why should she feel jealous? She didn't know, but she did, and she didn't want him to know. Attempting to lighten the whole incident, Katherine whispered, “I don't care what you do. You're single, over twenty-one, and how you live your life is entirely up to you.” They both walked in silence.
    Thomas Hughes moved away from their table as they arrived. He waved over his shoulder at them and headed back to his own friends.
    “Mom, they're welcome to join us, if they'd like,” Katherine whispered, placing one plate of food in front of her mother and the other in front of Matt.
    A sad faraway look clouded her mother's eyes. “He's with a lady he dates sometimes. He stopped by to say hello."
    Eyeing the plates Jared set down, she noticed he'd placed hers beside his. She refocused her attention on her mother. “If you get too tired, you let me know and we'll leave."
    Matt took his fork and lifted the large slice of turkey and peeked underneath. “Where's the chocolate cake?"
    Everyone chuckled.
    “I'll get us something to drink while you look after the bottomless-pit.” Jared smiled at Matt and headed toward the refreshment table.
    “We have to light Mrs. Taylor's candles and sing happy birthday to her. After she blows the candles out, we'll get cake. But first, you have to eat your dinner.” Katherine sat in the chair beside Matt. “Save room for a big slice.” He relaxed, grinned and shoveled turkey and dressing into his mouth.
    Jared returned with glasses of fruit punch. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and laid it on the back of his chair. As he dropped into the chair next to her, his muscular thigh pressed against hers. Her heart did a reluctant somersault, and she inhaled and exhaled slowly. The leg of the table blocked her on the right side. That left no room to move away from him. She chose to ignore the warmth of his thigh rather than reveal how much his touch bothered her.
    “Your mother told me you brought the potato salad. It's delicious. I love pimentos and green olives.” He popped some into his mouth and turned to inspect her plate. “Did you get any of the crabmeat triangles?” He placed a bite on his fork. “Here, try it,” he said waving it temptingly beneath her nose.
    The smell of cheese, garlic and crabmeat proved irresistible. His gaze captured hers as Katherine opened her mouth then closed it around the warm, succulent morsel. She saw desire flame in his eyes as he watched the provocative motion. Withdrawing his fork from her mouth, he brought it into his own, as if to lick off her essence, before he stabbed another piece of quiche. She blushed at the intimate act they'd shared without even a moment's hesitation. He smiled warmly, but quickly moved his attention to her son, leaving her wishing the sensual contact they experienced had continued.
    “Matt, you still want to learn to ride a horse?” Jared asked. He turned and whispered into Katherine's ear, “He'll be riding a pony."
    Puffs of air from his warm breath hit the inside of her ear causing chills to run along the base of her spine.
    Matt's eyes lit with excitement. “Yes, sir."
    She placed her hand on Jared's arm. “Even if it's a pony, I'll worry about him."
    He smiled, his white teeth flashing in the candlelight. “I know, so you're invited, too.” He gazed toward Matt. “I'll call your mom, and we'll make a day of it."
    Katherine's heart skipped a beat. It's all right. It's a day with Matt. What could possibly happen on a horse?
    “Have you ever been horseback riding, Katherine?"
    She swallowed hard. “No."
    “In that case, you'll ride with me the first time."
    Her fork dropped and clanged against her glass.
    Jared gave her a roguish smile, and from the look in his eyes he knew the effect he had on her. “Are you through eating?"
    Looking at her plate, she knew she'd eaten very little but she couldn't get another bite past the butterfly wings flapping in her throat and chest. She nodded.
    The DJ changed from romantic ballads to a 1920s Charleston, and Jared stood, lifting her hand. “Since you're done eating, let's work off some of this meal."
    Katherine stared past Jared, watching the people on the dance floor energetically kick their heels. “I've seen the dance, but I don't actually know how to do the Charleston.” She put her hand palm up. “I'll pass."
    “Oh, no.” He pulled her out of the chair. “Where's your sense of adventure? I don't know how to Charleston either, but we'll fake it.” He pointed to the couples. “It doesn't look that difficult."
    Within five minutes, they looked like chickens taking flight. Their arms thrashed back and forth slicing through the air. Knees bent, heels kicking, they moved energetically to the syncopated jazz rhythm. They couldn't stop laughing. “Hey, I think we're pretty good together,” Jared yelled over the noise. He pointed to a white-haired couple in the corner of the dance floor. “Think we can try that fancy move?"
    Katherine giggled, stuck her hip out in an exaggerated pose mimicking the couple, pranced around, and slapped her bottom while making a full circle. They stood side by side, knees bent and hands crossing their knees. He winked at her. “It's always scary when you try something new for the first time."
    She breathed deeply and blushed at his implication.
    Twenty minutes later, they staggered off the dance floor, both breathing heavily, just in time for the main event. People applauded as candles were lit on the enormous multi-tiered cake. The lights dimmed and everyone sang. An inferno of seventy-five candles flickered in the semi-darkness. Mrs. Taylor and her friends blew out candles amidst more applause. The lights were turned back up and everyone got served a generous helping of chocolate cake, making Matt ecstatic.
    Jared went to the refreshment table for more punch and cups of coffee. He returned with a tray full and set it down. Reaching into his pockets, he pulled out large paper towels and tucked them in Matt's shirt collar. “Dig in, pal."
    Her mother held a forkful of cake to her nose and sniffed. “Chocolate mint.” She devoured the first bite. “Light, fluffy and very good. Remind me to get Mildred's recipe. She took one of those leisure classes in cake decorating.” Her mother waved across the room at Mildred, who smiled and waved back. “It's delicious,” her mother yelled.
    Although everyone devoured the cake with enthusiasm, Matt finished his huge chunk first. He looked like he'd been mud wrestling and lost. “Matt, how in the world did you manage to get it in your ears and hair?” Jared asked, laughing with Matt.
    Katherine glanced at Matt and shook her head. “That's how five-year-olds eat."
    Matt held up chocolate fingers. “I'll be six soon."
    “Gracious, you look like you swam in it,” Katherine said.
    “It's easy to get messy when you're having a good time. Isn't it, pal?"
    Matt tugged on Jared's hand. “I need to go potty,” Matt said, lifting his arms up to him.
    “Katherine is it all right if I take Matt to the bathroom? He can wash up, too."
    She blushed when Matt whispered, “I don't want to potty in a girl's bathroom."
    Katherine nodded, her head spinning with the fact that Jared had shown more affection to Matt in three minutes than Paul had in three years.
    The DJ started a romantic waltz as Jared returned to the table. He placed Matt in the chair, turned and took Katherine's hand in his. “Don't tell me you don't know how to waltz either."
    “At the price I paid for ballroom dance classes, she better,” her mother said.
    “Well, let's prove your mom didn't waste her hard earned money."
    Jared led Katherine to the dance floor and folded her in his arms. Every time she breathed, his woodsy scent filled her lungs, her thoughts and her head. She felt his strong hands touch the ends of her hair that flowed down her back. The smell, feel and touch of this man intoxicated her. She lifted her chin, mentally chiding herself, but he intoxicates a lot of women, none of them mean anything to him except sexual gratification. And what's wrong with sexual gratification? screamed her body as his leg moved closer to her thigh.
    “You're too quiet,” Jared whispered.
    She lifted her head and gazed up at him, moving her body to a more traditional waltz pose, placing more distance between them. He twirled her away from him and brought her to him again, pulling her closer against his body. Her eyes closed, she relaxed, savoring his warmth and the feel of his hands moving over her back. She rested her head against his chest, lulled by his steady heartbeat and hearing her own echoing reply.
    “I was thinking,” she said.
    “What about?” he whispered against her hair. “I hope it's the same thing I'm thinking about.” His lips pressed into her hair. He moved her away from him, turned her and brought her into his warm arms again.
    She knew exactly what lurked in Jared's mind, but to her the act of making love had to mean a whole lot more than a fleeting, sexual conquest. And from what she'd heard and seen of Jared, that's all it meant to him. All she would be to him. The thought made her reply tight and strained. “I doubt we're thinking about the same thing. We don't think alike on a lot of things.” She stiffened. Jared held her in his arms and they waltzed across the dance floor.

* * * *

    Jared felt Katherine's body tense again while they danced. He replayed tonight's events as he held her, wondering where he'd gone wrong. Once they'd gotten past Laura Brown's attempt to wreck their evening, he'd felt the sensual pull of their mutual desire all during the night.
    When she'd first relaxed and leaned into him on the dance floor, he thought his worries were over. During the party, she'd responded to his jokes, his smiles and he suddenly knew he didn't want to date her for Matt alone. He felt relieved they wanted each other, because he'd started to feel like a heel for using Matt to get to Katherine.
    He thought she wanted him too, when her cheek rested on his chest and he felt her warm breath through his shirt, but now she had stiffened her back and pulled away. He knew she felt the same desire, but she clamped down on her emotions. Why?
    The music suddenly changed from a waltz to a slow romantic dance and Jared, expecting her retreat, tightened his arm around her waist. No way, she wasn't going anywhere until he got her where he wanted her-eating out of his hand. “I thought maybe we might go out on a date sometime."
    She moved away slightly and looked up at him. “A date? Like Laura Brown's? Or the woman you had such a lusty conversation with the day before, after we'd been tree shopping?"
    He grinned, his gaze blatantly sensual. “You were eavesdropping?"
    “Hard not too when you're standing no more than ten feet away."
    Without a word, he lifted his hand and touched her bottom lip with his finger again. “You know from the conversation that if I wanted her here, she'd be here. You're in my arms tonight, because that's where I want you."
    “According to the town gossip and People magazine, you date a bevy of willing women who have sex with you.” Her eyes gave him a hard, cold stare and she whispered, “I'm afraid I don't qualify for a date with you. I don't have casual sex, and I won't share the man I do have sex with."
    His jaw muscles tightened, and his stomach jumped like she'd sucker punched him. How had she managed that? The last time a woman had surprised him was when his fiancée ran out of the church. Since then, he'd spent a year indulging in meaningless relationships, creating earthshaking sensations in women without ever really touching them emotionally or being touched emotionally himself. Somehow though, Katherine Cahill had broken through, unsettled him, just a little, but it unnerved him and fascinated him.
    Retreating into cynical humor, he smiled. “Wow, that's a first. I've never had anyone turn down sex with me before I even asked."
    When her jaw dropped like he'd intended, he tugged her closer and bent by her ear, back in control. “For the record, I don't have a bevy of sex slaves.” He chuckled. “Although that thought's probably crossed every man's mind at least once in their lives. I define a date as dinner, dancing, or a movie, not a roll in the hay. You name it, we'll do it."
    She leaned into him. Maybe she was wavering. He laughed. “Of course, if you're into whips, chains, kinky things, I'd have to tell you I don't really go in for that type of stuff. However, you're welcome to change my mind, just be gentle with me."
    When she laughed at his joke, he pulled her closer. “I always respect a woman's right to say no. What are you so afraid of?"
    Her eyes rounded. He studied her beautiful face and it looked like she might be seriously considering dating him, as if she actually questioned her hesitancy to accept his offer. Giving her a moment to think, Jared swung her away and back again, asking her once more, “Do you want to go on a date?"
    Katherine raised her head, her eyes searching his, her mouth opening to reply when a man tugged her away and drew her into his embrace, flattening her against his chest. “It's my turn."
    Her jaw dropped and all the color drained from her face. “Oh, my God, Paul!"

Chapter Five

    “Katherine, breathe deeply. Don't pass out on me,” Paul pleaded, staring down at her and pulling her more tightly against him.
    Her vision blurred and Katherine took a deep breath as his steel-gray gaze held hers.
    “I drove to Grace's to find you and saw the birthday party announcement on the bulletin board. When I spotted your car in the parking lot, I decided to surprise you,” Paul said.
    Her rubbery knees wobbled. “You succeeded,” she whispered between deep breaths as they slow-danced across the oak floor.
    “Do you need to sit down?"
    Feeling the blood returning to her limbs, she fought to keep her tone casual. She didn't want to alarm her mother or Matt by causing a scene. And, no way did she want to let Paul know how upset she felt at seeing him. “No, I'm fine."
    His fingers slid through the length of her hair, tugging it lightly, moving to wrap a strand around his palm in an old, familiar, unwanted way. She jerked her chin up, stepped backward, and he released her slowly, unwillingly. A lock of her hair remained curled around his fingers. She pursed her lips together, and her gaze raked from his fingers to his eyes. He released her hair, and she placed more distance between them as they continued to dance.
    Glancing at the charcoal suit covering his lean frame, she lowered her gaze and stared at his pearl gray tie. Every time she inhaled, his sharp peppermint scented aftershave angered her. It reminded her of the day she broke every damn bottle of cologne and aftershave he'd left behind and had The Salvation Army haul off his clothes and their bedroom set.
    She hadn't been alone with him since the divorce two years ago. And she could count on one hand the times Matt had seen him. She seethed inside. It would take two hands for her to count the times he'd called at the last minute and cancelled Matt's visits with him. Why had he suddenly shown up without any warning?
    What was he really after? Would he get Matt's hopes up, just to callously disappoint him again?
    “Who's the man you were dancing with? He's giving me the evil eye from across the room,” Paul said.
    Looking around Paul's narrow shoulder, she glanced at Jared. With his muscular arms across his broad chest, he stood and studied them from the other side of the room.
    He mouthed the words, “Are you all right?"
    Katherine nodded.
    Instead of returning to their table like she'd expected Jared to do, he moved to the outer edge of the dance floor, directly in the path where they would exit.
    She blinked, shocked at the events of the last few minutes. How in the hell could this have happened? One minute she innocently considered dating Jared. Well, not so innocently she admitted, remembering his devastating good looks and his joke that had caught her off-guard. Then wham, she stood locked in her ex's arms. Damn.
    “Your hair still reminds me of midnight.” Paul pushed a lock behind her ear and sighed softly when she didn't respond to his compliment, or his previous question. “I guess I don't have a right to ask about your love life."
    Love life? She refused to admit it didn't exist. “No, you don't.” Let him think what he likes.
    They both fell into an awkward silence. He coughed lightly. “I'm sorry I haven't been there for Matt like I should. You have a right to be angry about that, too."
    She rotated her shoulders to fight the tension and jumped when his hand moved to massage her back. “I'm not the one you should apologize to-apologize to our son. He needs you. Don't you think Matt notices when you cancel visits?"
    He frowned. “Yes, I do. Is there some place private we can talk?"
    She fought to keep herself calm, whispering her reply for his ears only. “About what? The past? Walking into our bedroom and finding you with your-mistress? The lies I was forced to tell about why we divorced because my father lay fighting for his life and didn't need the added stress? Or maybe you want to talk about now. The way you repeatedly hurt our son.” Shoving against his chest, she stepped out of his embrace and glared at him. “If you'll excuse me."
    Her jaw muscles ached from clenching them so tightly as she marched toward the ladies room. She fought to control her temper and not make a worse scene. At least not in public. Matt didn't need to see his mother and father fighting. But when they were alone, if it took a battle for Paul to treat Matt better, he would find himself in the fight of his life. But this wasn't the time or place for that battle.
    What a mess, but she couldn't think of a solution that didn't involve hurting her mother or Matt. How could she possibly explain to her mother that she'd lied originally because she felt ashamed at how badly her marriage turned out? Maybe if she'd been a more experienced lover, she could have kept Paul happy and saved their marriage. In the beginning, she wanted to keep the circumstances of their divorce private. Later, when her dad took ill, it grew impossible to tell the truth. And the night before, when she'd nodded in agreement with her mother, Katherine had perpetuated the lies.
    She walked past Jared and saw the look of concern on his face. “Katherine, baby,” he murmured, but she just put up her hand in a silent beg for a moment, thankful he didn't try to touch her. She needed solitude right now, time to cool off, time to think so she could deal with Paul dropping in on her without any warning.

* * * *

    Jared sat with Matt waiting for Grace to return from talking to Thomas Hughes. From the angry expression on Thomas’ face, they were having a heated argument about something, too. The disagreeable frown and silence of his friend said Thomas had lost the battle. What are they fighting about?
    Matt tugged on Jared's arm, motioning him nearer. “Make my dad go away,” he whispered.
    Jared's opened his mouth, but closed it, hating the reply he needed to give. He shook his head. “I can't."
    “You're bigger. Why can't you?” Matt asked with wide innocent eyes.
    More than anything, he didn't want to disappoint Matt. How could he make the boy understand that he'd asked for the impossible? “I guess you're mad at your dad right now and that's understandable. It's okay to feel that way. But I think he's here to make it up to both of you. I can't interfere with his trying. It wouldn't be right for me to come between your parents."
    Matt tilted his head to one side. “Why?” he asked again.
    “Don't you miss your dad?” Jared paused, remembering the hurt and loneliness he felt when his father abandoned him. When he failed to get a reply from Matt, Jared continued, “He's here. Don't you want to find out why he's here?” Knowing he was going to kick himself later, he pressed on when Matt still didn't respond. “Will you at least give him a chance to make it up to you?"
    His little eyebrows shot up. “Does this mean I can't learn to sit on your horses?"
    Jared smiled and ruffled Matt's hair. “Of course not. We'll always be pals. I'll call your mom, we'll go horseback riding like we planned. If your dad wants to come along, he's welcome."
    Matt bowed his head, staring at his dress shoes.
    Jared lifted Matt's chin, finding confusion lurking in his green eyes-eyes mirroring Katherine's shock and confusion on the dance floor. “Matt, you can always come to me if you have any problem. Will you at least promise to give him a chance to make it up to you?"
    Matt placed his hand in Jared's. He felt humbled by the trust and determination he saw on his little face. “I promise. Will you stay until we go to Grandma's?"
    “I'm not going anywhere, pal."

* * * *

    Grace returned to her grandson's side. She glanced over her shoulder at Thomas, his nostrils flared, and he looked away from her. Jared noted the ashen, worried look on her face when she sat across from him and Matt.
    A few minutes later, Katherine headed back and Paul stepped from the corner of the room, obviously waiting for her to return from the bathroom. He caught up with her, and his arm went possessively around her waist.
    Jared's muscles tightened between his shoulder blades.
    Paul stood beside Matt and made an awkward attempt to rumple his son's hair. “Hello, Matt."
    Matt combed his fingers through his hair, putting the disarrayed strands back in place.
    “I'm sorry I didn't make it last Christmas, but I'm here now."
    Matt smiled warily though he still kept silent. He leaned toward Jared in a silent plea for support that Jared gave freely.
    Jared's hand fisted when Paul's hand wrapped around Katherine's waist and pulled her to him. Her ex ignored the frown she shot his way. She quickly removed his hand, sidestepped and took a seat.
    “Paul Cahill, I'd like you to meet Jared Randall,” Katherine said. Jared noticed Paul's cool assessment and quick dismissal. Maybe someone should remind the jerk that they're divorced. Or was Paul that sure of himself with Katherine? How the hell could he be? Neither Katherine nor Matt seemed pleased to see him. Jared inhaled deeply, forcing himself to relax. If anyone told the ex to take a hike, it had to be Katherine.
    Paul turned and hugged Katherine's mother. “Grace, it's good to see you."
    “I'm glad you came. Katherine hoped you'd make it."
    Jared studied Katherine's face. She nibbled on her lower lip. He'd bet his law practice she never said any such thing, not if he read the signs correctly.
    Paul's smiling gray eyes sought Katherine's worried green ones. “Well, that's good to know,” he said, sitting beside Katherine and leaning closer.
    Crossing his arms, Jared waited for a denial that never surfaced. His gaze roamed between Katherine, Paul and Grace.
    “I didn't have a chance to make hotel reservations. I hope to find a place near the house so I can spend more time with Matt,” Paul said.
    “Katherine, don't you think it might be easier if Paul stayed at the house with us?” her mother asked. “That way it would give the three of you more of a chance to talk."
    Jared gritted his teeth as the vein in Katherine's neck jumped. Her face paled again. She quickly pushed her hands beneath the table, but not before he spotted a slight tremble.
    Katherine smiled faintly. “Paul and I will decide that a little later.” She turned to Matt. “Tonight your dad can tuck you in and read you a bedtime story."
    Her mother leaned over to whisper to Paul, but everyone at the table clearly overheard her comment. “I hope you realize Katherine hasn't had any boyfriends since you two divorced. She's been waiting for your return."
    Katherine gasped, blushed redder than an over-ripe tomato and fell silent.
    Jared's jaw dropped. Damn. He couldn't believe Grace had blurted something like that out. Especially since Grace had carefully watched Paul and Katherine during their dance. Hell, Grace had seen the same things Jared had, and the look she gave Paul when he looked elsewhere bordered on raw contempt. And no one could miss the deep concern in her eyes for Katherine.
    What the hell's really going on?
    Standing and strutting like the only rooster in a hen house, Paul grabbed a yawning Matt and lifted him into his arms. “I think we better get you home, young man. I'll take him to your car, Katherine.” He strolled forward, calling over his shoulder, but not stopping. “Do you need help, Grace?"
    Grace stood and moved from the table. “Of course not."
    A sleepy Matt waved goodbye to Jared from where he hung over Paul's shoulder. Jared smiled in reply, and angled a level look on Paul, who turned. Jared held his challenging gaze a moment, not moving, then Paul shrugged and flicked his hand, impatiently gesturing to Katherine.
    Turning his head, Jared found her eyes waiting for him. “Goodnight,” she whispered. He noticed that Katherine kept a heap of distance between herself and Paul as they moved toward the exit.
    Remaining seated, Jared rubbed his hand across his forehead. Everything that had happened tonight worried him. So many things seemed phony. Things that made absolutely no sense. The disconnection between Grace's declaration that Katherine had been waiting for Paul, and her apparent distress when with him. Why hadn't she contradicted Grace's statement, which appeared to be a lie?
    As an attorney, he'd learned that things were never what they seemed. He'd been taught not to jump to conclusions. However, he was doing just that. He'd seen some pretty sorry excuses for husbands. Had he met one tonight?
    He didn't like the way Grace had thrown Paul and Katherine together, especially since she had previously seemed so determined to make a match between Katherine and himself. The way Paul took things for granted-overstepping his boundaries and putting Katherine in a bad spot-grated across Jared's nerves like sandpaper. She couldn't haul off and slug him in front of her mother and Matt. He smiled. Hell, neither could he, unless he wanted to appear like some caveman protecting his woman. Katherine wasn't his woman-but she wasn't Paul's woman either, he reminded himself.
    Shaking his head, Jared headed for the door, stopping to congratulate Mrs. Taylor again and say his farewells along the way. Continuing to walk through the parking lot, he realized that this whole situation left him with an uneasy feeling about Matt and Katherine. He didn't want them to be hurt by anyone-including himself.
    The blast from a car alarm jerked him. He glared down at the door of the car he had tried to shove his key into. Bright red, flashy. Not his. Damn. Cramming his fingers through his hair, he turned on his heels in frustration and walked to the next row. He breathed deeply and exhaled.
    “Great,” he muttered. He located his sedate, silver Lexus, got behind the wheel and drove home. How could he allow Katherine's situation to distract and disturb him like this? If the events of tonight don't prove Katherine is trouble, nothing will.
    After arriving home and preparing for bed, he reached a solution. “From now on, I'm going to forget Katherine Cahill even exists,” he muttered. He turned the light out and fell into bed. “My life had some semblance of normalcy, until I carried her off that damn roof.” He just hoped he didn't dream about her again. That kissable mouth-
    Jared reached for Katherine in the middle of the night. His Katherine.
    She sighed his name, as desperate for him as he was for her.
    He kissed the base of her throat, his tongue laving the tender flesh. “You taste so good, sweetheart."
    He cupped her breasts, allowing their lush weight to fill his hands, his thumbs flicking over her tight, beaded nipples.
    “Jared,” she moaned. “Please."
    “Please what?” he teased, lowering his head to suck one taut nipple, his tongue rasping across the tip until she arched toward him.
    Moving so he could see the love in her eyes, he tweaked her nipples, gently tugging, extending them and rasping his thumbnails across the tips to heighten their sensitivity.
    He felt her tremble against him.
    “I need you so much,” she whispered.
    “I know, sweetheart."
    He lowered his head, claiming her mouth in a kiss that rocked him with need when she sucked on his bottom lip.
    The blast of an alarm clock filled the bedroom.
    Jared bolted upright, his eyes searching but finding no one. The dream had seemed so real. He let out a slow frustrated groan, drawing a slow, deep breath to steady himself.
    Damn, that confusing, irritating woman. Why couldn't he get her out of his mind?

* * * *

    “Thanks for letting me stay here, Katherine.” Paul opened the car door and helped Matt and Grace from the back seat.
    Praying she wouldn't regret the decision, Katherine glanced at Paul. More than anything she wanted him to develop a good relationship with their son. And if Paul was up to something, she intended to find out exactly what it was. “I'm hoping it will give you more time with Matt."
    “It will. Thanks, again,” Paul said, staying to retrieve his suitcase from the car.
    Katherine held Matt's hand while she and her mother made their way to the porch. “Looks like you're going to finally get your wish,” her mother whispered as they entered the house.
    Discarding their coats, they headed to the living room and Matt dropped onto the couch. Katherine's forehead creased. She turned to her mother. “What wish?"
    “That Paul would come back into your life."
    Feeling like she'd rubbed a magic lamp and asked for the wrong wish, she started to tell her mother the truth. “We really need to talk."
    “Not tonight.” Her mother stifled a yawn. “He'll be here a few weeks.” She winked. “Make good use of the time, dear. I'll look after Matt while Paul's here so you can be alone, talk and patch up your relationship."
    Patch up her relationship? She'd need a patch the size of the Goodyear blimp. Recalling how shocked she'd been when Paul confessed he had married her only to please his parents, she now stood on the brink of boarding the same Titanic-trying to please her mother. She grabbed her only lifeboat. “Paul's here to make everything up to Matt. His interest in me died a long time ago."
    Her mother shook her head and patted Katherine's hand. “I wouldn't be so sure of that, dear. That's not what his eyes keep saying when he looks at you."
    The front door opened and she heard Paul stop to hang up his coat. There wasn't time to correct years of half-truths and falsehoods, but she had to start laying the groundwork. Katherine swallowed hard. “Mom, I haven't exactly been honest-"
    Before Katherine could say another word, Paul entered the living room and dropped down beside Matt.
    “I hope you'll excuse me, but I'm really tired. I'm going to bed.” Her mother sighed. “I'm sure Katherine and Matt will be happy to entertain you.” She kissed Matt goodnight and waved over her shoulder.
    Katherine stared after her. This can't be happening, she thought, as she heard her mother's cautious gait on the stairs. Her mother didn't seem to care what man she threw her at. First Jared, now Paul. She turned to find Paul standing at the window admiring the tree.
    “Matt, that's the best Christmas tree we've ever had,” Paul said.
    Matt sat on the floor looking up at his dad. Katherine saw Matt studying hard, trying to understand the sudden praise and attention he'd received from his father. “It's silver."
    “I noticed."
    Matt stroked a branch. “It's naked now, but we're having a party to dress it."
    “Sounds like fun.” Paul tousled his son's hair and turned from the smile beginning to stretch across Matt's face. Paul's gaze moved over Katherine's body in a slow, blatantly sexual tour. “You look great."
    She lifted her chin, irritated by his perusal but smiled, trying to keep the atmosphere friendly around Matt.
    “Did you see Santa's runway lights? Mr. Randall did ‘em for Mom. I was an ‘official helper'."
    Paul angled his head to the side and tossed a cursory glance at Matt. “I saw them. Very impressive."
    Matt opened his mouth again, giggling a little.
    She realized in horror that the whole embarrassing story of how she'd met Jared might come tumbling out of Matt's mouth and took matters into her own hands. “I think everyone is tired, Matt. Grandma's already called it a night. Why don't you get your pajamas on, while I show your dad to the guest bedroom?"
    Matt reached for her hand and pulled her down to his level. “Mom, I want you to read my story,” he whispered. “You do lots of sounds and make it fun."
    Katherine knelt and moved closer, wrapping her arm around his waist. “I think it would make your dad feel special if you let him read to you while he's here,” she whispered back. “Ask him to add sound effects when he reads. I bet he'll do it for you.” She tickled Matt's belly.
    He giggled and nodded. “I love you, Mom."
    “And I love you, too, you little rascal.” Smiling she stood, said goodnight to him and watched him climb the stairs.
    Raising his hand, Paul touched her face. She took a step backwards. “I'll see to Matt while you get ready for bed,” Paul said.
    Retrieving his suitcase from the foyer, he followed her up the stairs into the guest bedroom. Flipping the light switch, she quickly retrieved an extra cover from the closet and placed it on the king-sized bed.
    Touching the blanket, he shook his head. “You're the one who always got cold at night. Remember how I used to warm you up?” His eyes darkened, and he moved toward her. “I always thought you used that as a ploy for extra sex."
    “Matt should have his pajamas on by now. He hasn't gotten the hang of which button goes in which hole yet."
    “You keep ignoring me or changing the subject. I still intend talking to you, Katherine."
    Glaring at him, she snapped, “I know. And I want to talk to you about Matt, but not tonight."
    “Only about Matt?” he asked.
    “That's all we have between us now."
    Looking away from Paul, her gaze traveled around the room, noting the familiar rich brown leathers and distressed wood furnishings. She inhaled and exhaled audibly. “Matt will show you where I left off on the story we started. I better warn you, he expects you to do sound effects with the reading, so good luck."
    “You're kidding."
    She shook her head. “Nope."
    He grumbled and left to entertain Matt.
    Back in her room, Katherine took a bubble bath, trying to shake the tension that flooded her entire body. The lavender scented bubbles hugged her body, and steam fogged the mirrors. She crossed her arms. Mistrust kept gnawing at her. Why had he suddenly shown up? If he came back into their lives, would he treat Matt better? She threw the loofah on the side of the tub. He damned well better not disappoint their son again.
    Stepping out of the Jacuzzi and onto the mat, she dried, splashed with moisturizer and finished preparing for bed. She walked barefoot across the carpet and turned back the comforter.
    Footfalls sounded behind her. She spun around to find Paul staring at her. He had discarded his jacket and tie. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up to his elbows. He leaned against the doorframe, looking like he'd stepped off a GQ photo-shoot. His steel-gray eyes she'd once found warm and inviting now seemed cold, calculating.
    “Your bedroom is down the hall,” she said firmly, turning and fluffing her pillow.
    His voice floated over her shoulder, low and intimate. “I forgot how beautiful you are with your hair brushed and flowing in waves down your back. I've got to tell you, though, that raggedy, oversized T-shirt you're wearing doesn't do anything for you.” He continued on a whisper, “I remember a red silk teddy I gave you and how hot you looked in it."
    Turning, she plopped on the bed and watched him walk to the middle of the room. “What do you want, Paul?"
    His hands sliced the air. “I want things back like they were. I want my family back. I want you."
    Her hands fisted and she shook her head in disbelief. He hadn't offered an apology for the pain he'd caused her. Always, whatever Paul wanted-Paul got. Not this time! She bit down hard on her lip.
    “Back like they were? I haven't changed my views on infidelity. I won't share my husband with other women."
    “You wouldn't have to.” Sitting beside her on the bed, his gray eyes suddenly looked sad. “I've changed."
    Like the air rushing from a pinpricked balloon, her anger subsided, replaced with resigned weariness. She hoped he had changed. For Matt's sake and her own, she needed to make peace with the past. “I hope that's true. I'm glad you can spend time with our son. Don't treat him like something you pay attention to when it's convenient for you."
    He nodded. “I won't.” Pausing, he touched her hand. “Do you remember how good the sex was between us? How often you came apart in my arms and screamed my name over and over again?"
    Her face heated with embarrassment and anger at how quickly he'd turned the conversation from their son to his solution to everything-sex. She also noticed Paul didn't call it ‘lovemaking', or remember that she'd failed to elicit the same excitement in him. Another reason he said he ran around. “I haven't forgotten a thing. You're the one who did that."
    “I know I hurt you very badly. Matt isn't the only one I'd like to make things up to,” he whispered. “I'd like to prove I've changed, court you again, and ask you to remarry me. I've missed you, Angel."
    Without warning, he pulled her into his arms and tried to kiss her. The weight of his body pressed her back into the comforter, squeezing the air from her lungs. Wisps of cottony down rose beside her face. She moved her head from side to side evading the touch of his mouth on hers. His lips rained sloppy kisses onto her cheeks. Her heart beat faster when she heard his heavy breathing. Panic set in. She pushed on his chest. “No, dammit!"
    At last he got the message. He stopped and moved away from her. Resting on his elbows, he studied her. She gulped air.
    “I'm sorry. When Grace said you wanted me here for Christmas, and you had been waiting for me, I jumped to the wrong conclusions."
    Her body stiffened. “You certainly did. I should have insisted that you leave when you first stepped into my bedroom. Tomorrow morning, find somewhere else to stay that's near the house so you can spend time with Matt while you're here."
    “Hey, wait a second.” He sighed and rose from the bed. “I'm sorry. I read something in your reactions because I wanted-hoped it was there. I'm trying to reach you, but I realize now that I'm pushing you away by moving too fast.” He closed his eyes.
    “You're not listening to me, Paul. Don't try anything like that again. And don't ever come into my bedroom uninvited."
    “What a pity. It could be so good between us again if you'd only let me love you."
    “You don't know the meaning of the word."
    “Yes I do. It's the way I feel about you now.” Walking toward the door, he glanced over his shoulder.
    “You had no right to try what you did,” she said.
    “I know. I wanted everything like it was before. I'm a fool for thinking you hadn't changed."
    “Yes, you are. We're divorced. For Matt's sake, let's try and get through Christmas."
    He nodded. “I'm really sorry. Whatever boundaries you set, I'll honor. Goodnight, Katherine."
    Angry and disconcerted, she paced the length of the room, talking out loud to herself. “Am I supposed to believe him because he says he's changed? Did he really think I'd swoon when he kissed me?” She spun around and walked back across the room. He obviously thought her still that naïve girl he'd married-the virginal bride he had to teach how to make love. That girl died the day he destroyed her illusions about herself and their marriage.
    Yes, he'd killed her innocence, but he was Matt's father. And maybe he had changed. He certainly would not have admitted fault or accepted any responsibility for doing something wrong in the past, but a moment ago he seemed conciliatory-even reasonable. That was not the Paul she knew.
    Pausing at the vanity, she lifted her hand and touched her face, her mind whirling. She knew that encouraging him to have a relationship with his son didn't mean she needed to have one with Paul, too.
    She bit her lower lip hard. She could barely stand to be around the man but the only kisses she wanted were from Jared. It was his face, his touch, his voice that she had heard in those twilight moments between sleep and dreams in the past few nights.
    For Matt's sake, she hoped Paul had changed. But for her sake, she wished he had never come back.

Chapter Six

    A sudden repeated pinging interrupted Katherine's thoughts. What the hell was causing that noise? Rushing to the window, she pushed the curtains aside and jumped when a barrage of pebbles bombarded the glass. She unlocked the window and pushed it open.
    As she stared into the darkness, a figure strode forward. Blond hair, sprinkled with auburn gleamed in the moonlight. Speak of the devil, she smiled without thinking. “Jared, what are you doing down there?"
    “Making an absolute fool of myself.” He dropped a handful of pebbles back into the flowerbed. “I need to talk to you.” Wiping his hands on his coat, he moved to the lamppost and pointed to the oak. “I'll climb up."
    Her jaw dropped. “I hope you realize how absurd it is for a grown man to climb a fifteen foot tree to talk to a woman."
    He chuckled. “Yeah. Well, I told you I was about to make a fool of myself."
    Make a fool of himself? Over her? An unexpected smile tugged at the corners of her lips. First he's John Wayne, taking over putting the lights on the house, now he's Romeo. “Are you crazy?"
    He cocked his head to one side. “That's the second time you've asked me that."
    “I'm worried you'll fall."
    The lamplight illuminated a wry smile. “Careful, someone might think you actually care what happens to this neck of mine."
    “Who me?” Maybe she should let him try to climb up the side of the house, and fall and break his neck. It would serve him right. Whoa, he had shown exceptional prowess in climbing that roof yesterday, and if he made it up, neck intact, he'd be standing in the middle of her bedroom… sitting on her bed, while they talked. She swallowed hard, tugging at the hem of her nightshirt. “Hold on, I'll come down."
    He held both hands up. “Oh, no, you don't. And that's not debatable, Katherine. I can't possibly catch you when you fall."
    She laughed. “I have no intention of climbing out the window. Meet me at the back door. We can talk in the kitchen."
    Realizing she was actually running to meet him like some adolescent schoolgirl, she slowed her pace. Determined not to act like other women, who fell all over him, she clamped down on her feelings, turned the teakettle on, unlocked the back door and waited for him.
    A furrowed brow etched his forehead when he entered the kitchen. “I left my hammer in your garage."
    She blinked in amazement. “What? You came here in the middle of the night for a hammer?"
    Shifting his weight from one foot to another, he stared down at the floor. “It's a very important hammer."
    She folded her arms and lifted an eyebrow. “Okay, Counselor, I'll bite. Why is it so important?"
    His gaze rose to the table, as if mesmerized by the elephant shaped place mats. “It belonged to… Aunt Harriet."
    “I see.” She leaned her backside against the sink; arms still crossed and fought an inner smile. The discomfort on his face when he looked up at her was so comical she couldn't resist baiting him a little while longer. After all the discomfort he had caused her on the roof, not to mention the dance floor, he seemed due a little himself. “Hammering something, is that all you're thinking about? Why couldn't it wait until morning?"
    He stared at her blank-faced, but for the rosy blush creeping up, signaling the direction of his thoughts.
    She moved closer, punctuating each question with her index finger in his muscular chest. “Your aunt never owned a hammer in her life, did she? Admit it. You simply felt worried about Matt and me. Isn't that the truth?” She shrugged. “Although for the life of me, I don't know why."
    Sheepishly, he pulled the hammer from his pocket, laid it on the table and removed his coat. “I thought you wouldn't let me in to check on you."
    His gaze roamed her body and his eyes darkened, obviously pleased with her baggy T-shirt that had seen better days. The sensual look he gave her made the toes on her bare feet curl with a pleasure she hadn't felt in ages.
    He finally lifted his head and studied her face. “I can't help staring. It's the first time I've seen your shapely legs and sexy red toenails.” He whistled softly, his gaze traveling back down her body. “You shouldn't hide them-at least not around me."
    Her face grew hot. No one had ever whistled at her.
    His arm began to rise. He's going to touch me. Inside, the rational adult shouted ‘Stop him,’ but the passionate woman inside her whispered ‘Let him,” and it was the whisper she responded to.
    He touched her face, ever so gently. His fingers gliding over her skin, as if he wanted to make sure she was real and safe. Heat drifted over her lips and cheeks, with each stroke he made. Wherever he lingered, her skin felt scorched. His gaze held hers. “I saw Paul's car parked in the drive and kept imagining all sorts of scenarios-all bad."
    The teakettle screeched and they jumped. His hand dropped to his side, and they stepped away from each other. Alarmed at the depth of response he had aroused in her, she took a deep breath, inhaling his masculine scent that swirled around her, and offered him a place at the table.
    Trying to hide her flushed face, she fumbled with the lid on the instant mocha, almost toppling the jar. She could feel his gaze on her as she prepared two mugs of coffee, set them down and seated herself across from him.
    “Thanks,” he said. He inhaled the aroma and took a large gulp. “I'm addicted to chocolate."
    “Me, too. Can't go a day without it."
    They exchanged grins. His brow arched.
    I can't believe I said, ‘I can't go a day without it'-not IT-I meant chocolate.
    As if he read her thoughts, he said, “Relax. I knew what you meant."
    She wrapped her hands around her cup. “What's the most chocolate you've eaten in one day?"
    “An entire box of chocolate chip cookies.” He leaned back in his chair, leisurely crossing his long legs. “I had a particularly bad court case and couldn't stop eating them."
    “Uh huh,” she said, moving her gaze down his relaxed length, stopping at his scuffed cowboy boots. She'd forgotten how enjoyable the simple act of sitting in a kitchen talking with a man could be-and how stimulating.
    He took another gulp. “And you?"
    “A huge tub of chocolate mint ice cream-my favorite stash. I was carrying Matt so I had a good excuse.” She sipped her coffee. “Not that I really needed one, but people don't understand how someone could love chocolate that much, do they?"
    He shook his head. They grinned at one another again, and their smiles faded as his gaze captured and held hers.
    She swallowed hard, noting his sober expression.
    “Katherine, I grew concerned about you because of your reaction when Paul first arrived. I began to wonder if you and Matt should be in the same room with him."
    Following a sip, she assured Jared his worries were unfounded. “Paul isn't the violent type."
    “What type is he?"
    Before she could answer, the harsh sound of Jared plunking his cup down caught her full attention. He rammed both hands through his hair and leaned forward, his elbows splayed across the table. She lifted her brow at his slightly crazed and very intense expression. If this is what he looked like when he argued a case before a jury, no wonder he'd always won. He'd frighten any opposition clear into the next state. “Earlier tonight when you frowned at Paul, he ignored you and did whatever he damned well pleased. Is he the type of man who respects a woman's right to say no?"
    She nibbled at her lower lip, remembering when Paul put his arm around her waist and pulled her into him. “Paul isn't used to having women say ‘No'.” Her face heated. “And he doesn't say no to them either. That's the trouble. He doesn't believe in monogamy-even when he's married."
    “Are you saying he ran around on you?"
    She nodded.
    He shook his head and cursed. “He's a fool. If he starts crowding you and you object, let me know."
    She lifted her chin. “That won't be necessary. I can handle Paul. I did it once before, remember?"
    His jaw muscles worked.
    “It isn't your problem. It's mine. And that's not debatable, Jared Randall.” She tried to take some of the sting out of the words, “But I do thank you for at least being concerned. I just need to get through the holidays, that's all."
    Thinking of the crowding that Paul had tried tonight, she didn't want any more trouble-from anyone. A little advanced planning and determination on her part would make sure that what happened with Paul didn't happen again. And Paul said he would abide by whatever boundaries she set, so the problem would not arise again.
    Jared's deep-blue gaze clouded with concern and roamed her face. “One thing's still bothering me. Why did Grace blurt out all those lies about you and Paul?"
    She looked up at the ceiling.
    “Don't try and deny they were lies. I'm an attorney, remember? I pride myself in reading people's body language.” He smiled warmly. “And I read you like an open book."
    “I felt forced to lie about why we divorced. Dad was too ill.” She returned her gaze to his when he took her hands. “After that, I felt ashamed and tried to keep it private. No one knows except Paul-and now you."
    “Dammit, you don't have anything to be ashamed of.” He released her hands. “Does Grace like Paul?"
    Her mouth rounded. “Why would you ask a thing like that?"
    “The venomous looks Grace shot his way. Paul never saw them, but I did. Loud and clear."
    Katherine shook her head, feeling like she'd taken the witness stand. “He's the only man my mother didn't fix me up with. Maybe that's why I fell for him. After she met him, she tried to talk me out of marrying so quickly. Mother warned me that he seemed self-centered."
    “What's keeping you from telling Grace the truth now? Is part of it the fact you'd have to eat crow and admit Grace had been right about Paul?” he asked.
    Guilt nagged her conscious. She hesitated, hating to admit it to herself. “Maybe,” she twisted a strand of hair around her finger. Butterflies swam upstream in her stomach. “I don't like your implications. I plan on telling her the truth."
    “Uh huh,” he said, fixing her with a stare.
    “Don't give me that I-don't-believe-you look, Counselor. I do plan on telling her-eventually.” She grew silent. “But now's a bad time. She's recovering from surgery and missing my father. Everything's happening too fast with Paul popping up out of nowhere like he did."
    “Planning to do something and doing it isn't the same thing. You need to tell Grace everything right away. She has a right to know the truth. Despite the fact she's manipulative at times, she's really on your side."
    Katherine nodded. Hell, she knew that.
    “Paul doesn't act like a man who dropped by casually to see his son for Christmas. Otherwise, he'd have phoned you and arranged for a day and time he could pick Matt up. He's here to see you."
    Inhaling and exhaling an exasperated breath, she answered, “I know. He says he's changed."
    “Do you think he has?"
    She shrugged. “Maybe, but it takes time to trust a person again-at least for me it does. I keep feeling guilty about Matt. He's been hurt so badly by this divorce. His father has cancelled so many visits and ignored him for so long."
    “What if Paul has changed?” He took her hand in his again.
    She sighed. “I need to bury the hatchet and be semi-friends with Paul, but I don't want him back in my bed, if that's what you are asking me. I'm going to do what's best for Matt in the long run. That's the only thing I know for sure."
    He ran the pad of his thumb over her hand and leaned closer. “I want you to know I'm your friend.” He pointed to the hammer and a flash of humor flickered in his eyes. “I'm even willing to make a first class fool of myself."
    Her breath caught at the innocent, boyish expression on his face. No wonder women find him irresistible. He's like a big, cuddly bear. “I think you'd better define what you mean by ‘friends', before I agree to anything concerning you and me.” She pulled her hand from his. Or, maybe he's really the sly, cunning, Big Bad Wolf.
    He smiled a slow, blatantly sexual smile, but his head shook from side to side in all innocence. “There you go again-distrusting me and the degree of closeness and intimacy I mean for us to share. You think I go around ravishing and pillaging every beautiful woman I see? Scout's honor, I don't."
    Crossing her arms, she stared at him. Not this one, you don't. “You were never a Scout in your life, were you?"
    He chuckled. “No, but I dated a Girl Scout Den Leader. Does that count?” He laughed. “Lighten up. What are you so afraid of, Katherine?"
    “Mr. Randall.” They spun around in their chairs to find a pajama-clad Matt ambling into the kitchen, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
    “What are you doing out of bed?” Katherine asked, relieved at the interruption.
    “I got thirsty.” He stared at his bare feet.
    Katherine stood, gathered Matt into her arms and poured him some water. She kissed him on the cheek. “Did you have another bad dream?"
    “Uh huh,” he whispered. “Can I sit with Mr. Randall?"
    What should she do about this growing attachment Matt continued to develop for Jared? If he thought he could get to the mother through the son, he'd better think again. She passed Matt to Jared, and he held Matt on his lap. She guessed it wouldn't hurt for them to hang around some until she and Matt returned to Sugar Land after Christmas.
    “How about a bowl of chocolate mint ice cream, pal? I bet your mother has buckets of it stashed away."
    “You know, I do have a tiny bit in the freezer.” Katherine prepared a double-decker serving for everyone, sat down at the table and watched. They remained silent except for an occasional spoon clanging against a bowl. Although they had just returned from a huge dinner a few hours ago, Matt and Jared inhaled their helpings. Men! And boys. Matt finished and looked sticky with ice cream puddles on his mouth, hands and arms. She took a wet rag and cleaned him up, smiling down at his sleepy face. “Time for you to go back to bed, young man."
    “Can Mr. Randall tuck me in?"
    Before Katherine could answer, Jared lifted her son into his arms and headed toward the stairs. She could hear Matt whispering as they went, “Will you check under my bed? There's a boogey man hiding there."
    Jared turned and winked at Katherine. “I'll be back. Matt and me gotta seek and destroy a boogey man, so he can't ever come back and scare us."
    Ten minutes later, and Katherine wondering at the banging she had heard, Jared sauntered back into the kitchen. “We had to exorcise the closets, too."
    She looked into his penetrating blue eyes. That familiar pull drew her like a warm, familiar fire on a cold night. “Thanks for doing that for Matt, and please, tell me how you did it-he thinks I don't know how to find them all. It must be a guy thing."
    “Glad to.” He explained using the hammer to bang on the bed and doorframes of his room. “See the bangs hurt the boogeyman's ears and he won't want to come back to an unwelcome place. Now for another problem, at the birthday party, Matt said he still wants to go horseback riding. I didn't want to disappoint him, so I told him spending time with his dad wouldn't stop him from going. I hope you don't mind. Paul's welcome to come, too."
    She pictured Paul sneezing and galloping his way across open fields one day, parked in the doctor's office the next. She fought back a grin. “Paul's allergic to most animals. That's why Matt couldn't have the puppy he saw in a pet store."
    “Did he ever get a puppy?"
    She shook her head, feeling ashamed she hadn't remembered he'd wanted one until now. “Matt was two-years old. At that age, they seem to want everything they see, and he wanted this beautiful collie pup. He cried when Paul said no, and Matt forgot about it ten minutes after we left the store."
    A devilish grin slowly grew on his mouth.
    The same mischievous smile spread across her face. She laughed at the thought that leaped into her mind. “We can't give a puppy to Matt for Christmas. It wouldn't be fair to Paul."
    “Why not? You're divorced, so Paul doesn't have to even get around the animal."
    “But what if Matt wants to take the puppy with him when he visits his dad?” So many ‘What ifs’ hopped around her mind like hatching fleas. What if the puppy hairs on Matt bothered his dad?
    Jared lifted his hands in surrender. “I didn't say I had all the answers. I'm giving you some reasons for doing it. Matt's almost six, I'm sure he'd appreciate the puppy even more now. It would teach him responsibility.” He winked. “Sure is tempting."
    “Yes, but I better think about it some more."
    He snapped his fingers. “I got it. When we go horseback riding, we could find out if Matt wants a puppy."
    “Okay, I'll go that far, but I still need to think about it.” Conspiring with him like this would only increase her sense of girlishness whenever Jared was around. But she wasn't a girl anymore. The woman in her knew that. Despite her attempts to stifle it, she yawned.
    Tugging her hand, he stood and headed for the door. She followed close behind him. He turned and looked down at her. “Your eyelids are drooping at half-mast, friend."
    Without warning, he lowered his head and kissed her cheek. A butterfly kiss intended from one friend to another, but her breath caught. It had been too long since she'd felt anything for a man and she was in trouble, monumental trouble, or would that be ‘manument’ trouble, particularly around this ‘friend'. She almost sighed out loud. Standing half a foot away from him, her body swayed slightly toward him, and he pulled her up against his chest. His body heat pulsed into hers, and he folded his arms around her, firmly holding her in his warm embrace. Erotic visions of them lying between sheets danced through her mind.
    If she had any illusions about what being friends with Jared would mean, they died with that innocent kiss. And she didn't believe any such thing as a harmless affair existed. Someone always got hurt. Crushed emotionally. That someone would be her, if she let it happen.
    Handing his coat and hammer to him, she reminded herself that he wasn't a forever man, only a one-night-stand man. Her pride wouldn't let her give into that sexual pull. Making love meant more to her than a cheap, casual affair.
    He stepped toward her. His breath lightly fanned her hair. “Sleep well, Katherine,” he murmured, releasing her.

* * * *

    At midnight, Jared walked home in the dark, his mind reeling. He could kick himself clear across Texas. Why had he gone to see her?
    Hell. He swore he'd never get involved with another divorced woman. Not after what happened with Shannon. Then he met Katherine, and her son Matt-so much like himself-and he'd almost weakened, almost forgotten lessons learned and burned so deep in his heart he would never be free from the pain again.
    The minute Katherine's ex stepped back into the picture on that dance floor, Jared should have said, “Adios, been there, done that,” and gotten the hell out of Dodge, for his own sanity.
    He didn't want to hear Paul had claimed he'd changed.
    He'd bet one of his big toes Paul had been the first man to make love to Katherine. And the last. But Jared had heard her faint gasp tonight and felt her lean toward him when he kissed her cheek, and friendship wasn't what he felt when he held her. Not by a long shot.
    She was lonely and it showed. Couple that information with her desire to have Paul back in their son's life, giving Matt the love and attention he needed from his father, and it added up to one thing. Katherine remarrying Paul-and soon.
    You're a fool-wanting someone you'll never have. Whoa, did he really want her? Hell yes, else why was he out here talking to himself.
    Deep inside he wished things were different.

Chapter Seven

    “You have every right to say I told you so. Paul turned out to be self-centered, and I made a mistake marrying him.” Katherine glanced at her mother, who sat beside her on the living room couch the next morning. “You tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen."
    Her mother's eyes glistened with compassion and concern. “You won't hear it from me. I'd never gloat over your getting hurt. I hoped you'd prove me wrong.” She took a deep breath and exhaled. “I really did."
    “I should have told you the truth a long time ago. Jared suggested I tell you right away."
    Katherine fingered one of the cuffs on her dress. Paul had taken Matt to Sunday School after breakfast, giving the ‘ladies’ a chance to clean up the kitchen and finish getting ready for church. It also gave her time to sit quietly with her mother and finally explain the events leading up to the divorce.
    Her mother's hazel eyes sought Katherine's. “When did you discuss Paul's infidelity with Jared?"
    The way her mother worded the question put Katherine on the defensive. It hadn't happened like that. She grabbed a cushion from the couch and hugged it on her lap. “He dropped by late last night, worried about Paul being in the house."
    Her mother's mouth rounded. “Really? He felt worried?"
    Heat flushed Katherine's face and neck. “We talked in the kitchen. Matt came down and we ate ice cream. Jared put Matt back to bed and left. That's all there was to it."
    Well, almost, if she didn't count a horseback ride they planned for Matt and an innocent kiss on the cheek that made her want more.
    Katherine looked away, but felt her mother's scrutiny.
    “I never meant to embarrass you last night. That's the gospel truth."
    “I know,” she said, reaching over to pat her mother's arm.
    Her mother angled herself on the couch to face Katherine. “If you agreed to let Paul stay here based on my big mouth, forget it."
    “I didn't. I let him stay for Matt. I found out last night that you were right. Paul wants me back.” She blushed.
    “If you don't want to encourage him, kick him out. He can still come and see Matt all he wants."
    “I already did,” she confessed.
    “Smart girl. Want to tell me what changed your mind?"
    Katherine shook her head.
    “I'm so proud of you,” her mother said.
    “Proud?” Katherine had to swallow the lump of hurt in her throat before she could get anything else out. The last thing she felt was proud; she'd failed miserably at her marriage. Her self-esteem had dropped below non-existent. And now her mother was saying she was proud? “But I lied to you and Dad for years."
    “Katherine, we're talking woman to woman. I understand why you found it necessary to lie. You did it for love, at a time when you thought we had enough of a burden to bear.” She patted Katherine's hand. “I'm sorry you carried your pain alone for so long, but I'm glad we're sharing it now."
    They sat in a companionable silence for a moment, when her mother suddenly straightened. Looking up, Katherine saw her lips pressed inward, an angry glint in her eye. “Mom?"
    “The lying rat. I wish I could have seen The Salvation Army load your bedroom set and every stitch of Paul's clothes. There's nothing quite as sweet as a woman giving a low-down cheater a taste of well deserved revenge."
    Katherine's eyebrows shot up. “Dad?"
    A blush rode up her mother's neck. “Oh, heavens, no. That wasn't coming from personal experience. My beautician told me how much pure pleasure she got from seeing a load of horse manure she'd bought delivered and dumped in her husband's Lexus. She showed me a picture she took when he came to pick up the car.” Her mother chuckled. “I believe she said, ‘Have at it,’ and handed him a shovel with a big red bow tied to the handle."
    Wish I'd thought of that. Tightening her headband, Katherine pushed a stray curl away from her face. “When my business flight got cancelled, and I walked into our bedroom and heard the two of them moaning under the covers like cats in heat, I lost it. After they dressed, Paul threw some things in a suitcase, and they drove away without saying a word."
    “Leaving you to fume?"
    She clenched her hand and hit the cushion with a thud. “I wanted to burn every damn thing he left, but the practical side of me kept saying no. Somehow, it seemed more fitting for people on the streets to have Paul's impeccable designer clothes."
    “Sounds fair. Bet he was fit to be hog tied when he came back."
    “He stayed gone a week.” The coward. She took a deep breath and threw the cushion on the couch. “When he returned, he accused me of lying about giving his things away. He barged into the house and searched it from top to bottom. In his haste to leave, he left his favorite watch in the bureau."
    Katherine sighed and went on. “I handed him my divorce attorney's business card. He said some pretty nasty things before he stormed out. The rest you already know."
    Her mother raised one brow. “What nasty things?"
    A tear rolled down Katherine's cheek, remembering the dirty remark he made about the loss of her virginity to him. “He said he never loved me, and only married me to please his parents."
    Her mother grabbed the box of tissues from the table. After taking one she placed it beside them. Taking one out, she held it hesitantly under Katherine's streaming nose, her words gentle. “I hate to see you hurt. I'm not defending the two-timer, but are you sure it wasn't his anger slashing you?"
    Taking the tissue from her mother, she wiped her nose and shook her head. “I remember the financial analysis and investment strategy I prepared for his family long before I met Paul. How impressed his parents were with my recommendations as their investment counselor. Paul said his parents pushed him into dating me. They didn't approve of the women he dated and hoped his marrying me would settle him down. We would make a good match according to his parents. He'd do anything to please them. Boy, was I a fool. Plain and simple."
    Her mother's lips pursed. “He was the fool, not you. You're never a fool for loving someone."
    She didn't agree. Falling for the first man she felt sexually attracted to made her the fool. He'd used her and betrayed her. Becoming another notch on Jared's bedpost would push her to the status of a first class fool. Hell, she'd deserve a trophy. She shuddered and looked at her mother. “The only good thing to come out of my marriage is Matt. I'll never regret having him."
    Her mother smiled.
    “At least I've learned to play it safe from now on."
    A bubbling laugh erupted from her mother. “Safe? You have two males to contend with-and the way I see it, retreating from either one of them is no longer an option."
    Katherine's brows narrowed. “You're joking."
    “Afraid not. You said yourself Paul's determined to prove he's changed and get his family back. If he has changed, you'll be forever joined at the hip because of Matt. Paul will always be around."
    She reached over and touched Katherine's face. “No matter what, even if he hasn't changed, you have to let go of your rotten past-for yourself, Katherine. All this animosity hurts you-not him."
    “I know,” she whispered.
    She thought about the one question her mother had neglected to ask. Why had Paul suddenly shown up now to declare his love? A niggling little voice kept asking, "What's he really after?” She shook her head, amazed at herself. Maybe he really did want her back. Maybe it was her own lack of self-esteem making her doubt his motives. That, or two years of pent-up anger and hurt.
    She wiped her nose one last time and balled the tissue in her palm, offering her mother a shaky smile. “Why did you invite him to stay at the house?"
    Her mother coughed. “At the time, I thought you still loved the creep. I knew he wouldn't leave you alone, whether he was here, or on the moon. You knew the minute he walked onto the dance floor you'd have to stand up to him this Christmas-because of Matt. No hiding."
    She frowned and nodded. “All right. I agree. You said I had to contend with two men. Who's the second man?"
    “Jared, of course,” her mother replied, smiling mischievously
    Katherine let out an exasperated breath. She stared at her mother in disbelief.
    “Don't look at me like that. You had to contend with Jared the minute Paul returned and set foot in this house."
    The clock chimed and her mother turned to look at it. “Gracious, if we don't head to church, we'll be late. How do you like my new outfit?"
    Katherine bit down on her impatience. She reluctantly glanced at her mother's rust colored dress and jacket with a bright Christmas wreath pin perched on the lapel. The familiar strand of pearls, a gift from her groom on their wedding day, hung loosely around her neck. “It's very elegant."
    “Oh, I forgot to tell you, I made all the phone calls Saturday, while you and Matt shopped at the mall. People are all set for our tree-trimming party Tuesday."
    They stood and Katherine grabbed their purses on the way out the door. If her mother thought she could change the subject indefinitely, she better think again. “What has Paul got to do with Jared?"
    Her mother reached for the doorknob, turned and paused. “Don't you know? I thought you'd have figured out that one infallible weakness of Jared after him rescuing you."
    She squinted and angled her head to the side. “What are you talking about?"
    “You know Mrs. Taylor called Jared to get you off that roof because she's a matchmaker, worse than me."
    Katherine stared. “Jared's infallible weakness is that Mrs. Taylor is a matchmaker?"
    Her mother laughed. “No. It's that he's a savior."
    Katherine's face fell. “So now he's Jesus-like, I'd never have guess that one, Mom."
    Now the smile stretched from end to end. “Not of the world, Katherine. Of you."
    “What?"
    “There are some kinds of men-"
    “I know about those kinds,” she grumbled, wrenching open the door and waiting for her mother to pass through.
    “You know about men like Paul, Katherine. You know nothing about a man like Jared. He's the kind of man who, if he thinks you're in danger, well-he'll be there. It's almost a Superman complex."
    Great! First he's John Wayne, next he'd Romeo, now Superman. Why don't we start him in therapy with a male Sybil complex, or me for even thinking like this.
    “Jared and I are friends. I'll talk to him and make sure he understands that I don't need or want his help."
    “You do that, dear.” Her mother gave her an angelic look of innocence. “And good luck."

* * * *

    “I hope you didn't mind my taking Matt to lunch after church instead of coming here and eating with you and Grace,” Paul said. He shrugged out of his jacket, placed it on the back of a chair and sat on the oak barstool at the kitchen counter. “We had a good time at the pizza parlor. Matt enjoyed playing games."
    Katherine dried the last dish and put it away. She couldn't imagine impeccable Paul, who now wore a small greasy palm print on his left sleeve, really enjoying himself in the midst of kid-induced chaos. But she wanted to encourage him to spend time with Matt. “I'm glad the two of you went out. Matt needs a day with his father every once in awhile."
    “I realize that. I'll do better.” He propped his elbows on the counter and rested his chin in his hands. “I want to say this before anyone suddenly pops into the kitchen."
    She lifted her eyebrows slightly.
    Paul sighed and dragged his fingers through his hair. “About last night, my coming on to you like some overheated gorilla. I apologize to you again.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a wrapped present and handed it to her. “To punctuate the apology."
    She fingered the paper, tore the tissue and removed the velvet box, almost afraid to look as she opened the lid. Inside lay a pear-shaped emerald pendant.
    “The color of your eyes,” Paul whispered huskily.
    She bit the inside of her cheek. “I can't accept this."
    “Katherine, it's my way of saying what happened last night was a huge mistake, and it won't happen again. Nothing more. I wish you'd accept it.” He stood and walked toward her. “It's made for you. I took a photo and the jeweler and I matched the shade of the gem to your exact eye color,” he said.
    The stone felt cold to her touch. “I still don't feel right accepting it."
    “I do.” He paused, moved back to the barstool at the counter and watched her carefully.
    She closed the case. “I'm not doing this to hurt you. I need to make a point. Maybe you'll listen to me this time.” She reached across the counter and handed the gift back to him.
    A hint of anger flashed in his eyes before glazing over with ice. He took the gift box, but continued to look at her.
    “I want you to really think about the things you do that hurt other people, and know expensive presents, sex, and saying ‘I'm sorry’ won't work. You hurt both Matt and me."
    The muscles in his jaw clenched. “I know.” He glanced at the box he held and shoved it into his pocket. “You're the first woman to ever refuse my gift. The only one I'd let do that. I'm trying, Katherine. I really am trying to prove I've changed."
    “I hope so, because if you don't really mean it this time, I'm asking you to walk away. I won't see Matt hurt again."
    Standing, he moved to her side. “I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere.” He smiled, the flash of anger of a moment ago completely gone. “Matt's down for a nap. I think I'll take him to a movie when he gets up."
    “A movie?” She hadn't been to a movie in ages.
    “You could tag along. You, Matt and me. Let Matt see us as friends."
    She hesitated, uncertain. She didn't want to encourage Paul.
    “I'll buy you two boxes of chocolate-covered-raisins."
    She looked up again. Her mouth rounded. “You remembered?"
    “We have a history, Katherine."
    Her hand clenched involuntarily into a fist below the level of the counter. A history. “Including infidelity."
    Some fleeting emotion crossed Paul's face, which she interpreted as regret. He bowed his head briefly and spoke. “I'm sorry about that particular history. In this case, it won't repeat itself."
    She jerked her chin up. “Won't it? And the other history we have, do you remember? When you returned one week later, the crude remarks you made about-my lack of experience, and-"
    “Not loving you, and marrying you only to please my parents,” he finished for her. “I'll spend the rest of my life wishing I'd never hurt you. Okay, I'll admit it, I lied. I know I screwed us up,” Paul lifted his head a little, “but the time we were married wasn't all bad-was it?"
    She glanced down at the floor. “No, not all of it, at least not in the beginning."
    “Katherine, give us a chance again."
    She gnawed on her lower lip lightly, considering his words.
    “I don't expect overnight miracles. All I'm asking is for you to think about it,” he whispered.
    She inhaled one breath and held it for a good ten seconds. He waited. She shook her head. “No. I can't think about it."

* * * *

    Katherine double-checked the pantry for the baking ingredients she needed. Everyone would bring a covered dish to the party on Tuesday, but she wanted to make a variety of cookies for her contribution as well as some to hang on the tree. “Darn,” she said, adding another item to the list.
    “Okay, cook,” Paul said, entering the kitchen, “what are we missing?” He walked over and untied her apron, watching it float to the floor.
    She laughed. Except for that one kiss in her bedroom, he had been thoughtful and careful not to invade her space again.
    When she bent to retrieve the apron from the floor, he grabbed her list from the kitchen counter. His eyes scanned it, focusing in on one item.
    “This what you said ‘darn’ about?” he asked, pointing.
    She rolled her eyes. “Yes. I have enough ingredients for some of the cookies, but not all of them."
    He stuffed the paper into his pocket. “I'll go get these for you. Consider it done. Anything else you need to add before I leave on my mission?"
    She widened her eyes in surprise. “You're going to a grocery store? You've never walked inside one in your life."
    “Is that where you buy these things?” His grin was infectious, and she shook her head, smiling back at him. “It can't be that dangerous. Customers go in and come out alive every day."
    She decided not to tell him where the store actually was. His finding it would be a true test of his commitment to her Christmas cookies. She turned back to her pile of ingredients.
    After she and Matt had dinner, she craned her head to check the clock, wondering if she would have to send out a search party for Paul. Or maybe make a poster. Lost, one Harvard attorney, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. A twenty-five minute trip had now taken him almost two hours.
    She sighed, turned the dial to preheat the oven and removed the double batch of chilled Christmas cookie dough from the refrigerator.
    “They ready to roll out and cut?” Matt asked, surrounded at the table by assorted cookie cutters, a wreath in his left hand and a star poised in his right.
    His excited glow warmed her. She set the bowl beside two large floured cutting boards. He laid his cookie cutters on the table and she handed him a blob of dough. Wasting no time, he plopped it down, grabbed the rolling pin and concentrated hard on flouring and rolling out his first masterpiece.
    When he had cut the last one out and placed it on the baking sheet, he floured the board again, reached for a second ball and rolled it out. She chuckled. Small lumps of dough stuck not only to the metal cookie cutters, but also to his chubby fingers, the side of his mouth, and a tendril of hair slipping over his forehead.
    Katherine heard footsteps at the back door.
    “About time you returned, Paul,” she said as she snatched it open.
    “Wrong man,” Jared said, with a strained smile.
    Matt, cookie cutter in hand, ran to him. “Mr. Randall, you're just in time! We're making Christmas cookies for the party.” He handed Jared a tree shaped cutter caked with drying batter.
    Katherine and Jared exchanged an amused glance. He knelt in front of Matt, tugging the putty-like bulbs from his hair. “I came to fix the roof for your grandma. Afraid I wouldn't know what to do with one of these.” Jared handed the cutter back to Matt and stood.
    Matt's eyebrows rose. “You and your mom never made cookies?"
    Shifting from one booted foot to another, Jared glanced at the ground, almost like he was hunting the words to say. When he looked back up, Katherine saw him swallow hard before he answered. “She got sick a lot, so she couldn't."
    “As Grandpa would say, ‘no time like presents’ or somethin’ like that. Let's make some now.” Matt's small hand took Jared's large hand and pulled him toward the kitchen table. “See. It's ready to cut when you roll it flat.” Matt took a star shape, pressed it into the dough, captured it, and placed it onto a sprayed cookie sheet beside them. He looked up with a triumphant grin. “You make a hole to hang it on the tree. It's easy, but you got to eat fast when they get cooked, ‘cause as soon as they're decorated Mom freezes ‘em.” He pointed to the assorted icings and candies lined up like soldiers in a parade around the table.
    Katherine noticed the high color that crept into Jared's face, and she moved beside them. “Maybe the roof repair can wait. Besides you'll need your ‘official helper’ to supervise your work.” Matt agreed, and she quickly handed Jared a couple of cookie cutters.
    Jared backed away from the table full of pink icings and dainty candies. “I don't want to bother anyone. Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
    “Nonsense. My mother's shopping with some of the neighbors, and Paul's lost at some grocery store. Assuming he recognized one when he saw it."
    His eyebrows knitted together. “You're kidding."
    She shook her head. “Nope, he's never been inside one in his entire life. So far, his twenty-five minute trip has taken over two hours. Apparently, he's lost. So, dig in,” she said, gesturing to the table.
    Jared paused, and that was all Matt needed. He dragged Jared down into the chair beside him and began explaining the intricacies of cookie decorating. Moving to the counter, she began making the dough for her thumbprint cookies. She smiled when Matt stopped to help Jared occasionally, making sure everything went smoothly with him. Katherine set her bowl of dough in the refrigerator as they filled the last baking sheet.
    “Wasn't that fun?” Matt asked Jared.
    He grinned and held his hands up. “Yes, but we're covered in flour.” Both sets of eyes dropped to stare at the table, which looked like a snow slope. Jared looked up again, a corner of his mouth crooked up. “Sorry."
    Katherine shook her head grinning. “Don't worry about it.” She moved aside to let them wash up at the sink. “You and Matt can repair the roof leak, while I bake these batches and clean up this cookie-hazard area. I'll call you when they're done."

* * * *

    Jared placed the extension ladder from the garage against the side of the house. “How's it going with your dad?” he asked Matt, who stood staring up at him as he stepped onto the first rung.
    “He took me for pizza and a movie after church."
    Jared nodded and moved up another step, hooking his work belt around his waist as he climbed. “Did you have a good time?"
    He nodded. “Uh-huh."
    “Sounds like he's trying to be a good dad."
    He waited for some affirmation, and when it failed to come, Jared descended the ladder. Bending to Matt's level, Jared saw the same sad look he'd seen the first time he'd met the boy. “Hey, you okay? Anything I can help with?"
    “I got money for helping Mom. Will you take me shopping?"
    “I'll have to check with your mom first. If it's okay with her, I will. You going to buy a present for your dad, too?"
    “Do I gotta?"
    “I think you might feel bad, him getting you one, and you not having one for him."
    Matt glanced at the ground. “If I gotta, I will."
    Jared nodded. “I think you should."
    Staring at him, the boy looked deep in thought.
    His soft, “Okay,” almost tore Jared's heart out.
    “Jared, you going back on Grace's roof?” his friend Thomas yelled from the sidewalk.
    “She's got a roof leak."
    “Be careful up there."
    “Sure thing.” Jared waved as Thomas walked by.
    Matt touched his arm and frowned. “You think Santa's too old?"
    “What makes you ask that?"
    “He's mixed up. My mom's supposed to get a date for Christmas. All she's done is be with Dad. I told Santa I wanted a new dad.” He peeked up. “You think he's got mixed up?"
    Jared fought a grin. “I think you'll have to trust him for a little while longer, pal. He's working on it."
    He folded his arms. “You sure?"
    “I give you my word, he's working really hard on getting that date.” And now that he knows you're worried, he'll work harder.

* * * *

    An hour later, Katherine removed the last batch of cookies from the oven. She lifted the cookies with an egg turner, laid them on a rack to cool, opened the back door and yelled, “They're done."
    Jared and Matt stood on the doorstep, Jared's hand outstretched to turn the knob. Both winced at the loud call.
    “Perfect. We finished repairing the roof,” Jared yelled back, while Matt followed him into the kitchen like a shadow. They washed their hands at the sink again. In a normal tone he continued, “You had some storm damage, loose shingles."
    “I know. That's what I fell on the other day.” She shook her head. “You had your mind made up that I had vertigo. Sorry about yelling at you when you were so close."
    He half-turned, his hands rising in a pose of self-defense. “Okay, okay. Truce. I want to eat those cookies-not dodge them."
    “We got to decorate,” Matt said, grabbing candy and green icing. He spread it on top of his cookie Christmas tree, and leaned over to Jared. “Remember, do ‘em and eat fast."
    Jared popped a freshly decorated wreath into his mouth. He took a deep breath. “Nothing smells better than this kitchen.” He glanced over at Katherine and winked. “Well, I stand corrected. I can think of one thing that beats it, hands down."
    “What?” Matt asked.
    Her face heated as she immediately chimed in. “Chocolate."
    “Quick recovery,” Jared said with a chuckle.
    “Anyone for chocolate milk?” she asked, passing out glasses and filling them.
    Her gaze moved to Jared. He took a sip of milk. “I can't go a day without it,” he teased, invoking her unintentional double entendre from last night. “Matt asked me to take him Christmas shopping. We'll go to the local mall. Is that okay?” he asked, setting the glass down.
    Matt pushed his nose between them and peered up at her. “I gotta get something for Dad, so can Jared take me, please?” He steepled his hands into a pretty-please.
    She nodded her head. “Yes."
    Matt started to chatter about all the presents he wanted for Christmas. Katherine glanced at Jared and found him watching her with that close scrutiny that should make her want to throttle him, but instead sent little fissures of warmth across her belly. In an effort to avoid his gaze, she looked down at her watch, surprised to find another two hours had passed. She hadn't even noticed the time passing. Disconcerted, she lifted her head to find Jared still watching her. “Did everyone get enough cookies?"
    “Thanks. I've had plenty,” Jared said.
    “Me, too.” Matt said. He yammered on in the background, squishing jellied candy into small, flat pancakes between his fingertips, which looked like they'd been dyed bright shades of red and green.
    “I'll leave a dozen out to eat later on.” She filled plastic containers with the remainder and placed them into the freezer. She tossed another glance at Jared. “Matt, please wash your hands upstairs and pick out a story for me to read to you. I'll be up in a few minutes to run your bath."
    She turned to Jared as she finished drying her hands after Matt sped up the stairs. “He has ten dollars to shop with. I hope you don't mind keeping up with what he spends. I'll reimburse you.
    “That won't be necessary. This is something I want to do for Matt. It has nothing to do with you."
    About to argue, she shrugged instead. She couldn't argue with every man she encountered over every little thing. “Have it your way. Thanks. I wrote down a few small items to consider for my mother and included the sizes.” She handed him the paper. His hand touched hers, his thumb playing havoc with her concentration as it gently rubbed back and forth across her index finger.
    “What do you want for Christmas, Katherine?"
    She pulled her hand back, annoyed to find it trembling. “Nothing special. Anything Matt picks out will be great.” She picked up a pen and paper. “I'll write my glove and belt sizes down."
    He shook his head, his eyes darkening. “I know your size-top to bottom."
    A chill danced up her spine. Her breathing quickened as she felt the sensual pull of her awareness of him. The pen clattered to the floor. Jared retrieved it for her.
    “Tell Matt I'll pick him up tomorrow morning around nine, if that's okay.” He winked and sneaked another cookie before heading for the door.
    “That's fine.” She watched him leave, her palm pressed against the countertop for support, her knees trembling. She slid down onto a stool, picked up a dishtowel and twisted it in her hands. She stared at the chaos of frosting and candy on the table, seeing nothing but Jared's slow smile.
    Five minutes later, she heard a car pull into the driveway. She peeked out the window and recognized Paul's Porsche. He removed the tarp from his trunk and covered his ‘baby'.
    Well, he finally found his way back.
    “Who was that man leaving the house as I drove up?” Paul asked entering the kitchen.
    “Jared Randall."
    He froze, holding his car keys in mid-air. “What was he doing here?"
    She threw the twisted towel on the table. “Fixing a roof leak.” Trying to change the subject and hopefully avoid another fight, she asked with a teasing tone, “Did you get lost?"
    “Very funny. I stopped at the nursery and bought poinsettias for the fireplace."
    “Hmmm,” she said doubtfully.
    He moved to face her. “Katherine, I want you to stay away from that man."
    “You do?” she asked, annoyed at him for trying to change the subject from his own behavior. She swiped a wet rag across the table none too gently.
    “Yes, I do. I checked him out in town. He has a very bad reputation as a womanizer."
    She paused, looking him up and down. “Takes one to know one."
    He nodded vehemently. “That's right. I used to be exactly like Jared Randall. Stay away from him. He's no good, Katherine."
    She tilted her head to the side and considered him in silence.
    After a moment, he raked a hand through his hair. “Babe, he's way out of your league. He'll have you flat on your back before you can count to three."
    Her breathing became short and rapid. Paul had spoken to her like this only once before, but it was not a warning. It was an attack. And even two years later, his hateful, vile words still screamed inside her mind: “I had you flat on your back before I could count to three, Mrs. Cahill.” Afterwards, he'd walked out with the other woman.
    The sound of her palm connecting with his face sounded like thunder.

Chapter Eight

    Katherine couldn't believe Paul had come over to see Matt so early the next morning. Her mother seemed to derive enjoyment from Paul's arrogant mood at the breakfast table. Looking at him over a forkful of pancakes, Katherine frowned. She would like to do what her mother had suggested the minute he showed up-toss him out the backdoor-headfirst.
    “What do you mean Mr. Randall's taking you to buy Christmas presents?” Paul asked Matt. Without waiting for a reply, he turned to her, his voice rising in volume. “You want to explain?"
    She opened her mouth then closed it around the delicious pancakes. Withdrawing the fork, she took her time savoring the rich maple taste. “I'm sorry,” she murmured with a bright smile, “were you yelling something at me?” She sipped her coffee.
    His steel-gray eyes showed irritation, but he lowered his voice to a reasonable decibel level. “Would you please tell me why Matt is going Christmas shopping with Jared Randall?"
    Putting her cup down, she glanced at Matt, who shoved the last bite of ham into his mouth. She smiled at him. “Why don't you brush your teeth, while your dad and I discuss a few things? I laid clothes on the bed for you to wear. I'll be up soon to help with the buttons."
    Wearing what could have passed for a smirk on her lips, her mother forked another pancake from the stack while Matt left the table and trotted up the stairs.
    Paul's gaze followed Matt and grimaced. “I should have waited until he was out of earshot."
    Katherine nodded. “Matt wants to go with Jared."
    Paul viciously sliced his ham with his knife, grating the metal against the china plate. “The boy's six-years-old, for Pete's sake. Stop babying him. He needs to learn he can't have what he wants all the time.” Pushing and slicing again, his knife sailed and landed beside her plate.
    She shoved her shoulder blades back and took a deep breath. “Matt's five. He'll be six January eleventh. And I think you've already taught him he can't have what he wants every time you cancelled visits.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “Jared's taking Matt to the nearby mall to buy a few gifts, including a present for you."
    His jaw tightened and the angles of his cheekbones sharpened. He tossed his fork and napkin onto the plate, reached into his pocket and withdrew his money clip. “For Matt,” he said, taking a deep breath and throwing a fifty-dollar bill in front of her.
    Picking up the money, she moved it back over to Paul's place mat. “That won't be necessary."
    His lips compressed into a thin line. “Is this another one of those lessons you're trying to teach me, like the pendant?"
    “No,” she said, and glanced to the side.
    Her mother's ears seemed to grow two inches.
    Katherine coughed. “You can use your money to take Matt shopping another day-just the two of you. A father and son outing. Today, Matt will be spending money he's earned, and Jared wants to make up any difference."
    Paul snarled. “I bet he does. He's using Matt to get to you. We both know what he really wants."
    “And what's wrong with another man wanting my daughter?"
    Their heads snapped in the direction of her mother. Katherine glanced back at Paul. He sat inert, apparently stunned into silence.
    “Bound to happen sooner or later to a beautiful, highly successful, divorced woman like Katherine.” Devil lights flashed in her mother's eyes. “Guess she has two men chasing her now. And plenty of time to decide if she wants one. Or none."
    Katherine passed Paul's stunned state and now entered her own catatonic state. Inside, though, her mind was anything but quiescent. Images of two men raced by, one a GQ photo-shoot perfect male with steel-gray eyes and jet-black hair, and another a rugged Fabio look-alike, muscular male with lush, dark blond hair and baby-blues deep enough to dive straight into and drown.
    “Katherine, I'm talking to you. Are you listening? Earth to Katherine."
    Her attention focused on GQ-she shook her head-Paul.
    He took a sip of his coffee, keeping his focus on her. “Your mother's right. It's unreasonable of me not to expect someone else to want you. You're beautiful, successful, desirable-and a wonderful mother to Matt."
    Who, me?
    “Don't forget divorced,” her mother added.
    Paul plunked his cup down. The saucer clanged. “I'm jealous. Plain, old-fashioned jealous. I'll go shopping by myself for a few items. I don't want to be here when he picks up Matt.” Paul pushed his chair back and stood. “I really am trying, but you aren't cutting me any slack, Katherine. Not one bit."
    He stomped across the room. She jumped when the front door slammed.
    Her mother reached and patted her hand. “Well, I think that went very well, even if I do say so.” Katherine stared. “Now tell me about what you did last night, this pendant thing."

* * * *

    Jared laughed at the size of Matt's eyes when he saw the front of the Houston Galleria. He knew Matt would enjoy the enormous Texas-size shopping mall a lot better than the small local one he had intended to take him to. Katherine had agreed with Jared's change of plans when he picked Matt up, and she told them to have a good time.
    “It's so big!"
    “Yeah. There are two hotels, business offices, shops and restaurants galore."
    They walked through the entrance. Thousands of shoppers scurried within the dome like mice frantically spinning on wheels. Jared and Matt held hands and joined the crowds hurrying from one store to another store.
    “What's that?” Matt pointed to a group of couples swirling around in a big open area in the middle of the mall. “They got boots on, and there's a humongous Christmas tree."
    Jared knelt beside him. “It's an ice skating rink."
    Matt's face set in determination. “I wanna learn to do that."
    “We'll talk to your mom.” Jared stood. “Maybe the three of us could come and try it sometime."
    Matt clapped his hands, his gaze swinging from right to left. Christmas music echoed throughout the mall. Every store was decked with snow scenes, Christmas lights and sale signs, which served like a feeding frenzy to the myriad of shoppers.
    “We gonna go to all these stores?” He turned around and around in circles. His shoes scraped across the marble with each movement. He started tilting on an angle and stumbled backwards with his arms splayed out.
    Jared placed his hands on Matt's shoulders and slowed him down. “Whoa there, pal. You'll get dizzy and fall."
    Matt giggled. “You got dizzy when I went around and around, didn't you?"
    He winked and ruffled Matt's dark hair. “You found me out, pal. Now, about all these stores. I don't think we can see three hundred in one day. We'll shop until we drop though. Maybe we'll get to-oh, I don't know-two hundred and ninety-nine?"
    Matt shook his head and doubled over in laughter. “No way. You're funny."
    “You think so, huh?"
    When Matt finally stopped laughing, Jared said, “Okay, here's the real plan. First, let's get the gifts then have lunch. After that, if you want to look around some more, we will. How's that sound?"
    “Cool!"
    Matt grabbed Jared's hand and pulled him toward the escalator. Once they reached the second level, they fought their way through the crowds and trudged to the retail stores.
    “Do you have any idea what you'd like to give your mom?"
    “No, sir, but I'll know it when I see it. It's out there, and I'll find it.” His small, tousled jet-black hair nodded firmly.
    Thirty-minutes and three stores later, Jared wondered about the wisdom of letting Matt ramble around the aisles in search of his Holy Grail. Maybe the boy needed some hints from a grown up.
    Passing through the lingerie section of one of the department stores, Jared stopped and stared at a red teddy on a floor mannequin. Matt ambled ahead, intent on a stack of silvery Christmas ornaments. The sign beside the sexy display promised a silky, sensual feel of satin that hugged the body. Jared pictured Katherine's full figured curves surrounded with nothing but this sheer, wispy fabric. He fingered the folds of the material.
    “Hey, Matt, come back here."
    Matt turned, strolled up the aisle and stood beside Jared.
    He shook his head. “Nope. Mom hates red ones. I saw her cut one up and throw it in the trash."
    Jared's face heated. He searched a nearby clothes rack. Finding an innocent looking flannel nightshirt with a matching robe, he held it up for Matt's approval.
    He shook his head again. “Do they got worms here?"
    Jared's jaw dropped. “Worms? For your mom?"
    “Not live ones. Mom won't fish with anything but plastic."
    Okay, why hadn't he thought of that? He remembered seeing the pictures of Katherine fishing with her dad. No wonder he hadn't thought of it; she looked to be about five or six-years old in those photos. “Some of these stores are bound to carry a sports section with camping and fishing gear. Let's find one, pal."
    Two stores later, they hit pay dirt. Jared stood in avid fisherman's territory-his territory. Thank God for a woman with more in her head than bangles and stocks and bonds. He picked up a fly-fishing rod, gently testing its flexibility. A woman he could fish with.
    Matt seemed as eager to set his mother in the middle of a stream as Jared. State-of-the-art fishing rods and reels, hooks, sinkers, red and white corks, and colorful flies and lures formed a domed pile on the register counter. Above the mound, Jared could see the clerk's frantic eyes as she scanned each item, ran out of shopping bags and had to borrow some from the other register.
    “Can I really buy all this?” Matt asked, his gaze glued to the conveyor belt at the cash register.
    “Sure."
    Jared watched them ring up the items they'd selected for Katherine, all charged to his Platinum credit card.
    They made a mini-trip to the parking lot with their shopping bags, rather than lug them around the mall.
    “How come you know so much about fishing stuff?” Matt asked, his arms almost dragging on the ground as he pulled a small set of bags toward the car.
    “Because I own a boat and take it out at least once a month.” Jared grabbed the largest bag Matt was struggling with.
    Matt grinned up at him and let go. He angled a skeptical look Jared's way. “Think you could talk my Mom into going? She used to fish with Grandpa a lot."
    Jared shrugged. “Maybe. Of course, I won't be going out again for quite some time, but if she's still visiting your grandma when I do, I might ask her along."
    After stowing the gear in the Lexus and taking a bathroom break, they began hunting a gift for Grace. Jared withdrew the list of sizes Katherine had provided from his jeans’ pocket, reviewed them and shoved them back in. Placing his hands on his hips, he eyed Matt carefully. “Any ideas for your grandma's gift?"
    Matt's head moved in a bouncing bob. “Something green. Her favorite color is green. Pajamas, maybe. I think I'll-"
    “Know them, when you see them,” Jared finished.
    Matt giggled.
    One hour and five stores later, they stood in another lingerie section.
    “That's it,” Matt said, pointing to the voluptuous blond mannequin modeling satin lime-sherbet pajamas with a rather risqué ‘Fly-Away front’ slit. Jared couldn't see Grace wearing anything so daring, but Matt felt confident his grandma would love them, so onto the Platinum credit card they went.
    Matt wanted to have the thing wrapped, so they located Customer Service. Of course, Matt selected the most colorful Holiday paper available. It matched Matt's personality-bright, and full of life. Curse Paul if he would ruin this little boy through neglect. Jared's subsequent frown was directed at the innocent woman wrapping the gift, who looked startled at his sudden scowl. He dropped his gaze and kept the frown.
    Despite Jared's sudden turn of mood, Matt became a great hit with the women at the gift-wrapping station. They double bowed his package and let him have the most expensive paper without charging extra.
    After placing Grace's present in the car, they decided to sit on one of the benches and watch the skaters for awhile.
    “Have you ever seen so many windows and lights?” Matt asked, laying on the bench and staring up at the ceiling.
    Jared's gaze followed Matt's. “It's a glass-covered atrium. The way it fans out makes it seem to stretch for miles and miles above us. If you look carefully, sometimes you can see a rainbow."
    “I see one,” Matt pointed. “Right there.” His voice rose with excitement. “Do you see it?"
    He nodded. “I see it, too."
    Jared's stomach growled, reminding him of his liquid breakfast, the bitter coffee he had drunk alone in his empty, echoing house. He glanced at his watch. “It's almost one o'clock. You ready for some lunch?"
    Matt nodded and they made their way to the maze of restaurants dotting the Galleria. “What do you feel like eating?"
    The boy grew quiet for awhile, staring at one establishment after another. “Can I have s'ghetti? The kind that's red."
    “Italian it is,” Jared said and took him to a small café.
    The hostess showed them to a booth. A young, pretty waitress handed them a menu.
    Holding the pen and paper, the waitress smiled a slow, seductive smile. She dashed something across her pad, ripped the sheet off and handed it to him. A glance proved his suspicions-she'd passed him her name and phone number.
    “You see anything you want, just call this and let me know.” She grinned.
    Jared's face heated. He glanced at Matt, but his nose was buried in the menu. Perhaps the boy hadn't noticed. “I'll let you know when we're ready to order.” Jared let out a deep breath as the waitress walked away.
    Matt's face lifted out of the sauce-stained menu. His eyes followed her. He turned to Jared. “You think she's pretty?"
    Like instant radar, the waitress stopped, listening to their conversation. Jared coughed, and looked down to avoid the brown eyes that turned and cut his way. That's how it always starts. A certain look, an exchange of information leading to a date, progressing all the way to bed. He tore the piece of paper to shreds and laid it on the table. “Yes."
    “Prettier than my mom?"
    He thought about Katherine and the pure pleasure of holding her and kissing her lightly on the cheek. The heat he had felt when he drew her into his arms and pressed her sweet body against his. Her forehead had rested on his shoulder, but he'd never forget the desire reflected in those jade eyes.
    “No, your mom's far more beautiful."
    Matt grinned from ear-to-ear. “I think so, too. She'll get lots of dates and marry one of the dates. My friend Jimmy said that's how it works. His mom dated five men, and she's married again. And she isn't half as pretty as my mom."
    Smiling a little too warmly at Jared, the waitress returned, and took their orders. Within fifteen minutes, she had delivered their meal.
    The lobster Jared swallowed threatened to swim upstream. He didn't like the idea of Katherine dating another man, let alone five. His hand fisted on his lap. But that's what he wanted, wasn't it? For Katherine to date, get married and for Matt to have a new dad.
    After feeding Matt half his lobster and cleaning up spaghetti sauce everywhere a five-year-old could possibly get it, they headed off to buy Matt's dad a present. Jared grimaced. What do you get a two-timing, low-life like Paul Cahill? “You have any ideas about what you want to get your dad?"
    “No, sir."
    “Well,” Jared said looking over Matt's head at the colorful men's shop behind him. “You'll know it when you see it."
    “I don't think so."
    The mumble brought his gaze back down. He peered carefully at Matt's bent head. “You don't, huh?"
    “No. I don't know Dad too well.” He paused. “Anymore."
    “Ahhhh.” Jared exhaled, disguising his scowl by dragging his hand over his face. Damn Paul!
    One half hour and four stores later, Matt suddenly cried out: “That's it!” He pointed to a mannequin wearing a gaudy shirt and tie. Jared tried not to laugh. If Matt picked it out for him, he'd be proud to wear it. But no way would a man like Paul be found dead in a paisley shirt and white tie.
    Jared beamed. “Perfect."
    Matt scrambled around the shelves looking for his last gift. He located the shirt. Jared helped with the correct size, and unable to locate any similar ties among the racks, took the tie off the mannequin.
    Halfway up an aisle loaded with toys, a talking book caught and held Matt's attention. He knelt down and pulled it off the shelves. Staring out the store window, Jared had a clear view of the hotel lobby next door. An entirely different scene caught and held his attention.
    Damn him to hell and back.
    Paul Cahill stepped out of the posh hotel elevator. A blonde bimbo was glued to his side. He reached the exit and the woman locked lips with him, grinding her hips against his. Paul pulled her arms from his neck and palmed her rear-end before turning and leaving the hotel.
    You lying piece of shit.
    Jared held Matt's attention by way of a series of ridiculous knock-knock jokes until his Dad moved completely out of sight. Adding Matt's book to Paul's gifts, they headed to the cash register.
    They talked about storing Katherine's gifts at Jared's house until they were wrapped and ready for the tree. Disguising them would take a bit of work. Matt didn't want her guessing what he had bought for her.
    The whole time, Jared's head was spinning in a strange way. Should he tell Katherine? Walking with Matt back to the Lexus, he couldn't shake the image of Paul and the clinging-blonde. He weighed his options as they drove home.
    If he did tell her, would she believe him? Why should she?
    On the other hand, Katherine had the right to know her ex-husband was a two-timing liar.
    But did Jared have the right to tell her? It might hurt her less if the information came from Paul. Still, Jared mused as he angled the car through dense, erratic traffic, would a man like Paul actually tell Katherine?
    Not without motivation.
    Jared smiled grimly as he rushed the car through a yellow-turning-red light. He might be able to dish out some motivation, in the form of a threat.
    Jared glanced down. The boy's eyes closed and within ten minutes he heard him snoring away. He turned the heat up, making the inside of the car nice and toasty during the ride home.
    He'd never treat Katherine and Matt the shoddy way that Paul did. Did he really want to try and convince her of how he would or could treat her? He'd have to think on this.

* * * *

    Unable to sleep that night, Jared turned on the bedside lamp and lay back against the pillow. He still couldn't shake the image of Paul palming that bimbo's behind. It reminded him of how rotten the slime-ball had treated Katherine.
    My Katherine.
    The thought jackknifed him into a sitting position. My Katherine. She didn't belong to him, or anyone. Well, there's my answer, he thrust his hands through his hair. No way would he see that bastard deceive Katherine and remarry her.
    He picked up the phone from the nightstand and punched in a long distance number. It rang an ungodly number of times.
    “Who the hell is this?” the voice on the other end demanded, yawning full-force into the mouthpiece.
    “That you, Carl?” Jared asked, holding the phone a short distance from his ear until the wind blowing stopped.
    “Jared? Is that you?"
    “Yeah, it's me,” he answered to his old friend.
    “You know what time it is?"
    Jared peeked at the clock on the armoire. “Two here in Houston. Must be three your time."
    “Who is it, Carl? Is anything wrong?” a feminine voice asked in the background.
    “Go back to sleep, sweetheart. There's nothing to worry about.” Carl Moore yawned again. “Some of us aren't party animals. We actually sleep at night.” He chuckled.
    “Sorry to wake you and Susan, but I need your help."
    “You working on another big case and need some detective work done?"
    “No. This is personal."
    “Personal?” Carl paused. “A woman involved again?"
    “Yes."
    “Serious?"
    “It is.” Jared filled Carl in on everything he knew about Paul Cahill, Katherine and Matt. He went into details about the rendezvous he saw Paul have with the clinging blonde vine. “You can understand why I don't want Katherine or Matt hurt again by this loser."
    “I'll fly to Houston today and see what I can sniff out."
    “I want pictures. I might need to convince this bastard to tell Katherine the truth. I don't want him hiding under another pile of lies."
    Carl chuckled. “You want five-by-sevens or eight-by-ten glossies?"
    “You decide. But there's a bonus if you find out everything you can, including if Paul is allergic to dogs."
    “Boy, that's a new twist. But there's nothing I can't find out about someone."
    “I'm counting on it."
    Jared suffered through Carl's ear splitting belly laughs. His old buddy couldn't seem to stop laughing. “What's so funny?"
    “You,” Carl said with another hoot.
    “Me!"
    “Hell, yes. I never thought I'd see you losing sleep over another divorced woman. Didn't you swear off that breed when Shannon jilted you and ran back to her ex?"
    Jared rubbed the back of his neck. “I'm not mixed up with another divorcee. Not the way you mean. Katherine's a beautiful, sweet woman, but we haven't-"
    “Oh, that's rich. You must be slipping."
    “Katherine and I are just friends."
    “Friends? Boy, you got it bad and don't even know it."
    “I'm doing this for Matt.” Mostly.
    “Really? You should hear how you say her name."
    “The attraction I have for Katherine is purely physical."
    “And you haven't done anything about it? No wonder you can't sleep. It's unnatural, particularly for you. I can't wait to meet her.” Carl's boisterous laughter rang out again.
    Jared slammed the phone onto the cradle.
    One hour later, still unable to sleep, he threw back the covers and headed for the kitchen.

Chapter Nine

    “Matt, what's wrong?” Katherine asked softly. She entered his bedroom and saw the sad look on his face. He raised his head. “You're always the first to the table. Don't you feel well?” She walked to his bed and plopped down on the corner. Lifting her hand, she felt his forehead and cheeks. “You don't have a fever. Thank goodness."
    Tiny worry lines crept between his eyes. “You don't think I'm too much of a baby, do you?” he asked and fell back onto the pillow.
    Katherine lay down beside him and pulled him into her arms. “Never.” He nestled against her shoulder. “You're growing up too fast to suit me."
    “I read some, but not all the big words. It's time you stopped reading to me. I can do it myself.” She glanced down at him and his chin quivered.
    She pulled him closer. “You're a big boy. If you want to read to me and let me help you with the hard words, I will. But I enjoy the sound effects, don't you?"
    “You don't think they're childish?"
    “Childish? Where did you hear that word?"
    “Last night when Dad read to me. You still think of me as your baby, but I need to grow up."
    “Your dad said that, too?"
    Matt nodded.
    Katherine took a deep breath and forced her rising temper down. Nothing irritated her more than to hear adults say, “Grow up,” to a child. They grew up all too quickly, and parents were left with an empty house and memories. She'd learned that bit of wisdom from her mother bawling her eyes out when Katherine left for college.
    She moved Matt to the side of her, sat up and leaned over to look him straight in the eyes. “Here's how it is between you and me. I'll always be your mom, and you'll always be my baby, even when you're grown and have a family of your own. There's nothing wrong with the word baby. It means you're my child and very special to me.” She swallowed hard. “If childish means having pillow fights, sleepovers, making s'mores late at night, eating popcorn in bed, and watching videos together-sounds perfect to me."
    He smiled up at her. “Me, too."
    She lay back down and his head dropped back onto her shoulder. “What else did your dad say?"
    “We'll be living with him soon."
    She clenched her jaw. “He shouldn't have said that. You and me, we're the Two-Musketeers. It's important for you to see your dad, but that doesn't automatically mean we're going to live with him again.” She chewed the inside of her cheek. “Are you okay with that?"
    He reached around her neck and hugged her. “Yes."
    “Are you sure?” she asked rubbing his back.
    “I'm sure,” he whispered.
    Katherine sighed, relieved her decision to discourage Paul would not hurt Matt. “We're going to have the best Christmas."
    He nodded.
    She tickled him and he giggled. “It's Tuesday and you know what happens tonight."
    “Tree-trimming!” He rolled away from her and jumped from the bed. “I gotta eat my breakfast, hurry and dress, and find Mr. Randall. We're wrapping presents, and we're gonna put ‘em under the tree after it's decorated tonight."
    She laid out Matt's clothes. “Sounds positively childish to me,” she teased, hoping the negative word now held a positive spin.
    He reached his hand out with an ‘all right with the world’ grin. “Come on, Mom. We got a lot of fun things to do today."

* * * *

    That night, Katherine faced a full-length mirror and slid her stocking feet into red suede heels. She liked dressing up for the party in her sleigh scene sweater. The slit up the back of her skirt revealed cheerful green Christmas trees on the pleats when she walked.
    A light rap on the door interrupted her thoughts. “Come in."
    Matt entered, sporting navy blue pants and a snowman sweater. He walked around her, looking at her outfit and nodding, his chin thrust out in a distinctly adult-and charming-manner. “I agree with Mr. Randall."
    “About what?” she asked, putting on her earrings. Turning, she adjusted the red ribbon running through her French braid.
    “You're beautiful."
    Her hand froze, leaving the tube of lipstick hovering an inch above her lips. She turned and looked down at him. “That's one of the nicest things you've ever said to me.” She finished applying her lipstick, trying to keep the tremor out of her hand. “Mr. Randall said I'm beautiful?"
    Matt nodded. “Sure did.” He toed the carpet with his boots. “Where's Dad?"
    “He went to the filling station for ice. The sodas are iced down in the cooler, but we needed a couple more bags."
    “Oh.” He paused. “Can I have a cookie?"
    “Of course. They're on a tray in the entryway."
    Katherine followed Matt down the stairs to finish last minute decorations, hoping the house would be big enough tonight for Paul and Jared to coexist peacefully. Her mother and she had taken steps to ensure it, but that didn't guarantee their plan would work. Both men needed to cooperate.
    She passed under a brightly-lit swag of garland taped above the archway and entered the living room. Pausing, she turned in a full circle and inhaled the pungent scent of evergreen, cranberry candles and fresh pine. Smells that uniquely said Christmas.
    Dropping her gaze from the decorated mantle, her thoughts returned to the two men who needed to cooperate for the night to go well, neither of whom seemed like team players.
    Well, she decided heading toward the kitchen where she could hear her mother's voice, she would simply have to talk to Jared. First, about her plans to keep peace tonight. About his irksome need to rescue her. Letting him know she did not require his help might ease some of the tension. She hoped Jared would listen.

* * * *

    Seven right on the dot. Jared parked his Lexus in front of Grace's house. He grabbed the pie from the passenger's seat, walked to the entrance, and rang the doorbell.
    “Coming,” Katherine shouted as the door swung open. Off-key voices sung the refrains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as the stereo played softly in the background. Laughter and snippets of conversations drifted out into a magical night adorned with blinking candy-cane lights.
    His heart sputtered an extra beat.
    “Hi. Come on in,” she said with a cheerful smile. She reached and grabbed the dessert from his hands. “If it's something chocolate, I've got first dibs on it-two servings."
    He forgot to breathe.
    Her long dangling snowflake earrings flashed, drawing his undivided attention to her lush red mouth. He loved red-in any shade-especially her fire engine, hot red lips. “It's a pie,” he croaked. He came to his senses and found her hand on his elbow steering him into the house.
    “I think you know everyone,” she said, pointing to the sea of neighbors. A few people turned and shouted, waving hello. Some raised glasses and whistled between their teeth to get his attention. He reciprocated the cheerful greetings with a slightly distracted smile and wave, still disconcerted by his first glimpse of Katherine tonight. She was absolutely stunning, glowing with Christmas cheer, and practically irresistible.
    This thought returned his attention to the moment and he scanned the crowd, searching the faces, but he didn't see lover-boy, Paul. Good. He did see Grace, who winked at him, or maybe at Katherine, who still stood beside him, hand extended to take his coat. Smiling down at her, he began shrugging out of it. He turned and winked back at Grace. Thomas stood beside her, a miserable look on his face.
    About the time his gaze traversed the faces again, he noticed Grace streak from the room like vapor.
    Katherine touched him on the arm and he looked into a teasing jade pool. “You trying for a new fashion statement? I've heard of one shoe on and one shoe off, but never one sleeve."
    He glanced down and stood half-in, half-out of his coat. One side dragged the floor. “Think it'll catch on?” he asked, arching a brow and removing the other side. “Just show me where to put it. I wouldn't want you to drop my pie."
    Turning, she crooked her little finger and motioned. “Follow me into the bedroom."
    Bedroom! Taking a steadying breath, he clutched the coat and trudged along behind her. He willed the rising heat to recede as her hips swayed in front of him.
    From the bedroom doorway, he tossed his coat on the pile before he and Katherine turned to thread their way to the buffet table.
    She removed his chocolate delight and shoved the empty box under the table. The pie wound up in the middle of dessert heaven. It's a wonder the table didn't buckle from the calories in that section alone, he thought. “You expecting a famine?"
    She chuckled. “If it comes, we're certainly prepared.” Her eyes glanced his way. “I like your shirt and Santa tie. You look good in that deep shade of green."
    He reached out and flicked one of her snowflake earrings. “As long as we're throwing compliments around, your outfit's pretty spectacular. You look tempting as sin in red."
    “You gotta watch out about sin,” Reverend Whittaker remarked with a wink and a smile as he walked by.
    Color crept up Katherine's neck until her face matched her sweater. She punched him in the ribs. “I swear, I can't take you anywhere in public."
    He moved closer, smiling as her eyes widened, all dewy and innocent. “I'm at my best when I'm not in public."
    Not missing a heartbeat, she shook her head and slid her hand through the crook of his arm. With her best Texas drawl, she said, “We'll have to work on your manners,” and escorted him from the dining room to the living room.
    He chuckled. “I'm willing."
    Every nook and corner held boxes of decorations for the tree. He envied Katherine, growing up surrounded with all these family traditions and so much love. She stayed close to his side and made him feel right at home.
    “I like the fireplace.” He pointed to a wreath hanging on the wall. Directly below that, trains and lighted Swiss chalets nestled in cotton matting on the mantel. Poinsettias rimmed the outer border of the white marble floor. The scent of oak filled the room from a wood fire burning behind a mesh screen.
    “I hope you don't mind, but I promised the kids you'd help them make strings for the tree,” she said, releasing his arm and angling him a sideways glance. She was smiling.
    He dragged his gaze from the crimson curve of her lips. “Strings?"
    She laughed. “You'll see.” Taking his arm again, she led him up the stairs and into a large carpeted game room. Card tables containing bowls of popcorn and fresh cranberries lined the floor. Seven noisy boys and girls inhabited various chairs around the tables.
    Matt looked up from the cluster of chattering children. Seeing them, a grin stretched out from ear to ear. His hand shot up, waving wildly. “Mr. Randall! I saved you a place.” He patted the empty chair beside him. Glancing over at his mother with a tolerant smile, he tried to allay her concern by saying, “Don't worry, Mom. I'll show him what to do."
    Jared sat down amid the circle of bright-eyed children and warily picked up a large, rounded needle with a long trailing length of string. He cast an even more wary glance at the eager faces staring back at him. What was he supposed to do?
    Matt was as good as his word, although Jared never would have dreamed it. Within five seconds, he was threading popcorn and cranberries onto strings like an old hand.
    “There are baby wipes on the table in case you need them,” Katherine said behind him. Turning toward her, she pointed to an innocent-looking powder blue box sitting three feet away. His smile fled. Baby wipes! What had he gotten himself into?
    “If you want, we can make a paper chain, too.” Matt pointed to a stash of red and green construction paper, and other supplies. Jared looked at the pile. Last time he made a paper chain, he was in second grade.
    She placed her hand on his shoulder. The light touch made his blood surge through his veins. “I've got to go, Counselor. I promise not to leave you upstairs all night.” She leaned and whispered, her breath lightly stirring the hair on his head, “I'd like to talk to you about something personal later on."
    He stabbed his palm with the needle and fought an ‘Ouch'. Staring at his thick fingers, he fumbled for the delicate berries and slender string. “Fine."
    Get a grip, or you'll embarrass yourself.
    “I've got to run help Mom play hostess. Think you can manage to hold the fort down here?"
    “I'll help him,” Matt said.
    Jared grabbed the five mandatory popcorn kernels to two cranberries and waved them at her. “I'm in good hands.” When he craned his neck around to look at her, she moistened her lips with her tongue. He let out a pent up breath. “Go do your hostess thing."
    She turned on the soles of her heels and strolled seductively across the carpet. Her hips kept rhythm to “Jingle Bell Rock” as she moved toward the stairs. His appreciative gaze followed Katherine.
    Where's a cold shower when you need one? Man, and I'm here with the tiny tikes, better get a grip on things or have to explain the tent in his lap.
    Matt touched his arm and handed him a cranberry. “You still think my mom's beautiful?"
    “Yes."
    “I told her you did.” Matt beamed.
    Jared squashed the cranberry between his fingers and reached for the baby wipes.
    Twenty minutes later, each table proudly held two cranberry and popcorn chains and one paper chain with glow-in-the-dark stickers ready for hanging. Jared had used one entire box of baby wipes and managed to keep all ten fingers of each child free of stains. Keeping everyone from eating all the popcorn had turned into a first class battle, but he'd succeeded.
    He looked up just as Katherine stuck her head around the corner. She gave him an innocent smile and walked toward him. Her sweater hugged her sweet body. The sleigh appliqué moved when her breasts bounced ever so slightly. He rubbed the back of his neck.
    Where's a bucket of ice when you need one?
    She stopped in front of the table, her back to him and glanced around. All he could see was her firm butt and shapely legs. “Wow! Everything looks great."
    Sure does.
    “Everyone accomplished a lot,” she said, turning to him.
    Before she could disappear again into the crowd of festive partygoers, he cleared his throat and tried to think of something to say. “If you still want to go horseback riding, how about Thursday? We could head out bright and early, around eight. We'd be gone most of the day."
    Matt steepled his hands and offered up an angelic smile to his mother. Jared considered doing the same, but decided the ploy was too obvious.
    “Sounds good,” she said hesitantly. Her lips formed a smile, but he sensed another emotion as he watched her. He saw doubt-or was it fear-in her eyes?
    She worried her lower lip. “Thanks for the invitation.” Turning, she looked away, raised her hand and pointed to the hallway. “We'll move the chains to Matt's bed. Parents are fixing plates for the children to eat in here. The adults can eat wherever they find a place to sit."
    After cleaning up the children's tables, they headed toward the stairs. “Where's Paul?” he asked, expecting to run into his scowling face sooner or later.
    Her jade eyes glanced at him and lit with mischief. “Want me to tell him you miss him?"
    “Hell no,” he replied in a mock whisper.
    Midway down the stairs, she stopped and turned to him. “Believe me, Paul doesn't miss you either. My mother and I worked it all out for the party. She's escorting Paul around the party, and I'm escorting you. The stairs we're on are for you to use. The back stairs leading up from the kitchen are Paul's.
    He rubbed his forehead and stared at her. “Let me see if I understand. You and Grace have divided the house up, kind of like war zones."
    Her eyebrows narrowed. “Don't look at me like I've lost my mind. This thing will work. We're not taking any chances with you two acting like male bulls."
    He fought a laugh. “What happens if the two male bulls end up in the same room? I mean, you only have one Christmas tree to decorate."
    “Like I said, Grace is escorting Paul. We talked to him and he's to behave, or he'll be cutting his visit short and leaving Houston right away."
    Jared smiled faintly. No wonder Thomas looked so sour. Grace is ignoring him tonight.
    “And you're escorting me?"
    “Exactly."
    He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Katherine, I appreciate the company, but I don't need you to protect me from anyone. I'm a big boy."
    Her lips parted and rounded into a kissable ‘O'. “Protect you? Jared, please,” she said dryly. “Look at your arms, and… and your shoulders… and your, your…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze followed her words down his body. She jerked her gaze up to meet his. “I just don't want any confrontations at my mom's Christmas party. Understand?"
    Jared nodded, desperately trying not to grin and removed his hands from her shoulders. “Understood."
    She started down the stairs again only to halt two steps down. He did, too, eyeing her as she scowled at him. “And leave Paul alone tonight."
    He frowned. “You're protecting Paul?"
    “Hell no,” she whispered. “I want Matt to have a good time and Paul to have time with his son.” He saw the desperation in her eyes. “I'm walking a tight rope here. Cut me some slack, please."
    Katherine probably didn't realize she held onto his waist. His libido sure did.
    “Nice to know it's not all a bed of roses when Paul comes to the house. Remember, my offer to help still stands."
    Her chin lifted. “And I told you, I don't need your help.” She folded her arms. “I've got this problem covered."
    “I've noticed. So, Paul is a problem?"
    She blushed and checked her watch. “Grace and Paul should have their plates fixed. They'll be eating up here with Matt."
    His jaw dropped. “You're timing us, too!” He crossed his arms and leaned back against the handrail. “What war zone are you and I eating in?"

* * * *

    They sat on oversized cushions around the fireplace and ate from plates balanced on their legs. Katherine peered at Jared over a glass. “You feel better about the arrangement my mother and I worked out?” She took a sip of tea and set the glass down.
    He finished a large bite of chocolate pie. “Most of it. One part makes me mad as hell though."
    Katherine rolled her eyes and stared up at the crown molding along the ceiling. “Am I suppose to guess what part you hate?"
    His fork waved enticingly below her nose. “It's the last bite. You want it?"
    Without hesitation, her mouth opened and closed around the pie. His lips curved upward as he withdrew the plastic fork and set it on his paper plate. The dimple in his cheek seduced her into staring at his mouth. Such a strong, inviting mouth.
    “Tell me why you're escorting me and Grace is escorting Paul and not the other way around."
    She forced her shoulders back and sat up straight. “You don't want to be with me?"
    He gave her an arched glance. “You know better than that. Stop avoiding answering me."
    “I wanted to discourage Paul,” she whispered. The words sounded worse when she said them aloud.
    He crossed his arms. “That's the part I hate like hell."
    She jerked to her feet. “What have you got to be mad about? You aren't the one jumping through hoops.” Swinging away, she snatched dirty plates and wads of napkins from tables, from mantles, from people's hands, and stalked into the empty kitchen. He followed close behind her. Neither of them hearing slight sniggers and giggles behind them.
    Jared threw a stack of used cups into a garbage bag, holding it open for Katherine. She glared at him as she shoved the pile of trash in. He took a twist tie from the counter and sealed the bag.
    “I'll tell you why I'm mad.” He moved toward her. She backed up flush against the refrigerator.
    With his hands on either side of her, he leaned into her. His breath fanned her cheeks. “Men don't like to hear a woman's with them because of another man. Makes the man she's with feel used."
    “I found her!” Matt yelled as he burst into the kitchen.
    They jumped apart, but not before Katherine saw the hurt in Jared's eyes. Hurt she'd put there. A lump swelled in her throat.
    Matt ran to her and handed her a box. “Grandma says it's time for you to come put the angel on the tree before anything else goes on."
    Katherine mouthed the words, “I'm sorry,” as she laced her fingers into Jared's. “We'll talk later.” She wanted to try and make it up to him in some way. He didn't resist her urging him forward. She gazed up into his deep blue eyes. “Mother asked me to put the angel on the tree. Will you help?"
    Jared shrugged, reached and took the box from her. “Of course."
    Matt grabbed her other hand and they walked together from the kitchen into the living room.
    Jared stood in front of the ladder. “That thing won't do us any good. It's too small for this big tree."
    With “O Come All Ye Faithful” playing softly in the background, Jared carefully removed the angel from the box. His gaze moved from the porcelain figurine to Katherine. “I don't want my big hands to break anything. You hold onto her, and I'll lift you up so you can put her on the tree."
    She reached out and took the angel. “You're going to lift me way up there?” Her gaze moved the full length of the tree and she chewed on her bottom lip.
    “Trust me, Katherine."
    She realized that she did trust Jared, so she stepped forward with her arms lifted. Katherine held their special angel aloft with both hands. Jared stood behind her and placed his hands on her waist. He hoisted her above him and moved her within easy reach of her goal.
    His warm hands splayed around her waist. She shuddered as his large palms rested on the top of her hips and inched her upward. Maybe this man could support her.
    She carefully placed the figurine on the top branch and stopped to adjust the angel's beautiful gown. She paused a moment to savor the warm sensation of Jared holding her.
    “Okay, you can let me down,” Katherine whispered.
    Ever so gently, Jared lowered her to the floor. They backed away from the tree, Katherine's body humming with a strange, new feeling. She stayed at his side. Her mother moved forward, bent and plugged the cord into the socket. The angel glowed with a warm light of Christmas hope.
    “Look up!” her mother suggested.
    Directly above their heads, a large clump of mistletoe dangled from the ceiling.
    The room filled with hoots of laughter, and catcalls, except for Paul. He glared disapproving daggers at both of them.
    Her gaze flew to her mother, who wore a satisfied expression. Katherine's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
    “Go for it,” someone from the crowd called out.
    “It's a tradition,” Reverend Whittaker murmured. “Can't break from tradition."
    Her still-narrowed gaze scanned the throng. Her matchmaking mother had put that mistletoe up here and asked her to put the angel on the tree. They're all in on getting me and Jared to kiss.
    She glanced at Jared, who didn't seem to mind the situation at all. In fact, from the glint in his eyes, he thoroughly enjoyed it. A hint of his tantalizing cologne fogged her thinking. His eyes said, ‘I'm going to kiss you.’ Her mind warned, ‘Don't kiss him back. Not here.'
    Her body shuddered when Jared bent slightly and claimed her mouth. His lips moved over hers tentatively, his tongue entreated her to open, refusing any answer but yes. When she opened to him, he slanted his mouth and deepened the kiss. Her tongue darted to find his and she tasted chocolate delight. She dipped her tongue to taste him again. Her legs weakened and she slipped her arms around his waist for support. He held her secure, lifted his mouth, delivered a light parting kiss on her lower lip and drew back. She gazed into eyes dark with desire and stepped out of his embrace.
    “Way to go. Now, that's how you kiss a woman,” someone yelled.
    Paul muttered a curse word and stormed out the front door.
    “That should discourage your ex,” Jared whispered.
    Heat flooded her face. She raced to the empty kitchen. Jared followed close behind her. After the door closed, her hands flew to her hips. “You kissed me like that to discourage Paul?"
    He moved to put his weight against the door, blocking any entry. “No, that's why you kissed me like that."
    Her foot tapped a staccato beat on the tile. “I did not kiss you like that to discourage Paul.” She stared at the ceiling, the floor, anywhere but his eyes. “I couldn't help myself."
    The corner of his lip turned up. “That's the first honest emotion you've shared with me. To be equally honest,” he said, the other corner of his mouth turning up in a disarming grin, “I couldn't help myself either."
    She licked her dry lips. “Oh."
    He blew out a deep breath. “What's this personal thing you wanted to talk to me about?"
    She hesitated and bit her lip. “My mother feels you have a need to… rescue me all the time. It has to stop. I'm capable of handling my own problems."
    “Sweetheart, I'm the one who needs rescuing. You haven't the foggiest idea how you stir up a man, and suddenly drop him in the middle of an Arctic climate."
    She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips.
    Seeing that pink tongue glancing over those pouting lips, he groaned. “I'm going to get Matt's presents.” He turned, put his hand on the door and stopped. Coming back into the room, he leaned by her ear and spoke in a rough whisper. “And if you don't stop doing those kinds of things with your tongue, I'm going to kiss you again. Hard."

* * * *

    “I had a good time at the party. The tree looks so great. I like Harry Potter, Mom,” Matt said with a yawn as he lay in bed. “I read good, don't I?"
    She rubbed his forehead. “Yes, you do, but you need to go to sleep. You've had a full day."
    He closed his book and handed it to her. “I thought about it. When I go to school, I don't want to live in a castle."
    Paul again? She clenched her fists. The only castle she knew about was Castle Academy, a boarding school. No way in hell that would happen. “Did your dad talk to you about living at Castle when you shared dinner? Did your grandma hear him, too?"
    “Grandma went to the bathroom. I don't think I'd like living in a castle. I wanna stay with you."
    She ruffled his hair, pulled his covers up and kissed him good night. “The only castle you'll ever live in is in your imagination.” He smiled and closed his eyes.
    Turning to stare out the window, she sat slumped on the side of Matt's bed, her hands pressed against her cheeks, trying to fight her anger. Whatever Paul was interested in, it was obviously not having his family back. Not if he wanted to send Matt away to boarding school.
    After Christmas, though, she might just send Paul away. Back to one of the bubble-headed blondes he preferred. Preferably, one who resided in Alaska.
    She left Matt's room and went to unplug the Christmas tree lights. Looking up at the top, she smiled as her mind relived the sensations of Jared's hands on her body. Her lips tingled remembering his heart-stopping kiss and her heated response. “We couldn't help ourselves,” she whispered, bending and unplugging the cord.

Chapter Ten

    An incessant buzzing like a pesky mosquito woke Jared from the first sound sleep he'd had in two days. He shoved the covers aside, grabbed for the lamp and switched it on. It toppled over, hitting the carpet with a thud. He blinked at the harsh light. His sleep-deprived brain finally registered that the phone was ringing. He snatched up the receiver.
    “Who the hell is this?” he growled, yawning full force into the phone.
    “Who the hell do you want it to be?” the voice asked with a chuckle.
    “Carl, is that you?"
    “That's right, it's your Fairy Godfather."
    Jared sprang up to a sitting position and slammed his head against the headboard. “Ouch!” He rubbed the rising bump on the back of his head and squinted at the digital clock. “Do you know what time it is?” He bent forward, lifting the lamp from the floor and setting it back on the table. “It's Thursday, three o'clock in the morning, Houston time,” Jared croaked.
    The voice on the other end cleared its throat. “Okay, now we've gotten the news bulletin out of the way, let alone my little bit of pay-back, do you want a progress report on the case?"
    Jared's voice rose. “You found something already?"
    “Does a bear mess in the woods? The lowlife who's supposed to have changed and wants Katherine to remarry him is this very minute bopping his beautician girlfriend for the third time."
    Jared rammed his hands through his hair. “I'll be damned."
    Carl chuckled. “Yeah. At my age, I find that pretty remarkable, too. If you want sound effects, you can have them at no extra charge. The walls are thin here. Her name's Ann Young, by the way. I got some steamy photos of them locking bodies in the halls and kissing at her door. I'll nose around again today and get the pictures to you Friday."
    Jared ran his fingers across the stubble on his cheek. “Any idea why he really asked Katherine to remarry him?"
    “I've been looking into his background. He has a younger brother named William. The man walks on water as far as the community and his father is concerned. Family man, kids. It's got to be tied up with William and their parents in some way."
    “Good job. Keep digging."
    Carl grew quiet. “You still seeing this lady?"
    Jared felt a lecture coming from the detective who treated him like his son. “Yeah.” He yawned again. “She and her son are coming out to the ranch in Katy with me. We're going horseback riding most of the day. If you need to reach me, that's where I'll be."
    Carl coughed. “Those wise-ass remarks I made about you and Katherine were way out of line.” He paused huffing a deep breath into the phone. “But don't take this lady so serious, in case she dumps you, too. My ulcers can't follow you around bars for days to make sure you keep your nose clean."
    “I've no intention of going off the deep-end again,” Jared snapped.
    Carl snorted in apparent disbelief. “Oh, and you owe me a bonus. About the sneezing."
    Jared frowned at the phone. “Sneezing?"
    “Yeah, sneezing. Remember? Allergy-boy."
    “Paul."
    Carl went on. “I borrowed a dog from a friend and found out lover-boy's not allergic. His mistress is. You should have seen her sneeze her fool head off in the elevator."
    “That means-"
    “Right on. Paul stored Matt at a nursery and brought Ann Young to the home he had with Katherine while they were still married. His mistress couldn't be around animals, so Matt couldn't have any. I've already confirmed with neighbors that his mistress visited the house numerous times."
    Jared rubbed his neck. “None of the neighbors said anything to Katherine about Paul having a woman over?"
    “Hell no. They thought she was a relative, until Katherine came home early one day because her business flight was cancelled. She walked into the bedroom and found her husband and this bimbo screwing. All hell broke loose and the neighbors almost called the cops. Nice guy, huh?"
    Jared felt like someone gut-punched him. He fisted the pillow. “Yeah. A real charmer,” he snarled. “Keep digging,” he said and hung up the phone.

* * * *

    “Trust me.” Jared extended his hand to Katherine as he sat on the black gelding. “I'll pull you up and you can ride behind me or in front of me, whichever you prefer."
    Katherine stared at the dust rising around the pawing, snorting, four-legged giant of a beast and hesitated. She shook her head. “I don't think it likes me."
    “Flying Leap likes everyone-especially beautiful ladies.” Jared held the reins in one hand and placed his other hand on the gelding's rump.
    “Look at me, Mom.” Matt sat on a spotted pony that looked only three and a half feet tall. “I was scared of Sweet Pea to start with, but I like it up here.” He pulled his cowboy hat lower and hugged his coat around him. He shoved his boots further into the stirrups. “Me and Sweet Pea are doing fine."
    The smell of fresh hay filled the air. She glanced around the stable at the boxed stalls and rubbed the pony's nose. It whinnied. “Two Sweet Peas can fit underneath one Flying Leap,” she said dryly. “Remember what Mr. Randall said. Pull back on the reins to stop and give her a gentle nudge in the sides to make her go."
    Matt rolled his eyes. “I got all that. Let's go, Mom. Sweet Pea wants to go, too."
    Pulling her jacket tighter around her waist, she moved to the side of Flying Leap and looked up. All the way up. Once she mounted, she'd be sitting in Jared's lap. She swallowed hard.
    Jared's eyes lingered on her. “It isn't as far up as the top of the roof or Matt's Christmas tree. Trust me,” he repeated softly. He extended his hand to her again and removed his foot from the stirrup. “You want front or back?"
    She closed her eyes tight, took a deep breath and thrust her hand up to him. “I do trust you. Front,” she said shakily, biting her bottom lip.
    He grabbed her firmly around the wrist and lifted her off the ground. Her booted foot missed the stirrup twice, finally it slipped into it. Jared reached one hand around her waist, pulled her the rest of the way up, and hoisted her right leg over the saddle horn. Heat flamed her face when his hands touched her thighs and then her jean covered backside. He drew her bottom toward him and settled her in the saddle.
    “Well that wasn't so bad,” she bragged.
    He chuckled. “Sweetheart, you almost kicked me in the head. Mounting a horse works a lot better if you keep your eyes open."
    She stared at the strips of leather wound through the thick, firm fingers positioned within a hair of her breasts. She moved backward in the saddle, flush against him and heard his sudden intake of air.
    Jared cleared his throat. “Let's head out,” he said, flicking the reins and nudging Flying Leap with his legs. “Matt, you stay ahead of us a little so your mom can see you all the time.” Jared pointed to the pasture area. “We're going straight out the barn and along the grass covered fence line."
    Katherine fought the tingling sensations from Jared's warm breath hitting her ear and neck when he spoke. She tried to focus on Matt, who grinned and rode beside them for awhile, and then moved ahead. That focus became more difficult when every move Jared made brought his hands closer to her breasts.
    The cool breeze washed across her face as they left the barn. Jared moved the reins and bundled her to him. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe. She leaned back against him. And despite all this, while still fighting her inner demons, who cried ‘Fool!', she closed her eyes and relaxed against his broad chest. She could feel his heart thud in a slow, steady beat against her back.
    She jumped when they suddenly drew to a halt. Jared rubbed his hands over her arms. She lifted her head and saw Matt had stopped, too.
    Jared pointed again to the horizon. “We're heading for that worn trail over there. We'll follow it through the woods. The trail doubles back to the barn, so you can't get lost. Matt,” Jared went on, lifting his voice, “watch for squirrels, birds and rabbits. You might spot a deer or two off to the sides hiding in the bushes, too."
    Matt squealed with excitement. Katherine smiled and felt so warm snuggled against Jared.
    He kept his arms around her and bent close. “We'll be riding for an hour on this trail. It takes another half-hour to come back to the barn.” He leaned forward, his cheek resting against hers. “You can take a nap if you'd like, or watch the scenery. There's always something blooming in Texas-even in late December. You may see some Scarlet Sage, Verbena, or Lantana."
    She covered her mouth and yawned. “I think I might rest my eyes a little,” she murmured, closing them again. She hadn't been able to sleep much last night. Paul had been angry about her and Matt going horseback riding with Jared and had stormed out of the house after their nasty fight. She had listened thinking he might return to apologize-but hearing nothing, she had eventually dropped into a restless sleep.
    Come to think of it, she hadn't had a good night's sleep since Paul dropped into her life.
    She yawned again and laid her head back against Jared's shoulder as they moved back and forth in the saddle. It reminded her of the rocking motion of a hammock tied between two large trees. She closed her eyes and went to sleep.
    “Mom! Mom! Look, it's Bambi!” Matt hollered.
    Katherine's body shot forward. Her eyes flew open to find her breasts pressed against the backs of Jared's hands. She heard his sharp intake of breath, but only barely, as her own breath came hard and heavy from the brief touch. She scrambled around to see what Matt had been yelling about.
    A wide-eyed fawn stopped nibbling on leaves and froze, staring at them through the thick forest. A large white-tailed doe joined the frightened fawn and they fled back into the woods.
    Jared nudged the gelding forward and bent his head beside her ear. Warm breath floated by her neck, under her hair. “Sorry Matt woke you. He was real quiet when he saw the other animals. Did you have a nice nap?” Jared brushed errant tendrils back from her face. His hand lingered on her cheek. Her heart sputtered as his hand moved, placing the strands behind her ear.
    She almost sighed at his touch, but fought the surrendering sound back down. He was nothing but trouble, and the fact that she was forgetting it was the proof. And why was she lying docilely in his arms? She straightened, shifting on his lap. Jared loosed his arms. She ignored him and stared at the woods, furious with herself.
    The green and white wooden barn returned to view as they rounded the bend. She heard the babbling of a small waterfall and running water from a nearby river. “How long was I asleep?” She looked down and realized he'd opened his coat and had it wrapped around her so they shared its warmth.
    He pulled her against him. She resisted, craned her neck around to glare at him. He smiled that dangerous smile. Against her will, she leaned back into the warmth of down and man, curbing the next sigh that threatened to arise. “Almost an hour. I thought I'd make some hot cocoa with marshmallows when we get back to the ranch. Later, I'll fix us a picnic lunch and we can eat on the patio. I'm curious to learn what else Matt likes to eat besides roast beef, cookies, spaghetti and lobster."
    She smiled. “Anything that doesn't bite or isn't nailed down. His legs are hollow. That's where the food goes."
    Jared chuckled.
    Ten minutes later, they reentered Jared's barn. A horse in a nearby stall nickered at the sound of their hoofs on the floor. Jared turned toward the sound.
    “Midnight Star's hungry. Matt, I stowed a little lettuce, a few carrots and apples in a bucket hanging on a nail over on the far wall. I thought you might like to feed the animals after we get the saddles off the horses and cool them down.” Jared pointed to a wire cage that held two bushy tailed white rabbits with ruby eyes.
    Matt giggled, bent forward and hugged the pony around the neck. “Hear that, Sweet Pea? You get treats, too."
    Katherine smiled. “I think the horseback ride was a huge success.” She glanced at Matt. He yawned and had difficulty keeping his eyes open. “I'm going to put Matt down for a nap at noon. He's worn out. Can we talk afterwards?” she whispered.
    Jared reined Flying Leap to a halt inside the barn. “Sure,” he said with a quizzical glance.
    Matt stopped behind them and climbed off Sweet Pea. He reached in his saddlebag and took out a bouquet of wilted wildflowers. “Mr. Randall asked me to pick ‘em for you since you didn't get to see the colors.” He laid them on a bale of hay.
    She felt a lump in her throat as she glanced down at the rainbow of squashed flowers. “I'll dry them and save them in our favorite books. Thanks,” she said with a shaky voice.
    Dismounting from the gelding, Jared held his hands up to help Katherine down. Her foot caught on the saddle horn and she tumbled forward, landing in his arms. As he held her close, her body shuddered. It felt wonderful to be in his arms.
    He set her on her feet, leaned over and whispered in her ear, “You've got one hell of a dismount."
    “What can I say, it's just natural talent, good sir."

* * * *

    As the clock in Jared's den chimed twelve, Katherine sipped her coffee, sinking into chocolate mocha heaven. Alan Jackson's “Don't Close Your Eyes” drifted from the stereo as she put the empty cup on the table. Matt had been so exhausted he'd gone down for his nap without a fuss. Her fingers traced the buttery leather seams as she lounged on the couch with Jared. They stared at the flames curling upward from the wood burning in the large fireplace.
    “I know you didn't come in here to talk about how beautiful my ranch is, or to thank me for helping Grace from time to time, or to ask me about the four employees that run the ranch in my absence. You've been in a funny mood ever since we got back from the ride. Something wrong?” Jared reached beside him and threaded his fingers through hers. “I'm your friend. Talk to me. You know I'll help, if I can."
    She leaned her head back and looked up at the high wooden beams. Her eyes burned. Today had been so perfect. The way a family should be. The way hers never could be. She felt like bawling, but knew it wouldn't solve anything. “When we had lunch on the patio, you told a dumb knock-knock joke and Matt doubled over with laughter-"
    Jared's voice sounded angry as he interrupted her. “If you expect me to stop telling them, I won't. Matt enjoys my dumb jokes. Let him be a giggling, silly five-year-old, Katherine. I never had much of a childhood, but I know it's important for Matt to have a happy one. By the way, he still wants a puppy."
    Katherine cleared her throat and glanced at Jared. “I wanted to thank you,” she whispered. A single tear slipped from the corner of her eyes, remembering Paul kept telling Matt to stop being a baby and grow up.
    His jaw dropped. “Oh.” He released her hand, pulled one knee up on the couch and angled himself to face her. With his finger, he caught the tear that fell onto her cheek. “I hope this isn't because of my big mouth."
    She shook her head, extended her hand and held onto his arm. “Why didn't you have much of a childhood?"
    The muscles in his jaw tightened. He took a deep breath and the pattern on his shirt seemed to expand in width. “It was a long time ago. It doesn't matter now."
    It mattered and she knew it. “I'd like to know,” she coaxed.
    He released a quick sigh. “My father dumped me and my mother for another woman when I was eight.” His gaze searched her face. “I suppose Matt's going through the same feelings of rejection. I thought if my father had come back things would be better for us, but seeing Paul with Matt reminds me that was a lie.
    She took a shaky breath. “I know."
    He looked tenderly at her. “You don't plan on returning to Paul?"
    “No,” she said, gnawing her lower lip. “Once Christmas is over, I don't plan on ever seeing him again."
    “How do I know you won't change your mind?"
    Smiling faintly, she squeezed his arm and released it. “Trust me.” She studied his face and saw doubt cloud his eyes. “Is that what happened to your fiancée? She went back to her ex?"
    He nodded.
    She slumped deeper into the couch. “I kept thinking if I pushed Matt and Paul together, let him really get to know his son, he'd change the way he felt about Matt.” She swallowed hard. “Paul never wanted children.” Her face heated. “I always wanted at least four, but I didn't purposely get pregnant. It just happened. Matt's my life and Paul wants to ship Matt off to a boarding school when he turns six in January."
    The muscles in Jared's arm tightened.
    She averted her eyes. “I've been thinking about how I treated you at the party. I do owe you an apology. You had a right to get mad and feel I'd used you."
    He placed his finger under her chin and brought her attention back to him. He shook his head. “I don't feel that way anymore."
    “You don't?"
    He stroked her lips with his thumb. “No. Want to know why?"
    She nodded as he slid closer. His blue eyes flickered with desire. A slow smile spread across his face as he reached up and smoothed her hair around her shoulders. “We can't help ourselves. Remember?” he whispered, his fragrant breath warming her cheek and causing chills to lick along her spine.
    'We can't help ourselves,’ her body coaxed, overriding any logical objection as the tip of his tongue fired a trail down her neck. When he reached the hollow at the base of her throat, his teeth nipped. His tongue licked at her skin. She shivered and moaned softly.
    His mouth skimmed her arched neck to her lips and sipped hers until she wanted more of him. “Open for me,” he said huskily, tugging her chin gently with his thumb. He moved back, staring into her eyes. Her heart pounded when his mouth captured hers. His tongue slid past her teeth, sank into the warmth of her mouth, and stroked the roof.
    He pressed her back against the couch. “You taste so good,” he whispered, his mouth and tongue exploring hers again and again, delving deeper each time. He tasted like heaven.
    “What ya doing?” Matt asked.
    Her heart pumped double-time as her eyes popped open and she stared into Matt's curious gaze.
    “Jeez!” Jared shot away from her, breathing heavily, and he started laughing. He held his hand over his heart. “I was trying to convince your mom to go to a formal office party with me this Saturday night."
    Matt plopped down on the couch, turned and grinned at her. “You going on a date with Mr. Randall?"
    Her face flamed and she wanted to hide behind her hands. Two pairs of eyes awaited her reply.
    Did she really want to go on a date with Jared? Or should she throw cold water on the forest fire he had ignited on this couch and decline? Logic argued with her emotions. A tenderness and excitement filled her as she stared into his warm blue eyes. She felt a longing for his touch that pierced all her resistance and reached to the very depth of her womb.
    “Yes,” she croaked. Inside, she couldn't help but admire the way he asked her for a date.

* * * *

    Jared's heart soared.
    He wasn't sure if Katherine had agreed to go to the dance with him tonight because he'd asked her in Matt's presence, or not, but he wasn't about to say no to the gift he'd received. And Katherine was a precious gift.
    Glancing down at the wrist corsage, he rang Grace's doorbell and stared at the closed door. He felt like a kid on his first prom. He smiled as the handle moved and the door cracked ever so slightly.
    “Wipe that smile off,” Paul snarled. He gulped down the drink he held in his hand. “Katherine's not ready."
    He started to shut the door in Jared's face, but Jared's hand shot out and shoved it open. He strode into the entryway. “I'll wait inside."
    Slamming his glass on the table, Paul walked toward him. “I'm warning you to stay away from my wife."
    Jared stared down at him. “There's an ‘ex’ in front of that word. It's been there for two years, but you have a habit of forgetting that."
    Paul's face retracted into a sneer. “You'd do anything to get her in your bed, wouldn't you? I'm offering her marriage.” He laughed. “What are you offering?"
    Jared could smell liquor on Paul's breath. Sighing, he glanced up the stairs. “Where's Matt?"
    “You can't see him. He's upstairs with Grace waiting for me to play computer games. Stay away from my family.” Paul fisted his hands.
    Jared walked away, nonchalantly, ignoring Paul's fury. He suggested Paul follow him into the adjacent library. Jared laid the florist's box on the desk, shut the French doors and turned toward Paul. “You tell Katherine about Ann Young, or I'll do it for you."
    Paul's skin paled. “I don't know any Ann Young. You're making this up to come between Katherine and me."
    “There is no Katherine and you. For someone you don't know, you took Ann Young three times last night. You really shouldn't be so noisy with those thin hotel walls."
    He stared at Jared and finally comprehension dawned. “You had me followed.” He raked his hands through his hair.
    Jared took two steps closer to Paul and glared down at him. “You're a low-life, disgusting, two-timing bastard who brought your mistress into Katherine's home while you were still married to her."
    Paul slumped into a chair, his skin paled again. Hatred poured out at Jared from Paul's bloodshot eyes, but his face wore a beaten down expression. “I'll tell her tomorrow,” he whispered between clenched teeth.
    Jared stared at the shadow of a man. He would have a copy of the photographs Carl had taken ready in case Paul needed more persuasion. “You do it, or I will."

* * * *

    Jared caressed Katherine's back, kneading her muscles gently as they slow danced to the last song of the party, “Help Me Make It Through The Night". Other than the brief time when they had stopped dancing to eat, he'd held Katherine like this all night. He closed his eyes and felt her body shiver. His fingers moved across her velvet metallic lace dress. It played havoc with his imagination as he pictured the sweet body beneath the fabric.
    No one else existed for him as they moved across the dance floor. Several of his employees gave Katherine an appreciative eye during the long night, but they could eat their hearts out. Tonight, he wasn't sharing her with anyone.
    “I think the music stopped,” she whispered, slowing and moving out of his arms.
    He turned to find people putting on their coats and smiling at them. “Oh.” “Help Me Make It Through The Night", still ghosted through his mind.
    He and Katherine retrieved their coats. They weaved through his staff members and business associates with ease, dropping farewells and Christmas wishes to everyone along the way. They walked arm-in-arm to the underground parking. He settled Katherine in his Lexus and got behind the wheel. Once he started the car, he popped in a romantic CD before exiting the garage.
    With a deafening sound, a torrential downpour pounded the roof. He turned his windshield wipers on and they beat full-force against the Texas size raindrops that hammered them from every direction. Rivulets of water streamed across the glass, preventing a clear view of the road and traffic lights.
    After traveling two miles through the haze, Jared pulled off the main road and parked under a grove of tall oak trees. He cut the motor.
    “We'll stay here till it slacks up some. If you're cold, I can turn the ignition on and run the heater awhile.” He moved closer and folded her into his arms.
    “I think it's romantic,” she said, her voice echoing in the car.
    “Did you come with me tonight because of Matt?” he asked, lightly fingering the curls at the nape of her neck.
    “No,” she said. “How about you?"
    He found her erratic pulse with his finger. Her tongue darted out and he bent to claim her moist lips. She sighed softly. He slanted his mouth, deepened the kiss and moaned when her tongue thrust forward, skimming his teeth and stroking the roof of his mouth.
    All thoughts of slowing the pace died when her lush body leaned into his. He crushed her against him. His tongue delved into her ear. He whispered, “I've wanted you for so long, Katherine. An eternity.” Her body arched. He teased her earlobe with his teeth.
    Their breathing became heavy as they kissed again. The air inside the car warmed and the windows fogged, forming a private cocoon.
    Her lips trembled. He drew back and watched her face as his hands moved to cover her breasts. They swelled even fuller.
    “I don't know if I can please you,” she said around gasps. “I want you, but I've never had an affair.” Her hand began to shake. “Paul's the only man I've been with. I'm sorry I'm not more experienced."
    He closed his eyes as guilt washed through him. Paul's words stabbed him, ‘What are you offering Katherine?’ Making love to her would be perfect, but it would still be an affair. One he knew she would regret in the morning. Although she wasn't married to Paul anymore, she was married to her values, and to her son, and to her idea of the ‘right’ kind of relationship, which would never be what Jared could offer. And she wasn't the affair type. She was the forever type, and he wasn't ready for anything permanent.
    His body ached. He took a deep, calming breath.
    “If we went all the way, you'd regret it. I don't want to hurt you, Katherine.” Damn. “I think the rain's slacked up,” he said, straightening and moving back to the steering wheel. Her face turned to the side and she stared out the window as he started the car and slipped it into gear.
    He heard her sniffle and knew she was crying.
    They drove in silence.
    By the time they reached Grace's, the rain had stopped completely. He pulled into the driveway.
    “Thank you for going to the dance. I'd like to try and explain better the reasons I stopped back there.” Before he could apologize or get her to see his side, she darted from the car and rushed with dignity away from him, her back straight, her chin up and quivering.

* * * *

    “Look at you,” Paul said, snatching a barrette that dangled from her hair. “Your lips are swollen, your hair's a fright and your dress looks like you slept in it.” He shook his head. “I tried to warn you about Jared. He's not respectable. His mother never married his father. Maybe his fiancée found out he's a bastard."
    She felt lightheaded. “Even if that were true, it wouldn't make any difference. He doesn't deserve a label like that."
    “No. But women who walk out on their husband's do."
    “What?"
    Paul's face was flooded red, but he drew a deep breath, as if restraining himself. “Matt needs a father, Katherine,” he said softly. But the softness was like a down pillow, weighing on her heart, smothering her. “We have to get married again, or he'll never be okay."
    “Don't bet on it,” she said between clinched teeth.
    “Give us a chance to be a family again.” When he moved closer, she smelled liquor on his breath. Pushing against his chest, she shoved him toward an ottoman. He lost his balance and fell back onto the carpet.
    Her hands fisted at her hips. “After Christmas, you can still see Matt, but I never want to lay eyes on you again.” She turned and ran up the stairs.
    Twenty minutes later, she was still crying. She realized her tears weren't because of Paul's disgusting accusations that made her feel like a slut. They were for the humiliation of offering herself to Jared and being rejected because of her inexperience. She remembered her timid, maidenly responses, which must have seemed awkward and laughable to Jared, and felt ashamed that she'd reached out to a sophisticated man like him.
    She dressed for bed, padded barefoot to the curtains and stared through the fogged window. A shape moved underneath the oak tree. She froze, thinking of a few nights ago, when Jared had come to visit her. Was it Jared?
    Straining to see, she rubbed the condensation off the windowpane with her fingers. She hoped to pick out a tall, broad-shouldered man in flannel and denim and was shocked to find an elderly couple, dressed in silk and cotton, in a passionate embrace beneath an oak tree. She blinked, trying to clear her vision.
    Her mother and Thomas Hughes stood under the lamplight. He kissed her and tried to hold her, but her mother struggled and sobbed. She broke away and ran toward the house.
    Why was her mother crying?

Chapter Eleven

    “It's me again, Grace,” Jared said into the phone, shaking his head wearily as he waited. He glanced at the dull stain on the ceiling of his living room, wondering idly how it got there. “You have no one to blame, but yourself,” he muttered under his breath.
    He should have gone after Katherine last night instead of waiting until Sunday morning to see her, but he hadn't known what to say. He wasn't a forever guy and he didn't want to lead her to believe something false. He'd stopped when all systems said go because he hadn't wanted to hurt her, yet he'd ended up hurting her anyway.
    “I'm sorry, Jared,” Grace said. “Katherine still doesn't want to talk to you. Hold on, I'm going to another room.” He waited several minutes before he heard her pick up again. “I don't know what you did, but if you look as bad as she does this morning, both of you would be better off shot. She still plans to go to the candlelight service tonight. Try talking to her then,” she said softly.
    He listened to the finality of the click.
    Talk to her about what? The truth. He closed his eyes. He could see Paul asking him, ‘What are you offering Katherine?’ Jared didn't want to hurt her.
    “Yahoo, Jared, you in there?” a male voice yelled.
    Taking another swig of coffee, Jared glanced up to find Thomas Hughes fully dressed for church and standing in the middle of his kitchen.
    “Did you know you left your front door wide open?” Moving nearer, Thomas stopped and took a long, hard look at him.
    Jared could imagine what he must look like. He hadn't slept two seconds all night and here he sat, barefoot, still wearing his dress shirt and pants from the dance-along with a hundred wrinkles.
    “That must have been some party. You look like something the cats buried."
    He felt like it, too.
    Running his hand through his hair, he shook his head with a humorless smile. His gaze fell on the dark circles under Thomas's eyes. “You don't look so hot yourself. There's a fresh pot of coffee on the counter and a box of powdered doughnuts. Make yourself at home."
    Thomas poured himself a cup, moved to the table and sat down in a chair across from him.
    “What's up?” Jared asked, gulping the brew and fighting to stay awake.
    Thomas sipped and averted his eyes. “You're young, but you've got a lot more experience with women than I have. I need your help."
    Jared shook his head. He'd grown to hate that word ‘experience'. “I'm no expert."
    “You are compared to me.” Thomas glanced at him. “I love Grace and we got along fine, until her daughter came home. After that, everything seemed to change. Last night, Grace said she didn't want to see me again because Katherine doesn't approve."
    Jared frowned. That didn't sound like Katherine, but he had never known Grace to lie. She might omit, or stretch the truth bigger than a football stadium, but not tell an outright lie.
    “Will you talk to Katherine at the candlelight service tonight and see if you can get her to change her mind?” He straightened his tie. “Be sure and tell her my intentions toward her mother are honorable. I want to marry Grace."
    Honorable! Katherine deserves someone whose intentions are honorable, too.
    Jared raised his brows. “Why don't you do it yourself?"
    Thomas squirmed like the chair had suddenly burst into flames. “Oh, I can't do that. I promised Grace I wouldn't try and get Katherine to change her mind."
    Jared chuckled. “Isn't that what you're doing?"
    Thomas grinned. “Not directly. Being an attorney, I'm sure you can appreciate the subtle difference."
    Jared nodded at his friend. “Okay, I'll do it."
    What's one more problem to solve? Jared thought. Besides, it gave him a good reason to see Katherine. He would talk to her about Thomas and Grace. Afterwards, he would tell her the whole truth about why he wouldn't make love to her last night. She would agree with him that they shouldn't take that next step. They should remain friends. He never wanted to lose her friendship or Matt's.
    Thomas pumped Jared's hand up and down like he was drilling for oil. “Thanks. You can be the best man at our wedding."

* * * *

    Katherine looked in the mirror and applied a thin coat of concealer. The soft lighting of the seven o'clock candlelight service would hide some of the puffiness around her eyes. With her magic applicator wand, she rubbed a hint of sage on her eyelids to disguise the rest. The color matched her silk suit. She nervously fingered the embroidery trim outlining her jacket as she stepped into her heels.
    Her mother walked into the bedroom and Katherine felt tension crackle in the air like lightening in a thunderstorm.
    Late last night, she'd tried to get her mother to talk about what had happened between her and Thomas, but it turned into a disaster. Her mother had changed the subject to Katherine's problem with Jared. The discussion ended in a stalemate, with neither willing to talk.
    “You always look good in a French braid. More sophisticated,” her mother said. “Look what I found in the attic."
    She handed Katherine a worn box that had belonged to her father. Inside was his coin collection. “I don't know what it's worth, probably not much, but you and he used to play with it for hours. He would have wanted you to have it."
    Katherine chewed her lip and placed the gift on the dresser.
    “Thanks. I'm glad you found it. I'll have it appraised after Christmas and keep it for Matt one day."
    “Your father would have liked that,” her mother said.
    Katherine swallowed hard. “That another new dress?” she asked, glancing at her mother's cordovan jersey.
    “Yes, it is,” her mother said, straightening her back. “Jared called and asked if he could drive Matt to the service. Since you wouldn't come to the phone, I gave my approval. I'm sure you don't want to deprive Matt of seeing Jared just because you and he quarreled."
    Her mother's image blurred as she nodded.
    Stop with the waterworks.
    “Good,” her mother continued, picking up the perfume bottle from the dresser and spritzing her wrists with cologne. “Jared's also taking me and Mrs. Taylor.” She set the bottle down. “I don't suppose you could bury the hatchet long enough to go along with us?"
    Katherine shook her head, grabbed an emery board and pretended to file a rough edge on her nail. “I'll drive myself."
    Her mother hugged her. “I'm sorry we quarreled last night, but I really don't want to talk about Thomas Hughes again-ever."
    She patted her mother's hand, determined to get to the bottom of it herself.
    Jared's car pulled up at the curb. Her mother and Matt dashed out to meet him coming up the walk. Katherine shoved her arms in her coat and headed for the detached garage. Her heels clicked on the concrete as she proceeded up the breezeway to her car. She twisted the key and tried to start the engine. Nothing happened.
    “Great,” she muttered at the silence.
    Snatching up her purse, she flung herself out of the car, slammed the door shut, and stomped toward the front porch.
    “Something wrong?” Paul asked.
    Katherine turned toward him. He stood in front of the house. Reaching up, he removed the tarp covering his car, folded it and stored it in the trunk. The streetlights beamed down on his hand-waxed Porsche, which shimmered and sparkled like red fire next to the curb.
    She shoved her keys in her purse and glared at him. “My car won't start. I'll take a cab to church and worry about the car tomorrow."
    He smiled like a Cheshire cat. “You'll be late if you call a cab. I'll take you and sit with Matt during the service. I can bring you home afterwards."
    She chewed the inside of her cheek and hesitated. The smile he thought so charming was looking distinctly dangerous, like it had the night he accosted her in her bedroom.
    Paul must have seen her nervousness. He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “I'll call you a cab."
    Mr. Hobbs, the neighborhood pharmacist, drove by with his family on the way to the church and tooted his horn. Katherine thought about hailing him down for a ride, but his car was packed solid with kids. She waved.
    Her uneasy feeling was silly. “You can take me to the church.” She hopped into Paul's baby and closed the door.
    He strode to his side and got behind the wheel. She hugged the door. The motor of the Porsche started right up, humming softly. Classical music played in the background as they drove. She peered at him anxiously out of the corner of her eye.
    Paul finally sighed and turned the radio off. “Katherine, I keep messing things up. I used to know how to reach you. And I really do want to please you.” He glanced at her. “I hope you didn't mean what you said last night about not wanting to see me after Christmas. I wanted us to at least be friends."
    The way he said ‘friends’ made her skin crawl. “I don't think that's possible, but I hope you'll continue to see Matt regularly. He needs his father."
    “All you ever think about is Matt,” he grumbled.
    “Maybe you can take some lessons from me,” she snapped back, folding her arms.
    They drove in silence.
    She stared blankly out the windshield. Streetlights and Christmas decorations whizzed by in a blur as they sped through the neighborhoods. He braked, and the car slowed.
    “What are you doing?” She pointed straight ahead. “It's not far from here."
    He cut the headlights. Her throat went dry as he turned onto a dark, deserted side road and sped into the night.

* * * *

    Jared sat in a church pew with Matt on one side of him and Grace on the other. Hundreds of tapered candles flickered in brass candelabras around them, giving the chapel a soft, golden iridescent glow. All around him, the voices of the congregation-the community that had become home to him in the past year-rose in joyous Christmas carols. Normally, Jared felt peace during the service, but not now. Katherine was twenty minutes late.
    Women are always late, he reminded himself.
    Grace elbowed his ribs and leaned toward him. “Katherine should have been here by now. She's like you, always punctual."
    His heart rate sped up, an increase in tension that made the hair on the back of his neck prickle. Matt looked up at Jared. “Where's my mom?” he asked, the apprehension in his eyes fueling Jared's.
    “There's nothing to worry about,” a voice whispered near his ear. He turned sideways, staring into the cheerful face of Mr. Hobbs. “I saw her get into a brand new Porsche."
    Jared stared at Mr. Hobbs in disbelief. Why would she do that? Turning he looked straight ahead at the cross above the altar. He clamped down on the fear racing through his head.
    Maybe she changed her mind about taking her car, wanted to talk to Paul. Jared didn't even want to think about the implications of that conversation. Particularly after last night.
    Maybe Paul decided to give her a ride so he could tell her about the other woman. Paul did say he'd tell Katherine today. Jared shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck. If he believed that, why did he have the photos Carl took in his car right now?
    Jared pictured Paul's bloodshot eyes and the hatred that had poured out of them. Would he hurt Katherine? She had said Paul wasn't that type, but he'd crushed her emotionally and thought nothing about it. Lied. What else might he be capable of?
    He ignored the images that stabbed at his sanity. Katherine was in trouble. Deep down inside, Jared knew it.
    Pushing his shaking hand into his trouser pocket, he found his keys. He leaned and whispered to Grace, “I'll see if I can locate Katherine. I'll be back."
    Grace glanced at him. The same worry showed in her eyes. She nodded. “We'll find a ride. Go get my daughter."
    Jared walked calmly up the aisle so Matt would not be alarmed. He spotted Thomas along the way. His problem would have to wait until another day. Once the doors closed behind him, he sped to his Lexus, and left the parking lot, his tires squealing, as he traced the most likely path from Grace's house to Second Baptist.
    Where are you?
    His eyes searched the shoulder of the road. Cars honked angrily and sped around him, but he maintained the same slow, steady speed, not wanting to miss any clue that might lead him to Katherine's whereabouts. The glare from the lights of oncoming traffic made it more difficult to focus.
    Are you all right?
    He gripped the steering wheel and stared out the window. The road seemed to go on forever.
    Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw someone in a coat hobbling on the grassy shoulder less than a hundred feet from him. His heart began to thud as he drew nearer. The woman's jet-black hair tumbled in disarray; dark curls blew wildly in the wind.
    “Katherine,” he whispered under his breath. He pulled to the shoulder, traveled a few more feet and braked to a stop. Dashing from the car, he ran toward her.
    The fear in her eyes when she glanced up stopped him. One of her heels had been broken off.
    “It's me, sweetheart. Jared."
    The fear in her eyes quickly dissipated.
    He reached her side and drew her against him. She shivered against his body.
    He enfolded her in his arms. She felt like ice. He picked her up and carried her toward the car. He settled her in the passenger's side, took his coat off and wrapped it around her. Climbing behind the wheel, he started the car and turned the heater full blast. Her hands felt icy cold. He began rubbing them vigorously finally blowing on them. His mouth closed on her fingertips. She pulled her hands back and laid them in her lap.
    He couldn't resist the need to touch her, make sure she wasn't hurt. Reaching out, he began massaging her arms, shoulders and back. “Did Paul… hurt you?"
    She laughed, but the sound contained no mirth. “He didn't hurt me. He tried to kiss me. I hurt him. He's wearing my self-defense moves all over his body. Two courses worth."
    Jared sighed with relief. He silently thanked whoever taught those classes. If Paul had hurt her, he'd have gone after him and ripped him apart with his bare hands.
    “I can put a little hurt on him, too, so he'll leave you alone,” he suggested.
    She shook her head. “I keep trying to tell you, I don't need you to rescue me. I'm a responsible adult and I want to take care of my own problems."
    “But you're glad I drove up tonight?"
    She glanced at him, a reluctant smile formed on her lips. “Yes. I thought Matt and Grace would be worried sick."
    “They were, but I told them I'd find you."
    “Thanks. All they need to know is I had car trouble and Paul tried to help. He'll get the part back on my car first thing tomorrow morning."
    Jared shook his head. “Paul dismantled your car?"
    “He wanted to get me alone and talk.” Another bitter laugh tore from her throat. “Do you know what that despicable, two-timing jerk told me?"
    Jared thought about Carl's pictures in the glove compartment. “About Ann Young?"
    Her eyes narrowed. “Who's Ann Young?"
    He swallowed hard. She's going to be mad at me again.
    Jared explained about seeing Paul with the other woman and hiring his friend, Carl, to investigate.
    She folded her arms, took a deep breath and exhaled audibly. “I thought we were friends."
    “We are,” he said.
    “Really? You knew about Paul before we went to your office dance and you didn't tell me?” Her hands flew up. “Let me guess. It's a guy thing!” She gave him a disgusting glare.
    “It isn't a guy thing. No way in hell would I protect that slimeball. I didn't think it was my place to tell you about it. I wasn't even sure if you'd believe me."
    “Do you have proof?"
    “Carl took some photos.” He pointed to the glove compartment.
    “Paul doesn't know about these?"
    “No."
    She grew silent and snatched the handle on the glove compartment. It fell open. She retrieved the envelope and slammed it shut again. “I've earned these."
    “Don't do this to yourself.” He put his hand on the envelope. “I never wanted you to see these."
    Her lips tightened to a slit. “Can I have them or not?"
    He removed his hand from the envelope.
    “I'm sorry you found out this way.” He turned the heater off and moved closer to her.
    “I hate secrets, Jared.” She shook her head. “I lived too many years with a man who lied and kept secrets from me.” Tears glistened on her lashes.
    Her slim shoulders shook.
    “Oh, Katherine, please don't cry.” He pulled her to him.
    As if that one act of kindness opened a dam, her body was racked with sobs. He bent his head and placed a kiss on top of her hair. Tenderly holding her, he let her cry, wishing he could take away every hurtful thing that had ever touched her heart.
    “You want to know the funny part?” She sniffed and Jared reached for tissues and gave them to her, releasing her from his embrace for only a heartbeat.
    “I want to hear anything you want to talk about,” he whispered near her ear.
    “Paul was convinced you and I had slept together. Isn't that a laugh?"
    He felt her tense up and rubbed the muscles in her back. “You're a very beautiful, desirable woman, who-"
    She interrupted him. “Is a terrific mother and will do anything to make sure Matt's happy.” She pushed away from him and sniffed again, offering him a rueful smile. “This has been one helluva Christmas so far."
    He stared at her hurt, determined smile and felt a moment of despair. She was going to leave him. Classify him as “one of them,” take Matt, and leave. If he didn't explain, it would all be over before it started.
    He slammed the heel of his hand against the steering wheel and drew a deep, frustrated breath. “About the other night, I'd like to explain more-"
    A sudden tapping on the window made them jump. A policeman stood beside the car, tapping his flashlight against the glass. Jared rolled the window down.
    “Let's move along.” The officer shined the beam into the car. He focused the light on Jared and snickered. “Mr. Randall, what's wrong? They run out of rooms at the nearest hotel?"
    He grimaced at Katherine's shocked and hurt expression. He'd never wanted a woman like he wanted Katherine, but he'd never settle for a cheap, one-night stand in some damn hotel. Not with Katherine. He'd never take advantage of her loneliness and seduce her. He wanted to comfort her, protect her, cherish her… love her.
    Why'd it have to be Sergeant Sinclair who stopped? He had to have recognized Jared's car. He was the one who blabbed to Carl every time Jared breathed wrong. Carl probably asked him to watch out for him because of Paul. Carl and Sergeant Sinclair were partners on the police force until Carl retired and became a private detective. And Jared's foster father. He groaned again.
    Katherine hiccupped and wiped her face with tissues.
    Sergeant Sinclair shined the flashlight beam on her. “You all right in there, young lady?"
    She angled Jared a venomous glare and faced the police officer. “Yes, I am. I was just bawling about the troubles I've had this Christmas, but things are bound to get better.” She smiled faintly. “They can't possibly get any worse."

Chapter Twelve

    Katherine sat, clothed in the darkness of her bedroom. She bit her bottom lip so hard she tasted blood. Sunrise was in two hours. She'd tried to confront Paul last night when she got home, but he'd pulled a disappearing act again. After several phone calls to his hotel room, she'd finally reached him at three in the morning and demanded that he fix her car. Ripping him apart was long overdue.
    She turned toward the sound of the door opening. “Did you reconnect the battery cable on my car? Will it crank?"
    Paul flipped the light switch on and shut the door. “Yes, to both questions.” He narrowed his gray eyes. “I don't know why you insisted that I fix it before your mother and Matt get up."
    “I don't want them involved in this mess,” she snapped.
    He removed her keys from his pants pocket and tossed them to her. She caught them and laid the envelope she'd taken from Jared in front of Paul.
    He glanced down at the envelope then back up at her. “Why were you sitting in the dark?"
    She plunged the keys into her jeans pocket. “Trying to figure out what I ever saw in you."
    He quirked a black eyebrow at her. “Really? You couldn't keep your eyes off me the first time we met. Lust is a powerful aphrodisiac, especially to a virgin."
    Her stomach churned. Again, he didn't call what they had together love. He was right. She knew now that they never loved each other. She remembered staring at his almost naked bronze body. It had glistened in the sun as he dived into the swimming pool. He had looked like a Greek god to her. It was her first taste of the unknown, crossing that threshold of sexual curiosity, and she had mistaken it for love. She had mistaken a predator for someone who really cared about her.
    She clenched her jaw, removed the sexually explicit photographs from the envelope and spread them on the table. They revealed a collage of deception. “I want you to leave this house immediately and not come back."
    He took his coat off, crossed the room and plopped into a chair opposite her. His eyes glittered with angry amusement as he fingered the pictures. “I have no intention of leaving, other than to see Ann when I get the urge.” He shoved the photos into the envelope and threw them back on the table. “I gambled Jared didn't have any proof."
    Her jaw dropped open. “Jared? Did he talk to you about your seeing another woman?"
    Paul chuckled. “Jared didn't talk to me. He ordered me to tell you, or he would."
    “And you agreed?” Of course he'd agreed, that's what Jared thought Paul had talked to her about. No wonder Jared was so surprised when she didn't recognize Ann Young's name.
    Paul shrugged. “I agreed so he'd get off my back. I had no intention of letting him tell me what to do."
    Why hadn't Jared defended himself? Why hadn't he told her he'd put pressure on Paul?
    She could kick herself across Texas. She accused him of protecting Paul. Once again, she'd been wrong about Jared.
    Paul shook his head. “Nothing's changed, Katherine. I still want you back as my wife."
    She laughed, allowing all her bitterness and anger to spill from the sound. “Why don't you hold your breath until I agree? You don't love anyone but yourself. Every time I think of what I've put up with since you came to visit this Christmas, I get furious. I gave you every opportunity to prove you'd changed-not for me, but for Matt. He deserves a father, but you aren't a father. You're nothing but a sperm donor. Now that my eyes have been opened, there is no way I would want Matt to emulate you."
    “You think Jared is father material?” he snarled. “Haven't you figured it out yet? All that attention he showed Matt was to get you into bed."
    Like the colors of a kaleidoscope swirling from one symmetrical pattern into another, the times Matt spent with his pal Jared tumbled in her mind. Because of Jared's past, he understood how Matt felt and showed him more love than Paul ever had. If Jared had befriended her son in order to get her into bed, he wouldn't have hesitated to take what she had offered. He said he had stopped because she might be hurt emotionally. Paul would have taken her and never batted an eye at the consequences of his decision.
    She lifted her chin. “Yes, I think Jared is father material because he loves Matt."
    Paul bolted out of the chair and snatched papers from his coat pocket. “I didn't want to do it this way, but you've given me no choice.” He threw them on the table, sat across from her again and leaned closer.
    She reached for them.
    His lips twisted into a sneer. He laced his hands together and rested them like paperweights on the documents. “I'm calling the shots here. Not you."
    Hatred flowed from his eyes and washed over her.
    She folded her arms and raised her chin a notch. “Then shoot, and stop wasting my time."
    He pointed to the calendar hanging on the wall. “Today is December seventeenth. There are seven days left before Christmas. You pick one as our wedding day."
    She laughed. “It would take you and an army to make me."
    He shook his head. “Oh, you'll do it. Because, you'd do anything to protect Grace and this precious house her family's owned for generations."
    Her throat went dry. He'd thrown her a curve ball. Some strange tension started to rise inside her. What was he up to? She thought he would try to hurt her through Matt. Even with Paul's money, she knew he could never win in a custody battle. But she had no reason to suspect he would attack her mother. Except that no form of coercion was beyond him. Katherine had underestimated him.
    He placed the papers in front of her. “How about a foreclosure notice and confiscation of every asset your mother owns? You think that might do the trick?"
    Katherine tried to hide the trembling of her hands as she analyzed documents. If lightening had struck her, she couldn't have been more stunned. She mentally added the mountain of debt bearing her father's signature.
    “Let me save you the trouble.” He leaned back, stretched his legs and laced his hands behind his head. “Including the mortgage on this house and signature loans, the debt's total over three hundred fifty thousand dollars. I bought up your father's loans and I'm calling them in. You got that kind of pocket change to pay me back? If you do, you could file papers with the court, prove it, and stop me,” he goaded.
    She clenched her teeth and shook her head. Even if she did have the personal assets, she wouldn't want her mother knowing about the outstanding loans.
    He grinned. “I didn't think so."
    “You went to a lot of time and money to set this blackmail up.” From the date on the documents, she knew he'd purchased the loans right after her father's death. “Why spring this now? You don't give a rat's behind about Matt or me."
    His hard gray eyes mocked her. “Money, power, my father's approval, revenge for you defying me and leaving me. You pick which one you think is more important to me."
    She wanted to refuse to play his game, but it didn't take a mental giant for her to figure it out. She hoped he choked on her answer. “You'll never have the same level of respect and approval your father has for your brother William. He's earned it."
    Paul chuckled and straightened. “Oh, but I will. You're going to help me beat my saintly brother."
    She stared at Paul. “How is marrying me again going to accomplish that?"
    “My father's retiring at the end of next year. He hasn't announced it yet. When he does retire, he'll be forced to bring one of us into the company to run it."
    Another curve ball zinged her way. She would have bet his father would never retire. He'd always insisted Paul and William make it on their own and prove themselves by working in the private sector. Malcolm Cahill refused to let them ride on his coattails by working for him. The global corporate structure he built and ran himself seemed to be his whole life.
    “Like you, Katherine, one area I excel in is business. It's important to my father. I'm in line for the presidency of the biggest financial institution in Houston. My competition for that position is less qualified than I am, but the conservative Board of Directors prefer a family man."
    “You need us to secure the promotion?” she said quietly.
    He nodded. “I told the Board we're getting remarried and I'm bringing you and Matt back after Christmas. Naturally, my father thinks this proves I've settled down.” He thrust his fingers through his hair. “Dammit, you owe me."
    “What the hell for?"
    Paul's face grew red, and he snapped the pen he held in his hand. “Because of what you cost me when you left me!” he shouted. He leaning across the table, whispered, “You owe me, Katherine."
    I sure do. And I sure as hell will pay you back, in spades.
    She glanced at him. Malcolm Cahill wasn't stupid. “Won't your father get suspicious?"
    He shook his head. “No way. He doesn't think anyone knows he's retiring. He's ill, Katherine. I paid his doctor dearly for that confidential information."
    And Paul expected her to pay dearly to save her mother. “Give me a few days to make my decision."
    “No.” A look of triumph flashed in his eyes. “What you're going to do is tell me our wedding date."
    She craned her neck and glanced at the calendar, pushing the date forward as far as she dared. “Friday afternoon, December twenty-first."
    He reached in his pants pocket, retrieved the emerald pendant she'd rejected earlier and threw it on the table. “Wear it.” The corner of his mouth tilted up as he lifted the receiver. “My father's an early riser. The second thing you'll do is confirm we're getting remarried."
    He dialed the number and handed her the phone.
    Katherine took a deep calming breath as it rang and her former father-in-law answered.
    “Hello,” Malcolm said.
    “It's Katherine, Malcolm.” Her voice sounded unsteady, her arm shook.
    He laughed. “Katherine, what a pleasant surprise. My son tells me he's come to his senses, you've agreed to become his wife again."
    She coughed to clear the lump in her throat. “Yes, sir."
    “What day is the ceremony?"
    “December twenty-first,” she whispered.
    He chuckled. “Congratulations. I can't wait to see you and Matt after Christmas. You make sure that son of mine treats you right this time. If he doesn't, you let me know. Promise?"
    Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the phone. “I intend doing just that."
    Stunned, she listened to the dial tone after Malcolm Cahill had hung up.
    Paul snatched the receiver back. “When do you want us to break the good news to your mother and Matt?"
    Us! Her jaw dropped open. Never. “I think it needs to come from me first."
    He studied her closely. “Maybe you're right. When?"
    She needed to stall Paul until she could figure out how to diffuse his threat. “I-I need time. Mother won't believe it, if I don't break it to her gradually. I'll talk to Matt over the next couple of days."
    His chin lifted. “Don't stall, Katherine. It won't do you any good."
    “I'm not,” she lied. “You want people to believe we're in love.” The word almost choked her. “That takes time."
    He lifted the phone again and grinned. “Let's break the wonderful news to your lover."
    Her knees shook. She didn't want to tell Jared. If he suspected anything was wrong, he'd attempt a rescue and his Superman routine would make matters worse.
    If her mother found out about the debt her father ran up during his illness, she'd be devastated. Katherine's eyes burned. He must have thought he could take out the loans to pay for his exorbitant medical expenses. When he got well, he would have time to take care of the mess. He would have done that without his wife ever knowing, too, because he wouldn't have wanted to worry her. Her dad had always taken care of her mom in that exasperating, charming, wonderful way. Yes, he'd always taken care of her mom, and at the end, it was the last thing he'd asked of his daughter.
    I won't let you down, Dad.
    Her eyes stung, but she fought back the tears. “I've told you that Jared and I aren't lovers,” she said, dragging her mind back to the receiver Paul held in front of her face.
    “Yet,” he added. “You love that bastard. I saw the way you kissed him at the tree-trimming party. Even the walls can see you want him. It's in your eyes every time you look at him."
    Heat flooded her face. Paul's accusations made her feel like she'd been punched in the stomach. Did she love Jared or was it lust? How do you tell the difference? When their lips had met under the mistletoe, desire skyrocketed. Their kiss turned into a hunger so fierce they'd embarrassed themselves in front of everyone.
    “You're thinking of that bastard,” Paul snarled.
    She gnawed the inside of her mouth. He would touch her again when ice cubes were on the menu in hell.
    He handed her the phone to dial. “You better sound convincing,” he warned.
    It rang for an eternity.
    “Hello,” Jared said.
    She swallowed hard. “Hello,” she whispered back.
    “Katherine, sweetheart.” He interrupted, plowing into her tear-filled pause, “Don't talk, please listen."
    She didn't want him hurt. Tell him now. “I don't want to hear anything you have to say-"
    He interrupted her again. “I tried calling and this may be the last time I talk to you, please listen."
    The thought of never hearing from him again hurt. She paused.
    “I've replayed the night I stopped us from making love a hundred times. It was torture for both of us, but I didn't want you to think I was like Paul. I told you I didn't want to hurt you, sweetheart. You'd have regretted making love with me later. I know you would."
    “What the hell's he saying?” Paul asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
    She placed her hand over the mouthpiece. “Shhh. He's thanking me for going to the dance,” she whispered.
    Jared grew quiet for a second.
    “Until I replayed that night in my mind over and over, the timing of what I said never dawned on me. I stopped us after you'd exposed yourself to me emotionally."
    Katherine removed her hand from the mouthpiece and glanced down at the table, avoiding Paul's eyes. “It doesn't matter now. I have something to-"
    He interrupted her. “It does matter, sweetheart. Your inexperience makes you more precious to me. It makes me more protective of you. I don't understand it, but I know hurting you would hurt me. You know how you'd do anything for Matt and your mother. That's how I feel about you. Did you hear me?"
    She coughed. “Yes."
    Hurting Jared would hurt her, too. Right to her soul.
    “I want us to stay close friends until we can sort out exactly how we feel about each other. I don't want to lose you or Matt's friendship. I'm trying not to do anything to louse that up. Understand?"
    “Tell him, dammit.” Paul reached toward her.
    She put her hand over the mouthpiece again. “Back off,” she warned, and turned so he couldn't snatch the phone from her.
    Please, Lord. Let Jared understand what I'm really saying. Don't let him believe the lies I'm forced to speak right now.
    She squeezed her eyes tight, fighting the tears welling up. “Understood. I agree, but I need to tell you some wonderful news. Paul and I have made up. We're getting remarried."
    “I don't believe you. Is Paul there in the room?"
    She laughed. “It's true, I swear. No, my fiancé isn't in the room."
    “How can you do this? Damn! He hasn't changed. You know that. He'll hurt you and Matt again. I'm coming over to talk some sense in your head."
    She rubbed her shoulder. What could she say? She glanced at Paul, who stood beside her now. He pulled the phone away from her ear.
    “I want to hear what he's saying,” Paul whispered.
    The room seemed to close in on her. Suffocate her. Smother her. She gasped for breath.
    “No. Don't barge over here like Superman. Remember. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Now, congratulate us."
    Silence reigned on the line for a long moment. “I'll be damned if I'll do that.” The sound of a fist slamming against wood filtered through the phone. “I stepped into it again, didn't I? When will I learn about women?"
    The line went dead.

* * * *

    “You want me to go beat the shit out of Paul?” Carl asked.
    “No,” Jared muttered.
    The second he'd hung up on Katherine, Jared had called his detective friend and he'd come over immediately. Jared grabbed a paper towel and sopped up the coffee trail on the kitchen floor. He had repeated every bit of his conversation with Katherine, including his suspicions that Paul had heard the tail end of it. Jared had to play a role, or risk Paul finding out Jared hadn't believed Katherine. Whatever trouble she was in, he hadn't wanted to compound it by making Paul suspicious.
    “What you gonna do?” Carl topped Jared's cup again and sat down beside him.
    Jared raised his head, turned and lobbed the dripping paper into the trash basket. “Wait for Katherine."
    Carl scratched his beard. “Didn't you tell me she said she's remarrying that son-of-a-bitch? Paul won, you lost."
    “No, I haven't, not yet anyway."
    Carl shook his head. “Last time you got dumped, you stayed stinking drunk for a week. This time, you've gone plumb wacky. Want me to call you a doctor?"
    Jared sipped his coffee and grabbed a napkin. “I don't need one. I need you to find out what scheme Paul's pulled that would force her to marry him.” He folded the napkin in half, and later into quarters as his mind raced. “I don't think it involves Matt. No attorney could get the custody order changed to Paul. That leaves Grace. It's a threat to her mother in some way, probably financial."
    “Any more ideas?"
    He shredded the napkin into tiny pieces and looked up, feeling the first spark of hope since his call from Katherine. “Paul's all about money, and I know Grace's husband was sick for several years. He wasn't old enough for Medicare. He owned a small business, but it declined and later failed. I bet we'll find he didn't have much insurance, or he maxed the benefits and racked up a lot of medical bills."
    Carl sipped the last of his coffee and stood up, shrugging on his coat. “And a lot of debt. I'll get right on it.” He paused at the door and looked back. “You know Christmas is in a few days. You wanna come-"
    “And call Sergeant Sinclair off,” Jared snapped, ignoring Carl's hesitant invitation before it was out. Good God, the last thing he needed was to spend Christmas with a gruff private detective and his wife drinking rum-and-sodas and thinking of Katherine. He forced a faint smile past the taut frustration that had been jamming up his blood for hours now. Carl wasn't to blame, and he was a good friend. Perhaps too good. “Okay? No more police escorts. I'm a big boy now."
    “You sure?” Carl asked, looking embarrassed, whether by the broken-off invitation or by being found out. “It makes the old man feel important-kind of like playing spy games."
    Carl didn't fool him. “I'll be fine. No one's going to hurt me."
    “You're gonna go over there and help her, aren't you?"
    Jared shook his head. He drank the last of his coffee and tightened the grip on the cup. “I can't. If I took any actions that caused her family harm, I don't think Katherine would forgive me. She wants to solve it herself, remember? No Superman routine."
    His eyes narrowed. “That's what she meant?"
    Jared nodded. “She was warning me not to try and help."
    “What tipped you off she doesn't intend to marry Paul?"
    “Her ‘trust me'. I asked her once how I knew she wouldn't go back to Paul. She said ‘trust me'. That's what I'm doing."
    Carl chuckled. “Yeah? Why you got me chasing my tail around finding out what her ex is up to?"
    Jared frowned. “I trust Katherine to the moon and back, but not that weasel. Paul's dangerous. If she needs me, I want the ammunition to step in fast and help her."
    Carl pushed away from the table and stood. “You're placing a lot of faith in a few vague phrases. What if you're wrong? What if Katherine's remarrying her ex?"
    Jared slammed the cup down so hard it shattered.

Chapter Thirteen

    Katherine had three days to accomplish the impossible. According to the banks she'd called, obtaining a loan for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars would take her weeks, and the holidays wouldn't speed up the process either. She was on her own.
    “Are you sure about this, Katherine? You love your house. Every time I asked to buy it, you turned me down flat,” Deborah reminded her.
    Katherine twisted the cord to the phone. She studied the painting of her mother and father that hung in the bedroom of her mother's home. His arms enfolded her in a gentle embrace. The light in her eyes radiated warmth even through the canvas as their hands touched lightly. “I'm positive."
    “Is anything wrong?” her childhood friend asked with concern. “I'll miss having you live next door, but where ever you move we'll keep in touch like always.” She paused. “You're determined to go through with this, aren't you?"
    She hated lying to her friend. “No, nothing's wrong. Yes, I'm selling my house, whether you buy it or not. Mom needs me here after her hip surgery. I don't want mother and Matt to know about this until I tell them."
    Deborah giggled. “You're going to surprise them at Christmas. Matt's always wanted to live nearer to his grandma. That's so like you. You're always so sweet."
    “Stop buttering me up. I won't come down on the price,” she kidded and crossed her fingers. “Trouble is, I need to sell it fast. Like yesterday."
    “You got it. I don't want to give you time to change your mind."
    “I won't,” Katherine promised and uncrossed her fingers.
    “I'm sorry. That probably sounded like I'm not grateful for our friendship. I truly am.” Deborah sniffed several times.
    “Don't start blubbering, or you'll have me doing it too. It's not like we won't ever see each other again."
    “Of course not. My delivery date is March fourth. So expect a call about that time."
    Deborah was expecting twin boys again and ecstatic. Katherine remembered her own innocent dreams of having more babies. Those dreams had died. She envied Deborah's hopefulness about the future. “I will."
    Deborah laughed. “I'm so excited. We've always rented, so this will be the first home we'll own. Yours will give us the extra space we need, too. I can't wait to tell John. We've tried to find a larger house in this neighborhood for so long."
    Katherine turned to the computer and attached a file to her e-mail. “I'm sending you information so we can handle all the transactions by Thursday through the mortgage company, title company, local banks, and fax. I'll come to Sugar Land January second and move my belongings. Is that date okay? If not, I'll get my stuff out right after Christmas."
    “Don't be a silly goose. Of course, January second is okay. Take a couple of weeks more, if you need them."
    “Thanks. I may do that.” She'd have to find an apartment after Christmas in Houston and hunt another house.
    “John always takes care of everything for me, so we'll wire the money to your bank right away. Isn't he a doll?"
    Another pang of jealousy hit Katherine. John pampered Deborah, especially when she was pregnant. “Yes, he is. John spoils you rotten. You better hold onto him."
    After Deborah hung up, Katherine stared at the list of assets displayed on the computer. All her years of hard work fit on half a page. Her throat constricted and she swallowed hard. They're only material things, she reminded herself. Things can be replaced.
    She winced and moved their home in the suburbs of Sugar Land to the sold column of the spreadsheet.
    Glancing up, the date posted at the top edge of the computer screen glared back at her-December eighteenth.
    She had three days to beat Paul at his own game by selling everything she'd ever owned to pay off her father's debts. Somehow, it didn't feel like winning. This morning she had pawned her jewelry, except for the emerald pendant Paul made her wear. The jewelry was no real loss because he had given it to her. She moved it over to the sold section, too.
    Paul's threat loomed like a vulture at the top of her spreadsheet. With the sale of her house and jewelry, she'd reduced his threat to a measly two hundred eighty thousand. Right?
    How could she possibly raise the rest?
    Someone tried to open her bedroom door. It clattered as the handle was jarred up and down. A foot kicked loudly against the bottom of the door. “Why is it locked?” Paul's voice shouted from the hall.
    Her hand shot down to the mouse and hit ‘SAVE,’ her stomach turning somersaults until it finished whirring and clicking the valuable information onto her floppy. She flung the disc behind a rack of books with one hand and opened a new, innocent file with the other. She sprinted across the room and unlocked the door.
    Paul flung it open, banging it against the wall. “Don't lock me out of here again.” His lips pressed into an angry scowl. He glanced around the room and looked inside the closet. “I heard your voice.” His eyes narrowed. “You trying to pull something?"
    “You missed the bed,” she said, lifting the spread so he could peek under it.
    “Very funny. What the hell were you doing in here?"
    She pointed to the computer. Last year's presentation showed on the screen, but he wouldn't know the slides were from a previous year. “Practicing a speech."
    He walked to the monitor, clicked the mouse and read a few lines.
    “Pretty dull, huh?” she asked.
    When he relaxed and seemed to accept her story, she breathed a silent sigh of relief.
    “I thought we'd go out to lunch. We should let Grace and Matt see us together some over the next couple of days,” he suggested, walking back toward the doorway.
    Paul had left after breakfast and stayed gone for three hours today. His ‘trip’ was her window of opportunity to raise money. She suspected he had gone to see Ann Young. Maybe if she prodded him a little, he'd get angry and stay away more.
    She had to try.
    “Where'd you go this morning?” she asked, glancing at him.
    “An urgent matter came up,” he said suggestively. The look he gave her left no doubt where he'd been.
    She knew he hated orders. Tell him not to do anything, and he'd do it just for spite. “Stay away from Ann Young while you're here.” She turned her back on him and stood by the computer with her arms crossed, waiting for his response.
    She heard him move closer.
    “You want me to bring my urges in here?” His breath fell on the nape of her neck.
    She lifted a four-inch bladed letter opener, so he could see it over he shoulder. “Do you think you should?"
    Paul moved away. “I don't think so, and stop trying to tell me what to do.” He pointed his finger at her. “That's the thing I hated most about being married to you. I'll see her every morning if I want to. Ann's a helluva lot of fun. Hot. Bedding you was like rubbing against ice,” he accused.
    She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.
    He's playing on your feelings of inadequacy. Don't let him know he can get to you.
    When she replied, her voice was steady and level. “I need to freshen up before we leave."
    He laughed harshly. “Who knows? Maybe we'll run into Jared while we're out."
    Her eyes flew open, and her throat tightened.
    Jared.

* * * *

    “You're making a huge mistake. I don't know why you're doing this, but think about it for a week or two before you do anything,” her business partner, Roger, suggested over the phone the next day.
    A week or two! Today was December nineteenth. She had one more day to raise the money to pay off Paul.
    “Will you buy my share of the investment firm or not?” Katherine held the phone to one side and wiped the tears that slid down her cheeks.
    “You know damn well I'd jump at it, and so would Ethan and Christopher. We could probably swing one hundred and fifty thousand for your buyout initially. Long range payments could range from forty to sixty thousand a year over the next five years. The three of us will sit down, work out the math and get exact figures to you later today."
    Her chin quivered. “Do it,” she whispered. “Send an e-mail to me with the specifics."
    His voice softened. “Katherine, you're selling a business you've built from the ground up. Your baby. One that's growing fast and has the potential to bring you millions in ten or twelve years. We're friends, not just business partners. Why are you doing this crazy thing?"
    “My mother needs me,” she murmured.
    “There's no way I can change your mind?"
    “No."
    He exhaled into the phone. “Okay. Fax me the signed documents if you agree to what I send you, we'll wire the money to your bank tomorrow.” Roger paused. “Keep in touch, Katherine."
    After hanging up the phone, she blew her nose and moved her investment firm over to the sold section.
    The amount she needed now stood at one hundred and thirty thousand. She had one more day to raise that astronomical sum.
    Continuing down the list of assets, she bypassed the car. Selling her eight-year-old Mustang was out of the question. Paul would notice if it suddenly went missing. If he became suspicious, he would move the wedding date up.
    That left one asset.
    The coin collection her mother had found and given Katherine. She had placed a fat question mark beside it. While the sentimental value was priceless, the monetary value was unknown.
    She had no choice. Time was running out.
    Tomorrow, she'd sell another piece of her heart.

* * * *

    Jared owed Carl a bonus. The detective had traced every transaction Paul and Katherine made and had them tailed.
    “I'm telling you, Mr. Randall, those coins Katherine Cahill brought in for appraisal are worth fifty thousand dollars tops,” the coin collector whispered into the phone.
    “Give the lady what she's asking,” Jared said tersely. He was about one heartbeat away from losing his temper. Katherine was in the other room waiting on an appraisal and probably worried sick.
    Today was December twentieth. Jared knew she was running out of time to raise the money.
    “You want me to give her one hundred thirty thousand dollars for something worth fifty?” he croaked. “Are you loony?"
    “Probably."
    He thought about the marriage license Paul and Katherine had obtained from the courthouse. Paul had bragged to the clerk that they were getting married December twenty-first. Tomorrow.
    “Put Carl on the line,” Jared told the coin collector.
    “I'm here,” Carl said into the telephone. “Your lady friend's a real looker. No wonder you can't sleep."
    “She didn't catch you following her, did she?"
    “Hell, no. She's in the office waiting for Lester to give her an estimate of the value on them coins. I've been stuck in this storage room most of the time. What kind of a detective would I be if I let her catch me? I peeked through some wire. What do you want me to do?"
    “Reimburse Lester for whatever amount he gives Katherine. If you don't, the check he gives her will bounce higher than the Washington Monument.” He paused. “Give Lester the reward we promised him for helping us out. Oh, and don't forget to bring the coin collection to me."
    “Got it covered,” Carl said.

* * * *

    Half an hour later, Jared couldn't believe his eyes. Katherine was standing in his office, not two feet away from him. She must have left the coin collector's office and came directly to Jared's.
    Jeez! Carl's on his way here, too.
    His pen clattered onto the desk.
    She placed her briefcase on a chair and pulled her coat tighter. “I can't stay long. Don't say anything, just listen, please. I couldn't get in touch with you until now. I lied about Paul and me making up and our happy marriage plans."
    She spun around and paced the room. “I was afraid you'd do something stupid, Jared Randall. You know how I hate that. I had to think of my family. I didn't mean to hurt you.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Can you forgive me?"
    Forgive her?
    He wanted to drag her into his arms and kiss her. And he intended to do precisely that, after they solved their mutual problem-Paul.
    “There's nothing to forgive. I got your message loud and clear when we talked on the phone."
    Her jade eyes stared, and she seemed bewildered.
    He repeated the words she'd used to tip him off. “'Trust me. Don't come over here like Superman.'” He stood and moved to face her. “I understood what you implied, sweetheart. If I'd tried to contact you, Paul might suspect I didn't believe you. I'd jeopardize you and your family.” His hand grazed her shoulder.
    “What do you know about Paul and the jeopardy he's placed my family in?” she asked.
    “I'm not going into details, but I found out that Paul had bought up your father's loans.” He put his hands up to stop her objections. “I haven't done one single thing that would jeopardize your raising the money."
    When she looked up at him, tears shimmered on her lashes. “I know that. Do you really think about me the way I think about Matt and my mother?"
    He smiled faintly. “And then some."
    Her eyes were puffy from crying, but to him she looked beautiful. She shifted from one booted foot to the other and checked her watch.
    Her shoulders slumped.
    “Everything's falling apart. I promised Dad I'd look after Mom after he died. Look at this mess. I'm juggling so many balls already and another one is tossed into the air.” She shook her head and exhaled.
    Was she in some other danger he didn't know about?
    He frowned. “What other ball are you talking about?"
    “Mother and Thomas.” She shrugged. “I can only solve one problem at a time and right now that's Paul."
    “It'll all work out, Katherine. You've got me on your side. You said you couldn't stay long when you walked into my office,” he reminded her.
    She checked her watch again. “Paul visits Ann every morning. I have to get back before he realizes I'm gone. I don't want him to get suspicious."
    Paul had become their common enemy. “Anything I can do to help?"
    Unlatching her brief case, she withdrew a file and handed it to him. “I've typed instructions for you to follow. I'll arrive at your office at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. At ten o'clock, Paul will arrive. When you read the file, you'll understand why he'll be coming and the paperwork you need to have ready before Paul arrives."
    Jared wrinkled his brow. Why was Paul coming? How in the hell was Katherine going to pull that off?
    “I don't have time to explain, so don't ask. Trust me again. That's one of the balls I'm juggling. I'll get him here. Do exactly what I say in the notes."
    “What do you plan on doing to Paul?” Jared asked
    “Surprising the hell out of him. And giving him a bit of crow to eat. Care to help me, Superman?"
    He grinned at her. “I love your style,” he teased.

Chapter Fourteen

    Twenty-four hours didn't sound like much, but Katherine was amazed at how much she had accomplished when her mother's welfare depended on it. She glanced down at Jared's desk calendar and smiled. It was clear except for ringed coffee stains and the day's date, December twenty-first. Jared had written ‘Katherine's Wedding Day', slashed across it with a big X and ‘Hell No'.
    Her sentiments exactly.
    She leaned back in the chair and glanced at the clock. Only five minutes till the ten o'clock showdown with Paul.
    Jared sat behind his desk, wearing a dress-for-power red tie, and repeatedly clicked the pen in his hand. His warm blue eyes studied her. “Paul should be here any minute.” He threw the pen down. “You're a miracle worker, Katherine."
    She shook her head. “You're giving me more credit than I deserve for getting Paul here today. I simply appealed to his greed. Before we married, he made me sign a prenuptial agreement, which he had prepared. This time, I told him to meet us and sign one for me. Just as I figured, he accused me of trying to pull a fast one. He'll probably enter your office swinging."
    He raised a brow. “You want to tell me why you have a dump truck and a wrecker ready and waiting behind the parking lot?"
    She grinned. “No, I don't."
    The intercom buzzed twice, Jared's secretary signaled Paul's arrival. Katherine quickly glanced at her briefcase and the folders on Jared's desk.
    Let the show begin.
    Jared winked. “You look very professional in that French braid and suit.” He smiled faintly. They both turned to stare at the door. “Ready, set, go get him, tiger,” he whispered as it moved.
    “What the hell are you two pulling?” Paul burst into the room and slammed the door shut. “I have no intention of agreeing to Katherine's prenup, so forget it.” Whipping out a document, he threw it at Jared. “She'll sign this one."
    Jared whisked it aside and pulled out papers of his own. “Katherine has asked me to represent her best interest and prepare some legal documents."
    Katherine bit her lip to keep from smiling. His retainer fee of one dollar had almost broken her.
    Paul dropped into the chair next to her. “Back off, or you'll regret it, Katherine."
    She pushed her shoulders back and sat perfectly straight in the chair. Her eyes shifted back to Jared. The tight muscles in his jaw rippled like the restless tide.
    “As I was about to explain,” Jared continued, laying a document in front of Paul, “I need you to sign an acknowledgment that you have received payment in full from Katherine for her father's debts."
    Paul narrowed his eyes as he read the document. When he finished, he crossed his arms. “I'm not signing this."
    “Yes, you will. Katherine owes you nothing after this transaction.” Jared handed him a cashier's check for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
    Paul's mouth gaped as he stared at the check. He turned and gave her a murderous look. “I underestimated you.” His dark brow lifted. “Is this what it took to get you into Jared's bed?"
    She gasped and her gaze flew to Jared.
    His hands fisted and every muscle tensed, ready to pulverize Paul. “Katherine can't be bought, you piece of slime."
    She lifted her hand to stop Jared from lashing out. Paul deserved everything Jared could throw at him, but she didn't want Jared to dirty his hands on the jerk. “I sold everything I owned."
    Paul looked at her for a moment. He snorted and shook his head.
    Katherine was incensed. He had obviously dismissed her statement as a lie. She would never get him to understand loving someone so much you'd sacrifice everything for his or her safety and happiness.
    Jared handed him a pen, but he knocked it aside. Paul withdrew one from his jacket, signed his name to the document and threw the pen into the trash. He stood.
    “You aren't leaving until Katherine gives you permission."
    “Like hell.” Paul stomped toward the door.
    “Leave now, and I'll personally break your scrawny neck,” Jared promised.
    Katherine jumped to her feet.
    Paul stood at the door, hands on his hips, staring at her. His lips thinned into an angry line. “What the hell do you want?"
    “Why don't you sit down, so we can both find out what Katherine wants?” Jared suggested levelly.
    After Paul dropped back into the chair, Jared turned his head toward Katherine and, offering a sly wink, said, “You've got his attention."
    She remained standing, too nervous to sit down. Her mind became more alert to every detail. Her heart beat faster. Two pairs of eyes watched her. For the first time in her life, she was doing something for herself. It felt incredible.
    She fisted her hands. “Damn you, Paul. How could you do this to me and my family?” She expelled a deep breath and shook her head. “I don't understand you. I never have.” Her mind tore to the past. “You purposely seduced me, made me think you loved me and married me-not for love, but for your family's approval."
    She looked down at Paul and couldn't believe her eyes.
    Without looking her way, Paul reached forward, extracted another paperclip from the box on the desk, and added it to a chain he was idly constructing as she spoke.
    She clenched her teeth.
    Dear God, didn't he care about anything or anybody? She'd never told anyone what she was about to expose of her relationship with Paul, but she had a right to know the truth. The pain still hurt as she continued, “Why haven't you ever tried to be close to Matt? Was it because I didn't go through with the abortion you wanted me to have?"
    He dropped the chain and glanced up. “Don't play the innocent,” he sneered. “You ingratiated yourself with my parents for one reason-to get your hooks into me. I knew it, but couldn't stop it. You forced me to marry you."
    He slammed his fist on the desk. “When we got married, I told you I didn't want kids. I took precautions, but you managed to get pregnant.” He threw her a knowing look. “Don't blame me if I ran around. You deserved it, in spades."
    It wouldn't do her any good to argue with Paul's twisted logic. Her mind returned to the night he had ordered her to get an abortion. His hateful words echoed around the room and she listened to them repeat themselves inside her mind. As the facts gelled, a dim, disgusted understanding took their place. She covered her mouth and stared at him in horror as a chill scraped up her spine. “You took precautions and I managed to get pregnant? You don't think Matt is your child, do you?"
    “Hell, I know he isn't."
    Her hands shook. Blood rushed from her head leaving her dizzy and disoriented. The room spun.
    “Who do you believe is the father?"
    Pure hatred filled his eyes. “William. He's my brother's stinking kid."
    Her vision blurred, and she cleared her throat.
    “William?” She shook her head, trying to integrate this insanity. She and William! How could he possibly believe that? “Your brother's happily married and has three children of his own. He showed Matt love because that's William's nature. He tried to make up for your neglect."
    Paul snorted. “I saw the way you two looked at each other. You didn't fool me."
    “The way we looked at each other?” She tried to remember any time that she and William might have given Paul the wrong impression, but drew a blank. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? We were friends, relatives. You've lost me."
    “Lust. I saw it.” He pointed an accusing finger at her.
    “You're disgusting.” She pursed her lips and pointed an accusing finger right back at him. “So you came here and hoped to punish William, me and Matt some more. And you'd take over the reins from your father."
    Paul shook his head. “You'd get what you deserved."
    And so will you.
    Katherine removed a folder from her briefcase. She pulled out a copy of a note she had typed and hand-delivered to Ann Young earlier today.
    “What's this?” Paul scanned the contents and his mouth rounded. “I didn't write this shit. What gift are you hoping she'll accept with my love? I never gave that slut anything."
    “No, you didn't write it. I did. I sent her the emerald pendant you forced me to accept."
    His teeth gnashed. “What have you done, you bitch?"
    She smiled grimly and held up her hand. “Oh, there's more. I called your father. Malcolm was surprised anyone knew about his retiring soon. He was particularly interested in your blackmail scheme to take control, the amount of money you exhorted out of me."
    Paul shot out of his chair, sending it hurling across the room and clanking into a potted palm. “You did what?! What the hell made you do that?" he bellowed.
    “Your father made me promise I'd let him know if you didn't treat me right this time. I kept my promise."
    “I'm leaving.” He spun on his heels.
    “Not yet,” she yelled after him. “I have one last parting gift for you."
    She stomped to the closet and opened the door. Stashed in the corner was a brand new, shiny shovel. The wooden handle was adorned with a bright red bow. Smiling, she presented it to Paul.
    “Have at it,” she said.
    He stared at the shovel before glaring at her.
    Jared stood and moved toward him. “Don't go thinking any nasty thoughts, Paul. Just take the gift from the lady and leave."
    He aimed one furious, impotent look at her, but when Jared continued to move across the room he snatched the shovel from her and raced out.
    The moment the door shut, strong, caring hands reached for her. “Jared,” she whispered as his arms enfolded her. “What he said was a lie. William-"
    He placed a finger to her lips. “Shhh. Don't dignify Paul's ravings. That ex of yours makes me want to apologize for the whole male species. My tongue's almost bit clear through from holding it."
    He lifted her chin and his warm blue eyes gazed into hers. “You should be proud of yourself. The way you stood up to him."
    Tears gathered in the corner of her eyes and streaked down her face. She hiccupped. “You're proud of me?"
    “Very much so.” His hands ghosted like a healing balm across her cheeks and wiped at the tears. “Don't cry, Katherine. He isn't worth it. He won't be back. You're free. Matt's free. Let's celebrate you letting go of the past forever."
    She cuddled in his arms, feeling warm and safe. “Only if you feed me dinner at your ranch in Katy, and you do the cooking."
    He rubbed her back, kneading the knots in her shoulders.
    “Oh, that feels soooo good,” she murmured, squeezing him around the waist.
    His hands stilled. “You want to go to the ranch again? Just you and me?” He shook his head. “Uh, Katherine, I don't think that's such a good idea."
    She glanced up at him. “What's the matter, friend? Can't you cook?” she teased.
    He tweaked her nose. “Okay, smarty pants, I'll show you. It's a deal.” He kissed the top of her head.
    His hands squeezed her back and began kneading her muscles again. “I'm curious. What was all that business with the shovel?"
    She laughed wickedly and glanced at him. “Let's just say, he may have to fight flies off his Porsche."
    Jared's eyes lit with mischief. He chuckled. “Woman, remind me never to make you mad."

* * * *

    She glanced at Jared, who stood by the stereo selecting CDs. The muscles in his chest flexed against the cording in his blue shirt, reminding her of the awesome power this gentle man held at his disposal. An old, unnecessary flicker of fear shot through her, reminding her how dangerous it was to be at a man's mercy. Frowning, she pushed it aside, determined not to let anything interfere with her plans for the night. Jared is not Paul, she chanted inwardly. Jared is-good.
    The fear disappeared, and she smiled. So, it was that easy? Find a good man and learn a new life? She shook her head ruefully. It was going to be a wonderful night.
    The rattle of CD cases drew her mind back to the present. Still smiling, she glanced over. “How long does it take to put a few CDs on to play?"
    “Don't rush me, woman. I'm trying to select good ones,” he teased, glancing down at the titles.
    “If you hear me snoring, you know you took too long."
    “All right, I'm hurrying.” The clatter got faster and a few hit the floor, followed by a, “Blast it."
    She smiled.
    They had just finished their meal. She kicked off her heels, smoothed her dress, and leaned back, enjoying the smell of wood burning in the fireplace. She felt as if she had returned to heaven as she sank deeper into the leather couch in his den.
    “Did you really cook that lobster bisque and grilled swordfish?” she asked with a smile. Her eyes closed.
    She heard him chuckle, the sound low and reassuring beside the crackle of wood. “Does it count if my next door neighbor used my stove to cook it?"
    She laughed. “You scoundrel. You cheated."
    “I had to. You ever had your stomach pumped out?"
    She opened her eyes and found his rueful smile waiting. “Okay, I get the picture. Tell your neighbor it was delicious and thanks for saving my life."
    “I will or she'll never cook for me again."
    She chuckled. “I told you I came bearing gifts,” Katherine said.
    A bottle of chilled champagne waited in an ice bucket on the table. Two crystal glasses caught the candlelight and sparkled beside the fondue pot. Sweet chocolate melted to perfection over the flame, ready to coat two baskets of hothouse strawberries. These were her gifts for the evening.
    And one other gift.
    Maybe?
    She had never been sexually bold in her life; but then again, it was far past time she came out of her shell. She glanced at Jared. Would he accept the other gift she would offer tonight?
    “I have three more slots. I'm taking requests,” he said.
    “Alan Jackson's ‘Don't Close Your Eyes’ is good,” she answered. Would he remember that song had been playing when they kissed on this couch? When Matt had stopped them from-"
    “Uh, Katherine, I think that one's scratched. Anything else you want to hear?"
    Liar! He remembered.
    “Ronnie Milsap. You can't go wrong with anything he sings. How about, ‘Why Don't You Spend The Night',” she said seductively. “Or is that scratched, too?"
    Their gazes locked.
    “Somehow, I don't think we're talking about CDs.” He fed three discs into the stereo.
    “One of us was.” She folded her arms across her chest as nice, safe Christmas music played softly in the background.
    He strolled over and dropped down beside her, pulled a knee up on the couch and turned to face her. “Last time you were here, you were in a funny mood, too. Must be the place."
    “Or the company,” she corrected.
    He sighed. “I care too much for you to just hop into bed with you.” He reached and laced his fingers through hers. “We need to talk."
    “What about?"
    He studied her carefully. “You and me. Where this relationship it heading and why you want to make a sudden move like this-"
    Her face heated and she interrupted him. “It isn't sudden. I don't think of you the way I did when we first met. I'm the one who wanted to make love. You're the one who stopped us."
    “Because I thought you'd be hurt emotionally. I still believe you'd regret it in the morning."
    “I've never had a ‘morning after'. I had a morning after my marriage and I hated that. I've just started to think that maybe your lifestyle is the answer. Have a perfect affair and enjoy the moment."
    His blue eyes flashed anger. “I don't want to hear you talk like that. That isn't you talking. That's hurt, anger, disappointment and stress."
    She bit down on her bottom lip. “How would you know? You don't know me."
    “Yes, I do. You're not like the other women I've known."
    She squeezed her eyes shut and fought the feeling of inadequacy that overwhelmed her.
    Jared held her face between his hands. “Sweetheart, I don't want you making love with me for the wrong reasons."
    Katherine opened her eyes and peered into his. She inhaled deeply, breathing in Jared's woodsy scent. “I don't know the right reason. If I hit the right one, will you make love to me?"
    “You don't want to do this,” he cautioned.
    She dipped a strawberry in chocolate and nibbled. “You're sexy, gorgeous, masculine, strong, and tender. And I do want to do this."
    He smiled and the dimple in his cheek deepened. “I'm flattered, but your reasons are superficial and don't count."
    “Okay, new list. I care about you as much as I care about my mother or Matt."
    “How? That's affection, not physical,” he reminded her.
    “Make no mistake about that. I want you with every breath I take.” She shook her head at him with a half-smile. “Damn, that's a bad one. It could just be lust."
    “It's more than lust we feel or you'd be in my bed right now. Wanting someone's not bad. I wouldn't want you, if you didn't want me back."
    “Okay, that one stays on the list.” She hesitated. “I'm not like your fiancée because I'm not going back to my ex. I won't hurt you. I'm here.” She watched him. “If you think you're not good enough for me because your mother never married your father, I don't care about any of that."
    His eyes glazed with pain. “You should care. You know who your mother and father are. You can probably trace your family tree back to Sam Houston. I'm not even sure the man I knew for eight years was my father.” Bitterness echoed in his parody of laughter.
    She drew nearer to him, hoping to absorb some of the pain he felt.
    “Before mother died, I always hoped he'd come back. I thought things would be better if he did. At least mother would stop drinking. After she died, I searched until I found him. I went to his house to let him know what happened. He was married, had been the whole time he knew my mother. The bastard thought she sent me to extort money from him, called her names, said he was one of many and beat the hell out of me."
    Her throat closed. “I'm sorry,” Katherine said hoarsely. She hugged him tenderly.
    He shrugged and coughed before moving away from her.
    She shook her head. “I can't undo your past, darling, any more than you can undo mine, but we can't allow it to ruin the present or the future."
    He stood, walked to the end table and withdrew a wrapped present. “Here's another reason we can't make love. I wanted to give you this for Christmas, but I think I should level with you now. You always hate it when I act like a hero and jump in to save you. Well, I've done it again."
    She tore the package open and uncovered her father's coin collection. “You bought this back for me? How sweet."
    “Nothing I did was sweet. Your mother told me about the coins. I offered a hefty reward to coin collectors for notification if you called or stopped by. And I had a detective follow you. The truth is, they're worth fifty thousand. I paid the coin collector. I knew if that was your last chance to raise the money, you'd never make it."
    Her eyes filled with tears and she looked up, chin trembling. “You acted like Superman again and saved me?"
    “I'm sorry,” he said bowing his head.
    “I'm not.” She smiled at his shocked expression. “I feel like kissing your feet. I might not believe I need a Superman, but it's wonderful to have someone who wants to, and can be one for me."
    She placed the coin collection on the table, dipped a ripe strawberry into the chocolate and turned around. “Open for me.” Would he remember saying that to her when he had kissed her?
    The desire in his eyes made her breath catch.
    His mouth parted. She bent forward and touched her lips to his, teasing the corner and nibbling lightly.
    “Sweeter than any strawberry,” he whispered.
    She stifled a moan as he sampled the fruit and licked the chocolate from her fingers.
    “I'm out of lists,” she said, her voice shaking. “Maybe I should ask you outright. Are there any other skeletons hiding up there in that warped conscience of yours that would keep us apart?"
    He swallowed and his Adam's apple jumped. “Matt."
    She pulled back, surprised. “You love Matt."
    He squirmed on the couch. “Of course I do. I don't want you to think I'm dating you to please Matt."
    She shrugged. “You could think the same about me, but I wouldn't do that to him."
    Jared hesitated. “If I hurt you, I hurt me. Do you understand, sweetheart?"
    “Yes.” She blew out the candles on the table and plunged the room in darkness. A soft moonlight shone through the window, casting the room in shadow and faint light. “I promise to respect you in the morning."
    “Woman, you're something else,” he growled as he pulled her to him. His warm breath heated her skin. He nuzzled her neck with his lips and his tongue. His teeth nipped their way up to her earlobe.
    Goosebumps lined her arms. His tongue circled her ear and delved inside. She pulled him closer. “I won't regret this in the morning."
    “You better not.” He silenced her by brushing his lips against hers. She closed her eyes. His tongue stroked her lips, outlining them ever so slowly. Around and around. Her need to kiss and taste him grew.
    A low moan escaped from him when she pressed her breasts against his chest. She clasped her hands around the back of his head, holding his face still while she kissed him. He returned her kiss and deepened it, his tongue entreating her to open. She did and he rewarded her. His tongue slipped into her mouth and explored hers, skimming over the roof of her mouth. He tasted of chocolate, strawberry and Jared. She couldn't get enough.
    They drew apart, gasped for air and stared at each other. His hand stroked her cheek.
    She rubbed her lips against his palm. “Take me to bed."
    His eyes smoldered with desire. “I've waited forever to make love to you."
    He bent, lifted her like she was a priceless treasure, held her against him and carried her into the bedroom.
    He sat her down and faced her. His fingers stroked her lips. “We're in no hurry, sweetheart. You set the pace."
    “May I undress you?” she reached for his shirt.
    A slow smile spread across his face, “You don't have to ask. My body is yours. Do anything you want."
    “Mine, too,” she offered.
    He chuckled softly. “I sure hope so."
    They stood together and she undid each button of his shirt and peeled it down his muscular biceps. Her fingers eagerly slid over his chest, waist and back, learning each line, each curve. She marveled at the texture of the fine hair on his body. His breath caught as she brushed her lips against his skin, stopping to taste and nip his neck. “Jared, I could do this all night,” she whispered against his nipples, her breath causing them to pucker. “You're so perfect. So beautiful."
    “Not me, you are,” he said, running his hands up her sides and skimming beneath her breasts. “My turn,” he whispered. His hands reached and unbuttoned her dress. It fluttered to the floor, resting at her stocking feet. She stepped over it.
    His gaze made her proud she was a woman. It devoured her body, coming to rest on the swell of her breasts. Heat lapped from his gaze as she stood before him wearing only a satin demi bra, thong and lace-topped thigh high stockings.
    She held her breath.
    Please touch me or I'll die.
    “Red,” he said, fingering the lacy embroidered hearts stitched across her bra. Her nipples tingled and beaded at his touch. He lifted a brow. “My favorite color."
    His lips lifted at the corners into a slow smile. “Seems a shame to see you in it only a few seconds.” He felt her breasts through the sheer design. She moaned when he unclasped her bra. Tossing it aside, he bent and kissed each breast so tenderly that her breath caught in her throat. He seemed to be paying homage to them.
    He glanced at her seductively. “Sweetheart, remove your hose.” He sat on the bed and studied her.
    Jared took a deep breath that was meant to calm him, but there was no chance of that happening. He had expected her to snatch the hose off, but watched as his anticipation grew.
    Katherine's hands rested on her hips, jutting her full breasts in front of her. She stood proudly. A low groan escaped him when she bent and touched the lacy-hose. Pushing the hose halfway down, she sat on the side of the bed to face him, lifted one leg and ran her fingers slowly along the silk. The moonlight silhouetted her shapely leg as he watched her sensuous movements. She slowly rolled the silk down her legs, revealing luscious bare skin. Desire charged through him. He clamped down on his jaw and reminded himself to move slowly.
    She stood up, glancing down at her sexy red thong. At the moment, he wasn't sure he could walk across the room to remove the flimsy material.
    Her jade eyes showed confusion. She shook her head.
    He took another calming breath, studying the small piece of sheer red that covered paradise. He'd laugh, if it wouldn't be so painful right now. He couldn't seem to think straight enough to put two words together in a coherent sentence. His erection seemed in control of his thoughts and completely single-minded.
    She stared at his crotch, her eyes widened and she blushed redder than her underpants. “Oh. I tried to excite you by putting on a little show."
    He cleared his throat. “It worked,” he croaked.
    “I'm so sorry. I didn't think. I mean, I thought because I wasn't very experienced I might not appeal to you sexually so I tried to spice it up.” She could see his body tensed with restraint, his eyes darkened into indigo, and she laughed. His gaze lifted from her body in faint surprise. “You don't know how this makes me feel,” she said.
    He grinned back. His dimples deepened in the shadowy moonlight. “Powerful?"
    “And happy.” She stood in front of him. He peeled the thong off her, bestowing a kiss on her womanhood before she climbed into bed.
    Her gaze seemed glued to his body. If the knowledge that she excited him made her happy, he was about to make her euphoric. He stood up to remove his clothes.
    He slowly unzipped his pants and they dropped to the floor. She licked her lips as he turned to face her, proudly showing her just how much she excited him. He took slow, deliberate pains in removing his briefs.
    As he walked toward her, her entire body tingled with excitement. She'd never seen anything as magnificent as his full arousal.
    Her breath caught in her throat, labored. Her head reeled.
    The sound of her unsteady breathing filled the room, and Jared moved closer with a faint smile. “Did you enjoy the show?"
    She looked up and nodded wordlessly, unable to do so much as speak.
    Moving slowly, he eased back the sheet and lay down beside her.
    Her heartbeat quickened. She reached for him, enjoying the hard strength of his arousal in her hand. “I think we can speed up the pace."
    He smiled. “Didn't anyone ever tell you anticipation is half the fun of making love?” he murmured, brushing back a lock of hair from her face and kissing her on the cheek. “No shortcuts the first time, sweetheart. I want to make it as pleasurable as I possibly can for you."
    Tears stung her eyes.
    He rested on his elbows and glanced down at her. “What's wrong?"
    She reached up and touched his face. “I wish you could have been my first."
    He squeezed his eyes tight then opened them. “I don't and neither do you. You wouldn't have Matt."
    A tear fell onto her cheek. She nodded and trembled at the warmth that shimmered in his eyes.
    Reaching into the nightstand, he sheathed himself with a condom. He bent his head and nuzzled the area behind her ear. “Please tell me you can spend the whole night."
    She quivered as waves of desire shot through her and bathed her in heat. His fingertips rubbed her nipples into peaks, plucked the points and rolled them between his fingers. He lifted her breasts and soothed the aching tips with his tongue, finally his mouth closed around her nipple. She dropped her head back and moaned, trying to speak between the whimpers of pleasure.
    “Yes,” she hissed. “Ohhh.” She sucked in her breath when his hand moved. Warmth spread across her skin as he inched his way down her ribs and past her stomach.
    “I was going to cry and beg if you said no.” He chuckled low, and groaned softly as his hand slipped between her legs.
    She closed her eyes as his fingers moved lower, touching the center of her dampness. His palm cupped her, rotating. The weight made her desire spike. His fingers entered her, rubbing against her warmth. She closed her eyes as the tension built in her body.
    He poised his naked body over her. She caught her breath and clutched at his back. “You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.” His knee separated her thighs and she felt his arousal near her center. “I want to watch you come apart the first time, Katherine. Open your eyes."
    She glanced up at him as he entered her. His eyes bathed her in love. It felt so good to have him inside her. She sighed. “Please, don't move. I want it to last."
    For a moment, he lay still, and then he lowered his head to suckle her breasts.
    Her tumult built.
    She couldn't control her need for release. She moved and gasped from the pleasure. “It feels soooo good."
    Their gazes held.
    He thrust, meeting her movements. She arched toward him, wrapping her legs around his hips, pulling him deeper with each thrust.
    When they reached the peak of pleasure, they fell together, each one called out the other's name as tremor after tremor rocked them. They had stepped beyond friendship, beyond a perfect affair into closeness neither of them wanted to end.
    Later, when their hearts beat in unison, Jared pulled her into his arms. Her head rested on his chest. “Katherine, you're the best thing that's happened to me in my entire life. I'm so glad I found you."
    She entwined her bare legs with his under the cover. “I'm glad you found me, too. Well, you could say I fell for you right from the start. So you're glad I talked you into this?"
    He chuckled. “Yesss.” Holding her in his arms, he whispered, “I almost forgot.” He kissed the top of her head. “I promised Thomas you'd do something for him and Grace."
    She yawned, drawing nearer to him. “What did you promise?"
    “It'll help your mother,” he suggested. “You would do anything for Grace."
    She quirked an eyebrow. “Jared Randall, stop beating around the bush. What did you promise Thomas I'd do?"
    “Talk to Grace about sex."
    “Are you crazy?"

Chapter Fifteen

    Jared couldn't believe Katherine had spent last night in his bed. His gaze lingered on every inch of her lovely naked body as he untangled sheets and recovered them.
    “Wake up, sleepyhead.” He pushed a lock of silky, dark hair behind her ear, gave into temptation and nibbled her lobe.
    A throaty whimper came up in reply, her slim arms slipped around his neck. He rolled away, rested his head on his elbow and stared down at her. “Oh, no. I want to talk.” He smiled at her closed eyes and relaxed face. “Last night I tried to talk to you several times about our relationship and the future, but we got carried away."
    She opened one sleepy-eye and wet her lips. “Which time are you referring to?” she teased.
    He shivered when her fingertips trailed down his stomach into dangerous territory. He groaned with frustration. Oh, Lord. “I'm trying not to think about any of them, but you aren't cooperating. How about helping me out here?"
    “Yes, sir,” she said, saluting him military style. She sat up with her eyes full of mischief, exposing her full breasts.
    “Cut that out.” His gaze riveted on her beaded nipples, poised, begging him to fondle them. “You're trying to distract me again."
    She smiled at him, flopped back down and pulled the covers obediently over her chest.
    He snatched what dignity he could and held the edge of the sliding sheet over his full erection.
    “Is this better?” she asked, ducking underneath the covers and holding the pillow over her head.
    “Stop playing games,” he pleaded, moving away from her.
    Maybe Katherine didn't realize they were at a crossroad in their relationship, but he did. He knew it the minute he had made love to her. She had surrendered her sweet body to him, but he had surrendered his heart and soul to her. After last night, he wanted to bind her to him so tightly that nothing this side of heaven could rip them apart. Was she ready for total commitment? Would she trust him with her life and Matt's?
    He shook his head. “I'm serious. We need to talk to Matt and Grace."
    She peeked out, tossing the pillow aside. “What about?"
    “Katherine Marisa Cahill, if you think I'd settle for last night and not have you and Matt in my life forever, you better think again. You're not running from this relationship. Matt needs a father, I know you want more children, so do I, and they aren't going to be born out of wedlock like I was."
    She threw her arms around his neck and laughed. “Do I feel like I'm running, darling?"
    God, he loved everything about this woman.
    “You little vixen.” He swatted her bottom, his hand staying to reward it with caresses.
    She glanced up at him. “I needed to hear you say you wanted the same things I do."
    “I do, I do, I do, except I was thinking we'd get married and have five more children."
    He loved the shocked ‘O’ her mouth formed. “Five! Jared Randall, I'll have three, you can have the other two. Not me."
    He chuckled. “It's a deal.” He winked. “It might be fun trying to talk you into having the other two, anyway."
    “Oh, you,” she said, punching his shoulder.
    He studied her face and the warmth and desire reflected deep within her jade eyes. “I'm not Paul. I won't ever hurt you or Matt."
    She nodded and pressed her lips to his chest. “I know."
    He wove his fingers through her long hair, caressing the ends as they curled around his hand. “I needed to hear you say that."
    “If I keep lying here with you, we're never going to get out of bed, and we have a lot to do today.” Rolling onto his back, he glanced at the clock on the wall. “It's eight. Let's get up and have breakfast. Is it okay if we give Matt that collie he always wanted for Christmas?"
    She nodded and smiled. “You found one?"
    “I found several. I thought we'd visit three kennels today and pick out one with just the right personality. After we take care of all that, I'll come back over to Grace's house around five. I thought I'd talk to your mother and Matt. To celebrate, I'd like to take everyone out to dinner before we drive around looking at Christmas lights."
    Katherine angled her head to the side. “What do you mean, you want to talk to them?"
    He smiled. “Well, I guess I mostly want to talk to Matt. I want to have a man-to-man with him and ask for your hand."
    Tears filled her eyes. “You're wonderful,” she said in a choked voice.
    “Hey, don't go crying on me,” he said with a chuckle.
    “I won't,” she said, giggling. “I had the strangest dream last night."
    “Was I in it?” he said, cuddling her in his arms.
    “Yes, but here's the weird part. You said you promised Thomas I'd talk to my mother about sex.” She giggled again. “Isn't that the most ludicrous thing you've heard in your life?"
    He coughed. “That wasn't a dream. I did promise Thomas you'd talk to Grace about sex."
    She shook her head. “My mother was married for thirty-four years. Why in the world would you think I needed to talk to her about that?"
    “I'm convinced Thomas and Grace love one another. When you came home for your visit, Grace told Thomas she couldn't see him again because you didn't approve."
    Katherine sat straight up in bed, spilling the sheets down to her waist. Jared forced his gaze away from her body as she replied, “I think Mother told Thomas that because she believes I wouldn't approve of her marrying anyone again. I'll talk to her and straighten it out."
    He shook his head. “I think it's more than that. Thomas had been pushing for more closeness and she kept backing away from it. You came home and I think Grace used you as an excuse."
    Her hands clutched at the down comforter, tugging it back to her collarbone. Jared sighed with relief.
    She reached out and slapped his hand. “Do you know how uncomfortable this conversation is making me, Jared Randall? You're talking about my mother, for goodness sake."
    He chuckled. “Darling, Grace is a woman, too. With the same needs as any woman. Do you think you were hatched?"
    She blushed and put her hands over her ears. “I don't want to hear this. Children don't think of their parents as sexual entities."
    Jared reached and took her hands in his. “Don't you want her to have the same happiness we have?"
    Her chin lifted indignantly. “Of course I do."
    “Thomas and Grace have had so much pain in their lives these last four years. Let's help them find their rainbow."
    Her brows lifted. “Why doesn't Thomas talk to her about it? That's so personal."
    “Grace won't see him or talk to him.” He nodded when her eyes widened slightly. “Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The guy's miserable. He came to my house and begged me to help, so I promised him you'd talk to Grace.” Jared released her hands and nuzzled her neck, his teeth nipping at her skin and his tongue lapping a warm path to her lips. “You promised."
    Her eyes narrowed. “When did I promise that?"
    His hands covered her breast, teasing her nipples to hard peaks and rubbing them between his fingers.
    “Ohhh,” she arched her back, writhing as his mouth closed over her breast and his tongue explored her nipple.
    He groaned low in his chest when her hand circled his erection and moved up and down the length of it, grazing the tip with her thumb. “Katherine…"
    “Make love to me,” she whispered.
    “Sweetheart, I can't think of a better way to start the day. Do you want me to remind you when you agreed to talk to your mother about sex?"
    “I must have been out of my mind,” she purred as he took the other taunt nipple into his mouth.
    He chuckled. “You were. So was I. Remember?"
    Her back arched. “Yes,” she whispered as his mouth moved down to taste her sweetness.

* * * *

    Jared couldn't wait to ask Matt for permission to marry Katherine. He had wanted to make a difference in this little boy's life from the minute he met him, but he never dreamed it would turn out this way. He sat down and smiled when he spotted Matt flying across the living room towards him, a huge grin on his face.
    “Mr. Randall,” Matt shouted. “You wanna know what happened?"
    Jared pulled him onto his lap. “Of course I do. Tell me all about it."
    “My dad went back home. Mom said he had something inside,” he said, laying his hand over his heart, “that made him unhappy around us.” Matt shook his head. “She said it wasn't anything we did."
    Jared swallowed a lump in his throat. “No, it wasn't anything you did.” Jared shifted Matt on his lap. “I wanted to have a man-to-man talk with you about something special.” He smiled at the serious expression that slid across Matt's face. “Your mother and I would like to get married. How would you feel about that?"
    Matt's dark eyes stared into his. After a moment of thought, he said, “Would you be my own dad?"
    “Yes, I would."
    His forehead scrunched up. “Would you leave, too?"
    Jared shook his head. “No. I won't ever leave you or your mom."
    Matt considered this for a moment. He cracked a grin that spread from ear-to-ear. “You know what?"
    “What?” Jared asked.
    “You think Santa reads heads?"
    Jared fought a smile and tried to look serious. “I never thought about it. What do you mean?"
    “When I asked Santa for a new dad, you was in my head. I wanted you for my dad."
    Jared coughed to clear the lump in his throat. “I don't know if Santa reads heads, but I know he reads what's in your heart."
    Matt nodded. “I think so, too."
    “Let's tell your mother and Grandma that it's okay with you if I become your dad."
    Matt clapped his hands, his eyes sparked with excitement.
    “We have a lot to celebrate this Christmas.” Jared released Matt and stood up. “After we talk to them, we'll all go out to dinner, before we take a long ride and look at the lights."
    Matt placed his little hand inside Jared's bigger one. “Mr. Randall, I never really knew my other dad. I told all my friends I was getting a new dad for Christmas, but they laughed at me. Can I call you ‘Dad’ so they'll believe me?"
    “Yes,” he whispered, bending and hugging Matt.
    When the boy's arms clung to Jared's neck, tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. He knew he'd do anything for his son.

* * * *

    “I don't want to talk to my mother about Thomas today. I'll do it Monday,” Katherine said.
    Jared turned her away from him and pushed her gently toward the kitchen door. She let him propel her as far as the doorframe but dug in her heels and stopped. She peeked at her mother, who sat at the table drinking her Sunday morning coffee. “I can't believe I promised to talk to my mother about you-know-what,” she whispered over her shoulder to Jared.
    He chuckled. “Oh, great. You can't even say the word ‘sex’ in Grace's home."
    Katherine slapped his arm. “Shhh. She'll hear you."
    “Cluck, cluck, cluck. Okay, chicken, I'm taking Matt to shop and eat lunch. Remember Thomas is coming over at one o'clock. That's two hours from now. You have a lot to get settled before then.” Jared bent and gave her a heart-stopping kiss. When he pulled away, he winked. “Good luck."
    “I can't believe I'm doing this,” she said to herself as Jared headed for the front door and she walked into the kitchen.
    “Did you say something, dear?” her mother asked, looking up.
    “I think I'll join you.” Katherine poured a cup of coffee and sat beside her mother. She looked at her mother blankly, running over Jared's words in her mind.
    I'll do it my way.
    “Did Matt and Jared leave?” her mother asked.
    “Yes. They went to buy more wrapping paper and look around the mall for awhile."
    “Jared's so good with Matt. You don't think Jared got mad at me yesterday, do you?"
    Katherine chuckled. “You mean when you took credit for Jared and me getting married?” She shook her head. “No. However, he was a little surprised to hear the entire neighborhood was in on the matchmaking, too. They maneuvered us under that mistletoe."
    Her mother blushed and laughed.
    It's now or never.
    Katherine sipped her coffee. “Have you seen Thomas lately?"
    Great, that's real subtle.
    Her mother's back straightened and she frowned. “No, and I don't plan on seeing him."
    Okay. Torpedoes away!
    “Why did you tell Thomas that I didn't approve of your seeing him?"
    Her mother's eyes rounded. “Did he tell you that?"
    Katherine pursed her lips. “Noooo. And stop avoiding my question."
    Her mother ran her finger over the rim of her cup. “I thought you might think it was too soon for me to date anyone."
    Katherine hoped that was all there was to it, but she doubted it. “You and Thomas have known each other for over four years. You shared a lot of pain together.” Katherine shook her head. “It isn't too soon."
    Her mother's chin quivered. “Your father-"
    “Would want you to be happy, Mom. You had a beautiful marriage, but Dad wouldn't want you looking at the past and clinging to it. He would want you smiling and running ahead to the future."
    “I can't.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
    Katherine grabbed a handful of tissues, handed them to her mother and hugged her. “Why can't you? What are you afraid of?"
    “Lots of things."
    Katherine took a deep breath. “Okay, name them."
    “It isn't that easy. You don't know what it's like to live with a man for thirty-four years and see him die from cancer.” She twisted the tissues in her hand and sniffled. “A part of me died watching him suffer,” she whispered.
    Katherine's eyes welled with tears. “I loved him for thirty-one years, still do. I think you're like me, afraid of getting hurt again."
    Her mother nodded and tried to take a sip of coffee, but her hand shook so badly she set the cup back down. “I don't want to go through that again. I can't."
    Katherine leaned closer. “Mom, do you love Thomas?"
    Her mother wiped tears away and looked up. “Yes, I do."
    Katherine smiled. “Don't you see? The only thing you'll be stopping is the joy of loving him however much time God gives you on this earth. You can't control the rest. Love him like tomorrow might not come, that's all any of us can do."
    Her mother sniffed. “How'd you get so smart?"
    Katherine hugged her. “I had a good teacher."
    Her mother blew her nose and wiped her eyes. “I know you're right. I love him and even if he was on the moon, I'd hurt if anything happened to him."
    Katherine heard a ‘but’ in her mother's reply. “Okay, out with it. What else is stopping you?"
    Her mother blushed. “Katherine, I can't talk about it."
    I'm going to have to talk to my mother about sex.
    Katherine rolled her eyes. “Is it sex?” she blurted out.
    Her mother gasped and her cheeks turned red. “Katherine Marisa Cahill, this is not something a mother wants to discuss with her daughter."
    Katherine stood up, refilled her cup with coffee for herself, and then sat back down. “You aren't discussing it with your daughter. You're discussing it with another woman. One who's as stubborn as you, so talk."
    Her mother blushed again and lowered her gaze to the table. “I've only been with one man. I don't know if I can please Thomas. I'm scared. Can you understand that?"
    Katherine smiled. “Yes. I had the same insecurities, but you love him and you're going to have to face your fears."
    Her mother nodded and blushed.
    “At one o'clock, Thomas is coming here to pick you up. Talk to him. Share with him what you shared with me. You might find out that you have some of the same concerns."
    Her mother smiled and put her arms around Katherine.

* * * *

    It was six o'clock and her mother hadn't returned. Katherine smoothed chocolate frosting on the cake she had baked. Matt sat at the table licking the beaters and smacking his lips.
    “You put peanut butter in it, too. It's good,” Matt said taking a sip of milk.
    After Katherine put the dirty dishes in the sink, she ruffled Matt's hair.
    She glanced up to see her embarrassed mother and an ecstatic Thomas enter the kitchen. He held onto her mother's arm as they approached Katherine.
    “Grandma,” Matt shouted and waved a beater at her.
    Her mother laughed. “It looks like you're enjoying that frosting."
    Thomas extended his hand. A warm rush of happiness welled up in Katherine. She smiled, flung out her arms and hugged him. “I'm so happy to see the two of you together."
    “I wanted to thank you for helping Grace and me,” he said, his gray eyes warming with the sentiment. “I love your mother with all my heart. She never would have told me what was bothering her if you hadn't talked to her."
    Her mother extended her hand, brandishing an antique diamond engagement ring. Tears glistened in her mother's eyes. “I'm so happy. He bought this for me weeks ago, but I never knew it.” She blushed. “You were right, Katherine. We needed to talk it all out. We're getting married right after Christmas."
    Katherine hugged and congratulated them again. She glanced from her mother to Thomas and was warmed again by the love and adoration that shone in their eyes for one another. “You're just in time for cake and coffee. I'll call and invite Jared to come and celebrate with us."
    Matt glanced up, licking the icing from his fingers. “My grandma's getting married, too?"
    Katherine chuckled and wet a dishtowel to clean some of the chocolate layers off his face. “Yes. Mr. Hughes will be your new grandpa soon."
    Her mother took the cloth from her. “I got him."
    Katherine dialed Jared's number but it was busy. “It's just up the street. I'll go get him."
    “Boy, Matt, you're a mess,” her mother said.
    Katherine smiled and turned away as her mother rinsed the rag and washed Matt again.
    “Will this still be Grandma's house?” Matt asked.
    Katherine paused at the door and looked back. What would Thomas say, and what would Matt think? So many things had been changed for him in the last few years, but Grandma's house had always been his mainstay. He looked forward to visits months in advance, with its huge yard and special swing set, erected just for him, ‘by a neighbor,’ Grace had told her last summer. It turned out ‘the neighbor’ had been Jared. Her heart started beating faster as she watched Thomas kneel beside Matt. The potential for disruption in her son's life was enormous if Thomas didn't answer right.
    Thomas knelt beside Matt and nodded. “This house has been in your grandma's family for generations. Everyone who loves her knows what this house means to your grandma. I wouldn't dream of taking her away from here."
    Matt smiled.
    Katherine practically flew down the street and leapt up the steps to Jared's house. Her heart thudded with excitement as she stood on his huge front porch. She glanced past the rocking chairs to the right and noticed a Toyota parked in the driveway.
    Someone must be visiting.
    She laughed. Wait till I tell him how well everything turned out.
    The front door stood ajar. She stuck her head inside and yelled, “Jared? Are you there?"
    She stopped to listen.
    Alan Jackson's, “Don't Close Your Eyes” floated from the back of the house. The song brought back torrid memories of when Jared had held her in his strong arms and the heated kisses they had exchanged.
    “Jared, it's me,” she called. Adrenaline rushed through her veins making her giddy as she headed down the hall.
    The refrains of the love ballad seemed to come from the room directly ahead. She reached for the knob and opened the door. It swung outward and Katherine's jaw dropped.
    Jared stood with his back to the kitchen cabinet. His hands clutched the counters. A voluptuous redhead plastered her body against his and held him in a passionate kiss.
    Katherine stared and shook her head, willing the image to disappear. Tears stung her eyes, causing the mirage to shimmer, but the sordid reality remained.
    Damn him! He is just like Paul!
    “Jared! How could you!” she demanded.
    Breaking the kiss, he swung his gaze to Katherine, his eyes widening in shock. Too late, he thrust the woman aside.
    Pain rocked Katherine.
    Jared moved toward her but she turned and ran, tears streaming down her face. His footsteps sounded behind her as she raced for the front door, flung it open and ran across the porch. “Katherine, come back. It isn't what you think. Trust me!” he shouted.
    “No, it's exactly what I think,” she spat through her tears as she stumbled down the front steps, slipping on the damp wood.
    “Katherine,” he shouted again, his voice insistent, “Trust me!"

Chapter Sixteen

    Katherine stopped running. She turned her head and glared over her shoulder. The street was empty and cold, trees stripped of their leaves reached into the night like angry sentinels. Jared had slipped back into his house with the other woman. The memory of his words tore at her heart. ‘It isn't what you think. Trust me.’ She ripped her gaze off his house and stared at the ground, gulping air into her lungs. She had eyes. How could it not be what it had looked like?
    Trust me.
    How could he ask her to trust him in a situation like that?
    But that was what she had asked of Jared. She had asked him to trust not what he had heard from her lips, but what he heard with his heart. She stumbled on the uneven sidewalk in front of her mother's house. Why didn't she have that same faith in him?
    Because there was no other way to interpret what she'd just seen. He had betrayed her.
    The thought stopped her cold. She stared at the icicle lights he'd put up for her. “Jared,” she cried softly, feeling the hurt and loneliness sinking deep in her soul.
    If I hurt you, I hurt me.
    Well, he had hurt her.
    Tears filled her eyes as she spun around and faced Jared's house again. Anything could be going on inside. Two images whirled in her head, both merged into a conflicted melding of Jared and Paul. Cheating men. She shook her head, trying to concentrate on Jared. The whirling images became crystal-clear memories of her times with Jared. His worrying about her, the way he looked at her, their talks in the kitchen, his putting Matt to bed, taking him shopping, making him laugh, Jared searching for her, and winking at her just before Paul walked through the door of Jared's office. Everything he did showed his love for her and Matt.
    Katherine, trust me!
    Oh, God, how could she have been so foolish? She sped back to Jared leaping up two porch steps at a time and hurried inside. Her heart pounded as she wove her way through the rooms, tugged the door open and stepped inside the kitchen again.
    Jared and the other woman glanced at Katherine.
    “What took you so long?” Jared rasped, coughing to clear his throat. “I'm sorry.” He shook his head and Katherine saw the deep hurt in his eyes. “It was not what it seemed. I can explain."
    “No, let me,” the female voice interrupted. “I'm Shannon Raven. You must be Katherine Cahill."
    Katherine stared at the tall, beautiful woman standing in his kitchen with tears in her eyes. “Two of the biggest mistakes I made in my life involved Jared. First, I jilted him and went back to my sorry ex. I barged over here and didn't believe Jared when he said it was over.” She hesitated. “I kissed him. He did not kiss me."
    Katherine glanced back at Jared, who stood watching her in silence. His face was unreadable-it was up to her to decide. “I know,” she said slowly.
    Shannon wiped her eyes as she walked toward the door. She glanced over her shoulder. “Jared was right about us. If I had really loved him, I never would have jilted him. Be happy, you two."
    After the door closed behind her, Jared's fingers brushed across Katherine's lips, outlining them with caresses. “We will be happy, Katherine. I promise.” He wrapped her in his arms, folding her in his love. “You trusted me."
    Her voice faltered. “I-I trusted our love."
    His body trembled. “Do you want to know why I let Shannon kiss me?"
    Katherine nodded. “She cornered you and I think you did it so Shannon would get on with her life."
    He nodded, cupping her chin and lifting it. Their gazes locked and she saw sadness reflected in his eyes. “I wanted to convince her I didn't love her and I wasn't marrying you to get even with her.” He clutched at her and crushed her against him. “Instead I almost lost you again."
    “Never, my love,” she vowed. A smile tugged at her lips. “But the next time you decide to help a damsel in distress, discuss it with me first."
    “Always,” he promised, sealing it with kisses.
    “Jared,” she whispered against his lips, “I almost forgot.” She snuggled against him. His hand trembled as he unbuttoned her shirt and cupped her breast. “I can't think with you doing that."
    “Don't. Just feel,” he said around a deep breath.
    His mouth swooped down and kissed her long and hard. He released a low groan when he drew back and gazed in her eyes.
    “Mother and Thomas are engaged.” She moaned. “We have to help them celebrate."
    She felt the suppressed desire as he pulled away from her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Now you tell me.” He laughed, took her hand and pulled her toward the door.

* * * *

    Katherine sat cross-legged in her jeans, fingering the wheels, washers, rods and snap on nuts that cluttered the living room floor. She chewed her bottom lip and studied the diagrams. “It's Greek. Why are manufacturer's instructions so complicated?"
    “So we'll think they know what they're doing when they built these toys and charge a fortune for them.” He sat himself down in the middle of the mess, easily fitting together the alien-produced pieces of plastic and metal that so baffled Katherine.
    “Since we pay so much for the toys, why do we end up putting them together?” she asked, holding up three more mysterious pieces.
    Jared reached and guided her hands, showing her how to connect the parts. “Katherine, I don't think you're going to solve this huge manufacturing dilemma tonight. We have to assemble these toys for Matt because it's Christmas Eve,” he said with a wink.
    She snapped the parts into place. “Now you know the real reason I agreed to marry you.” He grinned and his dimple deepened, shifting her focus to his incredibly sexy mouth.
    His gaze drifted to the buttons on her blouse. He looked back up with a roguish smile. He handed her another set of instructions. “Get your mind back on the task. You keep looking at me like that and we'll never get these toys together."
    Her face heated and she stuck her tongue out at him.
    “Katherine,” he said in a warning tone and shoved another box her way with a smile. “Get busy."
    By one in the morning, they had the last present assembled and under the Christmas tree. They held each other and inspected their finished work, unplugged the lights and plunged the room into darkness. Katherine reached out and found Jared as they stumbled on the bottom of the stairs.
    “Katherine, cut that out,” Jared whispered. “You're supposed to feel your way up the stairs, not up me."
    She giggled. “Can't I do both?"
    Her hand drifted down the hard plane of his stomach and over the cotton fabric of his jeans. “If you don't stop that, I'll die from frustration.” He stood in front of the bedroom next to hers. “I don't want to confuse Matt, or give him anything to think about on Christmas morning but his own excitement at opening presents and seeing the two of us coming out of your bedroom wouldn't help that. We don't know what time Matt's getting up."
    Leaning into him, she touched his cheek lightly with her lips before going to her own bedroom.
    “Sweetheart, you're killing me,” he whispered.
    She closed the door softly and braced herself against it with a smile.

* * * *

    Katherine ran into Jared's bedroom, put her hand on his bare shoulder and shook him.
    “Matt's awake,” she whispered.
    Jared's eyes flew open and he squinted against the dim, gray light.
    “I'll stall him while you get dressed.” She hurried on, ignoring the fact that he wasn't moving yet. “Thomas is on his way with the puppy and my mother is already downstairs."
    “What time is it?” he said, throwing back the covers. He hopped out of bed, slid into his pants and yawned.
    “Five o'clock."
    He rubbed his eyes, ran his hand over his hair, rumpling it. “Do I have time to shower?"
    Katherine stared at him in horror. “No! We can stall him five, maybe ten minutes if you want to shave. So get going."
    Ten minutes later Jared held Matt in his arms and headed down the stairs. “Close your eyes. No peeking. I'll tell you when you can open them."
    Jared stood him in front of the lighted Christmas tree, and Grace and Thomas moved closer so they could see Matt's face.
    “Open your eyes,” Jared said.
    “Merry Christmas!” everyone shouted as Matt opened his eyes and squealed, hopping up and down and from foot to foot. Katherine practically did summersaults around the living room trying to get photographs of his joyful little face from every angle. “A perfect picture,” she exclaimed every time, aiming and clicking the camera.
    Matt ran toward a bicycle. “A big boy's bike.” He put one hand on the handlebar and puffed his chest out with pride.
    A scratching and sniffing sound came from a perforated box about to tip over. Hearing a sharp ‘yip', Matt's eyes rounded and his jaw dropped. Jared opened the lid and Matt bent to peak inside. He was quickly rewarded with a friendly lick and giggled as the collie puppy leaped out of the box. The puppy squirmed, wagged her tail, jumped up on its hind legs and knocked Matt off his feet, making him laugh.
    After Jared helped Matt sit back up and settled the puppy on his lap, Matt's happy face turned to Katherine, eyes wide with excitement. “Look at her, Mom. Isn't she cool?” His berry-red, chubby lips smiled at her in complete happiness. When had she last seen such joy on his little face?
    “Yes, she is,” Katherine agreed with a grin.
    Jared urged Katherine to take a picture as Matt cuddled and hugged the pup. “Her food and water are in the washroom, along with her leash. She needs a name though."
    Matt glanced at the beautiful porcelain angel on top of the tree and his eyes lit up. He turned to Jared. “I wanna call her Star. ‘Cause I wished on one and got you."
    A tear ran down Katherine's cheek.
    Matt reached under the tree and grabbed a gift-wrapped box. He ran over to her and Star followed close at his heels like a shadow. “Don't cry, Mom. I got you something special, too."
    “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, kissing him on the cheek and holding the gift he handed her.
    “Thomas and I have set our wedding date for December thirty-first. We want a simple ceremony at the house so all our friends and neighbors can attend. We'd like Matt to serve as the ring bearer and Jared as best man.” Her mother took Katherine's hand. “And I'd like you to be my maid of honor."
    Katherine hugged her. “Yes. I can't wait."
    “What does a ring bearer do exactly?” Matt asked.
    Katherine knelt beside him. “He walks down the aisle with a ring on a pillow and gets chocolate candy afterwards."
    “I can do that,” he said, nodding.
    Jared laughed. “I'll be proud to be your best man, Thomas, and you can be mine sometime in January.” He raised his eyebrows and glanced at Katherine. “I'm hoping she won't keep me waiting too long."
    “Mom plans on taking a two week honeymoon. She'll need a couple of days to get back to earth.” Katherine could see Jared's gaze dancing across the wall calendar hunting their wedding day. “January twenty-first, if that's okay with Mom and Thomas."
    Jared barely waited for them to nod. He pulled her against him and kissed her thoroughly.
    When he released her, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small wrapped present and handed it to her.
    She nervously tore the paper, removed the velvet box and opened the lid. Inside lay an exquisite emerald-cut engagement ring and a platinum wedding band. She squinted to read the tiny inscription inside the band, ‘My unchanging love. Always, Jared'.
    “They're beautiful, darling,” she said to Jared, lifting her head and looking at him.
    He coughed, and placed the engagement ring on her finger. “I hope Grace and Thomas don't mind keeping Matt for two weeks."
    “Can't I go with you?” Matt pleaded.
    “Who's going to look after Sweet Pea and Star?” Grace asked. “I thought we'd spend that time at your ranch in Katy."
    Jared winked at Grace.
    Matt squealed, jumping up and down and Star joined in the fun making circles. Star barked as Matt ran and placed another present in Katherine's lap along with two envelopes.
    One envelope contained shredded paper and a letter from her business partners Roger, Ethan and Christopher. They had torn up her sales agreement and treated the money she had received from them as an advance against future earnings. The letter went on to say, ‘Don't argue with us’ and they wished her a Merry Christmas.
    Katherine sniffed and grabbed a handful of tissues.
    The second envelope contained a picture of Jared's ranch in Katy, and Matt riding Sweet Pea. The caption read, ‘Future home of Mr. and Mrs. Randall and their son Matt Randall."
    Katherine wiped tears from her eyes.
    Matt's arms went around her neck as he scrambled onto her lap. Star whimpered at their feet. Matt's eyes filled with concern. “Aren't you happy about us going to live on Dad's ranch? I love his ranch."
    “I'm happy. That's why I'm crying."
    Matt scratched his head. “Are you sure?"
    “Oh yes, sweetheart, very sure.” Hearing a gasp, she spied the risqué pajamas Matt had given her mother and stifled a giggle. Thomas rolled his eyes and her mother blushed.
    Matt gave Katherine a kiss on the cheek, and he crawled down from her lap to hand out more gifts.
    When Thomas unwrapped the present from her mother containing his silk bathrobe and the silk sheets, Katherine smiled at the tender look they exchanged.
    Her gaze flew to Jared. She bit her thumbnail and watched as he opened one of her gifts to him, the framed photograph that Mrs. Taylor had taken of Jared, Matt and Katherine at the birthday dance. Jared touched the picture. He smiled and glanced her way. Her breath caught at the love that reached across the room and enveloped her.
    “Open this one,” Matt interrupted, poking a finger through the paper.
    “What have we here?” Katherine asked playfully, ripping it open. Out popped hundreds of squiggly, squirming, squishy plastic worms. They covered her lap like a wiggling gelatin mold.
    “We got everything to go with the worms,” Matt explained, pointing to one corner where fishing equipment sprawled against the wall. “Dad owns a boat and we're going fishing soon as it warms up. Aren't we, Dad?"
    When Matt called Jared ‘Dad', unprompted and with complete sincerity, her heart overflowed with joy. As happy voices drifted around her, tears ran down her cheeks again.
    “Dad, Mom's crying bad now,” Matt said with concern again.
    Jared's arms wrapped around her and pulled her back against his chest. She went, and listened as her lover spoke over her head to her son, “Your mother's happy, son. Women cry when they're happy, too."
    Matt folded his arms and studied the situation. “I'm really happy, but I'm not crying. Women should cry only when they're sad so we don't get confused. They're weird sometimes, aren't they, Dad?"
    “Sometimes, but we love them anyway,” Jared agreed.
    Everyone chuckled, except Katherine, who sniffled and elbowed Jared indignantly in the ribs.
    “I bet we can make her laugh,” Jared said with mischief lighting his eyes. He bent and whispered something to Matt, who giggled.
    Her mother and Thomas's eyes widened. “Oh, Katherine, you're in for it now. Run!” her mother yelled.
    Katherine stood and Jared pretended to tackle her like they were on the football field and she was trying for a touchdown. His arms folded around her waist, and as they went down, he twisted his body to cushion her fall. She sprawled atop him gleefully and Matt jumped on them both. They wrestled playfully and their hands reached out to tickle her sides and under her arms. Katherine giggled and rolled, trying to escape, but Jared and Matt followed. Soon all three of them lay on the floor, laughing and hugging.
    “Wait!” Katherine yelled from out of the melee. “You haven't opened your special presents from me.” She jumped up and handed each of them a gift.
    Matt tore his gift open to find a pair of knight in shining armor pajamas like King Arthur in his storybook. His grin spread from ear-to-ear.
    Jared tore his gift open. When he spied the Superman pajamas she'd picked out for him, his face softened with tenderness and desire. His eyes promised her his love for all of their tomorrows. As he reached to kiss her, her heart melted.
    She knew every day of her life with Jared would be a perfect affair.

***

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