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Chapter Eleven
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

"Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path..."
~ Psalm 27:11 ~

Are you sure you can handle lunch without me?" Izumi came through the kitchen doorway as she slid a purse strap over her shoulder. "I could push my appointment back if you need me here."

"Nope, I've got everything under control." Terry folded his arms, leaned against the counter in his usual easygoing manner. "You already fixed lunch. All I have to do is put it on the table."

"Thanks, Terry. When the Doyles arrived this morning, I thought I'd have to change my plans."

"By all means, keep your lunch date," Terry said as Madison took a seat at the table. "We can handle a hungry crew, can't we, Maddie?"

When his question met with only timid agreement, Izumi made no comment. It didn't seem humanly possible for Terry to ever find someone more damaged than Victor, yet he had done just that. This damaged soul with the quiet beauty of a folded rose, had sharp thorns that could easily draw blood. Madison wouldn't inflict pain on purpose, but the pain would come, just as surely as Terry's nightmares were becoming more violent.

"Stop worrying about lunch, Izzy. Go have a good time and don't give it a second thought. We've got you covered."

A good time wasn't what Izumi had in mind, but she thanked them both and left without having to say who she was meeting for lunch. It was too soon to say anything. In the unlikely event the dinner invitation was turned down, Izumi would rather Terry not know.

* * * *

The Bayfront Restaurant at Three Mile Bay Marina jostled with activity. An overworked waitress hefted a tray above Izumi's head as Izumi maneuvered to find her friend.

"Over here." Emily McCall waved, gave a pleasant smile as Izumi edged between two crowded tables to reach her. "It's a madhouse, isn't it? Serves me right for suggesting we come during the noon rush."

"I'm just grateful you came, Emily." Izumi returned the smile, took a good look at her friend. Emily's blue-brown eyes were framed by straight brown hair cut just above her shoulders, and parted down the middle for a smart look that held a hint of playful spunkiness that reflected its thirty-four-year-old owner.

Intelligent and thoroughly approachable, Emily had that admirable balance of brains and good looks that didn't get in the way of common sense. She didn't take herself seriously, though there was a professional confidence in the way she carried herself that announced she wasn't a pushover for flattery. Competent and sweet. That described Emily to a T.

Added to all this, was Emily's strong sense of loyalty. She had taken a short vacation from her job as a store manager in New York City, to come to Three Mile Bay and care for her ailing mother. When her mom passed away, her father became ill and needed constant care. As an only child, this responsibility fell solely to her. She gave up her job, and six years later, Emily was still in Three Mile Bay, caring for her dad's frail health. They had a comfortable house not far from the Johanneses, and lived on her father's social security and her earnings as a home-based call center operator-- a job suggested to her by John. She handled everything from customer complaints, to billing, order processing, and technical support for a nationwide internet service provider. She had her own home office, and waited for calls as they were routed to the various operators in the call center network. The job took advantage of her college education and solid work ethic, though it couldn't compare to her earnings or prestige as a store manager. But no one could call Emily a quitter.

Their church helped out whenever they could with house repairs, and volunteers took turns watching her father whenever Emily needed to leave and a nurse or aide wasn't available.

Taken as a whole, Izumi knew it wasn't easy for her to get away on such short notice.

Emily's blue-brown eyes flashed with curiosity. "When you called yesterday, Dad told me something was up. As far as I know, nothing's wrong with the girls, AJ is still likely to come back, and your marriage is rock-solid. So what's up?"

"Well, you're right-- this isn't about John or the kids."

Emily smiled. "Which leaves Terry."

"Yes, Terry." Izumi paused as the waitress placed glasses of water on the table, then took their orders. When the waitress left, Izumi noticed the pained smile on Emily's face.

"This has something to do with the woman Terry's helping, doesn't it?"

"You could say that." Izumi paused. "How much have you heard?"

"Not much, save for what's floating around town. Her name's Madison, she's homeless, likely has an unpleasant past, and pretty much hides behind Terry. Oh, yes, and she's very beautiful."

"My, my." Izumi sighed deeply. "I hadn't realized how much had already gotten around."

"Izumi, it's a small town."

"So I've noticed." Izumi waited as the waitress set their plates before them. When they were alone, Izumi leaned forward. "What else have you heard?"

"Aside from ridiculous gossip, that's it."

"What gossip?"

"That he's having an affair with that woman. I don't believe it for a moment, and neither does anyone else who really knows Terry. But you are concerned about him-- I can see it in your face. What's wrong? Is he having another breakdown?"

"Not yet, but I believe he's close to one. Oh, Emily, it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion."

"What can I do to help? Maybe we could organize another prayer group in Terry's behalf, like the one we had when Victor was around."

"That's definitely an idea, but not the reason I asked you to meet me. I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner at our house tomorrow evening."

"Oh." Emily shrugged. "Sure. I guess."

"The thing is," Izumi sucked in a deep breath, "it wouldn't be just dinner with John and me. It would also be with Terry."

"Uh-huh. With Terry." Emily narrowed her eyes. "What exactly are you trying to ask?"

"What I'm asking is this: Are you interested enough in Terry, to find someone to watch your father so you can come to our house for dinner? No commitments, no obligations other than to show up and see how you and Terry like the idea of getting a little friendlier."

Emily raised her brows. "You mean, as in a date?"

"You could call it that, though it's really just dinner at our house. It's not too far-fetched, is it? You already know Terry, and he knows you. So why not come and see what happens?"

"Did Terry ask you to ask me?"

Izumi hesitated before answering. "He doesn't know I'm asking you, but he knows I'm playing matchmaker, and I have his blessing. He's looking for a wife, Emily. The first person I thought of was you."

"Then I'll come." It breathed through Emily's lips like someone accepting a dare. "Like you said, we'll just see what happens. I've always admired and respected Terry, although for some reason, I've always thought he was uninterested in settling down like John. But Terry's a good person."

"Yes, he is."

"Of course," Emily added, her head tilting to one side, "the fact he's also painfully handsome doesn't hurt, either."

Quiet hope threaded into Izumi's thoughts. She had picked the right woman.

"What time do you want me?"

"I was thinking tomorrow, around six thirty."

A frown worried Emily's bottom lip. "I know it's asking a lot--"

"Go ahead and ask."

"Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's nearly impossible to find anyone to watch Dad on a Saturday night. Would it be too much to ask the dinner be moved up a day? Or perhaps forward to Sunday evening?"

Izumi thought it over. "Tonight would work. I need to run to the store after I leave you, but I can have everything ready by six thirty."

"Thanks, Izumi. Are you sure... do you think Terry will mind my coming? He knows the purpose of the dinner?"

"Yes, he'll know. And if I thought he'd mind your coming, I wouldn't have asked you."

She nodded, her face pensive and hopeful. "How should I dress?"

"Dress like you always do. For pity's sake, this is only lasagna at our place, not oysters at a five star restaurant. Come as you are."

"Oh no, I at least need to put on makeup. He already knows what I look like without it, but this will be different." Emily fumbled for her purse, added to the tip Izumi had already left on the table for the waiter.

This woman was not clumsy, and seeing vibrating nerves under the surface of a normally calm exterior, made Izumi realize Emily was taking the dinner seriously.

One of the most eligible bachelors in their congregation was looking for a wife. Izumi couldn't help comparing it to a fairytale Prince Charming searching for a Princess to fit the glass slipper. No man was half so handsome or charming as her own John, but Izumi considered Terry a very sweet person with a huge heart ready to be given to some fortunate woman.

She could only hope that woman would be Emily.

* * * *

It was supposed to be simple. After all, how hard could it be to get the right size? They came in small, medium, and large. Terry peered around the laptop, tried to guess which one fit Madison. Small was out, or did tall and slender count? How about petite? No, that was Izzy. Definitely not Madison.

"Ladies, I hate to interrupt your important transactions"-- Terry paused while the girls traded stickers on the living room carpet, noted the front of Madison's notebook now sported Cinderella twirling in a fancy gown-- "I could really use Maddie's input right now." He turned the laptop, pointed to the screen. "What do you think?"

Ruthie wrinkled her nose. "It's not pink."

"Is your name Maddie? Like I was saying," Terry slanted the laptop to get another look at the product image, "it has twelve reviews, and a five star rating. There's three thousand search results, and they're all starting to look the same. You'd better speak up if you don't like it."

"Can't I keep wearing yours, Terry?"

He sighed. After all the work he'd done to find the right one, she was content with worn hand-me-downs. "Do you want to go around the rest of your life wearing my old coat?"

"I don't mind."

"Well, you should." Terry turned the laptop back, tracked the cursor to the sizing information. "When you start going to job interviews, you need to look like you know what you're doing."

The wording had Ruthie snickering.

"I meant, you need to look more professional. More on purpose." He saw Madison peel off another sticker and examine her notebook for just the right place to put Cinderella's castle. "About the coat? Do you like it?"

Madison shrugged. "Whatever you pick will be fine with me."

"Okay, then we'll go with this one. I just have to figure out the size chart. Hey, John?"

The man in the recliner looked up from his laptop.

"Is my tape measure still in the rollaway tool cabinet in the garage?"

"It should be. Why?"

Terry shook his head. "They want bust, waist, and hip measurements."

"Who does?"

"This website. Makes me feel like I'm trying to buy carpet, or something." Terry tapped his fingers on the laptop. "What size do you think Maddie is?"

"How should I know?"

"Okay, then what size is Izzy?"

John's expression blanked, like a page with no writing. "I haven't a clue. She always buys her own clothes."

"I'm getting that tape measure." Terry set aside the laptop, got up from the couch to go open the rollaway tool cabinet in the garage. Men were easier to shop for. You wanted a coat, you Googled it, found something that looked about right, then bought it in large. Hard to go wrong with that logic.

Minutes later, he returned to the living room with his trusty twenty-five-footer. "Okay, Maddie, stand up."

Madison eyed the tape measure as he fed out some tape, then let it snap back.

"It's not going to hurt. I just need a few numbers, then you can go back to whatever it is you're doing." He glimpsed more stickers decorating the inside pages of Madison's notebook, and tossed Ruthie a question. "I thought you girls took all the princess stickers."

"We did, but we gave her some of ours, and she's been trading some of them for kitty cats and puppy dogs."

"Oh. Okay. As long as you four are happy-- come on, Maddie, don't look at me like that. It's just a tape measure."

"Do I have to, Terry?"

"Yes, you have to. Now get up and let's get this over with."

"Can I have a coat, too, Uncle Terry?"

"You already have one."

"Not one I had to get measured for."

"That's because your mommy knows what she's doing. Come on, Maddie."

With all the reluctance of someone about to swallow a live goldfish, Madison put aside the notebook, then struggled to her feet. Pain flickered in her eyes as she straightened, but she kept any groans to herself. If Terry hadn't been watching her face, he would have missed it.

"Have you taken any painkiller today?"

She nodded.

"What time?" he pressed.

"I don't know."

"Maddie, you need to keep track of these things. You have to be careful not to overdose, but you don't want to be in pain if you can help it, right?"

Her eyes tracked the tape measure, almost as though it might scroll out and bite her.

"Okay, arms out. Let's get this over with." Terry fed out some tape while John raised an objection.

"Careful not to pinch that tape measure, or it'll be ruined."

"Please, Terry," Madison backed away, "I'll just wear your old coat. I don't mind, really I don't."

Terry snapped his fingers. "Twine. There's some in the kitchen. Measure out a length, then use that instead of this tape. All I need is an approximate."

"Is she going to have a pink coat, Uncle Terry?" Ruthie got to her feet while Debbie and Lizzie played with dolls beside John's recliner. "If she gets one, can I have one, too?"

"Yeah, twine will work," John nodded.

The sound of a car door slamming shot Lizzie to her feet. She ran to the window. "Mommy! Mommy's home!"

While Terry went to the kitchen to find some twine, he heard the front door open, then the excited chatter of triplets as they scrambled to tell her what they'd been doing in the two hours she'd been gone.

"Are the Doyles still here?" he heard Izumi ask.

John answered, "No, they left after lunch. The flower bed has been duly planted, and by all rights, we should have tulips coming out of our ears next Spring. Hey, what're the shopping bags for?"

Plastic crinkled as John and Izumi came into the kitchen with groceries.

"Mommy, did you get me a surprise?" One little girl after another asked, until all three looked expectant.

John gave Izumi a laughing look. "How about me? Do I get a surprise?"

"Girls, settle down. You too, John." Izumi reached into the first bag and began taking things out. "I have a lot of cooking to get done before tonight, and no, I'm afraid there aren't any surprises. Although I do have one for Terry."

At the sound of his name, Terry paused his search of the junk drawer. Still no twine.

A cryptic smile sat on Izumi's mouth. "Guess who's coming to dinner?"

With those five words, Izumi had captured his full attention. They'd talked about it, he'd prayed about it, and someone was actually coming. Izumi had talked to an actual woman, and that woman was coming to dinner because of him.

It had definite shock value, a tangibility that mere talk did not.

He cleared his throat, tried hard to feign some sort of calm. "I give up. Who?"

The measured smile on Izumi's face had him wondering like mad. It was hard to imagine a woman being interested in him.

"I invited Emily McCall."

"Really?" Terry swallowed hard. She was too pretty to be even remotely possible. "And she said yes?"

"To come to dinner-- yes, she did. If you want to ask her anything else, you're on your own."

"So you talked to Emily. The one we see in church every Sunday."

"That's the one."

Blood pounded in his ears and Terry felt dizzy, like he'd just been told he won a million dollars, or that his jeep had just been totaled. It was too early yet to say which. "Izzy, when you talked to her-- did she say anything. To you. About me?"

"Half-sentences." John raised his brows. "He's interested, Izumi. I guess you picked a good one."

"Did she?" Terry couldn't help but ask. "What was her reaction when you asked her to come?"

"She seemed open to the idea," Izumi said as Madison peered through the kitchen doorway. "I don't know what to tell you, Terry, except that she's taking the invitation seriously. In hindsight, I wish I'd asked your permission first."

"Why? Did she laugh?"

"Of course not, Emily would never do that." Izumi waded between two girls to put deli cheese into the fridge. "It's just that Emily is taking this seriously. She doesn't consider this a joke, and believed me when I said I had your blessing to play matchmaker."

"Well, you do." Terry fought to keep his thoughts in hand. A woman-- a pretty woman who he'd never dreamed in a million years would ever think of him in that way, was actually coming because of him. It was terrifying.

"You like Emily, don't you?" Izumi placed lettuce into the fridge. "Of all the single women we know at church, she's the sweetest."

"Sure, what's not to like?" Terry desperately tried not to notice John's grin. "So she's coming to dinner."

Izumi moved around John, grabbed a produce bag of multi colored bell peppers. "I'd appreciate some help getting the house ready. She's coming tonight."

"Tonight?" Terry saw the bright lights of an oncoming train, and he was smack in the middle of the tracks.

"I realize it's short notice, but it's hard to find someone to watch her father on a Saturday night."

"Yeah, okay." The train was so close, he could feel the shrieking whistle blasting in his face. Was this what it felt like to date, or was this just how he felt? Terry had absolutely no idea, but he came to a rapid conclusion.

Dating was brutal, and he'd only just started.

* * * *

The talk had attracted her to the kitchen doorway, though she tried hard not to intrude. Izzy had said she was playing matchmaker for Terry, and Terry didn't seem to mind even though the color had drained from his face. Madison had never been on a date in her life, but she wasn't stupid. She understood what was being discussed.

Though the conversation had been light, and at times amusing, Madison's thoughts turned several shades darker. And it sickened her.

Terry wanted a wife, someone to do over, someone to handle however he wanted. A wife was even worse than having to endure it without marriage, for once you got married, you were saying you would go on doing it for the rest of your life. The thought nauseated Madison, and a spark of anger kindled against Terry. He was no different than the Dragon, only Terry wanted to trap a woman with her own words. The Dragon was smarter than that-- he took what he wanted, when he wanted, because he could and no one could stop him. Especially not Madison. Terry was stupid to think any woman in her right mind would actually consent. At least the Dragon had spared her the torment of having a choice.

This woman was coming for dinner?

Madison wanted to laugh and vomit at the same time. Any woman who gave her word to a man, had it coming. She wouldn't feel sorry for her. To exchange your dignity for a roof over your head was the absolute lowest anyone could go. It shamed Madison to be a woman. What a bunch of hypocritical idiots.

The wash of anger and resentment stirred her to her very core. Terry-- her Terry-- was acting like a man. The realization crushed her, and she went back to her notebook.

Hot stung her eyes, but she ignored it, and resumed her hunt for the best place to put the castle. They were still talking. And Terry had forgotten about her coat. She hadn't wanted it, but he'd forgotten and it stung more than she cared to admit.

All because of that woman.

She hadn't given any thought to why Terry had never married, other than that he was different. He was a man, but had risen above what other men do.

Her anger focused on the woman. The intruder was turning Terry into a man, and it both frightened and angered her.

Who did that woman think she was, to do something so cruel to Terry? Of course, Terry didn't seem to be fighting it. Why should he? Once he got married, he was going to have fun. All the fun he ever wanted.

A pang of sympathy went toward the woman, then reversed when Madison remembered the woman had a choice.

They all had choices, and they were all acting stupidly.

Exhausted, Madison rolled onto her side, tucked her knees against her chest and shut her eyes. The world was becoming more than she could handle. Things jumbled around inside her, until she felt so confused she couldn't have given her own name.

Her tummy hurt.

Make it go away, God. Please make it go away.

Footsteps sounded nearby, but she didn't have the heart to open her eyes.

"Uncle Terry! You better come."

"What is it, Deb--" the voice cut short. She heard quick footfalls, then the touch of a hand on her shoulder.

She jerked it away.

"Are you having a flashback? Come on, Maddie, answer me."

"No, I'm fine. Go away."

A sigh of relief said what he did not. "Is it your hip? Do you want me to get you something for the pain?"

She shook her head, "no."

"Okay, not that either. That doesn't leave much else, Maddie."

"Please go away."

"Not until you tell me what's wrong."

"Nothing's wrong. Just leave me alone."

He breathed a heavy sigh. She heard him move back, then heard nothing but silence. Fine. Let him go. She didn't care. Something wet stung her eyes. She blinked it away, then saw Terry sitting on the couch near her feet.

He gave a lopsided grin. "I'm leaving you alone, just as you so politely requested."

An edge of guilt glided across her heart, but didn't draw blood. She stared at him, trying to figure out if he were more human than man.

"A person could freeze to death with that icy glare, Maddie. Be careful how you use it."

"I'm sorry, Terry."

His smile softened. "Okay, that's a start. Care to tell me what this is about? Debbie, Lizzie, Ruthie-- why don't you play somewhere else? I'd like to talk to Maddie." He waited for the sticker books and dolls to be picked up, watched as they moved their play into the hall. "Thanks, girls.

"Okay, Maddie. I saw you listening in at the kitchen door. Don't look so guilty, all right? I don't mind. In a small way, this is even your business, because I can't have Emily over for dinner if you're still here. You understand, don't you?"

Though she really didn't, she nodded "yes." If Terry wanted her to leave, Madison figured she owed him that much, if not a lot more.

"After seeing Lauren's reaction to us this morning, it should come as no surprise that there's talk in town that you and I are having an affair. Emily told Izzy she doesn't believe it, so Emily's giving me the benefit of the doubt; she's treating me like the true friend she's always been." At this, Terry smiled fondly. He shook his head as though he couldn't believe his good fortune. "I have to take you home before she arrives. I hope you understand."

"I do, Terry."

"You do, huh? Then why do I feel like I've kicked you in the teeth?" He rubbed his neck, gave her a long look that showed he didn't understand. "Something you heard a few minutes ago, made you as angry as I've ever seen you. Won't you tell me what it was?"

Even though she wanted to, Madison bit her lip and looked away. How could she talk, when she didn't understand it, herself?

His foot nudged her side. She looked up and he smiled.

"Are we good?" He waited for her response, and she sighed.

"Yes."

"Okay then. If you ever want to talk, you know where to find me. I need to start getting the house cleaned up, so I have to cut this short. Are you sure your hip isn't hurting? It is, isn't it. Wait right there, and I'll get some painkiller."

The hard wash of anger had subsided, and Madison felt more clearheaded. It would have been easier to harbor a grudge if he wasn't so disarmingly kind.

Even though he acted like a man where that Emily was concerned, Madison was grateful he still treated her the same as before. It proved that underneath that male exterior, he was an actual person. Not an animal like the others.

She pushed herself up, tried to straighten her legs as Terry came back with a glass of water and two pills.

"I'm going to give you my cell phone, tonight. Here, take the glass. If you start feeling shaky, call me. I don't want to come for you tomorrow morning, and find you huddled under a blanket on the hard floor, lost in hurtful memories and weak with pain and hunger. I don't think I could take it again, and I'm not sure you could, either. I wish you could watch TV. There's not a lot at the apartment to do by yourself."

"It's okay, Terry. I'll be fine."

"Yeah. Easier for you to say, than for me to believe. Swallow down the pills. The house is a mess, and I have to get started."

She gulped down the water, gave him back the glass. John was already getting out the vacuum cleaner, and food preparation noises came from the kitchen. She hurried to gather her sticker sheets and stuff them into the notebook before the vacuum cleaner carried them away.

Madison scrambled onto the couch, lifted her feet as John vacuumed her side of the room. The vacuum moved to the hall, and she heard laughter as the girls moved yet again to their room.

Terry set aside piles of magazines, a stack of books, pulled off a thick cover, then tugged out the table that had been hidden in the corner of the room like a silent witness to the life going on around it. Matching chairs appeared from under more stacks of books, and were placed at the table with ridiculous dignity for something that had just been used as a bookcase and an ad hoc storage space.

A layer of lemony wood polish was applied, and while Terry rubbed the table to a shining gleam, Madison picked up the feather duster John had left on the couch and started hunting dust. She had no idea why she was helping Terry get ready, only that she felt guilty not trying.

That Emily lady had to be old enough to know what she was getting into, so Madison figured justice would work itself out and the woman would get what she deserved. Terry was a good person, even if he was a man, and wouldn't hurt the woman on purpose. Of course, it would work out that way, but that wasn't Madison's problem. It was that woman's.

She was almost glad she wouldn't be here to watch. It calmed her to know Terry wouldn't get hurt, and that was what mattered.

As for Emily-- she was on her own. God help her, for Madison would not, even if she had been able to stay for dinner.

* * * *

It didn't feel good to leave Madison in that large apartment by herself. It made him uneasy that she'd most likely sit in silence, go to bed early for lack of anything to do. He'd given her his cell phone, made her solemnly promise to eat dinner when it was time, then forced himself to leave before he changed his mind.

She was a grown woman, not a child. He had to remember that, even though she was unable to completely look after herself. Like Izumi had said, Madison needed to learn. The trouble was, Terry didn't know if he could survive the lessons. That icy stare, the wild flare of anger that made him sense underlying rage-- it unnerved him, made him remember the jaded side that kept resurfacing in her personality from time to time.

That rage. Where did it come from?

He could only conclude, from a lifetime of being cruelly used. Beat a dog often enough, hard enough, even the most trusting will turn vicious. Even a puppy.

The morbid turn of thoughts had him feeling depressed. This was no way to head into an important evening.

It still seemed unreal to think Emily McCall was coming. Wow. Things were definitely falling into place, or at least looking hopeful. He'd known Emily ever since she came to care for her mom, then her dad, and had always been impressed by her selflessness. Though he didn't want to place over-importance in outward beauty, Emily had that, and some to spare. She had dated at least two different men from their church, but nothing ever came of it.

Almost as if God were saving her for some guy named Terry.

Interesting thought. Maybe things would be as easy for him, as they had been for John. Only God knew.

* * * *

The house smelled like mouse paradise, a cheesy wonderland of Italian sausage and ricotta smothered over wide noodles, and thickly topped with mozzarella. It was enough to make any self-respecting rodent dare the mousetrap for a taste, then die with a whiskered grin.

Before company arrived, the triplets ate their share of the meal, then ran off to play computer games in their room until dessert. A part of Terry wished he could go with them, and not brave the dating gauntlet before him. If only he could get it over with a few easy steps-- buy the ring, find a dress, exchange I-do's-- and get it over with. He'd be married, and then he could relax. The hard part would be over.

Okay, maybe he was being a tad over-simplistic, but Terry dearly wished Emily would get down on one knee before starting in on the lasagna, and propose. He could either say "yes" or "no," and that would be that.

"Terry, would you sit down?" Izumi skirted past him on her way to the table, placed a salad bowl next to the ranch dressing. "You're making me nervous."

"That's because he is." John sank onto the couch, reached for a laptop that wasn't there and frowned. "Glad I never had to go through this kind of torture. Terry and I had already started our business and were fresh from college when I met Izumi. We took a look at each other, and decided to get married. Piece of cake."

"Yeah, easy for you to say." Terry went to the recliner and sat down before he got in Izzy's way. "You had it easy. God put everything on a bright shiny platter and served it up with a large bow. All you had to do was have the good sense to accept it."

"True, very true." John moved his feet so Izumi could get past with a crystal bowl centerpiece with floating candles. "Whoa, pulling out all the stops. Are we going to actually light them, or are they just for show?"

Terry sank back in the recliner. "I was fresh from college, too, and it didn't happen for me."

"That's because God's timing is always perfect," Izumi said as she stepped back over her husband's feet. "John, watch what you say to Terry."

"Huh? Why?"

With an exasperated sigh, Izumi went into the kitchen.

A moment later, a car door announced their company had arrived.

"She's here," John called as he went to open the door.

No reason to be nervous, Terry told himself as he stood. I see her every week. This isn't a stranger. It's only Emily. When she stepped into the room, he wiped his hands on his dark brown slacks, and hoped they didn't feel clammy.

"Oh," Emily beamed at the dining table, "this is special. I didn't know I rated this. Am I glad I didn't show up empty-handed." She gave John a bottle of sparkling apple cider. "This is for the hardworking hostess. I hope she didn't go to too much trouble."

John returned Emily's hug. "Nothing's too much trouble for an old friend. Make yourself comfortable on the couch. I'll go give this to Izumi." As he left the room, John tossed a wink to Terry.

No, his best friend didn't have a good appreciation of the stresses of dating. Big surprise.

"Hi, Terry." Emily gave a lovely smile and Terry had difficulty giving her a hug like they usually exchanged. "I don't hear the girls? Are they at a friend's house?"

"No, they're playing Hoppin' Froggies in their room. They've gotten to level seven, while I'm still on four. Can't seem to get past the bog monster-- I get eaten every time." He slipped his hands into the pockets of his slacks, and wondered if what he'd just said sounded dumb or not. It probably did.

"So," Emily smiled and Terry kept track of his pulse to see if it quickened, for he'd heard love was supposed to affect your heart rate, "I hear you have a new pet project."

"New what? Oh, you mean Madison." He nodded, sat down in the recliner while Emily took a seat on the couch. "Izzy told me what they're saying in town. They've got it all wrong, of course, and I was grateful to hear you didn't believe it."

Emily dismissed his thanks. "I don't think many do-- not really. It's just some juicy gossip to chew on until something else comes along. I wouldn't pay too much attention. Give it time, and it'll pass. Most things do."

Laughter bubbled from the girls' room, and they paused to listen.

"Such sweet girls," Emily said as the noise died away. "Do you know how much longer Madison will be in Three Mile Bay?"

Terry shrugged. "Indefinitely, I suppose. She doesn't have any family, no friends except us. I'm giving her one of the smaller units at the complex so she'll have a place of her own. It's unfurnished, but we'll do some shopping and set her up properly."

"That's very nice of you. I don't know many who'd go to so much trouble. But then, you always were a soft touch when it came to those in need."

The compliment lost some of its shine when she didn't smile and instead looked toward the kitchen. She looked ready to start the meal, and Terry wished John would send Izzy out with the mouse bait... with the nicely cooked homemade lasagna.

Things picked up after they sat down to dinner, and the candles flickered their floating flames about the room, and the sound of conversation kept Terry busy. More than once, he was able to make Emily laugh, and the feeling predominated that things were truly falling into place. Then he saw Emily's coat on the couch, reached into his pocket for the cell phone to make a reminding note. And came up empty.

"Would you excuse me a moment?" Terry slid back from the table, tossed another one-liner at Emily that had her eyes watering with laughter, then pushed into the kitchen.

He checked the small rooster clock perched above the fridge. She should have eaten by now, and might have already gone to sleep. He decided to risk it, and call anyway, guessing she was still awake.

"Come on, Maddie, answer. I told you to look at the screen, and when you see this number-- Hello, Maddie? Did I wake you?"

"No," sounded dully in his ear. "I can't sleep."

The heavy feeling returned to his heart, that personal rain cloud that had followed him since meeting Madison. It rumbled and threatened lightning, and Terry had to work hard not to worry. God was in control. He had to believe that.

"Did you eat?" he asked, squeezing his eyes shut and shooting a silent prayer to Heaven. "I told you to nuke one of the frozen dinners, remember?"

Izumi came into the kitchen, gave Terry a curious look to see him on the phone. "Who is it?" Izumi whispered.

"Yes, I ate." The words sounded flat and hollow, and terribly lonely.

"Good, that's good. That's real progress. If you get bored"-- Terry berated himself silently-- "when you get bored, try listening to the sound system in the cabinet beside the television. But keep the volume down. The other tenants will probably mind the noise."

Izumi cast her eyes skyward. She kept her voice hushed, so neither the woman on the phone, nor the woman in the living room, could hear. "Emily is waiting for you, Terry. She didn't come here to talk to us."

"How's your dinner?" Madison asked.

"It's going great. Hey, I have to get back. I just wanted to check up on you, make sure everything's okay. I'll see you tomorrow morning, all right? Good night, Maddie." He hung up the phone, tried to appease Izumi by hustling back to the living room and offering a lame excuse. Izumi came back with the cider bottle, topped off everyone's glass with yellow-white fizz.

He needed to get that coat. The winter would only get harsher, and the thought of Maddie braving it with only his old town coat, bothered him. He still hadn't found that twine.

"Terry?"

He looked up and realized everyone was waiting for him to respond. To what, he had no idea, only that the pained look on Izzy's face meant he had probably missed something important.

"I'm sorry, my thoughts were elsewhere. What was the question?"

John gave a good-humored laugh. "You were invited on a tour of Ellis Island."

"Oh. Who made the invitation?"

"Who do you think?" John flashed Emily a long-suffering smile. "You'll have to forgive him. He's been preoccupied lately, getting Abby and Jake's house ready, and..."

"And of course his pet project," Emily added with a flourish of her crystal glass. "It's okay. I guess it comes with the territory."

There was a ring of resignation in her voice, and it oddly gave Terry fresh hope. He coaxed her into explaining the invitation.

"My Aunt gave dad and me New York Passes to go see Ellis Island, so we'd stay at her house for a day or two and visit. Aunt Martha is housebound, so she can't visit Dad, and Dad's health won't allow for travel without more help than I can provide alone. There's no way Dad can use his pass, so that leaves me with two passes to New York, and a promise from Aunt Martha to let me invade her hospitality and use her guest rooms whenever I want. I'm hoping you'll help me get Dad to his sister's house in Jersey City, Dad and I will take one of the guest rooms, and you'll take the other. Then while Aunt Martha and Dad visit, we can see the sights. What do you think?"

"Jersey City? What is that-- a two hundred, three hundred mile drive?"

His practicality tossed cold water on Emily's enthusiasm, but she forged on. "It's almost a six hour drive from here, and with Dad, it'll take even longer. We can count on a full day to get there, stay the night, spend a day or two visiting, then start back early in the morning."

"Sounds like you have it all worked out."

"Not exactly. I was going to ask someone from church to volunteer, for Dad hasn't seen his sister in years. But then Izumi invited me to dinner, and it seemed like Providence."

"Hard to argue with that," Terry smiled. "Looks like you have your volunteer. When were you planning all this?"

"There's no fixed date, only whenever would work best for you." Emily's smile beamed like afternoon sunshine. He could tell she considered this a great favor, not only to her dad, but also to herself.

Since Terry figured he needed all the breaks he could get, he didn't give the request more than a moment's thought. If doing a good deed also meant getting more favor with Emily, then so be it. Aunt Martha and Stanley McCall, Emily's dad, would be there to chaperone the entire time they were in the house. Everything was very proper and seemly, and besides the time away from home, Terry could almost look forward to it as a vacation.

Except with a frail old man, and someone's housebound aunt in Jersey City.

Dessert was served, finally tearing the girls from Hoppin' Froggies long enough for fancy ice cream and even fancier cookies. Izumi had really outdone herself. At least the evening wasn't turning into the train wreck he'd been dreading. Overall, things were going fairly well.

Terry promised Emily to get back to her about the timing of the trip, and she left after giving him another hug. This time, it seemed tighter, more grateful maybe. He didn't know. Women often spoke in a language all their own, and it was up to the guys to either figure it out as they went, or drown trying. Maybe this is what dating felt like. And then again, maybe this was what it felt like to be desperate.

As Emily drove away, Izumi gave Terry a hug herself, more out of relief than anything else.

"Does this mean it's official?" Terry asked. "Do I have a girlfriend, or is this still a matter of more wait and see?"

"Hey Buddy"-- John slapped him on the shoulder-- "I wouldn't rush things. You snuck out in the middle of dinner to call another woman, and Emily still wants to see you. That is what you were doing, right? Thought so. Even Emily caught on. Oh well, just take things as they come, and see what God has planned."

"But does this mean I have a girlfriend?"

John shrugged, looked to Izumi for an answer.

"I think that's probably a 'yes,'" Izumi said, "but I'd wait before you announce it to the world. You're just going to have to take things one step at a time."

Terry sucked in a patient breath, held it, then remembered he had something important to do.

Madison needed a coat.


"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
~ Matthew 5:3, 7 ~

end of chapter