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Chapter Twenty-one
From the Heart

"Teach me thy way, O LORD..."
~ Psalm 86:11 ~

The program about the wonders of the Amazon Forest couldn't hold her attention. She had blinked, and things were changing around her that she couldn't stop. First, Uncle Terry running himself ragged for a total stranger, and now this? He was seeing Emily McCall? It stunned her, kind of like hearing one of your parents was thinking of leaving and breaking up the family. Only not as bad, since Uncle Terry wasn't married into this family; he was just forever and always a permanent part of it.

Abby rubbed the dull ache forming between her eyes. She didn't usually get headaches, but today was proving to be different. Maybe it was because of the flu.

"Sweetheart?" Mom came to the kitchen doorway with an apron cinched about her waist. "Would you get your coat? Your father would like you to step outside."

The tone, coupled with the words, put a grim knot in Abby's stomach. She had more than a little hunch she was in trouble. Not like she really needed a summons to know it. The look on Dad's face when he'd left the living room had been enough.

Getting up, Abby went to Uncle Terry's room to get her coat and shoes. She spotted the umbrella next to the dresser and took it with her, just in case the weather changed its mind and decided to dish out something heavier than a drizzle. Though this was the rainy season for Upstate New York, God seemed to be overdoing it with all the wet and gloom. Abby caught herself complaining, and moved down the hall into the living room. God never did anything by accident. Everything had a reason, even the times when it felt like there wasn't one. She'd been taught that as a child, and even now, as she put on her coat and saw Jake watching her from the recliner, she knew something good was trying to happen.

Jake nodded to the couch where Uncle Terry and Madison were watching TV, and Abby followed his gaze.

The woman was leggy in an understated, elegant kind of way, like a high-fashion runway model with beauty to spare. High cheekbones, glossy blonde hair, and translucent skin that gave her an almost regal appearance. Though she hardly acted that way. Then Abby saw what Jake must have wanted her to notice: small tears slid down that soft, delicate face and landed on Uncle Terry's sweater-- the one Uncle Terry had put on Madison.

It put a lump in Abby's throat. She remembered how gentle and kind Madison had been with Ricky, when Ricky had showed Madison his firefighter. Despite Abby's determination not to like Uncle Terry's needy person, it had touched Abby more than she cared to admit.

And now this.

Madison was crying, and deep down Abby knew why. Because she'd been impatient in her rushed judgment, not slowing down to consider the feelings of anyone besides her Uncle Terry-- not even for someone who was very likely in desperate need of help. Abby figured she probably deserved whatever Dad was waiting outside to say.

Scratch that probably. She deserved it.

Earlier, Abby had wondered if she'd caught Madison crying, but hadn't been sure. This time, there was no mistaking it. Those were tears, and Abby had no doubt they were because of her.

"Abby," Mom called from the kitchen, "your father's waiting."

"I know." Abby zipped up her coat, thought about what she should do and went over to the couch. "Madison?"

When the woman looked at her, Abby was quietly taken aback by those startled gray eyes. They held no anger, but there was so much pain, it stunned Abby. She'd done that?

"I'd like to apologize," Abby managed to get out the words while Uncle Terry watched. "I didn't mean to hurt you... maybe that's not exactly true. If you were going to turn out like Victor, then I did want you to suffer. At least a little." Abby took a deep breath and prayed Madison wouldn't keep crying. "I'm in a tough spot, and I guess, so are you. I love Uncle Terry, and before God, I'd do anything in my power to stop him from getting crushed like last time. But just because all the others wiped their feet on Uncle Terry, doesn't mean you will, too. You're here, in this house with my sisters, when none of the others got through the front door. Dad and Mom are careful, so if you've made it this far, I should have given you the benefit of the doubt."

To Abby's dismay, the tears kept coming and now Uncle Terry was noticing them, too.

"I'm sorry, Uncle Terry. This is all my fault."

"Maddie?" He touched Madison's shoulder, and she looked away.

"Me and my big mouth." Not wanting to make things worse, Abby took a few steps back so Madison wouldn't feel threatened. "If she can't forgive me, I'll understand."

When Madison continued to cry, Abby retreated to her Mom. The conversation must not have carried into the kitchen, for Mom kept working without looking up. "He's outside," Mom said from the stove. "Don't stay out too long, and keep warm. Your cough is bad enough, as it is."

Quietly going out the back door, Abby opened the umbrella when she was greeted by a light rain drizzling over the bay. Dad stood by the garage, and when he saw her, he opened the garage door.

"I didn't want to speak in front of everyone else, and I don't want you to get wet, so we'll do our talking in there."

"Dad, I apologized to Madison."

"Glad to hear it. But she's not the only reason we're out here."

Folding away the umbrella, Abby went into the garage, waited as Dad came inside and shut the door.

"What's come over you?" Dad turned to her, folded his arms, and Abby hoped she was too old to be spanked. "You weren't raised to hurt other people's feelings. You know better than that."

"I apologized to Madison." The words came out in a weak defense, and Dad only shook his head.

"How could you tease your uncle like that? And in front of his guest?"

The question caught Abby off guard.

"I didn't think I was teasing him that hard."

"You were, and it hurt his feelings. I wasn't the one trying to work up the courage to propose to Emily, and you hurt mine."

"Propose?"

Dad took a step closer. "This means a lot to your Uncle Terry. Except for this family, he's been alone all his life and he wants to get married. Is that too hard to understand?"

More regret flooded Abby's heart.

"And as for Madison..." Dad sighed deeply. "I should have told you about her, sooner. I shouldn't have put it off until the last moment. I should have picked up the phone and called you while you were still in San Diego, so we could talk about it and make sure you were prepared. I knew this was going to be hard for you to accept."

"Dad, I need to know-- this woman-- Madison-- she's not like Victor, is she?"

"No, she's not like him at all." Dad blew out a sigh, and it made Abby feel even worse than she already did. "Of all the people Terry's ever tried to help, this one is different. She's more helpless, certainly, but it's more than that. She's genuine, and has a lot of respect for Terry. I hope..." Dad paused, and seemed to think over his words. "I have every reason to believe Madison would rather cut off an arm, than hurt your uncle. I've seen the way she is around him, and I'm not worried that she'll hurt him on purpose."

"But you think she will? Dad, please level with me."

Staring at the cement floor, Dad paused as though choosing his words carefully. "I won't pretend that I'm not deeply concerned about Madison. I've warned him as gently as I could without hurting his feelings, and am praying with everything I have that this will turn out well." Dad met Abby's eyes. "That doesn't mean, however, I'm going to run his life and tell him what to do. Like I've told your mom, Terry is a grown man and he's making the best decisions he can, under the circumstances."

"But what if he breaks down again?"

"Abby, I have to give it to the Lord. There's not a lot I can do. Your uncle needs to know we stand behind him come what may, that he isn't alone, and that we love him. He's trying to do a good thing. Just like you did with Jake, except their relationship is different. This hasn't been an easy time for him, especially after that breakdown six months ago, and he's trying very hard to be strong. To do what's needed for Madison, and to not collapse emotionally and be a burden to this family."

"He could never be a burden."

"I know. It's the way he's thinking, though."

"Has he had any night terrors lately?"

John nodded. "But he's been holding it together. I've been proud of him, and the way he's been handling the ups and downs with Madison. Now that he's getting serious about Emily, I don't want to ruin it for him. I'm praying Emily will be good for him, that she'll give him a stable foundation, a sturdy shoulder to cry on when he's too embarrassed to cry on mine."

"I'm sorry, Dad."

"Part of this is my fault." Dad's mouth firmed in self-reproach. "In the back of my mind, I had been hoping that living with Jake these past four years had made you more sensitive to the feelings of others. You're so good around him, so tender and gentle."

"I'm so gentle, because I love him and that's what he needs." Abby sighed. "There's no one else like Jake. He's one of a kind."

"Don't be so sure about that, Abby. She reminds me of him, at times. And I say that with a great deal of affection for Jake."

"I'm not offended. If that's true, then it's a compliment to Madison, because Jake is such a teddybear." Abby smiled at the thought of Jake clutching her while he slept, a habit he did nearly every night. "Thanks for treating me like a grownup and leveling with me." The silent tears came before Abby, and she closed her eyes in horror. "Oh, Dad. I made her cry."

* * * *

He didn't want to intrude, but Jake couldn't help watching from the recliner. Terry had taken a handkerchief from his pocket, and kept drying Madison's tears as they fell.

"You promised me that you'd try not to cry." Terry patted the wet cheeks, had to lean forward to look into that downturned face, a face that kept looking away from Terry's. Her eyes wouldn't meet his, and every time they did, Madison would break into fresh tears.

"Please, don't cry." Terry placed a hand over hers but it did little to stop the weeping. "I hope you can forgive Abby. I know my niece, and when she apologizes for something, it's because she means it."

Jake wanted to agree out loud, but he kept coughing, and feared if he moved to the couch to try and help settle the crying woman, he'd only succeed in giving her the flu.

"Please, Maddie." Terry was nearing tears, himself-- Jake could see the wetness gathering in Terry's eyes. "Please, tell me what to do so it'll be all right. I can't bear to see you like this."

The heartfelt plea made her look up. She gazed at Terry with such intensely ardent passion, Terry gave an awkward smile and she burst into more tears. At least, that was the way it looked to Jake. Jake was beginning to think this had little to do with Abby, and more to do with a certain phone date that would take place later that day. Come to think of it, Madison hadn't started crying until Terry had announced he was still keeping his afternoon date with Emily.

It was a small observation, and Jake had only noticed because the scene was playing out right in front of him. It was hard not to notice. He had a good view of the couch and those on it, and his heart went out to Madison. Jake didn't know her, but something about her felt familiar. He might have been standing in front of a mirror, looking at himself, even though the reflection looked nothing like his own. Their sameness came from the inside. A similar heart as his own, beat in that slight frame, and Jake had a feeling it was very familiar with pain.

"Please, don't cry." Terry placed the handkerchief in her hand, but she kept her head bowed and her face turned from Terry. "This is killing me, Maddie. Please don't cry."

It was just as well the children were in the triplets' room playing with their computer. This would frighten them, as it seemed to frighten Mom when she came to see if she could help.

"Maybe she's hungry." Mom brushed the long blonde hair from Madison's eyes. "John said she didn't touch her pancakes, so she has to be hungry."

Beginning to look tired, Madison leaned against the armrest of the couch, kept herself curled tightly in a fetal position, and every now and then, another tear would slip down her cheek. Jake could tell Madison tried to keep the sadness to herself, but too many were noticing, and it only made it worse.

Jake coughed, and the coughs kept coming until Mom came to check his forehead. Why did people keep checking him? His fever couldn't have changed all that much since the last time he'd been checked. He still had it.

The back door sounded with a thump, and a moment later Abby and Dad came into the living room. Their attention fixed on the woman curled at the end of the couch, and on Terry as he did everything but sing to her to stop the tears from falling. As Mom went to go check on the children, Abby took a seat next to Terry.

"Can you forgive me?"

Madison was too busy crying to hear Abby, and Jake wanted to go over there and tell them all to leave her alone. She wasn't angry-- she was heartbroken. And perhaps even jealous of Emily. It seemed reasonable enough.

Dad looked pained to do something to help, but all he could do was stand by and watch.

Since Terry had tried everything else and it hadn't worked, he tried rubbing Madison's shoulder, and the sobs began to lessen. The contact helped. Though she didn't look calmer, it did distract her from crying. She closed her eyes and her knuckles turned bone white from gripping his handkerchief so hard.

Abby looked to Dad, then to Jake, for help.

How could Jake tell Abby that these tears weren't for her, without embarrassing Madison even further? Jake clamped his mouth shut, then had to open it to cough. Oh, this flu.

"Lunch will be in a few minutes," Mom said, passing through the living room on her way to the kitchen. "Madison, I could use your help with the stir-fry."

To everyone's surprise, the long legs unfolded, and Madison climbed off the couch.

That poor woman. She was in love. Jake wondered if she was even aware of it, she seemed so uncertain of everything around her, like the world was a constant mystery to be figured out. It was a feeling Jake knew very well, and he recognized it in Madison.

This was all very personal, and all very out in the open despite the unsaid words. Or so Jake thought. Everyone around him didn't seem to see what he did, and he began to wonder if the cough syrup had gone to his head. Problem was, he hadn't taken any that morning. Maybe the fever was to blame. Or maybe he'd coughed himself into a concussion and was seeing things that didn't exist.

It had to be the coughing.

His face full of concern, Terry watched as Madison went to help Mom. Terry got off the couch, stood in the kitchen doorway and watched while the women worked. With a lopsided grin, Terry looked back at the people in the living room.

Shaking the thought from his head before he had a chance to get it fully formed, Jake tried to reason away what he was seeing. Terry had a phone date with Emily after lunch, so that had to be concern shining in Terry's eyes, nothing more. It just had to be.

Rubbing his aching forehead, Jake got up from the recliner. What in the world had he and Abby walked into? While Three Mile Bay wasn't much different than before, some things were plunging toward big change. It was too much for Jake's poor fevered mind to take in, and he left the living room to go stretch out on the bed and get some rest. He wondered why God had given them the flu, then trapped them in the same house with Terry, at a time like this.

Surely, they would only get in the way.

* * * *

"Turn the fire down."

Izzy had a lot of calm in her, and Madison wished she could follow her example.

"Add the seasoning like I showed you."

The bottles were lined up on the counter, and it took Madison a few moments to sort out which ones went with the stir-fry, and which were meant for the chicken casserole Izzy had baking in the oven. The motions of fixing lunch, mixing in the seasoning, made the trembling in Madison's hands to stop. Madison looked over her shoulder, saw Terry standing in the doorway and quickly turned back to the stove.

Looking at him only made her want to cry.

Was it too much to hope that he'd never marry, and just go on being her friend? Did things have to change? Did he have to change? Couldn't he rise above being ugly, and just stay single?

Pain shot into her hand. She jerked away from the frying pan, sucked her burnt finger while Terry hurried to the fridge. He pulled out some butter, and the touch of his hand when it took hers, made the sting of the burn go away even before she felt the butter.

He was so wonderful, she couldn't bear to look at him.

"Does it hurt?"

She nodded.

"About Abby--"

"It's all right, Terry. I forgive her." Madison pulled her hand away before she looked at him and started to cry again.

"Thank you, Maddie, that means a lot to me. Is it all right if I tell her? I know she's beating herself up right now."

"She doesn't have to. It's no big deal." Even though she said the words, Madison knew it wasn't quite true. Abby had apologized, and that meant Abby might still like her one day. Maybe.

Quiet and thoughtful, Terry put the butter away while Izzy washed something in the sink. Even though Izzy wasn't watching the people behind her back, Madison had a feeling she was following every word.

"Does your finger feel better?" Terry waited for a response, so Madison nodded, "yes."

It felt better, though the ache in her chest was still there. Would butter help that, too? She saw the knife on the counter and wished she could steal it and hide in the bathroom. Instead, she focused on the burned finger and went back to work.

After a minute of saying nothing, Terry returned to the living room.

Numbness seeped into Madison's soul, and she worked hard to let it wash over the hurts in her insides, the ones Terry could never see.

"Time to turn off the fire." Izzy moved around her, and took something from a cupboard. "Switch the pan to a cool burner, then finish slicing the tomatoes on the cutting board."

Being this close to a knife wouldn't help, but Madison felt nothing when she picked it up. All she felt was numbness, a wide sea spreading inside of her that drowned anything that tried to stay afloat. Everything sank to the bottom, even hope.

"When you've finished the tomatoes, start on the bell peppers, please." Izzy moved around Madison, gave her a smile and Madison remembered that Jesus could walk on water. Nothing could sink Jesus, and if He couldn't drown, then He could keep her head above the water. Hope took faith. You couldn't just tell yourself something, and let it go, you had to hang on and remind yourself that it was true. And believe it.

Today, it took more to hang on than usual. She was losing her best friend to that woman.

To Emily.

The chicken was taken from the oven, and the smells lured the children away from their games. They drifted into the kitchen to gawk at the food and get in the way.

"When's lunch?" Debbie asked in a hopeful voice.

Ruthie sighed. "Mommy hasn't set the table, so we can't eat now."

"Can I set the table?" Lizzie asked. "I know how."

"I'm getting awfully hungry," Debbie said, and Ruthie nodded her head with dramatic emphasis.

Behind the girls, all cute and hopeful, Ricky stood with his firefighter and tried to see the food as it was placed onto the pot holders on the counter.

"Abby, come help the girls set the table." Izzy wiped her hands on the apron and nodded to Madison to finish with the bell peppers.

"I thought I was supposed to be resting," Abby said, coming into the kitchen with a laugh. She paused by the cutting board. The smile she gave Madison was apologetic, and grateful.

Feeling shy, Madison returned the gesture with a timid smile, then went back to concentrating on the small even slices it took to make the peppers come out looking nice.

Abby looked over her progress. "Don't cut your fingers."

"Abby, the plates," Ruthie said, tugging her older sister to the cupboard.

"Aren't you afraid I'll pass the flu to everyone by handling the dishes?"

"They're going to get it anyway," came Izzy's practical reply. "But wash your hands first."

The sisters were a noisy, mixed up jumble when they were all together, and Madison couldn't help watching. Abby pulled things from the cupboard, and the triplets clamored to take turns putting them on the table. Coming closer, Ricky looked on as the table was set with plates and silverware, then came the napkins and glasses. The boy looked hungry and Madison thought it was a healthy sign that his fever was lifting.

"Since we have so many in the house," Abby directed, "you three and Ricky can eat in the living room."

"Can we watch TV?" Ruthie asked.

"I guess so."

Debbie hopped down from the chair. "We're done, Mommy."

"Thank you, girls." Izzy moved through the sea of children to get to the fridge. "Tell the men it's lunchtime, please."

"Lunch!" Debbie yelled, and ran from the kitchen with two small girls at her heels. The triplets spread the word all over the house, so that even Jake finally showed up, though he didn't look very hungry.

"It's getting crowded in here." Jake hesitated before sitting at the table. "Maybe I should eat with the kids."

"Nah." John pulled out a chair and sat down. "We have enough room."

Before the plates were filled, everyone joined hands and Madison's insides trembled when Terry took hers. His hand lightly held hers, as though he were afraid of hurting her somehow. They bowed their heads while John prayed over the meal, but Madison had trouble paying attention to the words. It was a strong hand, yet it held hers so gently, she wanted to kiss Terry.

So much for staying numb. Life pulsed in her blood until the prayer ended, and Terry let go.

"As usual, Little Dove, the food looks good." John picked up a serving fork and started helping Izzy and Abby fill the plates for the children.

Moving past her, Terry pulled out a chair. He looked to Madison, waited, and she realized he wanted her to sit down. When she did, she found herself next to Jake.

"Maddie, have you taken any painkiller this morning?"

She shook her head, and Terry went off to get the acetaminophen. Feeling timid, she chanced a glance at the young man beside her, and Jake smiled. Not knowing what else to do, she bowed her head and tried not to attract attention.

When the children had been served, the remaining adults sat down and the food started to pass around the table.

"Do you happen to fly fish?" Jake asked.

Oh no. He was talking to her. Madison shook her head and tried not to look at Jake in the hopes he'd stop.

"Me either." Jake passed her the jello salad. "Terry and Abby, though, can't get enough of it."

The jello looked so good, and she was so hungry, Madison helped herself to more than she really wanted.

"They can spend hours out there, just fishing."

She glanced at Jake. There was something about him-- a weary sort of hard-won confidence that made him seem different than everyone else. He looked young, and yet sounded old, like he had seen a lot in life and didn't really want to remember it. Then she recalled Terry had once told her that Jake had been abused.

The thought flicked through her mind as Jake kept talking to her.

"Sometimes I envy them. They look so at peace with themselves and the world, just standing there, flicking that line back and forth. Have you ever seen Terry fish?"

Madison nodded.

"Quite a sight, isn't it?" Jake took a hot roll from the bread basket, split it open, then smeared on butter. "I like to sit and watch them, maybe get a sketch done, while I'm at it."

Terry smiled. "Jake's an artist."

"I'm not much of one, I'm afraid." Jake bit into the roll while Abby put a generous helping of chicken on Jake's plate. "I still have so much to learn, it's sometimes discouraging. Just when you think you know something, you find out you're still a rookie."

"Don't listen to him, Madison. You should see the painting he did of the family-- it's brilliant."

"So says my wife."

"So says everyone who sees it." Abby looked indignant. "Dad, where's it hanging? I don't remember seeing it in the living room."

"We moved it to the master bedroom." John loaded his fork with tomato and lettuce, dabbed it in some ranch dressing. "When your mom started remodeling, we moved it so it wouldn't get damaged when the walls were repainted."

"Why didn't you move it back when you were done?"

A wry smile spread over Jake's mouth. "Abby's my protector. Whenever an art critic doesn't happen to like my work, she's in there, swinging."

Terry paused eating. "Someone didn't like your work?"

"Just some art critic who doesn't know what he's talking about." Abby made a face. "He was no judge of talent, that's for sure."

Jake gave Abby a look. "He was fair."

"He was not. He said you couldn't paint, that you wasted time and money getting your degree. The guy was nuts."

Jake remained silent.

When the others looked to Abby for an explanation, she shook her head. "It's nothing important. One of Jake's professors had a friend who was supposed to own a prestigious art gallery. He took one look at Jake's work and called it 'old fashioned.'"

"I am, Abby."

"Just because you paint realistic wildlife and nature, doesn't make you old-fashioned. And what did Mr. Fancy-Pants think of that guy who did the canvas covered in red and black stripes? He called it 'a bold expression of individuality.'"

"I'll admit," Jake shrugged, "it wasn't much to look at."

"Do you know what Jake showed him?" Abby smiled and Madison found herself doing the same. "Jake showed him a large canvas with two cactus cuddling together like sweethearts. For something covered with sharp spines, it's an incredibly moving painting. Jake made them look so real, and yet you felt like they were truly cuddling, that they'd grown that way, hugging each other over the years, on purpose."

"I'd like to see that sometime," Terry grinned.

"It's in the trailer." Abby added some baked potato to Jake's plate. "When Jake can finish enough paintings, we're going to find a gallery who will take them on consignment."

"That's going to take time, Abby, not to mention willingness for someone to take a chance on a nobody." Jake gave his wife a hesitant look, kept toying with his fork and not eating. "Are you sure you don't want me to use my master's degree and do something else? Something with a steady paycheck?"

"We've already gone over this a hundred times." Abby sighed, reached for the bottle of salad dressing. "We can live on my salary until your career gets started."

"Your career would have been better off if we'd stayed in San Diego."

"Jake, really-- we've already talked this out. There's nothing more to say."

He shook his head, and glanced at John. "She only came back because of me."

"Okay, this conversation is getting way off topic. I thought we were talking about art?"

"Abby--"

"Please, Jake. We'll talk about this later."

Jake sighed, and it started a fit of coughing. He excused himself from the table, and Abby went after him.

They could hear AJ talk from the next room, though they kept their voices quiet enough Madison couldn't overhear what was being said. Like hope, marriage evidently took work.

"Well, whatever their reason for coming home--" John leaned back in his chair with a napkin-- "I'm just grateful they came."

"Do you think they have enough money?" Terry asked in a hushed tone. "Can they get by on her salary alone?"

"If they can't, we'll help them out so Jake can work on his art career." John gave an affirming nod. "I think they'll have enough, though. They can both work from home-- Jake on his painting, and Abby can long distance with Dennis in San Diego. She's done it before."

Terry agreed, then nudged Madison with an elbow.

"You're not eating."

While Madison attacked the jello, Jake coughed in the next room. By the time Abby returned, Madison had started in on the chicken.

"He'll be all right." Abby sat down, and scooted in her chair. "I want to stop talking about this because it's Sunday, but just for the record: Jake and I don't need money. I could hear what you guys were saying, and we're doing just fine on our own."

John nodded. "It's duly noted."

The answer seemed to satisfy Abby, and she gave her father a smile that he returned without hesitation. This family was close-knit, and they fought for each other however they could. The fact had been impressed on Madison that morning, and she felt a strong tug of jealousy. Emily would belong here, while Madison would not. That would be true, wouldn't it? For why should Emily let Terry spend so much time with another woman?

Oh, why did Terry have to chase after sex? Because he was a man, that's why. He was only doing what other men did. If he wanted to be ugly, better he did it with Emily, than with her. If that was the way Terry wanted to be, then Emily could have him. Madison would not care.

Tears spilled down Madison's cheeks, and she hurried to brush them away before Terry noticed.

"It's almost time." Terry glanced at the kitchen clock, then hurried to finish the rest of his meal.

"If I were you, I'd use the office." John helped himself to more potatoes. "Unless you don't mind an audience, I'd also close the door."

"The house is so full, I'll take all the privacy I can get."

A subdued look crossed Abby's face and she reached out to touch Terry's arm. "I'm sorry I teased you earlier. I think it's great you and Emily are getting together."

"So you've decided to believe me?"

Abby nodded. "You deserve to be happy."

A wonderful lopsided smile showed Terry didn't hold any grudges, and he reached up and gave Abby's hand a squeeze.

Somewhere inside of her, Madison felt something break. Maybe it was her heart.

Finishing off the last of her food, Abby scooted away from the table. "Would you guys keep an eye on Ricky for me? I'm going to spend some time alone with Jake, before the Doyle's get here. I think he needs me."

"Run along," Izzy said with a smile.

"That was a very good meal. My compliments to the chefs." Terry stood up from his chair while Madison did her best to hurry. Chef or not, she wanted to go with him. "If Dick and Sara arrive while I'm in the office, tell them I said hello."

"I'll do that," John said.

"And if you would, don't tell them I'm on the phone with Emily."

John nodded, and didn't make Terry feel anymore self-conscious than Terry must have already felt by making the request.

To Madison's joy, Terry turned to her. "When you're finished, you can watch TV with the kids, or maybe get out your notebook, if it's here. I'm afraid I'll be busy, so you'll be on your own."

"I'll look after her," Izzy said.

For a long moment, Terry stood there and looked at Madison, and Madison felt her face grow warm.

Terry bowed his head, and left.

"Madison, would you help me gather the children's dishes?" Izzy got up from the table and started to clean the kitchen.

By the time Madison returned with the empty plates, John had gone into the living room and Madison found herself alone with Izzy. It was comforting to be with her, for Izzy had a way of making Madison feel safe and comforted. Maybe it was because Izzy was a mother, and mothering someone besides her own children came easily to her. Whatever the reason, Izzy was good at it. Madison was grateful for the long stretches of silence punctuated with gentle remarks about how to store leftovers in the fridge, the best way to keep water spots off silverware. You dried them with a towel of course, but for several minutes, Madison could think about housework instead of Terry.

Then she followed Izzy into the living room to watch TV with John and the children. How she wished she could be someone else, someone who was normal and could give Terry all the things that she couldn't. Emily was normal, and she wasn't.

Sick with discouragement, Madison tried not to care.

* * * *

He'd fallen asleep, but the feel of someone moving on the bed woke him. For a second, he forgot he wasn't in prison, and panic welled in his chest. Then the soft touch of Abby's hand chased away the fear, and Jake closed his eyes a moment to thank God. He was safe, and he was with Abby.

"Sorry I woke you." She whispered the words against his ear. "Would you like some company?"

He smiled, raised an arm and let Abby cuddle against his shoulder. He wrapped his other arm around her, and hugged her until she winced with pain.

"Sorry."

"Don't ever be sorry for loving me too hard." Abby kissed his sweatshirt. "How's your throat doing?"

"Did you see her?" Jake stared at the ceiling and pictured the couch. "The way she looked at him."

"You mean, Uncle Terry?"

Jake nodded.

"I guess I didn't notice. How did she look?"

"Like she was seeing her first smallmouth bass."

Abby raised her head. "You're joking."

"I'm only trying to put it into context for you."

"Gut hooked?"

"I don't know yet. Maybe."

"You have to be wrong. She's probably just grateful, since he's been helping her out so much. Besides, he's interested in Emily."

"And if he's not?"

For a long, long moment Abby was silent.

"I want him to be happy. Whoever will make Uncle Terry happy, I'll count her as a blessing."

Massaging Abby's back, Jake kept turning the scene in his mind. Maybe he was wrong, but maybe, just maybe, he was right. Something in his gut said he hadn't been mistaken. If he wasn't, Terry would have a lot on his hands, for Madison was a deeply wounded person.

"I just want him to be happy, Jake. If he marries... when he marries, I just want him to be happy with the one he's chosen."

"I know." Jake massaged in small circles and smiled as Abby relaxed against him. "Part of me hopes he'll choose Madison because I know she probably needs him. But the other part of me thinks he'll be better off with Emily. I can't decide."

Abby patted Jake's sweatshirt. "Uncle Terry is going to have to do that for himself."

"Are you ever sorry how you decided, Abby?"

"What do you think?"

Jake grinned. "Please, say it anyway?"

"I've never, ever, been sorry I married you." Abby toyed with the edge of Jake's shirt. "You're a hardworking, God-fearing man. A good daddy, and a good husband. And I'll add to that, a very dear friend."

Jake lifted his head to see those sea-blue eyes looking back at him.

"I love you with all my heart, Jake. If Uncle Terry can love his wife even half as much as I love you, then he'll never be sorry for his choice."

Though Jake wanted to kiss Abby, the flu interrupted, and a cough fought its way up Jake's throat. He dropped back, turned his head so he wouldn't cough on Abby, and hacked away until he was able to make it stop. Leaning over the edge of the bed, Abby snagged a tissue from the night table.

"I love you, Abby. I love you so much, my throat hurts."

"Love isn't making your throat hurt." She laughed, gave him the tissue and was about to pull away when Jake tugged her back. "What is it?"

"I know coming here wasn't the best choice for your career. I talked to Dennis-- don't get mad, Abby, I made him give me his honest opinion. Except for reruns, you won't be on TV anymore and it'll slow your momentum. Say the word, and we'll go back."

"No." Abby's mouth firmed. "We're not going back."

"You're only saying that because of me."

"Jake, I meant it when I said that what isn't good for you, isn't good for me. That's the only way I'll ever see it. We're in this together. Besides--" Abby's fingers ran through Jake's hair and he fought to not let it weaken his resistance-- "I want Ricky to grow up around Mom, Dad, and Uncle Terry. I want him to grow up loving this place as much as I did, and be able to step out the door and fly fish whenever the weather and the season permit."

Jake smiled. "Fly fishing is very important."

"Yes," Abby grinned, "it is."

"Promise me something, Abby. Promise me you won't be kind and only tell me what you think I want to hear. I need to know you're being honest with me."

"You've made this request, before."

"And you didn't promise."

A smile hinted around the corners of her mouth, and Jake felt his heart bump with happiness.

"I'll be as honest as I can, without hurting you."

"Don't be afraid of hurting me."

She said nothing, but returned to his arms and let him squeeze her as tightly as he wanted. Though he needed her close, he had to let himself relax so Abby wouldn't bruise again. The fever must have been going down, for he didn't feel over-warm with her snugged against him.

Tired but happy, Jake closed his eyes and let himself drift to sleep.

* * * *

Steady breathing was key to success. Breathe too fast, and he'd hyperventilate, and that was no good. Terry needed to sound confident over the phone, but not scared or on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Even though he felt both.

The office door was shut, and Terry resisted the urge to lock it. He was alone, no one could possibly overhear unless they had their ear pressed to the door. Even so, he got up from his chair, opened the door and found the hallway empty. Not as though he'd expected anyone to willingly eavesdrop. The triplets could've been camping at his door though, waiting for him to come out, just like they did in the mornings.

Enough. They were playing with Ricky, so stop stalling.

Terry glanced at the time. He'd figured on calling at the top of the hour, but maybe Emily wasn't ready. He'd wait a few more minutes so he wouldn't come off as anxious or too eager.

Closing the door, he went back to his desk.

Hopefully, at least Madison was having a good time. It had been good to see her helping out in the kitchen. She'd needed the activity, a distraction to help stop those tears from falling while they softly broke his heart. Thank God, things were good again. Abby had apologized, Maddie had forgiven her, and now the family was back to normal. Or as normal as this crazy household ever got.

Man, he was tired. It wasn't a good day for a phone date with Emily, but they needed to talk and spend time together. This needed to get done. And the longer it took for him to pick up the phone, the harder it got. He wasn't getting any younger, and neither was Emily. Time to bite the bullet, to dig down deep and do what almost every other man his age had already done.

Time to get serious.

The cell phone on his desk rang.

Oh, man. It was Emily. He answered the call and tried to sound casual, but when he leaned back in the chair, it gave a loud squeak that made Emily pause.

Terry decided to plunge ahead. "Believe it or not, I was just about to call you."

"You were?" Emily laughed. "I just put Dad to bed and wanted to take advantage of a quiet house. Not that Dad is noisy, but..."

"But you didn't want to talk in front of him."

She laughed. "Am I that silly?"

"No, not at all." Terry glanced at the door. "I'm in the office, and just made sure no one was listening in the hall. Not that anyone here would eavesdrop."

"Oh, listen to us." Emily sighed. "Anyone hearing us would think we didn't know each other. For pity's sake, we've been next door neighbors for six years. Talking to each other is certainly nothing new."

"Uh-huh."

Silence stretched out over the line.

"So--" Terry reached for something else to say besides "uh-huh." "How's everything going at your house? Did you ever get the Kool-Aid stain off the carpet?"

"No, I'm afraid we didn't. Mitch tried, but it simply would not come out. I told Dad we could throw a rug over it, but then I'm afraid he might trip."

For a moment, Terry wondered who Mitch was, then remembered the young man in the scrubs-- one of the aides who helped to take care of her father.

"I like rugs." Terry cleared his throat. "I've thought about putting one in the office."

"That would be nice." Emily paused, and Terry could hear her preparing to say something. "I was wondering... have you given any thought about our outing to Jersey City?"

"Pardon?"

"Our trip to Jersey City. So Dad can visit with Aunt Martha?"

"Oh, that. I can't say I have. There's been so much going on, lately."

"Yes, of course. AJ has just come back, so of course you've been busy. Still, I've been thinking..."

"Oh? About what?"

"About what a Providential opportunity this trip gives us." Emily paused, and Terry sensed she was gathering her courage. Why that scared him, he had no idea, only that it did. "I was thinking, since we're going into Jersey City anyway, why not combine it with a special occasion?"

"Like what? Is your birthday coming up?"

"No, not that." Emily blew out a deep sigh. "This was so much easier when I rehearsed it with myself, this morning. I could control both sides of the conversation, and I always had the right thing to say that could make you laugh."

"Am I supposed to be laughing?" he asked.

While she laughed, Terry swallowed hard. She had rehearsed something?

"I realize this is awkward," she pressed on after catching her breath, "but we know each other. We've been neighbors for years, we go to the same church, we have many of the same friends, and I believe we both want the same thing. We want a family. This is enough to build a future on, don't you think? I don't see why we have to drag things out, when we could settle it over the phone."

By now, Terry's mouth had gone dry. His tongue wouldn't work, and when it finally did, his voice squeaked louder than the chair.

"Settle what?"

"Terry, why don't we get married? We could use the trip as a honeymoon, and it wouldn't inconvenience Dad because he'd get to see Aunt Martha. They could visit each other, and we'd have most of the time to ourselves."

The world began to spin about Terry. He couldn't keep up.

"Of course, if you'd rather go someplace else, I'll understand. It's just that I can't afford to be away from Dad for very long."

Terry was quiet.

"I hope I'm right in thinking you want to get married. I would wait for a proposal, but if we know what we want, why should we wait?"

"Yes, I--" Terry rethought his words. Saying "yes" to anything right now, was risky.

Not unless he was accepting Emily's proposal. And that was what she was doing right now-- proposing. It made sense to accept, especially since he'd been wanting all along to get it over and done with. And now he wouldn't have to dread getting down on one knee. Emily was doing it for him.

"What you say makes sense. I just... this is a little sudden."

"I understand. This is a big decision, so pray about it and think it over."

"Yes-- I-- I mean, I'll do that." Terry tried to breathe, but air wasn't getting to his brain.

"I'm just glad I was able to get the words out." Emily took a deep breath. "I've been dreading this proposal all morning, and it feels good to actually say the words and get them out in the open."

He should say something, but had no clue what to take a chance on. "Oh yes, if I had been you, I would have been dreading it, too?" Or, "I guess I should be glad I'm not you?" Neither sounded good to his dazed mind.

"Well, I'd better let you go. The house needs to be tidied before Dad wakes, and I still need to figure out what we're having for dinner. If I know him, he's going to ask, and there aren't any leftovers in the fridge."

"Oh. I'm sorry." It seemed a stupid thing to say, but she didn't have any leftovers. Was he supposed to be glad? Emily had to think through dinner, and he had to think through the rest of his life. But maybe she could fix sandwiches.

"I hope you're not angry with me. I felt the need to get things started before--" Emily stopped. "I didn't think it best to wait."

"Okay." Terry was grateful he hadn't used "yes," when "okay" would do just fine. He had to hang up. His thoughts were crashing into each other, and what came out wasn't making any sense. "I'll call you back."

"Thank you for understanding. I'll hear from you later, then."

They hung up, and Terry put his head between his knees before he passed out.

Sadness swallowed him alive, knocking the breath from his chest in a stunning blow. Why did he feel this need to cry? He should be celebrating, but instead of joy, he felt like his heart was snapping in two. He wanted a wife, didn't he? A family of his own?

Here was his chance to be normal.

Pushing off the chair, Terry sprawled out on the floor. Tears came to his eyes and he was glad the door was closed.

God wanted this, or someone as nice as Emily would never have proposed. He'd been praying for a day like this, and now God was answering that prayer. He could be a husband, one day be a father, and have a family that he could take care of and love. He wouldn't be alone. For someone who suffered chronic shyness around women, here was a golden opportunity to make it happen. This was Providence.

The tears wouldn't stop, and Terry wept as quietly as he could without drawing attention. All he needed right now was for John to rush in thinking he was having another breakdown. But maybe he was. Maybe he needed John.

"God, please help me."

Covering his mouth, Terry sobbed into his hands. The sadness overwhelmed him. He struggled to find an end to it, but all he found was more heartache. He should be happy. He wanted to get married, he wasn't giving up any freedoms he cared about, so why was he crying?

He must find a way to stop.

He moved to his knees, struggled to catch his breath, but they kept getting caught on sobs. He fought even harder for control. He had to conquer this, or it would conquer him.

Drying his face on the arm of his white, long sleeved shirt, he got to his feet and braced himself against the desk. He had to collect himself before John or any of the others saw him. Especially Maddie. She'd panic if she saw his tears, and think something was wrong.

He would be strong for Maddie.

Thankful for the half bath attached to the office, Terry went inside and splashed water on his face. It felt so good, he spent several minutes washing and calming down. His shirt got wet in the process, but he felt better. Like he could speak and not break into tears.

As Terry dried his face, he stared at the reflection in the mirror. He'd better give himself a few more minutes to regain his composure. For Maddie's sake, and for the sake of his family, he had to stay strong.

* * * *

When the children began nodding off, Izumi took the girls to their room for an afternoon nap. John carried Ricky into the master bedroom, and pulled out a blanket and pillow to let the little guy sleep off his full tummy. Nestled in a warm "blankie," Ricky easily fell asleep before John had even left the room. Taking a moment to watch the boy sleep, John felt a warm feeling sweep through him. That was his grandson. The thought made him smile as he closed the bedroom door.

He loved being a grandparent, even though the word suggested he was getting old. He had three little girls close in age to Ricky, so he couldn't be that old. Forty-seven didn't make him falling apart old, just older than what he'd been the year before. That was all.

He was the same age as Terry, and Terry was on the brink of getting married and starting a family of his own. John's smile wouldn't stop. If Terry started having sons right away, their children could marry each other and they wouldn't have far to travel for family reunions. There would be an age difference, but their family could stay all in one place, so what did that matter? John caught himself daydreaming, and went back to the living room.

Madison was still curled at the end of the couch, looking listless and a bit green around the gills. Maybe she was coming down with the flu, but surely it was too soon for that. Even flu viruses needed more time to infect and make someone sick. The TV had no sound, and even though her eyes were on the set, John had the impression Madison wasn't watching. She was probably missing Terry. John took the recliner, picked up the remote and unmuted the program. Any sound at all was better than all this silence.

"Are you doing okay over there?" John looked at the couch and saw Madison nod her head. "If you need anything, speak up."

Those gray eyes didn't move from the TV, but still that blank, empty look. It was a bit unsettling.

Coming down the hall with a small blanket, Izumi went to the couch and covered Madison's legs. "I don't know if the damp weather is making the arthritis in your hip worse, but this should make you more comfortable. If you want to take a nap, you go right ahead, okay?"

A car door slammed out front. John got up to check the window, fully expecting to find the Doyles' car.

"It's Agatha," John called out, and Izumi hurried to answer the doorbell.

"This is a pleasant surprise." Izumi let Agatha into the house while a cold wind blew in around them. The rain may have stopped for the most part, but it was still a wet, windy day. "I hope you were warned at church. There may be flu in the house."

"Which is why I wanted to bring over this chicken soup." Agatha hefted a large dutch oven by its handles. "I know you probably have some broth on hand, but nothing is quite like homemade. Oh, hello, Madison. How are you, dear?"

Agatha couldn't wait for a response, for she needed to put down the pot, and Izumi took her into the kitchen.

The doorbell sounded, and for a moment, John thought maybe Agatha's husband had been left waiting in the car. When John opened the door, however, Dick and Sara Doyle greeted him with big smiles and even bigger hugs.

"How are they doing?" Dick asked as John showed them inside. "Is it really the flu?"

"I brought some homemade cookies," Sara said, showing John a colorful tin with a Christmas landscape printed on its lid. "I baked them only yesterday."

John took their coats as the women came from the kitchen, and Sara was thanked for the thoughtfulness of the food.

"I wanted to bring soup," Sara explained, "but Dick said we didn't have enough time to run by the store. It was Sunday after all, and I thought maybe this would be a good treat for the kids." The three women chatted, and went into the kitchen.

All the talk must have gotten AJ's attention, for Jake and Abby came down the hall.

"There they are!" Dick moved forward to give Jake a great big hug. "I can see your face, so I won't ask how you're feeling."

"I'm all right." Jake smiled, and sat down on the opposite end of the couch as Madison. "I warned you we weren't feeling very good, so if you and Sara get sick, it's not on my head."

"We were warned," Dick laughed, and gave Abby a hug. "It's so good to have you back in the area. You belong here, not in San Diego."

"Thanks for coming by," Abby smiled.

"Wild horses wouldn't have been able to keep me away." Dick laughed, and sat down next to Jake while Sara came into the room and welcomed AJ. Abby and Jake collected another hug, then Sara took a seat on the couch between Dick and Madison. "Where's my namesake?" Dick asked.

"Taking a nap in the master bedroom," John said, pulling out three dining chairs from under a cover by the wall. "He has a cough and a slight fever, but he had a good afternoon."

"The poor guy." Dick shook his head. "I suppose the welcome home party will have to wait."

"I'm afraid so," Jake said between coughs.

"Well, it can't be helped. You just pay attention on getting better, that's the important thing." Dick waited as Abby, Izumi, and Agatha took the chairs John had set out.

Reluctantly, John claimed the recliner. It was his usual place, but he wished one of the women had taken it, instead.

"Did you guys notice anything different when you went home?" Dick asked.

"We haven't even been through the front door yet." Abby gave a tired laugh. "Mom and Dad have been keeping us hostage."

The twinkle in Dick's eyes remained, but he said nothing more. John realized Dick was saving his surprise for later and let Dick change the subject.

"Where's Terry?" Dick asked.

"He's on the phone in the office." John kept the tone casual. "He probably won't be much longer, though."

"Speaking of Terry." Agatha gave a small sigh. "I wanted to let you all know what happened in church, this morning. Lauren Moore came today-- you know, the one Terry hired to be his superintendent? In front of everyone, Lauren assured Emily that none of the gossip about Terry is true. That in spite of everything, Emily should have no reason to doubt Terry's heart."

Izumi's mouth dropped open. "She didn't."

"Oh, she did. And in front of the entire congregation. I wanted to warn you all, in case someone says something that doesn't make any sense. I just covered my mouth and didn't say a word. There's no need to add to the gossip."

A groan rumbled in John's chest. Lauren Moore was a busybody, stirring up trouble where there was none-- even if it was under the pretense of being well-intentioned. He tried not to stare at Madison and realized everyone else in the room was doing the same. No one looked directly at her, and thankfully, not even Abby asked what Agatha had meant. Though Abby had to be wondering.

Poor Madison said nothing and kept her eyes downturned.

Once more, Dick made the effort and changed the subject, and none too soon. John heard movement coming from the hall as Terry came into the living room. Like a magnet, it drew Madison's attention away from the floor.

Smiling, Dick stood to shake Terry's hand. "I hear there's flu in the house, but don't let these young people give it to you. Outsmart them, and stay healthy."

"I intend to try," Terry smiled. John stood up, offered Terry the recliner, but Terry went and brought out another dining chair, and placed it next to Izumi's. "Have you told them about the you-know-what, yet?"

Dick looked puzzled.

"You know, your present?"

"Oh, that." Dick laughed. "I'll let them notice for themselves."

Abby leaned forward. "What are you talking about?"

"How about this weather?" Dick asked. "It's something, isn't it? Anymore rain like that, and we'll need a boat to get around, instead of a car."

Abby looked to Jake, and Jake shook his head.

"Okay. I won't ask."

"It's probably, good, Abby. If Dick is smiling..."

"He is." Abby looked about the room. "And so is everyone else. I have a sudden urge to go next door and see what this is about."

"I'll go with you."

Looking delighted, Dick stayed on the couch as AJ got up to put on their coats.

"Aren't you coming?" Jake asked when Dick remained where he was.

Dick only laughed. "Let me know if you notice anything different."

"Dad?" Abby looked a bit worried. "He didn't repaint the house, did he? It's still yellow, isn't it?"

"I meant, a change smaller than that," Dick laughed.

As Abby and Jake left, John noticed the splashes on Terry's shirt. The marks were mostly dry, and yet wet enough to betray what Terry probably didn't want John to know. It made John take a good, long look at his friend. Those red rimmed eyes, the pinker than usual nose, the way Terry kept sniffing-- they were tell-tale signs Terry couldn't keep hidden from John.

"How long will it take before they notice?" Agatha asked.

"I give them five minutes, tops." Dick grinned and folded his arms in perfect confidence. "You can't hide something like that, for long. It's big enough to be noticed."

A handkerchief pulled from Terry's pocket. He blew his nose, and for an uncomfortable moment, everyone looked at Terry.

"It was good of you to do that for AJ." John spoke up, and the center of attention moved back to Abby and Jake. "I know they'll appreciate it."

A few minutes later, the front door opened and John turned to see the young couple come inside.

"Well?" Dick asked. "Any changes?"

"The house was clean." Abby spoke with a straight face. "In fact, I think it might be cleaner now, than when we left."

This prompted a raised brow from Jake, and Abby burst into a smile.

"The new washer and dryer are amazing! I never thought I'd get emotional about household appliances, but Mom-- you should try those front loading doors. They're so solid, I had to pinch myself."

"German engineering will do it every time," John smiled. "Those are quality machines."

"Dick, you really didn't have to do that." Jake stepped forward, and Dick got up from the couch to accept the offered hug. "The washer and dryer must have been expensive."

"It's not much, compared to what you two deserve." Sara stood as Abby made her way to the couch to thank her. "After all you and Jake have sacrificed, we wanted to do something to show our appreciation."

"You didn't have to."

"Yes, we did." Sara squeezed Abby before letting her go. "I keep hearing how much Jake has been a blessing to the advisory board, and I know it hasn't been easy for you to let him attend those meetings. I know they sometimes get difficult, but you've been so brave. Both of you have. What you're doing is important, and might help others from suffering the way Jake did."

Jake shook his head. "We're just trying to do the right thing, that's all."

"But that's exactly why I admire you." Dick turned to the young man. "You've suffered for doing the right thing, and I'm proud to call you a friend. I couldn't be more pleased, if you were my own son."

Tears were in Dick and Jake's eyes when they embraced. The bond between those two men ran deep, and John was grateful his son-in-law had an influential man like Richard Doyle for a friend.

John saw Terry wipe a stray tear from his cheek, but had a feeling it wasn't because of the touching moment before them. Terry was here in body, but his spirit was far off. John knew something had happened in the office to make Terry cry, and even though Terry had been talking to Emily, something in John's heart knew this had to do with Madison.

While Dick and Jake visited, John got up on the pretext of needing to stretch his legs.

"Care to join me outside, Terry?"

When Terry left to get his coat, John asked Izumi to look after things, and Izumi gave an understanding nod. John wanted her to look after Madison while he and Terry were gone.

As they left the house, it amazed John that Terry didn't think to question the sudden desire to stretch his legs, or that he had asked Terry to go with him. It meant one thing: Terry had a lot on his mind.

* * * *

It was the second time John had stepped outside with someone that day, and Terry vaguely wondered if John was getting tired. Terry knew he sure was. Sadness had a way of stripping him of all energy, of sapping hope from his body. Why did his life feel like it was over, when by all rights, it was only beginning?

"So." John slid his hands into his coat pockets, and let Terry automatically head toward the water like they usually did when going fishing. "How did the phone date go?"

Terry couldn't answer.

When John didn't press for an explanation, Terry could no longer hold it in.

"I had a talk with Emily."

"That was the point of the phone date, wasn't it? To talk?"

"She did that, and then some." Terry paused to look out over the water. "I should be happy. I should be on my knees before God, thanking Him for this miracle. I've been dreaming of this day for so long, and now it's actually here."

"Terry, what happened?"

He shook his head in a dazed kind of sadness. "Emily proposed."

"She did?" John whistled. "That's kind of sudden, isn't it? What triggered her to ask now?"

"Emily said since we both wanted a family, and since we knew each other, it didn't make sense to drag things out. Don't quote me on it, but that was upshot. She also said something about not being able to afford to wait. Whatever that meant."

"Oh no." John shook his head, and turned his back to the house. "Agatha said Lauren was in church today, and that Lauren told Emily she shouldn't worry about all the gossip, and that Emily had no reason to doubt your heart."

It fit. Feeling numb, Terry kept walking. "I guess that would explain Emily's timing. Did Maddie hear any of this?"

"I'm afraid she did."

Terry punched the air, squeezed his eyes shut and forced his breath to calm.

"It sounds like Emily is getting scared, Terry."

"Yeah. That's the way it's looking."

"Does Emily have a reason to be?"

Terry didn't answer.

"How about this question?" John paused a moment as if in thought. "Did Emily say anything at all to you about love?"

"No, not one word."

"Do you think she loves you?"

"I have no idea." Terry gave a wild, helpless shrug. "I'm beginning to think I wouldn't recognize love, if it bit me on the nose."

"Do you love Emily?"

"I know I don't."

"But you're still considering the proposal?"

"Why shouldn't I?" Terry jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat. "God is answering my prayer. I wanted to get married, and now here's my chance."

"But you don't love her."

"Do I have to? Is love an essential part of a successful marriage, or an appendage you can just as easily do without?"

"If you don't love Emily, then don't marry her."

"Why shouldn't I? We've been neighbors for the past six years, haven't we? She's not married, and neither am I, so why not?"

"Listen to yourself, Terry. You're talking madness."

"No, I'm not. I'm so sane it hurts." Terry paced toward the water. "Other people make a loveless marriage work, so why couldn't I?"

"You can't be serious."

"But I am." Terry turned and pinned John with a look. "Love isn't mandatory, and I can't afford to be too picky. For whatever reason, Emily wants to marry me. She even suggested we use the trip to Jersey City as our honeymoon."

"The one with Stan and Aunt Martha? That trip?"

"Hey, who's side are you on? This is my chance, and I'm going to take it." Terry hadn't known he would until now. Hearing himself say the words out loud, depressed him; they held desperation, a ragged, frantic quality that frightened Terry.

"Then I suppose you think it's Emily, or no one?" John asked finally.

Terry nodded.

"What about Madison?"

"What about her?"

"Do you think she would marry you?"

"No." The desperation in Terry's heart deepened. "She said she likes me, and I have no doubt that she does, but Madison doesn't love me. Emily doesn't either, but at least she's willing to marry me. That counts for something, doesn't it?"

Terry could see the cogs in John's brain kick into overdrive. He was probably going through the church roster for a different alternative, a single woman who would fall in love with a chronically single bachelor.

"John, I have to do this."

"No, you don't."

"That's easy for you to say. You have a wife, four daughters, a son-in-law, and a grandson. I'm forty-seven years old with no other prospects in the foreseeable future. I'm old. I'm old and no one wants me."

"Terry, don't slip into despair."

"No one wants me, John."

"How do you know? We haven't approached anyone else. Izumi can still ask someone else over to dinner."

Terry smiled grimly. He had been right-- that was what John was doing. "Okay, who?"

"Calm down, Terry."

Terry glanced away, gritted his teeth and started down the shoreline by himself.

Francesca? Terry thought to himself. Doreen? How about that redhead-- what was her name? She was always giggling, but maybe she would like him. Maybe she would stop giggling long enough to fall in love.

John caught up, but Terry shrugged him away.

"Don't try to talk me out of it."

"Terry, I have one more question." John matched his pace with Terry's. "Do you love Madison?" It was the one thing John hadn't asked during this talk, and it forced Terry to a full stop. "It's a simple question. Do you have any feelings for Madison?"

"The answer is anything but simple."

"Terry. Do you love her?"

"I can't--"

"Yes, you could. Don't tell me what you think you should say-- just say the truth."

"But she's my responsibility. I couldn't do that to her."

"Just tell me the truth." John stood there and waited. "Just say it. If that's what you feel, then say it. You're making some huge decisions, and now isn't the time to be shy about your feelings."

A huge swallow pushed its way down Terry's throat.

"I don't know."

"I think you do. I think Emily's proposal wouldn't be so hard to accept, if something else wasn't getting in the way. Tell me I'm wrong."

Terry's chest tightened. His feelings for Maddie had been growing stronger with each passing day. He wanted to deny it, but found he could not.

"I love her."

The words had a quieting effect on Terry. He stood for a full minute without saying a word, then tried it again:

"I love her."

It came easier the second time.

"I have no idea what to do about it, but God help me-- I love Maddie." Terry fisted a hand, and pounded it against his forehead. "She'll kiss me if I let her, and maybe she'll even hug me, but nothing more."

"You could ask her to marry you, Terry. She might say 'yes.'"

"No, she wouldn't." Terry was sure of himself on that point. "She'd hate me for saying the words, and I'd only hate myself for asking. John, what am I going to do about Emily?" Terry moaned when he realized he already knew. "It's either Madison, or no one. My heart won't let me do anything else."

The answer made John visibly wince, but John said nothing.

"If you didn't want me to say that, then why did you press me so hard?"

"Because it had to be said." Strong emotion came to John's eyes. "I don't want you to marry someone you don't love, not when you're feeling so much for someone else. I see you two together, and it's obvious you feel something for her. Until now, I hadn't been sure it was love."

"What if I'm wrong, and it isn't? I've never been in love before, so maybe I'm wrong."

John shook his head. "By loving Madison, you're giving up Emily. Like you just said, your heart has already chosen." John's voice sounded of resolve. "I want you to know that whatever happens, this family will stand behind you all the way."

"I can't tell her, John."

John gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know what else to say except that we love you, and you aren't in this alone."

"Thank you. Thank you for being such a good friend."

He hugged John, and John returned the embrace. Even though Terry's head knew he had exchanged one heartache for another, his heart felt strangely lighter. He was in love-- it was official. The air held secret music, and electricity thumped through his veins in a wild dance that scared Terry. The future suddenly held an uncertainty he couldn't even begin to untangle.

All he knew was the happiness of the truth in his heart. Terry loves Maddie. His pulse bumped to the happy music-- Terry loves Maddie-- over and over again, until the tune drummed deep into his brain. He didn't know if he should tell Maddie, or what this might mean to her, but at least he knew what answer to give Emily.

Terry loves Maddie. Oh, that filled him with a joy like nothing else.

It would be a wonderful world if Maddie could only feel that way about him.


"Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out."
~ Proverbs 20:5 ~

end of chapter