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Chapter Twenty-six
Small Words

"The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
~ Proverbs 12:10 ~

He wasn't her father. The Dragon hadn't been related to her at all. She'd never considered him as her father, but it still jarred her. After so many years of believing that he was at least, by law, related to her, the truth came as a stunning shock to Madison. All those times he'd said he'd adopted her, had been a lie.

She felt stupid for ever having believed him, but even Momma had said it was so. An eight-year-old had believed the lie and had spent all those years thinking her father was having sex with her.

Izzy held and hugged Madison while Terry held Madison's hand. Though Madison couldn't stop crying, she felt some relief knowing she hadn't been the adopted daughter of that monster. He wasn't any relation to her. None at all. A tiny shred of relief came from knowing that. The knowledge, however, didn't go very far to dim the pictures crouching in the corners of her mind, waiting for a chance to take her over and finish the movie.

A part of her still feared that if she didn't, the Dragon would hurt her. He had tight control over her.

Self-inflicted pain gave her some of that control-- the cutting pain, the kind that came from a razor or a knife. Even a safety pin. She couldn't control the abuse, but it was tempting to know she could control some of the pain, and make it stop; the cutting hurt, but she could make that pain stop. That was the one thing in her life she could control.

"Maddie." Terry's grip on her hand didn't let up. "Talk to me. I don't want you to get sucked into that flashback again."

"He usually kept a knife in the bathroom."


"The Dragon. He kept it under the towels, and when I was bad, he'd put it to my throat. The first time I found it, I used it to cut the rope, but I couldn't get away from him and he switched me to a chain."

"Maddie, let's talk about something else."

She nodded, didn't bother to dry the wet on her cheeks and kept going. "I tried to kill him once, but he wouldn't bleed as much as I thought he would. He beat me so bad my eyes swelled shut, and after that, I only used the knife to cut myself."

"Did he know you were doing that? Using it to hurt yourself?"

"As long as I didn't get sick and make trouble for him, he didn't care. Before he came to bed, he would put the knife out of my reach. He was afraid I'd kill him in his sleep."

"Maddie, think about something else."

"He didn't want me to get sick."


"Don't get sick, and don't get pregnant. If I ever needed to see a doctor in a bad way, he promised to kill me first."

"Do you want to move into the living room and watch TV?"

"I was so afraid of getting pregnant. Whenever he found out I was late for my period, or that I'd missed it altogether and had kept it a secret, he'd go ballistic, drag me onto the floor and kick my stomach."

For a very long minute, Terry said nothing.

"I wanted a baby, but each time my period started again, I tried to be glad. He would've only hurt it."

"Maddie, please."

"I want to stop remembering, but one thing reminds me of another, and they just keep coming." Madison felt desperately stuck, like she was made of the hardest, most heaviest kind of stone there was, a stone that could never be changed or moved. She feared she'd always be like this. "Terry, when will I forget?"

When Terry didn't answer, she smeared her tears against Izzy's shoulder, and looked at him.

Controlled rage simmered in Terry's eyes. His jaw muscles worked overtime, and his free hand kept flexing, as though he were fighting to not ball it into a fist. He was angry with the Dragon.

"Do the memories ever stop?" she asked Terry. "Will I ever forget?"

He groaned, as though he didn't really want to answer. "It's taken time--" he paused, then went on-- "I've learned I can live with the memories and not dwell on them whenever they're triggered." He squeezed Madison's fingers so hard they turned white. "Though I've never been able to forget that part of my life, that doesn't mean the abuser has to win. When we live our lives, they lose."

It wasn't the answer she'd wanted, but the way Terry had said it, made her feel hopeful. As though this was survivable.

"For now, I'm not going to ask what else came in that box." He eyed the opened package on the carpet like it was a snake come to life, one that could bite him without warning. "I want to believe you'll tell me when you're ready, but if you never do-- man, this is hard." He ran his free hand behind his neck and looked helpless. "You know I won't force you to tell me."

"Thank you, Terry. Thank you so much."

Turning loose of Madison, Terry nodded, and got to his feet. "When will lunch be ready?" he asked Izzy.

"Give me fifteen minutes." Izzy dried her tears and rubbed Madison's shoulder. "I can have it ready sooner, if needed."

"I'll tell John." Terry headed for the door, cast a glance at Madison, then closed his eyes as though what he saw was too much for him to take. "In times like this," he muttered, "I'm glad there's a hell." Terry pushed out of the room and soon after, the front door slammed shut.

Madison watched as Izzy put on a brave face, moved past the tears and got on with life. They had a family to feed. They went to the kitchen and started lunch, and while Madison helped make a curried chicken salad with the leftovers Izzy had brought, Madison thought about Terry.

All those memories about the Dragon made her think long and hard about men. Terry in particular. Men were still animals, people who couldn't be trusted not to hurt you. But. Some men were obviously different.

Though it pained Madison to on purpose remember the Dragon, she did, and placed Terry beside the monster for a side by side comparison of how they had treated her.

One had no mercy, while the other had more than she'd ever thought possible in a man; one hurt without thinking and did whatever he wanted, while the other was always careful to not inflict pain. One was an enemy, while the other was her friend; one beat and left bruises, while the other held her hand. One told her he loved her just to heighten his own pleasure, while the other had yet to say those words, let alone kiss her.

What was love, anyway? She'd always assumed love meant lust, just another way of a man saying he wanted sex. Love was a demand. It left bruises on your skin and left you feeling dirty, it turned you into someone's toilet paper. Love made you disposable, not worth anything but to be flushed down the toilet with the rest of the filth.

One professed love but gave pain, while the other held back so he wouldn't hurt her.

In Madison's eyes, the contrast was stark, as different as night was from day. The arrival of that box was a reminder that not all men were the same. But what did that L word-- love-- mean? Love was supposed to be something good, wasn't it? When God loved, it was good, but when man loved, it was not.

Unless love was more than what she'd thought it was. A deeply troubling thought. It challenged all she thought she knew about the subject.

When Izzy called the others to lunch, Madison took her plate to the couchroom to think. She didn't want to talk to Terry right now, not while she was trying to figure something out. Something very important. Something that made her panic, and the only way she had of backing away from that panic, was to give herself room to doubt.

She wished she had her Bible with her, the one Terry had lent her. She'd had it on Sunday, but Terry had forgotten to let her keep it, and had taken it back after service.

Finishing only half of her lunch, Madison sat on the large couch in the makeshift bedroom and stared at the angel on the dresser. Panic wanted to bubble up inside her chest, and again, she told herself she could be wrong. For men, love was just another way of saying sex, that's all. That's all it ever meant.

Please, God, help me.

A knock sounded on the open door.

"May I come in?" Terry asked.

"I guess."

"Are you doing all right in here?"

Madison shrugged.

"Thanks for helping Izzy. Lunch was good."

Madison tried not to listen to Terry's small talk. She didn't want to believe a man could genuinely love her, or that it might be a good thing if he did. It meant she would have to give herself to such a man, and that, she refused to do. He'd have to take her by force, but that, Terry would never do.

"The window frame is painted," Terry said as he came to the couch, "and Izzy and John are getting the munchkins ready to leave."

Madison didn't look up.

"Come on, Maddie, it's time to go." Terry took the plate from the couch and waited for her to stand.

She didn't.

"Maddie, we're leaving now."

"I'm staying."

"No, you're not-- you're coming with us."

"Make me."

Her defiance must have taken Terry off guard, for he went silent for several moments. "I'm not leaving you here by yourself, Maddie."

Confused, she stared hard at the carpet. She wished Terry would let the argument snowball. It would be easier to not like him so much.

"Maddie, get up."


"Okay," Terry backed off, "you take a few minutes to think it over, and I'll wait for you in the living room. I'll tell the others we'll be home, later."

Didn't he ever give up? Madison groaned softly, leaned her head on the back of the couch and stared up at the ceiling. She heard Terry's footsteps, then the faint sound of voices as they talked about her in the living room.

They had to think she was absolutely nuts. Why not? She did.

"Madison?" Izzy came into the room with some pills and a glass of water. "Before we go, you'd better take your painkiller." Izzy placed the pills in Madison's hand, and Madison swallowed them down with cold water. "You take your time, and rest. Terry will bring you home when you're ready." Izzy gave Madison a kind smile, then took the empty glass and left the room.

Now Madison had guilt. Terry was saying nice things about her to the others, and that made Madison feel lower than the wall-to-wall carpeting.

Her problem wasn't going away, in fact, it was becoming worse. Everything in her life since coming to Three Mile Bay had been gaining momentum, and was now forcing her to think some very painful thoughts.

If a man's love was real, and not supposed to be a backhanded slap in the face, then the way Terry treated her was very likely... that awful L word. She found it hard to even say the word in her mind, let alone accept it in her heart. She touched her stomach, tried to feel the stitches through the sweater and the T-shirt. She couldn't, but the pain calmed her and she let her hand rest there until it hurt so much she feared she might hurt the stitches and had to pull it away.

God, please help me, she prayed again. I'm losing my mind, I just know I am.

"Madison?" Terry knocked on the still open door before he came in. "Do you want to go driving with me?"

She blinked at Terry.

"John and Izzy are gone, and I thought--" Terry blew out a sigh-- "I thought maybe we could drive around the bay and enjoy some peace and quiet. With so many kids around making noise, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. A drive might make you feel better."

This didn't help. Terry's sweet offer only made things worse.

Unable to turn him down, Madison nodded, and winced inwardly when Terry broke into a hopeful grin.

It was then that she knew.

She knew, without a shadow of a doubt in her heart, that Terry loved her. This had to be love. It brought tears to her eyes, but she palmed them away as Terry came in to help her into her coat.

"I can get it on by myself," she told him, but he wouldn't budge until both arms had slid into their sleeves, and he'd zipped up the coat.

"I wish you'd stop crying, Maddie." He sighed, and carefully walked her into the living room. "Now I know how John feels when he tells Izzy that when she cries, she breaks his heart. I see those tears, Maddie, and my heart breaks. Please, try to stop."

"I'll try." She was about to dry her nose on the sleeve of her coat, when Terry pulled out a clean handkerchief and gave it to her. His hand lingered a moment and touched hers with a heartbreaking caress. When her eyes met his, she saw him struggle to swallow.

If this is what love looked like, then she'd been right all along to never believe the Dragon. In all her life, no one but Terry had ever looked at her in just that way. She felt her face grow hot, and had to turn from those earnest brown eyes.

"I wish," Terry said quietly, as though he were afraid of breaking her if he spoke too loudly, "I wish I could tell you what I'm feeling."

She shook her head. "Please, don't."

"It's getting harder for me to keep quiet, Maddie." He went to the front door, opened it, and waited.

Head bowed, she moved past Terry and stepped outside.

"You don't feel like cutting right now, do you?" He looked at her before locking her door. "This conversation isn't making you want to cut right now, is it?"

She wanted badly to say she felt just fine, that the thought hadn't even crossed her mind.

"I don't want you to hurt yourself, Maddie. Especially not because of me."

"I know."

He sucked in a breath, and went to unlock the passenger door of his jeep. She climbed in while the wind tugged at her hair, and when the door shut, she leaned against the seat and tried to calm herself without cutting. She felt as though she were standing on the edge of a steep, sharp cliff, looking down at the waves thrashing the rocks beneath her, and knowing that her only relief would come, if she jumped. Jumping made about as much sense as the way Terry made her feel; to give in to either, would be suicide.

How those treatment goals haunted her.

"Maddie, try to relax."

"I am relaxed."

With a sigh, Terry started the jeep and said nothing as he pulled out of the parking lot. She forgot to look at his newly painted window, but it didn't matter.

For some reason, Terry seemed worse after this morning, as though he were fighting with himself to keep from speaking. She should've kept her mouth shut about the Dragon, and all those things she couldn't stop remembering. It had made Terry all the more protective of her, and that made her want to pull away so she wouldn't have to think about the L word.

She saw Terry's hand slip from the wheel, and reach for hers.

"Terry, I think I need to call Carol."

He sat up straight, flicked Madison a glance. "Is it that bad? You're going to cut?"

"Not everything has to do with cutting, Terry."

"I'm sorry, I'm just trying to understand what's going on." He slowed, pulled off to the side of the road then dug out his phone from a pants pocket. "I don't want to make things worse for you, Maddie. I'm just trying to do what's best for you."

"Then please call Carol."

"I am." Terry punched the screen of his iPhone, then waited for the number to answer. "Hello, Carol? I know you said not to use this line unless it's an emergency, but Maddie said she needs to talk to you. I think maybe we both do."

Madison squeezed her lips shut. She wanted to fight with Terry so he wouldn't want to take care of her so much, or look at her with such heartbreak in his eyes. She wanted to shout and yell and scream and make him not want her. But she couldn't.

"Thank you." Terry nodded, and kept listening to the phone. "I'm afraid Maddie is close to cutting again, and I'm probably the reason why. Yes, we can be there by one."

Madison reached for her stomach, but Terry caught her hand, held it, and wouldn't let go.

"We'll see you in an hour," Terry said, and punched off the call. Madison struggled to get free, but he would not let go. "Let's drive around, and in an hour, we can talk to Carol." He gave Madison's hand an extra hard squeeze. "Hang on, Maddie. She's with a patient right now."

"You didn't have to say that-- you didn't have to tell her I was going to cut again."

"Then don't reach for your stomach. Isn't there enough pain in your life, without inflicting more?"

"You don't understand."

"I'm trying to, Maddie. I'm trying." Terry let her hand go, started the jeep back onto the main road and blew out a sigh. "I'm sorry I said that about your stomach. I know you're trying, too."

The world buzzed around Madison, and she knew she was going to pass out. She hugged herself, rocked in the seat and winced when the seat belt hurt her stitches. Knowing Terry was watching, she stopped rocking and prayed for help.

"I can't remember," she whispered. "I can't remember the battle cry."

"Here." With one eye on the road, Terry took his cell phone out, turned it on and hit the screen before handing it to her. "You'll find it at the top."

Clutching Terry's iPhone like the old friend it was, Madison read the screen. She read the words, and her pulse steadied as the battle cry resounded in her heart. She could do this. She could hang on until one o'clock, and maybe even longer.

God bless him-- Terry had screens and screens of verses and Madison kept reading, kept praying them in her heart and doing her best to hold on. Terry's hand reached for hers again, but she couldn't take it and started rocking again. Fearing it would count as self-harm, she stopped and noticed with relief when Terry kept his hand to himself.

They drove in silence, neither one of them bothering to turn on the radio. Madison was busy holding on to what was left of her sanity, and Terry-- she didn't know what was going on with him. He kept driving, and didn't say a word more until they pulled in front of Carol's building and he shut off the engine.

"You ready to go in?" he asked, and got out of the jeep when she nodded, "yes."

She was as ready as she ever would be.

He helped her out of the jeep, said nothing when she hugged herself tightly as they went up the sidewalk to the entrance.

From the receptionist's desk, Tom looked up and nodded as they came in. "She's waiting for you," Tom said, and went back to work without commenting or asking questions.

"Thank you," Madison whispered so quietly, no one but she could hear the words. She was so grateful Tom hadn't asked why they were here. They'd been here yesterday, for Carol's evaluations, and here it was, the very next day, and they needed to see Carol again.

Terry held open the office door, let Madison inside, then closed the door after them.

At her desk, Carol sat typing into a laptop. She lifted a hand to acknowledge their presence, then requested "one more minute."

Shrugging off their coats, Madison took a seat in front of Carol's desk, and Terry claimed the chair opposite Madison's.

"So." Carol hit one last key, looked up at them and almost smiled. Almost, for she seemed to catch the tension in the air and leaned back in her chair as though thinking. "Who wants to go first?" she asked.

Terry and Madison raised their hands at the same time.

"I want to know what to do about Terry."

"And I want to know how long I should wait to tell Maddie how I feel."

"I already know how you feel." Madison folded her arms. "I figured that out today, and that's why I don't know what to do." She turned to Carol. "He loves me."

The words knocked the wind out of Terry, and he sat there with a stunned expression on his handsome face. He took a breath, and spoke. "How did you know?"

"Never mind that. I know." Madison squirmed in her chair and looked to Carol for help. "I don't know what to do about it."

"What do you want to do?" Carol asked.

The question made Madison squirm even more. "Whatever happens, I don't want sex."

"Let's go back a bit further than that." Carol looked at Madison kindly. "How do you feel about Terry having these feelings for you?"

"I don't want sex," Madison repeated, and Carol paused a moment as if in thought. Madison half feared Carol would bring up those treatment goals, and rub her nose in them and call her stupid. That was then, and this was now. Things were more dangerous than yesterday, and Madison found herself not caring what she had written down on the intake form. Terry loved her, and now she was in danger of all those things actually happening.

"You said Terry loves you." Carol looked to Terry. "Is this true?"

"It is." Terry answered without missing a beat, his tone so serious he might have been accepting a dangerous mission for the government, and not answering a question about that L word.

"How does that make you feel, Madison?"

"I won't have sex with him."

"Did he ask you for that?"

"No, but he loves me."

"And what do you think love means to you? Tell me your definition of love."

"Well," Madison shifted in the chair, "it means some man wants to do me over."

"I never said that." Terry looked to Carol. "I never said that, or have ever used those words. Not even once have I ever said that to anyone, let alone Maddie."

"He never said it, but he's thinking it."

Groaning, Terry got out of his chair, paced in back of Madison where she couldn't see him without turning. "It's hard to talk to her while she's like this. I don't know what to say to her. I'm afraid if I say the wrong thing, she'll start cutting again."

"Have you been cutting?" Carol asked Madison.

"Not exactly." Madison tried very hard not to lie. "I thought about it. I touched my stitches to make them hurt a little, but I didn't cut."

"I believe her." Terry came to the desk. "If Maddie says she's not cutting, then I believe her."

"I believe her, too," Carol said, and gave Terry a kind look when he backed down. She turned back to Madison. "You've been around Terry, you were able to piece together how strongly he feels about you. What has he done to show you how he feels, that you like? Can you tell me?"

"He doesn't beat me." Madison knew the question should be an easy one, for she liked Terry so much, a better question would be, what didn't she like? "He's a nice person, and he takes care of his family."

"Is there anything else? Anything that showed you how much he cared?"

"He didn't yell at me when he found out I cut. He took me to a doctor, made sure my cuts had stitches and that I had someone like you to help me. When I'm hurting, he's always trying to make the pain go away, and when I'm sad, he's sad, too. I think I make him sad a lot, but he still held my hand, even when the doctor sewed me up and Terry's face turned pale-- Terry stayed with me." Madison paused. "He's always trying to get me to eat, even when I'm not very hungry, but he's just trying to take care of me. That's not his fault."

"In light of those good things, what would you say is your definition of love?" Carol asked again.

"Well," Madison wrung her hands together, "I guess it means that you want to care for someone, even if that person doesn't do a good job of caring for you in return. You just do it because you care. You're not doing it for anything in return, because... that's what love is."

For a long moment, Carol let Madison's thought sink in.

"Now that you know how Terry feels about you, how do you feel about Terry?"

"I was afraid you'd ask that."

Carol smiled. "It's a good question, isn't it?"

Madison nodded.

"Take your time," Carol said, and leaned an elbow on the armrest of her chair.

"I don't know how I feel. I just want it to go away, so I don't have to think about what to do. It makes me feel like I have to do something, like I owe him something now that I know."

"Hey, wait a minute." Terry stood by the desk, his arms folded. "You don't owe me anything, and especially-- ESPECIALLY not love. Not the kind of love we're talking about here. You just said a moment ago that I've done all this without expecting a thing in return. Right?"

Madison nodded.

"Then take a cue from yourself, and believe me when I say I don't want anything from you that doesn't come straight from your heart."

Head bowed, Madison peeked up to see Carol. "See what I mean? Isn't he wonderful?"

"She does that to me a lot," Terry told Carol. "Maybe it's not actually said, but that look-- she does that to me, and I gotta tell you, it gets my attention every time. That breathless look that says she's feeling a lot, and at that very moment. I get a lump in my throat and I don't know what to say. It's wonderfully disconcerting."

"Is that a good thing?" Madison asked and Carol smiled.

"You know," Carol spoke as though she were choosing her words before she said them, "one of Terry's goals was to make you happy. Does he?"

Madison nodded. "He makes me happy because he cares if I'm hurting, or hungry, or cold. He's always trying to help me, even when I don't think I'm helping him very much. I don't see how I can be. I'm always falling apart, and he's always trying to piece me back together."

"How does that make you feel?"

"Like I'm a burden."

Terry interjected. "You are not a burden."

"Yes, I am."

"Maddie, I love you. You are not a burden."

Hearing Terry say those words for the first time, those small words that said so much, Madison wanted to cry.

"I wish I could love you. I really wish I could."

Terry gave Carol a frustrated glance. "What am I supposed to say to that? She feels something for me-- I know she does. I can feel it. Sometimes it comes off her in waves. Maybe I'm naive, or have fallen victim to wishful thinking, but I know she cares. I just don't know how much."

"But I do care."

"Then tell me how much." Terry folded his arms. "I dare you."

"I-- I can't."

"If I were hungry, would you feed me?"


"If I had no other place to go, if I had no roof over my head, would you help me?"

"Of course."

"If my heart were breaking, would you do anything you could to make me happy?"

"Terry, that's not fair."

"Would you?"

She sucked in a cautious breath. "Is your heart breaking?"

At this, Terry laughed in defeat, shook his head and flopped into his chair. "I don't know what to do, either."

"If your heart was breaking, Terry, I would help you."

"I know you would."

"Are you sure you really love me? Are you sure it's love?"

"What do you think?"

The taste of blood made Madison realize she was biting her lip.

"Before you guilt-trip yourself into saying something you aren't feeling, Maddie, I'll remind you I don't want anything that doesn't come from your heart."

"What if it did?"

"Then I would be interested to hear it."

She squeezed her hands together, took a deep breath and stepped off that fearful cliff. "I love you, Terry."

Even though he must have sensed the words were coming, Terry's mouth fell open. He looked stunned, as if he'd thought she would never admit it.

"Do you need a moment to breathe?" Carol asked her, and Madison nodded.

They sat in silence until Madison couldn't take the quiet a moment longer. "What am I supposed to do?"

"What do you want to do?" Carol asked.

"I've wanted to kiss Terry for the longest time, but he won't-- not unless we're married."

Grinning, Terry reached over and took Madison's hand. "Don't be too hard on yourself. You've made enough progress for one day."

"But it's not enough." Madison pulled away. "I still don't know what to do about you."

Looking happy beyond belief, Terry kept grinning as though he didn't have a care in the world. Madison found it very annoying. Here she was, confessing the most difficult things, and Terry was having a good time.

"I'm not complaining," he sighed dreamily. "Carol, you heard that, didn't you? It wasn't my imagination? Maddie said she loved me, didn't she?"

"She did."

"But what am I supposed to do about it? Terry, you could tell me. What am I supposed to do?"

"Maddie, I can't tell you that anymore than Carol can."

"But I want to kiss you." Madison gulped hard. "In the worst possible way, Terry."

Terry leaned forward in his chair, looked at Madison with so much hope in his face, she wanted to burst into tears and never stop crying. "We can do something about that."

She shook her head. "I can't."

"Why?" he asked. "Is it because you don't trust me?"

"I trust you."

"But not with sex."

The earnest feeling in Terry's face was too much. She had to turn away.

"I love you, Maddie. I wouldn't hurt you."

"You wouldn't do it on purpose, but it would hurt." Madison smeared her eyes. "It always hurts."

"What does?" Carol asked gently. "Do you mean intercourse?"

Madison nodded. "But it's not just that. It's letting someone touch me. He's big and has all those muscles, and I don't have any."

A pained look reached Terry's eyes. "Maddie, I would never, in a million years, do anything to harm you, or touch you in a way that was against your will. Never. I swear before God, I would not."

They were talking about marriage. Her world was tipping over but Madison hung on for dear life and forced herself to keep going. There was too much at stake here to not talk about it. She feared if she walked away and gave herself time, she might never have the courage to try talking about it again. And if Terry loved her, and they weren't married, then he wasn't as happy as he should be. He wanted that, and she wished dearly she could be the person he needed her to be.

Taking a deep breath, Madison plunged back in. "What if I try, Terry, and I can't ever have sex with you?"

The question took him by surprise-- she could see it in that wide-eyed expression. The fact she was even willing to contemplate it, seemed to stun him.

"So long as you agree to try, then I can live with that."

"But you'll be sorry you're stuck with me."

"No, I won't be sorry, and I won't consider it as being stuck. I'll know you tried, and I'll do my best to make our marriage work, no matter what."

He'd said the word she'd been skirting around-- marriage-- and it nearly stopped her cold. She'd already known Terry wanted marriage, but it didn't seem to bother him to discuss that possibility with her. He was serious, and Madison realized so was she.

"But what if I can't have sex?"

"Then I'll deal with it." His hands grasped the air as though he were pleading with everything he had. "I don't need all the other stuff to be happy, Maddie, but I do need you."

There. He'd said it. Terry needed her.

"But you want children."

"So do you."

"But what if--"

"Maddie, I love you. I'm not going to throw you away if you can't have sex. I want the other things-- yes-- but I don't need them to be happy. I just need you."

A tear slipped past Madison's defenses, and she hurried to wipe it away. "What am I going to do, Carol?"

Even though his name wasn't Carol, Terry leaned forward in his chair to answer. He touched Madison's shoulder with so much intensity, it frightened Madison.

"Give me permission to ask."

"Ask what?"

"I think you know."

"I don't."

"Maddie, I want to ask you something that will forever change our lives. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, I want to ask you a question."

She gulped hard.

"I don't want you to cut, Maddie. I need that permission, I need to know you're going to be all right when I ask that important question."

Desperate, Madison turned to the therapist for an answer. "What should I do?"

Carol paused before answering. "That depends on you. What do you feel?"

Thoughts buzzed through Madison's head like bees warding off an attacker. If only she could calm down.

"Maddie," Terry spoke in a low, gentle voice, "you don't need to have an answer to my big question-- not right away. I only want permission to ask it. Do you understand? You don't need to give me a 'yes' or 'no.'"

If Terry was going to put it that way.... it sounded harmless enough.

"I guess it's all right." Madison wiped her cheek dry. "You can ask."

"You won't cut, will you? Not because of the question?"

She shook her head. "If I don't have to give you an answer, then I'll be okay."

"Are you sure?"

She nodded, gripped the edges of her cushioned chair, squeezed her eyes shut and waited for it. The big, important question.

"Thank you, Maddie." Terry sighed, made a sound with the coat laying across his lap and said nothing.


"I'm still here. You can open your eyes."

She did, and he was still there, just as he had said.

"Do you mind if I talk to Carol now?" he asked. "When we came in, you got to go first, and now I'd like to talk about my problems."

"I know, but--"

"So I can go next?" he asked, and Madison nodded numbly. He glanced at his watch, winced and turned to Carol. "I realize your time is limited, so I'll just cut to the chase. Everything else can wait. In your professional opinion, when should I pop the question? How long do you think I should wait before I ask her?"

"I would assume anytime you're ready," Carol said, and looked to Madison.

Eager to get it over with, Madison nodded "yes" wildly, then squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself.

"That sounds reasonable. Well, if Maddie's done, I think I'm ready to go home. I have a lot to think about, and there's probably others waiting to get in to see you. It was kind of you to let us come, and talk like this."

Puzzled, Madison opened an eye and found Terry getting to his feet.

"I can't speak for Maddie, but this session has meant a lot to me. Do we still have an appointment for Thursday?"

"You do." Carol nodded, stood and extended a hand to Terry, then Madison. "If either of you need me in the meantime, call. It's what I'm here for. Madison, do you have my cell phone number?"

"No, but Terry has it."

"I want that number in your cell phone, okay? Night or day, if you need me, call. That goes for the both of you."

"I'll make sure she has it," Terry said, and helped Madison up from the chair and into her coat. "I'm going to take good care of this woman, you have my word on it. I'll even try not to overfeed her when she turns down food."

Despite her confusion, Madison found herself wanting to smile. What about the question? Had he forgotten, or maybe Terry had changed his mind and wasn't going to ask? It felt as if he were hurrying her from the office, but why? And what about the question?

"Take care," Carol said, and sat back down at her desk.

As Terry and Madison left the office, another patient came in. He didn't look anxious about having had to wait, or that he had been in any sort of an emergency, but it underscored the fact Carol was a busy psychiatrist. After seeing that, Madison felt a bit guilty for having taken up Carol's time, and was glad Terry had let Carol get to the next patient. But what about the question?

With a wave to Tom at the reception desk, Terry held open the entrance door for Madison. Wind and sunshine greeted her, the one pulling open her coat, the other lightly warming her face. The sounds of a busy street, the crisp smell of an autumn day, then the comforting safety of Terry's jeep as she climbed in. One sense followed another in sweet succession, but still she couldn't figure out Terry.

He was going to ask, wasn't he?

She watched as Terry got behind the wheel, shut the driver's side door, then started the engine.

"It's cold out," she said, hoping the comment might spark him into talking.

"Yes, it is." Terry pulled onto the street as she carefully watched his face. "Do you want the heater turned on?"

"No." She sighed, adjusted her seat belt and tried again. "Now that we're out of the office, I guess this is a good time for discussing things."

His eyes tracked the road, he changed lanes and came to a stoplight.



"I said, this is a good time for discussing things. Things that are important."

He nodded absently.

"Terry?" Madison folded her arms. "Terry, are you listening?"

The light turned green, the jeep moved through the intersection, and all the while Madison tried to detect any sign from Terry that he was even following the conversation. He didn't smile, didn't frown, but kept his eyes on the road and his mouth horrifyingly shut.

"Terry, I don't think you're listening to me."

"I'm sorry, Maddie, I was thinking. What was it you just said?"

Her loud sigh only got Terry to slide a glance at her, nothing more.

"Don't you want to discuss anything with me?" she asked. "Maybe ASK ME A QUESTION?" She all but shouted it, and Terry only shook his head.

"I have to think right now."

Her small huff got the tiniest of a lift of one of the corners of Terry's mouth.

So he had been listening, after all. Two could play at that game, and she decided to let the whole thing drop. She wouldn't ask, wouldn't even act as though she were waiting, and then they would see who was more desperate to get it over with-- him, or her.

It wasn't going to be her.

* * * *

Stunned quiet joy thumped in Terry's heart. She loved him. She loved him. Distracted thoughts raced through his brain at the speed of light. Hopes, dreams, it all came down to this one person who now loved him. He gripped the steering wheel and forced himself to focus. If he wasn't careful, the emotion of the moment would override all rational thought. The woman he loved, loved him in return. Wow. That knowledge was powerful stuff. He could fly to the moon and back on that, and still have enough left over to break into song.

No song. No moon flying, and no grinning ear to ear. He saw his refection in the overhead mirror and tried for a blank look, one that wouldn't drive Maddie out the door of a moving vehicle. Years from now, (providing she eventually accepted his proposal), they would look back on this day and marvel.

So much for waiting to propose until she was ready to accept. He slid a glance at his passenger and saw her staring out the window, nervously chewing her bottom lip. For her sake, he couldn't hold off the proposal for long. She wouldn't answer right away, of course, and if she did, he prayed it wouldn't be to turn him down.

Please, God, don't let her answer at all if it's going to be "no." Of course, if she'll say "yes," later, then silence could still be good.

As home neared, Terry hoped Maddie wouldn't fall apart before he had a strategy worked out. He wondered if a ring should be involved. How about flowers? And maybe a box of chocolates? And while he was at it, how about a fifty page letter pleading her to marry him? Ah, he was a lost cause. He couldn't spout poetry, but for her, he'd be willing to try.

The moment Terry stopped the jeep in front of the house, Maddie got out and headed for the front door. He sensed she was... what was the right word? Annoyed? But he wasn't ready yet. He had to read up on the subject, figure out what was expected of a man at a time like this, then do his best not to make a mess of it. Women remembered things like that, and when she was old and living out her golden years with (hopefully) him, he wanted it to be something she could remember with fondness.

As Terry opened the garage, he noticed the minivan and car were gone. He hoped it didn't mean John wasn't home. He had at least wanted to talk to John, maybe ask some questions about proposing, but then remembered John hadn't exactly gotten down on one knee to Izzy. John had told Izzy they were going to get married, and Izzy had been more than happy to go along with him. That guy. John had had it easy compared to what Terry was up against.

After putting the jeep away, Terry went to the house, opened the front door and prayed for wisdom. This was turning out to be an important day.

His heart fell a little when he found Maddie curled up on the living room couch with a blanket. She looked a bit squashed, as though someone had stepped on her and had forgotten to peal her off the bottom of their shoe. Even worse, she wouldn't meet Terry's eyes when he went to her, and tried to make sure she was comfortable.

"Do you need painkiller?" he asked, hoping to solicit a smile or at least something that didn't look so very close to tears.

She shook her head, sniffed, then pulled the blanket over her head.

He wasn't ready. What did she want him to do-- blurt it out? To Terry's way of thinking, that wasn't very romantic.

"Hi, Uncle Terry." Abby came into the living room with an armful of clothes. "You missed a great movie. Jake was laughing so hard, he choked on the popcorn and-- Why is Madison under the blanket? That is her, isn't it?" Abby shifted her load, stooped to lift a corner of the blanket and smiled at Maddie. "Are you all right under there?"


"Okay, let us know if you need anything." Abby dropped the corner, and started for the hallway. "I was just taking this laundry to the bedroom. I'm trying to catch up on some housekeeping before Jake and the others come home."

"Speaking of that, is your dad home?" Terry followed Abby into the hall. "I didn't see the car or the minivan in the garage just now."

"The car had a leak, so Dad took it down to Louie's to have it looked at. All the kids are with Jake and Mom, buying warm clothes for Ricky. The weather in San Diego was mild, compared to here, and Ricky needs some heavy pants and shirts."

"Do you know when your dad is coming back?"

"Nope, he didn't say." Abby shouldered open the bedroom door. "Before you change the subject, what happened to Madison? What did you do to her?"

"I didn't do anything, and I wasn't trying to change the subject." Terry sighed, went to go sit on the edge of his old bed as Abby started to fold laundry. "A lot's been going on, and I was hoping to talk to your dad or mom."

"Do you mind if I ask for details, or is it none of my business?"

"It's okay, it's not a secret." Terry paired two matching socks. "Maddie is waiting for me to propose to her, and I'm waiting so I can first do some research."

"You're proposing?" Abby's mouth dropped open, she leaned across the mattress and gave Terry a squeezing hug. "I knew it was coming, I just knew it! Congratulations, Uncle Terry!"

"She hasn't said 'yes,'" Terry warned, and Abby let go and looked at him. "In fact, when I propose, she won't be giving me an answer right away, so this isn't a done deal. But Maddie does love me."

"Of course she does!"

Seeing Abby's confidence in the matter, Terry couldn't help smiling. "I need to get into the office and start researching how to ask someone to marry me. I'd been hoping your father could help with some advice."

"You could always call him." Abby stacked a somewhat neatly folded T-shirt. "And of course there's me. I could help."

"Thanks, but I think I'll wait for your parents to get home."

"If you're hunting for some ideas, I have a few." Abby grinned. "You could hide a note somewhere for Madison to find, or maybe hire a skywriter to write it out in white smoke across the sky."

"Abby, don't tease. I'm serious."

"So am I," she said excitedly. "You could do that. If for some reason she couldn't go outside and see it, you'd have to take a picture before the smoke dissipated. And of course there's all that wind over Lake Ontario, so it probably wouldn't last very long."

Terry stared at his niece.

"Or--" she slapped his shoulder-- "you could take her to IHOP, and squeeze syrup on her pancakes so it reads, 'Will you marry me?' Or maybe they could make up a cake and pop the question in icing. I don't know. I think you'd be better off sticking with the note."

"Thanks for trying." Terry patted her hand. "I'll think it over."

Leaving Abby to her clean laundry, Terry went to the office, and dropped into his desk chair to do some planning.

He needed to propose before Maddie decided to take up permanent residence under that blanket, but he didn't want it to be something she'd cringe over when she remembered it years from now. Whether she ever accepted him, or not, he wanted it to be nice. Something she'd like.

Opening his laptop, Terry tracked to a web browser. A quick search for marriage proposals gave him two million results. He skimmed the first page and scrolled as he went. Twelve Ways Not to Propose, Five Stupid Things to Never Say During a Proposal, One Hundred Ways to Get a Yes!, The Mega List of Romantic Tips for a Memorable Proposal, and the pièce de résistance-- an archive of over one thousand proposals with starred reviews to show success rates, along with integrated Facebook comments, tweets, and links to social media in case one of your friends had a better suggestion.

Great. Just what he needed. A headache.

The pancake and syrup idea was beginning to look better and better with every panicked, information-overloaded minute. Maddie was under a blanket. He didn't have time to wade through all this. He needed the perfect idea, and he needed it now.

Shutting the laptop with a groan, Terry opened the top desk drawer for a bottle of antacid he kept when things at work weren't going well. Next to the bottle, he saw the new Bible he'd bought for Maddie. Smiling, he picked it up, and beneath it, he found the answer to his unsaid prayers. The surprise he'd ordered at the same time he'd purchased the Bible, and had never given her.

Such a gift had risks, though.

He didn't want Maddie's emotions to run away with her, like when she'd watched Pride and Prejudice then looked so pale the next morning. But maybe this wouldn't hurt her. It might even be good for her, and if it started to make things worse, he could always hide it from her until she was stronger.

This would go over well with Maddie. Terry was sure of it. She already knew about the Bible, so he couldn't surprise her with that, but this... this could work. His mind busily churning to keep up with his heart, Terry took out a yellow legal pad and got to work.

Abby had given him an idea.

* * * *

The problem with hiding under a blanket, was getting enough air. She made a breathing opening that faced against the couch so she could get some air without Terry seeing her. He knew she was here, but that didn't mean she had to remind him of it. If she hadn't needed to hide so badly, she'd have tried to brave Terry's silence out in the open.

He was going to ask, wasn't he? After all that talk in Carol's office, with him coaxing and making promises, she'd have thought he'd have proposed the moment they left the building.

Terry, please don't forget.

At least the couch felt soft, and the blanket was comforting. Through her cubby hole, she could see the back of the couch, for her back was to the living room and she wanted to keep it that way. Terry wouldn't intrude on her cubby as long as she didn't attract attention.

Soon, all the quiet hiding made her sleepy. After some time fighting it off, she drifted, then fell headlong into a deep nap.

The next moment she knew, she woke to the sounds of people coming into the house. She could hear coats, shopping bags, and Izzy telling the girls to tidy their room before dinner. In the kitchen, she heard someone getting to work, and remembered Jake had said he would make dinner for them that evening.

The front door opened again, and John's voice filled the room.

"I'm home," he called, then hushed when Izzy spoke in a barely audible whisper.

"Madison is sleeping."

"Sorry." John spoke in a loud man-whisper. "The car's been taken care of. For all the trouble it caused, it wasn't much. Hey, Terry. When'd you and Madison get back?"

"A few hours ago." Terry's voice came to a hush. "You get the car fixed?"

"Yup, and then Louie stood around and talked my head off until I said I had to go home. Man, that guy can talk."

"Is Maddie still asleep?"

"She is," Izumi shushed them, "so would you both lower your voices?"

"Could we speak in the office?" Terry asked, and the three of them moved out of Madison's earshot.

Her imagination chased after them, and she guessed Terry wanted to tell them that she'd said she loved him. But was he telling them he would propose?

She strained her ears, heard nothing but children in the hall but refused to come out of hiding. So what if they were talking about her? Terry had said the things they discussed in Carol's office were private, so she knew he wouldn't say anything off-limits. Problem was, she knew what had been said in the office, and even she didn't know what Terry was going to do.

Doors opened and closed in the hall, Abby told Ricky to pick up his toys before someone tripped over them.

Madison's hip ached. She shifted on the couch, winced when pain shot through her side. She'd held one position for too long, and now that she thought about it, her stitches were hurting. Wet misted her eyes. Terry had forgotten about her. He'd changed his mind and didn't know how to break it to her, and that's why he wasn't talking. That had to be it. As soon as she left the shelter of the blanket, John or Izzy would probably break the news to her. Maybe even tell her she had to leave.

If only her hip didn't hurt so much. She shifted again, paused when something funny sounded by her ear. A crinkling sound.

Frowning, she felt about the blanket, then the couch, and discovered something wedged into the cushion above her head. Madison pulled it out. It was a sheet of yellow paper folded in half. Maybe Jake or Abby had left this behind when they'd watched their movie.

Not thinking it would hurt if she took a look to find out, Madison opened it, and found a line of neat, handwritten print.

Please find me in the middle top cupboard, behind the party glasses.

What an odd note. What did it mean, "please find me"? Forgetting to stay in hiding, Madison sat up, pushed off the blanket and read it once more.

What cupboard? What party glasses? She got to her feet, struggled against the ache in her hip and slowly made her way to the kitchen. That was the only room in the house where glasses were kept.

Jake stood at the counter, pressing dough into a pie pan. He tossed a look to her over his shoulder and smiled. "Have a good rest?" he asked, and when she only nodded, he didn't press for more and kept working.

The middle cupboard. She followed the line of cupboards above the counter. Jake turned the pie pan as he went, not knowing that he stood in front of the middle cupboard. She waited, and when Jake turned to wash his hands in the sink, she made her move.

The cupboard opened with a squeak. Madison held her breath. Behind some long-stemmed crystal glasses, she could see something yellow. Without bumping into the crystal, she took it out.

It was another folded piece of paper.

Closing the cupboard, she took her discovery into the living room, opened it and found another line of print, written in the same neat handwriting.

Please look for me behind the TV.

What did these mean? And who on earth could have written such a thing?

Deciding she had nothing to lose by checking behind the TV, Madison crossed the carpet to the large television. It was very dark back there, but a patch of yellow had her gasping in excited joy. She'd found another note.

She unfolded the paper, and read the same handwriting as on the others.

I'm hiding in the garage door. Please find me.

The garage? It didn't make any sense, but then, neither had the other notes.

Taking a deep breath, Madison went to the front door and paused when Terry strode through the living room, on his way to the kitchen.

"Put on your coat," he said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Did she have to? She was only stepping outside, to look around the garage. Quietly, she turned the door handle, sneaked outside, then softly shut the front door behind her. This wouldn't take long.

As she made her way to the garage, Madison shivered against the sharp, cold wind. It had grown colder outside, and a strong gust had her hoping the note hadn't blown away. If it had, she'd never figure out why those notes were hiding everywhere, just waiting for someone like her to come along.

The garage was shut, but the handwriting had said in the door, not inside the building. She tracked the edge where the door nearly met the pavement, followed up one side and just a little above eye-level, she found it. Another folded piece of yellow paper, wedged snugly so the wind wouldn't carry it away.

Hands trembling, she opened the note.

Please search for me in the office bathroom, under the wastebasket. Hurry, before someone throws me out!

Oh no. She'd better hurry before someone thought it was trash.

Fighting the wind, she went back into the house, grateful no one had seen her go out with no coat.

Her teeth still chattered a bit as she went into the hall, then paused outside the office door. The door stood open, and inside, Izzy and John sat in matching chairs beside the exercise equipment, talking. Whatever Terry had wanted in the kitchen, he'd already found it and returned to the office, for there he sat, reading from a laptop on his desk. She hoped they were done talking about her, that whatever they'd decided about her could at least wait until she made it to the bathroom.

She was dying of curiosity to know what the next note said.

Sucking in a deep breath, Madison stepped inside and Terry didn't even look up from his laptop. She edged around his desk, past Izzy and John as they discussed something about the triplets, and made a beeline for the bathroom.

The instant she made it inside, she shut the door. Grateful no one had stopped her to talk, Madison breathed a sigh of relief. She needed more acetaminophen, but at least the pain kept her from thinking too seriously about cutting.

Thankfully, the wastebasket still stood where it always did in the corner of the bathroom. She carefully knelt, picked up the basket and looked underneath. Nothing. Her heart sank. She searched the floor, behind the clothes hamper, under the clothes hamper, but could find no yellow paper folded in half. It surprised her when disappointed tears stung her eyes. The strain of the day had become too much, and now she'd lost the next note.

Slumping onto the floor, Madison wiped her eyes on the shoulder of her sweater. The sweater that was Terry's. Though crying wouldn't do any good, at least in here, she could get it out of her system without anyone finding out. On her hands and knees, she crawled to the toilet paper holder and tore off several sheets. She blew her nose, wadded the paper and tossed it into the wastebasket.

A thought came to her. Maybe someone had found the note, and had thrown it away. The note had said to hurry. Maybe she hadn't hurried fast enough.

She sniffed back more tears, and crawled to the wastebasket for one more try.

Her wadded tissue sat on top, but she dug underneath and nearly shouted with excitement when she found a folded piece of paper. Madison's whole body trembled as she unfolded it, and read the handwriting.

I'm hiding in the top drawer of Terry's desk. Please come get me, and I'll be yours.

Though she had no idea what that meant, it sounded good. She found herself smiling as she dried her tears. Oh, she was a mess.

Getting to her feet, Madison went to the mirror and braved her reflection to see if her eyes were red. They were, but after washing her face with cold water, they didn't look so bad. Drying off with a soft towel, she went to the closed door and listened.


She jumped.

"Are you all right in there?" Terry asked through the closed door.


"Okay, then." Hesitation sounded in his voice, but Terry didn't ask anything else and Madison breathed in relief.

Her heart had nearly stopped, but she was all right.

One more check in the mirror gave her enough courage to open the door and peek out. No one would ever know she'd been crying, or crawling around the floor looking for mysterious notes. Stupid woman. Someone was probably playing a practical joke on her, or maybe those notes were intended for someone else.

Fighting a bad case of nerves, Madison stepped into the office. At John's desk, John and Izzy were reading something on John's laptop screen, while Terry sat at his own desk reading something from his own laptop.

There was an awful lot of reading going on.

No one looked up as she started for Terry's desk. The top drawer, the note had said, but which top drawer? There were two, on either side of Terry. Whatever Terry was doing, it seemed to own his attention completely. He kept reading as Madison inched closer behind his back.

"You feeling better?" he asked without turning around.

She nearly jumped out of her skin. How had Terry known she was behind him? Did he have eyes in the back of his head?

Madison fought back a wildly beating heart. "I'm better."

"Good." Terry kept reading, not looking up from his laptop and Madison took another step closer to the desk.

Since she was closer to the right drawer, she decided to look there first. Holding her breath, she reached for the handle, started to pull out the drawer when Terry's head turned. He saw her hand, and looked up to frown at her.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"I-- I--" she couldn't find the right words.

"Is this desk yours?"


He paused, looked at her longer and alarm came to his eyes.

"Have you been crying?"

"I'm all right."

"I didn't ask if you were all right, I asked if you've been crying." Not waiting for an answer, Terry got up and gave her that look that meant he was kicking himself again. "I didn't mean to make you cry. If I have, I'll never forgive myself."

"I'm okay, honest I am." The words didn't sound very honest, so she tried it another way. "I guess I cried a little, but I'm all right."

While Terry apologized for making her cry, Madison strained to glimpse the drawer without him noticing.

"Come on, I'm taking you back to the couch." Terry tried to lead her from the office, but Madison couldn't find it in her to budge. Not even an inch. "Maddie?"

She wrung her hands, glanced at the desk and wished the drawer would open on its own.

"Are you coming?" Terry asked, and Madison shook her head, "no." "So you just plan on standing there?"

She nodded, wishing the gleam that had come to Terry's eyes would go away.

He lingered by the door. "Are you sure?"

She nodded, and Terry came back to his desk.

"Suit yourself, but I still think you should be on the couch." Terry went back to his reading, and Madison prayed she'd have enough courage to open that drawer.

It wasn't like she was snooping, or anything. The note had said it was all right, and had even said something there would be hers if she found it. She looked to John's desk and saw Izzy and John still reading.

At least they weren't looking. Neither was Terry, and Madison steeled herself to reach for the drawer handle. At any moment, his eyes could fall on her, but they didn't, and she tugged out the drawer.

It gave a low squeal, but Terry kept reading.

Trying not to make any sudden movements, Madison leaned forward to peek inside. It held all kinds of envelopes and papers, and for a sickening moment, she thought she had the wrong one. Then she saw it-- a yellow piece of folded paper tacked to the cover of a thick, hardbound book.

Curious, and giddy with excitement, she pulled it out, looked timidly back to Terry and thanked God when he didn't seem to notice.

She slid the drawer closed, casually made her way to the office door with her treasure in hand. No one said a word as she left, and when she reached the hall, she limp-ran into the living room to collapse onto the couch. She'd made it, she'd actually made it!

Her breathing came in big gulps, her hand trembled as she pulled the note off the book's cover. She opened it, and read the words.

Maddie, will you marry me?

Her world held still. Absolutely still. She reread the words, and realized who had written all those notes. Terry. She stared at the words, unable to believe they said what they did.

"Will you?"

Her chin darted up, and she watched Terry slowly come into the room.

"Don't answer until you're ready, but please, Maddie--" He came to the couch, got down on one knee and pulled something from his pocket-- "please, marry me." He reached for her hand, and touched it so gently, she nearly went dizzy from nervous pleasure. Terry pressed something warm and smooth into her palm. "Izzy gave this to me as a stand-in. It's something you can hold onto until I get you something special of your own."

Dazed, Madison's mind refused to work. She drew back her hand, looked at her palm and saw a shiny gold ring.

"If you're about to say 'no,' then please don't say anything at all. I'm begging you, Maddie. We'll talk to Carol, and you'll have time to get used to the idea. But please, don't say 'no.' Not right now."

The world misted, and Madison was helpless to fight the tears.

"Please, don't cry-- I didn't mean for that to happen. I only wanted to make you happy."

Gasping on a sob, Madison pushed off the couch, fell to her knees in front of Terry.

"Do you want a hug?" he asked, and she nodded, fisted the ring in her hand as Terry moved closer.

As if he were afraid of hurting her, Terry reached for her and slowly pulled her to him. On their knees, Terry hugged her, and held her close while she wept. She turned her face into his, hid herself in the warm breath falling on her face.

"I love you, Terry."

His arms pulled her tighter, and she ached to kiss him.

"I love you, too." His forehead lightly touched hers. "Oh, I love you, too. No matter what happens, Maddie, I'll always love you. You don't have to question or mistrust that. My heart belongs to you-- it's yours for as long as you want it."

"Terry." She whispered his name, felt his short, cropped hair, the nape of his neck and lost herself in his warmth.

"Marry me, Maddie. I need you."

She caressed the back of his head and he breathed out a long, long sigh.

"Think about it, but don't give me an answer yet. I'm afraid of what you'll say." Terry rubbed his cheek against hers, whispered in her ear. "I can wait. I've waited all my life for you, and I can wait longer." He planted a kiss on her forehead, pulled his arms away as though it were tearing him apart to let her go.

"I'm sorry, Terry."

"No-- don't. Don't talk like you're turning me down." He sucked in a sharp breath. "When you're ready to give me an answer, either put on the ring, or give it back. I don't think I could bear to hear you tell me 'no.'" He started to get to his feet. "Think about it, Maddie. Talk to Carol, pray about it, then decide what to do about the ring."

He stood, helped her up, then moved away as she looked at him.

Her heart cleaved to Terry.

"Think about it, Maddie."

She nodded, opened her hand and stared at the gold band with the smooth white stone.

"That's a pearl." Terry sounded so helpless. "It's Izzy's birthstone. John gave that to her a few Junes ago, for her birthday."

Not knowing what to say, Madison nodded, and fisted her hand around the precious ring.

Someone moved in the hall behind Terry. Following her gaze, Terry turned and waved.

"It's all right, you can come in now. I asked her."

Wearing big smiles, John and Izzy came into the living room. They didn't ask what Madison had said to Terry's question, and Madison guessed Terry had already told them the answer would come later.

"Is it all right to say congratulations?" John wondered, and Izzy bumped her husband in the chest with an elbow. "I didn't actually say, congratulations, I only asked if it was okay to. There's a difference."

"Thanks." Terry smiled good-naturedly and folded his arms, as though he wasn't sure what to do with himself. "I'll let you know when we have any news to share."

"Does the ring fit?" Izzy asked.

"I don't know yet, she hasn't tried it." Terry sucked in a breath as Jake came from the kitchen, and Abby, from the hall. "Before anyone asks Maddie what she said--"

"Abby told me about your treasure hunt," Jake smiled. "If you can wait for an answer, then so can we. How did she like the prize?"

"It's a nice ring," Madison said, opening her hand to make sure it was still there. The ring wasn't hers, and she didn't want to lose it.

"No, I meant the prize at the end of the treasure hunt. What you found in Terry's drawer."

With a chuckle, Terry rocked back on his heels and looked genuinely happy. "I posted the last note on its cover, but I don't think she's opened it yet."

Puzzled, Madison stared at Terry. There was more?

The group waited as she went back to the couch, and picked up the book. In all the excitement, she'd forgotten it. It was hardbound, and fancy looking with gold letters on the cover and gold trimmed pages. She sat down on the couch and felt the textured cover with the impossibly decorative words she couldn't read.

"Maddie," Terry came to her, "do you need more acetaminophen?"

"Yes, please."

"The treasure hunt didn't hurt you, did it?" He looked on the verge of kicking himself, so Madison touched his hand.

"You're taking good care of me, Terry."

The answer seemed to satisfy him, and he went into the kitchen as everyone began to disperse. Izzy gave Madison an excited smile, glanced at the book in Madison's lap, then went into the kitchen with Jake and Abby. John went to sit in the recliner, while sounds of the children playing in the triplets' bedroom drifted down the hall.

Life felt really, really good. Madison cozied into the blanket to examine her book. She'd never held one so thick before, not one that wasn't a Bible or a dictionary. It was at least three inches thick, and when she opened it, the print was small. A soft red ribbon was attached to the binding to use as a bookmark, and when she turned the page, she saw a black and white drawing of a woman wearing a long dress, and a man with a tall black hat. It reminded her of the way the people in the Pride and Prejudice movie were dressed.

She closed the book to look at the fancy cursive letters printed in gold on the cover. All the flourishes got in the way of easily making out the words, but with some effort, she could read them.

The Complete Novels of Jane Austen

Madison's heart began to race. Jane Austen. She was the one who wrote the book her favorite movie was based upon, wasn't she? Was it in here? Was Pride and Prejudice in here? She opened the heavy volume, saw more drawings, then flipped to the front where it listed the included novels.

There it was. The real life book. She could read it, and hold it, and Terry had said it was hers.

She looked up to see him watching from the kitchen doorway, a glass of water in one hand, and pills in the other.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"Oh, Terry." She set aside the book, pushed back the blankets, and went to give him a huge hug around the neck. "Thank you. Thank you ever so much."

He groaned contentedly, and when she pulled back, she saw his smile.

"I thought you'd like it. Here--" he handed her the pills, then the glass of water. "If that book starts making you feel like the movie did, to the point you have to cut yourself, I need you to promise me you'll say something. I'll hide the book if I have to, but--"

"Oh, please don't." Madison wiped her mouth, and gave him back the glass. "I won't cut. Please, don't hide it."

"Promise me you'll say something?"

She nodded, bit her bottom lip as a smile reached Terry's eyes.

"You're quite a person, Maddie."

"You are too," she smiled, and darted back to the blanket. She could hardly wait to start reading.

The world around Madison hummed with the noise of children, the busyness of dinnertime, the grownup talk she didn't bother following as she lost herself in a sea of bliss. The world she read was from another time, but the people were oh-so real.

As she turned a page, Madison remembered what had been written on the last note:

I'm hiding in the top drawer of Terry's desk. Please come get me, and I'll be yours.

The playful words had an undertone of plea in them, one Madison couldn't dwell on without painful longing.

More than the book, Terry had been offering himself.

Unable to think about it without dissolving into more tears, Madison tried to let the characters pull her back into the novel. They had their problems, too, but life was so much easier when the problems weren't your own.

* * * *

Since Maddie had gotten so involved with the book he'd given her, Terry let her eat dinner on the living room couch. They had Jake's cherry pie for dessert, and everyone came away with a satisfied belly.

After dinner, Terry and John worked in the office to resolve a security problem for a client, and when they reemerged several hours later, they found AJ and the children had already gone to bed. A light shone in the living room though, and they went to see who was still up.

"What's going on?" John asked, as the men came into the room. "It's after midnight, isn't it?"

"Please, don't remind me," Izzy said with a wide yawn. She absently flipped a page through her magazine, then nodded to Maddie. "She begged to finish the chapter she's on, and I didn't have the heart to say 'no.' That was forty minutes ago."

"Maddie?" Terry waited for Maddie to notice him. He said her name a second time, and she finally tore herself away from the book.

"Hi, Terry."

"Hi, yourself. It's way past your bedtime."

Maddie smiled. "Izzy said I could finish this chapter, but then I will. I promise."

"Izzy said that was over forty minutes ago."

A pretty shade of pink tinted Maddie's cheeks. She was so beautiful, the sight of her made Terry ache all the way to his heart. "I guess I'm not very fast."

"How are you enjoying Pride and Prejudice? Are you able to follow the story?"

It was obvious she was, and the sparkle in Maddie's eyes did his heart good. "As soon as you get to a quitting point, turn out the light so Izzy can sleep."

Maddie nodded, went back to the book but called out as Terry started for the hall.

"Thank you, Terry."

"You're very welcome," he smiled.

Exhausted from a very full day, Terry turned into the hallway and passed the closed door to his old room. AJ and the children were sensible, they were sleeping, but not everyone else. Terry wanted to collapse in the master bedroom and get some shut-eye before the last of his brain cells screamed and gave up the ghost.

"Terry?" Maddie called again from the living room, and Terry hurried back to see what she wanted.

John was kissing Izzy good night, and Maddie looked embarrassed for having called out so loudly. After all, there were sleeping people in the house.

"What is it?" Terry asked.

Maddie bit her bottom lip. "I love you, Terry."

Her shyness, the genuine way she had said those words, knocked Terry's heart for a loop.

"I love you, too, Maddie."

She smiled, went back to her book, and Terry was left to shake off some of that happy delirium.

He felt like taking out a billboard and announcing it to the world-- Maddie loves Terry Davis! He wanted to give her the world, for she had given him that, and more, with those few small words. Sometimes, the smallest words can make the biggest difference, and it had made all the difference for Terry.

As Terry lay awake in bed that night, with Ricky snoring softly beside him, Terry couldn't help but marvel. What a miracle today had been, what an absolute miracle.

Terry breathed in, breathed out, thanked God and closed his eyes to dream of Maddie.

"O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man [and woman] that trusteth in Thee."
~ Psalm 84:12 ~

end of chapter