There was another carol, and Riley was thinking the service would soon be over. He was mentally calculating how early he could pretend to be tired and urge Hannah to go up to bed. Since it was barely eight, he figured it would take another hour or so.

"This has been a painful year for our church family," George announced, stepping close to the podium microphone. "A year of change and transition. A year of pain and renewal. There seems no better time than Christmas to honor Jerry Sanders."

Hannah went still beside Riley. Still and rigid. She reached for his hand, squeezing it tightly, but Riley had the impression she would have held on to anyone’s hand. Her breathing went shallow, and he was left to wonder at her strange behavior. It took a few moments to understand what was happening, to realize the man his father-in-law had chosen to honor was the Jerry Hannah had been engaged to marry.

Once he’d figured it out, it was all Riley could do to remain in the pew. To be forced to sit and listen to the tribute to Hannah’s former fiancé- was like holding Riley’s face underwater and asking him to try to breathe.

"Are you all right?" he whispered to Hannah, wishing there was something he could do to spare her this. To spare himself this.

"Are you?" Her gaze – ripe with meaning, ripe with memories – slid to his.

He nodded, taken aback by her question. No man enjoys being trapped into listening to the limitless virtues of the man his wife loved… loved still; but the choice had been taken away from Riley. He tried to relax and let his mind wander.

"I doubt there is a life in this church that Jerry Sanders didn’t touch," George continued, his low voice vibrating with grief. "From the time he was in his teens, Jerry felt God’s call to the ministry, but he wasn’t pious or overly devout. He was a man who loved others and reached out when he saw a need. Once, when Jerry was twelve, he brought a young mother to the church door, explaining that he’d met her outside a gas station. Her husband had abandoned her with a three-month-old child and she had nowhere to turn. Jerry couldn’t leave her and do nothing, so he did the only thing he knew how. He brought her to his church."

Hannah’s fingers tightened around Riley’s. Her features had gone pale, and Riley hedged, debating how much attention they’d garner if he picked her up and carried her out of the church. Too damn much, he decided reluctantly.

"It wasn’t only strangers Jerry helped – he touched all our lives," George continued, and stepped away from the podium. One by one, three men and one woman moved forward, sharing incidents that involved Jerry Sanders.

Riley didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to hear any of this, but he had no choice. Each story revealed the other man’s generosity and love in a new light. As the tales were recounted, Riley realized he’d never known anyone as generous or as kindhearted as Jerry Sanders. What George had said earlier about Jerry not being a goody-two-shoes was right. He’d been real, reacting with indignation to the wrongs committed around him, reaching out to help others even when he faced impossible odds. He was the type of man Riley would have liked to count as a friend.

The realization struck a sharp cord within him. It wasn’t an easy thing to admit, even to himself.

No wonder Hannah had loved him, and grieved still. Jerry’s death had dealt her a crippling blow. How unfair it must have seemed to her. How wrong that Jerry should be taken from her. He glanced over at her and noticed the tears streaking her face. She struggled to hide them, but it did little good.

Leaning Forward, Riley reached into his back pocket and handed her a handkerchief. Slowly, as though she feared what she’d find, her gaze sought his.

Riley hurt. What man wouldn’t? But his concern at the moment was more for Hannah. For the loss she’d suffered, for the pain she experienced being forced to rip open the half-healed wounds of her grief.

By the time the testimonials were finished and the plaque unveiled in Jerry’s honor, Riley was ready to weep himself. Weep with frustration and anger. Weep because the comparison of his life and Jerry’s was so striking. It was all he could do not to haul Hannah out of the church. And escape himself.

He wanted to make a quick getaway, but as soon as the service was over, several friendly folks crowded around them, looking for an introduction. Their eyes were curious as they noticed Hannah’s stomach, but no one said anything.

Hannah amazed him with the warm way in which she handled the potentially disastrous situation. She looped her arm around Riley’s, smiled adoringly up at him and introduced him with such pride and devotion that she fooled even him. Anyone listening would have thought their marriage was the love match of the century. It was left to him to complete the picture, and for her sake, he did the best he could.

How well he succeeded remained to be seen.

It seemed to take forever before they could escape. Riley turned his back on his father-in-law who stood in the vestibule, bidding the last well-wishers a joyous Christmas.

"I’m going to kill him," Riley muttered under his breath as they walked out the side door of the church.

"How could he do that to you?" The tracks of her tears had left glistening streaks down her cheek.

"I’m sorry, Riley. So sorry."

"What have you got to apologize for?" he demanded brusquely.

"For Dad. He’d never do anything to intentionally hurt one of us. He simply wasn’t thinking. I’m married to you now, and he doesn’t realize you even know about Jerry. Dad loved and misses him still. Jerry was as much a son to him as my brother, and he’s still grieving."

"He might have warned you."

"Yes. I’m sure he intended to, then simply forgot."

Hannah could offer a hundred excuses, but it did damn little good. Riley claimed a few minutes to himself, making the excuse that he wanted to check the car. He did that, then walked around the block until the sharp tip of his anger had worn off. Then and only then, did he return to the house.

George Raymond, his look apologetic, was waiting for him when Riley stepped in the front door. "Hannah’s upstairs."

Riley didn’t trust himself to say one word. He bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Tapping lightly against the bedroom door, he waited until Hannah answered before letting himself in.

She was sitting on top of the bed, in a sexless flannel nightgown, brushing her hair. She cast her gaze selfconsciously downward as he walked into the room and started unbuttoning his shirt after pulling it free from his waist.

He wished she’d say something. She didn’t.

Riley sat on the side of the mattress, his back to his wife, and removed his shoes and socks. When he stood to unbuckle his pants, Hannah peeled back the bedspread.

"I… generally read for a while before I turn out the light," she said softly. "You don’t mind, do you?"


With a maddening lack of haste, she walked around the end of the bed and rooted through the suitcase for her book. Bending over the way she did offered Riley a tantalizing view of her long, slim legs. It wasn’t more than a fleeting glimpse, but then it didn’t take much to get his juices flowing. Riley wondered how the hell he was going to lie next to her all night and not touch her.

Hannah was worried about Riley. In her heart, she knew her father hadn’t meant to hurt her. Or Riley. Even now, George Raymond seemed oblivious to what he’d done. Rather than cause a strain in their close relationship, she’d silently gone up the stairs following the candlelight service to wait for Riley. He seemed to take forever to join her. Not everything her father did was thoughtless or ill-advised; by chance he’d managed to get her and Riley into bed together, which was a feat she’d been working toward for weeks.

Had she realized they’d be sharing a bed when she packed, Hannah realized sadly, she would have brought her silky peach gown. Pregnancy or no pregnancy, she wanted to view Riley’s reaction when she wore it.

Riley was under the covers, lying back, his hands tucked behind his head, staring at the ceiling when she returned with the book she intended to read. He was so far over on his side of the bed it was a wonder he didn’t slide onto the floor. He continued to stare straight ahead at the light fixture while she hurried under the blankets, shivering with the cold. Still he remained where he was.

Hannah read for no more than fifteen minutes, then hurried out of bed, turned off the light and rushed back. She rolled onto her side, tucking her knees under her breasts in order to get warm again.

"You all right?" Riley asked in the darkness.

"Yes… I’m just a little cold." She hoped he’d snuggle up against her and share his body’s heat, but he didn’t. The silence was strained, but she didn’t know what to say to make it better. Feeling helpless and inadequate, and like the world’s worst wife, she buried her face in the pillow to hide the ever-ready flow of tears.



"Are you crying?"


He gave an abrupt, hollow laugh. "You never could lie worth a damn. What’s wrong?"

If he wouldn’t come to her, then she’d go to him. Once the decision was made, she rolled onto her other side and aligned her body with Riley’s, pressing her head to his shoulder. He felt hard and muscular, warm and whole.

Slowly, as though he were going against his better judgment, he brought his arm out from beneath his head and wrapped it around her shoulder. It felt so good to have him hold her, to have him touch her, that she closed her eyes on a deep sigh.

"You have nothing to fear from him, you know," she whispered, once her throat was clear enough to talk evenly, unemotionally. The love she felt for Jerry was far removed from the life she had now.

"You love him."

Hannah couldn’t deny it. "A small part of me always will. He was a special man."

Riley grew silent, but she could tell from the even rise and fall of his chest and the steady beat of his heart that he hadn’t taken offense, but was mulling over her words.

"When I was little, I can remember my father telling me that when God closes a door he always opens a window. This time he opened two. I don’t regret being married to you, Riley. I feel honored to be your wife."

His hand gently stroked her shoulders. The day had been long and emotion packed. Hannah yawned and, nestling her face near Riley’s neck, closed her eyes.

A smile curved her lips as she felt his mouth brush a soft kiss at her temple. Within minutes she could feel herself drifting off to sleep.

Until he’d met Hannah, Riley hadn’t realized how full of irony everyday life could be. He’d dreamed, plotted, schemed to get her into his bed, and once she was there, he found he was afraid to touch her. Afraid and unworthy. He, Riley Murdock, actually feared her moving close to him, tempting him beyond endurance, snuggling her lush breasts against him. He trembled at the thought of his body, so hard and powerful, filling Hannah’s delicate softness. The problem, he recognized, was one of his own making. Knowing that didn’t alter the situation, however. Copyright 2016 - 2024