Home :: Romance :: Angelfire Trilogy Book 1: Falling Star by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance)

Angelfire Trilogy Book 1: Falling Star by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance)

Angelfire Trilogy Book 1: Falling Star by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance)
 
(10 reviews)  

A man of God, a fallen angel. Two different worlds, one undying love... For the first time in her life, Rori Mason is independent, supporting herself; she has friends who love her, and-most importantly-she respects herself. She's vowed never to allow a man to hurt her again. Nate Jovanovich broke the heart of a younger, less cynical Rori by marrying her rival. 11 years later, Nate has lost his wife, gained a child and, at the end of it all, realizes Rori is still the woman of his heart.

RT Books Reviews Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee
Top Pick from RT Books Reviews
EPIC Award finalist
Frankfurt Award nominee

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Angelfire Trilogy Book 1: Falling Star by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance)
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(10 reviews)  

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5 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
RT Books Reviews
4 1/2 Stars!

"Though spicy, FALLING STAR is tastefully written and the Christianity real. The characters struggles offer hope to those of us who stumble along the path on life's journeys...an electronic gem!"
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Scribes World Reviews
5 Stars!

"Is this e-book a New York reject? Maybe, but not because FALLING STAR isn't damned good. No, it's more likely because the heroine is far from perfect. She could be any one of us, or someone we know and care about, and that hits too close to home to be the fantasy the marketing people in NY think we want to read. FALLING STAR was a very emotional, very real story. I understood what she felt, what she was going through, and hurt right along with her. If that's not the kind of story the marketing-gods-on-high think I want to read, then maybe they should switch to another product--like bubble bath. Buy FALLING STAR and be prepared to sit a spell; you won't be able to put it down."
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Romance Communications
5 Stars!

"FALLING STAR had some of the most complex, wonderful characters I've ever met. The plot Karen Wiesner weaves is based on internal conflict of unrequited love in several forms, but I didn't find it tedious in the least. Personally, I like spice in my stories, but for a book with no actual culminated sex scenes in it, the sexual tension is very high. FALLING STAR isn't marketed as an inspirational and I suppose the language could be a bit strong for some that seek that genre. However, the themes of service to the ministry and a life devoted to the service of others are prevalent. All in all, FALLING STAR is so well done I can heartily recommend it to all."
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Huntress Reviews www.huntressreviews.com
5 Stars!

"This is certainly a different type of hero and heroine! I wondered how the author could get together a preacher and a stripper. Well, she succeeded! Rori may have started off her life badly, but she became someone that I proudly cheered on to victory. Brava, Karen Wiesner!"
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Ivy Quill Reviews
4 Stars!

"FALLING STAR is a keeper for any bookshelf! I have to admit that I started this novel expecting to have a little trouble identifying with the heroine. She and I have nothing in common, and I thought that I might have to work at feeling involved in her story, but nothing was further from the truth. From the first page, I was interested and absorbed. I cared about the characters and I cried for them when their lives didn't go the way they should. I recommend this book to any lover of romance, and I won't hesitate to pick up the next Karen Wiesner book I find for sale."
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

After twenty-seven years, it never failed to amaze her that nothing ever changed there.

Rori Mason sat stiffly on the worn cushions of a sofa that had been in her father's house as long as she could remember. He sat in his chair, a once-comfortable recliner with homemade, crocheted arm covers. The women in his congregation constantly tried to butter him up with gifts, hoping to get him to think about marriage again. Didn't they realize Pastor William Mason had no room in his life for that kind of love? That need had died with her mother twenty-three years ago.

He hadn't looked at her, really looked at her, since she walked in the front door an hour ago. He'd hugged her because she initiated it. Then he'd announced one of his favorite preacher's was on, and Rori knew nothing had changed. All the years she'd grown up in this house, that ridiculous radio--the one that looked like a prop from Gilligan's Island--had been on, playing all-sermons, all the time. The only time her father shut it off was at bedtime. She remembered trying to talk over it and getting, "Not now, Rori. Why don't you go play, sweetheart."

Expelling a sigh, Rori leaned her elbows on her knees, looking around the cluttered living room. Her father still competed with a library when it came to books. The mostly ancient volumes were tucked and stacked everywhere space allowed. Books, nonfiction books, were one of the few things her father actually put down hard cash for. They weren't all about God or religion either. Her father was interested in everything and how it all connected.

Even if he'd never been affectionate about it, Rori remembered affectionately the way he used to help her with her homework when she asked him to. It was the only time he spent with her that he'd turn off the damn radio. Somehow those times made her feel like she'd won.

She ran a finger over the cover of a book about Antarctica lying on the coffee table. Maybe she could sneak out for a smoke. God only knew how long this booming radio preacher would go on ...

"Where are you living now, Aurora?"

Coming from such a close relative, the question could be considered odd. Not for Rori. She contacted her father. He never contacted her. Their communication was her choice, but she had the feeling he wouldn't call her even if he had her phone number.

Giving him a general location could be done with confidence. "Buffalo."

"How many miles is that?"

Rori clenched her teeth. She'd walked into one of his oldest traps. He'd do darn near anything to avoid her, although even he probably didn't realize he was doing it.

Nodding, rubbing her hands together slowly, she mumbled an estimate he'd go out of his way to prove wrong. Making her feel stupid wasn't premeditated either; it was just an unfortunate side effect of his disappointment in his only child.

Just as she knew he would, her father got out his maps, spreading them out on his work table. For a minute, Rori watched him, wishing she had the guts to say "Daddy, what does it matter if I came more or less a hundred miles? I'm here. Don't you wanna see me? It's been six years."

But she didn't say anything, watching him hopelessly the way she had hundreds of times before.

The last time she'd come home, after five years away, his once dark hair had turned completely white. He wore reading glasses, too, but he still had the same expression of open warmth in his face and in his blue eyes. Rori used to wonder if his detachment from her had anything to do with how little they resembled each other. Although she remembered very little of her mother, old photographs revealed she had her mother's blond hair, ebony eyes, mouth and shape. Her father could withdraw from her because she looked nothing like him. Maybe he told himself she wasn't his child because of those differences.

Feeling desperate, Rori ran her fingers through her thick hair. If she moved now, she might be able to draw him out of his "research". Leaning over the arm of the sofa, she slowly decreased the volume on the radio. He didn't seem to notice this time. Then she got up, almost tiptoeing across the threadbare carpet to her tote bag.

Christmas was still seven days away. She had to work on Saturday and Sunday night, so she planned to leave Saturday morning. Her father didn't celebrate Christmas the way the world did anyway. There were no presents, decorated trees or special dinners. He celebrated by reading the accounts of the Messiah's birth in the Bible and he preached about it during the appropriate season, but it'd never been any different than other days during the years Rori grew up here.

The gift she'd gotten her father now would serve as a haven't-seen-you-in-awhile token. Instead of wrapping it, she'd tied a plain white satin ribbon around it.

He still measured and calculated, concentrating with such focus he took no notice of her pulling an ottoman over to the table near him. Straddling it between ragged denim thighs, she looked up at him.

Rori felt very much like a little girl there. Sometimes, years ago, when she was quiet or feigned interest, her father let her sit near him while he worked. She still remembered the smell of the old books he'd referenced and cross-referenced with and the musky scent of his cologne. She'd wanted to burrow right into his arms until she believed in his love for her. But, even though he always held her when she made the first move, the love wasn't there.

Oh, she knew he loved her in his own way. He loved her in that altruistic, mourning-the-human-condition way he loved everybody. He loved her because she was lost and she needed his love desperately. But his love wasn't unconditional. From the very beginning, requirements were set down in his mind, unconsciously, subconsciously. He'd wanted a boy--Rori's first failure, and it hadn't mattered whether she had any control over the situation.

Besides, leaving her father's arms, she always wished she didn't need him the way he didn't need her.

"Daddy, I got you something. I mean, I saw it and thought of you, so I got it."

The first victory was getting his attention, and Rori couldn't help smiling as he turned his head, easing off his glasses to look at her.

"You didn't need to get me anything, sweetheart. I don't need anything."

"I know." She held it up to him. "I wanted to."

After setting down his glasses, he took the leather-bound book from her. In truth, she went in search of the classic, not stumbled onto it. She certainly didn't frequent bookstores, new or used. One of her father's favorite books was The Spiritual Man by Watchman Nee, and his copy had been in tatters the last time she visited.

"I think it's a first edition or something," she murmured a little too hopefully. He pushed the ribbon off from the top.

When he turned back to the table to slip his glasses on again, Rori stood to watch him thumb through the pages. She was a sucker for her own disappointment because she knew he wouldn't initiate any affectionate gratitude outside of words, yet a little part of her held out for the reaction.

"This is beautiful, sweetheart. Thank you. I may have to give this book another read."

His words, partial satisfaction, sent her hopes crashing rather than soaring. She'd asked herself at least a million times in her life, What were you expecting? Can't you be happy with half of what you want?

Yet she always felt crushed--when she'd set herself up for a fall. After twenty-seven years, she accepted she wouldn't walk through her father's front door and have him hug her with tears in his eyes because he was so happy to see her, because he'd actually missed her. What she got were tears in her eyes hugging him. Her dream wouldn't happen, she'd always wish it could, and he'd always prove her worst fears.

She needed some time out. Time to work through her own silly feelings. They were silly. Not only had no one ever promised her a rose garden, the subject never even came up. If she hurt, she needed to deal with it on her own.

The phone rang, and Rori saw her out. Hugging her father's shoulders from the back, she said, "Daddy, I'm gonna go outside for a smoke. I'll be back in a couple minutes."

She'd stopped searching for his disapproval long ago, certain she'd find it every time. Besides, smoking was the least of her latest sins.

Getting her coat from the closet near the front door, she heard him answer the phone. How would she last for another forty-four hours? Smoke break every hour, she joked with herself, except she only had twenty-seven cigarettes with her. Well, sixteen hours of sleep in there somewhere, and she might just make it.

Rori slipped on her leather jacket, not bothering to zip it over her cropped sweater. Fresh air would be a first kiss right now.

Closing the front door behind her, she stood on the steps. Her footmarks from an hour ago were covered with a virginal layer of snow. She'd been so conscious of them then. Ten more steps, Ror. Nine more and you can still turn back. Five more. Daddy, be glad to see me for once.

Taking the pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket, she started down the sidewalk, pressing new footprints into the snow with her snakeskin boots. Smiling, she experienced a moment of disbelief when she realized there were some good memories connected with Syracuse, her father's hometown. The good memories came so infrequently and even those turned on her eventually.

Rori remembered the snow here as a little girl. She remembered snowball fights, building forts and snowmen, making angels in the fresh-fallen snow. She remembered holding her arms up to Nathan Jovanovich, wanting him to pull her up and away from her angel so it wouldn't be ruined with hand- or footprints. She remembered wanting Nate to pull her up into his arms. His face would always get closer and closer, but then he'd let her go once she was clear of the angel and standing on her own.

He'd been destined to do that to her all his life.

Rori had chosen to come a week before Christmas just to avoid running into Nate and his wife.

The cold air made her breath form smoke before she lit one of the two cigarettes in her pack with the engraved lighter Brett gave her for her last birthday. She stepped out to the part of the sidewalk that formed a T, then performed a fouette en tournant with the grace of a ballerina. She hadn't danced in the snow since she was a little girl, and she was tempted to do it here, in front of her father's house.

Odd that a dozen ballet lessons had brought her to this point in her life.

Rori shook her head, embracing the lamp post with one arm and propelling herself around it a few times. She came to a stop and found she was facing the Jovanovich house. Nestled squarely in the middle of the block, it looked as cozy as a fairy tale.

The irony of that house being situated between the Mason house on the right and the Radcliffe house on the left had never been lost on Rori. Nathan Jovanovich had always been between her and Jenna Radcliffe, Nate's wife. It wasn't supposed to be that way. It was supposed to be her and Nate. He'd been her only comfort each time her father told her to "go play".

* * * *

Rori stepped out of the house, turning her head immediately at the sound of voices. Jenna had beaten her to Nate's again. For a minute, Rori stood watching them together.

He was beautiful at seventeen, only a year older than she and Jenna. Oh, he looked like a Greek god with the tan summer gave him. He was dressed in khaki shorts and a pullover. His hands burrowed in his pockets as he listened to Jenna with a kind smile.

Rori had dreamed of him again last night. Her fantasies were out of control. And even if it hadn't been Nate she'd shared kisses and caresses with, it was forever him in her dreams. In her heart.

She wondered if Jenna ever fantasized about Nate the way she did. Looking at sweet little Jenna, with her short dark hair and prim sundress, Rori concluded her nemesis only dreamed of hand-holding with Nate, marriage and having his babies.

Rori thought of those things, too, but they were for later. The hot fantasies of Nate were for now. Maybe today he'd kiss her finally. Then she'd never let Jace touch her again.

Hopping down the steps, she felt the warmth of the sun. A gentle breeze caught her long, loose, honey blond hair. Sublime satisfaction filled her from head to toe seeing Nate straighten from leaning on his porch railing at her approach. He no longer listened to Jenna with a gentle smile on his coveted mouth. The only person in the world he paid attention to was her ...

* * * *

The front door of the Jovanovich house opened, and Rori realized with a start she'd been staring at it. Her boots made a scraping noise against the sidewalk as she whirled away from the house.

Nate came out of his parents' house. Nate was here! What was he doing here? She'd come early to avoid seeing him and Jenna. Now what would she do?

She had reason to hate this man. More reason than he had for coming outside. The blood rushed to her head, harder and faster with each of his closing footsteps.

The rush of confusion, hurt, and, inevitably, blind anger were infinitely familiar to her where Nathan Jovanovich was concerned. When she'd come here five years ago to visit her father, that cruel lash of emotions made her say to him "Stay out of my life, you sanctimonious, cowardly m@#r." No chance he'd misread the bitterness as unrequited love speaking, so why was he approaching her again?

Man, she couldn't breathe. Each oncoming footfall reverberated inside her stomach. She'd do something stupid. She always did stupid things over Nate.

Closing her eyes for a long excruciating moment, she tried to block out his voice, but his "Hello, Rori," greeting tumbled past any defense she'd constructed to keep him out. This was the boy who hadn't heard it when two cars crashed in front of his house twelve years ago. He hadn't heard the horrendous racket because she was there, because the whole world faded around them whenever they were together. This was the boy she'd planned her entire life around. He was the reason all her dreams crumbled around her like a collapsing sand castle and she'd fled, leaving her home, her family, her friends at sixteen.

Her hand shook as she fitted her cigarette between tight lips.

Don't self-destruct this time, Ror; don't let him get to you.

But he did get to her. He always did, even after she'd accepted it was all over for her. Right now, she prayed for the very least--at the very least, she could pretend he didn't mean anything to her, that he hadn't made even a dent in her life, let alone her heart.

His boots crunched in the snow built up against the curb, then he faced her, demanding to be noticed. Avoiding him was torture for her. Rori reminded herself she was made of strong stuff. She'd left Brett, hadn't she? And she hadn't crawled back within a month, the way he'd predicted. She'd been on her own for six months. She didn't need him or any other man. Especially not this one.

"Wanna bum a smoke, holy man?" she asked in a bored voice, trying not to notice his still soft gray eyes behind the round scholar glasses ... or how much more strength his face had than eleven years ago. Oh, but she'd thought he was beautiful then, too. His face meant perfection and love to her. She'd kissed every inch of it once the opportunity finally came for her.

Don't remember it, Ror, she commanded herself. But her fingertips and tongue replayed the magic in her mind one more time. Don't remember loving him with tracing fingers. And don't you dare remember touching your tongue to that little cleft in his chin.

Nate was developing a nimble ability in ignoring her barbs, though she'd only thrown one at him before, the sanctimonious one that shocked her perhaps more than it had him. Instead of paying attention to this barb, he did that darn thing he always did. He stared at her like he wanted to memorize her for later fantasies.

"You look good, Rori," he said softly.

She could have listened to him talk for the rest of her life. He'd hypnotized her with just his voice, making her want him, love him, need him. And then he'd walked away from her as though her dreams for the two of them were part of some horrible error, an accident like mistaken identity.

"Does that mean something to you?" she asked, dramatically curious. When it came down to a choice between her and Jenna, how she looked certainly hadn't mattered.

The last thing she wanted was the way he looked to mean something to her, but she couldn't help staring at him helplessly, the way she had as a foolish little girl who could find love in just his smile. Snow fell on his dark, feathered hair, glistening once it settled. The contrast was precious, like something inside a glass ball.

Oh Nate, how can I possibly look at you and want so much when you belong to her and I hate you for giving her what should have been mine?

The fear of Jenna coming outside to join her husband kept Rori from weakening in her resolve to remain unaffected by him. But the rush came again as his gaze slid over her torso. He couldn't seem to help himself either. When Nate looked at her like that ... Her insides became nothing more than warm butter. What he did to her was effortless, and the sensations rocked her.

He was married, damn him, to Jenna. Jenna. Not some stranger. He had everything he'd planned for his life. He had a good Christian wife, probably a couple kids, and he pastored his own little flock at some church in Niagara Falls. Double damn him because the only thing she had was an ounce of self-respect for the first time in eleven years.

"What do you want, choir boy?" she demanded, unable to keep back her anger.

The temptation to return to her father's house just to avoid him was strong, but she couldn't let him win again. She wouldn't waste half a cigarette for him either.

He took a step closer to her, and it was all she could do not to rear back at the reaction he had on her. His nearness went to her head the way an icy blast would ... or a rush of intense heat. No middle ground existed in her emotions toward Nate.

He had to have seen her alarm because he scowled in confusion for an instant, then frowned. "What do you want, Rori? What do you want from me?"

"Exactly what I told you last time."

His smile surprised her--that he could find humor in those vicious words. His smile was also a heartache for Rori. She'd had those lips on her own once, and he'd smiled through their kiss for a few seconds before the need took over.

"Rather eloquently, as I recall," he murmured good-naturedly.

Rori watched him balance his foot on the curb and flex it. His hands burrowed in the pockets of his teal parka.

Watching him, it occurred to Rori he was nervous. Oh, not in any obvious way. Nathan Jovanovich was not a shy person. But he had been with her. He'd been shy about touching her, about asking her to hang out with him, about taking that first and only kiss.

Nothing about him made sense to her. Hating him, blaming him was easier than trying to understand the cold-blooded thing he'd done more than a decade ago.

"So what are you doing now, Rori?" he asked, glancing up from his boot.

He was irresistible. A part of her used to wonder constantly if he knew that, if he had any idea how she and Jenna competed for him. They were so obvious in their tug of war, he would have had to be blind not to see the rope sawing back and forth around him.

That she could find him irresistible after all he'd done annoyed her. Nathan Jovanovich was not a hero or a knight in shining armor. He didn't deserve forgiveness for his crimes. What he deserved was to get a slap of reality. And she knew just how to do it.

"I work at Baby Dolls in Buffalo," she told him smugly, pushing her hair back with cold fingers.

"What is that?"

She anticipated his genuine interest and ignorance, and it gave her false courage to continue. "It's an upscale gentleman's club. A skin palace."

The snow came down more heavily now, melting against the increasing heat of her face.

His eyebrows came together in confusion. "I suppose I should know what that is."

He seemed completely unaware of what was coming, and Rori took satisfaction in that before she laid all her sins out for him. "It's a strip joint. I'm a stripper. Get it? I take off my clothes for a bunch of horny bastards, and I get paid damn good money for it."

Her cigarette burned down to the filter. She stepped around him, careful not to touch him, to toss the butt into the storm drain. Nate turned to face her instinctively yet had no answer when she baited, "Got any more questions, holy man?"

The look of disbelief on his face could have meant anything. It meant nothing to Rori--not bitterness and not satisfaction. Still, his expression of disappointment affected her. He had no right to be disappointed in her. He didn't know what she'd been through, what she'd overcome. Nate had made his choices, and she'd made hers despite the few options she'd been given.

Telling him had been a mistake, Rori realized too late. Getting a jolt out of him wasn't worth the repercussions her secret might create. Like a juvenile, he'd tell his parents and his parents would tell her father what she did for a living now.

Yeah, it'd be another five years before she came home again.

* * * *

That was smooth, Nate chided himself as Rori disappeared into her father's house. Very smooth. You could apply to snake charming school with a little more practice.

He rarely agreed with his mother, but she'd been right this time. He shouldn't have come out here to try talking to Rori. The last time should have been all the proof he ever needed that they couldn't be friends ever again--they couldn't even have a civil conversation. Rori didn't want anything to do with him. But he had to come out here. Since he'd arrived, he'd hoped Rori would show up.

Hoped. His fierce yearning matched how he'd felt after she ran away at sixteen. Every day he hoped she'd come back. Even after he'd tucked that letter into his pocket Bible and told himself he was marrying Jenna, in the deepest part of his heart he'd ached for Rori's return.

Aligning his boot with a print made by Rori's, he shook his head in self-disgust. At twenty-eight, the gawky, star-struck-kid feeling he got around Rori Mason should have been long gone. If she'd stayed the sixteen-year-old girl his mind preserved her as, maybe it would have disappeared.

Nate took a deep breath of air so cold his chest burned.

True, he was lonely. Jenna had died over a year ago, and he'd had little opportunity to grieve for her. But this had nothing to do with loneliness or Jenna.

Unconsciously he started to slide his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket, searching for something that was no longer there.

Whether he'd loved Jenna wasn't up for debate. He'd loved her completely. He didn't feel guilt over seeing Rori again either. Seeing her and. Still being attracted to her.

As a full-grown woman, her beauty had softened. Its impact on him had also sharpened. She was all honey blond hair, heavy-lidded ebony eyes, and a mouth so generous and shapely it should have been a crime. And, okay, so her figure was beyond compare. If any question arose whether this man of God was as red-blooded as they came, his reaction to Rori's body removed any doubt. She looked so small and soft, so lush.

Nate let out a breath that created billows of steam in the cold air. No doubt about it. The memory of Rori would slip into his bed like a nymphet when he was alone in the dark.

Maybe it would have been better, for both of them, if sexual attraction was all he felt. Fantasies eventually went away--at least most of them did. But Nate also saw past Rori's beauty, her innate sensuality, her masks. He knew Rori. No matter what she'd been through, she was still all bark and no bite. Beneath the anger, the disinterest, the curse words and scandals lurked a tender-hearted innocent who'd been hurt too many times. God knew he'd given her a few scars.

The wind picked up. Without hat or gloves, he shivered against the chill and turned back to his parents' house. Besides, his mother was probably gawking out the window, trying to catch Rori in some sin or another. For the past four days, she'd been chewing Rori up and spitting her at Nate. He could give her a mouthful with Rori's meant-to-shock confession, if he wanted to.

He didn't want to. She had enough problems with her father without adding more obstacles. His mother would run over there in a heartbeat if Nate told her.

Even the footprints Rori had left a few minutes ago were covered when he finally trudged across the lawn. He'd watched Rori, too, from inside his parents' house, since she pulled up in a truck over an hour ago. He'd watched her come back out and dance on the snow as gracefully as a fairy. Sometimes he wondered if his unintentional mission in life was to steal her joy.

Stepping inside the home he'd grown up in, he shook his head to dislodge some of the fresh-fallen snow. His mother would have a fit if he tracked even a drop of it into the house, so he removed his boots on the mat before he went any further. Down the hall in the living room, he heard the excited chatter of his thirteen-month-old daughter.

Nate hung his parka on the coat tree, then followed the voices into the living room. His parents weren't strict about holiday traditions the way Rori's father was. The four of them had put up a tree the night he and Andrea had arrived in Syracuse. She perched on her grandfather's knee unwrapping an early gift. Enough packages crowded beneath the tree to warrant one a day until Christmas.

Shaking his head, unable to prevent a grin, Nate sat in an overstuffed chair. His mother constantly advised him about how he spoiled his little girl, but she and his father were as much to blame.

Marilyn Jovanovich was a chronic worrier, to the point where everything that came out of her mouth was a complaint or criticism. For the most part, her only crime was loving her family too much. She was as harmless as her frail form suggested, but she had the strength of ten men if she was ever called upon to use it.

His father had the exact opposite demeanor as his wife. Maybe it meant the two of them complemented each other, maybe it didn't. When all was said and done, they loved each other. Henry was jovial and easy-going; he wouldn't dare tell anyone else how to live. When Marilyn henpecked him to death, he barely noticed, offering teasingly, "Years of practice" if anyone asked how he could stand it.

"How much did she promise you in exchange for a present?" Nate asked, fingering the snow from his hair.

Andrea tore the wrapping off the gift in little bits. His mother scooped them up, sometimes before they even hit the rug.

"Something along the lines of a lifetime's supply of hugs and kisses." 'Papa' collected a few of those from his one and only grandchild, tickling the back of her neck beneath the silky black hair with his beard until she squealed with laughter and Nate's mother tried not to smile behind her stern expression.

Andrea's baby fine, black hair was the only trait Jenna had passed on to their daughter. Her tiny face resembled Nate's more and more every day, right down to the dimple in her chin.

The glossy storybook from her grandparents was finally unveiled, and she crawled off Papa's lap, running over to Nate with it. "Daddy," she said, pushing the book at him to read to her.

Nate touched a finger to her little nose. "Did you say thank you to Gram and Papa, munchkin?"

She rushed back to bestow gratitude on them with gusto. Watching her, Nate thought what he always did during special occasions, sadly rather than bitterly: You should be here, Jenna. It's Christmas, and you should be sharing it with us.

Andrea came back, tucking the new book in the cushion of the chair at his side, then scrambling onto his lap. Getting her to sleep wouldn't take much, Nate knew from experience. She was exhausted from all the excitement of having two sets of grandparents fussing over her. Since they arrived on Monday, Andrea had taken her nap earlier each day. His mother frowned about it, though Nate couldn't imagine why. She was convinced he spoiled his little girl by letting her sleep when she was fainting with exhaustion.

Naps weren't his mother's real concern, Nate had figured out long ago. The fact that he was raising his daughter by himself troubled her. As much as Jenna had been loved by his family, the bottom line didn't come down to love for his mother. What was best for Andrea, she thought, was a father and a mother, even if it meant Nate choosing a single woman from his congregation to marry. Never mind love. Never mind that the few single women among his congregation were all under twenty or over thirty-five. Pastor Mason had remained unmarried after his wife's death and he'd raised his daughter on his own. Nate's mother was certain the Pastor's widower status was the reason Rori had turned out the way she had. In his mother's opinion, a man simply didn't possess the abilities necessary to raise a female child on his own.

For the good of both Andrea and himself, Nate listened to his mother without heeding her advice. He wouldn't marry a woman he didn't love any more than he'd hand his daughter over permanently to someone else to care for her. The two of them were doing just fine on their own. And he knew best that Rori had more incentive to rebel than her father's lack of understanding for her.

After tucking the book into the cushion of the chair after he'd read less than five minutes' worth, he carried Andrea into his old bedroom, where his father had set up the handmade crib from Nate's infancy. Andrea hadn't slept in the crib more than a couple nights since they arrived. She didn't like it, she wasn't used to it because this bed wasn't hers. When he moved to lay her on the mattress, she predictably curled her fingers into his sweater, murmuring sleepily, "Daddy, ho'd you."

Nate loved those words. Somehow she'd confused "hold me" with "hold you", but he wasn't about to correct such an adorable request.

"Okay, munchkin," he whispered soothingly, pressing a kiss to her shiny hair. The rocking chair his father had brought out of the attic matched the oak crib. Nate sat in it, adjusting Andrea carefully in his arms, though he knew she wouldn't awaken for at least an hour.

Nate spent so much time watching his little girl, it seemed impossible not to perceive the changes on a daily basis as she grew. She was an angel, so sweet and innocent he could no longer imagine his life without her. Jenna had dreamed about this. Dreamed about first smiles, first giggles, first words, first steps. Dreamed about the questionably mundane activities, too, like watching their child sleep.

"She's going to be an angel, Nathan. We won't lose this one. She'll be the love of our life," she used to say while they lay in bed together, each with a hand on her swollen belly. She'd looked up at him, always with the sheen of tears in her beautiful brown eyes. "I can't wait to hold her in my arms. I can't wait to see you holding her."

Jenna had never held their only child. After five previous miscarriages, that was the cruelest twist of fate. Blaming anyone was pointless. Maybe accepting the loss was easier because he'd held on so tight before it happened. He'd been angry for a while after Jenna got pregnant for the sixth time because she'd lied to him. Five miscarriages, five periods of mourning after so much hope, were enough. More than enough. Nate had wanted to get a vasectomy. Instead of taking such a drastic step, Jenna had insisted they'd be careful; she'd use birth control and they wouldn't get pregnant again. When she found out she'd conceived again, she'd admitted she lied about taking precautions; she'd never been on the pill.

Four tormented months passed, and Jenna had been doing fine. All of her previous miscarriages had come during the first trimester. Nate had let go of his silent anger--ninety-nine percent fear for Jenna and another baby--and began to hope again that everything would be all right. Jenna would finally have the child she wanted so desperately, and he'd have his wife back and a family that wouldn't get any larger. He'd planned to go through with the vasectomy after Jenna gave birth, whether she agreed with it or not.

"You spoil her," his mother said softly from the doorway of the room, bringing him out of bittersweet memory. She held a neat stack of clothing she'd taken from the dryer.

The feelings behind his mother's words were written all over her face, though she could only express them with seeming criticism. He shouldn't be alone, Andrea should have her mother. True. No doubt about it. Just not possible.

His mother had loved Jenna. She'd praised his choice of wife often, but he knew the biggest part of that approval wasn't because of Jenna so much as because it wasn't Rori Mason.

She came into the room to put his and Andrea's clean clothes into his suitcase.

"Did Jenna ever talk to you about having kids, Mom?" Nate asked.

"Of course."

Stupid question, his mother's tone implied. Jenna had talked about babies with anyone who was interested.

"I mean, did she tell you why she wanted kids so much?"

He and Jenna had had a solid marriage. They'd been close friends all their lives, and talking had come easier to them than attraction had. That came with time. But she'd never talked about why she wanted children. She'd talked about the ache of not having them.

"She wanted to give you something." His mother turned to him. "I told her it wasn't true over and over, but she was convinced that deep down you still harbored feelings for that trashy Aurora Mason."

Andrea shifted slightly, and Nate glanced down to see her breathing softly. She relaxed again.

He hadn't expected his mother's response. Jenna would have said something if she believed another woman held his heart. Wouldn't she? They'd talked about Rori during the ten years they were married. He'd always been the one to bring her up; Jenna always ended the discussion. Still, she'd never said anything bad about Rori, even when Nate had told her everything about that relationship.

True, too, that everyone who knew the three of them realized he'd harbored a lot of feeling for Rori. A major clue was his grades in high school. Listening in class had been impossible with Rori in the same room. He'd stared at her instead of paying attention to the lessons. Even when he, Rori and Jenna had studied together at home, his concentration had been nil. How could he concentrate when Rori was putting the cap of her pen in her mouth, chewing on it with her straight white teeth, closing her soft lips around it, sometimes pressing it against the tip of her tongue ...

Rori was the girl who'd mesmerized him, yet he'd married Jenna. Didn't that speak for itself with Jenna--the choice he'd made? God knew it'd spoken for itself with Rori.

"You made the right choice with Jenna," his mother said with firm conviction, though he wasn't questioning whether his marriage to Jenna had been a mistake. He'd shared too much with his wife to ever regret it.

But he did regret what his marriage did to Rori. He regretted his only option had been to hurt his first love just so he could do what was best for everyone involved. And now Rori would never forgive him.

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