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Almost home. Grateful for the end of his shift, Mack McAfee turned the corner onto Evergreen Place and approached his house, the duplex at 1022. He felt an instant sense of peace when he saw Mary Jo Wyse working in the garden, taking advantage of the longer days and the perfection of a Pacific Northwest spring. At six, the sun was still bright and the sky had the clean-washed look of early May. Mack had to smile as he watched Mary Jo. The young single mother was his tenant, his friend— and the woman he'd fallen for. Hard. Lovely as ever, she wore jeans and a pink, long-sleeved top that clung in all the right places. Noelle was asleep in a stroller a few feet away.
Mack had delivered the baby last Christmas—or assisted in her delivery; that was probably a better way to put it. He'd just joined the Cedar Cove Fire Department and as the most recent hire, he'd pulled duty on Christmas Eve. It'd been a quiet night until the call from the Harding ranch. A woman said she was about to give birth. Mack had taken a medical course and received his emergency medical technician certificate, but nothing he'd learned had prepared him for the exhilaration of being at a delivery. The moment little Noelle drew her first breath she'd completely won him over.
Noelle and her mother had laid claim to Mack's heart.
Mack parked on his side of the driveway and climbed out of the truck. He was outwardly calm, but his thoughts were in chaos. He hadn't seen either of them in two days.
With his help, Mary Jo had planted a small garden, which she tended daily. "Hi," she said, getting up from her knees. She brushed the dirt from her pant legs and glanced at him with a shy smile.
"Hi," he responded. Afraid that Mary Jo would be able to interpret his feelings, he studied the neat row of green seedlings that had begun to poke through the earth. Mary Jo was still suspicious of men, thanks to her experience with David Rhodes, although Mack was making a serious effort to gain her trust. "The garden's starting to take shape, I see."
He crouched down and peeked at Noelle, who slept contentedly with one small clenched fist raised above her head. The baby mesmerized him. For that matter, so did Mary Jo.…
"I…missed seeing you the past couple of days," she said in a low voice.
That was encouraging. "You did?" He hated to sound too eager since he was treading carefully in this relationship. He'd made a big mistake with her and was almost afraid of what would happen next.
"Well, yes. The last time we talked, well…you know."
Mack straightened and nervously shoved his hands in his back pockets.
"You told me it wasn't a good idea for us to continue with the engagement," she said, although he didn't need any reminder.
"That seemed for the best," he muttered. "But—"
Before he could qualify his remark, she broke in. "And you're right, it is for the best, especially if you don't love me."
Mack couldn't believe he'd actually said that. "No, I just thought—"
"I understand," she said, cutting him off again. "You proposed because you were trying to protect me."
Mack studied her through narrowed eyes. "You didn't hear from David Rhodes again, did you?"
"No." She shook her head emphatically.
Noelle's biological father had threatened, more than once, to take the baby from Mary Jo, which Mack felt was nothing more than a bluff. But it had frightened her so badly that she'd panicked and decided to move back to Seattle. Back to her brothers, who'd look after her and the baby.
Afraid he was about to lose them both, Mack had suggested marriage. Mary Jo had accepted, with the stipulation that they have a six-month engagement.
That wasn't the only stipulation. She'd insisted there be no physical contact. That was when Mack had realized his mistake. Mary Jo's sole reason for moving to Cedar Cove had been to escape her domineering older brothers. In offering to marry her, Mack was doing exactly what they'd done. His motive had been to keep a close watch over her, to protect her. Because he loved her, yes, but without recognizing it, he'd assumed the role her brothers had played in her life. No wonder Mary Jo had stalled their relationship.
A few days after they became engaged, he noticed the shift in her attitude. No longer did she treat him as her friend. No longer could they tease and joke and affectionately kiss. He'd taken control of a situation in her life, squelching Mary Jo's first tentative efforts toward independence. She'd said yes to his proposal, but it wasn't because she loved him.
A month passed before Mack figured out what was wrong and why he had to break off the engagement. In his eagerness to be with her, to marry her, he'd nearly ruined everything.
At least neither of them had mentioned the engagement to their families. For his part Mack knew his parents would've seen through his reasons immediately. They would've said it was too soon, pointing out that Mack and Mary Jo didn't know each other well enough to make that kind of commitment.
They would've been right.
Mack had acted on impulse, his desire to protect her overcoming his better judgment. He needed to bide his time and let the relationship progress naturally.
One problem was his lack of finesse with women. Not that he was totally naive, but none of his relationships prior to meeting Mary Jo had been serious or long-lasting.
He did have a sister—two sisters, actually. Only he hadn't known about the second one until a few years ago. He'd always been close to Linnette and had now begun to develop a friendship with Gloria.
Linnette had often advised him on relationships, but she'd moved to some Podunk town in North Dakota. They managed regular phone conversations; despite that, Mack hadn't been smart enough to seek her opinion before he proposed to Mary Jo.
In trying to undo his mistake, Mack had committed another one. He'd broken off the engagement by telling Mary Jo that although he was fond of her, his real love was for Noelle.
It'd seemed like a reasonable approach at the time. He'd hoped to back out of the engagement and save face as he did—let her save face, too. Instead, he'd further complicated an already complex relationship. If there'd been a worse way to handle the situation, he couldn't imagine it.
What he should've done was simply be honest. Whoever said honesty was the best policy—Ben Franklin? Mother Teresa? Bill Clinton? Oprah?—was absolutely correct.
Then the following morning, Mack had been on duty at the fire station. He'd felt uncomfortable and anxious about seeing Mary Jo ever since. This was their first encounter since that day.
"I don't expect to hear from David again," Mary Jo was saying. "Like you said, I think it was an empty threat. He only wants Noelle so he can manipulate his father into giving him money."
Mack nodded. "If you do see him, call me and I'll deal with him." As soon as the words were out, Mack wished he could take them back. The whole point of breaking off the engagement was to let Mary Jo solve her own problems.
Instead of responding, she occupied herself with rearranging Noelle's blanket.
Mack rocked back on his heels and removed his hands from his pockets. He wanted to groan. Why couldn't he keep his mouth shut? "I guess I should check the mail," he said with a sigh. He'd just headed over to the mailbox when Mary Jo called him back.
"I learned something about those letters."
"Letters?" Mack asked in confusion.
"The ones I found under the floorboards in the closet."
That box of World War II letters had completely slipped his mind. "Tell me," he said quickly.
"I'd rather show you."
"Would you like to come by for dinner?" she asked. She bit her lip, as if she wasn't confident that inviting him was such a good plan, after all. "I don't want you to feel any obligation.…"
"No, I want to," he said with more enthusiasm than he'd intended. "I mean, if you're sure about having me over."
Mack checked his watch. "It's quarter after six now. Shall we say in an hour?"
"An hour," she agreed.
His spirits lifted. Maybe he hadn't ruined everything the way he'd feared. "See you then," he said with a relieved smile.
"Okay." She smiled back, and he felt a sudden hopefulness.
Not until he was on his porch steps did it occur to him to ask if there was anything he could contribute. A salad? No, wine was probably better. He turned and, to his surprise, found Mary Jo watching him. Looking guilty, she glanced away.
"What can I bring?" he asked. "For dinner."
She gave a half shrug. "I've got chicken-and-vegetable stew in the Crock-Pot and I'm making biscuits. I can't think of anything else."
"How about a bottle of wine?" When she nodded, he said, "See you around seven."
After collecting the mail, Mack let himself into his side of the duplex, closed the door and breathed deeply. His sense of excitement was nearly overwhelming. In less than an hour he'd have a chance to make up for the foolish, clumsy way he'd ended the engagement—with a lie. He'd have a chance to start again, to reestablish their relationship on a more equal footing.
Fifteen minutes later, Mack had showered, shaved and changed clothes. He threw a load in the washing machine and set the dials. With another half hour to kill, he walked restlessly from room to room. This evening was important, and it could set the tone for many evenings to come.
In the past he'd often visited Mary Jo and Noelle. She'd regularly invited him over but not, he now suspected, out of any great desire for his company. Mary Jo was simply accustomed to having people around. Until recently she'd lived with her three older brothers.
She'd cooked for her family, although Mack knew they did their share of household chores. She was used to preparing meals for three hungry men; no wonder she always made enough to feed a family. So it was easy to invite an additional person, Mack told himself. She didn't make extra with him in mind.
Not that he was complaining. Far from it. He liked spending time with her, being part of her life. Entertaining Noelle—that was his job most nights. He held and played with the baby while Mary Jo finished dinner preparations, and then later, they sat together and watched television or played cards. She had card sense, as his father would've put it. They talked, too, but not about anything deep or too personal. They'd talk about what they'd read or seen on TV, or mutual friends and acquaintances in Cedar Cove. Both were careful to avoid religion and politics, although he guessed they held similar views.
At the end of the evening, he'd kiss her good-night. After their so-called engagement, those kisses had become more brotherly than playful or passionate. That was what had initially convinced him the engagement was all wrong.
Considering the way David Rhodes had treated her, he understood that Mary Jo would be wary of entering a new relationship. Her trust in men—and in her own ability to judge them—had been badly shaken. But surely she'd come to recognize that Mack was a man of his word. That he genuinely cared for her and the baby and would never do anything to bring them harm.
He worried that he wasn't as good-looking as Rhodes. He wasn't as smooth, either, but that probably didn't attract Mary Jo anymore, not after being involved with a player like David. Unlike Rhodes, Mack wasn't tall, dark and handsome. He was just under six feet and his brown hair had a hint of auburn in it, which accounted for the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose. He was an average guy, he supposed. He might work for the fire department, but he doubted anyone would select him for one of those hunk calendars.
Mary Jo, however, was beautiful. He wasn't surprised that someone like David Rhodes would notice her. Mack had long decided that her beauty was part of the problem; it put her out of his league. He was sure she could have her pick of any man she wanted. All Mack could hope for was that, given enough time, she'd want him.
When he knocked at her front door, Mary Jo immediately opened it, almost as if she'd been waiting for him, although that was unlikely to be the case. Noelle cooed from her seat and waved her arms, and he chose to see that as a greeting just for him.
"How's my girl?" he asked. He handed Mary Jo the bottle of chilled pinot grigio he'd taken from his fridge, then walked into the living room and reached for the baby. As he lifted her in his arms he grinned at Mary Jo. "I've only been away a couple of days and I swear she's grown two inches."
"She changes every single day," Mary Jo said. "I see it, too."
He tickled Noelle's chin and she gurgled back, which made him laugh.
"There are those World War II letters," Mary Jo said, pointing at the coffee table.
Mack looked away from Noelle long enough to glance at the cigar box sitting there. He could tell it was faded and a little shabby. "How many letters were inside?"
"Dozens. It didn't seem like that many when I found them, but the paper is really thin."
She'd been enthralled by her discovery. Mack was interested, too—who wouldn't be? These letters were a direct link to history, a personal connection to some of the most momentous events of the previous century.
"The article I read on the internet called this paper onionskin and it said the letters were referred to as V-mail." She smiled at that. "I think the V stands for victory." She sat on the sofa and Mack joined her, still holding the baby. He divided his attention between Mary Jo and Noelle.
"I've read them twice. They're addressed to Miss Joan Manry."
"I remember." Mack recalled the recipient's name, now that she mentioned it, although not the sender's. He cocked his head but couldn't read the return address. "Who are they from?"
"His name is Jacob Dennison and he was a major stationed in Europe during the war. Some of his letters have black marks on them, but a lot of them don't have any at all. I assume those marks were put there by censors. You know, I read that there were over two hundred censorship offices. Their job was to ensure that military personnel didn't reveal anything sensitive in their letters." She paused. "Of course, that doesn't explain why these letters were hidden."