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The streets of downtown Boise were busy on this second Saturday in November. People walked briskly along the sidewalks, their coat collars turned up and their heads leaning into the wind as they hurried from store to store. Shops and restaurants were crowded. A good sign for retailers, since the Christmas shopping season hadn't begun in earnest.
Alicia Harris sat at a table in Espresso Heaven, a coffee shop on Main Street, waiting anxiously for someone who looked like Joe Palermothirty-six years old, six foot two, black hair, brown eyesto walk through the door. It wasn't much of a description, but it was all he'd given her. It didn't matter. She was certain she would recognize him, even after all these years.
No, it wasn't the descriptionor lack thereofthat made her anxious. It was wondering whether or not he would agree to her outlandish suggestion. If he didn't
"Care for some coffee while you wait?" the waitress asked, drawing Alicia's gaze from the street scene.
"No, thanks. But I would like some herbal tea, if you have any."
"Sure thing. Whole selection. Be right back."
Alicia laid a hand on her extended abdomen. "Maybe this is a crazy idea, Humphrey." Humphrey was her pet name for her unborn child. "He could be an ax murderer."
Joe had suggested that possibility last night when they'd spoken by phone. He'd called from the motel near the airport shortly after checking in.
"You're taking quite a risk, Alicia," he'd said. "You don't know much about me really. Just old memories and some instant messaging. I could be criminally insane. I could be an ax murderer."
She didn't believe he was dangerous. She'd known the entire Palermo familywhen she was a girl, had made mud pies in the backyard with Joe's younger sister, Belinda. In fact, she'd had a major crush on "Joey" when she was ten and he was seventeen. But the Palermos had moved to California before she could grow up and make him notice her.
No, Joe was no ax murderer. There were plenty of things she didn't know about him, nineteen years later, but she was certain the boy who used to fix her bicycle chains and search for her missing cat was no monster.
A blast of cold air signaled the opening of the coffee shop's door. Alicia glanced up and stopped breathing.
She was over seven months pregnant and already as big as a barn. She hadn't had a good hair day in at least fifteen weeks. Before leaving the house, she'd hidden the mess under a black and red Cat-in-the-Hat-type knitted cap. It probably didn't look much better than her hair. To top it all off, three pimples had appeared on her forehead this morning and now glowed as bright and red as Rudolph's nose.
And then there was Joe Palermo.
How did an Adonis at seventeen become even more handsome nearly two decades later? Shouldn't he have wrinkles or a receding hairline or a middle-age paunch or something?
He found her with his eyes, and he smiled.
Good grief! They could light the Capitol Christmas tree with that smile.
She swallowed hard, then smiled in return, watching as he made his way toward her.
Get a grip, Alicia. It's only Joe, and he's just here to consider doing you a favor. He's off-limits.
He stopped on the opposite side of the table. "You must be Alicia." His gaze dropped to her abdomen. "Although you look a little different from the last time I saw you." He glanced up. "You're taller, right?"
"Right." She chuckled nervously.
"It's good to see you again, Alicia."
"You, too, Joe."
He pulled out the chair and slid onto the seat. The waitress appeared before he had time to remove his coat.
"Can I get you something?" she asked, sounding breathless.
"Large coffee. Black. Thanks."
"No frills," Alicia said as the waitress hurried away.
He smiled again. "No frills."
Now she could see she'd been wrong. He did have a few wrinkles. Tiny smile lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. And mighty attractive they were, too.
Oh, her wacky pregnancy hormones were doing a major number on her. She hadn't given a man the time of day since Grant walked out three weeks after their wedding. She wasn't going to start now. Playing the fool once per decade was her limit.
"Popular place," Joe said, intruding on her thoughts.
"Yes. I usually come about nine in the morning, before I open my store. It's a little more quiet in here then. The eight-to-fivers have come and gone, and I can sit in the corner and sip my tea while reading the paper."
The waitress arrived with Joe's coffee.
"Thanks." He flashed the young woman one of his million-watt smiles. Then he looked at Alicia, giving the waitress no excuse to linger. "Okay, let's talk about why I'm here."
"No-nonsense. Is that the attorney in you?"
"I guess so."
She sat a little straighter, drew a deep breath and let it out. "Joe, I know this is a huge favor to ask of anyone. Especially since you haven't seen me in years. If there was someone else I could ask " She sighed. "But there isn't."
"Are you sure this is the best way? I remember your grandfather as the sort of man who would forgive your faults and lend a helping hand when needed. I think he could handle the truth, whatever it is."
"If you'd seen him in the hospital, you'd understand. We came so close to losing him. If he knew I was about to become a single mom, he would worry about me. Worry is the last thing he needs right now."
A frown drew Joe's black eyebrows together. "Proverbs says that truth stands the test of time and lies are soon exposed. I'm thinking that's good advice."
"Is it so terrible to want to protect someone you love?"
"No," he answered softly. "It isn't terrible. Misguided, maybe, but not terrible."
Alicia looked out the window at the scurrying Saturday shoppers. "I never meant for things to get out of hand. I never meant to tell even the first lie. It just sort of happened. It's a long, stupid story."
Joe had come to the café to tell Alicia he couldn't agree to this charade, not even for an old childhood friend. He wasn't a great actor in the best of circumstances. He feared that pretending to be someone's husbandconsidering his low opinion of wedded blisswould be beyond his meager capabilities. Besides, he had this troublesome feeling that God would prefer honesty.
But when he opened his mouth to tell her he couldn't do it, out came different words. "Tell me a little more" he motioned toward her stomach "about what happened. You haven't gone into detail when we've had our chat sessions."
Still staring toward the window, she released a deep sigh. "It's bad enough my friends and employees know."
"I'm your friend, Alicia. You can tell me."
That drew her gaze back to him.
"Hormones," she whispered with a pitiful wave of her hand toward her tear-filled eyes. Then she grabbed her purse, opened it and withdrew a packet of tissues. "Sorry."
"No problem." He sipped his coffee.
After a lengthy silence, she began speaking in a low voice, so low Joe had to lean forward in order to hear her.
"I met Grant Reeves last March at a party. He was an acquaintance of one of my employees and was in town for a few weeks. He was from Reno where he worked as a carpenter. Grant was charming and charismatic. He had a way about him that made all the women take notice. But it was me he paid special attention to that night. And every night after that, too. He wined and dined me, showered me with flowers and gifts. It was all new to me, and I fell hard. He asked me to marry him two weeks later. He wanted to get married right away."
Joe whistled softly, which drew a wry look and a nod from Alicia.
"I called Grandpa Roger. He's the only family I have left since my parents died. I wanted him to be happy for me." As she spoke, she lowered her gaze to the napkin in her hand and began shredding its edges. "But he wasn't. In fact, it brought out the pastor in him." A brief smile curved her mouth, then vanished. "He reminded me that marriage is a holy estate and not to be entered into lightly. He asked questions about Grant's character and wanted to know if he was a Christian. Questions I couldn't answer because I didn't know. Because I hadn't asked them myself."
Joe saw the glitter of tears in her eyes and felt a tug in his heart.
"I got angry and said some very unkind things to Grandpa. And I didn't listen to his words of caution, either. Grant and I were married four days later."
Marry in haste and repent at leisure. Whoever said that knew what he was talking about. But Joe would have shortened it to: Marry and repent. Period.
"I knew it was a mistake almost from the first day," she continued, "but I wouldn't admit it. My pride was involved. I told myself things would improve. We just had to get used to living together, to each other's idiosyncrasies. I tried not to complain that he spent too much money and that he came home late so often."
Alicia fell silent. Her unshed tears swam before her blue-green eyes. She looked fragile and vulnerable.
All of Joe's protective instincts flared to life. But those instincts weren't good ones, he reminded himself. Better to ignore them.
He took a sip of his lukewarm coffee.
"I found Grant with another woman three weeks after we were married. He seemed surprised I was upset by it. Apparently we had very different ideas of what marriage meant."
She took a quick breath and let it out. "We got a divorce in Nevada. It only took a few weeks, since Grant was still a resident. It was all relatively painless and civilized. I was relieved I hadn't told Grandpa I'd gotten married." She sighed again.
Joe wondered if she realized how often she did that. The deep breath and audible sigh. The rise and fall of her shoulders. The worrying of her lower lip between her teeth.
"And then I discovered I was pregnant."
"Did you tell Grant?"
"Yes. He said I'd have to prove it was his and accused me of marrying him for child support." She released a self-deprecating laugh. "This after he nearly cleaned out my savings account in three weeks' time."
If Grant Reeves had lived within a hundred miles of this coffee shop, Joe would have sought him out and taught that charming, charismatic ne'er-do-well a thing or two.
"I had him sign something where he gave up all of his parental rights. He didn't even hesitate." She sat a little straighter, a spark of determination in her eyes that hadn't been there a moment before. "I don't need anyone to take care of me and the baby. I have my store, and it's doing well. I can support us when the time comes without any help from him or anyone else."
He wondered if she was as independent as she sounded. "Why didn't you tell your grandfather the truth after you discovered you were pregnant?"
"I was going to. I was waiting for the right moment. A time when the truth wouldn't make me look like an idiot."
"You're not an idiot." Misguided, maybe, but not an idiot.
"No. But I felt like one. Anyway, I knew I couldn't keep putting things off. I mean, he was going to know something when I went to Arizona for a visit and had a baby with me." She gave him a wry smile. "Grandpa isn't senile."
Joe returned the look.
"He had his heart attack before I could tell him." Her expression sobered. "I rushed down to Arizona to be with him. No one thought he was going to live. Not his doctors. Not his friends. No one. I couldn't very well tell him then."
"And he didn't notice you were pregnant?" He couldn't keep the skeptical note out of his voice.
"He was too sick to notice. I was careful how I dressed. Besides, I wasn't very big at the time." She glanced down. "Not like now." She placed both of her hands on her abdomen. "And Humphrey's still got two months to grow."
"That's what I call him. Or her."
"You don't know the sex?"
"I didn't want to. I'd rather be surprised."
He could have told her she sounded as old-fashioned as she thought her grandfather was.
She raised her eyes again. "So here I am. I didn't tell Grandpa Roger I was married, let alone divorced, because I didn't want him to be disappointed in me. I can't tell him I'm pregnant and alone, because I don't want to worry him and put stress on his weak heart. And now he's coming for an extended holiday visit, and I need a husband. Just for pretend. Just for the holidays."
Joe gave his head a slow shake. "I don't see how this could work. Your grandfather will be staying with you. Right? Won't he think it odd if your husband doesn't share your bedroom? And I'm guessing sharing your bedroom wasn't part of the pretense you have planned."
Embarrassment rose in her cheeks like a fire. "No, of course not. You won't stay in my room. But I know how to get around it. My room has a door that leads onto the back porch and so does the nursery, which is the room next to mine. That's where you'll sleep at night. When it's time for you to appear, you can go onto the porch, enter through the porch door, and then come out of my bedroom."
He should turn her down. He should tell her how crazy this harebrained scheme sounded. It wasn't as though he owed her a favor. Her family had been good to him, but still
"It's only for five and a half weeks." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Please, Joe. There isn't anyone else I can ask."
He must have lost his mind.
"Okay, Alicia. I'll do it."