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Late Thursday afternoon, Teri Polgar went to the grocery store. Roaming the air-conditioned aisles, she decided to make her specialty-a macaroni-and-cheese casserole-for dinner that night. Some might consider it more of a winter meal, not really suitable for the middle of July, but Teri liked it any time of year. And Bobby-well, Bobby was hardly aware of what season it was, or for that matter, what time of day.
When she got home, she found her husband in front of a chessboard, deep in concentration. That in itself wasn't unusual. But the board was set up on the kitchen table and her younger brother was sitting across from him. Two out-of-theordinary occurrences.
Johnny grinned sheepishly when she walked in with her bag of groceries. "I came by for a quick visit and Bobby insisted on teaching me," he explained.
Bobby mumbled something, probably an acknowledgment of her presence. He often muttered to himself, lost in his own world of chess moves and strategies. To say her husband was a bit unconventional would be an understatement. Bobby Polgar was an international chess sensation, one of the top-ranked players in the world.
"How's it going?" Teri asked as she set the groceries on the counter.
Johnny answered with a good-natured shrug. "Haven't got a clue. Ask Bobby."
"Hi, sweetheart," she said, moving to her husband's side of the table. Slipping her arms around his neck, she kissed his cheek.
Bobby's hand squeezed hers and he looked across at Johnny. "Always protect your queen," he advised her brother, who nodded patiently.
"Can you stay for dinner?" she asked Johnny. A visit from him, especially on a weekday, was a pleasant surprise. Teri was proud of Johnny, but she also felt protective of him. That was only natural, she supposed, because she'd practically raised him herself. Her family-like Bobby-was unconventional, but in a completely different way. At last count, her mother had been married six times. Or was it seven? Teri had lost count.
Her sister was more like her mother than Teri had ever been, but at least Christie was smart enough not to marry the losers who walked in and out of her life. Not that Teri was exempt from some of life's painful lessons herself. Particularly those that fell into the category of men-who-use-and-abuse.
Teri still had a hard time believing Bobby Polgar could love her. She worked in a hair and nail salon and considered herself the farthest thing from an intellectual. Bobby always said she had a real-world intelligence, practical and intuitive rather than cerebral, like his. She loved him for saying that and was even starting to believe it. In fact, she loved everything about him. The happiness she felt was still new to her and it actually frightened her a little.
She had reasons to be concerned, real-world reasons, she thought wryly, although she made light of them. Recently two men had approached her, bodyguardtypes who looked like they belonged in an episode of The Sopranos. They had gangster written all over them. They hadn't really done anything, though, other than scare her for a few minutes.
Teri wasn't sure what that was all about. Apparently these goons had been sent as a warning to Bobby. The message seemed to be that their boss, whoever he was, could get to her at any time. Fat chance of that! Teri was street-smart and she'd learned how to take care of herself, although she had to admit those two had given her pause.
If Bobby knew who was responsible for the threat against her, he wasn't saying. But she'd noticed that her husband hadn't played in a single tournament since she'd been approached by those men.
"I gotta get back," Johnny said in answer to her question about dinner.
"Just stay for another couple of hours," she wheedled. "I'm making my special macaroni-and-cheese casserole." That would entice her brother like nothing else. It was his favorite dish.
"Checkmate," Bobby said triumphantly, apparently unaware of the conversation around him.
"Is there a way out of this?" Johnny asked, returning his attention to the chessboard.
Bobby shook his head. "Nope. You're in the Black Hole."
"The what?" Teri and Johnny said simultaneously.
"The Black Hole," Bobby told them. "Once a player finds him or herself in this set of circumstances, it's impossible to win."
Johnny shrugged. "Then there's nothing left to do but concede." He laid down his king and sighed. "Really, there was never any doubt as to the outcome of this game."
"You play well for a beginner," Bobby told him.
Teri ruffled her younger brother's hair, despite knowing how much he hated it. "Consider that a compliment."
Johnny smiled. "I will." He pushed back his chair and looked at Teri. "Ter, don't you think it's time you introduced Bobby to Mom and Christie?"
Bobby turned from Johnny to Teri and innocently said, "I would like to meet your family."
"No, you wouldn't." She immediately busied herself unpacking the groceries. She set the cottage cheese-an essential ingredient in her macaroni recipe-on the counter, along with a box of Velveeta cheese.
"Mom asked me about you and Bobby," her brother informed her.
"Is she still with Donald?" This was the latest husband. Teri had purposely avoided any discussion of her family with Bobby. They hadn't been married long and she hated to disillusion him so soon. Once he met the family, he might well have serious doubts about her, and the truth was, she wouldn't blame him.
"Things are shaky." Johnny glanced over at Bobby. "Donald has sort of a drinking problem."
"Donald!" Teri cried. "What about Mom?"
"She's cutting back." Johnny had always been quick to defend their mother.
Donald had showed promise in the beginning. Apparently he and her mother had met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Unfortunately, they'd quickly gone from supporting each other in sobriety to becoming drinking buddies. Neither of them could hold a job for long. How they survived financially, Teri didn't know. She had no intention of assisting them the way she did Johnny. It went without saying that any money she gave them would immediately go toward another bottle of booze or another night at their local bar.
Crossing her arms, Teri leaned against the kitchen counter. "Mom's cutting back? Yeah, right."
"Even so, you should have Christie over to meet Bobby." He turned toward him. "Christie's our sister."
"Why didn't you tell me you have a sister?" Bobby asked.
He seemed perplexed that Teri had never mentioned Christie. He knew about her, of course, because he'd had Teri's background checked-a fact he'd revealed in his usual dispassionate way.
She had her reasons for not mentioning her younger sister and Johnny knew it. She pointed an accusatory finger at him. "Don't talk to me about Christie, okay?"
"What is it with you and her?" Johnny grumbled.
"You're too young to understand all the details," she said, brushing aside his question. She and Christie were, for all intents and purposes, estranged, although Teri maintained a superficial civility on public occasions.
"Come on, Ter, you and Bobby are married. He should meet the family."
"I don't think so."
"You don't want me to meet your family?" Bobby gazed up at her with a hurt expression. He didn't realize that this conversation had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her mother and sister.
"Yes, I do
someday." She gently patted Bobby's arm. "I thought we'd get settled in the house before I invited them."
"We are settled." Bobby gestured around him at the gleaming appliances and polished oak floors.
"Not that settled. We'll have them over in a while." She was thinking four or five years-longer if she could get away with it.
"Mom and Christie would really like to meet Bobby," Johnny said again.
Now Teri understood why her younger brother had shown up at the house unannounced. He'd been sent as an emissary by their mother and Christie. His mission was to pave the way for an introduction to the rich and famous Bobby Polgar, who'd been foolish enough to marry her.
"They'll have to meet him sooner or later," Johnny said with perfect logic. "You can't avoid it forever, you know."
"I know." Teri released a slow sigh. "Might as well be now."
Teri could see that she wasn't going to escape the dreaded family gathering, so she'd simply take Johnny's advice. "Okay, okay, I'll have everyone over for dinner."
"Great." Johnny gave her a wide grin.
"I'll regret it afterward," she muttered under her breath.
"Why?" Bobby asked, obviously still perplexed by her reaction.
She hardly knew how to explain.
"Are your mother and sister like you?"
"No way!" Teri had done everything possible to make choices that didn't resemble theirs-with only partial success. While it was true that she never drank to excess, she'd made more than one mistake in the relationship department. Until she met Bobby.
"I'll like them, won't I?" Bobby asked next, smiling at her with childlike faith.
She responded with a noncommital shrug. Her mother and sister were similar to each other in their behavior and their loser attitudes, although Teri didn't think Christie had a drinking problem so much as a man problem. Put a man in front of her, any man, and she couldn't resist.
"Is Christie still with." For the life of her, she couldn't remember the last man her sister had been living with.
"Charlie," Johnny supplied.
"I thought it was Toby."
"He's the one before Charlie," her brother said. "And no, Charlie dumped her last month."
Oh, great. That meant her sister was on the prowl. This scenario couldn't get much worse.
"Christie will make a play for Bobby," she said.
Johnny shook his head firmly. "No, she won't. You two are married."
"Why would that stop her? It hasn't before. Trust me, she'll make a play-"
"Christie likes chess?" Bobby interrupted excitedly.
Clearly he didn't grasp the exchange going on between Teri and her brother. "No, Bobby. But my sister will think you're the most brilliant, handsomest man in the world."
Bobby grinned. "Like you do."
Despite her agitation, Teri nodded. "Only more so," she said grimly.
"You're jealous," Johnny accused her.
"Not Teri," Bobby said, getting up from the table. "She knows I love her."
Teri wrapped her arms around Bobby and hugged him close. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For loving me."
"That's easy," Bobby assured her.
"Listen, you two lovebirds, I wish I could stay but I've got to get back. I have a research paper that's due tomorrow." With Teri's encouragement, Johnny was taking a summer course to get a head start on the next school year. He pushed back his chair and stood. "So you'll get in touch with Mom?"
"I suppose." Teri sighed, already resigned to the inevitable.
"Christie, too," her brother insisted. "She is our sister."
"Mark my words. Bobby won't be safe with her around." And neither will my marriage, she thought darkly.
Teri hated to disparage their sister. But experience told her exactly what to expect. Sure as anything, Christie would throw herself at Bobby. The fact that he was married wouldn't matter. Not to Christie. Every boyfriend Teri'd ever had, her sister had attempted to seduce. Bobby wouldn't be the exception, and because he was her husband, Christie would probably consider him an especially worthwhile challenge.
Poor Bobby. He had no idea. He'd certainly never encountered a family like hers.
"Next weekend?" Johnny asked hopefully.
"No," Teri said. She needed time to prepare herself for this. "Give me a week to get organized. Two weeks from Saturday."
IfJohnny was disappointed by the delay, it didn't show. "See you then," he said and kissed her cheek on his way out the door.
Bobby slid his arm around her shoulders. Teri reminded herself yet again that she loved her husband and he loved her. Despite that, she couldn't entirely quell her fears.
While Bobby Polgar was unlike any man she'd ever known, he was still a man. He'd be just as susceptible to Christie's beauty and her undeniable charm as every other boyfriend she'd had.
"I'm happy to be meeting your family," Bobby said after Johnny had left.
Smiling proved difficult. Poor Bobby, she thought again. He didn't know what he was letting himself in for.
Troy Davis had been the duly elected sheriff of Cedar Cove for nearly seventeen years. He'd been raised in this town, graduating from the local high school. Afterward, like many of his friends, he'd enlisted in the army, where he'd served as an MP. He'd trained at the Presidio in San Francisco, and just before shipping out to a base in Germany, he'd spent a three-day leave touring the city. That was where, on a foggy June morning in 1965, he'd met Sandy Wilcox.
After spending the day together, they'd exchanged addresses and corresponded during his tour of duty. When he was discharged, Troy had asked Sandy to marry him. By then she was in college and he'd joined her at SFU in San Francisco. In 1970, they were married and settled in his hometown of Cedar Cove, where Troy had accepted a job in law enforcement. He'd worked as a deputy until he ran for sheriff and won. Life had been good to him, to both of them. And then Sandy had gotten sick..
Troy looked up from where he was seated in the living room, staring down at the carpeted floor. "Pastor Flemming's here," Megan said quietly. She'd come over to help him organize Sandy's things-figure out what should go where.
Deep in thought, Troy hadn't even heard the doorbell. He stood as the other man walked into the room.
"I came to see how you're doing," the pastor from Cedar Cove Methodist church said. He was a soft-spoken, caring man who'd officiated at Sandy's funeral services with compassion and sincerity. Many an afternoon, Troy had found Dave Flemming sitting with his wife, reading from the Bible or praying with her or sometimes just chatting. He'd been touched by the sympathy the pastor had extended, first to Sandy and now to Megan and him.
Troy wasn't sure how to respond to the pastor's concern. "We're coping as well as we can," Troy said.
No death was easy and although Troy had felt he was prepared to lose Sandy, he wasn't. As sheriff, he'd certainly seen his share of death, and it wasn't something he'd ever get used to. But this one struck at the very foundations of his life. Nobody was ever truly ready to lose a wife or mother, he supposed, and Sandy's death had hit both him and Megan hard.
"If you need anything, just say the word."
"I will." Troy gestured toward the sofa. "Would you care to sit down?" he asked.
"I've made a fresh pot of coffee," his daughter added. "Will you have some?"
Troy was proud of what a good hostess Megan had become. Ever since Sandy's multiple sclerosis had become so much worse, his daughter often filled that role for him, something she'd continued to do after her marriage. Troy appreciated the way she'd willingly stepped in for her mother. She'd accompanied him to various functions in Sandy's place, and occasionally held dinners for family friends. They'd grown especially close since Sandy had gone into the nursing home two years before.
"Thank you, no," Dave told them. "I can't stay. But I'd like to help in any way I can. If it's too painful for you to sort through Sandy's things, for instance, I'd be happy to ask some of the ladies at church to lend a hand."
"No, no, we're fine," Troy assured him.
"Everything's under control," Megan said. She'd already begun packing up her mother's clothes and personal effects.
"I'll leave you two, then," Dave said and after shaking Troy's hand, the pastor let himself out.
"We're going to be all right, aren't we, Dad?" his daughter asked him in a tentative voice that reminded him of how she'd sounded as a child.
Draping his arm around her thin shoulders, Troy nodded. He usually managed to hide his pain. And for Megan's sake he even tried to smile. She had enough grief of her own to carry.
"Of course we're going to be fine." With his daughter at his side he walked into the bedroom he'd shared with his wife for more than thirty years. Boxes crammed with Sandy's clothes were scattered across the carpet. Half the closet was spread on the queen-size bed-dresses, sweaters, skirts and blouses, most of which had hung there for years without being touched.