CHAPTER THIRTY

It was almost nine. Jenny was dressed and waiting for Alex. Her emotions were spiraling. She glanced at her watch. Ten to nine. She paced her apartment, pausing momentarily before a gold-edged mirror. She'd spent much too long getting dressed, hoping to hit on the right outfit. Okay, she had scolded herself, it doesn't matter what to wear. This is probably the last time you'll see Alex Kendall. This, after all, is not a date, but a professional assignment. After his cool disinterest last night, she recognized that she was only a necessity to close his case. She pulled on an old red wool turtleneck sweater, black wool pants and slipped on black loafers. Just the right touch, she thought, for casually indifferent strangers.

        Since her father's funeral more than two weeks ago, the reality of her loss had left Jenny stunned and grief-stricken. For the first few days, an insistent fullness in her throat had nearly choked her with sorrow. They say time heals all wounds, she thought, and wondered how much time? She had submerged herself in work, graciously acknowledging longtime customer's condolences over the death of her father. But, the blackness of night brought unanswered questions. She asked herself hundreds of times what Uncle Charlie had written in that note addressed to her. What had he to do with her father's involvement with Berkowitz? Once or twice, she thought she'd go to his apartment herself and solve this riddle. Then she remembered that Alex had kept the key. And she had promised that they'd open the envelope together. After he'd left her in

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the lobby of the Holiday Inn, she'd heard no more from him. Until the rap on the bookstore window last night.

        Now, she walked to the window and looked out at the still raging storm. Countless drifts of snow banks glared white in the morning sun.

        Her heart leaped. A dark car, perhaps a late model Buick, was parked directly across the street. A man sat emotionlessly at the wheel staring up at her window. She stepped back and watched as Alex parked his Volvo, jog up the steps, and press her doorbell. She reached for her black wool parka, snatched up her purse and gloves from the table and dashed down the stairs.

        "Step inside a moment, Alex," she whispered at the door. "Look at that car. That man has been staring at my window."

        Alex took her arm and led her down the few steps to his Volvo. "Yes," he said, "that's our man, Eastman. O'Reilly insisted on sending another agent to watch out for you." He looked at her and grinned. "He thinks I'm too involved."

        He seemed like the bantering, attentive Alex Kendall she'd first met in Los Angeles. She wanted to ask if it were true. Was O'Reilly right? Was he too involved? Instead, she pulled the collar of her parka close around her shoulders and settled into the warmth of the car.

        "Did you rest well last night?" he asked politely.

        "What do you think? I'm at a loss to know how Uncle Charlie got involved in Dad's business with Berkowitz."

        "How much do you really know about your Uncle Charlie?"

        Jenny stiffened. "You asked me that same question about my father."

        Alex reached over and touched her hand. "I regret that question, Jenny. I know my accusation about your father deeply hurt you."

        "Yes, it did."

        "Okay, we're on Michigan Boulevard. Give me that address again."

Jenny checked the address. "I've never been there, Alex, but I'm surprised we're in such an affluent area."

        "It is at that. What's his line of work?"

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        Jenny bit her lip, trying to formulate an answer. "Not much," she finally said, "he travels a lot, lives off a small trust fund from his grandmother. Not enough to live in this neighborhood. Not unless he won the lottery.

        They drove several blocks before Jenny pointed out a handsome brick complex. She held the key her uncle had left for her and walked up the steps to unlock the outer door.

        Jenny gasped. Charlie Lansing's apartment was luxurious, as if he really had won the lottery. The living room reflected a richly woven lifestyle with beige and white studio couches facing a white fireplace. A gold and crystal coffee table held two carved alabaster figurines, memorabilia from his travels to the Far East. A black lacquer dining room suite and matching breakfront held a collection of antique treasures from the orient. Framed paintings of Chinese art hung over the fireplace.

        Jenny stared in astonishment. "What does this mean?"

        "What?" Alex came to stand beside her. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

        "Uncle Charlie doesn't have the money for this kind of lifestyle."

        "No? Well, enough looking around, let's find the note."

        They found the white envelope on the fireplace mantle, with Jenny's name written in Charlie's familiar sprawl. Jenny held it tenuously and looked at Alex with wide, almost alarmed eyes. Something mysterious had happened in her uncle's life. She remembered his old cramped apartment on the southside where none of his three rooms were favored by the sun.

        When she'd asked her father about Charlie's meager lifestyle. Dad laughed and said his cold empty rooms liberate him."

        "Please, Alex, I can't. You open it."

        Alex took it from her, slit the envelope open and sat on the chair to read the note on both sides of the stationary.

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        "Do you want to read it with me or shall I read it for you?"

        Jenny offered a shaky smile. "You read it first."

        A deep frown creased his forehead. With tightened lips, he handed the letter to her.

        "My dear beautiful niece, Jenny." Charlie wrote. I'm writing this as I gaze at incredibly beautiful mountains surrounded by mountains and a blue-green lake. It was easy to impersonate your dad at the Swiss bank and withdraw the funds he'd snitched from the mob. The day for my revenge came when he handed me the sealed envelope, telling me I must give it to you unopened. Revenge for what, you might ask? Well, let me tell you. Your dad always had everything. Good looks, a beautiful wife, and a gorgeous daughter. Your honorable father, so favored by our parents, was the golden boy. He inherited the business, and I, always second best, was given the leavings. It it wasn't for my grandmother's trust fund I would have had to work. I'm sorry for you, Jenny. You worshiped your father. Thought he was so perfect. Who would have thought, he'd turn out to be a common thief? Maybe it's in our blood. No one will ever find me. My apartment is leased through the middle of June. Beautiful, isn't it? I'm sure you're wondering how I can afford such luxuries. Well, now you know. After the lease is up, you can keep or sell the furniture. I'll never see you again. The mob would do away with me in a minute, not to mention the police. Good luck, Jenny, and goodbye. Your always devoted Uncle Charlie.

        Jenny looked at Alex in stunned disbelief. Her hands were trembling. Alex took a step forward and in a moment she was in his arms, weeping silently on his chest. He tipped her face to his and tenderly kissed each tear. his lips slid to her mouth and their mutual desires, dormant for weeks, came deliciously alive.

        "Jenny," Alex whispered her name over and over.

        Moving out of his arms, Jenny took a deep breath. "What happens to Uncle Charlie?"

        Alex looked at her as if her questions had canceled his released emotions. "We'll investigate his whereabouts. Of course, the case against

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your father is closed. I'll give the note to O'Reilly and he'll pursue your uncle. There is nothing more for you to fear. O'Reilly called me early this morning. They've arrested the three remaining members of Gavota's mob. With their arrest, you'll not need a body guard after all. You're free.

        Jenny walked to the window. "I have no family."

        "Jenny, look at me."

        With tears standing in her eyes, Jenny turned. They were five feet apart and yet she'd never felt so close to anyone, ever.

        "I can't talk to you across the room. Come here."

        She didn't move.

        Alex threw her a quick, boyish grin. "For once, could you do as I say?"

        Jenny walked toward him, her heart thundering crazily.

        He drew her into his arms. "I love you, Jenny Lansing," he said softly. "And you're going to be my wife."

        "Ordering me around again, are you?"

        Lost to the magic of the moment her arms closed gently around his neck.

        He grinned and touched his lips to hers. "And do you have something else to say?"

        "Maybe," she murmured against his lips.

        "Then say it."

        "I love you, Alex."

        He cupped her face in his hands. "You and I will be family, as soon as you answer my question."

        "It seemed more of statement to me."

        "So, now I'll ask you. Jenny, will you marry me?"

        "Can I think about it?"

        "For how long?"

        "About a minute?"

        He laughed with her, playfully looked at his watch and watched the second hand slowly make its round.

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        "Time's up." Alex kissed the tip of her nose.

        "Last night," Jenny stepped back, "you were so distant, I thought you had little or no interest in me, perhaps you had another girl, perhaps..."

        He drew her back into his arms. "Jenny, I've never spoken those words to another woman."

        Jenny whispered against his lips, "Yes, Alex. Yes, I'll marry you."

        "Let's get out of this apartment. Fancy or not, it isn't where I planned to propose to the girl of my dreams."

        Alex held her hand tightly as they walked out into the cold, damp air.

        "Do you mind telling me something, Alex?" Jenny asked on the drive back to her home.

        "Anything, my sweet."

        "Why were you so distant last night?"

        "Because I suspected your uncle had opened the envelope and I didn't want to broach the subject. And not only was I exhausted after a week of chasing the Gavota boys, my heart was in my mouth wondering if you'd let me back into your life."

        Jenny squeezed his hand. "I hope you'll never let me go."

        "Never, my Jenny. Never. I have something to say as we begin this journey together, but I don't want to say it driving on gridlocked Michigan Boulevard. Tonight, we'll have dinner at my favorite restaurant. It's small and quiet and perfect for our first dinner together when you're not furious with me. I'll pick you up at seven."

        The restaurant was just as Alex described, quiet and small, with an ambience of greenery. A poignant melody accompanied by soft orchestrations completed the romantic evening.

        After they ordered dinner, Alex leaned forward and handed Jenny a black velvet box. A solitaire diamond winked up at her and as she gazed at it. Alex reached over, took the ring from the box and slipped it on her finger. He brought her hand to his lips.

        "We're beginning a lifelong journey together, Jenny." He said. "It's my deepest hope and prayer that we begin and end our walk with God.

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        We'll help each other. I'll lean on you and you'll lean on me, and we'll build our life together and by His grace we'll grow old together."

        "Alex," Jenny began, but couldn't complete the sentence for the tears in her throat.

        His hand tightened on hers. "Jenny, I know what's in the world and the feeling of walking without a compass, a course or a map. I've traveled the globe and it didn't matter if I was in a crowd or alone, I found nothing but emptiness and futility. Oh, I knew happiness for brief moments of time, depending on the circumstances, but no lasting joy. We all need a guide and that's what God offers us as we begin this journey together."

        Jenny nodded. "Since the night I said 'yes' to God, I've had an incredible peace. The questions, the fear, the restlessness is gone."

        Alex smiled. "There will be times when we disagree and that's okay. But we weave our lives together to create a beautiful pattern. I saw in my parent's lives a steadfast faith in God no matter what winds blew their way. After Dad and my sister were killed, my mother endured her loss with a strong faith that never wavered. No matter how angry I became, or how strongly I argued for other philosophies, she stood firm. I thought her narrow-minded, unlearned about the great philosophers but when she became ill with cancer, her strength and constant faith in the midst of pain was a far greater lesson than all the philosophers in the world...beyond any words or scripture or sermons."

        Jenny looked at Alex's strong, handsome face in silent joy. She had fought her feelings for him, but from the beginning he had touched some wellspring within her that nothing, not anger or fear could quench. Now, with his ring on her finger and his hand in hers, the stunning realization hit her. This was the great love she had witnessed between her parents, the one she had longed for herself.

        "Amazing, isn't it?" Jenny said. "How we met, what we've been through, and now... this." She touched her ring. "We experienced more together in one week than most couples do in a year."

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        Their server set their meal before them and neither one picked up their forks. They were entranced by the moment. Finally, Alex sat back and grinned.

        "How long will it take you to get ready for a wedding?"

        Jenny smiled back. "Well I must find a gown and a church and..."

        Alex half-frowned. "A big wedding? You've always dreamed of a big June wedding?"

        "No, actually, I haven't. A small afternoon ceremony with a few close friends will do. And it can be in January or February or... whatever suits you."

        Alex grinned. "January suits me fine."

        "This is still January, isn't it? Jenny laughed.

        Alex grinned. "How about next week? We'll get a license tomorrow and wait the designated time and O'Reilly will be my best man." His sentences were colliding. "He was, after all, inadvertently our matchmaker."

        Their food grew cold. Alex looked down at his plate and back at Jenny.

        "Are you hungry?"

        She shook her head.

        He leaned closer and touched his lips to hers. "Take a few bites to satisfy the cook and let's go. We have a wedding to plan."

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