Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chapter 60

       The morning after the disastrous date with Colin, I’d packed quickly after a sleepless night and left a day early for Dallas, wanting to put as much distance as I could between myself and the professor. I’d called Sharon after I was on the road and asked her to feed Miss Priss a day earlier than planned, giving her a hasty goodbye and Merry Christmas. I promised to be back January 30. We’d exchange gifts then.
      The heater on my beloved Volvo had stopped working on the pre-Christmas drive to Dallas a week ago, and I had stopped just east of Weatherford to retrieve extra clothes from my suitcase in order not to freeze 90 minutes before reaching Ben and Amanda’s house. I also took the time to wash my face, hoping they wouldn’t notice I’d been crying for the last five hours. Hot coffee, which I hated, helped warm me as well as keep me awake.

   “Mom, I’ve been tellin’ you over and over to get rid of this old heap, and now look! You’re frozen!” Ben had chided as he helped me bring my suitcase and bags of brightly wrapped presents into the house. 
   “Don’t be silly, Ben. I’m fine. I’ll get some hot tea. Bring in the rest of those, will you, and put them under the tree?”
Shaking his head, he returned to the car for a second load. He recognized the huge flat, rectangular package on the bottom, knowing it had to be the portrait of his daughters he had seen at Thanksgiving. It was the reason Maggie had driven — the collage painting was much too big to fit on the plane, and she said she didn’t want to take a chance damaging it during shipping. 

   “I’ll take your Volvo in to my mechanic tomorrow,” Ben offered, “although it might not get fixed ... it’s Christmastime, you know!” I had already disappeared into the house and pretended not to hear.
   These past few days away from Lubbock, from my heartache, were good for me and I’ve cherished the time with my family. Michael and Karen have flown in, and Ben and Amanda’s home is large enough to hold them all. Today’s traditional turkey dinner, cooked by Amanda with only a little help from me, was delicious, and Ben puffed with pride at his wife’s success as he and Michael cleaned up the dishes afterwards.
Within an hour of my arrival in Dallas, I’d told them I was no longer seeing Colin, and would appreciate it if they wouldn’t ask questions. They started to ask anyway, but “the look” silenced them all. During the entire visit, they respected my privacy, although I could tell all four of them sensed something was terribly wrong and hurt for me. I am trying to be cheerful, honestly!  The distractions of the holidays worked their magic, though, and I fall quickly asleep each night, exhausted by the day’s activities and grateful for family.
   By far the best present I’d received today was the news I was to be a grandmother for the third time — Michael and Karen are expecting their first child next summer.
      A blessed Christmas to one and all. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chapter 59

Chapter 59
   I couldn’t imagine where he was taking me Saturday night ... or I could, actually, envisioning both the fancy steakhouse on Slide Road, and the Lubbock Country Club’s formal dining room. I thought they had dancing on the weekends, didn’t they? I love dancing. Is he a member? I didn’t think so, but he probably knows someone who is, or Monsignor Fitzpatrick does. 
   Now, what to wear? There wasn’t time to shop in Dallas, and Lubbock’s limited shopping scene didn’t offer a wide variety of formal wear. Maybe I’d pull out that red evening gown I wore two years ago for the Bishop’s Annual Charity Christmas Ball in Dallas. It might work. I knew I needed to talk with Sharon.
   Indeed it did work nicely, and I was decked out in sleek deep red, complete with matching stole to keep my bare shoulders from freezing. Piling my hair up, I donned my favorite ruby earrings, but agreed with Sharon a necklace would spoil the effect of the low, strapless gown. Besides who owned ruby necklaces anyway?
   Much less than buxom, I liked the way the empire waist on the dress pressed upward to give me a rather impressive cleavage, even if it wasn’t natural. I could cover it with the wrap if it wasn’t appropriate for the surprise destination, but after all, I’d worn this for the bishop’s gala.  And he wasn’t scandalized in the least. 
  When Colin arrived, flowers in hand, he whistled and kissed me in gratitude. He was dressed in a dark suit and stylish black turtleneck sweater, and looked every bit the part of the dashing, handsome hero. My heart melted and I knew the night would be special. Hope he’s washed the truck, I thought. When he walked me outside, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of a streamlined silver limousine parked at my curb.
“Your carriage, m’lady,” he grinned as the chauffeur opened the door for us and bowed. Yes, this definitely was going to be a special night. 
   I was so taken with the luxury of the limo, the wine he offered and the soft classical music playing in our private “carriage,” I hadn’t noticed our direction. After about 20 minutes, I peeked outside. A sliver of moon was rising, and I could tell we were out of the city, but where? 
   Another 15 minutes and I had her answer. We pulled into the broad circular driveway of the area’s newest resort, the LakeView Grand, a multimillion dollar project on the shores of Buffalo Lake, southeast of Lubbock. I’d read about it — the grand opening was last month — but hadn’t visited or tried their cuisine. I was excited and pleased at his choice of elegance.
   As I climbed out of the limo, I held a Christmas gift for him wrapped in shiny gold paper with a big red bow. I knew this was the only time we would have to exchange presents because I was leaving for Dallas early today. In fact, I am in Dallas now. We hadn’t discussed gifts, though, and as I realized, maybe we should have. Looking around the limo, I saw no present for me. Oh, well, I thought, tonight will be present enough. 
   Dazzling was the first word I thought when we entered the hotel lobby. Large crystal chandeliers graced the high ceilings, and sophisticated decor and furnishings filled the grand foyer. Not a Southwest motif in sight! Watch out, Dallas — West Texas is catching on to elegance!
   Dinner proved worthy of equal praise, and we ate slowly, enjoying each other’s company, drinking copious amounts of wine and dancing to the string orchestra, made up mainly of Tech music students earning extra cash. The crowded dance floor allowed him to hold me tight and nibble my ear from time to time, and shivers of excitement pulsed through me at every touch. I never remembered feeling this feminine or cherished.
   Finally exhausted and giddy with excitement and love for this man, I handed him his Christmas gift when we returned to our table. had delivered a newly released, and rather expensive book on early 1900s furniture maker Gustav Stickley, and I hoped Colin would enjoy it. Also included was a DVD of a different genre.
   Handing the package to him, I said, “I’ve brought you a Christmas present.”
He looked at his watch and smiled, saying, “I’ll open it after dessert.” He stood up, and took my hand. “I’ve arranged for us to have a little more privacy. Do you mind?”
Mind? I thought happily. The man is romancing me with class and style, and he wonders if I mind. “Not at all,” I said, gathering my evening bag, wrap and his gift and walking with him to the elevator. The wine made my head spin slightly, and I grabbed his arm, giggling a little as I wondered where we were headed. At this point, I decided I didn’t care where, as long as it was with him. Was this how Cinderella felt before midnight?
   On the top floor, the elevator doors opened and Colin led me down the hall, pulling a hotel key from his pocket. He opened the door, bowing for me to enter. I hesitated. A suite? He’s taken a suite? Then I saw a white-draped table sitting with lighted candles, a bouquet of flowers matching those he’d given me at home and two places set with dessert and wine. 
   I fairly floated in, turning left as I noticed the floor-to-ceiling windows. Just beyond, a wide balcony extended out over the lake, and the moon, now high in the star-filled  cloudless sky, glimmered in reflection across the black water. 
  I turned as he came in and threw my arms around him, kissing him hard. He responded in kind but stopped, then let me go to close the door. I walked unsteadily toward the table. “Colin, this is marvelous! What a wonderful surprise, even without the Queen of England!” 
  He laughed and moved up behind me, turning me and kissing me again, moving his hands down and across my back, pressing me to him. 
  I took his kiss and returned it but pulled away a moment later, saying, “What’s for dessert? I’m famished!” 
  He laughed again and seated me at the table. “After that huge lobster? We’re having a strawberry and cheesecake thing ... I have no idea of the name, but the chef assures me it’s his best.  More wine?”
“Yes,” I said as I took a hungry bite of cheesecake, closing my eyes to the delicious flavor bursting in my mouth. Swallowing after savoring, I said, “All that dancing made me hungry again! You’re pretty light on your feet, Professor Murphy. We must do this more often ... dance I mean. It was fun! Wonder if the Cotton Club is still around. Can you boot scoot?” I took a second bite, washing it down with the smooth white wine in perfect complement. 
Colin sat and watched my delight, nodding yes, he could boot scoot. “We did. Remember? At the hand-harvest?” he asked.
   “Oh, yeah. Too much of this grape juice ‘mudfuddles’ my brain. Good!” I said with a mouthful of cheesecake.
  “Mudfuddles?” Colin asked.
  “Jabberwickety, or sump’en like that...” was all I said. When I couldn’t eat another bite, I stood up carefully and wobbled out onto the balcony. He followed, wrapping his coat around my bare shoulders. “Been a perfect night, Murphy. Thank you.”
   “You’re welcome, Maggie. I’ve missed you. It’s been too long since we’ve been alone. I wanted it to be special.” He turned me towards him and held me tightly. I sighed, looking into the emeralds and believing I was a princess and he, my handsome Prince Charming. A girl never gets too old for that dream, does she? 
   He kissed me gently, and I moved my hands up around his neck, pulling him closer. He whispered in my ear, “I’ve wanted you so much, Maggie. I can’t explain it, but I have this need for you.” Now kissing me hard, I returned the intensity, pressing against him, wanting him, needing him, too. The coat fell to the ground, but neither of us noticed. 
   He does love me, I thought as he wildly kissed my neck and shoulders. I whispered, “I never thought ...” but my words ended as he covered my mouth with his again, reaching, exploring, testing my willingness. I lost myself in him, pulling him even closer, trying to meld our bodies. 
   “Oh, Maggie,” he said, as I sighed under the kisses. “I didn’t want to want you. I ...” His hand moved down below the small of my back and I jolted slightly. He stopped and said, “You’re cold. Let’s go inside.” I turned and went in to the table, finding my wine glass and draining it. 
   Whoa, Maggie, I thought to myself. You’re getting way ahead of yourself. You’d better call it a night and head home. Way too many smashed grapes and romancing.
   Colin had gone to the bar and opened a drawer, picking something up. He come over to me, taking my hand. “Maggie, come sit with me.” I obliged, thinking I really needed to ask him to take me home. Maybe a few more minutes for Cinderella — it wasn’t quite midnight. We sat together on the wide plush sofa in the living area. He cleared his throat, and turned to me. “Maggie, I’ve been a player all my life. I’ve had my share of women over the years.”
“I’ll bet you have, Murphy,” I said giddily. 
   “I have, but I’ve never wanted a woman the way I want you.”
  I was suddenly very sober. He wants me? I thought. What’s he saying? He wants me. My heart was in my throat as I looked at him with love, struggling to understand his words. 
   “I hope you want me too, and I thought, well, I thought it was time we moved this relationship a little further.” He held up a small velvet box.
  Oh, help, I thought. He’s proposing? He is! He does love me ... he does want to marry me. I took the box from him and reached over, putting my arms tight around his neck, kissing him with love and abandon. He responded in kind, and somehow within the flick of an eye I was lying on the couch, Colin half on top of me, kissing me over and over, telling me how much he wanted me. I was returning the kisses, wrapped in the passion of the moment, in my happiness and the promise of tomorrow. He kissed the nape of my neck and I wound my hands into his long black hair. “Maggie, I want you, I want you.” 
   I laughed and said, “You’ve got me, my darling ...” He kissed me again, and again, moving down and kissing the hollow of my cleavage. My head was swimming with wine and desire. He shifted slightly, reaching up to move the dress down so he could suckle my breast. 
   I was slightly shocked, and said, “No, Colin, don’t do that.” He didn’t hear, and pulled the gown down, exposing one breast, moving to take it into his mouth. 
   “No!” I said louder, trying to push him off, trying to sit up. “NO! Stop!”
He did stop, and looked at me in surprise. “Why?” he said, bewildered. He moved to let me sit up. I straightened my dress and looked at him in equal surprise. 
“Why? Because that kind of passion will have to wait for the wedding night, my darling.”
“We .. wedding night!” He stammered, standing up and moving away as if he’d been burned. “What... what wedding night?”
   My mouth fell open and I looked at him, unbelieving. Narrowing my eyes, I quietly said, “Didn’t you just ask me to marry you?” He shook his head slightly, his eyes wide, his mind furiously replaying the last few minutes. 
   “Then what’s this?” I said reaching to the floor for the fallen velvet box. 
   “It’s ... it’s diamond earrings. What did you ... you thought I was proposing? That it’s a ring? Good God, Maggie, I wasn’t proposing, I was asking you to be my lady ... my ... I want you. I want to take you to my bed.” He moved toward me, hand out, but it was my turn to stand up and move away. 
  He looked at me, frowned and said firmly, “That’s what I was asking—to bed you, Maggie. I’m not the marrying kind. You know that.” 
        I turned my back to him and clutched my stomach. How could this have happened?! 
       He ran his hand through his hair and looked at me helplessly. “Oh, Lord.”
   I was dumbfounded. He knew I wouldn’t, couldn’t be intimate without marriage. Or did he? We’d never talked about it. I just assumed he would know that about me. Didn’t he know me at all? How could he not know?
He wanted me to be his “lady”? Like the “lady” at La Diosa? He thought if he gave me diamonds I would give myself to him? ... Just like that? 
   I was humiliated and more hurt than I thought possible. And furious he thought so little of me as to want only to add me to his stable of “ladies.” Damn those fucking green eyes, I thought angrily. With my back still to him, I walked to the table and put the velvet box, unopened, on top of the shiny gold paper, gathering my things before I walked out the door. 
   “Maggie, please don’t go. I ...” 
        I closed the door quietly behind me. 
Chapter 60
   Colin woke up the next morning with a monster headache. He found himself lying across the top of the luxurious resort bed, still completely dressed, and very much alone except for a gigantic hangover. After Maggie had left, he’d downed the remainder of the wine, miserable in his bewilderment of how he’d misjudged her so badly. 
   Marriage? he thought. She had to be kidding. Her best friends, Sharon and Doug ... they weren’t married. And she was obviously all right with that. 
   Yes, he wanted her, but he wasn’t the marrying kind. She knew that, didn’t she? The look in her eyes when he’d said that ... she was so hurt ... she’d turned her back on him. 
  But he was so sure she was ready for the next step ... ready for intimacy, for sex. She kissed him with such passion. It had been a long time since he’d been kissed like that. She had to have been ready ... he certainly was. 
   They’d moved slower in their relationship than he’d ever moved with any woman in his entire life. Six months he’d been seeing her, and only her, except for one disastrous hollow dinner with Dixie. Six months, and nothing more than a few passionate kisses. 
  He was a man, after all. Six months was forever. How could he have misread her so badly? He must really be getting old. 
   Colin showered and changed, head feeling like cotton. The day before, he’d brought a change of clothes to the resort, along with the earrings, the flowers and explicit instructions for the suite setup. 
   Now what? he thought as he gathered his few belongings. Picking up the velvet box, he opened it, staring at the teardrop-shaped diamond earrings. He’d given diamonds before and the women had always been more than grateful. He touched them tenderly, thinking how lovely they would have looked against her pale skin. She’d been so beautiful last night, and they’d had such a perfect evening. Dinner, the dancing, the wine. The perfect prelude to what he thought would be an amazing night of intimacy. 
   He closed the box and slipped it into his pocket. Next he picked up the present she’d brought. Opening it, he smiled ruefully — she’d taken care to give him two gifts he would really appreciate — she’d obviously put a lot of thought into them. The DVD was the 1939 classic Dick Tracy’s G-Men. He opened the cover of the expensive Stickley book and found the inscription. “To Professor Murphy. With love, Maggie.” Love. Had she said she loved him? She must love him if she was thinking wedding bells. She hadn’t even looked at the diamonds.  
   Back in Lubbock, Colin was too preoccupied to participate in the final morning Mass. He stood up and sat down and kneeled along with the congregation, but didn’t go up to Communion, or recite any of the liturgy. And as far as he was concerned, Sean had preached about the man in the moon. He was too confused and miserable to concentrate. 
   Seated afterward in his brother’s church office, Colin started by handing Sean the small velvet box. Sean’s face lit up. 
   “You’re proposing? That’s great! I get to officiate, don’t I? Mom will be so happy!”
   Colin was horrified all over again, “No, Sean, no. I didn’t propose. Open it.”
   Puzzled, Sean opened the box, looking at his brother in surprise. “Didn’t? Uh-oh. She’s seen these? Does she like diamonds? Doesn’t seem the diamond type to me.”
It was Colin’s turn to be puzzled. “I’ve no idea. All women like diamonds, don’t they?”
   “No, big brother. Not all women like diamonds. How’d this go over with her? Obviously not well if I’m holding them now and you’re looking utterly awful. What happened?”
“I tried to give them to her last night. Did the whole romance thing ... you know limo, dinner, dancing, dessert up in a suite.” 
   Sean closed the box abruptly, put it on his desk, and leaned back looking accusingly at his brother. He said flatly,“You took Margaret Grant to a suite?”
“Yes, I took her to a suite,” Colin answered defensively. “I’ve been seeing her exclusively for half a year. Being gentle, like you said, for six months. It was the next step. And she shoved it back in my face, so to speak. Walked out. I just wanted to take the next step with her.” 
   “And sleep with her?” Sean asked.
“For God’s sake Sean, we’re consenting adults. Of course I wanted to sleep with her.” 
   Father Sean shook his head and looked sadly at his brother. “The next step with a woman like Maggie Grant is marriage, you idiot.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chapter 58

 Chapter 58
   Colin asked to meet for lunch last Monday, but I would see him before that, much to our mutual surprise. 
On Monday morning, Elaine answered the 9:30 a.m. call from Boyle’s office. I was wanted down there immediately. That was never good, I knew. He’d really been leaving me alone since I didn’t report to him anymore, and the autonomy I’d had in recent weeks was refreshing. I actually felt like we were moving forward with President Parker’s goals. Whatever could Boyle want now?
Stepping into Boyle’s office, I was surprised to see Colin and Jamie sitting across from the massive desk. I looked at them questioningly, but their shrugs signaled they didn’t know anything either. 
   “I need a news release posted. That’s why you’re here,” Boyle said without welcome.   
   “What about?” I asked, sitting in the chair next to Colin and opening my notepad.
   “About the tower,” he said exasperatedly. 
   “We posted one Saturday night about the fire,” I told him. Surely he’d seen it? No, probably not.
   “It’s not about that,” Boyle said testily.
“You’ve been up to see the damage?” Colin asked.
   “I have not, nor will I ... ever. Chief Callahan sent me photos.”
   “You know how the fire started, then?” Colin asked.
   “No, I do not ... nor do I care,” he said with an exasperated sigh. “What I do care about is that your organization has damaged this historic building, and I am removing the Saddle Tramps from the tower, permanently. Please turn in your keys.”  
  We were stunned. Colin was the first us to speak. “You’re not serious?”
“Perfectly serious. Keys, please.”
“But kicking the Saddle Tramps out of the tower? You can’t, Boyle. The tower belongs to the Saddle Tramps. It’s belonged to them for more than half a century!” 
         He was standing now, as was I. 
  “I don’t care how long it’s belonged to them. It’s a worthless organization. Nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. You will no longer be allowed access. Period. Put your keys on my desk.”  
   Jamie still sat in stunned silence, a look of such loathing coming over his face that I was afraid he might strike the Chief of Staff. I quickly interceded. 
   “Mr. Boyle, Chief Callahan thinks it was an arsonist, not the Saddle Tramps who did the damage. Surely, sir, even you wouldn’t take away their rights to their tradition. And what about ringing the victory bells? How will they get up there to do that?”
  “They won’t. As of now, the bells in the east tower are silenced.” He looked at Colin. “Maybe when they don’t ring, your stupid organization will remember the fire and the significant costs the university now has to bear to restore it. Also because of the fire, we’ve been instructed by the Lubbock Fire department to extend the fire alarm and sprinklers to both towers, at another small fortune. I need those keys.”
   Colin reached in his pocket as he said, “Does President Parker ...” 
   Boyle stood and looked directly at Colin. “The facilities are under the purview of the Chief of Staff’s office. Are there other keys, Professor Murphy?”
   Colin met his stare squarely, barely controlling his anger. “Josh, the sergeant-at-arms has one. I’ll have it sent over this afternoon,” Colin said, giving his key to Boyle. Turning to Jamie, he put out his hand, “Jamie, I’ll need yours, son.”
   Jamie stood, keeping his malevolent gaze on Boyle, and threw his tower key on the desk. Turning briskly, he knocked his chair over, then pushed past Colin, and stormed out of the office. 
   Colin followed him but only after he told Boyle he would fight this decision all the way to the Board of Regents if necessary. I was now alone with Boyle and furious. He sat back down and said to me, “Get a small release sent out saying the change in tradition is a result of the fire. Dismissed.”
  I left quickly, not bothering to right Jamie’s chair and silently vowing to do everything I could to help the Saddle Tramps win back their “clubhouse.” 
   On the way up to my office, I phoned Colin, offering my assistance. He accepted but then begged off from lunch to find and calm Jamie and inform the other Tramps. I called a staff meeting to ask for input. They were as outraged as we were. Ricky suggested a hit man for Boyle, but I gave him “the look” and he mumbled an apology. 

   It was last night before Colin and I talked again. In the mean time, he’d made a trip to Chicago and I’d made a quick trip to Dallas to see the Virgin Mary unceremoniously drop the Baby Jesus on his head. (He wasn’t hurt, as GloWorm dolls are soft and squishy.)      
        “We plan to call in a few extremely influential Saddle Tramp alums to speak to the board in January,” Colin said when he called me to confirm our date for next Saturday.
“That might work. I’ll make sure it gets on the agenda then. Also, what do you think about a student protest, or picket line at the Admin Building ... just as the board arrives, or just outside their window. I can get the media out for that, and probably get an op ed piece in the A-J if the boys want to write one. What did President Parker say?” I asked.
  “Said he would meet with us after the holidays. Thinks the students should be concentrating on finals this week instead of traditions. I tend to agree with him on that point, but I’m not sure he understands the significance of throwing the most respected campus organization out of a space they’ve had since the 1940s. Maybe we can persuade him to change Boyle’s directive, and then we won’t have to go before the board.”
“Here’s hoping. Now, tell  me, Professor Murphy, where are we going Saturday?”
   “Um, a surprise, but wear something you’d wear to a fancy ball or to meet the Queen of England or something,” Colin said. “And no more questions. Understood, Grant?”
Smiling, because I like surprises, I said, “Yes, sir.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up at 7:30. Be hungry.”
So, we’ll see what happens this weekend. Seeing him at the Carol of Lights rekindled my feelings for him, and I know that trying to keep busy will not keep him out of my thoughts. Those green eyes really make my toes curl. I feel like I’m a young girl again! Yippeee...!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chapters 56 & 57

 Chapter 56
   Over the course of the next week, I ignored Colin, and Colin ignored me. “If he calls,” I said to Elaine, “I’m not in. OK?
  “Sure thing, Boss,” Elaine replied, probably wondering what the man had done. But no calls came. 

  “If a call comes in for me from a Margaret Grant,” Colin told his student assistant, “I don’t want to take it. Understood?”
  “Understood, Professor Murphy.” But no calls came in.

  By Friday, I was exhausted from working hard and from working harder to ignore my feelings. I made a dinner date with Sharon at Café J, my treat. Over the seafood crepes, I poured it out to Sharon, who looked at me quizzically. “So, what, my dear, seems to be the problem? He’s a great guy, and he’s obviously crazy about you. And you’re crazy about him. So?”
   “So, I don’t want to be crazy about him. I don’t want to complicate my life. I don’t want to ... you know, want him all the time.”
Sharon looked at me and said gently, “Jim’s been gone almost two years.”
   “I know that!” I said sharply. Then ashamed, I quietly said, “I know, Phelps. And I loved him and we were happy.”
“So you’re thinking how can you love another man? How can you betray Jim like that? Right?”
   “No. Yes. Oh, I don’t know! It feels different with Colin and not at all like the love I felt for Jim. How can it be a betrayal, but how can it not be?”
    “It’s not a betrayal. What you feel for Colin—isn’t it like what you first felt for Jim? All giddy and silly and unfocused when you first dated? You know, that first flush of lust and craziness?”
Surprised, I looked at my friend and said, “What? No, Jim and I just sort of drifted into it ... we were friends, remember, and he graduated from law school and it was just the right time to settle down. So we got engaged, got married. You know, we were just right for each other.”
Sharon dropped her eyes and poked at her salad. 
   “What?! You didn’t think we were right for each other? I thought you liked Jim? You were my maid of honor, remember?”
“Yes, and I knew you loved him in a way, and I know you were happy with him, but I never did think it was true love.”
   “True love? What the hell is true love? We were happy. We were faithful. We enjoyed each other and we raised two spectacular boys. What more is there?” I asked angrily.
   “Now, listen, Maggie. I’ve been your friend since college, and I know you. You’re a creative passionate girl, woman, and you channeled that into a successful traditional marriage with traditional Jim.” 
   I opened my mouth to protest, but Sharon waved me off. “And there’s nothing wrong with traditional. You were happy, for God’s sake. How many people actually have a chance to be happy like that? Damn few, if you ask me. Damn few.”
   “So?” I said, still a little irritated even though I agreed with everything Sharon had said so far. 
   “So, fate has given you the opportunity to perhaps experience more than just happy. And I think you should take the opportunity to see if it’s there.”
“More than happy? What does that mean?”
   “It means to have found your soul mate. To have found such a bond with another human being that it transcends all understanding. That you know you are totally, completely in sync with that person.”
“Like you and me and Carol?” I asked tentatively.
   “Yes, exactly. What we have is special and rare. Except when you find a soul mate who is the opposite sex, it’s even more. More than happy. More than special.”
   “More, Maggie. Exquisitely more. With Doug, it’s ... I don’t know how to put it into words ... it’s ... it’s magic all the time. Quiet magic knowing he’s sitting beside me in church. Happy magic when he’s cooking for me ... and explosive, divine magic every time we make love. More, Maggie, more. I don’t think you had more with Jim, did you?”
   “I ... I don’t know. We were happy.”
    “I know you were happy, dearest. I’m not saying you weren’t. But ... let me ask you this... twenty years ago, if you’d had to choose between remaining with Jim or remaining friends with Carol and me, would you have chosen Jim?”
   “Don’t be silly, Phelps, I couldn’t choose. The boys.”
   “Forget you have children. I’m talking about if it was just Jim, and, oh, let’s say Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy came and told you to no longer be friends with us or no longer live with Jim. Would you do that? Could you choose Jim over us? Honestly?”
   I looked at her hard and didn’t answer. Would I have allowed my love for Jim to keep me away from my best friends? Was my bond with him stronger than my bond with Sharon and Carol?
“If the Blue Fairy had asked me to choose,” Sharon said quietly, “I would choose Doug.”
   I looked at her sharply, suddenly wounded. “You would?”
   “In a heartbeat, Maggie. Of course it would never happen, ever. We’re talking hypothetical here. But, even hypothetically, if you couldn’t say you would’ve chosen Jim in a heartbeat, then there’s no way in the world he was your soul mate.”
   I was stunned. Soul mate? Sharon and Doug had something more special than I’d had with Jim? More than the friendship the three girlfriends have? Of course there was the sex, but magic sitting next to each other? In the kitchen?   
   What about Carol? Did she feel that way about Robert? Now that I really thought about it, Carol had stayed away from Texas for him, and she loved Texas more than both Sharon and me combined, which was saying a lot. And they do seem to have the same sense of constant excitement that exists between Sharon and Doug. I had always secretly envied that spark, hadn’t I? That inexplicable something in couples you catch glimpses of here and there. It was rare, wasn’t it?
Does it exist between my sons and their wives? I hope so. I’d have to look closer.
   But with Jim? I had loved Jim and we were happy, dammit. We were! But no, I reluctantly had to admit, there wasn’t more. If there’d been no children, and I had to choose, I knew who I’d have chosen ... in a heartbeat.
   Suddenly sad, and no longer hungry, I picked at my food. Sharon knew she had struck a sensitive cord, brought up long-buried feelings, but maybe that was what I needed right now. Brutal honesty in order to move forward.  
   She took my hand, saying gently, “Maybe, just maybe, you have a chance to find a soul mate this time and have a different type of love.”

   Sharon only hoped this man was good enough for her ... if not, if he hurt her, well, he’d have to answer to her and to Carol, and they were a powerful force in defense of their dearest friend. 
Chapter 57
   By six o’clock on Saturday, it was almost dark, and I was still working and extremely tired, wishing I hadn’t decided to come in for a few hours to work and wishing I hadn’t walked, but there had been a good reason — the annual Carol of Lights was that night and traffic would be as bad as on game days, at least at this end of campus. I would stay for the hour-long procession and ceremony and then head home on foot. Luckily, it was a fairly warm day in December, but I’d brought my heavy coat just in case. I’d learned no matter what the weather was in Lubbock, it was always cooler at night. 
  The Carol of Lights is a festive tradition at Texas Tech that began long before I was a student. Thirteen buildings facing Memorial Circle and the two esplanades, plus those in the science quadrangle, are outlined in more than 25,000 red, white and orange lights, creating a breathtaking holiday display of the Spanish-mission style arches and façades.
   Students, faculty and Lubbock citizens flock to Memorial Circle to watch and listen as the Saddle Tramps march in procession from Broadway Street at the east end of the esplanade, up around the circle and to the front of the Chemistry Building. This building’s double staircase — two majestic marble flights of stairs rising away from each other and doubling back to the large first floor balcony — made the perfect setting for the celebration stage, with a two-story greenery wreath as a backdrop.
   Each year around 6:30 p.m., all the lights in and around these buildings are turned off to highlight the dramatic procession. Decked out in white electric lights, Texas Tech’s black stallion mascot, ridden by the Masked Rider, slowly leads the Saddle Tramps as they parade up both sides of the esplanade from Broadway, past the Will Rogers statue, around Memorial Circle and into the adjoining science quad. Each Tramp carries a glowing red torch, held high, standing out against the darkened buildings. Luminarios–paper bags filled with sand and lighted candles–lined the circle where the giant Christmas tree stands, waiting to show it’s thousands of matching lights. 
   I was told it normally takes about 20 minutes for the procession. From the carillon in the west tower of the Administration Building, Christmas carols are played throughout the march. Once the procession ends, the president of the Student Residence Halls Association welcomes everyone and introduces the University Choir and a soloist, who delight the crowd with their talents. Finally, the Texas Tech Trombone Band plays a fanfare, and at the climax, the holiday lights are dramatically turned on with one switch. The spectacle is always worth the wait.
  Doug was directing the band Saturday night, and Sharon was nearby, assisting where she could. I had not planned to meet up with them.
   Donning my coat, I left the building before the lights were turned out. I was right, I thought as I stepped outside, it was getting chilly, but not as cold as when we were seniors. That year temperatures had been so low the brass band didn’t perform for fear of lips being frozen to the instruments. It hadn’t mattered, because the crowds were sparse — not even one-percent of the normal crowd braved the sub-freezing temperatures. Turned out they were the smart ones. All three of us girls came down with colds immediately afterward, and coughed and sniffed through finals and the holidays.
   Saturday night, however, the temperature was in the high 40s, so although the coat was needed, it was a fairly pleasant evening. 

Colin hadn’t called me —  in fact it had been several days since I’d seen or heard from him, the day my family left. Maybe the problem had solved itself. I thought perhaps he’d lost interest, and I wouldn’t have to worry about the “more” — about whether it might be there or not. It hurt — to love and not be loved in return — to a much greater extent than I imagined it would. Another lesson learned, right Lord? 
   But wait. What lesson was this, I asked God one night. That I shouldn’t expect further happiness in my life? Shouldn’t expect the “more”? I gave up trying to analyze — feelings were so hard to categorize into facts — and instead concentrated on work and completing my Christmas shopping to take my mind off of the possibilities of “more.”
Problem was, it wasn’t working. 

   Joining the growing throngs finding places to stand for the Carol of Lights ceremony – only the Saddle Tramps and dignitaries had chairs – I crossed the circle, ending up on the northwest side to get a good view of my building when the lights were switched on. I’ve always thought the detail of lights on the towers made up the most spectacular part of the display. 
   At the first site of the red torches, I smiled remembering processions from decades ago. It was still a magical sight. When the parading Saddle Tramps came around Memorial Circle, I strained to see Jamie. As president, he would either be the first or the last. There he was! Marching proudly, just behind the Masked Rider on the south side of the circle. I watched him reach the science quad, and all but his torch disappeared behind the crowd. I knew once reaching the area below the stage, torches are extinguished in large barrels of water and marchers sit down with dignitaries. Standing up on tiptoe to see when his torch was put out, my view was suddenly blocked by a dark brown suede jacket. I looked up and, even in the dark, could see green eyes smiling down at me. 
   “Hello, Margaret Riley Grant,” Colin said rather loudly to be heard over the carillon, pulling his hand out of his pocket and offering it to me for a shake. 
   I was surprised to see him, but recovered, smiled, took his hand firmly in mine, and returned the greeting, “Professor Cailean Patrick Murphy.” I tried to pull away, but he held my hand tightly.
  “I’ve missed you,” he said.
  “Have you?” I asked, still lovingly looking in his eyes, happier to see him than I wanted to be. 
  “Every day for the last week ... and every night for longer.” He let the moment stretch out and my insides turned over, the warmth of his touch radiating up my arm and scoring a direct hit on my heart before moving decidedly lower. 
   “Did your family get home all right?” he asked. 
  “What? Oh, yes. They did. Thank you.”
   He let go of my hand and moved to stand to my right, arm casually behind my waist, eyes looking over the crowd toward the stage. “Did you see Jamie?”
I gulped, then took a deep breath. Okay, I thought, we’ll see where this goes. “I did. Right up front, on the other side. He looked good. Shouldn’t you be up there with the Tramps or something?”
   “Why, do you want me to leave?” He asked, looking down at me. 
   “NO!” I said too quickly and too loudly. Then I took another deep breath and said more calmly, “No. You can stay. I only thought this might be an activity where the Saddle Tramp sponsor was busy, that’s all.”
   “Nope, I was with them this afternoon for moral support but they’re big boys and have this down pat, just like most of their events. Speaking of which, Margaret Grant, the Saddle Tramps annual Red Rose Formal is Saturday after next. Dinner and dancing. I wondered if you’d like to join me?”
    I smiled, delighted, and then frowned, “Saturday after next?”
“Yep. You already have plans?” He sounded surprised and a little hurt. He should have asked me sooner, should have called right after Thanksgiving, but then he was too busy brooding.
He’d brooded for a week over wanting her, over the surprise feelings of wanting to be with her when her family was there — of wanting to be a part of them all. To shake that wanting, or so he’d hoped, he’d called Dixie for dinner last week, but much to the lady’s chagrin, he hadn’t talked much and dropped her off at her door before 9:30. It hadn’t felt right, and he was more miserable than ever.    
   Yesterday, after another sleepless night of thinking about Maggie and how, or if, she was supposed to fit in his life, he’d finally decided he needed to stop being so gentle and see what happened. He knew all women loved to be romanced, and he certainly knew how to pour on the charm, more successfully than most. Formal attire, flowers and a cozy hotel room afterward. It had always worked before. The Red Rose Formal might be the perfect time, if he could wait that long.

   “I do have plans, as a matter of fact,” I said. “Ben’s youngest is playing Mary in the Christmas pageant and I promised to be there. It’s Saturday after next. I’m sorry, Colin. Really.” And I was. Despite my better judgement, I wanted to continue the relationship ... see where this new love I felt led. I was thrilled he seemed to want the same.
  “Okay,” he said casually, looking back toward the stage, but disappointment was evident on the face I could barely see in the dark. “Maybe before Christmas weekend.” We lowered their voices as the procession and carillon had ended. The emcee was thanking the crowd for their attendance. The choir should be next, I thought.
“Definitely before Christmas break. What about this weekend, though?” I said boldly. If he could ask, I could, too. And I did want to see what developed. 
    “Sorry, I’m out of town Friday until late Sunday. Sean and I are flying to Chicago ... Dad’s 75th birthday. I shipped the cabinet yesterday.”  
         He hadn’t been back home in a couple of years, and this date wasn’t one he was willing to break ... even for the possibility of moving to the next level with Maggie.

   “Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten. I’m glad you finished it,” I said, wondering if he’d been working on it for the last week and that’s why he hadn’t called. “Then we’ll just wait until just before Christmas,” Maggie said. “I’m heading to Dallas for Christmas week, but don’t have to leave until Friday.”
He turned to smile at me and confirm their date, and something caught his eye. He looked back up at the source, and in the darkened campus found a light coming from just above the trees ... an orange glow.
I turned to look too, and seeing the distinctive light, knew immediately what it meant.
Colin grabbed my elbow, steering me toward the Administration Building, even as I turned and headed that way. As we pushed through the crowed, I pulled my phone from my belt, pushing the speed button I’d programmed after Halloween, and said, “Fire ... East tower of the Admin Building. Hurry!” 

  The thousands who’d come to watch the Carol of Lights were focusing their attention to the west, to the stage where the choir sang. Only a few had seen the fire and that was only after Colin and I had pushed our way through them, hurriedly heading in that direction. 
  “Boom!” One of the tower windows shattered from the heat, and more of the crowd turned around at the noise. By the time Colin and I reached the building, all the windows had blown out, and leaping flames were dramatically visible against the darkened building and the clear, cold night sky. 
   I pulled out my keys to unlock the east door, directly below the fire, desperately trying to remember the fire system in the old building. Ceilings had been dropped to add HVAC, and at the same time a sprinkler system. But up in the tower? There must not be a detector up there because no alarm was sounding or flashing. 
   Because the campus lights were out, we had to feel our way up the dark stairs to the tower’s door on the third floor. Colin knew the construction of the tower was mainly brick and concrete, but if the fire was lower in the tower stairs or in the attic storage area, it could quickly spread to the main building doing major damage. He hoped the filthy old carpeting had already been removed in the “clubhouse,” but he hadn’t received a recent update on the cleaning project. He, too, tried to think if there was a fire extinguisher near the tower. 
   Reaching the third floor landing, we heard sirens getting closer. Colin moved up the narrow stairs, reached for the door handle, key ready, then pulled away quickly. It was hot ... not scalding, yet, so he wasn’t burned. Placing his palms gingerly on the thin narrow door, it definitely felt more than warm to the touch. If he opened it, he could create a backdraft, but larger than the one that had burned Sharon. The sudden rush of oxygen to the fire would surely flash onto the entire landing. Or would it with the upstairs windows already blown out? We couldn’t be sure. We’d have to wait for the firefighters.
   Only then did I think of the cleanup. I knew the Saddle Tramps were working to get finished by the new year but didn’t know how far along they were. Maybe, just maybe, this fire was accidental — the result of something the Tramps did or didn’t do — paint thinner, oily rags? 
        Please don’t let it be another arson fire, I prayed.  
   Two campus police officers came bounding up the stairs, extinguishers in hand, and insisted Colin and I go back outside, which we were glad to do after warning of the possible danger at the door. Reaching the east outside entrance as fire engines and more campus police drove up, Colin and I moved away from the activity. I called my staff, and Colin called Jamie.
“Hold the Tramps there, next to the stage,” he told Jamie. “I’m coming through the crowd. Who’s in charge of the renovations? Josh? Okay, the fire captain will probably need to speak to him. Thanks.” He disappeared into the crowds as I looked for the best place to set up the media area. What a mess, with all the spectators for Carol of Lights!
   The ladder truck raised equipment high up against the clay tiled roof, and firefighters began pouring water into the tower through the shattered windows. Another crew disappeared into the building with a second hose.   
   Turning their attention to the fire activity, the Carol of Lights audience was no longer interested in the ceremony, and it was ended. Campus police moved the barricades previously blocking traffic, now using them to hold people back from the Administration Building. 
   Within 45 minutes, the fire was out, the smoke had dissipated and most of the crowd had departed along with the reporters who wanted to make the 10 o’clock news. I worked the media line with frequent updates of what I knew, which wasn’t much. I promised to put out an updated statement as soon as I was able to obtain more from Chief Callahan, who’d once again called me Sweetheart, but this time with a twinkle in his eye. Once again I’d told him off, but with a grin. We were fast becoming friends. 
   Ricky and Susan were upstairs working on a general release for the website — firemen had given the all-clear signal for the main building and the lights were back on. President Parker had come by but didn’t want to appear on camera, so I handled it all. Bennett Boyle made a brief appearance after the reporters had left but said nothing to me. I heard him tell Chief Callahan he didn’t want to go up to see the damage. 
“Send me photos,” he’d told the campus police chief before turning briskly away. “And not through the computer.”
    Once my media duties were complete, I talked to the arson chief. His preliminary inspection of the fire was complete. Power had been restored to all the buildings shortly after the fire trucks arrived, and floodlights were now being set up in the tower. Water dripped down the stairwell, still trickling out the door to the soggy grass. I stood to the side of the door, attempting to stay out of the  mud.   
“The tower door was hot when we got here,” I said to the chief. “Did the fire burn the entire stairwell, too?”
“No,” he said. “Only the landing at the top. When firefighters entered the tower stairwell, they found a large space heater just inside the narrow door on the first tower landing–turned up to high. Interestingly, it was connected to a lantern battery. That’s what made the door warm.” 
The blaze upstairs had burned hot enough to destroy the wooden platform and shatter all the windows, he said, but the heater at the bottom of the tower stairs had nothing in front of it to catch on fire ... it was only hot enough to heat the door, not set it on fire. It was almost as if the arsonist didn’t want anyone to open the door until the fire upstairs was fully developed ... or until it was out. Did the arsonist understand now about backdrafts? Had this heater been a warning to wait? An arsonist who didn’t want someone to get hurt ... this time? 
  Josh was the Saddle Tramp in charge of the cleanup. He told the fire captain he and a crew of Tramps had ripped the old carpet up last week and piled it up under the platform. They were going to haul it away this weekend.
  “What about the plaques and memorabilia?” Colin had asked. 
    It was Jamie who spoke. “I took them down a couple weeks ago, right after you told us to clean the place. They’re at the house in boxes in the garage.”
   “At least they’re safe,” Colin said. “That’s something.” He sent the young men home, saying they’d talk the next day.
   Chief Callahan talked at length with the fire department officials. He relayed to Colin and me that the attic storage was undamaged, the tower level the only area blistered and black. He thought the metal trap door to the bells would have to be replaced as would the window panes, the twisted metal ladder and the platform. A charred pile of debris lay on the floor where the platform and old carpeting had been.
   From the description, Colin knew that new plaster, paint and a rebuilt platform would add significantly to their clean-up budget ... but perhaps the university would now pay for it all with fire insurance funds. In any event, all of this would have to wait until engineers had thoroughly studied the tower to make certain it was still structurally sound.  
It was late into the night when I allowed Colin to walk me home. He promised to call me before the weekend, then headed out to his truck on the other side of campus. Once home, I called Sharon’s cell phone and Doug answered.
Yes, they were home now, too, he said. Sharon had been a little shaken, but he’d put her to work helping him get musicians and their unused instruments back to the music building and all accounted for, so they were not around to watch the fire being put out. She’d gone to bed, and Doug was sure she’d be fine. Maggie promised to call her in the morning. 
Another fire. And it ruined the Carol of Lights. How sad for the entire community.