Nora, wearing a red silk gown that was-how could this be possible?- lower than the one she'd worn during the day, opened the door.
Carrie was still gaping at Nora's dress as Josh pulled her into the room, the children close behind them, and shut the door.
"You win, Nora," he said.
She smiled. "So, you have the fifty thousand?"
"No, I don't have it, at least I don't have that much money to give to you. I plan to keep every penny for myself."
For a second Nora looked puzzled, then recovered herself. "But, darling, no money, no paper. You'll never get your divorce if I don't get the money, and you'll never get to marry your little heiress." She made it sound as though the only reason Josh would want to marry Carrie was for her money.
Josh put his arm around Carrie's shoulders. "You know, Nora, I've been on my brother's farm for one whole year now, and I can tell you that it's been h.e.l.l. I have to get up before dawn and spend the day hoeing weeds or burning fields or other disgusting things. I've hated every minute of it."
"Of course you have, darling. I knew you would. Don't you remember how hard I laughed when I heard the judge's sentence?"
"Well, you were right, therefore I've decided to give up farming."
Nora raised one eyebrow. "But the judge said the children would be taken from you if you didn't live on Hiram's farm for four years."
"That's another thing," Josh said. "Come out here, you brats," he said.
Carrie looked at him in disbelief as he grabbed an arm of each child and pulled them forward. Carrie's disbelief intensified as she looked at the children. Minutes before, while standing outside the door, they had been clean and presentable, but now their hair was mussed, there was a streak of dirt on Dallas's dress, and they both had tears running down their cheeks.
"When I told the judge I wanted them, I had no idea what I was saying. I guess I thought raising children would be easy, but they're brats. They take all my time, they whine and complain, and they're dirty little creatures. So, Nora, my dear, they are yours."
Josh pushed the children toward Nora.
Thank heaven Carrie was in too great a state of shock to say anything.
"Papa," Dallas screamed. "No, no, we want to stay with you. We'll be good, we promise."
"Josh, you can't mean-" Nora began.
"Of course I can. The judge said that the children would go to you if I defaulted on my sentence, and I am going to default. I'm going back to the stage where I belong."
"B... but what about her?" Nora asked, looking at Carrie. "What about the little love of your life?"
Before Josh could open his mouth, Carrie spoke up. She wasn't going to be left out of this. "We are going to live in sin," she said brightly. "We decided that sin was much more exciting than boring old marriage." She gave Josh an adoring look. "As soon as we're free of the children we're going... Where was it, dear?"
"Venice," Josh said, and there was admiration in his eyes.
"Yes, Venice. We shall use the thousands I receive from Warbrooke shipping and go to Venice. Or would you rather go to Paris first? I do need some new clothes."
"Wherever you want, my dearest." Josh kissed her hand.
Josh turned back to Nora. "You see, my dear, it doesn't matter if you and I are married or not. I have Carrie and her money and I no longer have the burden of those brats. Au revoir. " With that, he tucked Carrie's arm in his and started for the door.
Behind them Dallas screamed, "Papa, don't leave us. Please, please don't leave us. We'll do anything if you'll let us stay with you. Anything."
Josh had to hold Carrie's arm firmly to keep her from turning back to the child. When they were outside the door, Carrie looked at Josh. "Is Dallas all right?" she whispered.
"No," Josh replied. "She has a serious case of overacting, and I plan to talk to her about it. No child of mine is going to get away with that." He smiled at Carrie. "You were excellent. Maybe we'll make a liar out of you yet."
"Josh," Carrie said slowly, "the children were acting, weren't they? And you were, too, weren't you? You're not going to leave them with her, are you?"
He looked at her. "What do you think?"
"I think you'd kill before you gave them up."
Smiling, he kissed her hand. "Let's go get something to eat. I missed lunch." His eyes were twinkling, because it was Carrie who had served the inedible lunch.
In spite of Josh's reassurances, Carrie was still nervous. She picked at her food at dinner and, later, when Josh took her to her dress shop, she wasn't interested in it. Her employees had a hundred questions to ask her, but Carrie couldn't think of the answers. Instead, she turned to Josh and said, "What if she wants to keep them?"
"You don't know Nora."
"Not as well as you do," she snapped at him. "And at one time you thought she was a good mother."
"I was younger and dumber," he answered, trying to make her smile, or make her angry-anything but as scared as she was. Even when he told her that he wasn't going to allow her to name their child, what with her propensity for names like Choo-choo and Paris in the Desert, he got no reaction from her.
When they went back to the farm, it was dark, and Josh told Carrie he was sleeping with her. The truth of the matter was, he wanted to hold her, wanted to be near the woman he loved tonight.
"You just gave your children away and you expect me to sleep with you?" Carrie said.
He kissed her hand, trying, and succeeding, to sound lighthearted. "At last my acting has received a compliment from you."
She glared at him. "You don't touch me until you get those children back." When she slammed the bedroom door in his face, she heard a sound from him that was half whimper, half smug laughter. And there was something else in the sound that almost made her open the door again, but she didn't.
For the first time in her life, Carrie didn't sleep for the whole night. When dawn came creeping over the horizon, she dragged herself out of bed and, holding Choo-choo, she went into the parlor. Josh was already sitting at the table, and he was wearing the clothes he'd worn the day before.
"You haven't been to bed, have you?" she said, sitting across from him.
When he looked up at her, there was no falseness in his eyes. "I couldn't help remembering how good a liar Nora is. And how spiteful. She might want to keep the kids just to repay me. She might-" Breaking off, he looked down at his empty coffee cup.
When Carrie reached out and took his hand in hers, Josh got out of the chair and went to kneel before her, his head in her lap. She stroked his hair.
"I'm afraid, Carrie," he said softly. "I can't lose them. When I came up with my little plan, it seemed so foolproof, but now I don't know. If Nora told a court how I'd given the children back to her and told them what I said, I think the judge-any judge-would take the children away from me. What will I do without them? You and the kids are the only things in my life that mean anything to me.
She kissed his head and wanted to reassure him, but she was as afraid as he was. "Tell me what you have planned."
When he lifted his head, he turned away from her so she wouldn't see him wipe away tears and said, "They're to come to the church at ten o'clock. By then they're to have made Nora's life such h.e.l.l that she'll be glad to give me the paper just so she can get rid of them."
"Then we'll have to go on the assumption that your children are as good at acting as you are. They are the children of the Great Templeton, you know."
Josh managed to smile at her. "Come on, let's see what we can find to eat and then let's go. We have to trust the children."
Carrie nodded and tried to keep Josh from seeing the way her hands were shaking.
It was cold in the church, Carrie thought, but it wasn't as cold as she felt. Her hands were clammy, yet she was sweating. It was five minutes after ten, and there was no sign of the children. 'Ring, sitting in the first pew in the otherwise empty church, looked at his pocket watch for the third time, and the minister had already said that he had another wedding in an hour.
But Josh and Carrie had said that they couldn't be married without the children there, and they meant it. Josh took Carrie's hand, and his was as cold as hers. Even Choo-choo, hiding under Carrie's old-fashioned dress, was quiet.
After Josh looked at her once and saw the fear on her face under her veil, he couldn't meet her eyes again. Too many thoughts were going through his head. Had Nora seen through the whole scam and taken the children away with her? Was she going to hold out until she got her Warbrooke money? Dallas was only five years old, yet Josh had asked her to be mean to her own mother. Could the child do that? Should she do that?
Round and round Josh's thoughts went. Had he been so clever that he'd lost his children? Due to his reputation with women, the judge had been reluctant to give Josh custody of his children, so if Nora went to a judge and testified to what Josh had said to her last evening, about the children being brats and his not wanting them, no court in the world would give the children to Josh.
He squeezed Carrie's hand harder.
Standing up, 'Ring walked up behind them. "It's twenty minutes after," he said to his sister. "Is there something you'd like to tell me?"
"No," Carrie said, but her voice squeaked. "I mean..."
"I'm sure Nora will bring the children soon," Josh said. "She is an old friend of theirs and-"
He broke off at the commotion at the back of the church.
Nora entered, and for the first time since Josh had known her, Nora looked awful. Her dress was dirty, her hair hanging about her shoulders; there were dark circles of sleeplessness under her eyes, and worse, she looked her age.
Dragging Tem and Dallas behind her by their wrists, she marched to the front of the church, practically threw the children into the first pew, then held out a paper and pen to Josh. Her face was past rage as she looked at him.
Josh had to stick the pen in his mouth to dampen the ink, then held the paper on his hand as he signed it. When he was done, he put the paper inside his coat pocket and looked at the woman who used to be his wife.
Nora opened her mouth to speak, but could say nothing. Turning on her heel, she stomped out of the church.
Very calmly, Carrie and Josh turned back to the minister. "You may begin," Josh said.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of-"
Carrie turned to Josh as he looked at her, and in the next minute the two of them exploded in laughter. In unison they turned to the dirty, scruffy children who were sitting on the pew, legs swinging, and wearing expressions of being extremely pleased with themselves. Bending, Carrie and Josh opened their arms to them.
While the minister and 'Ring watched, the four of them hugged and kissed each other and laughed uproariously at some private joke.
Josh was the first one to recover himself. He took Tem's hand and Carrie's, while she took Dallas's hand. "You may begin again," Josh said. "You may marry all of us."
"Hooray!" Dallas yelled, and the children said, "I will" and "I do" with the adults, and at the end of the ceremony, everyone kissed everyone else excessively.