Ian Muldaur is floundering, and knows it. Since his wife’s death, he spends all his time at his job, earning him the hatred of his fourteen-year-old son. But at least Ian is strong. He’s reliable. Then even this illusion shatters the day he collapses in his construction management office.
Maggie O’Connell considers her life in good order. She has her own business, her own house, and doesn’t need a soul to complete things. Then she gets a call at her garden nursery that her former brother-in-law ‑‑ a man she’s loathed as a tyrant since their first meeting ‑‑ has collapsed with a heart attack. As the only adult ‘relative’ Ian has, Maggie rushes to the aid of his family. Suddenly she’s no longer a commitment-free single woman, but a surrogate mother and wife — for a man she doesn’t even like.
Or does she?
It isn’t long before all of Maggie’s cherished prejudices are shattered: about Ian, about herself, and about love.
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Ian woke to the sound of whatever was the latest heavy metal band being blasted at about a hundred thousand decibels.
“Holy!” He came to consciousness with a start. It took him a few heart-pounding seconds to realize he was at home. This wasn’t some freak fire alarm going off at a hotel in Dallas or Little Rock or…where had he been last night? Raleigh.
Ian groaned and rolled over to check the time. Seven-thirty. Hell, he’d probably end up thanking his son for blasting his stereo loud enough to wake him. He had to be at the office in less than an hour.
Ian took three more seconds to bemoan his exhaustion, then stumbled out of bed. Andy’s music made a cacophonic counterpoint to his shower, shave, and dressing.
By the time he got downstairs the music had been turned off but other loud noises could be heard. An argument was well under way in the kitchen. Unfortunately, this was an all-too-familiar ritual.
“There are dishes in the sink, Andy,” a young, female voice was complaining. “Last night it was your turn to wash.”
Andy’s voice drawled. “I didn’t feel like it.”
“You didn’t feel like it! You didn’t feel like it! So now I have to do your dishes, because you didn’t feel like it?”
“Chill? Chill?” Kathy’s voice was rising. Ian could hear the frustration he often felt toward Andy being expressed with an eleven-year-old lack of reserve.
Both kids stopped talking the instant he walked into the room.
“Good morning.” Ian sounded equable — he hoped. He finished tying his tie. Now what? Did he try to solve their argument, even mention it? And what about Andy’s music? He watched his children watching him and felt a familiar sense of incompetence. He was not a good parent, he’d be the first to admit it. How market conditions would affect prices, that he understood. How to make two dozen subcontractors work around each other and end up with a completed, on-budget shopping mall or resort hotel — these things he could do with astonishing flair.
But figure out how to get his own kids to get along, or even do the dishes? Forget it. Without Sophia, he was lost.
Nevertheless, the tension on Kathy’s face disappeared. “Dad!” she cried, and threw herself at him.
Ian caught her embrace and felt his own tension ease in the force of her unfettered affection. She was a petite little package mixed of girl, as-yet-unfurled woman, and sprite. As always, she made a smile spread over his face. But over Kathy’s shoulder he could see fourteen-year-old Andy glowering. Ian’s smile faded.
“You’re back,” Andy said.
“I told you I’d be back Thursday.” Inwardly, Ian winced. The truth was that by the time the plane had landed, he’d grabbed a cab and opened his front door it had been well into Friday morning.
Kathy drew back from her father’s embrace. Her gaze went from Ian to Andy, concern flitting over her features. “Anyway, you’re home for the weekend,” she said, obviously trying to smooth things over.
“Yes,” Ian said, and smiled at her. “The whole weekend.” Though he had a ton of papers to go through, pursuant to his recent trip to Raleigh.
As if he could hear Ian’s thoughts, Andy snorted. “Yeah, right. The whole weekend with Dad — and his laptop.”
Andy’s blatant disrespect shot a spurt of anger through Ian. The work I do puts a roof over your head — and paid for that stereo you play too loud! But before Ian could voice the retort he was stopped by a sudden twinge, an odd pinch of discomfort in the middle of his chest. For a moment, he lost the train of his thought. What was that?
Then Andy’s face clicked back into his focus. Ian took a deep breath and recalled that he had to remain the cool-headed one around here. Not to mention the kid was right. He would be spending most of the weekend with his laptop. “Uh, yes,” he said, and decided the wisest course was to change the subject. “I see the sink is full of dirty dishes,” he remarked, and gave a pointed glance in that direction.
Andy shrugged. “Yeah?”
Ian took in another deep breath. Odd. Either that action, or the continued effort of leashing his temper caused the twinge in his chest to return. “Mrs. Granby is coming this afternoon,” he told his son, carefully atonal. He felt the twinge fade away again. “I’d hate her to have to walk in to a dirty kitchen.”
Kathy turned to shoot her brother a triumphant look, but Andy only had eyes for Ian. “So tell her not to come,” he said. “We don’t need that old biddy.”
“You’re not old enough to be on your own all afternoon.”
“Bull. Brandon does it. And Troy, too. They think it’s dumb I have a babysitter. Anyway,” he added, smug, “I was in charge all of last night, wasn’t I?”
“You were in charge…for a few hours last night,” Ian returned, definite.
Andy waved the statement aside. “Even Aunt Maggie. She says I’m plenty old enough to be on my own.”
“Aunt Maggie?” Ian’s eyebrows arched.
“That’s right.” Andy pressed on. “She says you’re overprotective.”
“Hm.” Ian pressed his lips together. He often had to reach down to the depths of his self control to keep from expressing how he really felt about the children’s aunt, Sophia’s overblown, earth-mother sister, Maggie. God knew, it was nice to know she was around in case of an emergency, but it could be a bitter pill to swallow, losing a wife only to be left with a witch of an ex-sister-in-law.
And when Maggie butted into his relationship with his children, Ian came very close to wanting to strangle the woman. He’d had more than his share of murderous thoughts toward Maggie since his wife had died. Sophia’s sister seemed to think the vacuum in parents gave her a place to step in.
Step in? Splash down.
“Fortunately,” Ian said to Andy, letting his self-control slip a little with the word, “Aunt Maggie is not in charge.”
“Fortunately?” Andy’s eyes turned into slits. “I’d say ‘too bad’.”
Ian frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means — Oh, screw it. You wouldn’t understand if I spent a week trying to explain it to you.”
Ian lifted a finger. “Watch your language, young man.”
“Watch my language?” Andy’s eyes widened. “Fuck you.”
“Andy — !”
But the boy was already gone, brushing past Ian to bang through the kitchen door. If the door hadn’t been a swing, it would have slammed. As it was, it swished back and forth while Ian and his daughter stood there and stared at it.
Well, I certainly handled that well.
“He’s such a turd,” Kathy at length remarked, and pointed. “You notice he managed to get out of doing the dishes?”
The discomfort in Ian’s chest briefly flared.
He tried to clear his mind of it all once he’d dropped off the kids at their various schools and was driving in to the office. It was far easier to concentrate on problems he could solve, like zoning and planning codes, recalcitrant politicians, or a critical shortage of steel during a bidding war.
In fact forty minutes later, as the elevator stopped on his floor of the office tower, one of three floors leased by Brockton Construction, Ian already knew where he would start with the Raleigh problem. Brockton’s corporate lawyers, he’d get them on the phone first thing.
“Good morning, Eileen,” he said, easily pleasant, as he strode into the streamlined elegance of the secretary’s area outside his office door.
“Mr. Muldaur,” Eileen returned, with a congenial smile.
Ian could definitely feel himself relaxing. At the office everything was under control, no matter how wild it seemed to get. As for his deteriorating relationship with his son, he would put it out of his mind.
Yes, he’d forget all about his problems with Andy, Ian decided. For the hours he was at work, he wouldn’t stress over his deficiencies as a parent.
He paused in front of his secretary’s desk. “I’m going to be on the phone most of the morning, Eileen. Could you take messages on my incoming calls?”
“Certainly, Mr. Muldaur.”
Smiling, Ian went into his office. He was going to have to work magic to get around the political hurdles in Raleigh. He’d be spinning multiple plates in the air for the next six months. There would be dicey moments, but in the end…he’d be successful.
Ian strolled through his office and tossed his briefcase onto a padded visitor chair. He loosened his tie as he dropped into the oversize chair behind his sleek cherrywood desk. He could feel the adrenaline rising, readying him for the task. But as he pulled the rolodex toward himself to find the number for the lawyer’s office, he felt a pain again, a sort of tightening around the upper part of his chest.
Ian’s fingers paused on the cards in the rolodex. His brows drew down. If he concentrated, he was sure the pain would go away. He took several deep breaths and, indeed, the pressure lightened, the mild pain receded.
Shaking off any further thought of the matter, Ian went back to finding the phone number. He picked up his receiver and dialed, then leaned back in his chair.
“Dunbar, Creston and Winchell,” purred a polished, female voice in Ian’s ear. “How may I direct your call?”
“This is…Ian Muldaur, from Brockton.” Ian frowned and rubbed one hand over his chest. “I’d like to speak to Bill Dunbar.”
What the — ? The pressure in his chest was back, mild, but disturbingly viselike. As he sat there, waiting for the receptionist to get Bill Dunbar, Ian could feel a cold sweat break out on his forehead.
Jesus Christ, what is this? I’m in perfect condition, do my exercises every morning — even when I’m on the road. This could not, repeat not, be a heart attack. Besides, it just didn’t feel impressive enough. It barely met the threshold of pain.
“Ian!” Bill Dunbar’s voice came deep and hearty over the phone wires. “What can I do for you this fine, financially fit morning?”
For a moment Ian couldn’t say anything. He was feeling out of breath, even dizzy. “Mm. It’s a political situation. Delicate.” He paused to struggle for air. “But my secretary just buzzed me…a call I’ve been waiting for. You don’t mind –?”
There was a hesitation, and then came Dunbar’s voice, sounding not quite as ebullient. “Of course not. Call back when you can.”
Ian set down the phone. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing deeply. But he couldn’t shake the dizziness, or get rid of the pressure over his chest. This was ridiculous. Outrageous. This feeling simply had to go away.
But as Ian sat there, concentrating on breathing, the feeling didn’t go away. Instead, and to his considerable alarm, the pressure got worse, along with a sensation of impending doom. Dread had Ian getting to his feet. He watched as his hand lifted and one finger pressed down the intercom. “Ei–leen?”
The whispery quality of his voice shocked him. It seemed to make an impression on Eileen, as well, who didn’t bother replying over the intercom. The next instant she appeared at the door of Ian’s office.
Her face contorted as she looked at him. “Mr. Muldaur!”
Ian barely had to time to admit he was in real trouble before the floor came up to meet him.
It was a slow Friday. Maggie had only had one customer, who’d sauntered leisurely through the rows of alyssum and impatiens, her lips pursed, looking disapproving. Unsurprisingly, the lady had left without purchasing a thing. She hadn’t even bothered to say hello to Maggie.
So now Maggie had abandoned her post inside and was wielding her pruning shears. The roses were getting a bit ragged. Might as well get something accomplished this morning.
The sun beat down with a pleasant warmth. Overhead a hawk circled, looking for some hapless rodent. Maggie’s nursery was on the very edge of the midsize town of Palmwood. Beyond her chicken wire fence, the California desert stretched proud and lonely: hard-packed dirt, clumps of silvery pungent sage, and a few, precious spears of yucca.
Open space, freedom. It always gave Maggie a sense of tranquility to gaze out toward the mountains.
But this morning instead of gazing serenely at the mountains she released a blistering curse as she managed to stab her finger with a thorn. She didn’t know what was wrong with herself. She usually enjoyed a quiet morning all alone with her flora. Business was slow, it was true, but she always managed to scrape together enough for the rent.
At least, she’d manage if Corporate Edges would send in their check.
Maggie scowled and shook her stabbed hand, then stuck the bleeding spot in her mouth. The big landscaping firm would come through. They always did. Eventually.
She just wished ‘eventually’ would happen a little sooner this month.
Maggie took her finger out of her mouth and examined her wound. It wouldn’t hurt to wash it off, she admitted, and maybe find her gardening gloves at the same time. She turned back toward the sales building.
Inside the cool, dark room a well-fed calico cat lifted its head from its position curled up on the counter. Oh, it’s you, the cat seemed to say, and then yawned and lowered its regal head again.
“Well, who were you expecting?” Maggie asked the feline. “Your fairy godmother, perhaps?”
The cat didn’t answer, didn’t even bother to lift its head again.
“No fairy godmothers here,” Maggie told the animal. Then it came to her, why she’d been feeling upset. She huffed and said to the cat, “I’m not even allowed to play the role of evil aunt.”
The cat closed its eyes.
Maggie stuck her tongue out at it. She’d liked to have made a similar gesture toward her former brother-in-law. She’d asked Ian so sweetly, so politely, repressing every biting, sarcastic — and true — epithet she’d liked to have expressed.
Couldn’t she take the kids that weekend? she’d asked her former brother-in-law. He never had time to take them out of town, and her friend had a cabin at Lake Tahoe. The kids could have a ball — swimming, fishing, maybe even horseback riding. And he wouldn’t have to worry about rushing home from his business trip in Raleigh. She’d get some time with the kids, they’d have an outing, and he could relax. Everybody would win.
Had he listened? Had he given her idea one iota of thought? Ha! Did the great and mighty Ian ever give anything Maggie said his serious attention? Ha!
Maggie did an angry wiggle dance in the hall as she moved past the cat and toward the tiny, utilitarian bathroom. She was just pushing her finger under the faucet when the phone on the counter rang.
“Damn,” Maggie said, but without heat. A phone call could mean an order, and an order would mean money. It could also mean a bill collector, true, but Maggie was a born optimist. She turned off the water and hurried to the phone.
“Hello?” She hoped she didn’t sound breathless. “Country Garden Nursery. Can I help you?”
“Hello,” said a thin female voice on the other end of the line. “I’m — that is, I’m looking for a…Maggie O’Connell?”
“That’s me.” Maggie admitted the fact cheerfully. It wasn’t a bill collector. They only used first names.
The woman on the other end of the line cleared her throat. “I don’t quite know how to…You see, it’s Mr. Muldaur. I’m Eileen, his secretary.”
Maggie felt a brief spurt of hope. Maybe there was some problem. Ian hadn’t been able to return home from Raleigh in time. He wanted her to take the kids for the weekend, after all.
“Yes?” she asked, eyebrows rising in cheerful anticipation.
“Um. Your name was on his emergency card, the one in the company’s file.”
“Emergency?” Maggie’s burgeoning smile halted.
“Yes. They just came to take Mr. Muldaur to the hospital.” At this point the voice of the woman on the other end of the telephone broke.
Maggie felt her pleasure take a similar tumble. The hospital?
“Samaritan Sinai,” the woman on the other end of the telephone said. “I think — well, aren’t there some children? Nothing like this has ever happened, and I feel so — I don’t know how to reach anybody.”
The woman was clearly breaking down, practically in tears. Maggie, meanwhile, felt like she was going into shock. Ian had been taken to the hospital? No. No, no, no. She’d already been through this, with Sophia. She wasn’t going to do it again.
And the children! No. God couldn’t be letting this happen to them again.
Maggie felt a cool, clear anger settle over her. “What happened?” she asked.
But the woman on the other end of the phone was crying in earnest now.
“Listen.” Maggie gave her voice the chill she’d often heard Ian, himself, use, the kind that was sharp enough to cut through anything. “Listen,” she said again, one degree softer. “I need your help. You have to get a hold of yourself. Why did they take Ian to the hospital? What happened?”
“He — fainted. Briefly. The ambulance — They said heart attack.”
Heart attack? Now Maggie knew there had to be some mistake. Ian was fit as an athlete. There wasn’t an ounce of flab on his lean, rangy body, or at least none that was obvious. And he was how old? Forty? Forty-one? “That couldn’t be right,” she said, out loud.
There was the faint sound of tears from the other end of the line.
“Listen,” Maggie said again, confident. “I’ll take care of the children. Don’t worry about it. You just — ” Just — what? Soak her head in some Zoloft? “Never mind,” Maggie said. “I’ll take it from here.” And she set down the telephone.
It took only half a second for reaction to set in. The hand that still rested on the telephone began to tremble. Maggie had never liked Ian, not from the first time he’d darkened her parents’ door on Sophia’s arm. He was arrogant, controlling, everything she disliked in the male of the species. And yet she felt as if she’d been punched in the gut.
Ian, with all that confident male power, brought down? The thought was…oddly devastating.
And made worse by the fact she’d just been thinking ill of him.
Maggie drew in a sharp, quick breath. She took a step back from the counter. Thinking ill of Ian had not caused this problem, but beyond that her brain went into a tailspin. She’d abruptly, unexpectedly, been handed the reins, and now she had to do something. But what?
Maggie twirled on her heel. Her eyes stared unseeingly out toward the desert mountains. She ought to go to the hospital — or should she get the kids from school? Close up the nursery? She needed her keys.
You’re panicking, Maggie. She closed her eyes and let out her breath slowly. Mentally, she apologized to Ian’s secretary for having ridiculed her emotional state. Maggie took another breath. First, call the hospital, get information, she told herself. Based on that, she could figure out if she should get the kids or go straight to the hospital.
She turned back to the counter and picked up the telephone. She punched 411 to get the number for the hospital. She concentrated on breathing slow, keeping balanced, while she tapped her fingertips on the counter.
After about two seconds of that, she hung up the phone, grabbed her keys and ran out the door.
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