Forever, Actually by Karen Templeton Chapter One

Generally speaking, Megan Carter did not ogle married men—unless, say, the married man was some celebrity hunk she’d in all likelihood never see in the flesh—but her eyeballs latched right on to the glowering, golden-haired hottie following his wife and Dr. Armstrong out of the elevator. And wouldn’t let go. “You can make another appointment in ten days or so, Mrs. Farris,” the tall, slender doctor—who was no slouch himself—said, smiling. “For your first sonogram.” “Ohmigosh…thank you!” the brunette said, hugging the startled doctor, her sky-blue sundress glowing against the übermodern, steel-and neutrals décor. “Thank you so much! Oh, come on, Russ—” She grabbed Golden Boy’s hand to tug him toward the reception desk. And closer to Meg, who clamped shut her mouth to hold in the drool. “You know this is what Tommy wanted. You were there when we made the decision!” “Nova…I’m trying, I really am. But—” “I’ll be fine, Russ. We’ll be fine.” Nova slid Meg a long-suffering look. “You have brothers?” Wait. Meg was hanging on to her saliva for someone’s brother? A brother who was not, she noted, sporting a wedding band of his own. Huh. “Three,” Meg said, trying not to notice the siblings had the same bright blue eyes. And thick, dark lashes. That the male sibling looked better in his golf shirt and Dockers than most men looked in a tux. That his expression of brooding protectiveness was making her squirm a little in her seat. She forced her gaze back to Nova. “All older.” “Ouch,” Nova said, smiling, and Meg laughed. Until the other woman palmed her tummy and said softly, “My husband and I had wanted a batch of kids. Then we found out he had cancer. So he…made a deposit before the chemo. Except…” She looked at Meg again, gave a tiny shrug. “Hence the backup plan. Some people, however, are having issues with my decision.” Honestly. Barely two hours into her temp stint at Boston’s Armstrong Fertility Institute, and already three people had shared what Meg considered way too much personal information about their reasons for using the clinic’s services. It was like living out an episode of one of her grandmother’s soaps. Except something about this one… “Well, I think you’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever met,” she said, daring to meet Russ’s gaze.

Big mistake. Because that glower? Too darn cute for words. Which made Meg’s tummy go flippity-flop. Oops. “So,” she said brightly, her curls sticking to the back of her neck when she turned to the computer. Hmm. Air-conditioning must be on the fritz. “How’s…a week from this coming Monday?” “Great!” Meg printed out the appointment confirmation and handed it to Nova, giving her a fullout, all-dimples-on-deck smile. “Congratulations, by the way. I can tell you’re gonna be a terrific mom.” Nova beamed. “Thanks,” she said softly, tucking the paper into her purse before turning to her brother with another big smile. Still glowering, Golden Boy led her to the exit, his hand hovering at her back, basically treating her like spun glass. Meg allowed herself a long, dreamy sigh. *** “Russ!” Startled out of his musings, Russ Michaels turned to his sister as they walked in the blistering, late-August heat to their cars, parked in front of the Coach House Diner not far from the Institute. “I’m sorry…were you saying something?” Nova lightly smacked his arm, then grinned. “I guess I have been running off at the mouth today. And I know you don’t share my enthusiasm—” “Nove, I’m happy for you, I really am. It’s just—” That I can’t remember the last time a woman’s smile made me feel like I’d been sucker punched. “You’re worried about me,” his sister said softly, giving his wrist a quick squeeze. “I know. But it’s not as if I haven’t thought this through. Or that I can’t afford help after the baby comes. Tommy made sure of that. And heaven knows he or she is going to have the world’s greatest uncle.” When Russ felt his jaw tighten, Nova cocked her head. “I’ve got to move on, Russ. Embrace whatever life has in store for me. It’s what Tommy would have wanted—” “I really need to get back—got a client coming in at one. A big one. Don’t want to be late.”

A mixture of annoyance and understanding swimming in her eyes, Nova leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “Tommy would be thrilled with how well you’re handling the business. And you seem…” Her eyes narrowed as she apparently considered her words. “Content enough.” “I am. See you later?” “Oh! Sorry, no—I teach night school tonight, remember? Maybe tomorrow?” “Sure thing. Call me.” Russ watched until his sister drove off, giving him a little wave as she pulled into traffic, before he got into the company truck, all tricked out with the Farris Nursery logo on the side. Nova had already told him she was okay if he wanted to change it to his name, but it was Tommy’s name people knew and trusted, so why mess with what worked? Was he content? One wrist resting atop the steering wheel, Russ sighed. With running his brother-in-law’s garden center and nursery after way too many years of crunching numbers for an insurance company? Yeah, he supposed he was. God knows, a year ago he’d never imagined he’d get off on all things horticultural, but when Tommy’d asked Russ if he’d be interested in taking over the business so Nova could keep teaching, Russ was surprised by how much the idea had appealed. Despite plants being far harder to control than numbers. But with the rest of his life? Not so much, to be honest. Not that he’d changed his mind about preferring to go it alone. With relationships came complications. Pain. Heartache. Those, he could do without. However, being alone and being lonely were two entirely different things. Definitely a new wrinkle he hadn’t expected. Just as he hadn’t expected to be shaken up by a bubbly little redhead in a frilly pink blouse that looked totally out of place in the Institute’s austere surroundings. A bubbly little redhead whose sparkling brown eyes and curved mouth seemed to say, “Just say the word, and I’ll let you in on the joke.” Whatever the joke was. Life itself, probably, Russ thought as he pulled up in front of the nursery. A stocky, balding guy with a bright grin approached him the minute he stepped inside. Howie Carter was the middle of three brothers, who with their father owned a fair-sized landscaping business. When their primary vendor went under a month or so back, leaving them in the lurch, they turned to Farris. And Russ had no intention of losing them…even if it meant constantly fending off thinly veiled attempts at fixing him up with their unmarried sister. “Howie, good to see ya,” Russ said, clapping the guy’s hand. “You find everything okay?”

“Yeah, I already scoped out the stock, gave the girl our order. Kinda late in the season for planting, but you gotta make the client happy, right? You can get everything over to the Blake estate by first thing Saturday morning?” “No problem. I’ll make the delivery myself if I have to.” “Hey—you free for dinner tonight? Because I know Ma would love to have you.” Russ had to smile. “You don’t give up, do you?” “It’s the Irish in me. Stubborn as hell. Although I hafta warn ya, we’ll all be there. Thursday-night ritual. Ma cooks, we eat. So whaddya say?” What Russ said, for reasons he couldn’t begin to fathom, was, “Sure. Why not?” Chuckling, Howie slapped Russ’s back, then scribbled the address on the back of his business card and handed it over. “Don’t dress up, nobody else does. See you at sixthirty!” At 6:28, Russ arrived at the tidy little colonial in North Cambridge. At 6:29, he nearly choked when a certain bubbly little redhead in a frilly pink blouse opened the door, looking every bit as shocked as he felt. Chapter Two

There was no way Howie could have known, Meg reminded herself, ducking into the kitchen as her brother introduced Russ to everyone. Trish, Howie’s perky blond wife, pushed back through the swinging doors, fanning herself with one hand while carting a baby on her hip with the other. “Geezy Pete—didja get a load of that?” Frances, Meg’s mother, shot her daughter-in-law a puzzled look before carting out the buttered asparagus, returning before the door could swing back, her eyes big. Briana and Penny, Meg’s other sisters-in-law, exchanged a glance and followed suit, after which all eyes landed on Meg. “Don’t say it,” she said. Wearily. “Cuh-yute,” pregnant, pixie-haired Briana said, grinning. Penny, who’d played basketball in college and was six inches taller than everyone else in the room, rolled her brown eyes. “Cute? Hell, we’re talkin’ seriously hot.”

“Hot,” Trish echoed, nodding. “He looks very nice,” her mother said, and Meg laughed. Also wearily. “Actually…I kinda already met him. At the clinic,” she added before they could find their voices. “He’s a doctor?” “No, Ma, he’s—” “Franny, for heaven’s sake,” Penny said, her voice suddenly chilly. Penny had issues. Of many varieties. “If he was at the clinic, he was probably with someone. Hello?” “Then why’s he here for dinner? Alone?” “Ma, everybody! Chill. Russ—” “Russ. Such a nice name.” Meg glared at her mother. “He was there with his sister. She’s a widow who, um, decided to have a baby with her husband’s sperm.” “Oh?” Trish said as Penny’s pale eyebrows dipped. “That’s just so…weird. On so many levels. For one thing, how does she know that’s actually her husband’s stuff—” “Stuff?” Briana said, giggling as she popped a sautéed mushroom into her mouth. “Like I’m gonna say, you know, that, in front of Franny,” Penny said, and Ma said, “Thank you, sweetheart,” and Meg thought her brain would explode. But Penny wasn’t finished. Of course she wasn’t. “There’ve been rumors for years, you know. About the clinic. That maybe there’s something fishy about their practices. All those multiples births, for one thing. And worse.” Her sister-in-law’s lips pursed. “Why you’re even working there is beyond me.” What was beyond Meg, was how the conversation had veered from speculating about the hottie in the other room to the Armstrong Institute’s integrity. Or why she felt compelled to defend where she’d worked for exactly one day. Until she remembered the absolute joy on Nova Farris’s face. “And they’re called rumors for a reason, Pen. Far as I can tell they care a great deal about their patients. Especially Dr. Armstrong. And it’s one of the foremost research facilities in the country for biogenetics—”

Penny made a sign of the cross and Meg sighed. At least she’d only be there two weeks. Even she could deal with Penny’s pursed lips for that long. “Dinner’s ready,” her mother said, shooting Meg a commiserating glance before they all trooped into the dining room. Just as she could deal with sitting at the same table with Russ for a half-hour. Never before had she been so grateful her family ate like locusts. Swoop in, devour, move on. Better yet… “How’s about I take kid duty in the family room tonight—?” “Hell, no,” Howie said, as they all jockeyed for seats around the dining table. And she just somehow ended up across from Russ. She shot daggers at Howie, who just grinned. Creep. Then the usual chaos descended, the men talking sports and business, the women talking about the kids currently wreaking havoc in the basement below. Until the discussion swerved to politics, and Meg thought, Oh, God…until she realized the man was perfectly capable of holding his own among her opinionated family members. Impressive. Then he deftly switched the conversation back to business, which her dad and brothers lived, ate and breathed, anyway. Good call. Had to admit, guy was a good listener. And an even better sport, deflecting her brothers’ gibes and jabs with a grin and a shrug. Or better yet, zinging one right back at them, much to both their and her sisters-in-laws’ delight. Then she and Russ grabbed for the last chicken leg at the same time, and she saw the “Get me outta here!” look in his eyes. Ah. “Help me clear the table?” she asked. At the precise, and only, moment of total silence since the meal began. “Sure thing,” he said, jumping up to gather dishes. Her own arms loaded with greasy, smeared plates, Meg pushed into the kitchen. Russ followed, dumping his load on the table as she lifted hers to the counter. “Thanks,” he said. “Sorry. They can be a little intense.”

Chuckling, he moved past her to start scraping the dishes, loading the dishwasher. Rearranging the stuff already in there with military precision. Even over the scent of hour-old roasted chicken, she could smell him. Soapy. Kinda woodsy. Not at all unpleasant. As opposed to the assorted screeches and bellows echoing up the basement stairs. Trial by fire, she believed this was called. Sure enough, Russ frowned at the open door, then back at her. “And you guys do this every week?” “Voluntarily, even—” The thundering of many small feet preceded a tsunami of children breaching the basement doorway. Russ flattened himself against the counter as the horde surged through the kitchen and out the back door, shrieking their heads off. “Good God. How many are there?” “Ten. And counting.” Apparently recovered, Russ returned to his chore, sorting the flatware into the dishwasher basket. Honestly. “It was just my sister and me. This…” “Insanity?” He tossed a smile in her direction. Oh, boy. “Takes a bit of getting used to.” “There’s an understatement,” Meg said, and their eyes met, and she thought, Oh!, before his cheeks colored and he returned his attention to the dishes. Okie-dokie—time to put the dude out of his misery. “Look…I have to apologize.” He looked up. Light glanced off cheekbones. Damn. “For…?” “The fix-up attempt.” The serving fork clattered out of his hand. “You couldn’t tell?” Russ retrieved the escaped fork. Lifted his eyes to hers. Sweet, freaked eyes which effectively canceled out the cheekbones. Sorta. “Look, Meg, I—” “Three brothers,” she said, moving to the sink to wash pots. “All happily married. One baby sister, divorced. Until that little dimple is ironed out, none of them can rest. Why are you laughing?”

“Because I kinda figured that’s what the invitations were all about. I just didn’t know—” another sweet, freaked glance “—you were what the invitations were all about.” Meg wasn’t sure what to make of this. Of him. Shoot. “Except…they seem to have missed the memo that I’m not in the market.” Brows dipped. “You’re…not.” “Oh, Lord, no. Maybe someday, waaaay in the future. When the divorce wounds have healed a little more. But not now.” “You’re divorced?” “Yep,” she said, squirting dish soap into the plugged-up sink. “A year ago. Not that I don’t occasionally date—” her eyes cut to his, then back “—but just for, you know, diversion. Not looking for serious—” “Mama! Mama!” Her heart soaring, Meg spun around to scoop up eighteen-month-old Abbie, sudsy hands be damned, to pepper the chubby little cheeks with kisses. “How’s my baby girl?” “That one’s yours?” Brushing back Abigail’s out-of-control curls, Meg turned, her smile fading when she caught the look of utter terror on Russ’s face. Chapter Three

“Yeah,” Meg said, her forehead crunching, the soft laughter in her eyes gone. “This is Abbie. Say hi to Russ, sweet pea,” she encouraged the baby, who buried her face in her mother’s neck, their copper-colored curls tangling. Even from six feet away, Russ knew how they smelled, like flowers and baby powder. Regret fisted in his belly. “You don’t like kids?” she asked, mildly enough, and his gut cramped harder. “I’d better go,” he muttered, closing the dishwasher. Knowing he was taking the coward’s way out. Knowing, too, that sometimes evading the truth was the best option. The only option. “Please thank your mother for me.” “Do it yourself, she’s right out in the living room.”

Confusion, more than irritation, colored her words. Whatever it was, Russ hated himself for having put it there. Except it was crazy, anyway, his reaction to her. Because she was…bubbly. And he didn’t do bubbly. At least not anymore. “You’re not leaving already!” Disappointment swam in Frances Carter’s amber eyes. “We haven’t even had dessert yet!” “I’m sorry, but I have a contractor coming at seven tomorrow morning,” he lied. “And I’ve got nearly an hour’s drive ahead of me….” “Of course, of course, I understand,” Meg’s mother said, shepherding him to the front door. “But please—any Thursday night you’re free, you’re welcome to join us!” Russ mumbled something about her being very kind, then got the hell out of there while he still could. Before the memory of a mischievous smile underneath a riot of red curls, the innocence in a baby’s calm, gray gaze, could suck him back in. Make him forget. Or worse, make him remember. *** “Ow!” Howie said, rubbing his shoulder after Meg smacked him. “What was that for?” “You know perfectly well what that was for! Honestly, when are you guys—” this was directed at all the brothers “—gonna quit with the fix-up attempts? Or at least vet them a little better. Sheesh!” She turned and stormed back into the kitchen, taking some small satisfaction in Howie’s yelp when the swinging door smacked him in the face. Abbie was outside again, chasing fireflies, too young to know she’d just been snubbed. Although why this was bothering Meg, she had no idea. So the dude wasn’t wild about kids. Like this was news. How many men were? “Meg, I’m sorry,” her brother said, trying to get her attention as she flew around the kitchen, shoving aside assorted sisters-in-law. “I just thought, here’s this nice, single guy, not bad-looking, got his own business and—” “And a) you ambushed both of us, which is not cool. And b) did you happen to feel him out as to how he felt about kids?” At Howie’s frown, Meg sighed. “No. I thought not.” “Who doesn’t like kids?” A genuine question, from him. As it would have been from any of her brothers, actually, all of whom got double—if not triple—doses of the Perfect Daddy gene. But for all

Meg’s protestations about not being ready for a serious relationship, the truth was it wasn’t that easy finding somebody gung ho about taking on another man’s kid. Not that Abbie would ever want for good male role models, but the kid needed a father. One who’d love her as much as Meg loved her. Somebody who’d love Meg as much as she deserved to be loved. God knows Abbie’s father hadn’t fit the bill on either count. And damned if Meg was going to put herself, or her daughter, through that particular hell a second time. “I can’t believe you’d even ask that question,” she lobbed at her brother. Howie pushed out a breath, raking his hand over his thinning hair. But he gave her the frustrated Big Brother look that routinely drove her nuts. “Not every man’s like The Skunk, you know.” “Obviously not, since I’m related to four of them. But you didn’t see the look on Russ’s face when he saw Abbie.” To her shock, tears stung her eyes. What the heck? She blinked them back. “Not that anything would have come of it, anyway.” “And how many times,” her mother said, “do I have to tell you boys to behave when we have company? What’s the point of inviting a young man over for Meg if you’re just going to scare him off?” Meg almost laughed. “No, it’s not that. Well, not completely.” She sighed. “Open the dishwasher.” After a puzzled glance, her mother did; as a group, her sisters-in-law peered inside. And collectively gasped. “I take it Russ did this?” Briana said, rubbing her belly. “Yep.” Four sets of eyes turned to her. Knowing eyes. Because the family penchant for messiness was legendary. Too many kids, too little incentive to fight a losing battle. Not that any of them let the sink pile with dirty dishes or anything like that, but pristine was not a top priority in any of their houses. Let alone sorting the silverware. For a brief moment, she envisioned Russ’s sock drawer and shuddered. As he would undoubtedly do to hers. If she had a sock drawer, that is. So between that and his quick exit after seeing Abbie… When no one said anything, she rotated her shoulders, held up her head and marched out of the room, secure in the knowledge she’d never see Russ Michaels again.

A thought she found strangely unsettling. *** Toddlers, Meg groggily mused as Abbie’s “Get me up!” wail pierced the darkness, did not know from Saturday mornings. Unfortunately. Yawning, she shuffled through a toystore’s worth of stuffed animals strewn on the floor of her itty-bitty apartment to get to the glorified pantry she’d turned into the cutest baby’s room ever. Standing in her crib, Abbie greeted her with outstretched arms and a huge smile, melting Meg’s heart. Even though it was still dark and the baby didn’t exactly smell like roses. “Phew-wee, little girl,” she said, making a face. “Stin-kee!” Abbie, naturally, thought this was hilarious. “’Tink-ee!” she said, holding her nose and waving the air while Meg quickly changed her diaper and dressed her in a clean Onesie. By this time the sky had pinked up enough to consider it morning, and the day stretched out in front of them. Like an enormous void. Not that Meg couldn’t think of a dozen activities to do with her daughter—the park, the zoo, hanging out with the cousins, but… But look at this kid, she thought, smiling as she watched Abbie shovel scrambled eggs— more or less—into her mouth. Wasn’t there someone, somewhere, who’d go nuts for the chance to share this amazing kid with her? And no, that didn’t mean she was still thinking about Russ. Because she wasn’t. Okay, maybe he’d crossed her mind once or twice. Because the more she thought about it, the more his reaction to Abbie bugged her. As though there was something more behind his reaction than a simple aversion to kids. She sighed. Because some paths are simply not worth going down. Meg cleaned up the eggified baby and sprang her out of her high chair; Abbie immediately toddled to the front door and pointed. “Bye-bye?” she said, just as Meg’s cell phone rang. “Did I tell you we’re installing over at Blake House today?” her father said without preamble. Meg smiled. Blake House had been a run-down, abandoned Queen Anne, not far from the Victorian neighborhood where she now lived. She used to dream about one day owning the old house, until a couple from New York beat her to it. Gradually they’d been restoring the old girl—and the ten acres of grounds she sat on—to its former glory to run as a small inn. Her father had been tickled to death to get the landscaping contract.

“On Saturday?” “It’s a rush job. They got a wedding coming up, and we wouldn’t get it done in time if we waited. Anyway, you should bring the baby over. They got ducks. And peacocks. The boys are all bringing their kids, it’ll be fun.” Another Saturday with the family, Meg thought on a sigh, then decided—it could be worse. A lot worse. So after a shared bath and a half-hour trying to find Abbie’s sandals, she tossed on a pair of shorts and a baby-doll blouse, strapped Abbie in her stroller and off they went, arriving at the old house twenty minutes later. And what should be the first thing she saw, but Russ hauling a tray of full-grown chrysanthemums across the massive front lawn…about the same time he spotted her. She froze, having no clue what to do next. Although running like hell was sounding better by the second. Chapter Four

“Meggie! Over here!” In the moments before Meg’s father called her, Russ had seen the indecision in her face. The panic. Struggling with the impulse to bolt, no doubt. But why should it matter to her, whether he was there or not? Especially considering how badly they’d left things. More to the point, why the hell couldn’t he take his eyes off her as she bumpily wheeled the baby across the uneven grass, ridged with roots from a trio of fifty-feet-tall spruces? Why did his heart knock against his rib cage when he saw her react in feigned outrage to something her brother said, then take off after him, laughing, until the two of them went down in the grass like a couple of overgrown puppies? Why did his breath leave his lungs when she sat up, her wild hair flecked with loose grass and spruce needles, holding out her arms to her giggling daughter, toddling across the grass to throw herself in her mother’s arms—? “Isn’t that the receptionist from the Institute?” Nova said behind him. “Uh, yeah.” Realizing he’d been clutching the tray hard enough to gouge his palms, he set it down beside a prepared bed close to the house. Then he frowned at his sister, plopping a specimen rhododendron beside the flat. “And you shouldn’t be doing that.” Nova straightened, brushing off her hands. “I’m pregnant. Not incapacitated.” Shielding her eyes, she looked toward Meg and the baby. “What an adorable little girl!”

Russ grunted, stalking back to the truck for more mums. Nova followed. “She knows the landscapers?” “She’s related to the landscapers,” Russ said, jerking the next flat so hard several plants tumbled into the truck’s bed. “Wait a minute…didn’t you have dinner with—” “Yes.” “Wow. Growling, even.” Russ tossed his sister a dirty look. She laughed, then said, “Think I’ll go over and say hi.” And she was gone before Russ could think up a plausible reason why she shouldn’t. Since he doubted The woman scares the holy bejeebers out of me was gonna cut it. *** For the second time in less than five minutes, Meg had to fight the urge to escape. Except Nova Farris’s smile, as she quickly covered the ground between them, somehow sliced right through Meg’s trepidation. “Hey!” she called out, waving. “What a surprise to see you here!” “Yeah,” Meg said, curling her arms around Abbie, sitting in her lap. “You, too.” Nova sank onto the cool grass beside the two of them, smiling for Abbie. “Ohmigosh, she’s gorgeous! How old?” “Eighteen months.” Abbie scootched closer, ducking her face behind Meg’s arm. “And don’t let the coy act fool ya. She’s been known to reduce her older cousins to tears. And I’m talkin’ about the ones already in middle school.” Nova laughed, then looked back toward her brother. Meg resisted for about half a second, then did the same, gawking at all those muscles bunching and shifting as he hefted plants off his truck. Like she’d never seen anybody lug greenery around before. “Russ tells me you guys had dinner,” Nova said. Meg felt her skin warm. “Yeah. Along with eleventy billion of my nearest and dearest. And please don’t tell me you’re trying to fix us up, too.” “Too?”

Shifting Little Miss Chunks in her arms, Meg shot a look at Andy, her youngest brother. “Apparently the only reason they told me to come on over today was because they knew your brother would be here, too. Even though—” “What?” A sigh punched from her chest. “This little angel in my lap, she wasn’t exactly planned. And her father wasn’t exactly thrilled about that. In fact, he took off before she was born. I didn’t even bother contesting the divorce. So your brother’s obvious aversion to kids… it just struck a nerve, that’s all.” Nova frowned. “What makes you think Russ doesn’t like kids?” “The look on his face when he saw Abbie, for one thing—” “Meg!” her father shouted. “We’re goin’ around to the pond! Wanna come? The others are already there!” “I better go,” Meg said, scrambling to her feet with the baby in her arms. “No, wait—” “Congratulations again,” she said, nodding toward Nova’s middle as Abbie wrapped her arms around her neck. “Raising a kid by yourself, it’s no walk in the park. But it’s worth every second.” “I know,” Nova said, her eyes shiny. Her own eyes stinging, Meg crossed the few feet to the baby’s stroller to plop her in it, then took off toward the sound of quacking ducks, where Abbie’s squeals of delight soothed her aching heart. *** Seated behind the truck’s steering wheel, Russ watched both Meg take off and his sister’s approach, her face all confused and storm-cloudy. “What the heck?” he said as she got in beside him, yanking shut the door. “She thinks you don’t like kids.” Russ started the truck, pulling back into the street to drive around to the large, man-made pond to unload the ferns and hostas Meg’s brother had ordered. “It’s just as well,” he said over the crush to his chest.

He could feel Nova’s eyes on the side of his face. “Ohmigosh. You like her, don’t you? Only you’re scared, so you deliberately put her off.” “Back off, Nove. I mean it.” His sister twisted in her seat. “Oh, wow. This is huge—” “For heaven’s sake, I barely know the woman. And anyway, I can already tell she’s not my type.” “Oh, really?” Nova said, turning back around. Smiling. Roughly five gazillion Carters were at the far end of the duck pond—the shallow end— laughing and goofing around, their multitudinous progeny a blur as they swarmed back and forth. Sighing, Russ pulled the truck up beside a bank of gracefully drooping willows fifty yards away to unload the plants, doing his best, as he and Nova worked, to not look. Not yearn. Not…envy. “Abbie!” At Meg’s shriek, Russ’s head snapped up…just in time to see the baby tumbling down the incline toward the deeper part of the pond, way too fast to control her chubby little legs. Chapter Five

How could such short legs cover so much ground, so quickly? streaked through Meg’s head as she and her oldest brother, Doug, took off after Abbie, even as she knew they were too far away to catch her before she lost her balance and fell in. One second, the baby had been chasing one of her cousins, the next she’d vanished, panic slicing through Meg like a ragged knife. A knife that viciously twisted when she saw her baby girl gleefully running right toward the water, which to her probably just looked like a big wading pool. “Abbie!” she yelled again, her heart pounding harder than her feet against the grass. “Come back! Come back!” But at the precise moment the baby teetered on the edge of the pond, Russ dashed out of nowhere and snatched her to safety. The little girl erupted into startled tears, twisting around and wailing for Meg. “Oh, God!” Meg ran up to pull Abbie from his arms, burying her face in her baby’s warm curls. “Thank you so much—”

“First rule of being a parent,” Russ said, fury snapping in his eyes, “is that you never take your eyes off your child, not even for a moment! What on earth were you thinking?” “Whoa, man,” Doug panted out, trying to catch his breath. “Chill. No matter how careful you are, sometimes kids get away—” “It’s okay, Dougie, he’s right,” Meg said, her heart painfully thumping as her wobbly legs gave way and she sank to the grass, Abbie still clasped tight. Over and over, she stroked the baby’s hair, shaking her head. “I should have kept a better eye on her, I should’ve—” She burst into tears. “Aw, Meggie, don’t.” Just like all her brothers, Doug hated tears. “It’s okay, the baby’s fine—” “I know she is, but…” Sniffing, she looked up at her brother. “Go on back to the others. Just…give us a minute, okay?” “You sure?” “Yeah. Go on.” As Doug trudged back up the hill, Meg looked at Russ. “So now you think I’m a total idiot.” His mouth pulled into a tight line, he glanced away. Blew out a breath. “It was a kneejerk reaction, sorry. But things happen so quickly…” “Tell me about it. I swear, I looked away for a second and she was gone. I’ve never, ever done that before.” She kissed Abbie, whose tears had stopped, as well. “And I won’t again, believe me.” Silence. Meg took a deep breath and said softly, “You don’t hate kids at all, do you?” A long pause preceded, “No.” Meg nodded, then tried to get up, although her legs were still shaky. “I think we’ve both had enough adventure for one day. Thanks again.” “No, wait,” he said after she started off. “I’m done here—let me take you guys home.” “It’s just six blocks, I can manage. Besides…” She glanced at his truck, then back at him. “No car seat.” “Then I’ll walk you.”

Meg almost smiled. “You don’t trust me to get the kid home in one piece?” He didn’t smile. But when he lightly touched her arm to say he needed to tell Nova, who’d apparently taken the truck back around to the house, he was leaving, every nerve ending she possessed went kaflooey. Not good, she thought. At all. *** All the way back to Meg’s place, Russ fought to erase the image of his sister’s raised brow and “Oh, yeah?” expression from his brain. He was only remotely successful. Which is more than he could say for the struggle to erase the freaked look in Meg’s eyes when she grabbed her daughter out of his arms. Or his own idiocy of coming down on her so hard. Especially when it was perfectly obvious the incident had scared the stuffing out of her. Seeing them home was the least he could do. “No, I’ll carry her up,” he said when they reached the slightly run-down Queen Anne where Meg had her apartment—on the third floor. So for the second time that day he felt the sweet weight of a baby against his chest, this time the dead weight of a totally sackedout baby. “Don’t look too hard at the apartment,” Meg said when she unlocked the paneled door. “Tidiness isn’t my thing. Especially with a toddler.” And indeed the place was a mess. Not in a should-be-condemned way, though. Just in a baby-lives-here way; the sunny, wood-floored living room overrun with toys and other kid stuff. What you could see around the pulled-out sofa bed, the boldly flowered sheets a rumpled heap. “You can put her down in her crib. In there,” Meg said, nodding toward another door. The baby’s room was tiny, for sure, but bright and cheerful with a white crib and rocker, a thick, colorful rug on the floor. He laid down the zonked-out kid, a smile tugging at his mouth when she plugged her thumb into her mouth. When he returned to the living room, however, the sofa had been put back together, many of the toys gathered into a large laundry basket beside it. And in the middle of the room, an obviously anxious young woman with big, hopeful brown eyes. “Um…would you like to stay for lunch? If you’re not busy, I mean. It’s, um, the least I could do, considering you saved my baby’s life.”

Russ smiled, her earnestness wrenching open something inside him he thought for sure would stay closed forever. “I kept her from falling in the pond, but I think ‘saving her life’ might be stretching it.” Meg’s eyes watered. “It’s deep there. And I don’t swim. And a baby can drown in a frighteningly sh-short amount of t-time.” Instinct sent Russ across the room to gather Meg into his arms, absorbing the aftershock, although he wasn’t sure which one of them he was comforting. Seconds later, though, she pulled away, swiping at her eyes. “Sorry,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I’m a total wuss when it comes to my kid.” “It’s allowed,” he said, and she smiled, and the tightness in his chest eased a little more. “So…are sandwiches okay?” she said, moving into the tiny kitchen. “Mom makes sure I’ve got tons of deli stuff.” He opened his mouth to say, “I really have to go.” But what came out instead was, “That’d be great, thanks.” Because he’d been right—she smelled like flowers. *** Meg had thought for sure offering Russ lunch would send him fleeing. Especially after that hug. Oh, she’d remember that hug for a long, long time. A man who could hug like that… Don’t even go there, chickie. Anyway. That he was still here an hour later was nothing short of astounding. And puzzling. Because, as they worked through the sandwiches, her mother’s macaroni salad and bowls of ice cream, they talked. About everything. Their remarkably similar middle-class childhoods. His sister’s decision to have her husband’s baby. Meg’s extensive Red Sox memorabilia collection, which Russ dubbed “impressive as hell.” How summer had always meant trekking out to Fenway with his dad. “Same here,” she said, averting her gaze to spoon the last bit of mint chocolate chip out of the bowl as they sat on opposite ends of her sofa, the only sound a lone cicada’s drone in the leafy oak outside her windows. Dude was clearly big on family ties. So why wasn’t he married, already? Clunking her spoon into the empty bowl, she said, “I prided myself

on being able to heckle the Yankees louder than all three of my brothers put together. Season ticket holders would cower when they saw us coming.” Russ chuckled and their eyes met for a second longer than necessary, long enough for Meg to see the combination of nostalgia and longing in his eyes, to feel something she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. And sure as heck had no business feeling for somebody she’d just met. But there it was, an almost physical sensation of the pieces clicking effortlessly into place. This time Russ looked away. “How’d you end up working at Armstrong?” “Oh, that’s just for two weeks. I’m what you call a professional temp.” When Russ frowned, she said, “I like changing jobs every couple of weeks, although some last longer than that. Keeps the brain from going stagnant. I think I’d die if I had to face the same job, day in and day out. Besides, I like meeting new people. Learning new things.” “You got something against stability?” She shrugged. “What can I say, I bore easily.” Russ looked at her for a long moment, then blew a soft laugh through his nose. “Every morning for breakfast I have a bowl of Cheerios with one teaspoon of sugar, half a grapefruit and a glass of orange juice. Can’t remember the last time I had something different.” Meg’s brows lifted. “Wow.” Then she grinned. “Bet you never leave the house without making your bed, either.” “Nope.” When Abbie’s get-me-up cry pierced the sharp, uneasy silence that followed, Meg jumped to her feet, nearly knocking her bowl off the coffee table. “Be right back.” Except when she returned, Russ was gone. Meg shut her eyes. Doofus, she thought, then went about the rest of her day, refusing to let herself dwell on things that weren’t meant to be. Until the next day, when she and Abbie got home after church and found Russ sitting on the house’s steps. With a large, funny-looking stuffed bunny. He rose. “I thought…maybe Abbie would like this?” What the heck…?

Chapter Six

“Mine!” Abbie squealed, reaching for the toy, which she immediately clutched to her chest. Russ smiled, feeling oddly gratified. Then he turned his gaze to an understandably poleaxed Meg. “Um…am I to interpret that as an apology for running out yesterday?” Yeah, he’d figured that was coming. Meg was nothing if not one sharp cookie. But how could he possibly explain the conflicting impulses about to drive him crazy? That she was about to drive him crazy? That he couldn’t figure out whether he’d be more miserable with her, or without her? So instead he smiled for the baby, currently strangling the hapless rabbit, an image which nearly tore his heart in two. And sidestepped the question altogether. “Nova has this bug up her butt about you and Abbie coming to dinner this evening,” he said, looking back at Meg. “And arguing with a pregnant woman is not on my agenda, believe me.” To his relief, Meg laughed. A warm, wonderful, clearly irrepressible sound that seemed to come from the depths of her soul. “Smart man—” “And maybe the zoo beforehand? It’s not far from there to my sister’s house. Um, I have her car. And a car seat.” She tilted her head. The sun caressed her curls, and Russ ached. “Why are you doing this?” “Because… Because it’s a beautiful day and it’s been far too long since I did something normal like go to the zoo. And going alone sucks.” And maybe, if I spend the day with you, I’ll get you out of my system. Then she smiled, putting the sun to shame, and he thought, Yeah. Good luck with that. *** Although they still chattered at each other almost nonstop the entire afternoon, Meg sensed an edge to their conversation that hadn’t been there the day before. Almost as if this little outing was a test of some sort. But for whom? And what, exactly, was the test?

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Russ with Abbie, who was on his shoulders so she could see the giraffes better over the crowd. His ease and competence with her was amazing for someone with no kids of his own, no nieces or nephews or younger siblings to practice on. Unless he’d babysat a lot when he was younger? Or…maybe that whole clicking thing had just been a figment of her overwrought imagination and Russ was actually no more The One than the other losers she managed to attract. Or marry. What are you up to? she wanted to ask. What’s your game? Then he looked over, almost as if he’d heard her, with a half smile and such a weird blend of joy and pain in his eyes she lost her breath. About two and a half seconds before she lost her heart. Which immediately shot to the top of the list of all the crazy, lamebrained, off-the-wall things she’d done in her life. Seriously, even for her this was a doozy. Two hours later, they arrived at Nova’s cute little Cape Cod in Brookline. Nova hugged Meg, then squatted in front of Abbie to give her another stuffed toy. A duck, this time. “You guys really don’t have to do this,” Abbie said, inhaling the mouthwatering scents of tomato sauce and garlic and browning butter. “She’s going to expect every person she meets to give her a toy! Oh! You have a high chair for her?” “It’s…borrowed,” Nova said, touching Meg’s shoulders as she moved to the kitchen. “From the same people who lent Russ the car seat?” “Um, yes, actually. Will she eat lasagna? Because I can always fix her something else.” “Are you kidding? This kid eats everything. Just like her mama.” She laughed. “Now I’m really glad Russ wasn’t up to arguing with a pregnant woman—it smells fantastic in here!” She turned just as Russ tore his gaze away from his sister to give her a quick, nervous smile that set off all kinds of alarms. *** “Ohmigosh—I’ve talked your ears off since we left your sister’s house!” Meg said with a light laugh from the passenger seat. “Guess I’m a little wound up. Fun days and good food will do that to me. So I’ll be quiet now. Your turn.”

Nearly back to Meg’s house, the baby asleep in the car seat behind him, Russ glanced over to catch Meg’s irrepressible grin. A grin that was tearing him to pieces. “It’s okay,” he said softly, turning on Meg’s street. “I didn’t have much to say, anyway.” “Yeah, I kinda caught that.” She paused. “Any particular reason?” Where would she like him to start? He was trying, he really was. And Meg was great. Beyond great. Despite the leftover hurt lingering in her eyes when she talked about Abbie’s father, it hadn’t left her even remotely bitter. Cautious, sure, but not bitter. But, see, that was the problem. His problem. Because the more he was around all that unbridled joy and passion for life, the more he felt like a boring old pook who could never really be what she needed. A boring old pook with stuff in his past he couldn’t seem to shake, no matter how hard he tried. How much he wanted to. Yeah, yeah, he’d told himself today was all about getting Meg and Abbie out of his system. Except it had backfired, big-time, as both baby and mama unwittingly wrapped themselves around his little finger. His heart. Now in front of Meg’s house, Russ dragged a hand down his face before forcing himself to meet her questioning eyes. “I haven’t exactly been honest with you.” “Oh?” He looked back over the dark street, smiling a little when Abbie sighed in her sleep. “I had a great time today, too,” he said. “Maybe too great. See, I’ve kinda been out of the loop for a while, too. And you…” He pushed out a sigh, then looked at her again. “I didn’t want you to suck me in, but you did. You and Abbie both. And now that I am…” His lips pressed together, he faced front again. “I can’t do this, Meg. Not to you.” “Do what?” “You’re like…some little wild thing that needs to be free. And I’d be your cage.” She stayed still for a very long moment. “A cage? Or a safe place?” When he didn’t respond, she said, “If this is about sock drawers…I think we could work that out.” He almost laughed. “See…I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” “It’s okay. I do—”

“I’m sorry.” He looked at her, seeing his own anguish reflected in her eyes. “I really am.” Several seconds passed. “Yeah,” she said at last, shoving open her door. “Me, too.” “You need help with the baby?” “Nope, I’m good,” she said, yanking open the back door and clumsily pulling the toddler out of the car seat, grabbing the baby bag. Then she slammed shut both doors and marched up the walk, the baby slumped against her chest, not even saying goodbye. Russ had no idea how long he sat there, watching lights go on in her apartment, before he finally pulled away, feeling more wretched than he would have thought possible. Chapter Seven

“I don’t believe this,” Nova said on the other end of the line later that night. “It’s perfectly obvious how you feel about her. Not to mention that it’s reciprocated—” “Nove…don’t,” Russ said on a heavy sigh. “Please. It’s like…we’re on different planes. Not that I wouldn’t mind being on the same one with her, but I have no clue how to get there.” A long pause stretched between them. “You didn’t even tell her, did you?” “What would have been the point?” “Oh, I don’t know…maybe so you could freaking move on, already?” “And maybe some of us are better at that than others, okay?” At her silence, he sighed again. “Sorry, that was low.” “Damn straight. Not to mention stupid.” “Yeah, well, that’s fitting, seeing as I’m all about stupid these days.” “No,” she said, more gently. “What this is all about is you not liking messy. And falling for someone that fast is about as messy as it gets. But even you know the best things in life are messy. Cotton candy. Lobster.” She chuckled. “Sex.” “Don’t think this is appropriate brother-sister conversation.” “Dude. If I were a guy I’d go for Meg in a heartbeat. Just sayin’.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “I think you’re making a huge mistake, Russ. Seriously.”

But he hadn’t, Russ thought after his sister hung up. What he’d done was save both him and Meg from even more heartache down the road. Really, it was better this way. *** Crying over a guy she’d met three days before was beyond dumb. But once Meg got Abbie to bed, the damn tears just wouldn’t stop. She knew she’d get over it—get over him—but right now, it hurt. Of course, she had no one to blame but herself, letting herself get carried away like that. Seeing rainbows where there weren’t any. “When are you ever going to learn?” she muttered, swiping Abbie’s toys off the floor, a fresh barrage of tears spilling over her eyelids when she got to Bit, the rabbit Russ had given her. Sniffling, Meg sank onto the edge of the sofa bed, hugging the plushy critter to her chest, imagining the thing smelled like Russ. What a weirdo, she thought, holding the floppy thing out to look at it. Buying her kid a toy and then pulling the vanishing act. Frowning, she swiped her hand across her eyes to focus on one of Bit’s paws. Holy moly. You could hardly tell, unless you looked closely, but… She carried the toy over to the end table lamp to get a better look. Yep. That was definitely a worn spot. Great. Not only was the man a world-class heartbreaker, but he gave her kid used toys? Furious, Meg stomped to the kitchen, fully intending to dump it in the trash. And yet, when she lifted the garbage can cover, the poor little bunny looked at her with those soulful button eyes… Ah, hell. However, although Bit won a reprieve from the trash can, over the following week Meg remained more or less determined to exorcise Russ from her thoughts. And her family from her business. On neither account was she particularly successful. Although she might have succeeded, at least on the Russ front, had Nova not come in for her appointment the following Monday and wrangled Meg into having lunch afterward. Okay, maybe not wrangled, exactly. More like, Russ’s sister said, “How about lunch?” and Meg said, “Sure,” and ten minutes later they were sitting in the fifties-homage Coach House Diner near the Institute, lusting after every platter of food that sailed past. “I’m a little surprised you agreed to come to lunch with me,” Nova said, backing up to let the waitress set a chef’s salad the size of Milwaukee in front of her.

“Not nearly as much as I am that you asked me.” Nova smiled. Then sighed, drizzling creamy Italian dressing over her greens. “I need to know how you feel about Russ.” Meg’s eyes shot to the duplicates of Russ’s in front of her. It hurt. “Why?” “Because I’d at least like to have the facts straight before I meddle.” Over a short, soft laugh, Meg shook her head. “Let’s just say he’s the one who stopped this thing in its tracks. Not me.” “He say why?” “Not really. Other than some jibber-jabber about being afraid of becoming my cage.” Meg dunked her fry in a ketchup puddle. It broke in half. Rats. “Funny thing is, two weeks ago? I would’ve agreed with him. Was no more ready for something solid and real and permanent than I was to fly to the moon. Then I met your brother, and it was like… whoa.” She lifted her eyes to Nova. “Usually when you fall so hard and fast for somebody, it leaves you feeling unbalanced. Dizzy. With Russ, though…it was like…” She laughed softly. “Not realizing how unsteady the ground had been under my feet until it stopped shaking. But it was pretty clear only one of us was willing to take that great big next step. And it wasn’t Russ.” Across from her, Nova smiled. “Except for all his protests, you’re exactly what Russ needs in his life. What he wants, no matter how hard he pushes you away—” “I’m not so sure. Heck, I probably would send him over the edge. Constantly changing jobs, moving the furniture around every week—I bet he hasn’t changed anything in years, right?” “That’s true, but—” “So maybe it is better this way, ending it before we drive each other nuts.” “Meg. Stop.” Smiling, Nova reached for Meg’s hand across the table. “I know you’re what he needs because he’s already had someone like you in his life. And he was happier during those few years than I’ve ever seen him.” Meg stilled. “What are you talking about?” Nova released a breath. “He’s gonna kill me for interfering, but… True, my brother hasn’t rearranged his furniture in two years. But his wife did, every few weeks. And believe me, he’s no stranger to baby toys being strewn all over creation.” “I don’t—”

“Russ is a widower, Meg,” Nova said, tears shining in her eyes. “His wife and little boy died in a car crash two years ago.” Chapter Eight

After a moment of stunned disbelief, dozens of details began to swirl inside Meg’s head —the magically appearing car seat and high chair, the "used" toys, Russ’s lashing out at her after saving Abbie from falling in the pond. His reaction to kids in general. “Oh, dear God,” she whispered, suddenly not hungry. “Why on earth didn’t he say something?” “Because he was raised to believe that men didn’t talk about their pain,” Nova said drily. “All the months our mom was sick, Dad did the stoic thing. If he shed any tears after her death, we sure as heck never saw them. And yet I know a piece of him died with her.” She forked a chunk of hard-boiled egg into her mouth. “In fact, he was gone, too, within a year.” “Man. You guys… You’ve really had it rough.” Nova lifted her eyes to Meg’s. “On the surface, it would certainly seem so. Except both Russ and I… We both had happy marriages. Very happy marriages. So did our parents. When stuff happens…” She shrugged. “You can choose to let it take you under, or make you stronger. To move on, or not. Obviously I have no idea if you can help my brother or not. If he’ll give you—give himself—another shot. But if there’s even a chance that you could get though to him—” At Meg’s apparently dumbfounded expression, Nova shook her head, her lips curved in a sad smile. “I’m sorry, I’m being totally selfish. I’ve got no right to ask you…” “Yes.” Nova met her gaze. “You could get hurt again.” Meg signaled for a container for the rest of her food. “Not if I know what I’m getting into.” Nova’s smile told her she was doing the right thing. Meg’s stomach, however, wasn’t so sure. ***

Russ had lost track of how many times he’d thought about calling Meg over the past week. How many times he’d thought about her and Abbie. Period. He thought this was what they called a losing battle. Because what was he supposed to say? He’d never had to apologize to Sarah; had never made a fool of himself with her. Not this big a fool, anyway. He’d never even thought twice about laying his heart on the line. Because he’d known, almost from the first moment he’d seen her dripping wet, running through the sprinklers on campus, that she’d been exactly what he needed— “Hi.” Out in the greenhouse, he turned so fast he nearly knocked over the topiary beside him. Meg covered her laugh, her eyes twinkling over her hand, and his heart somersaulted. “Hi, yourself,” he said. She lowered her hand. “Nova thinks I should give you another chance.” “Oh, she does, huh?” “She meddled. It’s what siblings who care about each other do. I should know.” Russ smiled. “But what do you think?” “I think you should get over here and kiss me before I change my mind.” She didn’t have to ask him twice. A split second later they were in each other’s arms. He lifted his hands to cradle her dimpled, laughing face, her curls whispering over his knuckles as he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her. She murmured something into his mouth and kissed him back, and something sweet and warm and fierce surged through him, instantly burning off two years of grief and fear and hopelessness. Then she pulled away, frowning, even as she lifted a hand to his face. “Why didn’t you tell me, for heaven’s sake? About your wife and son?” He lowered his eyes. Took a breath. Pressed her hand to his heart. “Because it hurt.” One side of her mouth lifted. “Does it still?” “Not as much as it did five minutes ago.” “Good,” she said, hope shining in her eyes, and Russ drew her close, resting his chin on her curls. “I’m sorry I was an ass.”

“So am I,” she mumbled into his chest, then leaned back to meet his gaze. “Bit was your son’s, wasn’t it? And the car seat and high chair…” “Yeah. I kept telling myself I’d get rid of them one day, but one day somehow never came. I honestly don’t know what possessed me to give Bit to Abbie. But it helped.” “Seriously?” “Seriously.” She blew a soft laugh through her nose. “After you left the other night, I very nearly tossed him into the trash. But I couldn’t. Good thing, too, ’cause Abbie asked for him the next morning. They’re BFFs now.” When he laughed, she touched soft fingers to the side of his face. “Tell me about Sarah.” Russ smiled. “In some ways, she was a lot like you,” he said softly. “Funny. Brave. Crazy. She made me… She made me stop taking myself so seriously, which was a very good thing. Then she and Adam died…” He hugged Meg again. “And I didn’t think I’d ever be able to not take things seriously again.” “Is it scary that I understood that?” Chuckling, Russ cupped her face again, touching noses. “But just so you know, I didn’t fall in love with a clone of Sarah. I fell in love with you.” He saw her swallow. “Nobody will believe this, you know.” “So screw ’em. This is about us. Nobody else.” She linked her hands around the back of his neck, her lips curved. “You’re what I need in my life, too. Somebody to keep me tethered to earth. Okay, maybe not always, that would be boring, but without you as the constant in our lives, all the rest of it means nothing. As long as…you’re sure you’re ready for this? For us?” “You have no idea how ready I am.” Russ smiled. Then he kissed her again, feeling whole and sane and happy again for the first time in forever. THE END

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