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Men were the bane of Susie O'Brien's life. She was surrounded by them, all of them stubborn in the extreme, beginning with her father, Jeff. Add in her uncles Mick and Thomas, her brothers and, the very worst of all, Mack Franklin, and it was a wonder she could get through a day without screaming.
Today, in fact, already seemed likely to test the limits of her patience in never-before-imagined ways. Before she'd even had the first sip of her coffee, her uncle Mick came charging into the Chesapeake Shores real estate management company that she ran with her father.
"Where's Jeff, that" At her frown, he cut off the disparaging epithet he'd apparently been intent on using. "Your father, where is he?"
"Dad had an appointment with a client," she said, then chose her next words about her father's whereabouts carefully. She knew that this particular piece of property was a hot-button issue for Mick. "He's showing her a house on Mill Road. It's the third time she's gone through the place. He's almost certain she's going to sign a contract today."
Mick frowned, obviously clicking through his own mental data bank of properties on Mill Road. Then astonishment dawned. "The Brighton house? He's finally going to unload that old eyesore? How'd he get the listing? Last I heard, no one in that family would even speak to an O'Brien."
Susie hid a smile. It still stuck in her uncle's craw that old Mr. Brighton had refused to sell him a key piece of shoreline property when he'd been developing Chesapeake Shores. Apparently the refusal had something to do with a Brighton-O'Brien family feud several generations back that neither coaxing nor big bucks had been able to resolve. For all Susie knew, some great-great-uncle's rooster had chased a Brighton, who'd lopped off its head and cooked it for Sunday dinner. In her family that was all it would take to start a feud that could last for eons.
"Seems that way," she confirmed. "Apparently Mr. Brighton's heirs don't have the same aversion to dealing with an O'Brien that he did."
"Stubborn old coot," Mick muttered.
"Why did you want to see Dad?" Susie asked. "Is there a problem?"
For years now the only things that brought the two brothers together were problems and the entreaties of their mother. Nell O'Brien insisted that even the sparring brothers and their families had to spend holidays under the same roof. Susie couldn't recall a tension-free holiday meal in her entire lifetime. The antacid business probably thrived thanks to the O'Brien dynamics.
Mick and her dad could be civil for an hour or two, which was more than she could say for Mick and her uncle Thomas, at least until recently. Lately they'd apparently struck some kind of accord, which was akin to achieving peace in the Middle East. Like those treaties, Susie suspected this one didn't have a lot of hope of lasting, though now that Thomas was with Connie Collins she seemed to have a soothing effect on him. She also seemed determined to maintain the detente.
"There's water leaking in Shanna's bookstore again," Mick told Susie, referring to his daughter-in-law's business on Main Street. "And, frankly, the plumbing in Megan's gallery should be checked, too. The last thing she needs is a flood ruining all that expensive art."
Susie gave him an innocent look. "Isn't the art hanging on the walls?"
Her uncle scowled. "What's your point?"
"Only that it would take quite a flood to ruin the paintings." She beamed at him. "Besides, since you gave Megan that space for a dollar a year, didn't you agree to take care of all the upkeep? I can look at the lease, if you like. We kept a copy hereat your insistence, as I recall."
Mick gave her a sour look. "If your daddy stayed on top of details the way you do, he'd be a better businessman."
"He doesn't need to," Susie retorted. "He has me. I will get the plumber over to Shanna's today, though. The last thing we need is another insurance claim. And I can send him by Megan's as well, as long as the bill comes to you."
Though he looked disgruntled, Mick nodded. "That'll do." He studied her. "You'll be at the house for Thanksgiving dinner?"
He eyed her speculatively. "You bringing Mack?" Susie stilled. "Why would I? I've never brought him before."
"I've seen you around town with Mack Franklin for at least three years now," Mick replied. "Maybe longer. Isn't it time the two of you either got serious or called it quits? What kind of man drags his heels this long, and what sort of woman lets him? You deserve better than that, Susie. You're an O'Brien, after all, even if you're not one of mine. Nobody would have gotten away with treating one of my girls that way."
"Mack and I aren't dating," Susie said stiffly. "We're friends. Besides, how he treats me is none of your concern."
Mick just shook his head. "Damned waste, if you ask me. Reel the man in or move on, that's my advice."
"Not that I asked for it," Susie said. She'd heard some version of the same advice for a couple of years now from just about everyone in her family, and a few outsiders to boot. It was getting tiresome, mostly because it was sound advice she didn't particularly want to heed.
Unfortunately, as crazy as she'd been about Mack for most of her life, she was also a realist. Handsome, sexy ex-jocks who dated sexy, sophisticated, powerful women weren't going to be seriously interested in a woman who was ordinary on her very best day and downright pitiful when the sun freckled her pale skin and her bright red hair refused to be tamed. Despite a college degree and a few family trips to Ireland, Susie was basically a smalltown girl, not Mack's type at all.
Though Shanna, who was married now to Susie's cousin Kevin, had suggested that Mack was as infatuated as she was, Susie didn't entirely believe her. She'd also discovered it was next to impossible to break a non-dating pattern once it had been established. With Mack and her, it was practically carved in stone. Other than one kiss under the mistletoe that had gotten decidedly out of hand, their relationship was strictly platonic. That kiss, however, had given her enough hope to give things between them more time to heat up.
"Maybe I'll ask Mack to dinner myself," Mick said, studying Susie intently as if to gauge her reaction. "How about that?"
She shrugged. "Up to you." Being around Mack wasn't the problem. They were together all the time. Turning it into anything romantic, that was the problem. Tying him to her bed and having her wicked way with him seemed extreme, though she was getting desperate enough to consider it.
Beyond that, she didn't have one single idea about how she could change things without risking total humiliation. She wondered what her uncle would have to say if she asked him straight out how to get Mack to make love to her. Her lips curved just thinking about Mick's reaction to such a query.
Mick regarded her suspiciously. "What are you smiling about?"
"I was just wondering how far you'd be willing to take your meddling," she said, studying him curiously. "Meaning?"
"You pride yourself on getting all five of my cousins happily married. What do you think you could do to get Mack and me to the altar?"
At the immediate glint in his eye, she reconsidered her question. "Not that I'm asking you to intervene," she said hurriedly. "I'm just wondering."
Mick pulled up a chair and sat down, his expression suddenly serious. "Okay, let's think about this. I imagine I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve that might work."
The daring side of Susie's nature failed her at the eagerness in his voice. The status quo might well be better than the disaster her uncle might unleash. "Never mind, Uncle Mick. I think I'd better deal with Mack myself."
"You sure about that?" he asked, looking disappointed. "Like you said yourself a minute ago, I have a track record."
Susie knew for a fact that most of her cousins had found true love despite their father's interference, not because of it. "I'm sure," she said.
He shrugged. "Up to you, but I'm around if you change your mind. It's obvious your father's no help, but you can count on me."
Susie fought to hide her smile. Once again, her uncle's competitive spirit had reared its head. She might not know a lot about what the future held with Mack, but she knew with absolute certainty that the very last thing they needed was having her father and Mick in the middle of their relationship, vying for control of their future. Somehow she'd just have to figure out a way to get Mack to stop seeing her as a pal and realize that she was a desirable woman.
As Mick left the office, Susie glanced ruefully at her reflection in the window. First, though, she had to learn to see herself that way.
Mack walked into the managing editor's office at his Baltimore newspaper a week before Thanksgiving, took one look at Don Richmond's face and sat down hard.
"You're firing me," he said before his boss could. He should have known that being summoned into the office this morning couldn't mean anything good.
"I hate this," Don said, which wasn't an outright confirmation, but it certainly wasn't a denial.
He met Mack's gaze with an earnest expression that begged him to understand. "I don't have a choice, Mack.
You know how it is. We're making cutbacks in every department. The newspaper business has been going downhill for quite a while now, and we're not immune."
Don scowled at the computer on his desk. "It's because of this," he grumbled. "Darn things are taking over. I know the world is changing, but I didn't think I'd live to see the day when newspapers would be all but obsolete."
Mack had been anticipating the possibility of being fired for a while now. His sports column was widely read and sometimes controversial. The publisher didn't always like dealing with the fallout after Mack had called some local athlete or team management on a boneheaded move. He said it was ruining his digestion when he had to face those same people at some benefit or other and defend Mack's words.
Worse, of course, was that Mack was the highest-paid writer in the sports department. By firing him, they could hang on to a couple of low-paid interns and turn them into reporters. As the theory went these days, what they lacked in experience they'd make up for in energy.
"I'm sorry," Don said, looking miserable. "You'll get a decent severance package that should give you some time to look around for something else. Not that someone as good as you are will need them, but I'll give you glowing references and every contact I have in the business."
"But the bottom line is that I'm going to run into the same cutbacks anywhere I go," Mack said realistically.
He'd tried to plan for this. The handwriting had been on the wall for months, but getting the news was still a blow. And none of his ideas for the future so far had excited him.
Still, as Don said, he'd have some time. It wasn't as if he was going to be destitute. He was, however, going to be unemployed. Even though it was through no fault of his own, it left him feeling like a failure. He wondered if this was the way his own father had felt when he'd been jobless. Was that why he'd taken off before Mack was even born?
"How soon?" he asked Don. "Will they keep me on through football season?"
"Nope. End of the week. The publisher thinks keeping people around once they're fired is bad for morale."
Or maybe he was just afraid that if the body count became obvious, the remaining employees would cut and run. That's what a few had done immediately after the last round of cutbacks.
Mack wasn't sure he had the stomach for finishing out the week, much less football season, anyway. "How about I write a couple of columns from home this week?" he suggested. "Wrap things up from there?"
Don looked torn. "You want to just slip away? People are gonna be real unhappy about that. You should at least stick around long enough for the kind of blowout party you deserve down at Callahan's."
"No, thanks," Mack said, shuddering at the thought. Being fired sucked, no matter the reason. He didn't want to wallow in the humiliation in front of his colleagues. He didn't much want to commiserate with them, either.
"Okay, then, whatever works for you," Don agreed with obvious reluctance.
Unfortunately, what worked for Mack was keeping a job he loved in a business that was disappearing practically overnight.
At home that night, as the news really sank in, along with all of the financial implications for the short term, Mack stared morosely at the black velvet box sitting on his coffee table.
He'd finally decided to take a huge leap of faith and ask Susie O'Brien to marry him, even though she'd always said she'd rather eat dirt than even go out on a date with a promiscuous player like him. He'd figured several years of dating without acknowledging it ought to just about equal officially courting her for a few months.
Maybe she'd overlook the fact that they'd shared only one memorable, bone-melting kiss in all that time. He doubted she'd forgotten it. He certainly hadn't. The heat and sweetness of it were burned into his memory. He'd never anticipated falling in love, much less with a vulnerable bundle of contradictions like Susie, but it had happened. It had caught him completely off guard.
Now, however, with his financial prospects in doubt, proposing was out of the question. He couldn't even think about marrying anyone until he figured out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. And right this second, with a couple of glasses of scotch dulling the pain of his firing, he didn't even want to cross paths with Susie, who'd been telling him for weeks now that he was in a dying profession. Not that he'd ever contradicted her how could he?but he wasn't quite ready for an I-told-you-so.
When his phone rang repeatedly that night, he ignored it. When his cell phone rang off and on the next day, he ignored that, too. Messages were accumulating on both lines, but he wasn't interested. Normally an upbeat, positive guy, he was in an unparalleled funk. He figured he was entitled to wallow there for a few days at least.
Unfortunately, his friends Will Lincoln and Jake Collins had other ideas. After one day of not joining them for their regular lunch at Sally's, they were banging on his door. Since each of them had a key for emergencies, Mack wasn't surprised when they barged right in two seconds after knocking.