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NORMALLY NOTHING SCARED Merry Olson. People
teased her about it all the time. On the same morning, you could throw her a flat tire, bad hair and burned eggs, and she'd still be perky. Her dad claimed she could find the silver lining in a tornado. But man, one look at the house and she felt rattled clear to the bone.
The trip from Minnesota to Oakburg, Virginia, had been tediously long, especially driving alone, so she expected to arrive exhausted. She just never expected to feel culture shock as if she'd landed on a completely alien planet.
Taking a huge, bolstering breath, she climbed from her snow-and-salt-crusted blue Mini Cooper and grabbed her cell phone. At twenty-nine, she was hardly tied by the emotional umbilical cord to her dad, but she knew darn well he'd worry himself crazy until he heard from her. She worried about him the same way when he traveled alone.
Waiting for her dad to answer, she glanced at her car. Merry never doubted that her Cooper could make it through anything—the car was far more reliable than she was—but right now, no question, the baby was sagging in the rear end and heaped to the gills.
Upending her entire life in a week had been a major challenge, but not impossible. For years friends and family had labeled her ditzy, but where they meant an affectionate insult, Merry secretly took pride in the tag. She lived life loose. That was a deliberate choice, not an accident. She'd never taken a job she couldn't quit, never allowed herself to get so attached to a place that she couldn't leave. She'd never settled long with anyone or for anything.
What other people called flaky, she called freedom. And maybe she had a few personal reasons why she was so zealously footloose, but that wasn't the point. The point was now—when she'd needed to be able to change her whole life quickly, she'd been able to do so.
Her Mini Cooper did look a bit odd. The passenger seat alone was weighted down with two suitcases, a pillow and a jumbled collection of shoes—forty pairs, to be precise. The backseat was completely stuffed with a table-sized Christmas tree, already decked out with pink lights and pink satin ornaments, and a mess of various-sized boxes wrapped in pink and silver and gold.
Considering it was January tenth, a long way past Christmas, the tree especially had to look a little weird to a stranger. But Merry had her priorities, and she hoped to Pete that looking sane to other people was never one of them.
"Dad?" Finally, he answered on the fourth ring. "I got here, safe and sound. A mighty long drive, but really no sweat...."
A zingy ice sleet stung her face, but she didn't mind. The chipper temperature was exhilarating after all those cramped hours in the car. Besides, she'd left two feet of snow in Minneapolis, so if this was the worst Virginia could hand out in the winter, living here was going to be a piece of cake.
When she glanced at the house again, though, she suffered another shiver chasing up her spine.
"No, Dad, I haven't seen the lawyer yet. Or the child. There hasn't been time. I thought I could drive it through, but I had to stop for a few hours sleep last night. So I literally just pulled in the driveway to get a look at the place...."
With the phone still tucked to her ear, she whirled around, hoping the look of the neighborhood would be more reassuring. Instead, she suffered another shuddersized shiver.
Apparently it wasn't just the one house. There was a whole block of them. They were all minicastles, with sculpted yards and fancy architectural features and three-car garages. The only vehicles in sight were BMWs and Volvos and Lexus SUVs.
Her house wasn't any worse than the rest, but it was pretty darn scary. To begin with, the size alone could have slept a small country. A cathedral ceiling and blue crystal chandelier was visible from a two-story-tall glass window. Carriage lamps graced the double oak doors. The flagstone walkway was landscaped within an inch of its life and the porch had pillars, for Pete's sake.
Merry felt another clutch in her chest. There was just no denying the truth. This was upper-class suburbia. Desperate Housewives in the flesh. The land of swing sets and soccer moms and lawn mowers.
Come on, Merry. It's not as if someone dropped you in the Amazon without bug repellent. Common sense rarely influenced her, but in this case, Merry was relieved to have her conscience show up with a little reassurance—and of course it was true. Maybe the house was a shock, but it wasn't as if she didn't realize the suburb thing existed. It was just so remote from her life.
Naturally she'd thought about marriage now and then, but she couldn't imagine falling for a guy who wanted 2.3 kids and the minivan deal. The only kind of guy who'd likely tempt her would have to be as free-footed as she was. If that never happened, no loss. Life offered no end of adventures and interesting possibilities just as it was.
As happy as she'd been with that philosophy, though, it gave her no clue now what a soccer mom was supposed to do all day. With the cell phone still glued to her ear, she squinted again at the chandelier visible from the tall window, wondering how the Sam Hill anybody cleaned that sucker. A fireman's ladder? Maybe someone sprayed Windex from a helicopter? Maybe someone rented climbing gear and belayed down from the chimney?
"No, no, I was listening, Dad!" Swiftly she concentrated back on the conversation. "It's still two hours before five, so I'm hoping to connect with the lawyer today, get the house key. I only wish I could get her out of that place tonight, but at least this way, I'll have tonight to get some things done—like turning on the heat, bringing in some food, opening the place up and like that. But first thing tomorrow, with any luck...sure, Dad. Of course, I'll call you as soon as I know more... the house? Oh yeah, you'd love the house."
As she clicked off the phone, she thought wryly that her dad would most certainly love the place. She was the only one suffering from "suburb allergy."
Her sisters teased that she was maturity-challenged, but they were all older, had all bought into the myth about adulthood being synonymous with mortgages and appliance ownership.
She'd just shoved the cell phone back in her purse when she heard a truck door slam from the next driveway.
After the last unsettling moments, she appreciated the distraction. Especially a distraction as riveting as this one. It was just a guy—but definitely a long, lanky hunk of a guy, arresting enough to put some kaboom back in her tired pulse.
He peeled out of a black pickup and immediately hiked around to the rear. Undoubtedly hustling because of the spitting sleet, he cracked down the tailgate and started hefting some long wooden boards. She didn't think he'd noticed her until he suddenly called out, "You must be lost."
It wasn't the time, the moment, or the guy to murmur the old Campbell's soup refrain—M'm! M'm! Good!—but she did think it. Just for a minute. Heaven knew, she had no time for silliness right now, but one good long look wasn't hurting anything. He was so definitely adorable. Dark hair, worn a little roguish-long, dusted with snow. Dark eyes that glistened. A long angular face with a scrape of high cheekbones, a distinctly French nose, a chin carved out of granite. The thin mouth was the only soft thing about him, but she'd bet the ranch those lips knew how to kiss.
Maybe she didn't own a ranch, but she happened to be extremely skilled in certain areas. Just because a woman wasn't rabid about settling down didn't mean she hadn't tested out her share of the male population, particularly in the kissing department. "No, honestly, I'm not lost," she assured him. "But I did just come a long way to find the place. You knew Charlie Ross?"
"Yup. Neighbors for years." He motioned with his head. "The house is locked up."
She watched him unload several more boards—all gorgeous-looking wood. She didn't know birch from beech, but she could see he was treating the boards as if they were precious cargo. "I know," she said. "About the house being locked up, I mean. I just drove here from Minnesota..."
"Uh-huh." He carted two boards at a time to the inside of his garage, then came back for more.
She realized he was hardly inviting more conversation—nor did she have time for chitchat. But a next-door neighbor was a potential ally. And certainly, someone who had to know Charlie and his daughter, so she offered, "I've never been here before. In fact, the last time I saw Charlie, he was still living in Minneapolis, years ago. I had no idea he'd died until the lawyer contacted me. I'm here about Charlene—"
"I have to get the house key from the lawyer. And I guess there's a whole host of complicated issues to settle besides that. But with any luck, I'm really hoping to have Charlene back in her own home by tomorrow."
She definitely caught his attention then. In fact, he suddenly stopped dead. "What? You're the guardian?"
Okay, maybe his tone was a little insulting, as if the possibility of her being a guardian was as remote as the sky falling in, but Merry made allowances. He was probably cranky from carrying the weight of all those boards. And she'd been hard-core driving, which meant she wore no makeup and her hair hadn't seen a brush in hours, not to mention that her red flowered slippers lacked a certain cachet. Cripes, she generally got more male attention than she wanted when she dressed up—but undoubtedly to this guy, she looked young. At least compared to him. Living in this neighborhood, he was undoubtedly on the married-with-kids side of the fence.
Not that he was decrepit. Merry had guy-shopped long enough to recognize real diamonds from the faux. He wasn't just cute. He was sexy the way only men with some experience-lines could look. He was past the spoiled-boy stage, past the how-was-it-for-you tedium in the morning. More into the I-Know-How-To-Please-A-Woman era. Close to forty, for sure.
Still, he was definitely off her radar. Not because of his age, but because of the married thing.
She still hoped he'd like her, though. Having a friend next door would be a huge help, so quickly and warmly she produced her biggest smile—the smile that had been known to attract male favor since she was, oh, three and a half.
For a good two seconds, it seemed to work on him, too. Between the shiny sleet, the gloomy afternoon and the distance across the driveway, she couldn't see his expression all that clearly...but he definitely stared back at her intensely for those few moments.
And that was about all the time Merry had to mess around. "I won't bug you any longer—I can see you're busy, and I'm in a real hurry as well. But I'm Merry. Merry Olson. So when you see lights turn on in the house later, you'll know it's me."
"Jack Mackinnon here." Swiftly he added, "Merry... you have actually met Charlene before, right?"
He sounded more incredulous than critical, but Merry didn't figure it was the time or place to get into it. "Not yet," she said cheerfully, and then waved as she climbed back in her car.
The look of him lingered in her mind—but so did his expression.
He wouldn't be the first to call her crazy for taking off cross-country to take on an eleven-year-old girl she'd never even met. Hell's bells, even she admitted it was crazy.
But crazy didn't mean it was wrong.
Merry had long, devastating memories from the year she was eleven—so the little girl's age had hugely, hopelessly touched her. The second factor was the poor kid had lost her dad on Christmas Eve—how impossibly devastating was that? On top of which, there were no relatives who could step in. Charlene was far beyond the usual adoptable age, and in an overcrowded foster-care system, the child was absolutely alone, had no one in her corner.
The way Merry saw it, one of the giant advantages to living footloose and fancy free was exactly an issue like this—she had the flexibility to take off and choose a different life path whenever she wanted to. No, she didn't know the child. No, she didn't have a clue if there were any special problems, but when push came down to shove—which it had—what did anything like that matter? How could she possible leave a lonely, grief-stricken eleven-year-old girl when she had the power to do something about it?