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It was only the second time in the more than twelve years since her divorce that Megan O'Brien had been home in Chesapeake Shores during the holiday season.
Newly divorced and separated from her children, Megan had found the memories had been too bittersweet to leave New York and come back for Christmas. She'd tried to make up for her absence by sending a mountain of presents, each one carefully chosen to suit the interests of each child. She'd called on Christmas Day, but the conversations with the older children had been grudging and too brief. Her youngest, Jess, had refused to take her call at all.
The following year Megan had ventured back to town, hoping to spend time with the children on Christmas morning. Her ex-husband, Mick O'Brien, had agreed to the visit. She'd anticipated seeing their eyes light up over the presents she'd chosen. She'd even arranged for a special breakfast at Brady's, a family favorite, but the atmosphere had been so strained, the reaction to her gifts so dismissive, that she'd driven everyone back home an hour later. She'd managed to hide her tears and disappointment until she was once again alone in her hotel room.
After that, she'd made countless attempts to convince the children to come to New York for the holidays, but they'd stubbornly refused, and Mick had backed them up. She could have fought harder, but she'd realized that to do so would only ruin Christmas for all of them. Teenagers who were where they didn't want to be could make everyone's life miserable.
Now she parked her car at the end of Main and walked slowly along the block, taking it all in. Even though it was only days after Halloween, the town was all decked out. Every storefront along Main Street had been transformed with twinkling white lights and filled with enticing displays. The yellow chrysanthemums outside the doorways during the fall had given way to an abundance of bright red poinsettias.
Workers were stringing lights along the downtown streets and readying a towering fir on the town green for a tree-lighting ceremony that would be held in a few weeks. The only thing missing was snow, and since Chesapeake Shores hadn't had a white Christmas in years, no one was counting on that to set the scene. The town created its own festive atmosphere to charm residents and lure tourists to the seaside community.
As she strolled, Megan recalled the sweet simplicity of going Christmas shopping with the kids when they were small, pausing as they stared in wonder at the window displays. There were a few new shops now, but many remained exactly the same, the windows gaily decorated in a suitable theme. Now it was her grandchildren who would be enchanted by the displays.
Ethel's Emporium, for instance, still had the same animated figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus in the window along with giant jars filled with the colorful penny candy that was so popular with the children in town. Once again, Seaside Gifts had draped fishing nets in the window, woven lights through them and added an exceptional assortment of glittering nautical ornaments, some delicate, some delightfully gaudy and outrageous.
At her daughter Bree's shop, Flowers on Main, lights sparkled amid a sea of red and white poinsettias. Next door, in her daughter-in-law Shanna's bookstore, the window featured seasonal children's books, along with a selection of holiday cookie recipe books and a plate filled with samples to entice a jolly life-size stuffed Santa. Inside, she knew, there would be more of the delectable cookies for the customers. The chef at her daughter Jess's inn was sending them over daily during the season, some packaged for resale as enticing gifts.
In fact, all along Main Street, Megan saw evidence of her family settling down in this town that had been the creation of her ex-husband, architect Mick O'Brien. Though all of their children except Jess had fled for careers and college, one by one they had drifted back home and made lives for themselves in Chesapeake Shores. They'd made peace with their father and, to some extent, with her. Only Connor, now an attorney in Baltimore, had kept his distance.
It should have been gratifying to see an O'Brien touch everywhere she looked, but instead it left Megan feeling oddly out of sorts. Just like Connor, she, too, had yet to find her way home. And though her relationship with Mick had been improvingshe had, in fact, agreed to consider marrying him againsomething continued to hold her back from making that final commitment.
Megan shivered as the wind off the Chesapeake Bay cut through her. Though it was nothing like the wind that whipped between New York's skyscrapers this time of year, the bitter chill and gathering storm clouds seemed to accentuate her odd mood.
When she shivered again, strong arms slid around her waist from behind and she was drawn into all the protective warmth that was Mick O'Brien. He smelled of the crisp outdoors and the lingering aroma of a spicy aftershave, one as familiar to her as the scent of sea air.
"Why the sad expression, Meggie?" he asked. "Isn't this the most wonderful time of the year? You used to love Christmas."
"I still do," she said, leaning against him. Despite all those sorrowful holidays she'd spent alone, it was impossible for her to resist the hopeful magic of the season. "New York is always so special during the holidays. I'd forgotten that Chesapeake Shores has its own charm at Christmas."
She gestured toward the shop windows. "Bree and Shanna have a real knack for creating inviting displays, don't they?"
"Best on the block," he said proudly. There was nothing an O'Brien did that wasn't the best, according to Mick unless, of course, it was an accomplishment by one of his estranged brothers, Jeff or Thomas. "Why don't we go to Sally's and have some hot chocolate and one of her raspberry croissants?"
"I was planning to start on my Christmas shopping this morning," she protested. "It's practically my duty to support the local economy, don't you think?"
"Why not warm up with the hot chocolate first?" he coaxed. "And then I'll go with you."
Megan regarded him with surprise. "You hate to shop."
"That was the old me," he said with the irrepressible grin she'd never been able to resist. "I'm reformed, remember? I want to do anything that allows me some extra time with you. Besides, I'm hoping you'll give me some ideas about what you really want for Christmas."
Given all the years when Mick had turned his holiday shopping over to her and later to his secretary, this commitment to finding the perfect gift was yet more evidence that he was truly trying to change his neglectful ways.
"I appreciate the thought," she began, only to draw a scowl.
"Don't be telling me you don't need anything," he said as he guided her into Sally's. "Christmas gifts aren't about what you need. They're about things that will make those beautiful eyes of yours light up."
Megan smiled. "You still have the gift of blarney, Mick O'Brien." And over the past couple of years since they'd been reunited, his charm had become harder and harder to resist. In fact, she couldn't say for sure why she'd been so reluctant to set a wedding date when he'd shown her time and again how much he'd tried to change in all the ways that had once mattered so much to her.
When they were seated and held steaming cups of hot chocolate, topped with extra marshmallows, she studied the man across from her. Still handsome, with thick black hair, twinkling blue eyes and a body kept fit from working construction in many of his own developments as well as his recent Habitat for Humanity projects, Mick O'Brien would turn any woman's head.
Now when he was with herunlike when they were marriedhe was attentive and thoughtful. He courted her as only a man who knew her deepest desires possibly could. There was an intimacy and understanding between them that could only come from so many years of marriage.
And yet, she still held back. She'd found so many excuses, in fact, that Mick had stopped pressing her to set a date. She had a feeling that a perverse desire to be pursued was behind her disgruntled mood this morning.
"You've that sad expression on your face again, Meggie. Is something wrong?" he asked, once more proving he was attuned to her every mood.
She drew in a deep breath and, surprising herself, blurted, "I'm wondering why you've stopped pestering me to marry you."
At the question, Mick's expression immediately brightened. "Are you saying you've finally run out of excuses?"
"Possibly," she said, then gave him a challenging look. "Try me."
A sheepish smile spread across his face. "Well, for starters, you should know that I have New Year's Eve on hold at Jess's inn," he admitted. "Just in case."
Startled, Megan stared at him. "For our wedding?"
"Or at least a family party, if I couldn't coax you into finally saying yes to a wedding date," he said hurriedly. "What do you think, Meggie? Would you like to start the new year as Mrs. Mick O'Brien? I know for me there'd be no better time to begin the next stage of our life together."
He reached across the table and clasped her hand. "Will you marry me so we can greet the new year together? Say yes and we'll go straight to the jewelry store where I have the perfect ring on hold. Sapphires and diamonds that sparkle like your eyes. I knew the minute I saw it that it belonged on your hand."
It had taken Megan a long time to get over all the times Mick had gone running off for work, abandoning her to care for their five children alone. It had taken years for her to understand that the neglect had been born not just of ego but of a powerful drive to provide for his family. She'd forgiven him long ago. Now it was simply a question of ignoring all the lingering doubts that crept in late at night, when she was alone in her bed in New York, and taking a leap of faith into the future he was offering, to believe it wouldn't turn out the same way as the past.
She took a deep breath and made the leap. "I think New Year's Eve would be a wonderful time to get married," she said, her eyes blurred by tears.
Mick frowned. "If it's so wonderful, why are you crying?"
"Because I'm happy," she said, deliberately pushing her lingering doubts aside. She was stronger now. She'd found a career of her own in New York, one she could bring with her to Chesapeake Shores. She could be an equal partner with Mick this time. Not everything would have to be on his terms. They'd finally have the life she'd envisioned the first time they'd married.
Obviously satisfied by her answer, Mick immediately grabbed his coat and stood, then reached for her hand. "Let's go."
She regarded him with bafflement. "Where? We just got here. I've barely taken a sip of this hot chocolate you were so intent on having."
"We can get more to go. Right now, we have a ring to buy, people to tell, plans to make and not a lot of time." Already waving for the check, he ticked off a list. "We'll stop in to see Bree and order the flowers, then see if Kevin's at the bookstore with Shanna and we can tell them the news."
There he was, barreling ahead with his plans, not two seconds after she'd envisioned a real partnership. Megan regarded him with dismay. "Slow down, Mick. Shouldn't we tell everyone at once? Maybe invite them all over for dinner and make a big announcement? And there's Nell. We don't want your mother hearing this from anyone else in the family. She's sensitive enough about the idea of me coming back and taking over after all her years of running your home. We want to settle how this will work, so she won't feel as if I'm displacing her. After all she's done for this family, we owe her that much consideration."
After a moment's hesitation, Mick sighed and sat back down. "You were always the sensible one," he said.
"And you were always the passionate one with big ideas he expected everyone to go along with," she said. "We need to keep in mind that even though things are better with our children, they may not be as overjoyed about this as we are."