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Her Summer with the Marine
A Donovan Brothers Novel
By Susan Meier, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Susan Meier
All rights reserved.
"Golden Years Inc. just called the partners."
"And?" Ellie McDermott's grip on her smartphone tightened as she got out of her little red car and stood on the sidewalk.
"They loved your ad campaign for Tidy Whitiez adult diapers." The voice of her boss, Nicole Levine, vibrated with excitement. "You're their choice to head up the campaign."
She closed her eyes, savoring the sweetness of the win. Who would have ever guessed she could get so excited over adult diapers? And who would have guessed that when the account she wanted was finally hers, she wouldn't be able to take it?
"There's a six-figure bonus attached."
Her eyes popped open. "Six figures?"
"Not high six figures, but close to mid."
"Can I tell them you'll do it?"
Her head spun. She'd gotten a call in the middle of the night from Red Garmin, the chief of police for Harmony Hills, Pennsylvania. Her dad had been found sitting naked in the park and hadn't recognized the officers who'd come to offer assistance. For two-plus hours, she'd driven through the early May fog on the mountain to get to her hometown, where she'd spent another eight hours intermittently talking to doctors and sitting beside the bed of a man who sometimes knew who she was, sometimes didn't. As tempting as taking this campaign sounded, every decision she made from now until the day her father died revolved around assuring he would be properly cared for. And right now she didn't have enough information about his condition to even know what "properly cared for" entailed.
"I wish I could say yes."
"Just use your mouth to form the word. Geez, I thought you'd be jumping for joy right now. You're leading the campaign. Getting a bonus. At least a little 'yippee' is in order."
"Nicole, I'm home."
"Of course you're home. It's Saturday. You have no life. You're always home on Saturday night."
"No, I mean I'm back in Harmony Hills. My dad—" She paused as her throat closed, and grief, confusion, and guilt overwhelmed her. She had to swallow hard and take a deep breath before she could say, "My dad has Alzheimer's."
"I'm so sorry." Nicole's voice softened.
"Apparently he's had it for a while and it's progressing rapidly. They found him in the park last night, naked, thinking he was at home watching TV."
"Your dad watches TV naked?"
"He does live alone." A fact that haunted her. If she'd been in Harmony Hills, she would have found him, not a bunch of kids. If she'd been here, maybe he wouldn't even have left the house at all. If she'd been here, she might have noticed as soon as he started getting sick and gotten him treatment so that his disease wouldn't be as far along as it was now.
She swallowed again. "He's going to need to go into a personal care facility."
"And a six-figure bonus would go a long way toward making that happen."
"After taxes, even six figures would last only a few years. And my dad's sixty-seven. He could live another ten, maybe even twenty years. I need a real, permanent solution."
She looked up at the stately yellow Victorian house and the McDermott Funeral Home sign. "The only way I can get enough money every month is to run the family business."
"The funeral home? Can you even run a funeral home?"
She sighed. "I remember some things."
"Don't you need a license?"
"I don't know. I'll have to check."
"Wouldn't it be easier to just sell Tidy Whitiez?"
"In the short-term. But at ten thousand dollars a month, three hundred thousand dollars would only be thirty months. Not even three years. I need a solid, dependable income."
A motorcycle roared into the funeral home's side driveway. The engine hummed to a stop. The driver took off his shiny black helmet.
Ellie's breathing stopped. "Oh, no."
"It's Finn Donovan."
"The guy who stole valedictorian from you?"
"The same guy who took your virginity and then asked somebody else to the graduation party?"
"Oh my God! Skype me in!"
Wearing jeans and a sleeveless white T-shirt that showed off bulging biceps and a skull-and-crossbones Semper Fi tattoo, Finn got off the sleek bike and strolled up the sidewalk toward her. Taller than he had been in high school and broader in the shoulders, with a lazy gait that spoke of the insolent way he looked at life, he set every nerve ending in her body on fire.
He reached her, smiled. "Ellie."
How could the slight lift of a man's lips make her breathless?
The fire nibbling her nerve endings spiked. Her chest pinched and her gut tightened as another regret filled her. If she'd stayed in Harmony Hills, she probably wouldn't swoon every time she saw this blue-eyed, blond-haired dingbat.
"At least put me on speaker!"
"Actually, Nic, I'll call you later."
"I heard about your dad."
His low, smooth voice slid over her like warm velvet. Something soft and hot curled low in her belly. It hadn't always been this way. From the time she'd beaten him in the first grade spelling bee through twelve years of public school, they'd been competitors. They'd battled in every contest, for every prize, every award. Half the time he'd won, but the other half, she had.
Then the night before their last final exam senior year, he'd come to her with a story about his father beating him and kicking him out of the house. She'd confessed her hatred of being the daughter of the town's scarlet woman, and somehow or another they'd ended up kissing. Then touching ...
Then having sex.
Ignoring the shiver that stole through her, she shoved her phone into her jacket pocket. "I'm sure everybody's heard about my dad by now. It isn't every day a guy is found naked in the park."
"People are sympathetic, not unkind."
"Right. I remember how kind they were about my mother."
"This is different. You know it's different. Everybody loves your dad."
"Everybody supposedly loved my mom, too."
He sucked in a breath. "Look, can we talk inside?"
She fingered the keys in her other pocket. Two for the house, one for the mortuary. Unless she took Finn upstairs into the residence—which she didn't want to do, since she didn't know the condition of the place—she was forced to go into the bowels of the family business.
The day could not get any worse—
Actually, the day really couldn't get any worse. Might as well just be neighborly, accept his condolences while standing by the embalming tables, and get on with the rest of her life.
"Sure." She directed him to walk around the side of the huge Victorian and to the basement door. With a quick flick of her key, she opened it. Like a gentleman, he motioned for her to enter before him.
She flipped on the overhead lights, took two steps inside, and faltered. In nine years, it hadn't changed: it was still the creepiest room she'd ever seen. Which was why she might know the condolences and sad smiles part of the funeral business, but she knew nothing about the basement. Embalming. Making up dead faces. Teasing gray hair into bouffants.
"So what are you going to do?"
She faced Finn, who'd ambled into the room and leaned against the empty stainless steel table, as if it were any other table and not the place where they drained blood from dead bodies. It didn't seem to bother him that the room was cold and sterile, that the stuff in the bottles in the glass-door cabinets restored color to lifeless cheeks or that the room beyond the little alcove was full of caskets.
"I don't know," she admitted.
"I'd like to buy the place from you."
A nervous laugh slid out. "What?"
"I'd like to buy the place."
"I have no idea what market value is."
He pulled an envelope from his back pocket and handed it to her. "I took the liberty of having it appraised."
She looked at the envelope, then back up at him. She should be angry, but with his beautiful blue eyes, high cheekbones, lush mouth, and square chin, he was simply so perfect that confusion beat out anger. She couldn't imagine why arguably the town's smartest, best-looking resident would want a funeral home. Truthfully, she couldn't imagine why anybody would.
"You had the place appraised?"
He brushed off her concerns with a wave of his hand. "Everybody's been to this funeral home enough times over the years that it's not like the realtor had to break in to know about the furniture and the condition of the building. It's the business potential that we needed to project."
Neither the "what" nor the "how" confused her. It was the "why." "Why do you want a funeral home?"
"Actually, I already have a funeral home." He strolled over to her. "I've been in business here in Harmony Hills for the past six months. When I got out of the marines, I went to college and majored in mortuary sciences. I did my year of residency but knew I wanted to run my own business. So when I came home, I offered twice to buy out your dad, but he never got back to me." His eyes softened as he caught her gaze. "I guess we know why."
She stared at him, unable to believe this was happening. Within twelve hours of her returning to town, they were in competition again?
He stepped closer, put his hand on her arm, and stopped her breathing.
Damn it! This was ridiculous. She and Finn had shared one night. Not even a night—one sexual experience. True, it had been her first time, and it had been amazing, but he hadn't even talked to her the next day. And he'd taken somebody else to Evan Drobnak's graduation party. In her teenage naïveté, she'd thought having sex meant they'd started a relationship, but obviously he hadn't. So she'd sucked it up and moved on with her life. Why the hell was she reacting to his touch?
Because she was exhausted. She'd driven all night. Come home to a sick dad and a mountain of trouble. She had a right to be a bit off her game.
"Do you think we could talk about this in the morning? I'm tired. I need to call it a night."
"It's not even seven o'clock." He smiled again. This time a dimple appeared in his cheek.
Her heart zigzagged through her chest. She cursed it. "I know, but I got up at three o'clock to drive here, then spent all day at the hospital."
"I'm sorry. You're right. I jumped the gun approaching you tonight. We can talk in the morning."
"Thanks." He left through the basement exit.
She walked out of that creepy, god-awful embalming room and headed up the stairs. When she'd left Harmony Hills, she vowed she'd never speak to Finn Donovan again, and if she had to speak to him, she wouldn't "lose" the conversation. She'd be smart. Savvy. Sharp. And pretty. She absolutely wanted to look pretty enough that he'd be sorry he'd treated her badly.
But she was so numb she hadn't flounced her ear-length hair or bragged about how she was a creative genius at Great Expectations, the ad firm where she worked. She'd been too tired to even speak intelligently.
Climbing the last step, she reminded herself she could rub his nose in her success tomorrow. Given how much she hated the dealing-with-dead-bodies part of this business, if Finn's proposal was generous, then maybe he wasn't competition this time, but an answer to a prayer?
She laughed as she walked down the cool, dark hall to the office. Answer to a prayer? Ruthless Finn Donovan only cared about Finn Donovan. He did what he needed to do to win. Her friends had even speculated that he'd taken her virginity the night before the calculus exam to psych her out so she'd stumble during the test. Because that's exactly what happened. She'd gotten an A-minus and he'd gotten an A-plus, and a title that should have been hers—valedictorian—had become his by one-tenth of a point.
His offer would not be generous.
Plus, she already knew the only way she could come up with the cash necessary to care for her dad long-term was to run the funeral home. So his offer would not be an answer to a prayer.
She stepped into her dad's office and gasped. Unopened mail littered the desk. A stack of checks sat by the phone.
Oh, Lord. If her dad had been embalming for all the funerals represented by this mess, the business might be in deep trouble. Who knew if the right bodies had gotten into the right caskets? Who knew if he'd even embalmed people?
She was in deep trouble—
Unless Finn's offer really was the answer to her prayers?
* * *
Finn Donovan made a quick stop at his own establishment to check on things, shutting down the computer for the night. By the time he stepped outside again, the sun was mostly down, but not quite. Caught between day and night, the world had an eerie glow. A glow most funeral home directors sort of liked. Call him crazy, but he thought "eerie" was fun.
And so was Ellie McDermott.
He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and smiled. What kid who grew up above a funeral home shuddered in an embalming room?
He shook his head. She might be all grown up and sexy with her big brown eyes and her red hair cut short and curling around her face, but he still saw a lot of the kid in her.
Good God, she'd been a pain in the butt. Always competing with him. Half the time beating him out of prizes that should have been his, and the other half making him work his tail off to get the ones he did win. She was like an energetic muse who wouldn't let him rest.
Of course, he credited his surviving boot camp and a tour in Afghanistan to the tenacity and discipline she'd worked into him. Competing with her had made him sharp. Tough. Resilient. Without a rivalry with somebody as intent as he was to be the best, he never would have reached his full potential. Even their silly tormenting and teasing in the halls kept up the spirit of competition he needed. His favorite was sitting with her at lunch before a big exam, both of them being snarky, throwing insults, punching up each other's confidence to prepare for the test.
That's why, when his father had kicked him out, he'd gone to her. Not directly to her, but to the park across from her house. In their own odd, competitive way, they'd understood each other. He'd waited in his car until she walked by, on her way home, then he'd opened the door and she'd slid in. At first she was snippy, asking what he wanted, since their final exam in calculus was the next day, and she suspected he'd come to her house to torment her. But he'd told her about his dad. And just like that they dropped the facade and talked like the friends they should have been.
He hadn't realized how much gossip she'd endured after her mom was killed driving out of town with her lover—leaving Ellie's dad. But apparently it had sucked every bit as bad as being a punching bag for his dad, the president of the town's bank. It was no wonder they'd distracted themselves with their competition to be the best.
Somehow they'd ended up kissing, and having sex, scaring the hell out of him. What they had packed a punch that was more than sexual. But for a kid with no home, forced to sleep in his car and shower in the gym, it was too much to think about. So he'd steered clear of Ellie, hadn't even considered canceling his date with Barbara Beth Rush for Evan Drobnak's graduation party. And the minute he had his diploma in hand, he'd driven out of Harmony Hills to the marine recruiter in Pittsburgh without a backward glance.
Remembering her reaction to him tonight, he realized he'd probably hurt her. Which, considering it had been nine years since they'd even seen each other, shouldn't really matter anymore. It wasn't often a man got the chance to so easily buy out his competitor, but he'd gotten lucky with a stock when he'd invested his hazard pay. He now had enough money to buy McDermott's and, really, her dad was too sick to run it. Finn had known that when he'd set up shop here. No one talked about it, but everyone could see Mark was slipping. Finn hated that Ellie's dad had had a full-fledged episode that took him totally out of the game, but he'd known the day was coming when Mark would not be able to run McDermott's.
Still, if Ellie wouldn't sell, and he had to share the town's clients, he'd have to use that investment income to make up for the shortfall his business would endure every month. Eventually that money would run out, and he'd be broke. A few months after that he'd be bankrupt.
His jaw hardened. He was getting that funeral home from her.
Excerpted from Her Summer with the Marine by Susan Meier, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Susan Meier. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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