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Life as Riley McKenna knew it was about to change. And change in a big way. He sensed the change coming, like the shift in the wind when summer yielded to fall.
"I love you, Riley, but I have to say this." Mary McKenna looked her grandson straight in the eye, with the steady light blue gaze that told him she was about to say something he didn't want to hear. "It's high time you grew up."
Gray-haired, elegant and poised, Mary sat in one of two rose-patterned Windsor chairs in what was called the morning room but that Riley and his brothers had long ago dubbed the "serious room," because that was where their grandmother held all her serious talks. When they were young, they knew getting called into the morning room meant a long and stern lecture. Even at twenty-six, Riley was occasionally summoned to this spaceand that was exactly what Mary didsummonedand given the familiar sermon about responsibility and maturity.
Mary had a presence about her, built over years of helming first the family, then the family business. Truth be told, she intimidated most people and even sometimes Riley, because she made no bones about her feelingsever. So when Mary wanted to have a serious talk, Riley knew enough to listen. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to try to escape the lecture about to come.
"Gran, it's my birthday." He shot her the grin that usually sweet-talked his grandmother into leniency. "That means I'm more grown up today than yesterday."
More or less.
He'd spent the night before his birthday in a bar, and had plans to hit a whole list of them tonight with his friends. He knew he should be looking forward to the night out, but for some reason, the thought of trading the same conversations with the same people over the same beverages sounded
He was just hungover. Or something. He'd be fine once he had a nice dark ale in his hands.
"That is not what I meant, and you know it." Gran sipped a cup of tea while the sun streamed in from the picture window behind her and kissed everything in the stately Victorian style room with gold. The house was over a hundred years old, a towering three-level clothed in dark paneling and the occasional modern touch. Mary could have afforded ten times the house but she had chosen to stay in the place where she had raised her children and loved her husband. To Riley, the house had a certain amount of dependability and comfort, which was half the reason he had yet to move out of the guest house that sat just down the driveway from the main house. He liked being here, liked being surrounded by his DNA's history. And he liked to keep an eye on his grandmother. She had a tendency to do too much, and to rarely listen to anyone who told her otherwise. The McKenna stubborn streak was alive and well in Mary McKenna.
Mary smoothed out a wrinkle that had dared to crimp her plaid skirt. "Your birthday is an occasion to rethink your priorities and focus on more mature pursuits."
More mature pursuits. Which to his grandmother, Riley knew meant getting married. Settling down. Something he avoided at all costs. He glanced out the window and saw a golden fur ball wandering the grounds. His oldest brother's adopted shelter dog, one of the nicest pets Riley had ever met. No wonder finn spoiled her with treats and toys. "finn drop his dog off here?"
"I'm watching Heidi for a few days while they take a trip together. She's a wonderful dog." Then Gran leaned forward. "I won't let you change the subject, Riley. This is serious business." She held up a newspaper. "Have you read this morning's Herald?''
Uh-oh. "Uh, no."
She laid it down again. "When you do, you will see that you have a starring role in the media. Once again." She sighed. "Really, do we need the world to know every single time you are caught in a compromising position?"
Oh. That. The woman he'd been with that night at the gala had been a little too eager, and he'd been a little too willing. He'd forgotten there'd be reporters skulking about. Before he could say stop, his date had her dress hiked up and her body pressed against his. There'd been a sound behind them, and the entire awkward moment was caught on film. Riley cringed. He hated seeing that look of disappointment on his grandmother's face. He'd let her down. Again. "It was a mistake. I had a little too much to drink"
"No excuse. You are far past the age where you can act like a fool and get away with it. Your brother has just shipped off to Afghanistan, volunteering, I might add, to help the wounded. And instead of focusing on Brody's charity, the reporter has chosen to make the entire story about you and your indiscretions." His grandmother leaned closer. "You do realize that you did this at a fundraiser for wounded veterans? The last thing the McKenna foundation needs is publicity like this. from a family member, no less."
"You're right. It shouldn't have happened." He let out a long breath. "Sometimes I just don't think."
"This isn't the first time, Riley. I love you, but I can't have you smearing the family name." She shook her head. "You get swayed by a pretty smile and a nice pair of legs and forget that you're supposed to be a responsible adult."
Responsible adult. Those were two words no one had ever used to describe Riley. Finn and Brody, yes, but not Riley. Finn, the married CEO, and Brody, a general practice physician now volunteering his skills half a world away. For the hundredth time, Riley felt like he could never measure up to their examples. He excelled in one areanot being excellent.
For a long time that hadn't bothered him at all. He'd always been too busy seeking the next party, the next pretty face, as his grandmother said, to worry what anyone thought of him. But lately.
Well, lately he'd been thinking far too much.
Gran sighed. "I'm getting old"
"You're decades away from old."
"and I'm tired of waiting for great grandchildren."
"Finn just gave you one. And they have another on the way already." His oldest brother Finn had taken to marriage like a bear to salmon fishing. Married, one adopted child, and a baby due in a little over seven months. Riley had to admit that sometimes, when he saw how happy Finn and Ellie were, he felt a little.. jealous. But only because Finn was so damned happy, it seemed like he'd caught a smiling disease.
"And now it's your turn," Mary said.
"Whoa, whoa. What about Brody? He's next in line for the yoke."
His grandmother pursed her lips at that. "Marriage is not chaining oxen together. Your grandfather and I"
"Were the exception to the rule. Nobody stays married like that anymore." Even though his grandfather had died a little over three years ago, Mary still carried a torch for the man she had loved for more than five decades. They had been a loving, kind couple, the type that held hands when they rode in the car or walked the neighborhood. When Riley had been young, it had been nice to see, something that made him wonder if he'd ever have a relationship like that. Then he'd grown up, started dating, and realized his grandparents' lifelong love affair was about as common as unicorns in the zoo.
His grandmother took another sip of tea, then laid the china cup into the saucer. "You're just jaded. If you would settle down you might find love is a lot better than you think."
"I'm happy the way I am."
"Perhaps." She toyed with the teaspoon on the tray beside her, then lifted her gaze to her grandson's. Even at seventy-eight, Mary's mind was sharp and agile. She still ran McKenna Media, the advertising company started by her husband. She'd been grumbling about stepping down for years, but had yet to take even a day off. Riley suspected Mary kept working both to stay close to the husband she missed and to keep her days full. "You haven't really done anything with your life yet, Riley."
"I work, Gran."
She scoffed. "You show up at the office, goof off and collect a paycheck."
"Hey, we all have to be good at something. That's my area of expertise."
His grandmother didn't laugh at the joke, or even so much as crack a smile. The mood in the serious room tensed. "I have indulged you far too much because you are the youngest. I always treated you differently, because" she sighed, and her pale blue eyes softened "I felt bad for you. Losing your parents at such a young age, then being uprooted from the only home you ever knew to live with your grandfather and I"
Riley waved that off. "I was fine."
Mary's gaze locked on his. "Were you?"
He looked away, studying the gilt-framed landscape hanging on the far wall. Painted sunlight dappled oil-created trees and brush-formed flowers, and caressed the roofline of a cottage nestled in a fictional forest. A perfect little world, captured in Technicolor paint. "I was fine," Riley repeated.
"I think if you tell yourself that often enough, you'll eventually believe it," Mary said softly.
Riley let out a long breath. He wasn't much for serious talks, or serious conversational topics, or, come to mention it, the serious room. Altogether far too stuffy and formal. And well, hell, serious. "I'm supposed to be meeting someone for lunch, Gran." He rose halfway out of the chair. "I really need to get going."
"Cancel your plans."
He cocked a brow. "Oh, now I get it. Are you planning a birthday party for me, Gran? You know you've never been able to surprise me."
"No party this year, Riley. In fact, I think it's high time your party days were behind you." She steepled her fingers and brought them to her lips. "Sit back down please."
Uh-oh. Riley recognized that stance. It meant Gran had an ideaone he knew he wasn't going to like. He lowered his lanky frame back into the uncomfortable Windsor chair.
"I think you need a real wake-up call, Riley. Consequently" Gran paused and her pale eyes nailed him like a bug on a board "I'm cutting you off."
The words hung in the air for a long time before Riley processed them. "You're what?"
"Effective immediately, you are fired from McKenna Media, not that you had a real job there as it was. And you will also be expected to pay a reasonable rent on the guest house. Every month, on the first. Which happens to be two weeks away."
Gran meant business. No mistaking that.
Riley opened his mouth to argue. To joke. To cajole. To employ any of a dozen techniques he'd used before to talk his stern grandmother out of punishments and edicts.
He didn't. Instead he considered her words and realized she had a point.
Gran had never approved of the way he lived his life. But what his grandmother didn't understand was that Riley didn't spend his days without any sense of commitment because he wanted to shirk responsibilities. It was because he had yet to find a direction that interested him.
He'd tried nearly every job at McKenna Media, and within a few days, been bored to death. He'd dated dozens of beautiful women, but not found a single one who dared his heart to take a risk.
Gran probably wanted Riley to go out and find yet another job in a field he could hardly stand, then settle down with one of her friends' single, available granddaughters. But what Riley really wanted was.
A challenge. Something that made him rush to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe he needed somethingGod help himwith substance.
Riley had always known this day would come, and for some reason, instead of being panicked by it, he felt energized. For the first time in a long time.
Had his partying ways finally grown tiresome? No, he told himself. It was a minor bump, a moment of ennui, nothing more. He'd spend a few days doing things his grandmother's way, prove to her that he wasn't nearly as irresponsible as he looked, and then be back to his old life in no time.
"Okay," he said. "I'll do it."
She blinked her surprise. "Well, good." She reached into her pocket and handed him a slip of paper. "Your final paycheck. I'm kicking you out, and cutting you off, but I don't want you to starve the first day."
Riley gave his grandmother a soft smile, then leaned down and brushed a kiss across her wrinkled cheek. "I'll be fine, Gran." He pressed the check back into her hand, then said goodbye and headed out the door, and into a world he had never truly experienced.
He thought it would be easy, like everything else in his life had been.
He was wrong.