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Maggie Monroe reached into the packing box and blindly felt around, seeking the next in a dwindling pile of tissue-wrapped links to her husband and daughter. Precious keepsakes that had been lovingly packed away less than a year earlier, when her life was everything it would never be again.
Swiping the back of her free hand across her eyes, Maggie pulled the telltale mound from the box. For nearly an hour she'd been searching for this particular ornament, panicked at the thought it may have been lost. Yet now that she was sure she'd found it, she couldn't bear to unwrap it, to see the name engraved in cursive across the sterling-silver cradle.
She closed her eyes against the memory that seeped into her heart, tears streaming down her face once again. Every moment of their first Christmas together was etched in her mindfrom Natalie's cherubic face in the glow of the colorful lights, to the way Maggie and Jack had deliberately saved a spot in the middle of the tree for their daughter's first ornament. Maggie could still hear his happy sigh when she'd pulled her hand back and smiled triumphantly over her shoulder at the camera, a moment in their too-short life together captured by its lens.
But the sigh she heard in her mind wasn't real. It was simply one of a long line of memories that assailed her day and night, gathering the various pieces of her heart in hope, then shattering them with the dawn of reality .
Jack was gone.
And so was Natalie.
The only thing that remained was the pain of each new day Maggie had to live without them.
Holding the still-wrapped ornament to her chest, she looked up at the bare tree, her vision hampered by tears.
You can do this, Maggie.
"No, I can't," she whispered fiercely before regret hushed her. It was one thing to grieve, quite another to roll over and quit. And while she'd always considered herself strong, fate was showing her otherwise.
She shook her head and focused on the ornaments laid across the floor. So many of them were tied to special moments in her life. Did she really want them packed away in a box?
"You can do this, Maggie," she murmured, willing her heart to heed the words. "You can do this."
A knock at the door caught her by surprise and she turned her clouded gaze toward the sound. For a moment she considered ignoring it and waiting for whoever was on the other side to simply give up and leave her alone, as so many others had in the months following the accident.
But she'd prevailed upon her uncle to give her a room in his inn so she could move forward. Answering the door would be another step.
After swiping at her eyes one last time, Maggie pushed herself off the hardwood and wandered to the door to open it.
"Can I help you?" She knew her voice was raspy, her words broken, but it was the best she could do at the moment. Habits born in sorrow were hard to break overnight.
"Mrs.," she corrected around the sudden lump that sprang up in her throat. Slowly, Maggie began to focus, sucking in a breath at the sight of the handsome man standing in front of her.
A good two inches taller than Jack, the stranger towered over her five-foot-five frame as he raked a strong thick hand through his endearingly disheveled crop of dark brown hair. Unlike her husband, who had seemed at home in button-down shirts and ties, the man standing in front of her wore his pale gray sweatshirt and whitewashed denim jeans as if they were a second skina skin that pulled taut across his muscled chest and hugged his lower half.
Maggie stepped back, a pang of guilt ripping through her as she hugged Natalie's ornament to her chest, her heart and mind engaged in full-fledged battle. Yes, the man in front of her was handsome; she'd have to be blind not to see that. But the moistening of her hands and the skip of her heartbeat the moment their eyes met was nothing but a figment of her imagination.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Your uncle said you'd be living here alone. So I just assumed you were sing"
"You know my uncle? " she interrupted, in an effort to keep him from finishing his sentence. This familiarity was too much, too soon. She needed baby steps first.
"Of course." The man thrust out his hand. "I'm Rory O'Brien."
The name rang a bell but she was at a loss. A whoosh of white noise filled her ears as she stared at his outstretched hand waiting for hers .
"I'm sorry, should I know you?"
A hearty laugh bubbled up from somewhere inside the man's soul, a sound that first intrigued and then sickened her. "I'm the carpenter your uncle hired to restore the inn in his absence."
"Carpenter? Oh. Oh, yes, I'm sorry." Shaking her head against the ludicrous notion she'd felt something for this stranger, Maggie placed her hand in his. "Uncle Doug told me about you. He said if anyone could restore Lake Shire Inn to the way it was in my childhood it would be you."
"You came here when you were a kid?"
"Oh, yes " She leaned against the door frame as she traveled to a place she'd sought many times over the past eleven monthsa place where she'd felt happy and strong. She hoped desperately to find those feelings once again. "It was nothing short of magical."
"To me it was." She met his eyes for the first time and was rewarded by the appearance of dimples, carved into his cheeks. "Do you really think you can restore this place to what it once was?"
"That's my intention."
"All fifteen rooms?"
"Well, I don't think your uncle would take kindly to me only doing fourteen of them, do you?"
"I guess not."
Rory grinned. "Don't mind me. That was my attempt at being funny."
The heat that shot through every nook and cranny of Maggie's body reminded her that their hands were still joined. She yanked hers back as a wave of nausea racked her. "I'm sorry, I don't feel very well today. I need to go."
"Wait!" Thrusting his work boot against the base of the closing door, Rory waved a small wrapped box in the air. "Your uncle asked me to give this to you. He told me to make sure I got it to you today. He wanted you to have it while you were dec"
Rory's eyes left her face and went to the unwrapped ornaments spread beneath the stark, naked tree she'd promised herself she'd decorate.
"My mom used to do that. You know, set all the ornaments out first and then hang them."
But how could she decorate it? Then she'd be making new memories .
Rory's voice broke through her thoughts. "My friends all did it one at a timeyou know, not so organized. They'd unwrap one and then hang it. Unwrap one and hang it. Uh, Mrs. Monroe? Are you okay?"
Forcing her attention on the here and now, Maggie shrugged. "I'm not sure what okay is anymore. It's certainly nothing like it used to be." As he once more looked into her face, she forced the corners of her mouth upward in an effort to chase the worry from his sky-blue eyes, which seemed as if they should sparkle, not fret. "Could you just call me Maggie? I think that would be best. Part of that first step and all."
"First step? " When she didn't respond, he moved on. "Maggie, huh? That's a beautiful name. Suits you real well." Rory looked down at the carefully wrapped gift box and held it out to her. "Your uncle has been really good to me. In fact, if it weren't for him giving me this position, I'd probably be looking through the classifieds for another desk job. So please, take this."
Squaring her shoulders, she reached out, took the box.
"He said you were to open it right away."
"I don't know. My guess is it has something to do with your decorating."
She glanced down at the gift. "It's something new for the tree, isn't it?"
Rory's shoulders hitched upward, only to fall back down once again. "I don't know. But new is good, isn't it?"
She shrugged. "II just can't hang it right now."
"Do you need hooks? I can run home and get some. It won't take but a minute or two."
"No!" Realizing her voice was sharper than she'd intended, she offered a quick apology. "I have hooks. Plenty of them."
Rory gestured toward the pile of brightly colored objects on the floor. "Afraid you have too many?"
She shook her head, loosening her grip on the ornament still clasped to her chest. "No, it's not that. It's justwell, it's just that I'm trying, I really am, but it's hard. Harder than I thought it would be."
Silence blanketed the cozy, wood-paneled suite as she focused on the tissue-wrapped mound in her left hand and the brightly wrapped package in her right. She knew he was watching her, but it didn't matter. She was at a loss over what to say or do at that moment, not to mention the rest of her life.
Finally he spoke, his deep voice surprisingly soft. "Maybe there's a reason your uncle wanted you to have this package today. Maybe he knew it was going to be hard. Maybe whatever's in this box is meant to help somehow."
"I'm not sure how it can. How anything ever can," she mumbled, her words barely audible to her own ears. "I'm trying every day, but it's not working."
"Maybe I could help." Reaching out, Rory touched the mound in her left hand. "Why don't you let me hold that so you can open your present?"
She jumped back, grasping Natalie's first Christmas ornament in a death grip.
He retracted his arm in a flash and raised his hands, palms outward. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything. I was just trying to help. Look I can see this is a bad time." He took a step toward the door. "I'm sorry I barged in. I didn't mean to cause you any trouble. I'll leave you alone now."
"Wait," she whispered, her voice shaking along with her hands. "Please. Don't go."
Had she not repeated her plea, he would have chalked it up to his mind playing trickswishing for something that simply wasn't going to happen.
But she had.
Turning around, Rory studied the woman who looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. Maggie Monroe was beautiful by anyone's standards. Her soft brown hair cascaded across her shoulders and halfway down her back in natural waves that emphasized her high cheekbones and plump, kissable lips. Her eyelashes, wet with tears, framed dark brown eyes that vacillated between looking at the floor and peering up at him. The vulnerability and deep-rooted sadness they displayed tugged at his heart.
He looked from her face to her body, noting how the off-white cowl-neck sweater and baggy jeans nearly swallowed her whole.
"Could you stay? For just a little while?"
"Are you sure? I don't want to impose." And he didn't. Yet there was something about this woman that spoke to him on a level he'd never experienced before. Maybe it was simply the carpenter in him coming outsome inbred desire to fix things that were obviously broken. Maybe it was the fact that this woman's uncle had come along at a low point in Rory's life and made an offer that had given him the kick he needed. Or maybe it was the overwhelming desire to kiss away her tears .
Maggie thrust the small square package back into his hand. "Could you open it for me?"
He stared down at the box, then at her. "You want me to open it? Why?"
Her shoulders rose and fell beneath her cavernous sweater. "I don't know. I just think taking half a step is better than no step right now."
Cautiously, he met her eyes, his curiosity rising. Whatever was wrong with this woman, it was obviously something major. Too many questions might be more than she could handle, so he settled on one.
"You sure?" he asked. "Sometimes opening a gift makes you feel good."
"Not today." Maggie gestured toward the navy blue couch that sat at an angle to the stone fireplace. Despite the below-freezing temperatures of the winds blowing off Lake Shire, the wood he'd stacked in preparation for her arrival sat untouched.
"I can light a fire for you if you'd like. Winters around here are mighty rough."
"They certainly are. In fact, I remember a few winters when the fireplace was the only thing that kept me from turning into a human ice cube." A hint of longing sprang into her eyes, only to disappear just as quickly. "I couldn't ask you to make a fire. Really, I'm"
Setting her uncle's package on the end table beside the couch, Rory pushed the sleeves of his sweatshirt up his arms. "You didn't ask. I offered."
"No arguments. Your uncle would have my hide if I sensed you were cold and I didn't do something to help."
A tiny laugh escaped Maggie's throat, a welcome sound that grabbed hold of his heart.
"I can see you know my uncle well." After nodding toward the kitchenette on the other side of the wall, she cocked her head. "I haven't stopped at the market yet, but I could get you a glass of water."
"That would be great, thanks." He watched as she set the tissue-wrapped mound on the table beside her uncle's gift, his throat constricting at the sadness in her face. "I promise I'll have this fire going before you get back."
Without a word, Maggie Monroe headed toward the kitchen, her petite frame disappearing around the corner as he glanced toward the tissue paper and shifted from foot to foot.
He knew it was none of his business. Knew he should just do what he'd promised. But his curiosity was kicking into overdrive. Doug Rigsby's niece was hurting deep inside her soul. One had only to look at her eyes to unearth that fact.
Her reaction to his initial greeting was simply icing on the cake.
But if she was married, as she'd implied, where was the guy? And why had Doug made a point of saying his niece would be living there alone?
Rory heard a cabinet door open and knew his window of opportunity was rapidly closing. The key to Maggie Monroe's sadness was inside that tissue paper. He was sure of it.