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On a terrific Florida morning like this, there was only one place Maggie Tillman wanted to be.
The beach. And she knew just who she wanted to be there with.
She hopped out of bed, dressed quickly in her usual T-shirt and shorts, then galloped downstairs. The house lay silent. Since her older sister, Alaina, had married a big-deal doctor last year, Maggie had lived with her parents in this rambling two-story Victorian that sat on a deadly dull cul-de-sac on the stuffy side of North Miami Beach.
She skidded to a halt just inside the kitchen. "Good morning," she called out to her parents. "Have I missed anything?"
Her mother was at the stove, making pancakes. When she glanced up, one brow went as high as it could go. Her father stood at the counter, engaging in his usual impatient staring contest with the coffeemaker. He made a point of looking at the clock. Both James and Connie Tillman were early risers. Maggie knew that the fact she'd dared to sleep until nearly nine o'clock wouldn't sit well with either of them.
"The morning's half gone," her father said before turning his attention back to the coffee.
"Well, it's still beautiful," Maggie said in her brightest tone. She threw her arms wide, nearly knocking over one of her mother's carefully constructed flower arrangements from atop the baker's rack. "I feel like I could be in one of those old movies, where the woman wakes up and breaks into song."
"Spare us, dear," Connie Tillman said, adjusting the blooms so that they were perfect once more. "We've all heard you sing."
Her father said nothing.
Maggie resisted a sigh. Why did it have to be like this? Why couldn't her parents accept that she would always be differentfrom Alaina? She didn't have her sister's clever tongue and vivacious good looks. She knew she was clumsy, spoke too fast, laughed too loud. She might never set the world on fire.
But Maggie didn't think she was completely the impulsive, irresponsible slacker they often accused her of being.
Last night at the dinner table, Mom's best meat loaf had gone stone-cold while their weekly disagreement played out. Some boring junk about her unwillingness to change her college major and get her mind wrapped around the idea of heading back to school. But she was nineteen, for Pete's sake, and she was achingly aware that spring break was nearly over.
There was plenty of time to think about the degree in marine biology she wanted. Later.
Determined not to allow that unpleasantness to spoil this morning's lovely possibilities, Maggie swept past her parents, giving them both a kiss on the cheek as she made her way to the fridge. She rummaged through its contents, eager to get out of the house and head for the beach. She grinned when she found a carton of orange juice hiding behind the milk.
"Do you want pancakes?" her mother asked, then frowned at Maggie. "Use a glass, for heaven's sake. You weren't brought up in a barn."
Maggie returned the juice to the refrigerator. Yep, the beach was looking better and better, and right there and then she decided neither of them needed to know where she was going. "No pancakes for me, thanks. I've gotta run. Lots of business to take care of."
Her father looked up from his cup, letting his eyes travel slowly over Maggie from her sandaled feet to the ponytail that held back her pale blond hair. "Dressed like that? Why don't you spend a whole dollar on your outfit next time?"
James Tillman might be comptroller for one of the largest corporations in the Greater Miami area, but he had the communication skills of a drill sergeantat least when it came to Maggie.
"Don't start, Dad," she said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. She didn't want to fight. She wanted to feel warm salt air on her cheeks and the tide tickling her toes. "I've got three Go Fish calls to make, and then"
"Go Fish," her father said with a look of such disdain that Maggie wished she had simply walked out the front door and never stopped for a sip of juice.
"What kind of silly name is that for a business? Like I said last night"
"James " her mother cautioned. "Come eat your pancakes."
Maggie watched him concede to his wife, but she felt her own resentment swell. She refused to be bullied about the decisions she'd made, and he really was ruining this beautiful day.
She looked her father right in the eye. "Give it up, Dad. I'm never going to change my major to accounting. I hate math, and I don't want any career that puts me behind a desk forty hours a week. I need a creative outlet for my talent."
"What talent? You never do a task long enough to develop any." He lifted his hand, spreading his fingers.
"You gave up tennis after three lessons. The art classes we spent thousands of dollars on supplies for, you ditched after a month." He ticked off each item. "Fencing. Kayak camp. You think those are careers?"
"No, but with a degree in marine biology, I think I can morph Go Fish into one."
Her father made a face. "Oh, ridiculous. You think something called Go Fish is going to support you?"
"Actually, Dad, by the end of this year, Go Fish is going to put enough money in my pocket to get me out of this house. Permanently. So I don't think it's very silly or ridiculous at all."
The beginnings of a blustering response came from the kitchen table, but Maggie had already turned and marched out of the room, smiling to herself. She didn't often get the last word with her father.
She drove her beat-up convertible down A1A. She loved this strip. It had so many moods as it wound past the faded glory of hotels that had been built in the sixties and through canyonlike corridors of condominiums that hugged some of the most expensive beachfront property in Florida. Every so often she caught a glimpse of the Atlantic, shining like a sliver of mirror behind the buildings, and her heart quickened, so eager was she to get there.
Finally she turned into Will Stewart's driveway. Her bad mood evaporated, replaced by the usual regret that she couldn't seem to get along with her parents, couldn't seem to be the daughter they wanted. But replaced, too, by a solid resolve to have some fun today, no matter what.
The service calls she needed to make for Go Fish could wait. Tomorrow was soon enough to get back into harness and be responsible, wasn't it? After all, she was her own boss and set her own hours.
Sometimes she was still amazed that her love of exotic fish had turned her summer job into a viable enterprise. Go Fish, her home aquarium service company, only existed because of the determination and hard work she'd poured into it over the past year, all while trying to get used to freshman routines at the University of Miami.
The rich might enjoy the look and luxury of having large tropical tanks in their homes, but they certainly didn't want to take care of them. That's where she had found a niche. Customers all along the coast paid her fifty dollars an hour just to scrape algae and change water, and whether her father wanted to admit it or not, business was good. Nearly every day she fielded calls from prospective clients. By year's end, she intended to turn a profit. A hefty one.
So there, Dad. Why isn't that good enough for you?
The front door opened as she hit the stoop, and Will Stewart was suddenly there, looking drop-dead gorgeous in a dark suit. She'd met him six months ago at a local trade show where she'd been passing out business cards. He didn't own an aquarium, but he was the only one who'd come back to ask questions about Go Fish. They'd been together ever since.
Maggie went into his arms eagerly. "Kiss me," she said, nuzzling his neck and inhaling expensive after-shave. "I need to know someone cares."
He laughed at that and pulled her close. He kissed her with such great and tender skill that she felt as if she were going to die.
But when she brought her hands up to his chest, he caught her fingers. "Don't play with my tie," he ordered. "I just got it the way I want."
She looked down at it, wrinkling her nose at the bland, dark blue material. Last month, she'd bought him one with iguanas painted on it by an artist friend of hers, but she'd yet to see him wear it. "Too conservative."
"Then it's perfect," he said with a smile.
She loved having Will for a boyfriend. Full of charm and confidence, he was as handsome as any woman could want, but blessed with absolutely no arrogance about his looks. Just out of school, he'd recently been hired by one of Miami's most prestigious architectural firms. He wasn't the kind of man Maggie would have expected to be attracted to, but right now she thought she was one lucky girl to have him in her life. And every day she found herself wanting more.
She longed to sink deeper into his embrace, but Will pulled away, letting his hands rest on Maggie's hips. She caught movement in the background and realized that Lisa, his thirteen-year-old sister, also stood in the foyer.
"Hi, there," Maggie said with a waving ruffle of fingers. "What are you up to today?"
"Chores," Lisa complained. She pointed to her brother. "Make him stop being mean to me."
Will kept his back to his sister and seemed immune to her claim of abuse. "Say hello, Lisa. Then get busy cleaning your room."
After their parents had died in a car accident three years ago, Will had assumed responsibility for Lisa. Maggie knew there had been mutiny brewing in the girl lately but she felt a little sorry for her. Lisa was at a tough age, and didn't like being ordered around by her big brother, but sometimes Will just didn't seem to understand.
Instead of responding, Lisa snorted, crossed her arms and remained where she was.
Deciding it was best not to be dragged into whatever beef Lisa had with her brother, Maggie turned her attention back to Will. "Play hooky today," she begged him. "Come to the beach with me."
"Can't. I've got a big presentation to make for Watkins and Company." He glanced at his watch. "I'm supposed to be in Pompano Beach in twenty minutes."
Maggie frowned. Will would be a fine architect someday, but so far, he was still interning and considered strictly second-tier. "You're presenting?"
"Don't sound so shocked. I'm doing part of it, anyway. Jacobson thinks I can connect with Watkins because he and my father were both Yale grads."
That didn't sound promising beachwise, and there was something unbendable in Will's manner. But Maggie was nothing if not inventive. With one fingertip, she played with the edge of his mouth. "So can't you slip away after a while? Meet me at our usual spot? You know which one I mean?"
She lifted her brow, reminding him of the quiet, secluded section of the beach she had in mind. The place they'd discovered just last week, in fact.
Will caught her finger and touched his lips to it. "Yes, I do, but the answer is still no. I can't go today. I have to play nice with Jacobson. And don't you have service calls to make?"
"I do. But fish aren't as particular as stuffy businessmen. They'll wait."
"Blowing off customers. That's not the way to get rich."
Maggie scowled. "Why are you so uncomfortable with self-indulgence? You sound like my father. And anyway, who said anything about wanting to get rich?"
"If Will can't go, can I come with you instead?" Lisa said behind them.
They both turned to look at the girl. "Sure," Maggie said, at exactly the same time that Will said, "No."
"Why not?" Lisa whined to her brother.
"Yeah. Why not?" Maggie chimed in. She liked Lisa, and the girl was very low maintenance.
She realized immediately that she should have kept quiet. Will, wearing a harassed look, tossed her a quelling glance before he turned to his sister. "You know why not. Because I've spent good money to have a math tutor come to the house today to help you get your grade up. She'll be here any minute."
"But it's spring break!" Lisa complained. "Nobody studies at spring break."
"You do. And even if this woman wasn't coming, I've already told you that I want your room cleaned up. It's a pigsty in there."
"I know where everything is."
"That's not the point."
Maggie could see that Will wasn't likely to give on this. He was in full parental mode. She knew that he often worried about whether he was making the right decisions, doing what his mother and father would have wanted. Maggie had once pointed out that his parents would never have given him custody if they'd had any doubts. But she wasn't sure he'd ever be completely convinced of that.
She touched his shoulder, eager to avert a budding argument. "Will, if it helps any"
He shook his head so quickly that her lips parted in surprise. "Don't help anymore. I'm sorry to be the bad guy, but Lisa can't go to the beach today and neither can I and that's that." There was a momentary deafening silence, then Will sighed, clearly feeling contrite already. "Maybe we'll all go this weekend, but not today."
"I don't want to wait until the weekend," Lisa cried.
"You're the meanest brother ever!"
On that angry outburst, she stormed off. A few moments later, they heard a bedroom door slam shut.
Will raked a hand through his hair. "Thanks a lot. Lisa and I have been going at one another all morning about her responsibilities, and you just made it worse." He sounded calm, but the muscles in his jaw betrayed him. They pulsed the way they always did when he was tense.
"Sorry," Maggie said. She offered an apologetic smile, but couldn't help feeling a little stung. "It wasn't intentional, you know. I just felt like going to the beach, and I really didn't think about anything else."
Her father might have added that she didn't think, period, but thankfully Will made no such comment. He merely looked down at his watch again.
"I have to go," he said. He scooped his car keys out of a bowl on the foyer table. "Let's order pizza tonight. Then the three of us can make plans for the beach. All right?"
She nodded, and he gave her a quick kiss as he closed the front door behind them. Together they walked toward their cars. Morning sunlight bounced brightly off the vehicles, but the fun had gone out of the day as far as Maggie was concerned.
"Stop sulking," Will said as he unlocked his car door. "The weekend will be here before you know it."
Maggie made a face at him. "I hate delayed gratification."
"It's good for you," Will said. "It builds character." And with that, he roared out of the driveway.