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Traffic on Route 95 was in a snarl again.
Maggie Stanton sat in her car, too tired even to flip through radio stations to find a song that annoyed her less than the one that was playing. She was too tired to do much of anything besides breathe.
Or maybe tired wasn't the right word. Maybe discouraged was more accurate. Or downtrodden.
No, downtrodden implied a certain resistance to being trod upon.
Maggie was just plain pathetic. She was a doormat. A wimp without a life of her own.
She was twenty-nine years old and she was living at home. Yes, she'd moved back in with her parents because of the fire in her apartment.
But that was three years ago.
First her mother had asked her to stay to help with Vanessa's wedding.
When 9/11 happened, her father had asked her to keep living at home a little longer, and somehow another year had passed.
Then right after Maggie had found a terrific new place in the city, her grandmother had died, and she couldn't leave while her mother was feeling so blue.
It was now way past time to leavea quarter past ridiculousand her mother was making noise about how silly it would be for Maggie to get a place of her own when she was on the verge of getting married.
Uh, Mom? Don't get the invitations engraved just yet. The bride kind of needs to be in love with the groom before that happens, doesn't she?
Although, like most of the major decisions in Maggie's life, it was possible that this one would be made by her parents, too. And she would just stand there, the way she always did, and nod and smile.
God, she was such a loser.
Maggie's cell phone rang, saving her from the additional tedium of self-loathing. "Hello?"
Someone kill her now. She was dating a man who called her pumpkin. No, she wasn't just dating him; she wasas her mother called itpreengaged.
Yes, Brock "Hey, Pumpkin" Donovan had actually asked her to marry him. Maggie had managed to stall for the past few weekswhich turned out to be an enormous mistake. She should have said no immediately, right before she ran screaming from the room. Instead, because she was a wimp and rarely screamed about anything, she'd put it off. Her wimp thinking was that she'd find the right time and place to let him down without hurting his feelings. Instead, he'd gone and told Maggie's older sister Vanessa, who was married to Brock's former college roommate, that he'd popped the question. And Van had told their parents, and
Segue to Mom buying Bride magazine and starting negotiations with the Hammonassett Inn.
Maggie's parents had been so excited, they'd wanted to throw a preengagement party, for crying out loud. Fortunately, the only date Mom had had available was this Saturdaythe day that Eastfield Community Theater was holding auditions for their summer show.
And they knew not to schedule something on that day.
Maggie's involvement in theater was the only thing she had ever put her foot down about. Her parents had wanted her to go to Yale, so she'd gone to Yale instead of Emerson's performing-arts school. Yale had a terrific drama department, but her parents had made so much noise about starving artists needing a career to fall back on, she'd majored instead in business. After college, the noise had continued, so she'd gone to law school instead of moving to New York City and auditioning for a part on a soap opera. Her father had wanted her to work for his lawyer buddies at Andersen and Brenden here in New Haven, and here she was.
Stuck in traffic after putting in a twenty-seven-hour day at A&B. Preengaged, heaven help her, to a man who called her pumpkin.
Living her life vicariously through the roles she played onstage at ECT.
Because God forbid she ever say no and disappoint anyone.
"I'm still at work," Brock told her now, over the phone. "It's crazy here. I'm going to have to cancel, sweetheart. You don't mind, do you?"
Maggie had actually taken her gym bag with her to work despite the fact that she and Brock were supposed to have dinner. More often than not, Brock canceled or arrived at the restaurant very late.
Of course, tonight was the night she'd planned to let him down. Gently, with no screaming and relatively little pain.
And yes, that was relief flooding through her, chicken that she was. There was also annoyance, she realized. This man allegedly loved her. He said he wanted to marry her, for crying out loud.
And yet his idea of wooing her was to repeatedly break dinner dates at the last minute.
She could imagine their wedding dayBrock calling her as she sat dressed in her wedding gown in a sleek white limo being driven to the church.
"Pumpkin!" he'd boom over the cell phone's little speaker. "Something's come up. Compu-dime's systems have gone haywire! They need me in Dallas, pronto. We're going to have to rescheduleyou don't mind, do you?"
And there it wasone of the reasons Brock wanted to marry her. She was so completely, idiotically compliant.
Of course she didn't mind. She never minded. She always did what was asked or expected of her, with a smile on her idiotic face.
She was such a loser.
"I'll call you tomorrow," Brock said now. "I've got to run."
And he was gone before she could say anything at all.
With his curly hair and Hollywood-star cleft in his chin, Brock was a good-looking man. And, as Maggie's mother kept pointing out, he got six weeks of vacation each year.
Yeah, there was a reason to get marriedfor a man's extensive vacation time.
Be careful, Angie had said the last time they'd talked on the phone. Maggie's best friend from high school was convinced that if Mags didn't stay alert, she'd wake up one morning married to the Brockster. Kind of the same way she'd woken up one morning with a law degree, a job at A&B and living at home again at age twenty-nine.
But Angie was Angie. Her goal in life was to make waves. She'd just gotten married herself to a man from England and was living now in London, working as a stage manager in the theater district. She had a dream job and a dream husband. Freddy Chambers, a seemingly straitlaced Brit, was the perfect match for Angie Caratelli's rather violently passionate nature.
Kind of for the same reasons quiet Maggie had gotten along so well with Angie.
It had been more than ten years, but Maggie still missed high school. She and Angie and Angie's boyfriend, Matt Stoneall part of the theater crowdhad been inseparable and life had been one endless, laughter-filled party. Well, except when Angie and Matt were fighting. Which was every other day, because Matt had been as volatile as Angie.
Life had been jammed with anticipation and excitement and possibilities. There was always a new show to put on, a new dance to learn, a new song to sing. The future hung before them, glowing and bright.
Matt would have been as horrified as Angie if he knew Maggie was a corporate lawyer now, and that her office didn't even have a window. But he'd disappeared over ten years ago, after graduation. His and Angie's friendship hadn't survived that one last devastating breakup, and when he'd left town, he hadn't come back.
Not even a few years ago, when his father had died.
No, Maggie was the only one of them still living here in town. Wimp that she was, she liked living in the town she'd lived in most of her life. She just wished she weren't living at home.
"Help," she said to the woman in the car in the next lane over who looked nearly as tired as Maggie felt. But with the windows up and the air-conditioning running, they might as well have been in different rockets in outer space.
Angie repeatedly suggested that Maggie quit her job, dump Brock and run off to live in a recreational vehicle with that really gorgeous, long-haired, muscular Tarzan lookalike Maggie had caught glimpses of while at the health club. The jungle man, she and Angie had taken to calling him since he first appeared a week or so ago. She'd first noticed him hanging from his knees from the chin-up bar, doing midair sit-ups.
He had long, straight, honey-brown hair, and as he effortlessly pulled himself up again and again, it came free from the rubber band and whipped in a shimmering curtain around him.
Maggie had never gotten a clear look at his face, but the glimpses she'd seen were filled with angles and cheekbones and a clean-shaven and very strong chin.
She could picture him now, walking toward her, across the tops of the cars that were practically parked on Route 95.
He would move in slow motionmen who looked like that always did, at least in the movies. Muscles rippling, T-shirt hugging his chest, blue jeans tight across his thighs, hair down around his shoulders, a small smile playing about his sensuous mouth, a dangerous light in his golden-green eyes.
Well, Maggie hadn't gotten close enough to him to see the color of his eyes, but she'd always had a special weakness for eyes that were that exotic, jungle cat color.
He'd effortlessly swing himself down from the hood of her car and open the driver's-side door.
"I'll drive," he'd say in a smoky, husky, sexy half whisper.
Maggie would scramble over the parking brake. No. No scrambling allowed in this fantasy. She'd gracefully and somewhat magically find her way into the passenger's side as she surrendered the steering wheel to the jungle man.
"Where are we going?"
He'd shoot her another of those smiles. "Does it matter?"
She wouldn't hesitate. "No."
Heat and satisfaction would flare in his beautiful eyes, and she'd know he was going to take her someplace she'd never been before. "Good."
The car behind her hit its horn.
Whoopsie. The traffic was finally moving.
Maggie stepped on the gas, signaling to move right, heading for the exit that would take her to the health club.
Maybe, if she were really lucky, she'd get another glimpse of the jungle man and her evening wouldn't be a total waste.
God, she was such a loser.
* * *
Matt Stone needed help.
He'd been back in Eastfieldhe wasn't quite ready to call it "home"for less than two weeks, and he could no longer pretend that he was capable of pulling this off on his own.
His father had been determined to continue messing with Matt's head even after he was dead. He'd left Matt a fortuneand the fate of two hundred and twenty employees of the Yankee Potato Chip Companyprovided he was willing to jump through all the right hoops.
As far as Matt was concerned, his father could take his money straight to hell with him.
But for two hundred and twenty good people to lose their jobs in this economy.?
For that, Matt would learn to jump.
Still, he needed a lawyer who was on his side. He needed someone with a head for business. And he needed that person to be someone he trusted.
He needed Maggie Stanton.
He'd seen her a time or two at the health club. But she was always in a hurry, rushing into the locker room. Rushing to an aerobic dance class. Rushing back home.
He'd seen her last nightchecking him out. She was very subtle. Maggie would never leer or ogle, but she was definitely watching him in the mirrors as he did curls.
She didn't recognize him. Matt didn't know whether to be insulted or glad. God knows he had changed quite a bit.
She, however, looked exactly the same. Blue eyes, brown hair, sweet girl-next-door face with that slightly elfin pointy chin, freckles across her adorable nose
It was a crime to humanity that she'd gotten a law degree instead of going to New York and working toward a career on Broadway. She had a voice that always blew him away, and an ability to act. And, oh, yeah, she could dance like a dream.
She'd won all the leads in the high school musicals starting when she was a freshman. She was Eliza Doo-little to his Henry Higgins when he was a junior and she was a sophomore.
The following year, they were Tony and Maria in West Side Story. It was the spring of Matt's senior year, and the beginning of the end of his friendship with both Angie and Maggie.
Because Angie knew.
As Tony and Maria, he and Maggie had had to kiss onstage. It was different from the polite buss they'd shared as Eliza and Henry the year before. These were soul-sucking, heart-stopping, full-power, no-holds-barred passionate kisses. The first time they went over the first of them, Matt had followed the director's blocking with his usual easy confidence, pulling Maggie into his arms and kissing her with all of his character's pent-up frustration and desire.
Maggie had become Maria, kissing him back so hotly, pressing herself against him and.
And Matt had to stop pretending to himself that he hadn't fallen for his girlfriend's best friend.
And of course, Angie knew. The only person who didn't know was Maggie.
It was entirely possible she never knew.
Or maybe she did know, and she had been as angry with him as Angie.
In which case she probably wouldn't return his phone call.
Which meant that he'd just have to keep calling. Because he needed Maggie Stanton, and this time he wasn't going to take no for an answer.
Laden with files, Maggie staggered back into her office at five o'clock the next afternoon after a six-hour meeting with a client.
She pulled the wad of phone messages off her spiked message holder with a sigh, taking them with her into the former closet that was her office. She closed the door, dumped the files in the only other chair in the room, and, sitting at her desk, spread the message slips on the desk in front of her.
Brock had already called twice. Seven of the messages were from clients she knew, three were names she didn't recognize.
There was a brand-new pile of files on her desk, with a casually scrawled note atop saying, "Deal with these before tomorrow, will you?"
Oh, yeah, sure. No problemif she stayed here at the office until midnight.
Maggie let her head fall forward onto the desk. "I hate this job," she whispered, wishing she were brave enough to say it loudly enough for either Andersen or Brenden to hear.
There was a knock on her office door.
Maggie lifted her head. This was where he'd make the scene. Her jungle man. She'd say, "Come in," and the door would open and he'd be standing there, just looking at her with those golden-green eyes.
He'd step inside and close the door behind him and say, "Ready to go?"
And she wouldn't hesitate. She'd say, "Yes."
And he'd smile and hold out his hand and she'd stand up and slip her fingers into his and.
The door opened a crack and Janice Greene, the firm's receptionist, peeked in. "You are still here."
"Oh, yeah," Maggie said. "I'm still here."
"You missed one," Janice told her, handing her the phone-message slip.
"Thanks," Maggie said as Janice went back out the door. She glanced down at the slip and
"Whoa, wait a minute, please Didn't he leave a number?"
Matthew Stone, read the slip in Janice's neat handwriting.
"He said you would know it," Janice said. "I'm sorry, I should have"
"No," Maggie said. "It's all right." The only number she knew for Matt was the one for the big old house he'd once shared with his father, down by the water.
As Janice shut her door, she picked up her phone and started to dial.
But then hung it back up.
She'd always felt a little funny about the fact that she'd taken Angie's side during her and Matt's last big fightthe one that had broken them up for good and even managed to disrupt Maggie's own friendship with him.
Angie had never gone into detail about what it was that Matt had supposedly done.
All Maggie knew was that Matt and Angie had had the mother of all fights shortly after rehearsals for West Side Story had started. And that was saying something because theirs was a very stormy relationship, filled with conflict.
Angie had come running to Maggie's house for comfort. And soon after, Matt had shown up, too.
Maggie could tell he'd been drinking from the aroma of alcohol that surrounded him. It had been whiskey she could smell, which alarmed her. Usually he only drank beer.
"Are you okay?" she'd asked him, coming out onto the front stoop.
He sat down heavily on the steps, and she knew as she sat next to him that something was really wrong. In addition to having too much to drink, he looked anxious and ill at ease.