Still burning from a painful divorce, contractor Ryan McCall is finished with women. That is until his thirteen-year-old son befriends their new neighborwidowed high-school teacher Tess Benson. But she is seven months pregnant.
Tess finds Ryan rude, and his assuming and egocentric behavior is starting to grate on her nerves. Unfortunately, she needs a new Lamaze coach and he is the only person available. Worse still, she's even starting to like hima lot. Is it possible to have a relationship with someone who doesn't even like you or any woman for that matter? Hp
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It was too quiet.
The thought struck Ryan McCall halfway up the stairs, and he paused, his expression puzzled. Normally by that point he could hear rock music rattling the walls of his apartment. Or, at the very least, the television blaring. His son rarely did anything in moderation.
Ryan trotted up the remaining steps, curious but not particularly alarmed.
The first vestige of the latter feeling came a moment later when he unlocked his door and opened it to a dark apartment. Stepping inside, Ryan flipped on the living room lights and checked his watch. It was only nine—too early for Mike to be in bed. Maybe he had fallen asleep watching television in his room.
"Mike! You here?"
There was no answer. Frowning, Ryan tossed the mail onto the coffee table and strode across the room, heading for the door that led into the bedroom hallway. "Hey, Mike! Where are you?"
His son's room was empty. The bed, on which the boy wallowed periodically throughout the day, was made up in Mike's usual haphazard manner but it showed no sign of having been touched.
The room was crammed with a thirteen-year-old boy's clutter. A catcher's mitt and a bat and ball lay on the desk, along with dozens of baseball cards, two crushed soft drink cans, a deflated football, a pair of dirty socks, a pocket electronic game, and an assortment of candy wrappers, rocks and scraps of paper. A squadron of model airplanes hung from the ceiling and another half-finished aircraft sat on a sheet of newspaper in the middle of the floor. In a pile in the corner, where Mike had tossed them, were a torn kite, a Frisbee and a skateboard. A ratty sneaker with a hole in the toe lay on its side beside the bed. Yet, for all its messiness, the room had an undisturbed air.
Real alarm began to spiral up inside Ryan. Where was Mike?
The front door slammed. "Hey, Dad. I'm home!" Ryan whirled, his relief so great his knees nearly buckled. The debilitating emotion lasted only an instant, just long enough for parental ire to override it. Dammit, where the devil had that boy been? No matter what, he was damned well supposed to be home by dark with the doors locked.
Ryan stalked toward the living room. Mike was heading for his room, and father and son nearly crashed into one another when Ryan stormed through the door. "Oh, hi, Dad. Wait'll you hear—""
"You've got some explaining to do, young man."
"Where the devil have you been? You know you're not to leave without permission."
"I didn't leave! Well...not really. I was next door."
"Yeah. I've been helping our new neighbor move in." Ryan stared at his son, taken aback. Mike was a good kid. He was responsible and cooperative, but like most teenage boys, when it came to things like household chores or anything that involved physical labor, he groused long and loud.
"Well, hey, that's great, Mike. I'm proud of you." Ryan hesitated. "Uh...you did volunteer to help, didn't you? I mean...they're not paying you, are they?"
"Heck no! I wouldn't take money from someone like Mrs. Benson," Mike declared, affronted. The next instant he brightened, his young face lighting up with enthusiasm.
"Wait'll you meet her, Dad. She's really great. She's a high school teacher—or she was until school let out last week for the summer. She says she's not going back next fall. She's going to take a real long sabba...sabbat..."
"Yeah, that. Man, I bet it'd be cool, having a teacher like Mrs. Benson. She young. Well...sorta...for a teacher, anyway. And she's real friendly and all, and she laughs a lot. And guess what else, Dad? Amanda Sutherland...you know, that lady who does the news on television? Well she'n Mrs. Benson are best friends. Ms. Sutherland is helping her move."
One corner of Ryan's mouth kicked up in a faintly scornful twist. "Is that right?" he replied without a trace of interest. Women were far from his favorite topic of conversation.
He retrieved the mail from the coffee table and started riffling through it. "So how about Mr. Benson? What's he like?"
"Oh, there's not a Mr. Benson. At least, not anymore there isn't. Ms. Sutherland told me he died about seven months ago."
Ryan's head snapped around, his eyes narrowing. "You mean our new neighbor is a widow?"
"Yeah. And she's—""
"Oh great. That's just great," Ryan snapped. "Just what I need—an unattached female right next door. That's the perfect piece of news to cap off what's been a really rotten day."
Ryan and Mike had lived where they were for almost eight years. Until his death the previous month, a doddering old bachelor had occupied the apartment next door. Ryan had hoped that the next tenant would be someone equally innocuous.
"Ah, c'mon, Dad. Don't be that way. Mrs. Benson is different. She's nice and...well...special. You'll like her. Really."
"Yeah. Right." His jaw tight, Ryan returned his attention to the day's mail.
Mike headed for the kitchen. "Tonight Mrs. Benson just brought over some small stuff. The movers are bringing her furniture tomorrow, and she's moving everything else herself in a rented trailer. So anyway, I told her I'd be back to help some more after my softball game tomorrow," he said with his head inside the refrigerator. "That's okay, isn't it, Dad?"
"I guess," Ryan replied through gritted teeth. "But first you have to do your Saturday chores."
"Ah, Daaad. Do I have to? Just this one time, couldn't—""
"You know the rules, Mike."
Actually, Ryan half hoped that the additional work would make Mike change his mind. On the one hand, he was proud of his son for generously helping out a neighbor, but he hated the idea of a single woman living next door, and he certainly did not want Mike to spend a lot of time with her. In Ryan's experience, unattached females were usually on the lookout for a man.
He tore open an envelope with more force than necessary, his teeth clamped together so hard they ached. At the first opportunity he intended to make his feelings about women crystal clear to this new neighbor.
The opportunity arose the very next morning. As usual whenever Mike had a softball game, Ryan's identical twin, Reilly, came along. Depending on the previous evening and the woman with whom he had spent it, Reilly sometimes appeared on their doorstep on Saturday mornings looking a bit frayed around the edges—but he came. He was nothing if not a devoted uncle. So far, he hadn't missed a single game.
That particular Saturday morning Reilly arrived early bearing a box of warm donuts for their breakfast and whistling off-key. Ryan took one look at the devilish twinkle in his brother's eyes and raised a sardonic brow.
"You're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning. Don't tell me you actually got a decent night's sleep for a change. What's the matter? Get stood up?"
Reilly grinned. "Hardly. If you want to know, I spent last evening with a dynamite gal. You ought to try it sometime, Hoss. Does wonders for your outlook. As a matter of fact, I know a fantastic lady I could fix you up with."
"Forget it. When I want a woman I know where to find one. Besides, there's nothing wrong with my outlook."
"Wanna bet," Reilly muttered, trailing his brother into the kitchen.
Between the three of them, the McCall men quickly devoured the whole box of donuts. A short time later they clattered down the stairs and headed for the parking lot amid laughter and good-natured jibes.
Just as they reached Ryan's Jeep Cherokee, an older economy car towing a rental trailer pulled into the parking lot and sputtered to a stop a few feet away. Mike's face lit up.
"Hey, look! It's Mrs. Benson!"
Ryan groaned and tried to stop him but he was too late. His son rushed over to the car and leaned down beside the driver's window before the woman could kill the engine.
"Hi, Mrs. Benson. Ms. Sutherland," Mike added, sparing the woman in the passenger seat a quick glance. "I didn't expect to see you again so soon." Grinning, he glanced over his shoulder and motioned eagerly to his father and uncle.
"C'mere'n meet Mrs. Benson, Dad. You too, Uncle Reilly."
Ryan gritted his teeth, but he had no choice. Reilly, who needed no second urging where women were concerned, was already sauntering toward the car. Ryan followed him reluctantly.
Beaming, Mike made the introductions. "I'm delighted to meet you," the woman behind the wheel said, smiling up at Ryan. "And please, do call me Tess. We're neighbors now, after all."
Ignoring her outstretched hand, Ryan responded with a curt nod, then deliberately looked away, his expression stony.
Whatever his greeting lacked in courtesy, his brother's more than made up for in charm. With a hand braced on the car door Reilly leaned down and flashed his most devastating smile. "Morning, ladies." His gaze slid back and forth between the two women, and he sighed dramatically. "I swear, it just isn't fair. This brother of mine has always had the devil's own luck. Imagine having two beauties like you move in right next door. Nothing like that ever happens to me."
"Oh, brother." Rolling her eyes, Amanda gave a disgusted snort and scooted down in her seat. Arms crossed tightly beneath her breasts, she stared straight ahead.
Tess's uncertain gaze flickered from Ryan's rigid face to his brother's smiling one. "Uh...I'm afraid you're mistaken, Mr. McCall—""
"Reilly," he insisted with an affable grin.
"Uh...Reilly. You see, I'm the only one who'll be living here. Amanda is merely giving me a hand."
"Really. Hey, in that case, perhaps I can talk your friend into moving into my building?"
"Don't hold your breath," Amanda muttered, but she didn't deign to look at him.
Reilly grinned. His eyes twinkled as they roved over Amanda's stiff profile. "Say aren't you... Of course! Amanda Sutherland. I thought you looked familiar. You're a roving reporter for Channel Five, aren't you?"
"I'm a big fan. Maybe we can get together sometime so I can tell you how much I admire your work. Say...over dinner tonight?"
Amanda cut her eyes around, giving him a look that would have shriveled most men. Reilly McCall's grin widened.
"How about tomorrow night?"
"The night after that?"
Amanda shook her head. Ryan shifted impatiently and made a point of checking his watch. "The woman's not interested, Reilly, so count yourself lucky and come on. We have to get to the park." He gave Tess another curt nod and turned and walked back to his own car without another word.
"It was nice meeting you," Tess called after him, but his only response was to yell to his son to shake a leg.
Crestfallen, Mike gazed after his father. He sent Tess an apologetic look. "Gee, I'm sorry, Mrs. Benson. Dad doesn't really mean to be rude. He's got a lot on his mind, is all."
"That's all right, Mike. I understand."
His father hollered again, and Mike darted away toward the Cherokee. "Don't forget," he called back over his shoulder. "I'll be over as soon as the game ends."
He had barely tumbled into the back seat when his father reversed out of the parking space and sent the utility vehicle shooting out of the lot.
Ryan's expression did not encourage conversation, but Mike was too upset to care.
"Shoot, Dad. Why'd you have to go and act that way to Tess?" he demanded glumly.
"Yeah, Hoss." Reilly's eyes twinkled with devilment.
"I'd like to know that, too. You were a real jerk back there. If a looker like Tess Benson moved into my building I sure wouldn't bite her head off. I'd woo her with soft words and flowers." He waggled his eyebrows. "You'd be surprised how far a little sweet talk can get you."
"Ah, knock it off, Uncle Reilly," Mike snapped, surprising both men. "Tess isn't that kind of woman."
"Hey, Mike...buddy. What gives? I didn't mean any—""
"Oh, just forget it." Flouncing back in the seat, Mike stared out the window, his young face sulky.