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Heather Donovan propped open the front door and stood just inside the brightly lit storefront in Chesapeake Shores so she could inhale the scent of sea air from the bay across Shore Road. Turning slowly, she studied the stacks of colorful fabric bolts that had to be sorted and displayed, the unopened boxes of quilting supplies and the quilt racks that still required assembly. Her pride and joy, the carefully crafted shelving units, had been built to her specifications by her son's grandfather, famed architect Mick O'Brien, for whom her son, little Mick, was named.
Seeing it all coming together was a little overwhelming. Not just opening a business, but all of itmoving to this quaint town, deciding to raise her son on her own, giving up on a future with Connor O'Brienthese were all huge steps. Her mind still reeled when she thought about the recent changes in her life. She might embrace the changes, but that didn't mean she wasn't scared to death.
If anyone had told her a few months ago that she would leave the man she loved more than anything, that she would take their son and move from Baltimore to a small seaside town and embark on a whole new career, Heather would have laughed at the absurdity of the predictions. Even though Connor stubbornly had refused to consider marriage, she'd thought they had a good life, that they were committed to one another. She'd believed that so strongly that she'd ignored her parents'actually it had been mostly her mother'swarnings about the mistake she was making by having a child with Connor without a ring on her finger.
But, in fact, theyshe, Connor and their sonmight have gone on exactly like that for years if she hadn't seen how Connor's career as a divorce lawyer was chipping away at their relationship, how his anger at his parents was corrupting their day-to-day lives. She didn't like the embittered man she'd seen him becoming, and he seemed to have no desire to change.
It wasn't as if she'd made her decision to break up lightly. She'd gone away for several weeks, leaving their son with Connor's family while she'd pondered what was best for her future and for her child's. She hadn't been happy about the conclusion she'd reached, that she needed to start a new life on her own, but she'd made peace with it. And, in time, she knew she'd find the fulfillment that had eluded her with Connor.
Not that she could envision a day when she'd stop loving him, she thought even now, months after making the decision. She sighed at how difficult it sometimes was to reconcile emotions with common sense and facing reality, especially with a precious little boy as a constant reminder of what she'd given up.
A bell over the shop's front door tinkled merrily, interrupting her thoughts. Megan O'Brien stepped inside, carrying her grandson who beamed at the sight of Heather.
"Mama!" he cried, holding out his chubby little arms. Just over a year old now, he was the joy of Heather's life.
"He was missing you," Megan explained, then gave her a commiserating look. "And I thought you might be needing a glimpse of him about now. I know you're still not over all those weeks the two of you spent apart."
"Thank you," Heather said, reaching for her son.
"Feeling overwhelmed?" Megan asked with the kind of insight that Heather had come to treasure.
So many times in the past few months she'd regretted that Megan wouldn't be her mother-in-law. In many ways Heather felt closer to Connor's mother than she did to her own mother back in Ohio. A wonderful salt-of-the-earth woman who went to church on Sundays, volunteered at a homeless shelter and in a children's hospital, Bridget Donovan had an endless store of compassion for everyone except her own daughter. She flatly refused to accept that any daughter of hers would willingly choose not to marry the father of her child.
Heather sighed. As if marriage to Connor had ever been an option, no matter how desperately she might have hoped for it.
Heather bounced baby Mick in her arms as she nodded in response to Megan's question. "You're right about feeling overwhelmed," she said, gesturing around the store. "I have no idea where to start. What if opening a shop, especially here, is a huge mistake? I don't know anything about running a business. And being here, in this town, surrounded by O'Briens, what was I thinking? Why on earth did I let you talk me into this?"
"Because you knew it was a brilliant idea," Megan said at once, obviously still pleased with herself for coming up with this solution for Heather's future.
"Still, doubts are understandable," she consoled Heather. "You've made a lot of changes recently. All good ones, I think. As for starting your own business, this is a natural fit for you. The minute I saw those handmade quilts of yours, I knew it. You do absolutely beautiful work. Everyone in town is going to want to own one of your quilts or have you teach them how to make their own."
Megan fingered a small folk art quilt of a bay scene as she spoke. "This one, for instance, is a treasure. How can you bear to part with it? And at this price? It needs to cost twice as much."
"The price is fine. I was just experimenting," Heather said modestly, still astonished that anyone thought her hobby could turn into a thriving business. She had always enjoyed quilting, and it had filled the quiet evenings while Connor studied. She'd never envisioned it as anything more than a hobby.
In fact, her college degree had been in literature. She'd never quite figured out what to do with that besides teach. After two years in an out-of-control Baltimore high school classroom, she'd gratefully quit when she'd become pregnant with Connor's baby.
She gestured to the quilt Megan was admiring. "If you aren't just saying that to calm me down, if you really like it, I'll make one for you."
Megan's eyes brightened. "I'd love it, but I will pay you for it, and I swear I'm going to talk you into doubling the price."
"Well, that's what I'm paying," Megan countered just as stubbornly. "You've a business to run, after all."
Heather sighed. "Starting a business is just one of my concerns these days," she admitted. "What about moving out on Connor? Was that the right decision, Megan?" She couldn't seem to keep a wistful note out of her voice.
"Even that," Megan assured her. "My son is stubborn, and you've given him exactly the wake-up call he needed." She patted Heather's hand. "He loves you. Just tuck that knowledge away. He'll come around if you're patient."
"For how long?" Heather asked. "We met our freshman year in college, dated for four years, moved in together when he was in law school. When I found out I was pregnant, I was so sure we'd get married, especially when he encouraged me to quit my job to be a full-time mom. I was certain we were finally going to be a real family, the kind I'd always wanted. He even said that's what he wanted, too, just without a marriage license."
She waved off her regrets. "I should have known better than to expect him to change his mind. Connor always told me he had no intention of ever marrying, that he didn't believe in marriage. It's not as if I didn't understand the rules from the very beginning."
"People don't make rules about things like that," Megan said dismissively. "They just let the past control the future. In Connor's case, his attitude is all because of what happened between his father and me. Now that Mick and I have remarried and started over, I'm convinced Connor will see that love can endure all kinds of trials, including divorce."
Heather smiled at her optimism. "Have you met Connor? He's stubborn as a mule. Once he gets an idea into his head, he won't let go of it. And look how long it's been since I moved out. It was last Thanksgiving when I left to think things over, January when I officially left him. It'll be Easter soon, and he still hasn't shown any signs of changing his mind. He may not be entirely happy that I'm gone, but he's not doing anything at all to change the situation."
Megan grinned. "I'm married to a man just like that, his father. Believe me, there are ways of getting through to their hard heads." She glanced pointedly at the boy in Heather's arms. "And you've your ace in the hole right there. Connor adores his son."
Heather shook her head. "A couple can't build a future around a child. It's not fair. My parents did that. They stayed in a miserable marriage because of me. They thought it would be best, but it wasn't. The tension was unbearable. I won't have that for my son."
"I'm not suggesting that you be together for your child, only that he'll keep you in Connor's orbit while he gets his feet back under him and realizes how much he loves you both. Having you with him was entirely too comfortable. He had it all his own way. The stance you've taken is the smart one. Eventually he'll realize what he needs to do to have the two of you back again."
"I hope you're right," Heather admitted, though she wasn't counting on it. In fact, if things didn't work out with Connor, it could make her decision to move to Chesapeake Shores where she'd be surrounded by his family the worst one she'd made in years. The O'Briens might provide an enviable support system, but she'd be reminded of what could have been every minute of every day.
"Of course I'm right," Megan said confidently. "Now tell me what I can do to help you get organized in here. Do you have a system?"
Even to her own ears, Heather's laugh had an edge of hysteria about it. "If only," she said, glancing around at the chaos. She regarded Megan hopefully. "Are you sure you have some time to spare?"
"Of course I do. At Mick's insistence, I've hired a very competent assistant at the gallery, and things are under control. In the meantime, I'll let her know I'll be right next door if she needs me," she said, flipping open her cell phone. When she'd made the call, she told Heather, "Now, just put me to work."
Heather didn't hesitate. "If you could start opening those boxes, I could begin sorting the fabric for the displays," she suggested, settling Mick into the playpen she'd already set up in a corner. He uttered an immediate howl of protest, then spotted one of his favorite toys and was quickly absorbed with that.
Heather and Megan worked in companionable silence for a while before Megan inquired, "Have you told Connor about the shop yet? He didn't mention it last time we spoke and I certainly didn't want to be the one to fill him in."
Heather stiffened. "It hasn't come up. Truthfully, we barely exchange a dozen words when I drop Mick off to spend the day with him. I haven't even told him I've moved here. He reaches me on my cell phone when he needs to, so it's not as if it really matters where I've settled. I suppose if I'd run off to California, he might have a legitimate complaint, but I'm barely an hour away. Nothing's changed in terms of his schedule to see little Mick."
Megan looked distressed by her response. "Oh, Heather, you need to tell him," she said. "And you need to do it before he comes home for a visit and discovers it for himself or before someone else in the family blabs. He'll be furious that you've kept it from him."
Heather shrugged. "It'll just be one more thing to add to the list. He's already angry that I refused to move back in. To be honest, he wasn't all that happy when I insisted on keeping little Mick with me after I'd left him here with you while I was trying to sort through things and get my head on straight. He apparently thought the arrangement was going to be permanent."
"There's no question that he liked having the baby here with him and the rest of the family," Megan acknowledged. "We all did. But I think everyone except Connor understood it was only temporary."
Heather regarded her with sorrow. "Sometimes I think I'm destined to keep making things worse between Connor and me. If we talk at all, we're at odds over everything."
Megan smiled at that. "It's only awkward right now because you won't give him what he wantsan unconditional commitment that doesn't include marriage. He has to learn that he can't always have things on his own terms."
"But aren't I doing the same thing, expecting to have things on my terms?" Heather asked.
Megan regarded her thoughtfully. "I suppose that's true. Maybe it's just because I think you're the one who's right that I'm not blaming any of this standoff on you. I think two people who love each other and have a child together ought to at least try marriage, that they ought to be fighting to make it work."
She sighed. "Goodness knows, I spent years trying to make things work with Mick before I took the drastic step of leaving. Even in hindsight, I don't think I had a choice by then, though I know I should have handled things differently and much better where all of our children were concerned. I still regret that, and I'd never have forgiven myself if I'd simply run at the first sign of trouble, rather than leaving as a last resort."
Heather grinned at her. "But here you are, together again. Happy endings still happen. Why can't Connor see that, especially when it's right in front of his face?"
"I fear it's because he doesn't have a romantic bone in his body," Megan replied sorrowfully. "He's become cynical when it comes to love. Mick and I did that to him, and that job of hisdealing with bitter divorces every single dayhas reaffirmed his jaded views."
"Then what makes you think he'll ever come around?" Heather asked.
"Because I am a romantic," Megan said, smiling. "I believe in the power of love. And I know how deeply he cares about the people he has let into his hearthis sisters and his brother, his grandmother, even Mick when they're not battling over one thing or another."
"I saw that side of him, too, or thought I did," Heather said softly, though her voice lacked the conviction of Megan's.
"Then don't give up on Connor," Megan advised. "He'll find his way back to you. I believe that, too."