Being an overachiever sucked, Abby O'Brien Winters concluded as she crawled into bed after midnight, mentally and physically exhausted after a roller-coaster day on Wall Street. She'd managed about twenty minutes of quality time with her twin daughters before they'd fallen asleep barely into the opening paragraph of The Velveteen Rabbit. She'd eaten warmed-over Chinese takeout for the third straight night, then pulled out a half-dozen voluminous market analysts' reports she needed to absorb before the stock exchange opened in the morning. Her bedtime reading was a lot more challenging than what Caitlyn and Carrie chose.
She was good at her job as a portfolio manager for a major brokerage company, but so far it had cost her a marriage to a great guy, who'd tired of playing second fiddle to her career, and more sleep than she could possibly calculate. Though she shared custody of the twins with Wes, she often felt as if she was barely acquainted with her five-year-old daughters. It sometimes seemed as if they spent more time with the nannyand even her ex-husbandthan they did with her. She'd long since lost sight of exactly what she was trying to prove and to whom.
When the phone rang, Abby glanced at the clock and groaned. At this hour, it could only be an emergency. Heart thudding, she reached for the receiver.
"Abby, it's me," her sister Jessica announced. Jess was the youngest of the five O'Brien siblings and the real night owl among them. Abby stayed up late because it was the only way to cram enough work into a twenty-four-hour day. Jess did it because she was just starting to hit her stride when the moon and stars came out. "I called earlier, but the nanny said you weren't home yet. Then I got distracted with a project I'm working on. I hope it's not too late. I know you're usually up till all hours."
"It's fine," Abby assured her. "Is everything okay? You sound stressed. Is something going on with Gram? Or Dad?"
"Gram's amazing. She'll outlive us all. And Dad is off someplace building something. I can't keep track of him."
"He was in California last week," Abby recalled.
"Then I guess he's still there. You know he has to oversee every single detail when one of his projects is being built. Of course, then he loses interest, just the way he did with Chesapeake Shores."
There was an unsurprising note of bitterness in Jess's voice. As the youngest of five, she, more than the rest of them, had missed spending time with their dad. Mick O'Brien had already been making a name for himself as an architect and urban planner when he'd designed and built Chesapeake Shores, a now-famous seaside community on the Chesapeake Bay. He'd done it in partnership with his brothersone a builder, the other an environmentalist. The town had been built around land that had been farmed by Colin O'Brien, a great-great uncle and the first of the O'Briens to arrive from Ireland in the late 1800s. It was to be the crown jewel in Mick's body of work and the idyllic place his family would call home. It hadn't turned out that way.
Mick and his brothers had fought over the construction, battled over environmental issues and even over the preservation of the few falling-down historic buildings on some of the property. Eventually they'd dissolved the partnership. Now, even though they all coexisted in or near Chesapeake Shores, they seldom spoke except on holidays, when Gram insisted on a pretense of family harmony.
Abby's mother, Megan, had lived in New York since she and Mick had divorced fifteen years ago. Though the plan had been for all of the children to move to New York with her, for reasons Abby had never understood, that hadn't happened. They'd stayed in Chesapeake Shores with their mostly absent dad and Gram. In recent years, one by one they had drifted away, except for Jess, who seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the town and with Mick.
Since moving to New York herself after college, Abby had reestablished a strong bond with her mother, but none of the others had done the same. And not just Jess, but all five of them had an uneasy relationship with their father. It was Gramwho'd been only a girl when her family had followed their O'Brien predecessors to Marylandwith her fading red hair, twinkling blue eyes, ready smile and the lingering lilt of Ireland in her voice, who held them together and made them a family.
"Did you call to complain about Dad, or is something else on your mind?" Abby asked her sister.
"Oh, I can always find something to complain about with Dad," Jess admitted, "but actually I called because I need your help."
"Anything," Abby said at once. "Just tell me what you need." She was close to all her siblings, but Jess held a special place in her heart, perhaps because of the big difference in their ages and her awareness of how their mother's departure and their father's frequent absences had affected her. Abby had been stepping in to fill that gap in Jess's life since the day Megan had left.
"Could you come home?" Jess pleaded. "It's a little too complicated to get into on the phone."
"Oh, sweetie, I don't know," Abby began, hesitating. "Work is crazy."
"Work is always crazy, which is exactly why you need to come home. It's been ages. Before the girls came along, you used work as an excuse. Then it was the twins. Now it's work and the twins."
Abby winced. It was true. She had been making excuses for years now. She'd eased her conscience with the fact that every member of her family loved visiting New York and came up frequently. As long as she saw them all often, it didn't seem to matter that it was almost always on her turf rather than Chesapeake Shores. She'd never stopped to analyze why it had been so easy to stay away. Maybe it was because it really hadn' t felt like home after her mother had left.
Before she could reply, Jess added, "Come on, Abby. When was the last time you took a real vacation? Your honeymoon, I'll bet. You know you could use a break, and the girls would love being here. They should spend some quality time in the town their grandfather built and where you grew up. Gram could spoil them rotten for a couple of weeks. Please. I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."
"Life-or-death important?" Abby asked. It was an old exchange, used to rank whether any crisis was truly monumental or only a temporary blip in their lives.
"It could be," Jess said seriously. "At least in the sense that my whole future's at stake. I think you're the only one who can fix this, or at least the only one I'm willing to ask for help."
Struck by the somber tone in her voice, Abby said, "Maybe you'd better tell me right now."
"You need to be here to understand. If you can't stay for a couple of weeks, then at least come for a few days. Please."
There was something in her sister's voice that Abby had never heard before, an urgency that suggested she wasn't exaggerating her claim that her future was at stake. Since Jess was the only one of the five siblings who'd been floundering for a focus since reaching adulthood, Abby knew she couldn't turn her back on her. And admittedly a break would do Abby herself a world of good. Hadn't she just been bemoaning her workaholic tendencies earlier tonight?
She smiled, thinking about how wonderful it would be to breathe the salty Chesapeake Bay air again. Even better, she would have uninterrupted time with her girls in a place where they could swing on the playground her father had designed for the town park, build sand castles on the beach and run barefoot through the chilly waters of the bay.
"I'll work something out tomorrow and be down there by the weekend," she promised, giving in. She glanced at her jam-packed schedule and grimaced. "I can only make it for a couple of days, okay?"
"A week," Jess pleaded. "I don't think this can be fixed in a day or two."
Abby sighed. "I'll see what I can work out."
"Whatever you can arrange," Jess said at once, seizing the compromise. "Let me know when your flight's getting in and I'll pick you up."
"I'll rent a car," Abby said.
"After all these years in New York, do you actually remember how to drive?" Jess teased. "Or even how to get home?"
"My memory's not that bad," Abby responded. "See you soon, sweetie."
"I'll call Gram and let her know you're coming."
"Tell her not to go to any trouble, okay?" Abby said, knowing it would be a waste of breath. "We'll go out to eat. I've been dying for some Maryland crabs."
"No way," her sister countered. "It's a little early in the season, but if you want steamed crabs, I'll find 'em somewhere and pick them up for Friday-night dinner. We can eat on the porch, but I'm not about to stop Gram from cooking up a storm. I say let the baking begin."
Abby laughed at her enthusiasm. Gram's bakingpies, tarts, cookies, scones, cakeswas pretty amazing. There'd been a time in her life when Abby had wanted to learn all those traditional family recipes and open a bakery, but that was before she'd discovered an interest in and aptitude for the financial world. That had been her ticket out of Chesapeake Shores.
Now, after more than ten hectic years awayyears spent climbing a treacherous corporate ladder, marrying, giving birth to twins and divorcingshe was going home for a real visit, something longer than a rushed weekend with barely time to relax before it was time to fly back to New York. She couldn't help wondering, based on the dire tone in Jess's voice, if that was a good thing or not.
"Couldn't you at least put on a tie?" Lawrence Riley grumbled, scowling at his son. "If you're going to take over this bank, you need to set a good example for the employees. You can't come in here looking as if you just climbed off the back of a Harley."
Trace regarded his father with amusement. "That's exactly what I did. My bike's in the parking lot."
His father's frown deepened. "I thought I told you to drive your mother's car. You have an image to uphold now."
"What was Mother supposed to do?" Trace asked reasonably. "I couldn't see her riding my Harley to her garden club meeting."
"She has a dozen different friends who would have been happy to pick her up," his father countered.
"And apparently not a one of them had any desire to run all her errands with her after the meeting," Trace responded.
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?" his father grumbled. "This situation is never going to work if you don't take me or this job seriously."
"I always take you seriously," Trace said. "As for the job, I don't want to take it at all. I have a perfectly good career in New York. Just because I don't have to wear a suit or use a calculator doesn't mean it's not respectable." In fact, his career as a freelance design artist not only paid well, enabling him to live and work in a large loft in SoHo, it didn't require him to answer to his father. That was quite a perk in his book.
His father's scowl deepened. "So, what? I should let this community bank get gobbled up by one of the big banking conglomerates?"
"Maybe so," Trace said, knowing his response would only push his father's hot button. "That's the way the banking world is going."
"Well, this bank won't, not as long as I have any say about it," his father said stubbornly. "Chesapeake Shores Community Bank serves the people in this town in a way that one of those faceless, impersonal behemoths never could."
Trace couldn't argue the point. He just didn't want any part of running the place, family heritage or not. "Why not put Laila in charge?" he asked, referring to his younger sister. He warmed to the topic. If he could convince his father to put Laila in the job she'd always wanted, he could be on the road back to New York by morning. All he had to do was sell his father on the idea. "Think about it, Dad. She has a head for numbers. Her SAT math scores were through the roof. She aced all of her college business courses. She has a master's degree from the Wharton School of Business. She'd be a natural."
"I thought of that," his father admitted. "I even spoke to her about it, but your sister told me to take a hike."
That was unexpected, Trace thought. "Why?"
His father shrugged. "She said she wasn't going to be anybody's second choice, even mine."
Trace regarded him with bewilderment. "But you asked her first."
"When has your sister ever paid any attention to logic? She's convinced I only asked her because I knew you wouldn't want the job."
"I don't suppose you tried to convince her she was wrong," Trace said.
"How could I when she was right?"
"Do you think you two will ever learn to communicate?" Trace grumbled. He and his dad might be at loggerheads ninety percent of the time, but Lawrence Riley and Laila were rarely on the same page about anything, from a choice as inane as breakfast cereal to a decision as critical as who ought to run the bank. It had been that way from the moment she learned to talk.
"You mean communicate the way you and I do?" his father retorted wryly.
"Yeah, at least that well," Trace responded. "Look, I'll talk to her. I'll smooth things over between the two of you. Her pride's been hurt because you've made it plain over the years that you want me back here, but she'll come around."
His father hit his fist on the desk. "Dammit, you're the one who needs to come around, Trace. What ever happened to family loyalty? A man works his whole life to build up something good for his son, and you toss it aside without a second thought."
"I've had a lifetime to think about it. You've never made a secret about what you expected. I've given it a second thought and a third, for that matter, ever since you called. Dad, come on, you know the whole nine-to-five drill would never work for me. I like a job that's creative, a word that tends to make bankers nervous as hell."
The faint hint of a smile finally touched his father's lips. "True enough," he admitted. "How about this? We give it six months. If you still hate it, you can take off again with my blessing. That's fair, isn't it?"
As a respected and in-demand artist working freelance for several of New York's top ad agencies, Trace had the flexibility to do as his father asked. He could even keep up with a few accounts to keep himself from going totally stir-crazy in Chesapeake Shores. If it would buy him his freedom permanently, surely he could survive six months in a suit. He owed his father that much respect. And in the long run that short-term display of loyalty would be wiser than causing a family rift.
Moreover, he could spend the time trying to convince his sister to forget about her stupid pride and being second choice. She'd wanted this job since she'd learned to count. She ought to grab it, rather than wasting her talent by keeping the books for a few local businesses. Unfortunately she'd inherited their father's stubbornness. It would probably take Trace every single day of the allotted six months to make peace between the two of them.
"Okay, six months," Trace agreed. "Not one day longer."
His father beamed at him. "We'll see. You might discover you have an aptitude for banking, after all."
"Or you'll realize I'm incompetent when it comes to math."
"I have your college test scores and grades that say otherwise." He stood up and held out his hand. "Welcome aboard, son."
Trace shook his hand, then studied his father intently. There was a glint in his eyes that suggested there was more to the negotiations than Trace had realized. "What are you up to?" he asked warily.
"Up to?" Lawrence Riley had a lousy poker face. Half of his pals at the country club would testify to that. For the past thirty years, they'd lined their pockets with his losses.
"Don't even try to play innocent, Dad. You're up to something, and it has nothing to do with me becoming your protégé around here."
"We've made a business deal, that's all," his father insisted. "Now let me show you your office. It's fairly Spartan now, but if you decide to stick around you can decorate it however you want. Meantime, I'll have Raymond go through some loan folders with you. We have a meeting of the loan committee first thing Tuesday morning. You'll need to have your recommendations ready then."
Trace held up a hand. "Hold on a second. I don't know enough to make recommendations on whether loan applications should be approved."
"Raymond will show you the ropes. He's been my right hand for years. And they're not all loan applications. There's a possible foreclosure in there, too."
Trace's stomach knotted. "You want me to decide whether or not someone's home should be taken away and put up for auction?"