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|Publisher:||The Crown Publishing Group|
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"I'm going to kill my mother!"
"No, you're not." Meghann's friend Jennifer tried to console her, but she knew better.
Slouched on her gingham-covered sofa, Meghann Livingston rolled her head to the side with a sigh and gave her friend a weary pout. "Yes, I am going to kill her. When I tell her I have no husband, she will collapse again ... only this time at my feet."
Meghann's mother had recently been released from a Florida hospital after being treated for what the doctors were calling overexhaustion for lack of a better, more accurate diagnosis. Truth was, they didn't have a clue what was wrong with her mother. Other than a slight potassium deficiency, all the tests came back negative. Even the CAT scan revealed nothing.
Meghann shook her head. It just didn't make sense. A person didn't just faint and slip into a coma for no reason. But that's what her mother had done. It had been a terrifying time, but thankfully her mother seemed to be recovering. And the doctor had said she should take it easy and rest or the next time could be worse.
The next time?
No! If Meghann could help it, there would be no next time. Only one thing could be worse than almost dying, and that wasn't going to happen. Her mother was all she had.
Why were you driving yourself so hard, Mom? Was she that lonesome? So much so that she had to fill her every waking moment?
It was no wonder Meghann had said what she had, that she'd tried to give herfrighteningly ill mother some hope ... some shred of something to hold on to. No wonder she'd avoided setting the misconception straight and lied through her teeth. It was everything her mom wanted for her.
Her mom thought it was unreasonable for her daughter to still be single at twenty-five. "What is wrong with all the men these days? Are they all afraid to commit?" Her mom's questions played over and over in her mind. Meghann just hadn't found the right man yet.
That isn't true. She had found him. She planned to invite him over for a home-cooked meal but had to postpone it when her mother collapsed. And now she was in a bind. Her mom was on the mend and coming to visit her under the guise of meeting a nonexistent husband, and Meghann had the unfortunate task of breaking the bad news to her.
"I have to let her down easy." Meghann said to her friend, then sat up with a start. "I've got it! You tell her. Maybe it wouldn't be such a shock coming from you." She raised her brows in hope
Jennifer shook her head. "You take life far too seriously. Why are you making this so hard?"
Because it is hard.
"It's really quite simple." Jennifer's dark eyes blazed with delight.
Meg stared open-mouthed at her friend. "Simple?"
This she had to hear. True, Jennifer could reduce almost anything to simple terms, even Einstein's theory of relativity. Take out all the difficult-to-understand stuff and whatever is left, if anything, must be right. But what Meghann had done wasn't difficult to understand, just stupid. Crazy. Totally wrong.
And utterly impossible to get out of.
"Care to explain how telling my mom I'm not really married to Mr. Right and not killing her in the process is ... simple?"
"Yep." Jennifer's nod was firm and her smile broadened. "You don't."
Meg frowned. "I don't what?"
"You don't tell her you're not married."
Meg came up off the sofa, disturbing her black Lab at her feet. "I thought you were going to help me!"
Jennifer laid a gentle hand on her arm. "I am, Meg, more than you know. Look, your mom's not really well yet, right?"
Sinking back onto the couch again, Meg nodded. "Right."
"But thinking you're married and settled has been a big help for her, right?"
Meg's midsection twisted at the playful sparkle in her friend's eyes. "Right ..."
"And telling the truth might send her into a relapse, right?"
Meg fixed her friend with a glare. "Is this supposed to be helping me?"
Jennifer sighed. "All I'm saying is that you keep up the ruse for now. I mean, what's more important? Making sure your mom gets better or making yourself feel better by telling the truth?" She came to kneel beside Meg. "Really, who are you hurting? You'll tell your mom the truth when she's strong enough, but for now, go along. It's what she's always wanted, so why not give it to her for a while? Honor thy father and mother and all that."
Meghann hated to admit it, but for once, Jennifer sort of made sense.
Lying to your mother was wrong, regardless of your intentions. How can continuing the lie make it better?
Meghann knew the question was valid. Knew the lie was wrong. But what else can I do, Lord? What if I tell her and it's too much for her, too hard on her heart?
No. She couldn't take the chance. Meghann rubbed a hand over her eyes, trying to wipe away the ache. "So how do I explain the absence of my supposed husband while Mom is here?"
Jennifer's triumphant grin did little to ease Meg's worries. "I've already thought of that. He's on an extended business trip. And you get one of the guys from the hotel to call you now and then to talk with you. Trust me, your mom will buy it."
"I don't know, Jenn."
* * *
Meghann waited expectantly, scanning the travel-worn passengers exiting the terminal gate at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. Person after weary person emerged and donned a smile as their eyes met their waiting party.
The flow of people through the door stopped. No, that couldn't be everyone. Her mother would have called if she had missed the flight. She glanced nervously at her watch, straightened it on her wrist, then glanced back to the empty doorway. Her eyes darted around the crowded waiting area, searching face after unfamiliar face. Another small wave of travelers coming through the exit caught her attention. There, she saw a familiar form at the back of the group. She let out a sigh of relief when she caught her mother's gaze. At the sight of her daughter the smile in her mom's eyes spread across her weary face. The two embraced for a long moment.
"I was beginning to wonder if you were on the plane. I had almost given up," Meghann said, stepping back slightly. Though some of her mother's color had returned from when Meghann saw her a few weeks ago, she still looked drained.
"Everyone jumps up and tries to stampede off the plane as if the folks who came to meet them will be gone before they can get there. I wasn't afraid you would leave without me" a teasing smile lifted her mother's lips"at least not until you thoroughly searched the plane."
"And interrogated the crew." She became more serious. "You look good ... better, anyway. How are you feeling?"
"I'm fit as a fiddle," Gayle Livingston said with upturned hands. "I've been given a clean bill of health."
Her tired eyes and haggard look belied that. "Mother ..."
"Okay. I'm worn-out and cranky and could use a nap. Are you happy?" Her lips pulled into a thin line. "I know I will vastly improve just being away from those moody doctors and here with you and Bruce."
She let the reference to her nonexistent husband slide. For now. "I still can't believe your doctor okayed this trip so soon." She had toyed with the idea of moving back to Florida but couldn't bear to part with Colorado unless absolutely necessary. Springtime in the Rockies was beautiful when everything budded to life.
At first her mother had balked at Meghann's offer for her to come for a visit and rest but she had stood firm in insisting. Her mother would only overdo it again and wind up right back in the hospital. Finally, her mother had agreed, but Meghann's relief was short-lived when her mother also reminded her she had a husband her mom was eager to meet. Now she wondered at the wisdom of having her here.
"I'm supposed to get plenty of R&R, but you already know that. I won't lift a finger." She held out her carry-on bag to Meghann. "I'm prepared to be pampered," she finished with a regal air of sophistication.
Meghann took the bag and slung it over her shoulder, wrapping her other arm around her mother's slender shoulder. She could feel more bone than was healthy, but it was good to see her mother looking enthusiastic. If only it were for something real!
She looked down at her mother and said lightly, "To baggage claim?"
The older woman nodded, then looked forward and pointed. "To baggage claim." The two marched arm in arm through the terminal, winding in and out of the throngs and down the escalator. They stopped by carousel 4, where her mother's bags were scheduled to appear, and stood near the motionless conveyor belt.
Content didn't quite describe her mother's attitude, happy maybe. She looked like the cat that got the canary. "What's got you smiling so?"
"I thought maybe Bruce was parking the car and would meet us down here. Where is that husband of yours? Didn't he come with you? Or is he working late and will meet us at home?"
She couldn't avoid a direct question. "Yes, well, about Bruce. He's on a business trip." And that was actually the truth.
"Ooooh. I was looking forward to meeting him." The disappointment in her mother's voice tore at her heart. "I guess it will have to wait. When will he return?"
"I'm not exactly sure, but I wouldn't expect to see him while you're here." There. She hadn't lied ... not really, and she'd still avoided the truth. Avoiding the truth was not the same as lying, was it?
"Mercy! I'm going to be here a whole month. He certainly won't be gone the entire time?"
"As assistant manager, he doesn't have a whole lot of say in the matter. Besides, it wouldn't be good for his career for him to say no." Meghann couldn't look her mother in the eye while she talked about Bruce, so she studied a kidney-shaped stain on the gray carpet. She glanced up when her mother spoke again.
"But does he really have to be gone the whole time I'm here? A whole month? Can't he sneak home for a few days? I'm beginning to think I'll never meet him!"
That's the plan, Mom. "I'll ask again. Maybe it can be arranged."
Her mother gave her an understanding smile. "Well at least you can tell me all about him."
Meghann let out a deep breath. "He's wonderful, Mom." More truth. Bruce's self-assured demeanor gave him the ability to calm most everyone's anxieties; nothing ever seemed to rattle him. He took even the most frustrating circumstances in stride, handling problems both big and small with grace and seeming ease. And he treated everyone, from the hotel's manager to the maids, with the same degree of respect and consideration.
He wouldn't ever have gotten himself into a situation like this. He certainly wouldn't have lied to his own mother....
A verse from Proverbs she had once memorized, jumped to the forefront of her mind. "The Lord detests lying lips but delights in men who are truthful."
The words pierced her heart, and she knew the Lord couldn't be too delighted with her at the moment. She turned to her mother, her mouth open, ready to confess. Then she looked into her worried, pale face, the frail hands and arms, and knew she couldn't. "Bruce would be here if he could, Mom. He tried everything to get out of going." She knew it wasn't going to be easy to evade her mother's persistent questioning but hadn't expected it to start before they even left the airport.
"I know. I just don't understand why they couldn't send someone else." The disappointment was evident in her voice. "Isn't it the manager who's supposed to take all the trips?"
"Mr. Phenton does go on some trips, but he doesn't like to travel and says it is good for Bruce to learn all he can about the hotel business."
Standing back from the crowd huddled around the motionless machine, they waited in strained silence. Then her mother excused herself to go to the restroom. Meghann reached for the offered claim stubs just in case the conveyor-belt beast decided to offer up the luggage. She watched her mother retreat into the crowd.
Her conscience pricked her to tell her mother the truth, but she pushed the notion away. What was the real harm anyway in letting her mom believe what she wanted to believe? It made her happy, and with any luck she would regain her strength. Then Meg would tell her.
And in the meantime, when her mother was so anxious to meet her husband? Well, it was not going to be easy to placate her, but Meg would do it. Somehow.
Lord, please heal her quickly and give me the strength to endure.
"Do you have the time, sir?"
"Quarter past six," Bruce Halloway said to the man passing by and grabbed his garment bag and briefcase. As he hurried through the airport, a particular honey-blond caught his attention, her hair pulled back in a braided rope down her back. It took him only a moment to recognize her. He would know her anywhere, especially looking down. That's the way she looked at work behind the front desk when he would study her. She was also wearing that blue floral dress he liked so well. Though conservative, it flattered her figure. The warm place inside him that she had unknowingly claimed jumped to life.
He had fought the urge to date her because of his position as her boss. But he couldn't resist looking for other ways to spend time with her on the job. In the process, he'd found out they had a mutual love for the historic old hotel they both worked in.
That discovery came when he was on a search-and-seizure mission to locate some old hotel records. He was trying to recount the hotel's complete history. Meghann knew where she thought some old records could be and offered to show him where they were. Her eagerness to help himor any of her coworkers no matter how detestable the taskpiqued his interest. Her servant's heart mesmerized him to the point of distraction. He could have gotten directions from her and gone alone, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity to be with her.
The dim lighting in the musty room gave a dreamy aura to all that was there. While rummaging through dusty old boxes, they stumbled upon an aged scrapbook someone had kept on hotel events fifty-some years prior.
Meg gasped, and he'd turned to her, surprised at the delight on her face. The fact that she was so excited at their find warmed him. They whiled away nearly an hour regarding the scraps of yesteryear's mementos. Page after yellowed page offered tokens of history, voices sounding across time, a library of bygone days. They stood with the book opened on a stack of cartons and sifted through the pages of time.
One such vintage page captured them both and Meghann squealed with delight. "A masquerade ball!"
Her enchanting voice awash with enthusiasm tickled his senses and stirred a deep longing in his heart. A longing that was fueled every time he was around her ... and even when he wasn't.
Together they came up with a plan to resurrect the Palace Hotel's annual masquerade ball; a tradition that had ceased thirty years ago.
Laughing, letting themselves get lost in their inspiration, they'd thrown out ideas for decorations, invitations, and costumes.
He'd grinned at her glowing face. "What would you suggest for me? Something with chain mail and shiny steel? I always fancied myself a knight." He held his hand out in front of him as if he clutched a sword. "Saving damsels in distress." He was thinking of her tangle with a cat up a tree last fall.
Meg shook her head. "No distressed damsels for you." Her sweet voice brought him back. "You would, be the regal prince presiding over the whole affair. Of course, there would be many maidens there, but none in need of rescuing. Your duties would fall to far duller things than slaying dragons. You would have the daunting task of entertaining and dancing with all the ladies."
If you were one of those ladies, I would dance with every last one to have the honor of dancing with you. "Then whom would you be? The fair Cinderella?"
A stillness settled around them in the hushed silence and she whispered, "Maybe."
Standing there, looking down at her, those brown-green eyes shining up at him, the urge to kiss her nearly took control of him. Instead, he swallowed and mustered the will to step back. "We should get back to work."
But the spell she had over him didn't diminish when they stepped from the past back into the present.
At thirty, his life was quite comfortable. He knew where he was going and what he wanted. The only thing lacking was someone to share his life and grow old together with. And Meghann seemed to be the one God kept bringing to mind. Or was it his heart? He wasn't completely sure ... but this he knew, employee or not, he was going to ask her out and see where it would lead.
He strode over to her, now standing in the airport baggage claim. "Meghann Livingston."
She looked up with a start. Her eyes widened. "M-Mr. Halloway."
"Please we're not at work, call me Bruce." She just stared up at him, dazed, looking like she swallowed something wrong. Since the horrible scene that Charmaine caused at the Christmas party, Meghann had been cool toward him, and he had backed off on pursuing her. But it was a new day, and she stood before him as pretty as ever. Even though she didn't seem to know what to say to her employer outside of the hotel, he figured he would give a stab at small talk and work up to asking her out. "Have you been out of town, too?"
She looked down at the claim tickets in her hands. "Nothese aren't mine," she said in a guilty tone, glancing off in the other direction, then back at him nervously "My mother just came in."
He drew in a slow, even breath to hide his disappointment that she wasn't at least a little happy to see him. Had he wasted too much time and waited too long to ask her out? Maybe her interest in him had only been in his imagination.... "Where is she? I'd like to meet her." He scanned the crowded baggage claim area.
He raised his eyebrows at her abruptness, and a dull red filled Meghann's slim cheeks.
"I mean, she went to the restroom. She's been ill and needs rest after her flight. I don't want to overtax her; besides, I don't want to keep you. I'm sure you are probably very busy, with a lot of things to do. I'll see you at work tomorrow, well, bye then."
Her words gushed out in one breath, and Bruce felt the need to breathe for her.
"You can go now."
Her firm words and determined, almost panicky, wide eyes left no doubt: this was a brush-off. He could take a hint when slapped in the face with it.
"Bruce?" a woman's voice called out to him. "Is that you?"
Meghann's eyes widened even more, which he hadn't thought possible. "No! Tell her no!" She swung around, forcing a smile as she did so. Her sweet perfume greeted his senses, momentarily entrancing him.
His eyes searched out the unfamiliar voice and found an older woman approaching them. She had the same honey-blond hair as Meghann and was a couple of inches shorterhe guessed around five-foot-two. Bruce looked at the woman next to him. Unmistakably mother and daughter, except the younger Livingston had gone stark white.
Mrs. Livingston's joy-filled eyes lit on him with pride etched in her soft wrinkles. They were a mother's eyes. Even though he hadn't been introduced yet, he liked this woman. He saw no reason to deny who he was. What harm could there be in meeting Meghann's mother? Then he would grant her request to depart. "Yes. I'm Bruce Halloway"
"I knew it was you. Meg has told me so much about you. I think I could have picked you out in a crowd even if you weren't standing next to my daughter." Her eyes misted, and she pulled a tissue from her pocket to dab at them. "You don't know how much it means to me to have you here."
"Mom ..." The single word held a heavy note of dread.
Meghann might not want him there, but he saw no reason to be rude to her mother. He put down his briefcase and garment bag and extended his hand to her. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Livingston."
"Please, call me Mom," Mrs. Livingston said proudly.
At the strangled word, Bruce glanced at Meghann. She looked positively ill. And was now beet red. He turned his attention back to the older woman. Something was up. Just what, he wasn't sure. While one woman had clearly tried to get rid of him, the other was so happy to see him she was on the verge of tears. What could his employee possibly have said to her mother to make her so emotional about meeting him?
"At least call me Gayle," the older Livingston woman said. "We're family now."
He looked to Meghann for an explanation. She stared open-mouthed at her mother.
Apparently unaware of her daughter's discomfort, Gayle continued, "I was so disappointed when Meg said you would be away my entire visit. I knew you would make it if you were everything Meg said you were. And here you are. Do you mind if I give my new son-in-law a hug?"
So that was it.
Understanding washed over Bruce. For some reason Meghann Livingston had told her mother they were married. He knew he should be put out. Even angry. But he wasn't.
Not even a little.
For one thing, he knew the kind of pressure parents, especially a mother, could put on a son ... or daughter ... to get married.
For another, he was inordinately pleased Meg had chosen him. He managed to hold back a smile. Maybe he had a chance with her after all. He eyed the red-faced young woman, then turned back to her mother. "It would be my honor to give you a hug ... Mom."