Greg Banning planned to hire Megan to redo his marketing plan, but he counted the minutes until each of their meetings. As their romance heated up, Greg realized she was everything he wanted in a woman, and his thoughts began straying to marriage. But would their new love spell happiness for both of them — or would the scandal tear them apart?
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"Aunt Megan, I really, really need to go," Olivia whispered anxiously.
Bent over to child level as she dumped the dishwasher detergent in the tray, Megan Schumacher snapped the tray shut, straightened to push the start button and shoved the door into lock position. Inside, the whooshing started. She edged the box of detergent onto the crowded kitchen counter and turned to look fondly down at her niece.
"Powder room." Megan pointed the way. "Quick." Blond curls bounced as the little sweetie shook her head. "Someone's in there." She wrinkled her button nose in childish disgust. "Being sick. And there's someone upstairs in our bathroom, too." She meant the bathroom she shared with her brothers, Anthony and Michael. "Crying."
Great. "What about your mom's bathr — " Olivia cut her off with a snort of wounded frustration. "Anthony's in there. He yelled at me to go away."
Anthony, the oldest of Megan's sister's kids, was nine. He'd developed a bit of an attitude lately. If he wasn't silent and sulky, he was ordering everyone to leave him alone.
Olivia rolled her blue eyes. "Aunt Megan. Come on. I need to use your bathroom."
"Well, sure. Why didn't you just say so?" Olivia let out a pained sigh. "Is it open?"
"You bet. Need help?"
The little girl drew herself up and spoke with great dignity. "Thank you. No. After all, I am seven." Then she whirled and took off for the kitchen door that led to the breezeway and the backyard entrance to Megan's apartment over the garage.
"She's a cutie, that one." Marti Vincente, who lived next door, pulled a tray of stuffed miniature portobello mushrooms from the oven. The neighbors took turns hosting the annual Danbury Way early summer block party, but Marti and her husband always provided most of the food. The stuffed mushrooms looked as delicious as everything else Marti and Ed had brought over to Angela's bright kitchen that day.
Slim, stylish and attractive, Marti worked full-time at the restaurant she and Ed owned. She was up close and personal with all that wonderful food on a daily basis — and she couldn't weigh more than one-ten. How fair was that?
Megan looked down at her own baggy orange T-shirt and frayed jeans. Beneath the comfortable old clothes, she was no Marti Vincente. And she probably never would be.
"Mushroom?" Marti offered. "I've got some that are slightly cooled right here ."
Megan needed no more urging. She popped one of the delicious morsels into her mouth and groaned in delight. "Incredible." Through the window over the sink, she could see the neighbors gathered in groups under the shade of the patio cover, chatting and laughing, sipping iced drinks and chowing down on the Vincentes' delicious finger food.
Angela was out there, too, weaving in and out among her guests, carrying a trayful of Vincente delicacies. Since her sister was busy, that left Megan to check on Olivia's story of sickness and sobbing in the bathrooms. Resigned, Megan swallowed the last of that to-die-for mushroom, thanked Marti and headed off down the back hall.
She found Rebecca Peters hovering by the door to the powder room.
Rebecca was subletting the house on the other side of the Vincentes. She wore a skinny, strappy sundress in her trademark black, with the usual four-inch designer heels to match. Rebecca was so not the suburban type. No one in the neighborhood could understand why she'd moved to Rosewood, which was an hour-and-a-half train ride north of New York City and about as suburban as any town could get.
Her worried frown had Megan asking, "What's up?"
Rebecca's frown deepened. "I think Molly's in there ."
Molly owned the house at 7 Danbury Way. Happily single, she put most of her energy into her mega-successful consulting firm.
"Is she sick?" Megan asked softly.
Rebecca nodded and pitched her voice to a confidential level. "She was fine. We were chatting out on the patio. And then she got this strange, green look and " Rebecca shook her sleek brown head.
"I don't know. I just don't know "
Megan took charge, moving in close, tapping lightly on the door, asking gently, "Molly? Molly, are you all right?"
Several seconds passed before she answered, "Fine." Her voice was bright and cheerful — too much so. "Be right out." She practically sang the words. A moment later, the door swung inward and Molly emerged on a suspicious cloud of minty-fresh scent: breath spray. No doubt about it. "Hey." Molly fluffed her long, curly hair and smiled a wide, forced smile. "Great party, huh? Megan, I don't know how that sister of yours does it. Single with three kids and a full-time job. But the house looks fabulous and the party is perfect." She patted Megan's arm. "I'm sure it helps to have you here to pitch in."
Before Megan could reply, Rebecca tried again. "Molly, are you certain you're — "
Molly didn't even let her finish. "Whew. I need some of that lemonade Angela's been passing around. How 'bout you?"
Rebecca got the message: whatever had been going on behind the powder room door, Molly had no intention of discussing it. "Uh. Well, alrighty. Sounds great. Megan?"
Megan still had to make sure the crier upstairs in the kids' bathroom was all right. And check on Anthony. "You guys go ahead."
So the two women turned and left her just as Zooey Finnegan, the gorgeous model-slim, auburn-haired nanny who looked after widower Jack Lever's kids, came through the arch from the family room. "Terrific party," she said with a warm smile as she slipped into the empty powder room and softly shut the door.
Megan made for the stairs. Halfway up, she ran into Anthony, who came barreling down paying zero attention to where he was going.
"Whoa, there, cowboy." Megan laughed, catching him by the arms and righting him before he fell against the stair rail.
"Sorry, Aunt Megan," he muttered, looking down.
"No prob." She waited until he slanted her a glance before softly chiding, "Olivia says you yelled at her."
He let out a snort. "Well. I was in the bathroom. She kept knocking. What'd she expect?"
"She didn't expect yelling," Megan said quietly.
"Yelling is not a good thing."
"Okay, okay." He stuck out his lower lip, but he did mutter, "I'm sorry."
"Tell that to your sister."
He was staring at his shoes again. "Awright, I will. Can I go now? Please?"
She released him. "Remember. No running on the — "
He'd already zipped around her and was headed down — fast, but no longer at a run. He called over his shoulder, "Okay, okay. I won't. I promise."
Megan stared after him for a second or two, smiling a doting auntie's smile. Anthony was a good kid. He'd get past this sulky phase — soon, she hoped.
And there was still the crier in the kids' bath to see about.
In the upstairs hall, the door to the bathroom was shut. Megan stood in front of it and wondered what she should do next. She couldn't hear any crying coming from in there. Maybe she should just —
Wait. There: a sob. A stifled one, but still. A definite sob.
So, okay. Maybe a little further investigation was required. She waited — and yep. There it was again: another sob, followed by a distinct sniffle and a tiny, choked-off wail. Olivia had got it right. Someone was in there crying.
When you cried in the bathroom at a block party, well, you should get sympathy. Someone should come and lend a shoulder to cry on.
That would be Megan. On Danbury Way, where she'd lived for three years now, Megan was considered a person everybody could trust: nonthreatening, patient and understanding. All the women liked her. They could tell her anything and she'd never betray their secrets.
Sometimes the role of confidante got a little old, especially lately, when so much had changed in her life outside the neighborhood. But then again, somebody had to "be there" for everyone else. And Megan was used to it. She'd been fitting in, getting along and listening to everybody else's problems, since she was seven and a half years old.
Discreetly, she tapped on the bathroom door. Silence.
After a thirty-second interval, she tapped again. More silence.
Finally, she spoke. "It's Megan. Are you all right in there?"
Another silence. Then a sniffle. And finally, hopefully, a woman murmured, "Megan?" More sniffling. "Is it really " A sob. A tiny hiccup, then, " you?" Even with all the sniffling, Megan recognized that soft Texas drawl. It was Carly Alderson.
Megan probably should have known. She made her voice even gentler. "Come on, Carly. Let me in ."
A second later, the door opened. Carly, strikingly pretty even with puffy eyes and a red nose, sniffled, sobbed and ushered Megan inside. Once Megan stood on the fluffy green bathroom rug with her, Carly shut the door and punched the lock.
Then, with a mournful little groan, she sank to the edge of the tub. Megan got the box of tissues from the sink counter and sat down beside her.
"Oh, Megan " Carly paused to sniffle some more. She wiped her nose with a torn-up, wrinkled bit of tissue. "I just I can't "
"Here." Megan extended the box.
Carly whipped out a fresh one. Then she buried her red nose in it and sobbed. "I just I can't stand it, you know?"
Megan patted her slim back and stroked her soft blond hair and made soothing noises of support and understanding.
Finally, Carly pulled herself together enough to announce, "It's final today. Our divorce. Greg and I are no longer husband and wife. It's over. Officially. Completely. Kaput."
"Carly. I'm so sorry ."