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It was late Friday afternoon, the end of a long, stressful week. The computer was printing the files that had come attached to Tom's most recent e-mail, and the fax was receiving endless pages of a new contract, but Ross paid neither any attention. Slumped in his chair, he'd propped his feet on the credenza and was staring out the window, watching Maggie and the Dalton girls light new candles in the farolitos. They looked as if they were having fun.
He was certainly enjoying it.
Heavy clouds darkened the sky, making it seem later than five-thirty, and snow was falling in fat wet flakes. It was perfect weather, the girls had declared in the hallway earlier, for tonight's horse-drawn wagon tour of Bethlehem. Though the prospect of spending a few hours in the cold didn't exactly thrill Ross, he and Maggie were going. There was no way she could miss one of the town's premiere Christmas events--preceded by a party at the Winchesters, another premiere event--and he wasn't about to send her alone.
Outside, the girls had finished with the last farolitos, and now the three of them stood in the grass, heads tilted back, tongues stuck out. Catching snowflakes. He hadn't seen Maggie do anything so young since...
The smile that had started to form faded. Since he'd begun demanding a certain standard of behavior from her. When he'd decided that his position required the perfect wife, he'd set out to mold her into that image, and she'd let him. By the time he'd realized that the old Maggie--the one who made him laugh, who made him happy, who loved him with all the passion she possessed--was perfect, it was too late.
Sometimes he wished for a second chance. She had given him so much, and he'd cost her so much. He wished for the opportunity to be the husband she wanted, to give her the children and the life she needed.
Other times he knew such chances were impossible. He could never be the husband she wanted. They had both changed too much. He couldn't stop being who and what he was, and that man could never be happy with the life that would make her happy.
The fax beeped, signaling that it'd printed the last page, but he didn't reach for the stack of papers. Instead, he slid his feet to the floor, left his chair, and, after a stop by the closet, left the house.
"You need this," he said, draping her coat over her shoulders. The sweater she wore was heavy and warm--and his, he realized after a closer look--but it didn't provide enough protection against the snow.
Though it provided him with a hell of a jolt of lust. The sweater had been a birthday gift years ago. They'd had a quiet, intimate dinner at home, followed by his favorite cake. After urging him to make a wish and blow out the candles, she'd left the room to get his gift. She'd come back wearing this sweater and nothing else, and he'd gotten instantly hard. As he slid inside her, he'd asked, "How did you know what I wished for?" and she had merely laughed.
It hadn't been a difficult guess. Back then they'd always wanted each other--anytime, anyplace. Hell, though he might have stopped loving her, he'd never stopped wanting her. He'd just lost the right to have her.
She looked at him with a smile that cut him off at the knees. "Isn't it a gorgeous night?"
He couldn't pull his gaze away. "Yes," he agreed, but he wasn't sure what he was agreeing to. All he could see, all he could focus on, was her. She looked so damn touchable that his fingers curled into tight fists in an effort to resist the temptation. He failed though. Of its own accord his hand lifted. His fingers tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Her cheek was cold, but it sent a blast of heat through him.
"Hey, Mr. Ross."
He was aware of an impatient tug on his jacket, but he didn't respond. He couldn't. He could only look at Maggie--and want.
"Mr. Ross, guess what?" Josie was insistent in her demand for his attention. It required greater strength than he would have expected to give it to her. "Aunt Emilie let us have our own fire-olitos, and me and Lannie take care of them all by ourself. And we get to stay up late tonight, 'cause we're having an all-night party at Miss Agatha's so Aunt Emilie and Uncle Nathan can have a night alone." Pretending to hold someone in her arms, she scrunched up her face and made kissing noises, then laughed. "That's how Aunt Emilie got our baby. Kasey at school said so, and she knows."
Alanna tugged her sister's jacket hood. "Babies don't come from kissing, silly."
"Uh-huh, they do. That's why I'm not never gonna kiss any boy, not till I'm way growed up, like Miss Maggie." Struck by a thought, she looked from Maggie to Ross, then back. "You guys don't have a baby. Don't you never kiss?"
Alanna's tug was harder this time. "Remember what Aunt Emilie said about asking personal questions?"
"Not to. So . . . don't you guys kiss?"
Maggie crouched in front of her. "Of course we kiss," she said as naturally as if it were true.
"Then why don't you have babies?"
"Your friend Kasey is a little misinformed. Babies don't come from kissing. There's a lot more to it than that."
Thank God, Ross thought, or he and Maggie would have been in a world of trouble years ago.
Or maybe they might have been saved.
"I think you need to ask your aunt Emilie that."
Josie twined her arms around Maggie's neck and swayed from side to side. "Oh, please tell me. Kasey thinks she knows everything because her dad's a doctor, and if you tell me, then I can go to school and tell everyone else and they'll know that she was wrong and she'll be all mad. Please? Puh-leeeze?"
She put too much wheedling into her last plea and, caught off guard, Maggie tumbled back onto the snowy grass with the girl falling on top.
"Josie!" Alanna said sharply at the same time Ross spoke Maggie's name. As he moved to help them, Alanna grabbed hold of her sister's coat and jerked her back, giving her a little shake. "You've got to be careful! You know she's been in the hospital since last Christmas!"
"It's okay," Maggie said hastily as she accepted Ross's help to her feet. She brushed the snow from her coat, then smiled at the girls. Josie's cheeks were pale with dismay, and her plump lower lip trembled.
"I'm sorry, Miss Maggie. I didn't mean to make you fall. Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor? Dr. J.D. is over at Miss Agatha's, and I can go get him. I can run fast."
"I'm not hurt. It's okay, really. I'm not going to break." Maggie's bright, reassuring smile made the rounds. "Why don't you give us a minute to lock up, then we'll all walk over to Miss Agatha's together?"
As soon as they were inside, Ross asked, "Are you all right?"
"It was only a couple of inches--and it made her forget about where babies come from. Heavens, I'd hate to suffer a real fall." Sarcasm entered her voice now. "The concern would be unbearable."
"A real one? You mean like down the stairs?"
She glanced to the top of the stairs, a long way from here. "Yeah, like that. Speaking of the stairs, would you mind running up and getting some blankets?"
"Which ones do you want?"
"How about the comforters from the guest room beds?"
He left the comforters in the hall near the side door to pick up later, then shut down the office and locked up. With Josie's hand clasped firmly in Maggie's, they crossed the street to the Winchester house. A dozen cars were parked out front and along the side, and, like them, another dozen or two neighbors had walked from their own homes.
All the faces inside were familiar, though he couldn't put a name to every one, and they all greeted him and Maggie as if they were old friends. It was a curious sensation--this business of having friends. Ross was accustomed to acquaintances and associates. He socialized with people about whom he knew little and cared less, people who wanted something from him or could give him something. The only person he considered a friend was Tom, and even that was based on business. Hell, he'd never even thought he wanted friends, had certainly never needed them.
Maybe he'd been wrong.
Maggie wanted friends. She thrived with friendship--grew more serene, more content, more absolutely beautiful. With these people she was like an exotic flower unfolding under the sun's life-giving light. Having friends made her a different person-- No, that wasn't true. Having friends enhanced the woman she'd always been.
He wondered if they could improve the man he'd become.
As soon as they finished their hellos, J. D. Grayson approached them with a tray of delicate Christmas china cups. "How about a cup of the sisters' special egg nog?"
Ross accepted a cup and sipped from it, expecting something to rival Maggie's flavored egg nogs. What he got was . . . "This is just egg nog."
"The sisters don't believe in the use of spirits," Grayson said, "except for the rare medicinal dosing. How are you, Maggie?"
"Are you ready to be dazzled by the fifty-first annual Tour of Lights?"
"I've been looking forward to it all day."
All the lights in the world couldn't be as dazzling as the smile she gave the doctor, Ross thought stiffly. Grayson reacted to it the same way he had earlier, staring, murmuring a response with absolutely no idea what he was saying.
Feeling perverse, Ross took Maggie's arm and pulled. "Come on. We need to find Miss Corinna and Miss Agatha and say hello."
As they made their way through the living and dining rooms on the way to the kitchen, he examined the emotion that had led him to put as much distance as possible between them and Grayson--between her and Grayson. Surely it wasn't jealousy. He'd never experienced it before--she'd never given him reason--and there was no reason for it now. For a very long time he and Maggie had been married in name only. There was little emotion and certainly nothing physical between them. In a few more months there would be no legal bond either. For all practical purposes she was a free woman now--free to start living her own life. Free to start looking for a man to take his place in it. She wanted it. He wanted it.
He had no logical reason to be jealous because she'd smiled at some other guy the way she'd just smiled at him. No reason at all, just because that guy looked at her in the same stunned, turned-on way that he looked at her.
No reason. He wanted out of her life, remember?
He should be pushing the two of them together, not pulling them apart. Grayson was everything Maggie wanted--solid, dependable, a family sort of guy. He preferred small-town life over the city, wasn't interested in being rich or powerful, kept regular hours in his medical practice so he could have a personal life, and loved all these people in the same way she soon would. On top of all that, she thought he was handsome and admired his obvious affection for kids. Grayson was perfect for her.
"What are you scowling at?" Maggie asked as they squeezed between guests and a table loaded with mouth-watering food.
"I'm not--" He was. Consciously he forced his face to relax. "I'm not scowling."
"You don't like him much, do you?"
"Why should I?"
"I don't know. You're both intelligent, successful, respected. You're both mature adults. With that in common, I'd think you would get along fine."
And in a few more months would they also have her in common?
Just last weekend, when she'd asked what he wanted for Christmas, he'd given her a simple answer: I want you to be happy. He'd given that answer knowing that for her being happy meant being in love, married, and having babies--being in love with and married to another man, having babies with another man. He knew that. He'd accepted it.
But not Grayson. He was her shrink, for God's sake--though, granted, so far they'd had only one short session and would probably end the doctor-patient relationship after their next visit. He was--was-- Hell, Ross didn't know what he was, besides unsuitable for Maggie.