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AIDAN NIKOLAS TOSSED his bag onto the bed in the cottage's main bedroom. He stood stock still on the wide-plank floor, breath-ing in the scent of cinnamon and apple, listening, feeling, believing his heart would beat one more time. And then again and again and again,
He was okay. He rubbed his chest, his left arm. No pain. No shortness of breath. No nausea. Bringing his things in from the car hadn't killed him.
He laughed, with no real humor and cer-tainly without pride. Staying in his friend, Van Haddon's, cottage in the middle of Small-town, U.S.A., also known as Honesty, Virginia, might kill him if he didn't stop dwelling on every flutter of his own pulse.
He shoved his bags across the bed, wrin-kling the burgundy comforter. Forget un-packing. He was starving.
After a "minor" myocardial infarction, he'd spent two weeks at home, eating bland pap, living no life, with his parents treating him as if he hadn't run the family business for eight years without their ham-fisted help. A heart attack. At the tender age of forty-two, even though he'd been in such good shape the trainers at his gym left him alone.
When he couldn't stand another second of his parents' tender loving smothering, he'd called Van and asked to borrow his cottage.
The big plan for his first night of freedom? Make some dinner. And listen to the wildlife in the woods of Honesty, population "just under ten thousand." The "just under" must keep them from having to change the sign after each birth.
In the kitchen, a stainless-steel fridge and stove gleamed among granite counters and crystal-clear windowpanes. His box of farm market vegetables and organic groceries looked out of place.
God, this pretty little house closed in on a man.
Despite the chill of a late April night, he flung up the window over the kitchen sink.
It didn't help.
Nothing helped except moving. He unpacked the groceries first. Hard to wait for another pile of steamed veggies, just like the ones they'd plied him with at the hospital. Maybe some "nice apple slices," as the head nurse had suggested, twirling the plate as if it were a kaleidoscope.
Which left him wanting to kill the first cow that crossed his path and eat it raw.
A telephone rang. He followed the sound down the hall to the living room where the phone lay on its cradle beside a pile of maga-zines. Businessweek. Fortune. Business 2.0.
Aidan touched each cover with reverence. They'd denied him even the Washington Post in the hospital. And who knew who'd taken custody of his Treo?
The phone rang again. The old-fashioned receiver had no caller ID. "Hello?"
"Hey. It's Van."
"Thanks for letting me use the cottage." He worked gratitude into his voice. If he hadn't felt so much like a rat in a cage, he would have been grateful. With tall ceilings and cool white walls the living room should have been relaxing.
A faint scent of wood smoke emerged from the cold, blackened fireplace, before which fat couches and chairs squatted around a big square table. A TV sat behind the open doors of an antique armoire that had never been meant for the purpose it served now.
"I'll come down tomorrow and show you the walking paths," Van said.
Aidan stifled an urge to snap that he could find them even after a minor myocardial in-farction. "Thanks, but I'll wander until I see them." Then he felt bad. Van, a wunderkind of finance, the one man who always knew which parties to bring to the table, was trying to do him a favor. Aidan dialed back his frus-tration. "I appreciate your help."
"No problem." Van hesitated. "Have you eaten dinner?"
"I stopped in town for supplies. I'm fine." He wasn't sure he could stand one more pair of watchful eyes, waiting for his heart to explode. There'd been patients in worse shape in the cardiac ICU, but his name and the fame of Nikolas Enterprises had garnered him more interest.
"Come up to the house any time," Van said. "Let me know if I can do anything for youif anything in the cottage needs work."
Aidan switched on the lamp at his side. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble. Every surface glowed. "Thanks, Van, but it's great down here. See you tomorrow."
He arranged the vegetables on the kitchen counter. Chopping them filled time and made some noise. So did toasting an illegal slice of fresh sourdough bread and slathering it with half a teaspoon of butter. Hunching over the sink, he ate it like a wild dog.
With less enthusiasm, he transferred his piles of celery, snow peas, cabbage, onions and carrots into a shiny silver colander. Next he unearthed a brand-new wok from its box and wrapping, washed it and did a quick stir-fry. Another boring, bland dinner.
He picked up his plate and made the mistake of glancing at the window, where his own face was reflected. And behind him, Madeline. He snapped his head around.
She wasn't there. He knew that, but like a memory come to life, she appeared where he least wanted to see her, when he could least afford to face her.
Just over a year ago, she'd committed suicide. The cardiac team had attributed his heart attack to work pressure. They didn't know guilt drove him or that it was his fault she'd done it.
He set the plate, food and all, in the spotless white sink. Another glance at the window revealed only him. He leaned into the open half, sucking down air, but it wasn't enough. With his mouth gaping like a fish on a riverbank, he headed for the front door.
He pushed it open so hard it swung back at him. The night was colder than he'd thought, cold that bit into his lungs and set a fire that made him cough.
But he didn't collapse. The only band around his chest came from breathing fresh air when he was used to the purified, sancti-fied, hospital-approved stuff.
He stared into the tall trees, mostly ever-green, waving in the moonlit sky. On the hill above him, Van's house was alight with life.
Lamps flickered in glowing pools all the way down to the shrubbery that dividedVan's lawn from the cottage's. Another cold breath brought on another choking cough. As he grabbed his chest, he saw movement on the hill.
Someone crashed through the shrubbery, and a woman burst into his borrowed yard, wearing navy sweats, a white tank, holly leaves in her dark-blond ponytail and concern on her delicate face.
"Are you okay?"
He coughed again. It was a defining moment. Not that he was vain, but a lot of women came onto him. Some offered cell numbers and e-mail addresses. More than one had palmed a hotel key card into his hand.
This one, tall and lithe and smelling of pine and exercise, had busted through Van's landscaping, bent on administering CPR.
"I was coughing," he said, seduced by the sheen of sweat on her rounded shoulders.
"Oh." She glanced toward the house. "Are you cooking? Set the place on fire? Van does that all the time." "I can cook." Now that was an impressive display of testosterone. "I just coughed." Oddly, she didn't produce an oxygen canister. "I'm going for a walk. You must know Van?" He started down the gravel drive, knowing she'd fall into step beside him.
"I'm his sister." She pushed her hand down her thigh and then offered it. "Beth Tully." She looked at him too closely. "And you're Aidan Nikolas."
"Van told you about me?"
Her palm, hot from exercise, warmed his blood. The human contact felt almost too good after night upon night in the sterile confines of the hospital.
"He told me someone was arriving at the cottage today." When she nodded her ponytail licked at either side of her neck. He couldn't help staring. "But I've seen you on magazine covers, too."
Some men might like being one of the sexiest guys alive, but Madeline had chosen to die rather than be with him. He wasn't such a catch. "I try to ignore those. You live with Van?" "He's taken me and my son in." Not men-tioning a husband, she also ducked her head as if she'd said too much. "Our place burned down two months ago."
"That's bad." Great answer. Nice and banal.