“I want to sleep with you,” Maggie McShae said into her cell phone. “I’m ready to take the plunge.” Her words echoed in the high-ceilinged vestibule of Mirror Lake Congregational Church, where her bereavement group was meeting at this very moment in the basement.
The bereavement group, that is, from which she’d gone AWOL, possibly forever. It was not the group she led as part of her practice as a psychologist either, but the one she’d attended since her husband’s death over three years ago.
“Did I just hear you right?” Greg Pollard, a fireman on the Mirror Lake squad, asked from the other end of the phone.
“Yes, you heard me right. I’m ready. It’s time.” There, she’d done it. Finally taken a step forward. Greg was a nice guy, and they’d had three fun dates. He was good-looking and polite, and she wanted him to know she was ready to move to the next level. Being a psychologist, even she could congratulate herself on the progress.
What would Corey think? She could see him sitting in heaven, in his favorite easy chair, laughing his ass off at her awkwardness. Or maybe he’d be scowling instead. He’d been gone three and a half years, but going on a date still felt like she was cheating on him. She squeezed her eyes shut to block out those thoughts. She was doing so well. Keep going, Maggie, she thought, trying to cheer herself on inside her head.
“Um, Maggie, I’m at work. Can you give me a sec?”
“Oh, sure. No problem, Greg.”
The sound of male laughter echoed around her in the high-ceilinged space, bouncing off the big glass windows that faced Main Street of Mirror Lake, Connecticut. As Maggie slowly turned around, she saw someone sitting on one of the three wide white marble steps that ran the length of the vestibule.
Oh, firetruck. It was her best friend Bella’s obnoxious brother-in-law, and he’d just heard everything. Well, she wasn’t going to let him sit there and gloat. “Oh hi, Ted Kaczynski,” she said, waving. “What made you join civilization today?”
The man smoothed out his rather bushy beard and smiled. Even under all that hair (which he’d seemed to grow to hide behind in the past year and a half since coming to Mirror Lake), that smile was beaming out some major wattage. She’d never personally seen him without the Wolverine look, but she’d seen photos in the tabloids, and honestly, she was grateful for the massive sprouting of hair that hid his make-women-swoon sexy looks. Not that they’d ever make her swoon, mind you. She was immune to scoundrels.
Above the beard, his eyes crinkled, showing a few lines that in a man like him spelled interest and experience. He smiled, displaying brilliantly white teeth, reminding her he wasn’t a country hick hiding out in Mirror Lake but rather a polished gazillionaire businessman. But the hiding part was right.
Actually, they’d met when he’d run in off the street straight into the group therapy session she was leading, looking for sanctuary from the press after his botched wedding. She was afraid he was deranged and called the cops. She smiled a little thinking of that day when a gorgeous AWOL guy in a tux burst through her office door. She’d gotten to know him a little since he was the brother of two of her best friends’ husbands, but she didn’t have a very high opinion of him. In the looks department, he was blessed, but the rest of him left a lot to be desired.
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just keep on with your…um…booty call.”
She covered the receiver of her cell and dropped her voice. Because they were in a church, after all. “It’s not a booty call. We’ve had three perfectly wonderful dates, and he wanted to…he wanted to… Why am I telling you this? It’s none of your business.”
He held up a hand. “Right. Sure you don’t need a few pointers?”
From him? The guy who created a national scandal when he dumped his gorgeous socialite bride at the altar—at the altar, for God’s sake—a year and a half ago in front of a sizable crowd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Which had been covered by all the major outlets, starting a media firestorm that he’d been lying low from ever since. “Like I’m going to ask you for pointers in matters of the heart. That’s a laugh, because you clearly don’t have one.”
He placed his hands dramatically over his chest. “You slay me, Maggie. You just slay me.” He waited for her eye roll before he said, “This doesn’t really sound like a matter of the heart. More like a matter of…”
“Oh, hi, Greg,” she said, because he was back on the line. “Yes. I was just wondering if you’d like to try…another date.”
Put him on speaker, Drew mouthed.
No way, she mouthed back as she turned away a little. She didn’t like Andreas Poulos. He’d had the reputation of being a love-’em-and-leave-’em kind of guy even before his high-profile engagement, dating beautiful women from around the world. Then, of course, he’d left poor Anika in tears. He was clearly full of himself, rich and entitled, and he would rather act like a recluse than face his problems. All dishonorable traits in her book. Even the New York Post ran the headline: THE HUNK’S A PUNK, after the wedding debacle.
But there was one thing he had that just might come in helpful. Tons of experience with women. Why not use it to her benefit? He’d already heard what was going on. Plus, she hadn’t had sex in over three years. These were desperate times, and clearly, she could use a little help here. Despite her better judgment, she pushed the speaker button. “Well, you know, Maggie,” Greg said, his voice now echoing in the entranceway, “our last date didn’t go so well.”
Drew frowned, listening intently.
“Well,” she said, “I know I sort of chickened out.”
“You flinched when I tried to kiss your neck. That’s not a great ego boost, you know.”
Drew shook his head sadly. Just when she was about to take Greg off speakerphone, Drew made lifting motions with his arms, which she took to mean she should maybe say something to boost Greg’s ego.
“Please don’t take that personally,” she said. “Griffin really did have a fever, and I had to get home. It’s just that, well, I think you’re really nice and really handsome, and I promise I’ll do anything to make it up to you.” Oh dear. She was really screwing this up. She’d already thrown in the kitchen sink, and it was very early in the conversation.
“Anything?” Greg asked, sounding interested.
“Too desperate,” Drew whispered. “Tone it down.”
“Well, not just anything,” Maggie said, “but I mean, why don’t we try another date? I know we can make it work this time.”
“Okay, I won’t take it personally. I like you, Maggie. I really do. You’re a very sexy woman.” She shot a see-I-told-you-so look at Drew.
“How about I come to your place Friday?” Greg asked.
Maggie hesitated as a grenade of worry went off in her brain. “Well, um, I
mean, it couldn’t be at my house, because of Griffin, you know, and it couldn’t
be overnight, and I would have to make sure I could get a sitter and all…and I wouldn’t want you to meet Griffin right away…”
Drew was making slashing motions with his fingers along his neck, which she took to mean Abort the mission.
Oh God, her mouth was running, as it always did when she was nervous. She bit the inside of her cheek and tried to remind herself that Greg was the one who’d been interested. Very interested, until she’d acted like he had the plague the other night, which had been a stupid, stupid move. It was really kind of amazing that an eligible man under the age of forty without serious psychological issues or a wife he’d failed to mention had actually been interested in her, Maggie McShae, who had an almost five-year-old son and a rather serious case of OCD. That flared when she was stressed.
Calm down, she told herself. All she had to do was let the poor man talk.
Which he did. “I just don’t think you’re really ready yet. Why don’t you give me a call when you are?”
“But—” Oh, why couldn’t she have just shut up? She should have just arranged the booty call instead of giving the guy a hundred-page dissertation on everything wrong with her. No wonder he was jumping ship.
“Look!” She was practically pleading. “I’m saying yes to sex. No-strings-attached, no-commitment sex! What kind of man are you to say no to that?”
“You’re…you just seem like you’ve got a lot of…baggage. I’m really not looking for anything…heavy right now, you know?”
“Me? Baggage? No. I’m all in. I’m ready!” She winced. Was she allowed to say that in a church vestibule? Maybe it was okay if this wasn’t her denomination.
“I don’t think you’re all in, Maggie. Or you wouldn’t have brought up your deceased husband’s name the other night when I was trying to…you know.”
“Right.” Well, she wasn’t going to beg. She had some pride left.
She sat down on the marble steps. God, she couldn’t even force herself to have a fling. She was pathetic. She’d blown it, done everything wrong. No one was going to date a woman with a preschooler. Especially a woman with…issues. But hey, those traits made her quirky, right? Wasn’t quirky the equivalent of endearing?
No. It was the equivalent of too much trouble.
“I’ll see you around, okay?” Greg said in a kind voice. “You’re a nice woman, Maggie. I enjoyed going out with you.”
“Thanks, Greg.” That was how it was in Mirror Lake. You didn’t hang up on people or go through pains to hide from them. There was no hiding, because one never knew when one would meet again, probably across the bananas in the produce aisle. Plus he really was a nice guy.
Drew was eyeballing her from his place on the stairs, where he was sitting with his long legs stretched out. “That went well, I’d say.”
“I just don’t have it in me to trade barbs with you today,” she said.
“Oh, too bad. I was really gearing up for that.” He rummaged around in his bag, pulled out a tinfoil-wrapped oblong bundle, and began unwrapping it. It was a meatball sandwich, carried out from Santoro’s Italian Restaurant, according to the white bag he’d just pulled it from. It smelled saucy and meaty, and it was loaded with a ton of melted cheese. Maggie’s stomach rumbled audibly despite herself, reminding her that she’d skipped lunch to attend her bereavement support group. She must have looked pathetic, because her companion dug out a plastic knife, cut his sub in half, and pushed the wrapper toward her. “Here. Might make you feel better.”
She looked at him in surprise. Unabomber was actually doing a kind deed. Not his usual modus, which was to verbally spar until the cows came home. “Thank you, but…I’m not hungry.” She was, but she didn’t want to be indebted. She didn’t want to be on his you-owe-me list for anything. She looked near his feet. “That wouldn’t happen to be a Diet Coke by any chance, would it?”
He smiled. When he did, those crinkles showed up again, and his deep dark coffee-brown eyes sparkled. Oh yes, it was so easy to see why most of the women in America salivated over his exploits.
“It is Diet Coke,” he said softly, handing it over. Something about how he said it made her shiver. Shiver! Oh, she was sex crazed. That just confirmed it. Because he would be the last man on earth she’d sleep with for too many reasons to count.
“Thank you,” she said, forgoing the straw and taking long gulps. Then she let out a long exhale. Wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Perspective was returning. She suddenly remembered they were standing in a church vestibule. She knew why she was here, but why was he?
She frowned. “I’d never take you for a churchgoing man.”
He laughed again. God, he was annoying.
“And that’s funny, why?”
“You don’t know anything about me, Maggie McShae. I’d say that comment was a bit judgmental.”
She knew enough. He was a playboy, too handsome for his own skin, and he was too aware of his kissed-by-the-gods looks and his ability to lure women into his sex-appeal web. Which was another reason she wasn’t about to fall victim to his pheromones or whatever he—emitted. From his studly body. Which she was not noticing, mind you, not at all.
Three and a half years, Maggie, her inner voice whispered. That’s a long time.
She shook the annoying voice out of her head. She also knew Drew Poulos was a Spikonos brother, younger brother to Roman, who was her partner Bella’s husband. Roman was helping him hide out. She wouldn’t have been so merciful.
“So what’s the problem?” he asked, casually biting into his sandwich. “I mean, most people don’t think that much about, um, dating.” He seemed to be holding back a laugh. “Maybe I can help.”
She snorted. “I doubt that very much.” What did he know about pain and loss? Or about being mother and father both to a sweet, amazing, but rambunctious little boy? Or about nights so long and lonely, they seemed to go on for weeks. No, she was not going to allow Mr. Playboy to weigh in on her problems.
“Not my business, but if you want simple sex, I’d leave the other stuff out of it. Might scare a guy away.”
Well, of course, children and dead husbands and baggage scared guys away! “All the good ones are already taken by the age of thirty anyway,” she grumbled.
“If you just want sex, go for it. Leave your kid and your other problems out of it.”
“Right.” She picked up his Coke again and took another hit. “Here’s the thing. I don’t really just want sex. I mean I do, but secretly I want the other stuff that goes along with it—the tingling in your arms and legs, the weakness in your knees, the hot, the cold, the sweating, and the feeling like that person gets you like no one else you’ve ever met.”
His face went a little blank, like he had no clue just what the hell she was talking about. “You want the whole package, eh? In other words, you buy into the myth.”
“The falling-in-love myth. A fantasy, by the way.”
“Wow, who crushed your soul?” She studied him as he sat there scowling a little. He seemed very jaded for so young a man. “I mean, I’ve had all that already. I know it’s not a fantasy, it’s just rare. I don’t expect it again. So just sex would be fine.” It would make her feel better and take her mind off her other problems. Except she was incapable of dissociating herself from those problems. And that was preventing her from getting laid.
“I’m tired of listening to my bereavement group. All they do is talk about the past. I want to move forward. The best way for me to do that is to have a fling. So I’m going to go find me a fling to have.” It was time to move on and get a life. She knew that, dammit, yet it was so, so hard. But listening to the ladies in her group today… They were so trapped in the past. Just like her. Not living their lives in the present, and she didn’t want to be stuck like that. She wanted to move on. If only she could.
She had no idea why she was telling him this. Maybe because she didn’t care what he thought of her. Or because she’d just verbalized what she’d been thinking all along.
He gazed at her for a long moment, and she wasn’t sure if he was pitying her or if he felt genuinely sorry for her. She felt her face go red. She should’ve kept her mouth shut.
“Well, best of luck.” He crumpled up his wrapper. She handed him back his Coke, but he held up a hand. “Keep it. I insist.” He had nice hands. Long fingered. Capable. Tanned too. Since he’d been in Mirror Lake, he’d been helping his brother on various construction projects for his apple brandy distillery. He wore the manual labor look well.
Just then, a woman in a sleek gray suit paused outside the entrance to the church and cupped her hands around her eyes to see through a window. Maggie would have thought nothing of it, a businesswoman on her lunch hour, but Drew immediately dodged behind a nearby marble pillar. “That woman’s a reporter,” he said. “She caught sight of me when I was coming out of Santoro’s. Please don’t tell her I’m here.” His eyes held a pleading look. They were also big and brown and warm looking. Dark but with some honey-colored flecks, but who was noticing? And right now those eyes were looking around wildly for a place to hide.
“There’s a closet right near the entrance to the choir loft,” Maggie said, pointing. Drew wasted no time dodging over there.
Suddenly, one of the massive wooden front doors opened. A warm breeze blew through the vestibule of the church, bringing in the cleansing scent of sweet May air. Maggie picked up the Coke and pretended to study her phone.
“Oh, excuse me,” the woman said. “I’m Lainey Stevens from the National Register. You might recognize me from TV.”
“I don’t really watch much TV, but hello.” Maggie flashed her most welcoming smile.
“I’m looking for a guy with a beard. Tall, well-built.”
“Was it a big, bushy beard?” Maggie asked. “Was he a little disturbed looking? Sort of a wild look in his eyes?”
“Yes! That’s him. Drew Poulos, the billionaire. We have reason to believe he’s hiding out in Mirror Lake and we want to interview him.”
“There was someone like that in here, but we sent him downtown to the homeless shelter.”
She finally left, after Maggie gave her directions to the shelter. Maggie waited until she was a good block away before opening the closet door. The smells of paper and old wood wafted out. Drew’s broad-shouldered form was hunkered down in the dark among the prayer books and song sheets.
“You can come on out now,” Maggie said.
He looked up at her, squinting in the sudden light. Yup, nice brown eyes. Quite lovely. He had an intense gaze that felt like he was looking through her instead of at her. Good thing it was time to get her butt back to work and her thoughts away from potentially nice-looking but obnoxious men.
“Disturbed and wild-eyed, huh?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Just calling it like I see it.”
There went that laugh again. Sort of easy. Kind of deep, with something indefinably pleasant that had the effect of breaking the tension.
She held out a hand to help him out. “I promise I won’t mention this as long as you don’t tell anyone about my—phone conversation.” He took hold of her hand, but he didn’t make a move to get up. Or let go. And Lordie, that hand was big and warm and just plain…nice. He just sat there, looking up at her, his eyes twinkling, flashing a grin that was a little secretive, a little conspiratorial. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Maggie McShae.”
A door opened, and a gaggle of women’s voices and laughter drifted into the vestibule. Her bereavement group. Maggie quickly averted her eyes and withdrew her hand. Wiped it on her leg. Because darned if it wasn’t tingling.