No Strings Attached Millie Criswell Samantha Brady's to-do list is simple…Sell her novel, have a baby and find the man of her dreams–though not necessarily in that order. Trouble is, she has writer's block, hasn't had a date in months and lives platonically with her best friend, Jack Turner, the only man who has ever met her Prince Charming criteria.She and Jack have always avoided romantic entanglements of any kind, especially with each other. No strings. No fuss. No heartaches. Until one night of too much wine and too few inhibitions takes their friendship to a whole new level.Sam's to-do list–and her life–are turned completely upside down. She's realized she wouldn't mind a "string" or two–but is she too late to keep her perfect guy from walking out the door? “Aren’t you the least bit curious to know what kissing each other would be like?” Samantha nodded. “It’s only natural. We’ve known each other a long time.” Leaning over, Jack drew Samantha into his arms and kissed her. The kiss was brief, nice…and not at all what she had expected. She felt nothing extraordinary and was almost relieved. “Your turn,” he said. Nervously she leaned toward him, and their lips touched again. But this time he clasped her head between his hands and kissed her as if he really meant it. His lips moved over hers softly yet firmly, then his tongue slid between her lips and she could hear him moan. Or was that her? Somewhere in Samantha’s mind lurked the thought that she should stop kissing Jack before things got out of control. Finally, and with a great deal of effort, she pulled back. “Well, well,” he said, his smile disgustingly erotic. “You are full of surprises. Must be my lucky day.” PRAISE FOR THE WORK OF MILLIE CRISWELL “For charming, outrageous fun, read Millie Criswell!” —New York Times bestselling author Carly Phillips “A book by Millie Criswell is better than chocolate. Don’t miss it!” —USA TODAY bestselling author Leanne Banks BODY LANGUAGE “For an amusing and heart-warming story, be sure to check out Body Language.” —Romance Reviews Today “An entertaining…second chance at romance starring a delightful protagonist…. Readers will enjoy this love-at-the-U.N. tale.” —Harriet Klausner, reviewcenter.com “Simply a joy to read.” —Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews MAD ABOUT MIA “Once again the irrepressible Criswell provides readers with a funny and heartwarming story.” —Booklist “Lighthearted and good-natured reading.” —Romantic Times MORE PRAISE FOR MILLIE CRISWELL “Criswell…makes her delightful contemporary debut with a funny and sexy romance…a worthwhile read.” —Publishers Weekly on The Trouble with Mary “Romantic comedy has a new star, and her name is Millie Criswell.” —New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich “Very entertaining, lots of laughs and some tears.” —Philadelphia Inquirer on What To Do About Annie? No Strings Attached Millie Criswell www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To my son and daughter-in-law, Matt and Staci Criswell—brilliant attorneys, wonderful parents and the best son and daughter-in-law a mother could ask for. I love you both! ALSO BY MILLIE CRISWELL BODY LANGUAGE SUDDENLY SINGLE MAD ABOUT MIA STAYING SINGLE THE TRIALS OF ANGELA WHAT TO DO ABOUT ANNIE? THE PREGNANT MS. POTTER THE TROUBLE WITH MARY THE MARRYING MAN THE WEDDING PLANNER TRUE LOVE DEFIANT DANGEROUS DESPERATE PRIM ROSE SWEET LAUREL WILD HEATHER ASKING FOR TROUBLE CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE (#u134fde2c-de6c-5d55-bcf4-328615ce68b1) CHAPTER TWO (#u4416dfbb-2cc9-5cb9-8a16-31e2474f4551) CHAPTER THREE (#ue4d62bd9-5a48-5fef-8226-27946fe38fc7) CHAPTER FOUR (#u0412e092-9278-53c1-b046-c077641aab7b) CHAPTER FIVE (#ua4cb2870-2c6d-5a3f-be13-9ed1c87bd9bc) CHAPTER SIX (#uad0fe09f-d2a1-54b5-a6c3-63d9dfe377fb) CHAPTER SEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ELEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWELVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER THIRTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FOURTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIFTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIXTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINETEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE IN THE LIVING ROOM of Samantha Brady’s Upper East Side apartment, right next to her aging laptop, sat a small, green ceramic frog. The frog would have been considered ugly by most standards, with its bulging dark eyes and a semblance of a mysterious smile, as if it knew something she didn’t. But Samantha loved it. Her best friend, Jack, had won it for her years ago at the Dutchess County Fair, and it had come to symbolize all the unsuccessful relationships with men she had experienced over the years. Samantha had kissed a lot of frogs while looking for her Prince Charming, but all she’d gotten for her trouble was chapped lips. The Big Romance that everyone wrote and sang about continued to elude her. The closest she’d come was The Bastard, which was how she always thought of Tony Shapiro, the man she had given her heart to shortly after her arrival in the city, and the man who had caused the naive little farm girl from upstate New York to smarten up and quick. The Bastard had been married with three children. She’d been humiliated and decimated by the experience. But it had served to teach her a good lesson: Men were pigs, not frogs! The exception to that was Jack Turner. She and Jack had grown up together in the quaint upstate community of Rhinebeck. He was exasperating and bullheaded, but also kind and caring. She’d had a secret crush on him in high school and entertained wildly romantic ideas about him during her senior year. But he’d begun dating the very popular Suzy Stedman exclusively, and Samantha knew she was no match for a gorgeous cheerleader with boobs the size of bowling balls; hers were more in the golf ball category. At any rate, she’d put aside her foolish notions and settled for being best friends. To the left of Samantha’s computer sat another ceramic figurine—a shiny red apple that her mother had given her before she’d left home to pursue a writing career. An inscription in gold leaf read: Take a bite out of the Big Apple. Love, Mom. She’d taken many bites of that apple since arriving to pursue her career as a freelance writer and novelist. But so far Samantha had come up with a lot more seeds than pulp. And quite frankly, it was the pits. Writing a book, especially finishing it, was a lot harder than Samantha had originally thought, owing to the fact that she was something of a perfectionist and agonized over every word. There was also the minor problem that none of the publishers she’d queried were interested in a humorous pseudo-mystery/romance novel about two old ladies and their niece, who ran an inn and were suspected of murder because of some buried bones found in their basement. Apparently, those uninformed editors hadn’t seen Arsenic and Old Lace, or they’d have jumped at the chance to buy her book. “Are you going to sit there and stare out the window all day, or are you actually going to write something? I thought you had a deadline.” The front door closed and Samantha turned to face her roommate. Arms crossed over his chest, six-foot-one Jack Turner was disgustingly handsome, every woman’s idea of Prince Charming. He was frowning at her in that no-nonsense way he always did, but she could see the twinkle in his dark eyes and knew he was only teasing. He’d been her knight in shining armor when she’d finally gotten the courage to move to the city despite her overprotective father’s vehement protests, and then hadn’t been able to find a decent apartment, if there was such a creature to be had. It had been Jack who’d insisted she move in with him, taking most of the financial burden from her shoulders. That had been almost six years ago, and she hadn’t regretted a single day. Well, except for maybe today. “I thought you were going to eat breakfast with the adorable Bunny this morning,” she retorted, referring to Jack’s latest bimbo—uh, girlfriend—who resembled a Siberian husky with her long, dyed platinum hair and ice-blue eyes. Jack was into bimbos: women with large breasts, small brains and the inability to converse on any subject not having to do with fashion. He was also into noncommitment, so his bimbos—uh, girl-friends—fit the bill perfectly. “Why are you home so early? Was the sex that lousy?” His eyes filled with amusement, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he ruffled his dark brown hair and grinned. “It’s Sunday, in case you’ve forgotten,” she went on. “I don’t have to work if I don’t want to. This article isn’t due till next week, so leave me alone.” Pulling a bag of bagels from behind his back, he dangled it in front of her, like the devil tempting Eve with that damn apple. The aroma of freshly baked goods surrounded Samantha, making her stomach grumble and Jack grin. She was a sucker for bagels, donuts, pies, cakes and most unhealthy foods, despite her claim of eating only organic products. Sugar was her downfall. Chocolate was…well, chocolate was chocolate. In addition to her freelance writing jobs, she’d been working part-time at the Starbucks around the corner, sucking down mocha lattes by the gallon and literally devouring the store’s profits. “You still have a deadline to meet. But I’m going to be magnanimous and let you take a break to eat your breakfast first.” Making a face, Samantha headed for the kitchen, Jack following right behind. “Are these bagels organic? You know I only eat organically grown food.” Disbelief edged his laughter. “That’s a crock and you know it. I know for a fact that you ate four Snickers bars yesterday. I found the wrappers in the garbage. How you stay so slim is a mystery.” Suffering from a serious chocolate addiction for which there was no cure—at least none Samantha wanted to try—and hating being called on it, she felt heat rise to her cheeks. “I have a very high metabolism. And why were you looking through the garbage? What kind of sicko rifles through the trash?” She’d purposely hidden the wrappers at the bottom, hoping he wouldn’t find them. “The kind who’s looking for a receipt. And to answer your other question, sex with Bunny was great. It’s her constant talking I can’t take.” “You can’t have everything, Jack,” Samantha said, slapping cream cheese on an onion bagel and handing it to him. “No wonder you aren’t married. You’re too damn picky.” “Like you should talk? Christ! You find fault with every guy you date. Chuck Simmons was a nice guy, very down-to-earth, and he was crazy about you. And you still dumped him.” “Chuck had body odor. Maybe you didn’t notice it, but in the heat of passion it became unbearable.” Samantha could stomach many things, but B.O. wasn’t one of them. Having her head cradled in Chuck Simmons’s armpit had been the equivalent of having a skunk go off in her face. Jack laughed again. “Maybe you should have worn a surgical mask, or you could have asked poor Chuck to take a shower.” “Quit being stupid! Chuck did shower. It’s just that he has some kind of glandular problem, and—why the hell am I telling you this? It’s none of your business.” “Because I’m your best friend and you tell me everything.” It was true. Samantha knew about the women he slept with; Jack knew when her period was due. Living together was rather like being married, only without all the emotional upheavals that accompanied a marriage certificate. The perks without the pukes, as Jack so eloquently put it. “Sometimes it’s embarrassing to discuss my personal relationships with you, especially when you don’t share all the nitty-gritty about your love life.” Not that she’d had that many. Meeting good men in New York City was like waiting for your ship to come in. Unfortunately, hers was in dry dock at the moment. Biting into his bagel, Jack replied around a mouthful of cream cheese, “I don’t have a love life. I have a sex life.” He gulped his coffee before continuing. “There’s a huge difference. And I like it that way. Most women bore me—they talk a lot and say nothing.” “That’s because you have the attention span of Morris here.” With a lift of her head, she indicated the ceramic frog. “Maybe someday when you grow up, you’ll learn to appreciate the intricacies of the female mind and date someone who has a brain bigger than her boobs.” Jack threw back his head and laughed, and the booming sound reverberated off the walls of Samantha’s heart. There was something about Jack’s laughter that made her feel all warm and cozy inside, not to mention that his dimples were adorable. “Christ! No wonder you scare off all the men you date.” “I do not!” But Samantha knew that was a lie. She tended to speak before thinking, to share her opinion about every little thing, and most of the men she dated hated that, especially if her opinions were of the negative variety, which they usually were. Was it her fault she was picky and sought perfection? If she settled, she’d end up with someone like…well, Chuck. And she had no intention of settling. Honesty, Samantha had found out the hard way, was not an admirable trait in a woman, since men’s egos tended to be bigger than their… Brains! Well, except for Jack’s. She’d seen his brain by accident once when he was coming out of the bathroom and she was going in. They had collided, causing him to drop his towel, and she’d gotten a good glimpse of a very impressive— No wonder he was so smart. “If you didn’t have to have everything so perfect, you’d be a lot happier. And by the way, I didn’t appreciate your lining my underwear drawer with lilac-scented paper,” he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “I smell like a hooker!” “You’re just ungrateful. A man secure in his masculinity wouldn’t be bothered by a womanly fragrance. And besides, I thought the scent was nice. I’m sure Bunny loved it.” Jack sighed and shook his head. “You make things too complicated. Just go with the flow, like I do.” Samantha rolled her eyes, her mouth dropping open in disbelief. “Now who’s lying? You hate your job, even though you make gobs of money, and you date women who are dumber than rocks. What’s that say about you?” She waved him off with a flick of her wrist. “Go away and leave me alone. I have work to do.” “Aha! So you finally admit it.” Samantha’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure why we’re friends, Jack Turner. We have nothing in common. And you are extremely annoying.” Grinning widely, Jack tweaked her nose. “If I thought you meant that I’d pack up and leave. Oh wait! I own this apartment, so I guess I can’t. Now then, your nasty mood means you’re either PMSing or your book got rejected again. Which one is it?” It was very disconcerting living with someone who knew you better than you knew yourself, Samantha thought. She hated to admit to Jack that she had failed again in her attempt to get published. She wanted to pull her weight financially and contribute more to their living arrangement. Although she did most of the cooking, cleaning and errand running, Jack paid the majority of the bills. It was the way he wanted it, and she couldn’t afford to change things too drastically, at the moment. But some day she’d be making lots of money—at least, that was the goal. “Why do all those stupid publishing people hate my book? It’s better than a lot of stuff out there. You liked it. Why don’t they?” Dropping onto the sofa, she heaved a dispirited sigh. Samantha had aspirations of becoming the next Nora Roberts or Nora Ephron. But instead she was Nora Nobody, unpublished novelist at large. Maybe she needed a new pen name. “Maybe I’m just not good enough. I should have stayed in Rhinebeck and worked on the family farm like my dad wanted me to.” Her parents would have loved nothing better than to keep her close at hand. Though Sam had appreciated their well-meaning advice, it had eventually become smothering and she’d needed to escape to live life on her own terms. Taking a seat beside Samantha, Jack took her hand. “You know you are. Hell, you were always the smartest kid in class, acing all the tests, showing up the rest of us.” Like that mattered, when my boobs were smaller than Suzy’s! “I liked what I read, but the book’s not finished,” he continued. “You might have a better shot at selling it if you’d finish the damn thing. You’ve been working on it for years. You could have written the friggin’ history of the world by now.” Samantha finally smiled. “The World According to Samantha. I like that.” He patted her knee. “Don’t give up. There are still plenty of publishers out there you haven’t tried yet.” “I’m on a first-name basis with many of their assistants. How pathetic is that?” “Very, but only because you’ve been hounding them.” “So I’m anal. Sue me. There are worse things to be. At least I follow up on things.” He rose to his feet. “Great! Now just apply that tenacity to finishing your book. But in the meantime, I suggest you complete the magazine article you’re supposed to be sending off.” “For someone who hates his boss, you’re very bossy, do you know that?” “Yeah. But at least I’m not a prick like O’Leary. The selfish bastard is greedy and self-serving.” Samantha knew Jack was unhappy with his job. She’d heard the frustration in his voice many times over when he talked about his new boss. “You should be working for yourself, Jack. You’re very talented. There are very few real estate agents in the business as good as you are. Must be your facility for bull-shit.” She smiled, and so did he. “Thanks. But that’s the problem. O’Leary feels threatened. He’s been forcing me to work shitty hours on the floor. And on those rare occasions when he does give up a lead, either it’s lousy or he hands it off to someone else.” “So quit! There’s nothing keeping you there. You’ve got your broker’s license.” “That’s easier said than done when you have financial obligations.” “Jack, you own several apartment buildings, including this one. You could probably support yourself on what you earn from those.” “It’s not enough. I need more money in the bank before I can go out on my own. New York is an expensive city. Just the office space alone will cost me a fortune, not to mention the licenses, office furniture and personnel. Shall I go on?” “You encouraged me when I was unsure about moving here and wanting to write. So now I’m saying the same to you—if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you can do it.” “But what if I fail? I can’t allow myself to do that.” “Why? Because of your father?” She shook her head. “How long are you going to let him run, or should I say ruin, your life? “You’re nothing like Martin Turner. Your dad’s an alcoholic who never kept a steady job in his life. You’re already a much better man than he could ever hope to be.” His eyes filled with pain despite her assurances. “Tell that to my mother. She never says a bad word about my dad. You’d think he was a saint instead of a lush.” “Your mother is clinging to the memories of your father the way he was before he started drinking. But he wasn’t always that way, was he?” “No,” he replied, bitterness edging his words. “He started after I was born. What does that tell you?” Jack’s relationship with his family, especially his father, was a painful one. As a child, he’d been neglected and shoved aside, while his dad devoted his time to the bottle and Charlotte Turner devoted hers to an alcoholic husband who didn’t love her, and to trying to keep her miserable marriage intact. He’d spent much of his childhood at the Brady home. Samantha’s parents had tried to provide Jack with a stable environment and the normalcy that was missing from his. And though Samantha understood and sympathized with his bitterness, she still wanted him to reconcile with his parents so he could put the past behind him and get on with his life. Until that happened he’d always be second-guessing everything he did. “Have you called your mom lately? You know how much she misses you.” He laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Charlotte doesn’t miss me—she has dear old Dad to keep her company.” “Don’t be cynical. It doesn’t suit you. And she is your mother, whether you like it or not.” “You women always stick together.” “I’m right and you know it, Jack. You just don’t want to admit it.” “At least Ross takes my side. He knows the kind of shit I’ve put up with from my parents.” “My brother has a big mouth and should mind his own business.” “Yeah, Ross gossips like an old woman. But he’s been a good friend.” “Speaking of Ross, has he mentioned his plans for marrying Ellen? They’ve been dating off and on for years, but they still don’t seem very well suited.” “Sometimes opposites attract.” “True. But I don’t sense any sexual energy between them, do you?” They gazed at each other for several moments, and Samantha’s heartbeat quickened. Then Jack cleared his throat and the spell was broken. “You’ve been watching your Sex and the City DVDs again, haven’t you?” In fact, she had, but she wasn’t about to admit it. “This is serious. Do you know anything or not?” “I wouldn’t break Ross’s confidence even if I did. But I assume he loves Ellen or he wouldn’t have stuck it out for so long. Two years is a long time to date someone.” “Not necessarily. I detest you and I’m still here.” He tweaked her nose. “You’d be lost without me, and you know it. Besides, we’re not dating.” “Someday you’re going to meet a woman who’ll knock you off your feet. Then you’ll leave and get married.” Samantha knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, and when it did it would break her heart. She never allowed herself to question why. Jack was too good a man not to be part of a wonderful relationship. She just hoped he found someone deserving of him—and that wouldn’t be any of the Bunny, Kitty or Fawns that currently traipsed through his bedroom. He shook his head. “Don’t bet on it, sweetheart. I’m not interested in tying myself down. I’d rather serve time in prison. Same thing, if you ask me.” Samantha knew exactly where her friend was coming from. After growing up in a houseful of domineering males, she had no desire to live under any man’s thumb. Men were too opinionated, too direct and some of the stuff that poured out of their collective mouths was pure idiocy, yet they considered it to be manna from heaven. Just like you, Samantha. Oh, all right! So maybe I’m a tad opinionated, but I’m nowhere near as bad as a man, thank God! Marriage just wasn’t in the cards for her. Not now, not ever, as far as she was concerned. Sure, Samantha had once bought into the dream every young woman had about meeting Mr. Right, falling madly in love and living happily ever after. But at thirty-one, she had finally come to the conclusion that marriage was not her destiny. Perhaps her unfortunate affair with Tony had soured her on love, or maybe it was just the fact the man she had secretly desired all those years ago—the one whose name she’d written over and over again on her notebooks…Mrs. Jack Turner, Samantha Turner, Samantha and Jack Turner, would never be hers. And since she and Jack were just good friends, and since she didn’t settle, there was really no point in marrying anyone else. CHAPTER TWO “THANKS SO MUCH for offering to babysit,” Samantha’s next-door neighbor said. “I really need to get out of this apartment for a little while. I never realized how all-consuming a new baby is.” “No problem, Mary. We all need a little time to ourselves once in a while.” Samantha peered into the crib at the infant sleeping soundly and felt her heart squeeze. She was pink, perfect and oh so precious. “Melissa’s beautiful. You’re lucky to have her.” “Jim and I feel blessed. We’ve been trying for years to have a baby, and then when we were just about to give up, I found out I was pregnant.” The Walkers were a lovely young couple who had moved into the building a year ago, and Samantha was thrilled for them. “Well, don’t worry about a thing. Just take your time and enjoy the afternoon. I’ll take good care of Melissa.” “I should be back before she wakes up, but in case I’m not, there are bottles of formula right next to the crib. No need to heat them up—she takes her bottle at room temperature. Just pop the nipple and you’re good to go.” “Sounds easy enough,” Samantha said with a lot more confidence than she felt. She hadn’t spent a lot of time around babies. Most of the kids she’d previously babysat had been a lot older and didn’t poop their pants. “I’m using Pampers on Melissa,” Mary said, as if reading Samantha’s mind. “We’ll be fine. Now go and enjoy the fresh air, window shop, have an ice-cream sundae. Relax.” Mary exited the room with a huge smile on her face, and Samantha tiptoed out of the nursery and headed for the living room, where she’d left her work in progress. Settling onto the sofa, she had just picked up her pen when she heard the first wail through the baby monitor. Fear and uncertainty filled her momentarily, but she figured she was a lot bigger and smarter than a one-month-old baby. How hard could it be to comfort a screaming infant, anyway? Turns out, very. Upon entering the nursery, she made a face at the unpleasant odor that assailed her and knew immediately that Melissa had made a doodle in her diaper. Samantha could have called it shit, but doodle sounded much nicer for an infant. Picking the baby up, she set out to change the offending diaper while trying to hold her nose closed. But that was easier said than done. Melissa’s tiny legs were flailing as she removed the Pamper. Shit flew everywhere, including in Samantha’s hair. “Quit being gross, Melissa. I’m new at this so give me a break, okay?” The baby stared back at her intently for a moment, giving the illusion that she had actually listened, but then began squirming again. So much for reason. Grabbing a handful of baby wipes, Samantha cleaned the mess out of her hair, and then went to work on Melissa. After changing her diaper, she put the baby into an adorable pink stretchy thing called a onesie, and then carried her to the rocking chair situated beneath the window. Nestling her nose in the baby’s downy hair, Samantha inhaled. Melissa smelled wonderful, like spring blossoms and sweet chocolate cake, all rolled into one. For some reason, babies always smelled good…well, when they were doodle-free, that is. Like new cars, the smell only lasted for a brief time, but it was so distinctive that you never really forgot it. The baby stared wide-eyed at Samantha, taking her measure, she supposed. Samantha smiled and cooed, and as she held the baby in her arms the strangest thing happened—her heart actually felt so full she thought it might burst. Samantha had always been so dead-set against marriage that she hadn’t given a great deal of thought to what not getting married would mean. She’d never have a child. She’d never change a poopy diaper or hug a sweet-smelling baby to her breast, and she would never know the joy and pain of childbirth, of experiencing one of God’s greatest gifts. Then again, she didn’t have to be married to have a baby. She wasn’t saying she would, but if she really wanted a baby, she could have one on her own. It was an intriguing possibility. AN HOUR LATER, the baby was finally asleep. But no sooner had Samantha sat down with her work again than a soft knock sounded on the door. It couldn’t be Mary; the woman had a key. She peered through the peephole to find Jack staring back at her. “Hi!” he said when she opened the door. “I found your note.” He held it up. “Ssh! I just got Melissa to sleep.” He arched a brow. “I’m impressed. I didn’t think you knew much about babies.” “It’s instinctive for a woman,” she told him loftily, though she had no idea if that were really true. It sounded good though. “Would you like to see her? She’s quite adorable.” He shrugged, not looking at all comfortable with the idea. “I really just came by to see if you’d picked up the cleaning. I can’t find my new blue shirt.” “It’s hanging in my closet. I didn’t have time to sort everything out before Mary called. Come on,” she urged. “Come see Melissa.” “Oh. Well, I guess I can take a quick peek at her.” They stood side by side in the darkened room, gazing into the crib. Jack had an expression of awe on his face. “Melissa’s perfect, isn’t she?” Samantha asked. “She’s so small,” he whispered. “I know.” Their hands met on the crib rail, and Jack looked over at her with an expression she’d never seen before. Her palms started to sweat and she pulled her hands to her sides. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” he asked. “Wonder?” “What we might be missing by—” “Oh there you are!” Mary said, entering the nursery and cutting off whatever else Jack was about to say, much to Samantha’s dismay. But she’d heard enough to start her wondering. SAMANTHA COULDN’T STOP thinking about babies. Everywhere she went, it seemed parents were hauling their young children around or nannies were pushing baby carriages in the park. And the more she saw, the more she thought, and the more she thought, the more she yearned. She wanted a baby. She wanted to have a child of her own. She supposed deep down she always had. From childhood, girls were raised to be mothers. It was the expected course to take. But that course typically included marriage, and so she’d decided to detour and take a different route. But suddenly her biological clock was ticking like a time bomb. Samantha wanted to have a baby before she got too old to conceive, with or without the benefit of marriage. In this advanced day and age a woman didn’t need to rely on a man to conceive—only his sperm. It would have been nice to get pregnant the old-fashioned way, to experience the event with someone she cared about, not some stranger who’d made a donation to a sperm bank, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and she had no daddy candidates on the horizon. Women of today enhanced their breasts through implants, held back the clock with plastic surgery and achieved orgasms through battery-operated devices, so it wasn’t unnatural or unacceptable to conceive a baby by artificial means. Millions of women had done so successfully, and so could she. Besides, lots of good things came frozen: ice cream, waffles, diet dinners. So why not sperm? “I’M GOING TO HAVE A BABY!” Patty Bradshaw’s jaw dropped so low it almost landed in her Cobb salad. “You’re not serious! Who’s the father? I didn’t know you were seeing anyone. And why the hell weren’t you using protection? Do you have a death wish? Did you skip Sex 101 in high school?” She stared at Samantha as if she’d lost her mind. As Patty fired questions at her with the rapidity of a Gatling gun, Samantha just smiled. Patty was a lawyer, a borderline feminist and a damn good friend. The two had met shortly after Samantha’s arrival in New York City. She’d been coming out of Bloomingdale’s after an interview that had gone nowhere, while Patty had been on her way in, to buy fabulous clothing, no doubt. Colliding in one of those purses-flying incidents that had them howling in laughter, they had hit it off immediately and been best girlfriends ever since—probably because Patty had as many opinions as Samantha did, and never hesitated to voice them. But she was a whole lot tougher than Samantha, owing to the fact that she had to compete in the legal profession with ego-driven males, who viewed the attractive woman as little more than a sex object. But then, men often thought with their dicks, not their brains. With deep auburn hair, pretty green eyes and a killer body, Counselor Patricia Bradshaw was hot and knew it. In fact, Patty played on that image. She hadn’t met too many men in her thirty-four years that she didn’t want to try on for size, and fortunately for her, most of them fit. But Patty was also a damn good attorney who’d won the majority of her cases and was considered an ace in her field of employment law. “Okay, I didn’t say that right. What I meant to say is, I want to have a baby. It’s all I’ve been thinking about lately.” Obsessing would probably have been a more accurate term. Patty gulped her wine, poured herself another glass and then looked Samantha straight in the eye. “Are you crazy? Have you lost whatever sense you were born with? A child will tie you down, destroy your life as you know it, not to mention that you’re not married. Not that that’s a requirement these days, but it sure as hell makes things easier.” “Well, I can’t help that. I want to have a baby, and I’m not going to change my mind. I’m thirty-one. My time is running out. If I don’t do this now, it’ll be too late.” “But you’re not even dating seriously at the moment. How are you planning to get pregnant?” Samantha shrugged, forking a cucumber into her mouth while she continued talking—something her mother always chided her about. “Of course, I’d love to get pregnant the old-fashioned way, with someone I love, or at least care about. But I have to be realistic. I’ve dated most of the men in this city, or at least it seems that way, and I haven’t met my Prince Charming yet. At this point, it’s doubtful I’m going to.” A fair assessment, based on the last two dates she’d had, which had been nothing short of disastrous. Lyle Prentice had stared at her chest all through dinner, which normally would have been flattering, since Samantha wasn’t that well endowed, until one considered the fact that Lyle was a plastic surgeon who had offered to provide her with a pair of breast implants at cost. And then there’d been Bob Bartlett, a fastidious accountant who kept excusing himself to floss his teeth after every kiss they’d shared, as if her mouth was loaded with gingivitis. The frogs definitely outnumbered the princes. “There is no Prince Charming. That’s a fairy tale for little girls and dreamers, which is why I just go for the sex. Marriage is for wimps, and ‘love’ is a far dirtier four-letter word than ‘fuck,’ if you ask me.” It was obvious that someone in Patty’s past had hurt her very deeply. But she’d never confided in Samantha about it, and Samantha wasn’t about to ask. “I don’t want to get married either, Patty, which complicates matters a wee bit.” The woman’s big green eyes got even bigger. “No kidding, it complicates matters!” “I know you think I’m stupid for wanting to do this, but I’m determined.” “Determined to do what, ruin your life?” Patty shook her head, her tone softening somewhat. “I don’t think you’re stupid, Samantha. I think you’re insane. There’s a difference. But if you’re positive that having a baby is really what you want, then there’s always in vitro fertilization. You could use a sperm donor.” Samantha smiled gratefully, knowing her friend’s effort to be conciliatory didn’t come easy. “That’s what I’ve been thinking, too. But I intend to explore all my options first.” She heaved a sigh. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will happen along and—” “That would require you to have unprotected sex, and that’s a one-way ticket to the morgue. Better to be safe than sorry. Don’t do anything stupid. Promise me, Samantha.” Samantha’s brows rose. “Are you saying you use a condom every time you have sex? Hell, that must cost you a fortune.” Patty threw back her head and laughed, a throaty, sensual sound, and it wasn’t surprising that men found the woman irresistible. Well, except for Jack, who found Patty too in-your-face and, well, too masculine to suit him. Samantha shook her head. “Just think about it. In our mothers’ day, all women had to worry about with regard to having sex was getting pregnant. Now we have to consider all kinds of diseases, including MASH.” “MASH? That’s a new one on me,” Patty said, her brows drawing together in confusion. She grinned. “Men Actually Staying Hard.” Her friend laughed again. “Honey, no worries about that. We have Viagra now. It’s the best invention since air-conditioning.” “Yeah, only Viagra makes you hot, not cold.” “Amen to that!” THAT SAME AFTERNOON across town, Jack and his coworker, Tom Adler, were knee-deep in discussion about their favorite topic: Acme Realty’s new sales manager. “I’m sick and tired of that asshole,” Jack said. “O’Leary pulled three more leads from me today and gave them to Susan. And that woman couldn’t sell her way out of a paper bag if her life depended on it.” Leaning back in his swivel chair, which squeaked like nails raking a blackboard, Tom replied, “Susan’s got some attributes you don’t possess, my friend.” At Jack’s confused look, he smiled. “Her rack is a lot bigger than yours. The scuttlebutt around the office is that O’Leary’s trying to get in her pants, but my bet is he already has. Mike’s been looking pretty smug lately.” Grimacing in disgust, Jack shut the door to Tom’s office behind him, taking the chair in front of the metal desk. As Acme’s two top agents, they were the only salespeople to rate private offices. The other agents worked on the main floor in cubicles. Of course, Mike O’Leary had already threatened to change that policy. He’d come in four months ago to replace the retiring Will Price, and things at Acme had immediately begun going downhill. First the lunchroom had been turned into a copy center. There were no more office parties to celebrate birthdays or big sales. Then O’Leary had replaced the contract forms with more confusing ones that took ten times longer to fill out, all in the name of progress. Mike reminded Jack of his dad—-self-important, domineering and ego-driven—which was one of the reasons he disliked the man so much, and didn’t speak well of Jack’s relationship with his father. “I’ll be honest with you, Tom, unless things improve around here…” He shook his head. “I can’t work under these conditions much longer. Life’s too short, and I’m not getting any younger.” Samantha’s advice kept running through his mind. Tom leaned forward across his desk. “What are you saying, you’ll quit?” Jack sighed, tunneling impatient fingers through dark hair. “I don’t know. Maybe. O’Leary’s high-handed actions are starting to affect how I earn a living, and I won’t allow that to happen. I’ve worked too hard to get where I am.” “Trust me, I hear ya. I really miss old Will. He was a good guy, a great manager and he was fair. He really cared about the people who worked under his regime, not just the bottom line.” “My roommate thinks I should quit and start my own real estate business. The more I think about it, the more tempting the idea is.” Tom’s eyes widened. “Sam said that? He must really respect your abilities.” Jack had never corrected his friend’s assumption that his roommate “Sam” was a man, believing that if Tom knew Samantha was actually an attractive, single woman he’d be on her like white on rice. And Jack wasn’t about to let that happen, for reasons he dared not question. Not only was Tom not Samantha’s type, he had a history of using women and then dumping them. Jack had to protect Samantha from the Tom Adlers of the world. After all, that’s what friends were for. And though he and Tom might share similar dating philosophies, the difference was that Jack wasn’t interested in his roommate as a sexual partner—not that he wasn’t attracted to Samantha’s pretty cornflower-blue eyes, million-dollar smile and great sense of humor. Even as a young girl, she’d had the ability to make him laugh. Samantha had a sort of topsy-turvy, upside-down way of looking at life. It was one of the things he adored about her. He cherished their friendship far more than he needed another notch on his bedpost, so Jack had decided a long time ago that he and Samantha would just remain good friends. Though he had to admit, if only to himself, that when he’d watched her gaze down at the Walkers’ baby with warmth and affection, crazy thoughts had started going through his head. What if he and Samantha had a different kind of relationship? What if they’d gotten married? What if…? “I might be interested in getting in on the ground floor if you decide to go your own way, Jack,” Tom said, interrupting his disquieting thoughts. “Hell, this place would be like a tomb if you left. Not sure I could work here by myself.” “My plans are still in the formative stage at this point, Tom, but it’s good to know you’re interested. It would be a lot easier having a partner, someone I could trust with the day-to-day operation of the business, if that’s what you’re offering.” His friend nodded. “Adler/Turner Properties. I like the sound of that.” “I was thinking more of Turner/Adler Properties,” Jack retorted with a smile. “But we can iron all that out, if and when this idea comes to fruition. I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.” The blond man stuck out his hand. “I hope it does. I’m in, if you decide to take the step.” “Then obviously you’re just as insane as I am for even thinking about doing something like this. We’re both making good money right now. We could starve on our own. I hope you realize that.” “But we won’t. We’re too damn good at what we do.” “I wish I shared your self-confidence. There are a lot of good real estate agencies in the city. We’d really have to scrounge for clients. It would be like starting all over again.” Something Jack dreaded. Referrals were the bread and butter of the real estate business. Without them, a realty firm was doomed before it ever got off the ground. “Nah. We’ll just steal them from here. We’ve earned every single one of them. And wouldn’t it be nice to put the screws to O’Leary?” “And here I thought you only liked screwing women. It’s refreshing to know you’re an equal opportunity fornicator, Adler.” Tom grinned and wiggled his brows. “Speaking of fornicating, I’m going out with the delectable Cindy from accounting tonight. I hear she’s hot in bed. Care to double? She’s got a horny friend.” Shaking his head, Jack was even more grateful that Samantha remained a secret. “Thanks, but I think I’ll stay home tonight and crunch some numbers, see if this idea of mine is feasible. There are a lot of things to consider before taking such a big step.” “I’ve got thirty thousand I can invest straight off. I can probably get another ten from one of my investment accounts, if we need it. I had a good year.” Jack was impressed and pleased by the offer. “That’s very generous. I’ll keep that in mind and let you know what I come up with.” “If you change your mind about tonight, give me a call. You know the number.” Suddenly filled with an optimism he hadn’t felt in a very long time, Jack exited Tom’s office with a much lighter step than when he’d entered it. And the one person he wanted to share his excitement with was Samantha. She would be happy for him; she’d understand what a huge step he was contemplating. He owed Samantha for suggesting the idea to him in the first place, and he was going to thank her by taking her out to dinner tonight. CHAPTER THREE TO SAMANTHA, Italian food was what water was to plants—she had to have it at least once a week. So when Jack offered dinner at El Toula’s, a new Italian eatery in their neighborhood, she jumped at the chance. “This calamari fritti is absolutely delicious, Jack. Thanks for bringing me here tonight. It’s such a nice surprise, and it’s not even my birthday.” She dipped a piece of the fried squid into the marinara sauce on her plate. “I thought we deserved a break, and I confess to having an ulterior motive. There’s something I want to discuss with you.” “I’m all ears, but I hope nothing’s wrong. I thought you seemed a little preoccupied tonight.” He shook his head. “Quite the contrary. Remember when you suggested that I start my own business? Well, I’ve been giving that idea of yours some more thought.” Her eyes widened. “You mean—? Oh, Jack, that’d be great! What made you change your mind?” “I spoke to Tom Adler today about the possibility of starting my own real estate company and he wants to buy in. He was very enthusiastic and made me feel that we could actually make it work.” She clapped her hands together. “That’s wonderful! Are you going to do it?” “I’m not sure. I still haven’t made up my mind. I want to do a bit more research, find out what’s involved. This would be a big undertaking, and I don’t want to screw it up.” “I can help. You know I’m a whiz at Internet research. Just let me know what you need.” He nodded. “I’d pay you for your time.” Samantha, who always felt uncomfortable about accepting Jack’s money, shrugged. “I’m happy to help whether or not you pay me, you know that. That’s what friends do. And God knows I could never repay you for everything you’ve done for me.” “I won’t allow you to work for free. Your time is valuable, what little you have of it. You’ve got your job at the coffee shop, your freelance articles, babysitting and you need to finish your novel.” “Tell me what you need in the way of research and I’ll get started on it first thing in the morning,” she said, ignoring his objections. His right brow shot up. “Should I assume that your magazine article has already been submitted?” “Yes,” she replied, making a face. “But they’ll probably blue-pencil it to death. And I’m not sure there’ll be much of an audience for what I wrote. After all, who wants to read about the trials and tribulations of an unpublished writer?” “A lot of people. Me, for instance.” “You’re just saying that because we’re friends and you feel sorry for me.” Jack sighed. “You always sell yourself short, Samantha. You need to have more confidence in your abilities. You’re good at what you do. And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I really think you have talent as a writer.” “Thank you,” she said quietly, pushing the calamari around her plate and silently debating whether or not to tell Jack about her plan to get pregnant. Samantha rarely kept secrets from him, but she wasn’t sure how he would react. Jack had been overly protective since grade school after all—this would probably freak him out completely. “I had lunch with Patty today,” she began. Jack’s face filled with distaste. He was not a Patty fan. “That woman is a piranha. Who’s she crucifying this week?” “It’s Patty’s job to take bad employers to task,” she rebutted. “Just because she goes for the throats of those corporate execs is—” “Throats? Ha! She goes straight for their balls and doesn’t let go until they’ve been castrated.” “Well, someone has to stand up for what’s right. And if Patty were a man, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. She takes her job seriously, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.” Jack set down his wineglass after taking a generous gulp of Chianti. “I know you like Patty, so I’ll try to temper my comments. But I admit, I’m glad you two are nothing alike. She’s too hard, too jaded, while you’re soft and kindhearted.” “Maybe if I had Patty’s backbone, her chutzpah, I’d be more successful. You can’t say she hasn’t done well for herself. She lives near the park, makes gobs of money, shops at all the really expensive stores.” Samantha sighed. “I’m still a regular Macy’s customer.” “I know she does well. But that doesn’t make her any more likeable.” Sipping her wine, Samantha said, “Anyway, I discussed an idea with Patty, something I’m planning to do.” “Is it something we’ve talked about?” “No, not yet.” She swallowed nervously. “I wasn’t quite sure how you’d take the news, so I tried it out on Patty first.” She feared Jack’s reaction would be pretty similar to her friend’s—he’d hate it. And Jack’s opinion was very important to her. “There’s not much you can say that will surprise me at this point. I think you know that.” She took a few moments, sipped more Chianti to bolster her courage and blurted, “I’ve decided to have a baby.” Eyes widening, Jack nearly choked on his veal parmesan and reached for his water glass. After a moment, he said, “I take it back. I’m surprised.” His brows drew together in confusion. “What am I missing here? Have you been dating someone that I don’t know about? Are you getting married?” He paled at the thought. “I don’t have a husband waiting in the wings. I’m doing this all on my own.” His right brow cocked. “Really? Now that would be interesting. As far as I know, there’s only been one immaculate conception.” “Ha! Ha! Ha! Very funny. Obviously I can’t impregnate myself. I’m going to need help with that. Care to volunteer?” He ignored her. “I assume since you’re not as ballsy as Patty that you’re talking about artificial insemination?” “It’s not my method of choice, but under the circumstances I don’t see another way.” “You could wait for the right man to come along, fall in love, get married. You know, the usual road to conception.” “I’ve been that route with no luck. You of all people should know that. We have that flaw in common.” “I don’t consider it a flaw. I consider it a lifestyle choice,” he retorted, adding, “Look, Samantha, I think you’d be making a big mistake if you go through with this crazy scheme of yours. You might think you want a child, but this isn’t the way to go about it.” “Why not? Plenty of single women have babies. Jodi Foster did it, and Diane Keaton, not to mention Rosie O’Donnell, who adopted her kids.” He rolled his eyes. “Come on. Be sensible. Having a kid on your own isn’t a good idea. Those celebrities you’ve mentioned have money—you don’t.” Hurt filled her voice. “I was hoping you’d be more supportive. This is important to me.” “I wouldn’t be a very good friend if I didn’t give you my honest opinion, now would I? I’ve never lied to you, Samantha, not in all the years we’ve known each other.” “I guess you’re entitled to your opinion, but just don’t go giving it out to anyone else. We’ll be going to my parents’ house soon for the annual apple harvest celebration, and I expect you to keep my confidence and not blab my plans to anyone—including Ross.” “You know you can trust me. I’d never betray your confidence.” “No, just my friendship.” His lips thinned. “That’s not fair. I’m just trying to save you from yourself. Sometimes you act without thinking.” “Is that what you think this is? Just because you don’t want to settle down and have a family? Well, that’s not me. Maybe I don’t want to get married and have a husband, but I do want to have a child.” “That’s because you’ve never had one or been around kids for any length of time. This is just some fantasy you cooked up after babysitting the Walker baby.” “It is not! I’ve given it a lot of thought. In fact, I’ve thought of little else. And you said yourself that we might be missing out.” He shook his head. “Tell me how you plan to support yourself and a baby. How will you work and take care of a child? A baby is a huge responsibility, not to mention expensive. There’ll be hospital and doctor fees, baby furniture to buy, clothing, diapers, food. You can’t afford a child.” She stiffened. “I’m quite capable of taking care of myself, Jack. Just because we live together doesn’t mean I can’t manage without you. I’ve already lined up several freelance jobs. And I intend to ask Gary to increase my hours at Starbucks. With the holidays coming, they’ll need more help. And I can always babysit to supplement my income, if I need to. There are a lot of jobs I’m capable of doing, and that includes working for you. “And you don’t have to worry about me infringing on our friendship because I don’t intend to.” Jack heaved a deep sigh and looked as if he was about to say something else, but Samantha cut him off. “And don’t forget, there’s always a chance that my book will sell for gobs of money.” And maybe pigs would fly. CHAPTER FOUR “YOU APPEAR TO BE in excellent health, Ms. Brady,” Doctor Phillips told Samantha a few days later. The gray-haired gynecologist, who resembled George Hamilton without the tan, had been recommended by a friend of a friend of Patty’s and was touted to be one of the best in his field. Patty had pulled a few strings to get Samantha an appointment. And knowing how many patients were waiting to see the sought-after specialist, she owed her friend big-time. “I’ll still need to wait for the results of today’s tests before I can determine the best way to proceed with the insemination process, Ms. Brady. And I want to make certain that your left ovary isn’t going to be problematic.” Samantha filled with alarm. “Do you think it will be?” She got her period every month, so she’d assumed her ovaries were working just fine. “I’ll have my nurse schedule a sonogram so we can take a peek at what’s going on with it, okay? It could very well be nothing, but I want to make sure that it isn’t a cyst or a tumor.” Samantha had the strongest urge to borrow that Schwarzenegger line—”It’s not a tumor!”—but refrained. Instead, she folded her sweaty hands primly in her lap and nodded. “Whatever you think is best. You’re the expert. But I do have a few questions, if you don’t mind.” “Fire away. I want you to feel completely comfortable about everything we’re going to do. This is a big step you’re taking.” “From what I’ve read, it’s my understanding that I have to be ovulating before you can perform the procedure. Is that correct?” “Precisely. With both artificial and intrauterine insemination, ovulation has to occur in order for the donated sperm to fertilize your eggs.” “What’s the difference between the two? And what’s my best bet for conceiving?” “Depends on what we discover from your tests. With intrauterine insemination, we flush the sperm directly into the uterus by means of a catheter. Artificial insemination puts the sperm into the vagina or on the cervix. But sometimes the woman’s cervical mucus is such that it won’t allow the sperm to travel through it, thus blocking fertilization.” Samantha’s face fell and a stab of disappointment knifed through her. “Oh. I hadn’t read that.” It would be just her luck to have body fluids that hated sperm. First her ovary might be a dud, and now this. “Once I see the results of your tests I’ll be able to determine the best way to proceed. You should know that in either case the percentage for successfully producing a fertilized egg is low.” “Really? How low?” She thought this plan of hers was foolproof. It seemed every girl she’d known in high school who’d had sex before marriage had gotten pregnant. “It can be as low as eight percent, so you need to be prepared for failure. Of course, I’ve had patients who have gotten lucky on the first try, but that’s rare. It’s a crapshoot, if you want to know the truth. It either takes or it doesn’t. There’s really no way to predict the outcome.” Their discussion was getting more depressing by the minute, and Samantha wondered if she was wasting her time. “I see.” But she didn’t, not really. Why did everything have to be so damn complicated? She just wanted to have a baby—something women had been doing for eons. “My nurse, Mrs. Wilson, said she’s already explained to you about making a BBT chart and tracking your temperature. This is how we’ll determine whether or not you’re ovulating.” His brows rose in anticipation. “I assume you’re doing that already?” She nodded. “I started as soon as she told me. I’ve been religious about filling out the temperature chart every day. And as close as I can figure based on my last period, I should be ovulating by next week.” He smiled kindly. “Excellent. I’ll have my nurse set up an appointment. We’ll shoot for the end of next week, providing your tests and sonogram prove okay. How does that sound?” “Fine.” She tried to sound nonchalant, but her heart was racing with excitement. The doctor hesitated a moment, his face filling with concern. “I should tell you, Ms. Brady, that artificial insemination in any form is not an inexpensive proposition. Have you considered the cost? We sometimes have to do this procedure over and over again to achieve the results we want. And most insurance companies don’t cover it, as it’s considered an elective course of action.” Samantha swallowed. She had no health insurance, but she had cashed in several of the savings bonds her grandparents had given her at birth. If there were no further complications, she’d have enough money for maybe two attempts. “I understand. And I’m prepared to move forward.” Go directly to debtor’s prison. Do not pass GO. Do not collect two hundred dollars. “All right then. We’ll give it a try. Do you have someone you can bring with you to your appointment, to take you home after the procedure? You may experience some discomfort, a bit of cramping, and I’d feel better if you had someone to accompany you home.” “Umm, yes. I’m certain one of my friends will come with me.” But that was a crock and she knew it. Jack would rather have his eyelashes plucked out, one by one, than accompany her to the doctor’s office. And though Patty had been supportive, she wasn’t sure how much her friend wanted to participate in something she felt was idiotic. Samantha was in this alone, and alone was how she was going to do it. THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Jack entered the apartment to find Samantha seated at the kitchen table eating a large bowl of ice cream. She was looking rather glum, despite the chocolate flavor, which usually had the power to put a smile on her face. “What’s wrong? Did you get bad news from the doctor?” She looked up, smiled halfheartedly in greeting, and then shrugged. “Not really bad news, but not good news either. The results of my tests were inconclusive, and my sonogram shows that one of my ovaries has a small cyst and is not functioning properly. It’s sluggish, whatever that means.” “So you’re not getting it done?” He looked relieved. “I’m glad. Like I said, it would be a mistake.” “Doctor Phillips postponed the insemination procedure. He said based on what he’s seen so far I might have difficulty conceiving.” Crossing the room in three long strides, Jack took her hands, his eyes filled with concern. “I’m sorry, Samantha. I know how important this is to you. But maybe God is trying to tell you something, like you should wait for the right man to come along.” She gazed into his eyes and said, “The right man isn’t going to come along, Jack.” He already had and he’d kept right on walking. “And I’m not down for the count yet. The doctor said to come back on Tuesday afternoon.” “I want to go with you, make sure everything goes okay. You might not be feeling well afterward, and I don’t want you going home by yourself. You could faint on the subway, or something.” Smiling softly, she patted his cheek and recalled why Jack was such an important part of her life. “That’s nice of you. I wasn’t sure you’d want to come, knowing how you feel about doctors and hospitals.” But she should have guessed. Jack had always been there for her; he was the one person she could count on, no matter what problems she faced. And she liked to think she’d always be there for him, too. But she also knew that Jack hated anything having to do with illness. His father had spent a lot of time in hospitals and treatment facilities, trying to dry out. The Turners had been frequent visitors to the hospital during those times, and the memories of those visits remained unpleasant for him. “I’ll survive,” he said. “I know, but—” Suddenly Jack wrapped his arms about Samantha, unable to contain his grin. “I’ve got good news.” Her eyes widened with delight. “I thought you were looking rather pleased with yourself this evening. Did you finally sell that monstrosity on West 103rd?” Shaking his head, his grin widened. “No. This isn’t about a sale. I quit my job today, Samantha. I’m free of that bastard O’Leary. Told him to shove it where the sun don’t shine.” Laughing, she threw her arms about his waist and hugged him hard. “That’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you, Jack. This calls for a major celebration.” He shook his head, his expression suddenly somber. “We’ll celebrate after I work out all the details. For now, we need to conserve money, just in case this new venture of mine doesn’t work out. It’s a big risk, and I’m worried about it.” “But I thought Tom Adler was investing.” “He is. But the overhead is going to be big. And until we start making sales, I want to pull back on the spending.” “I understand.” “That doesn’t mean that I won’t lend you money, if you need it for the insemination procedures. I intend to be here for you, even if I don’t agree with what you’re doing.” She shook her head. “I appreciate the offer but that won’t be necessary.” Samantha explained about the savings bonds, and his face suddenly reddened in anger. “Why didn’t you come to me first? I don’t want you spending your life savings. What if something unforeseen happens? You won’t have anything to fall back on.” “Stop treating me like a child, Jack. I haven’t cashed in all of my bonds, only a few. And though I appreciate your advice and concern, I have to do what I think’s best. I’m a grown woman, after all. And I do have a job, you know; in fact, I have several.” “I know.” He took a deep breath. “But I’m worried about you. You might be biting off more than you can chew.” “Well don’t. There’s no need. I’m going to get pregnant, and then my life will be complete and wonderful. You’ll see.” BUT TWO MONTHS LATER, Samantha still wasn’t pregnant, couldn’t afford any more visits to Dr. Phillips and had pretty much concluded that a baby wasn’t going to be part of her future. Her mother always said that God had a plan for everyone, but Samantha didn’t like this one. She didn’t like it at all. “Thanks for meeting me here on such short notice, Patty. I know how busy you are, but I needed to talk to you. I asked Gary for an extended break.” She waved at the smiling Starbucks manager, who had a slight crush on her. And though she hated taking advantage of his interest, sometimes it was necessary. “Not a problem. You know Starbucks is my one true passion,” her friend said, stirring sweetener into her coffee. “But where’s your roommate? I thought he wasn’t working.” “Jack and his partner are getting their new real estate office set up. They found a really nice place in Midtown, in one of those high-rise buildings. It’s very posh and should attract some well-heeled clientele. At least I hope so. Jack’s been working really hard.” “I may be able to throw some clients their way. I’ll see what I can do and give Jack a call.” Samantha’s face brightened. “That’d be great! I’m sure Jack would appreciate it very much.” Patty arched a perfectly formed brow. “Maybe he’ll reciprocate by taking me out for a drink. Your roommate is pretty hot. I can’t believe you two have never taken your relationship any further than friendship.” “Because we’re friends, nothing more.” And that’s all they ever would be. Samantha had given up her romantic notions long ago. Of course, that didn’t mean she wanted to encourage Patty where Jack was concerned. She wasn’t his type, not at all. “Well, if that’s the case and you don’t mind—” “Uh, I’m not sure, Patty. Jack’s seeing someone at the moment,” she lied, hoping to spare her friend any embarrassment. Jack would not want to date Patty; of that, Samantha was certain and rather relieved, to be perfectly honest. The idea of Patty and Jack sleeping together did not set well with her for reasons she dared not question. Samantha had thought more times than she cared to admit about what it would be like to be with Jack in a sexual way. And unfortunately, she had a very good imagination. “Too bad. He’s cute. What’s his partner look like?” “Tom Adler? I don’t know. I’ve never met him. But Jack says he’s nice.” Patty, who almost never ate sweets, took a bite out of Samantha’s blueberry muffin. “So tell me what’s wrong. You look like hell, and it’s only ten o’clock in the morning.” “I just got my period. I’m not pregnant, and I’m never going to be.” She fought back the tears threatening to spill, knowing her friend wouldn’t appreciate them. Patty was not what one would call sentimental about such things. “I’m sorry, Samantha. Truly. I know how disappointed you must be.” She sighed. “I never thought it would be this difficult to get pregnant. Seems ironic that I worried all through college about getting knocked up, and now I can’t conceive. I feel like such a failure of a woman. I mean, most women get pregnant at the drop of a hat.” “Stop it! I won’t let you talk about yourself that way. The timing just wasn’t right, that’s all. Maybe when you’ve had time to think this through, you’ll find it’s a blessing in disguise.” “I don’t want to be blessed. I want to be pregnant.” “Have you spoken to Jack about any of this?” Samantha shook her head. “No. Jack hates it when I’m negative. But I feel like such a loser. I can’t sell my book. I can’t get pregnant. Hell, I can’t even get a date.” “Because you’re not putting yourself out there, honey. Why don’t we go out tonight, just the two of us? It’ll be my treat. We’ll find us some men and have mindless sex. Whaddaya say?” “I appreciate the offer, Patty, but I just don’t feel up to it. Plus, I’ve got my period. There’ll be no sex for me.” Not that she was into casual sex anyway. She and Patty might be friends, but they were fundamentally different when it came to some things, like having sex just for the hell of it. Samantha might not be interested in marriage per se, but she wanted to have meaningful relationships. She wanted to care about someone and have him care about her. Her friend’s eyes widened. “You mean, you’ve never—?” Samantha screwed up her face in disgust. “No way. The very idea makes me want to puke.” In high school the guys used to refer to having period sex as “the red badge of courage.” She thought it was totally gross then, and still did. “God, you’re such an infant. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.” “I haven’t tried suicide, but I know I won’t like that, either.” Patty laughed. “One thing I’ll say about you, Samantha, you keep me grounded. You’re the most normal person I know.” Samantha sighed, knowing she wasn’t normal at all. Normal women got pregnant. Normal women achieved their goals. Normal women wallowed in self-pity on occasion. Well, one out of three wasn’t bad. JACK RUSHED into the apartment two hours later, slamming the door behind him, and was relieved to find Samantha reclining on the sofa. He’d been worried as hell since receiving Patty Bradshaw’s phone call. Tears streaked her cheeks and her eyes were redrimmed from crying. Jack could be macho about a lot of things, but Samantha’s tears wasn’t one of them. He moved forward to comfort her. “Thank God you’re all right! I’ve been a mess since I got Patty’s phone call.” Samantha righted herself, eyes widening. “Patty called you? I’m sorry, Jack. I told her you didn’t want to date her, but—” “Patty wasn’t calling for a date, Samantha. She was worried, said you seemed very depressed because you’d gotten your period. I thought maybe…hell, I didn’t know what to think.” “As you can see, I’m fine. I just needed to unload this morning, and I chose Patty to bear the brunt of it. I figure you have a lot on your plate right now. And sometimes it’s easier to talk to a woman.” “I’m never too busy for you, you know that.” He seated himself next to her on the sofa, noting how wan she appeared. She squeezed his hand. “It was sweet of you to come rushing home. I’m sorry you were worried. Patty should never have called. I hope your business plans weren’t ruined because of me.” “No. In fact, we got two new clients thanks to Patty. I’ll have to send her flowers or something.” “That was quick. She just mentioned giving you the referrals this morning.” Jack smiled knowingly. “I have a feeling Patty Bradshaw doesn’t waste time procrastinating. Hell, she practically ordered me to call the referrals right then and there.” “Are you going to date her?” “Hell no! Whatever gave you that idea? Life’s too short to deal with a ball-buster like your attorney friend.” Jack’s stomach rumbled just then. “I’m starving. I missed lunch today. When are we eating? Soon, I hope.” Rising to her feet, Samantha made her way to the kitchen, Jack following close on her heels. “In just a few minutes,” she informed him, lifting the lid on the pot and inhaling deeply. “I made chicken soup. Doesn’t it smell great?” “Soup?” His face fell. “You’re kidding. It’s got to be eighty degrees outside. Why are we eating soup?” Indian summer had attacked New York with the vengeance of marauding Apaches on the warpath. Heat and humidity smothered the city like an unwelcome blanket. “Because it’s comforting and I needed to be comforted. I didn’t think you’d want puree of chocolate, which was the other choice.” He reached for her hand. “Listen, Samantha, I know I haven’t been very supportive of your decision to get pregnant, but since you’re so bent on having a baby, why don’t you consider adopting one? It seems the perfect solution to your infertility problem.” She stiffened and pulled back. “I’m not infertile! I’m just too poor to get any more treatments. And no, I’m not borrowing any money from you, so don’t offer again.” “Christ! I was just trying to help. There’s no need to bite my head off.” Samantha’s sigh was desolate. “I know. It’s just…Although adoption seems like a good idea, it doesn’t allow me to experience childbirth. I want to push my own baby out of my body and see something I created. Being a man, it’s probably difficult for you to understand how important that is to a woman.” “But with adoption, you’d have the same result—you’d have the baby you’ve always wanted.” “Even though I’m working and earning a living, I don’t think I’ll be considered a very good candidate for adoption. I’m not married, which will go against me. And I doubt I’d pass the scrutiny they put potential parents through. I’ve heard they’re very picky.” “It was just a thought. Maybe you can look into it, see what’s involved.” “I guess I could. I don’t have the kind of money or connections Rosie O’Donnell does, but if love counts for anything, my child will never go wanting.” Seeing how unhappy she was, Jack changed the subject. “Are we still going to the farm this weekend?” he asked, and Samantha finally smiled. “Yes, and I’m really looking forward to seeing my family. You and I could both use a little R & R. In fact, why don’t we leave on Friday, if you can get away early?” He was pleased to see her anticipating something fun for a change. “Now that I’m the boss I can do whatever I damn well please. I’ll rent the car for Friday, and we’ll leave first thing that morning.” “I’ll let Mom know. I’m sure she’ll want to create some high-calorie meals for her favorite house-guest.” Jack rubbed his stomach. “Man, I love your mom’s cooking. She hardly ever makes chicken soup.” Samantha stuck out her tongue at him, and he laughed, hoping the trip to Rhinebeck would be just what she needed to make her forget about babies, publishers and anything else that made her unhappy. CHAPTER FIVE THE TWO-HOUR DRIVE to Rhinebeck seemed longer than usual to Samantha, owing to the traffic heading north out of the city—caused by fall foliage fans, she assumed—and her eagerness to see her family again. So when the weathered gray-and-white clapboard farmhouse finally came into view, she could barely contain her excitement. “Look, Jack, it’s still standing! I always hold my breath until I see it again.” The two-story house had been in the Brady family for generations. Samantha’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Brady, had built it with his own two hands, though it wasn’t nearly as grand back then as it was now. Her mother, Lilly, had insisted on adding a big gourmet kitchen and dining room large enough to accommodate a table where the extended family, including nieces, nephews and cousins could sit together. Two massive oak trees graced the front yard, providing shade and entertainment for the younger children, who loved to climb them. Surrounding the house beyond the lawns and garden were acres of apple orchards, lovingly tended by her dad and older brother. Ross helped them out on occasion, but his heart wasn’t in the land, not like Lucas’s. Fred Brady was fond of saying that your heart had to be engaged when tending apples because they needed as much loving attention as a woman. And if you loved your orchard as much as you did your wife, it would reward you with thousands of healthy offspring every year. Samantha’s dad tended to wax poetic when it came to his apples. “There’s Mom.” She pointed toward the wraparound porch where Lilly Brady was standing. “She must have heard the car.” There wasn’t much that got by her mother, which had made growing up in the Brady household tough. “Remember the time my mom caught us smoking behind the barn? As I recall, you got spanked much harder than I did.” Jack made a face at the memory. “And it was your dumb idea that we smoke those stupid cigarettes in the first place. But since I was a bit older, and a boy, I guess your mother figured I deserved the worst of the beating.” Samantha grinned. “Well, at least it taught you never to smoke again.” “I hope your parents don’t mind that I’m staying here. I’ve been worrying about it.” Her brows drew together in confusion. “But why, for heaven’s sake? You don’t need an engraved invitation to visit my family. My mother thinks the sun rises and sets on you. She also knows how things are with your parents and doesn’t mind at all that you stay here.” Despite her reassurance Jack didn’t look convinced. “Maybe I should get a motel,” he offered, but only halfheartedly. “Are you serious? What’s brought this on all of a sudden?” Jack had stayed with her family many times over the years and had never voiced any concern. “I don’t know. I guess I feel kinda funny coming here and acting like I’m one of the kids. I’m a grown man now, Samantha. Your parents shouldn’t be putting me up anymore.” “Mom dotes on you, you know that. She’d be disappointed if you didn’t stay, Dad too. And we have plenty of room, so your argument doesn’t hold much water.” “Yeah, but I get the feeling that’s because your parents think we’ll end up together some day.” Knowing the truth of his words, Samantha flushed, but did her best to ignore it. “My mother’s an incorrigible matchmaker, you know that. She’s wanted you for a son-in-law since we were children making mud pies. I’m sure she’s disappointed that she has no other daughters to offer you.” Jack grinned. “Thank God for that! I’m not sure my heart could take another Brady female.” “Oh?” “You’ve already shortened my lifespan by at least twenty years.” At his words, Samantha tried hard not to feel insulted, though she did feel a twinge of disappointment. She had a lot to offer a man. Just not Jack, apparently. Well, that was his loss, though it sure felt like hers, for some reason. She didn’t have time to dwell on it, because as soon as he set the car’s parking brake her mother came flying off the porch, arms waving and apron flying in the warm September breeze. “About time you two got here! I expected you an hour ago.” “Your daughter has a small bladder,” Jack informed the older woman, who smiled knowingly, brushing tendrils of faded blond hair out of her face. “It’s the curse of the Brady women,” she acknowledged. “Fred hates taking car trips with me.” “We hit traffic, if you want to know the real reason we’re late,” Samantha said, casting her companion an annoyed look. “Too many leaf peepers, not enough road.” She exited the car and threw her arms about her mom’s ample waist. “I’ve missed you, Mom. You look great!” “I’ve gotten as fat as one of Lucas’s pigs, and you know it.” She turned to Jack. “But I still want a hug from you, Jack Turner. Now get yourself over here and give me one.” Happy to comply, Jack kissed Samantha’s mother on both cheeks and a warm feeling rushed through him. “You’re not fat, Lilly. And you smell just like I remembered—apples, cinnamon and nutmeg.” They were comforting smells to a child who grew up with the odor of alcohol permeating his house and mind. She laughed. “Because I’ve been baking apple pies for you. Look at you both—skinny as rails. Come on in. I’ve got lunch on the table. Your father and brother will be here shortly. They’re spraying the back orchard today. This warm weather has brought the bugs out in full force. Your dad’s going nuts.” “And Ross?” Jack asked, unable to hide the eagerness he felt at the prospect of seeing his childhood friend. “Gone to Ellen’s house to fetch her. He should be back soon. Ross is anxious to see you, too, dear.” “Are Ross and Ellen still going strong, Mom? I’m surprised to hear they’re still together,” Samantha admitted as they made their way into the house. “They don’t seem very well suited to me.” “We’re all surprised by that. But I’m happy for Ross. Ellen’s a good woman, and she really does love your brother. Don’t know if the feeling’s mutual, though. Ross never says much about her.” Since Lilly was a woman who always cut to the heart of the matter, Samantha decided to do the same. “Are they having sex?” Her mother pulled up short, and Samantha nearly fell over her and would have if Jack hadn’t been there to steady her. “Samantha Brady! Good Lord! What kind of a question is that? How should I know? I don’t ask personal questions. But now that you mention it, they never seem very touchy-feely around each other. Of course, Ellen is rather reserved.” Reserved? Ellen Drury made the queen of England look like a harlot. Samantha’s gaze locked with Jack’s. “See, I told you! There’s no spark between them. Ellen is Ross’s security blanket. He’s used to her, likes her, but marriage?” She shook her head. “That’s a whole different ball of wax. I just don’t see it happening.” “There’s too much emphasis on sex these days, if you ask me,” Lilly said. “There’s something to be said for a circumspect woman. Too much flash, not enough substance is what some women are about. Men are fools to be taken in by that.” “You’re absolutely right, Lilly,” Jack said, as Samantha rolled her eyes and made gagging sounds. “Puleeze. You date the flashiest, dumbest women on the planet. Most of them have no real parts—they’re all plastic.” He opened his mouth to object, but Lilly’s laughter silenced him. “It’s so good to have you two home again. I’ve missed your squabbling.” “Then you should come visit more often, Lilly,” he said. “Yeah, there’s no lack of squabbling at our place, is there, Jack?” Samantha grinned. The older woman shook her head. “I can’t abide the city. Men relieving themselves against buildings, taxi drivers cursing at everyone—” She shuddered. “Too many people and none of them nice.” “That’s not true, Mom. You shouldn’t make such broad generalizations. Things are different now than they used to be. I’ve found New Yorkers to be quite friendly and helpful.” Lilly looked skeptical. “Well, that’s good to hear, but I still think you two should come back here to live, so we can all be together again. I miss you.” Flashing Samantha a deer-in-the-headlights look, Jack said in a panic-tinged voice, “Ah, am I in the same bedroom as last time, Lilly? I think I’ll carry up the bags and get settled in. I’ll take yours, too, Samantha.” “Yes, the same one. Go ahead and unpack, but don’t be long. We’ll be eating in about fifteen minutes,” Lilly advised. Samantha waited until Jack reached the top of the stairs and disappeared, then she pulled her mother into the kitchen, closing the swinging door behind them. “Mom, you shouldn’t be talking to Jack about moving back here. You know how things are with his parents. This place is nothing but one big bad memory for him.” Samantha wasn’t even sure if Jack was planning to visit the Turners this visit; she rather doubted it. Sighing, Lilly shook her head. “He needs to make peace with them, Samantha. They’re his parents, despite everything they’ve done. I know his mother misses him. I see Charlotte at church every Sunday, and she always asks if I’ve heard from you or Jack.” “I’ve spoken to Jack about it, but he has to do things in his own time. And even if he does reconcile with his family, he won’t be moving back home. He’s just opened up his own real estate firm in the city.” Her mom’s blue eyes, a shade deeper than Samantha’s, lit with curiosity and excitement. “Tell me everything! I knew he was unhappy at work, but to quit, just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “I admit I’m surprised.” “It’s for Jack to tell. And don’t let on that you know, because I’m sure he wants to surprise you and Dad with the news.” “I just love that boy. When are you two going to get married and give me some grandchildren? I’m not getting any younger, you know. And I certainly can’t count on Ross or Lucas. I worry that those two are never going to settle down.” “Ha, ha, ha. That’s very funny. You know we’re just good friends.” “Well, why ever not? You’ve known each other your whole life, are best friends and like each other. Seems to me that’s an excellent beginning for a lifelong relationship. I know married couples who aren’t as lucky.” “Jack and I would never suit as a married couple—surely you realize that. We argue over the most trivial things, have different views on everything, from politics to movies, and—” And Samantha wanted a child, whereas Jack would rather have a dog. “It just wouldn’t work. Plus, I’m not attracted to Jack.” Liar! Okay, so she was attracted. A woman would have to be dead not to be. But she had no intention of acting upon those momentary twinges of horniness. Besides, it was quite clear that the attraction was only one-sided, and she couldn’t take rejection, not from Jack. “Are you crazy? The man is gorgeous. I’m old and even I know that. What makes you think you’ll find someone better than Jack?” I don’t. And therein lies the problem. “I’m going to quit coming home if you persist in hounding me about marrying Jack. It’s never going to happen.” Lilly smiled knowingly. “Never say never. And I doubt you’ll quit coming home. You love it when your father and I spoil you.” It was terrible being such an open book. And it was true: she loved being spoiled. As the youngest child and only girl, her doting parents had coddled her outrageously, especially her father, who called her his perfect princess and acted as if she could do no wrong. So far she hadn’t disappointed him, but Samantha worried about the day she would. After all, she wasn’t perfect. She made mistakes. What would happen when she finally fell off the pedestal her dad had placed her on? The thought was too awful to contemplate. “How many apple pies did you make? I intend to take at least two home with me.” “Don’t worry. There’s enough to feed even your bottomless pit. Mercy! I don’t know how you stay so skinny. I just look at food and gain weight. It’s not fair.” “Whoever said life was fair?” Samantha replied, thinking about not being able to get pregnant, not being able to sell her book, not being able to… Don’t go there, Samantha. “Sometimes life really sucks.” “Well, then, it’s good that I made a lot of pies, isn’t it?” Wrapping her arms about her mom’s waist, Samantha hugged her. “Yes, it is. And I’ll need about a ton of ice cream to go along with them.” DINNER THAT NIGHT was a loud, boisterous affair. Ross had brought Ellen, who sat quietly listening to the exchanges going on around her. Lucas was there, as was Samantha’s father, who at that very moment was grilling Jack about his new venture. “Do you really think it was wise to leave the security of your job and start over from scratch, Jack? The economy being what it is, it could be risky.” Fred Brady was in no way, shape or form a risk taker. He kept his money in low interest-bearing savings accounts and refused to invest any of it in the stock market or real estate, believing it was too speculative. He always crossed the street at the crosswalk, and he never missed attending church on Sunday, for fear of pissing off God and receiving retribution. Farmers were notoriously superstitious, but Samantha thought her dad’s overly cautious ways were a direct result of his own father’s financial reverses when he was growing up. But Samantha’s father always said exactly what he thought, and she was a lot like him in that regard. “Jack’s new real estate firm is going to be a huge success,” she said confidently. “He’s worked very hard to make sure that he has all of his bases covered.” Jack smiled gratefully. “I don’t intend to fail, Fred. I’ve done my homework, I’m good at what I do and I’ve got a partner to share some of the financial burden, which will make things a lot easier.” “Quit being so negative, Fred,” Lilly admonished. “It’s the worst part of your personality.” “Hey, maybe I should go to New York and help you out,” Ross offered. “I’m sure I’d be good at sales.” Noting Ellen’s shocked expression, Samantha felt sorry for the young woman. Her brother’s comment did not sound like a man who was madly in love or ready to settle down. “How are things at the elementary school, Ellen?” she asked. “Has nasty old Mr. Ferguson retired yet?” Ellen smiled through her obvious distress. “We all thought he would at the end of last semester, but Mr. Ferguson is still going strong. I doubt he’ll ever die. He’s much too ornery.” “Yeah, well only the good die young,” Samantha said. Roger Ferguson was the principal of Dutchess Elementary. Samantha and Jack had spent many an afternoon warming the seats in his office, listening to lectures on proper classroom and playground etiquette. Not that those lectures had done a bit of good to curb their atrocious behavior. Jack laughed. “You’ll probably find old Fergie dead under his desk one of these days.” “Oh, I hope not,” she said, genuinely concerned by the possibility. “That would upset me terribly.” “What doesn’t?” Ross interjected with a frown. “I think Jack was only teasing,” Samantha told the young woman, whose face suddenly flamed in embarrassment. She then flashed Ross a warning look, wishing she could kick her insensitive brother’s ass up one side and down the other. Ellen might be a bit too sweet and syrupy for her own good, but she had a generous spirit and a loving heart, and didn’t deserve to be ridiculed for it, especially in front of family. “What have you been doing with your free time, Ross?” Jack asked. “Taken any trips lately?” “Yes, Ross, tell us what you’ve been doing to occupy yourself all day long,” Samantha added, but not out of curiosity. She knew her brother did very little to keep himself busy. Ross spent most of his time wallowing in the unfair hand he’d been dealt by the football gods. Once an NFL pro, he’d fractured his right leg in several places during a championship game. He’d been released from his contract when it became apparent that his leg would never heal enough to allow him the speed necessary for a running back. “Ross is helping coach the high school football team,” Ellen informed everyone proudly. “I think the Ravens are going to have a winning season this year thanks to him.” “Why that’s wonderful, Ross! Why didn’t you tell me and your father about this?” Lilly’s proud gaze fell on her son, who looked uncomfortable, not to mention extremely annoyed with his girlfriend. “I’ve helped out with a few practices. That doesn’t make me a coach,” he insisted. “With your football background you’d be very good at it, son,” Fred said. “Perhaps you should think more about it. It’d be a good way to occupy your time. You know what they say about idle hands and all.” “Yeah, Ross, you’d be great. And you’d be able to put your football skills to use.” Jack reached for his iced tea and sipped the cold liquid. “Ross would rather sit on his butt and collect his disability checks than work for a living. Right, bro?” “That’s not fair, Lucas,” Ellen said, coming immediately to Ross’s defense. “Ross was injured. It’s not his fault that—” Ross shoved his chair back and stood, cutting off whatever else the well-meaning woman was about to say. “I don’t need a champion, Ellen—I can speak for myself. What I need right now is some fresh air. I’m going outside.” He stormed out of the house, banging the screen door behind him. All eyes turned to Ellen, whose face filled with apology. “You’ll have to forgive Ross’s rude behavior. I think he’s upset about something, but I don’t know what it is.” And if she did know, loyal Ellen wasn’t saying. Fred’s face reddened in anger. “Ross was downright rude to you, Ellen. You shouldn’t have to put up with that. I raised him better than to be disrespectful to women.” Samantha’s father didn’t get mad often, but when his children disappointed him, he could go from zero to ballistic in three-point-two seconds. “He’s not himself, Fred,” Lilly said, playing the role of peacemaker and overlooking her son’s obvious flaws as she so often did. “Horseshit! That boy needs a good swift kick in the behind. Quit coddling him, Lilly. He’s not a boy anymore.” “Maybe I should go talk to him,” Jack suggested, and Samantha’s mother breathed a sigh of relief. “Would you, Jack? Ross has always listened to you.” Samantha shook her head, doubting Jack would have much luck with the pigheaded man. JACK FOUND ROSS down by the pond, seated on a bench he’d built years ago in high school wood shop. “For chrissake, Ross! What the hell’s the matter with you? In all the years I’ve known you I’ve never seen you behave like such an asshole. I feel sorry for Ellen. You seemed to really enjoy running her down. What gives?” Ross tossed pebbles into the water, one at a time, making concentric circles on the surface. After a moment, he looked up. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Since I lost my football contract, I’m at loose ends. I’m dying here, Jack.” “But that was over two years ago, man. Surely you’ve adjusted by now? Life goes on. You need to get over this pity party of yours and get back into it.” Ross shrugged his wide shoulders. “It’s not easy going from the limelight to spreading lime on a field. I’m not cut out for this kind of life. I’m bored…with everything.” “So move. Do something different. No one’s making you stay here.” “That’s just it. I don’t know what I want to do. Ellen wants me to take the coaching job that’s been offered and settle down to the quiet life here, raise a bunch of babies and watch the grass grow. But I’m not sure I can do that.” “Do you love Ellen?” The question hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before Ross replied, “To be honest, I’m not sure. Ellen’s a great girl, and I like her a lot. But I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is love or just comfort at being with her.” Samantha’s words rang in Jack’s ears: Ellen is Ross’s security blanket. “You’ve been dating this woman off and on for two years. Talk about stringing someone along. If you’re not serious about her—” “I don’t know if I’m serious. If you haven’t noticed, Ellen’s not the most exciting woman in the world. She’s so structured and naive. I’m just not sure I could stand that for all eternity. Hell, I’m already bored. What would another twenty or thirty years bring?” “Have you spoken to her about it?” “That would be like kicking a puppy. I don’t want to hurt her.” Jack rubbed the back of his neck. “You and Samantha are a lot alike. You never make things easy on yourselves.” “Is Samantha still trying to sell her book?” Jack decided to not tell Ross about his sister’s plans to get pregnant. No sense borrowing trouble when there wasn’t any…yet. “Yes, she’s very determined to be published.” “At least Samantha knows what she wants. I wish I were that lucky.” “Maybe you should explore your options. Try coaching for a while, do a few other things and see if you like any of them. You’re not going to get any answers sitting on your ass being rude to those who love you and are only trying to help.” The tall man sighed. “I guess I owe everyone an apology for the way I behaved at dinner.” “You sure as hell do.” Ross appeared genuinely contrite. “I hate that.” Jack laughed. “Yeah, men never like saying they’re sorry. We think it’s too wimp-ass.” “Lucas shouldn’t have baited me.” “Lucas has been baiting you since the day you were born. That’s what brothers do. But he loves you and I’m sure he’s concerned. You don’t hide your feelings very well.” “He’s a good guy, even if he is my brother.” “Look,” Jack began, “if things don’t work out for you here or you need a place to work things out, come to New York for a visit. There’s always something happening there.” “Thanks. I’ll think about it. I guess I’ve got a lot to think about.” Jack sighed. “Don’t we all?” CHAPTER SIX BY THE TIME Jack turned off the interstate on their way back to the city the following Sunday, rain was coming down in torrents, making visibility poor and road surfaces slick. Samantha worried that their return trip was an accident waiting to happen and judging by Jack’s exaggerated breathing, he did, too. “Maybe we should turn around and go back to my parents’ house,” she suggested. “It’s not safe driving in this weather. I can hardly see a foot in front of the car. And if I’m having trouble, then others are, too.” She swiped at the condensation forming on the windshield with the palm of her hand, and then turned up the defroster to clear it. “It’s too late to turn back. We’re more than halfway and the weather isn’t going to be any better in the other direction. I think it’s best if we keep going.” Unease skittered down Samantha’s spine. “I hate thunderstorms. They creep me out.” She’d no sooner said that when lightning cracked loudly overhead and a boom of thunder bellowed, making her jump in her seat and causing the seat belt to nearly choke her. “Don’t think the guy upstairs liked your thunderstorm comment.” “Yeah, I’m getting that impression. I just wish this stupid rain would stop. I don’t want to die in some horrible car crash. If I have to go, I want it to be in my sleep.” Jack smiled at her dramatics. “The storm’s caused from the unusually warm weather we’ve been having. All that humidity builds up. Sort of like an orgasm.” He grinned when Samantha’s cheeks flushed red. “Ha! We’re going to die and you’re making jokes.” Now was not the time to think about orgasms, especially when Jack was sitting next to her in a humid car. Her nerves were too frayed to concentrate on orgasms and dying at the same time. Samantha rocked back and forth to the constant swishing of the windshield wipers, too nervous to think about anything except the horrible storm. Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she forced herself to stop and focus on something besides the weather and Jack’s provocative comment. “Did you enjoy visiting your family?” he asked, and she was grateful for the opportunity to get her mind off org—uh, the storm for a moment. “I had a great time.” She nodded, but didn’t take her eyes off the road for an instant. “Yes, but I’m always homesick after I leave them. Guess I should visit more often.” “You have a great family. You’re very lucky. But I guess you already know that.” “You should have visited your folks while you had the chance. Mom said your mother’s been asking about you.” “I might have, if my dad hadn’t been there. I really don’t want to see him. I’m afraid we’ll get into it, and there’s really no point in rehashing all that old crap. I’m done with that.” Samantha silently debated whether or not to tell him what she knew about his father; she didn’t want to distract him from his driving. Finally deciding she should, she said, “Mom said your dad’s been going to AA for the past six months. Maybe a visit from you would have been therapeutic for him. It wouldn’t hurt to support his efforts.” Jack seemed surprised by the news. “I spoke to my mother just the other day. She didn’t mention anything about him going. I wonder why? She usually confides in me about stuff like that.” “Because your dad told her not to. He’s afraid he’ll fail again and you’ll be even more disappointed in him than you are already. Your opinion means a lot to him.” Jack’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. “How do you know all this?” “My mother told me. She wanted to tell you, too, but I told her it would be better if it came from me. I wasn’t sure how you’d react to the news, and I didn’t want you to take offense and think my mom was interfering in your business.” “I would never think that about Lilly, you know that. And this treatment program is nothing new. Dad’s been to AA many times before.” “I know. But your mother seems to think that this time is different. Charlotte told Mom your dad is really making an effort. Apparently he hasn’t touched a drop of liquor in six months.” Jack released a sigh. “My mother always thinks that, which is why she’s still with him. And she always ends up disappointed. I’ve spent my whole life waiting for Martin Turner to change. He never does. I’m not putting myself through that again. It’s just not worth it.” Hearing the hurt in Jack’s voice, Samantha decided to change the subject. Besides, driving in this miserable weather was bad enough; he didn’t need any more stress to deal with, at the moment. “Did you find out what’s bothering Ross? He seemed in better spirits after talking with you.” “Ross is confused about what he wants out of life. I think he feels totally lost and useless without football.” “Football was a sport he played. It didn’t define who he was or is. My brother needs to figure that out. And what about Ellen? Did he mention her?” Jack paused a moment, as if weighing whether or not to say anything. Finally, he replied, “He’s not sure about her. Ross has feelings for Ellen, but he doesn’t know what they are.” “Ellen’s a nice woman. But as I said, I’m not—” Suddenly the car began making clunking sounds. “Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.” “It sure as hell doesn’t.” “Why’s the car making that awful noise?” “Beats me,” Jack replied with a lift of his shoulders. “This is a rental, remember? But it doesn’t bode well for continuing our trip.” The clunking grew louder, then steam began rising from the hood. Samantha’s eyes widened, her voice filling with alarm. “Is the car on fire? It looks like it’s on fire. Do you think we should get out? I don’t want to burn alive, Jack. Cremation has never been my thing.” “I don’t think so. My guess is the water pump might be going. We’ll get off the road at the next exit.” “But it’s Sunday afternoon. There won’t be any mechanics open.” “Which means we’re going to have to find a motel and have the car fixed in the morning, if we can find someone who works on cars. From the looks of our surroundings, the residents here might still be driving horse-drawn buggies.” Ever so slowly, they clunked and clanged their way to the next exit and found a seedy motel that sat back amidst a thick cluster of pine trees. At the sight of it, Samantha made a face of disgust. “This place is right out of Psycho. I don’t want to stay here. It gives me the creeps.” “We don’t have much choice. It’s the Bates Motel—well, Pine Hollow Lodge—or the car. I’m opting for a bed, no matter what the room looks like. At least we’ll be inside where it’s dry.” Heaving a deep sigh, she said, “Okay. But if the proprietor looks anything like Norman Bates, I’m not taking a shower.” SAMANTHA WAITED in the car while Jack braved the elements to rent them a room for the night. When he returned a few minutes later, he was frowning, and she figured the news wasn’t good. “They’ve only got one room left. Apparently the storm has stranded a bunch of tourists heading north, and they’re full.” Just then, the pink neon Vacancy sign added a big red NO. “Oh well. At least we’ve got a room. After sitting in this car, contemplating the size of the backseat, I’ve decided to be grateful for that.” “That’s my girl. I’ll grab the bags. Here’s the key. It’s number eight. Go ahead and unlock the door, I’ll be right in.” SAMANTHA WANTED TO CRY when she stepped into the motel room, which smelled like stale cigarette smoke. Hell had better furnishings! The green shag carpeting covering the floor was threadbare and didn’t look too clean. A brown, stained and torn chenille bedspread did nothing to disguise the lumpy mattress on the one double bed. She stared at the bed for several moments, unable to keep her heart from racing. She and Jack had never slept in the same bed together. Don’t be stupid! You’re perfectly safe with Jack. Yeah, but is Jack perfectly safe from me? Why on earth was she suddenly fixating on Jack? Samantha had never done that before. Well, not for a long time, anyway. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/millie-criswell/no-strings-attached/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.