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Once inside her apartment, she was immediately struck by the contrast between this apartment at The Seattle and the place Nolan had shown her. One was grey, cramped and dingy, the other polished and spacious and elegant. Her mind’s eye went over the dreary apartment on Capitol Hill, and she felt a growing sense of excitement as she thought of different inexpensive ways to bring it color and character. She’d certainly faced challenges before, but never one quite like this. Instinctively she knew there’d be real satisfaction in decorating that place with her newly limited resources.

Turning her new apartment into a home was the least of her worries, however. She had yet to tell her parents that she’d quit her job. Their reaction would be as predictable as Nolan’s.

The phone seemed to draw her. Slowly she walked across the room toward it, sighing deeply. Her fingers closed tightly around the receiver. Before she could change her mind, she closed her eyes, punched out the number and waited.

Her mother answered almost immediately.

“I was sitting at my desk,” Muriel Simpson explained. She seemed delighted to hear from Maryanne. “How’s Seattle? Are you still as fascinated with the Northwest?”

“More than ever,” Maryanne answered without a pause; what she didn’t say was that part of her fascination was now because of Nolan.

“I’m pleased you like it so well, but I don’t mind telling you, sweetie, I miss you terribly.”

“I haven’t lived at home for years,” Maryanne reminded her mother.

“I know, but you were so much closer to home in Manhattan than you are now. I can’t join you for lunch the way I did last year.”

“Seattle’s lovely. I hope you’ll visit me soon.” But not too soon, she prayed.

“Sometime this spring, I promise,” Muriel said. “I was afraid once you settled there all that rain would get you down.”

“Mother, honestly, New York City has more annual rainfall than Seattle.”

“I know, dear, but in New York the rain all comes in a few days. In Seattle it drizzles for weeks on end, or so I’ve heard.”

“It’s not so bad.” Maryanne had been far too busy to pay much attention to the weather. Gathering her courage, she forged ahead. “The reason I called is that I’ve got a bit of exciting news for you.”

“You’re madly in love and want to get married.”

Muriel Simpson was looking forward to grandchildren and had been ever since Maryanne’s graduation from college. Both her brothers, Mark and Sean, were several years younger, so Maryanne knew the expectations were all focused on her. For the past couple of years they’d been introducing her to suitable young men.

“It’s nothing that dramatic,” Maryanne said, then, losing her courage, she crossed her fingers behind her back and blurted out, “I’ve got a special assignment…for the—uh—paper.” The lie nearly stuck in her throat.

“A special assignment?”

All right, she was stretching the truth about as far as it would go, and she hated doing it. But she had no choice. Nolan’s reaction would look tame compared to her parents’ if they ever found out she was working as a janitor. Rent-A-Maid gave it a fancy name, but basically she’d been hired to clean. It wasn’t a glamorous job, nor was it profitable, but it was honest work and she needed something to tide her over until she made a name for herself in her chosen field.

“What kind of special assignment?”

“It’s a research project. I can’t really talk about it yet.” Maryanne decided it was best to let her family assume the “assignment” was with the newspaper. She wasn’t happy about this; in fact, she felt downright depressed to be misleading her mother this way, but she dared not hint at what she’d actually be doing. The only comfort she derived was from the prospect of showing them her published work in a few months.

“It’s not anything dangerous, is it?”

“Oh, heavens, no,” Maryanne said, forcing a light laugh. “But I’m going to be involved in it for several weeks, so I won’t be mailing you any of my columns, at least not for a while. I didn’t want you to wonder when you didn’t hear from me.”

“Will you be travelling?”

“A little.” Only a few city blocks, as a matter of fact, but she couldn’t very well say so. “Once everything’s completed, I’ll get in touch with you.”

“You won’t even be able to phone?” Her mother’s voice carried a hint of concern.

Not often, at least not on her budget, Maryanne realized regretfully.

“Of course I’ll phone,” she hurried to assure her mother. She didn’t often partake in subterfuge, and being new to the game, she was making everything up as she went along. She hoped her mother would be trusting enough to take her at her word.

“Speaking of your columns, dear, tell me what happened with that dreadful reporter who was harassing you earlier in the month.”

“Dreadful reporter?” Maryanne repeated uncertainly. “Oh,” she said with a flash of insight. “You mean Nolan Adams.”

“That’s his name?” Her mother’s voice rose indignantly. “I hope he’s stopped using that column of his to irritate you.”

“It was all in good fun, Mother.” All right, he had irritated her, but Maryanne was willing to forget their earlier pettiness. “We’re friends now. As it happens, I like him quite a lot.”

“Friends,” her mother echoed softly. Slowly. “Your newfound friend isn’t married, is he? You know your father and I started our own relationship at odds with each other, don’t you?”

“Mother, honestly. Stop matchmaking.”

“Just answer me one thing. Is he married or not?”

“Not. He’s in his early thirties and he’s handsome.” A noticeable pause followed the description. “Mother?”

“You’re attracted to him, aren’t you?”

Maryanne wasn’t sure she should admit it, but on the other hand she’d already given herself away. “Yes,” she said stiffly, “I am…a little. There’s a lot to like about him, even though we don’t always agree. He’s very talented. I’ve never read a column of his that didn’t make me smile—and think. He’s got this—er—interesting sense of humor.”

“So it seems. Has he asked you out?”

“Not yet.” But he will, her heart told her.

“Give him time.” Muriel Simpson’s voice had lowered a notch or two. “Now, sweetie, before we hang up, I want you to tell me some more about this special assignment of yours.”

They talked for a few minutes longer, and Maryanne was astonished at her own ability to lie by omission—and avoid answering her mother’s questions. She hated this subterfuge, and she hated the guilt she felt afterward. She tried to reason it away by reminding herself that her motives were good. If her parents knew what she was planning, they’d be sick with worry. But she couldn’t remain their little girl forever. She had something to prove, and for the first time she was going to compete like a real contender—without her father standing on the sidelines, bribing the judges.

Maryanne didn’t hear from Nolan for the next three days, and she was getting anxious. At the end of the week, she’d be finished at the Review; the following Monday she’d be starting at Rent-A-Maid. To her delight, Carol Riverside was appointed as her replacement. The look the managing editor tossed Maryanne’s way suggested he’d given Carol the job not because of her recommendation, but despite it.

“I’m still not convinced you’re doing the right thing,” Carol told her over lunch on Maryanne’s last day at the paper.

“But I’m convinced, and that’s what’s important,” Maryanne returned. “Why is everyone so afraid I’m going to fall flat on my face?”

“It’s not that, exactly.”

“Then what is it?” she pressed. “I don’t think Nolan stopped grumbling from the moment I announced I was quitting the paper, finding a job and moving out on my own.”

“And well he should grumble!” Carol declared righteously. “He’s the one who started this whole thing. You’re such a nice girl. I can’t see you getting mixed up with the likes of him.”

Maryanne had a sneaking suspicion her friend wasn’t saying this out of loyalty to the newspaper. “Mixed up with the likes of him? Is there something I don’t know about Seattle’s favorite journalist?”

“Nolan Adams may be the most popular newspaper writer in town, but he’s got a biting edge to him. Oh, he’s witty and talented, I’ll give him that, but he has this scornful attitude that makes me want to shake him till he rattles.”

“I know he’s a bit cynical.”

“He’s a good deal more than cynical. The problem is, he’s so darn entertaining that his attitude is easy to overlook. I’d like two minutes alone with that man just so I could set him straight. He had no business saying what he did about you in that ‘My Evening with the Debutante’ piece. Look where it’s led!”

For that matter, Maryanne wouldn’t mind spending two minutes alone with Nolan, either, but for an entirely different reason. The speed with which the thought entered her mind surprised her enough to produce a soft smile.

“Only this time his words came back to bite him,” Carol continued.

“Everything he wrote was true,” Maryanne felt obliged to remind her friend. She hadn’t been all that thrilled when he’d decided to share those truths with the entire western half of Washington state, but she couldn’t fault his perceptions.

“Needless to say, I’m not as concerned about Nolan as I am about you,” Carol said, gazing down at her sandwich. “I’ve seen that little spark in your eye when you talk about him, and frankly it worries me.”

Maryanne immediately lowered her betraying eyes. “I’m sure you’re mistaken. Nolan and I are friends, but that’s the extent of it.” She wasn’t sure Nolan would even want to claim her as a friend; she rather suspected he thought of her as a nuisance.

“Perhaps it’s friendship on his part, but it’s a lot more on yours. I’m afraid you’re going to fall in love with that scoundrel.”

“That’s crazy,” Maryanne countered swiftly. “I’ve only just met him.” Carol’s gaze narrowed on her like a diamond drill bit and Maryanne sighed. “He intrigues me,” she admitted, “but that’s a long way from becoming emotionally involved with him.”

“I can’t help worrying about you. And, Maryanne, if you’re falling in love with Nolan, that worries me more than the idea of you being a Rent-a-Maid or finding yourself an apartment on Capitol Hill.”

Maryanne swallowed tightly. “Nolan’s a talented, respected journalist. If I was going to fall in love with him, which I don’t plan to do in the near future, but if I did fall for him, why would it be so tragic?”