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“Better for whom?”

“Me!” he cried vehemently. “And for you,” he added with less fervor, as though it was an afterthought. He coughed a couple of times and reached for a package of cough drops in the pocket of his plaid robe. Shaking one out, he popped it in his mouth with barely a pause.

“I don’t think it’s doing you any good to get so excited,” Maryanne said with unruffled patience. “I was merely making an observation and it still stands. I believe you need a wife.”

“Go observe someone else’s life,” he suggested, sucking madly on the cough drop.

“Aha!” she cried, waving her index finger at him. “How does it feel to have someone interfering in your life?”

Nolan frowned and Maryanne turned back to the stove. She lifted the lid from the soup to stir it briskly. Then she lowered the burner. When she was through, she saw with a glimmer of fun that Nolan was standing as far away from her as humanly possible, while still remaining in the same room.

“That’s something else!” he cried. “You give the impression that you’re in total agreement with whatever I’m saying and then you go about doing exactly as you damn well please. I’ve never met a more frustrating woman in my entire life.”

“That’s not true,” Maryanne argued. “I quit my job at Rent-A-Maid because you insisted.” It had worked out for the best, since she had more time for her writing now, but this wasn’t the moment to mention that.

“Oh, right, bring that up. It’s the only thing you’ve ever done that I wanted. I practically had to get down on my knees and beg you to leave that crazy job before you injured yourself.”

“You didn’t!”

“Trust me, it was a humbling experience and not one I intend to repeat. I’ve known you how long? A month?” He paused to gaze at the ceiling. “It seems like an eternity.”

“You’re trying to make me feel guilty. It isn’t going to work.”

“Why should you feel anything of the sort? Just because living next door to you is enough to drive a man to drink.”

“You’re the one who found me this place. If you don’t like living next door to me, then I’m not the one to blame!”

“Don’t remind me,” he muttered.

The comment about Nolan finding himself a wife had been made in jest, but he’d certainly taken it seriously. In fact, he seemed to have strong feelings about the entire issue. Realizing her welcome had worn extremely thin, Maryanne headed for his apartment door. “Everything’s under control here.”

“Does that mean you’re leaving?”

She hated the enthusiastic lift in his voice, as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of her. Although he wasn’t admitting it, she’d done him a good turn. Fair exchange, she supposed; Nolan had been generous enough to her over the past month.

“Yes, I’m leaving.”

“Good.” He didn’t bother to disguise his delight.

“But I still think you’d do well to consider what I said.” Maryanne had the irresistible urge to heap coals on the fires of his indignation. “A wife could be a great help to you.”

Nolan frowned heavily, drawing his eyebrows into a deep V. “I think the modern woman would find your suggestion downright insulting.”

“What? That you marry?”

“Exactly. Haven’t you heard? A woman’s place isn’t in the home anymore. It’s out there in the world, forging a career for herself. Living a fuller life, and all that. It’s not doing the mundane tasks you’re talking about.”

“I wasn’t suggesting you marry for the convenience of gaining a live-in housekeeper.”

His brown eyes narrowed. “Then what were you saying?”

“That you’re a capable talented man,” she explained. She glanced surreptitiously at his manuscript, still tidily stacked by the typewriter. “But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t have someone close—a friend, a companion, a…wife—to share it with.”

“Don’t you worry about me, Little Miss Muffet. I’ve lived my own life from the time I was thirteen. You may think I need someone, but let me assure you, I don’t.”

“You’re probably right,” she said reluctantly. She opened his door, then hesitated. “You’ll call if you want anything?”

“No.”

She released a short sigh of frustration. “That’s what I thought. The soup should be done in about thirty minutes.”

He nodded, then, looking a bit chagrined, added, “I suppose I should thank you.”

“I suppose you should, too, but it isn’t necessary.”

“What about the money you spent on groceries? You can’t afford acts of charity, you know. Wait a minute and I’ll—”

“Forget it,” she snapped. “I can spend my money on whatever I damn well please. I’m my own person, remember? You can just owe me. Buy me dinner sometime.” She left before he could say anything else.

Maryanne’s own apartment felt bleak and lonely after Nolan’s. The first thing she did was walk around turning on all the lights. No sooner had she finished when there was a loud knock at her door. She opened it to find Nolan standing there in his disreputable moth-eaten robe, glaring.

“Yes?” she inquired sweetly.

“You read my manuscript, didn’t you?” he boomed in a voice that echoed like thunder off the apartment walls.

“I most certainly did not,” she denied vehemently. She straightened her back as if to suggest she found the very question insulting.

Without waiting for an invitation, Nolan stalked into her living room, then whirled around to face her. “Admit it!”

Making each word as clear and distinct as possible, Maryanne said, “I did not read your precious manuscript. How could I possibly have cleaned up, done the laundry, prepared a big kettle of homemade soup, and still had time to read Chapter Seventeen of manuscript?”

“How did you know it was Chapter Seventeen?” Sparks of reproach shot from his eyes.

“Ah—” she swallowed uncomfortably “—it was a guess, and from the looks of it, a good one.”

“It wasn’t any guess.”

He marched toward her and for every step he took, she retreated two. “All right,” she admitted guiltily, “I did look at it, but I swear I didn’t read more than a few lines. I was straightening up the living room and…it was there, so I turned over the last page and read a couple of paragraphs.”

“Aha! Finally, the truth!” Nolan pointed directly at her “You did read it!”

“Just a few lines,” she repeated in a tiny voice, feeling completely wretched.

“And?” His eyes softened.

“And what?”

“What did you think?” He looked at her expectantly, then frowned. “Never mind, I shouldn’t have asked.”

Rubbing her palms together, Maryanne took one step forward. “Nolan, it was wonderful. Witty and terribly suspenseful and…I would have given anything to read more. But I knew I didn’t dare because, well, because I was invading your privacy…which I didn’t want to do, but I did and I really didn’t want…that.”

“It is good, isn’t it?” he asked almost smugly, then his expression sobered as quickly as it had before.

She grinned, nodding enthusiastically. “Tell me about it.”

He seemed undecided, then launched excitedly into his idea. “It’s about a Seattle newspaperman, Leo, who stumbles on a murder case. Actually, I’m developing a series with him as the main character. This one’s not quite finished yet—as I’m sure you know.”

“Is there a woman in Leo’s life?”

“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

Maryanne wasn’t. The few paragraphs she’d read had mentioned a Maddie who was apparently in danger. Leo had been frantic to save her.

“You had no business going anywhere near that manuscript,” Nolan reminded her.

“I know, but the temptation was so strong. I shouldn’t have peeked, I realize that, but I couldn’t help myself. Nolan, I’m not lying when I say how good the writing was. Do you have a publisher in mind? Because if you don’t, I have several New York editor friends I could recommend and I know—”

“I’m not using you or any influence you may have in New York. I don’t want anything to do with your father’s publishing company. Understand?”

“Of course, but you’re overreacting.” He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. “My father wouldn’t stay in business long if he ordered the editors to purchase my friends’ manuscripts, would he? Believe me, it would all be on the up and up, and if you’ve got an idea for a series using Leo—”

“I said no.”

“But—”

“I mean it, Annie. This is my book and I’ll submit it myself without any help from you.”

“If that’s what you want,” she concurred meekly.

“That’s the way it’s going to be.” The stern un-yielding look slipped back into place. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ll quietly go back to my messy little world, sans wife and countless interruptions from a certain neighbor.”

“I’ll try not to bother you again,” Maryanne said sarcastically, since he was the one who’d invaded her home this time.

“It would be appreciated,” he said, apparently ignoring her tone.

“Your apartment is yours and mine is mine, and I’ll uphold your privacy with the utmost respect,” she continued, her voice still faintly mocking. She buried her hands in her pockets and her fingers closed around something cold and metallic.

“Good.” Nolan was nodding. “Privacy, that’s what we need.”

“Um, Nolan…” She paused. “This is somewhat embarrassing, but it seems I have…” She hesitated again, then resolutely squared her shoulders. “I suppose you’d appreciate it if I returned your keys, right?”

“My keys?” Nolan exploded.

“I just found them. They were in my pocket. You see, all you had in your refrigerator was one limp strand of celery and I couldn’t very well make soup out of that, so I had to go to the store and I didn’t want to leave your door unlocked and—”

“You have my keys?”

“Yes.”

He held out his palm, casting his eyes toward the ceiling. Feeling like a pickpocket caught in the act, Maryanne dropped the keys into his hand and stepped quickly back, almost afraid he was going to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Which, of course, was ludicrous.

Nolan left immediately and Maryanne followed him to the door, staring out into the hallway as he walked back to his own apartment.

The next Thursday, Maryanne was hurrying to get ready for work when the phone rang. She frowned and stared at it, wondering if she dared take the time to answer. It might be Nolan, but every instinct she possessed told her otherwise. They hadn’t spoken all week. Every afternoon, like clockwork, he’d arrived at Mom’s Diner. More often than not, he ordered chili. Maryanne waited on him most of the time, but she might have been a robot for all the attention he paid her. His complete lack of interest dented her pride; still, his attitude shouldn’t have come as any surprise.

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