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Carol and Barbara exchanged a look. Slowly each shook her head, and then all three shared a warm smile.

“I think we might be too late,” Barbara said theatrically, speaking from the side of her mouth.

“She’s showing all the signs,” Carol agreed solemnly.

“You’re right, I fear,” Barbara responded in kind. “She’s already in love with him.”

“Good grief, no,” Carol wailed, pressing her hands to her mouth. “Say it isn’t so. She’s too young and vulnerable.”

“It’s a pity, such a pity.”

“I can’t help but agree. Maryanne is much too sweet for Nolan Adams. I just hope he appreciates her.”

“He won’t,” Carol muttered, reverting to her normal voice, “but then no man ever fully appreciates a woman.”

“It’s such a pity men act the way they do.” Barbara said in a sad voice.

“Some men,” Maryanne added.

Carol and Barbara dabbed their eyes and solemnly tossed the used tissues into the growing heap in the middle of their circle.

The plan had been to gather all the used tissues and ceremonially dump them in the toilet, flush their “pity pot”, and then celebrate all the good things in their lives.

The idea for this little party had been an impromptu one of Maryanne’s on a lonely Friday night. She’d been feeling blue and friendless and decided to look for a little innocent fun. She’d phoned Carol and learned she was a weekend widow; her husband had gone fishing with some cronies. Barbara had thought the idea was a good one herself, since she’d just broken her longest fingernail and was in the mood for a shoulder to cry on.

A pity party seemed just the thing to help three lonely women make it through a bleak Friday night.

Maryanne awoke Saturday morning with a humdinger of a headache. Wine and the ice cream they’d had at the end of the evening definitely didn’t mix.

If her head hadn’t been throbbing so painfully, she might have recognized sooner that her apartment had no heat. Her cantankerous radiator was acting up again. It did that some mornings, but she’d always managed to coax it back to life with a few well-placed whacks. The past few days had been unusually cold for early November—well below freezing at night.

She reached for her robe and slippers, bundling herself up like a December baby out in her first snowstorm. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she blew until a frosty mist formed.

A quickly produced cup of coffee with two extra-strength aspirin took the edge off her headache. Maryanne shivered while she slipped into jeans, sweatshirt and a thick winter coat. She suspected she resembled someone preparing to join an Arctic expedition.

She fiddled with the radiator, twisting the knobs and slamming her hand against the side, but the only results were a couple of rattles and a hollow clanking.

Not knowing what else to try, she got out her heavy cast-iron skillet and banged it against the top of the rad in hopes of reviving the ageing pipes.

The noise was deafening, vibrating through the room like a jet aircraft crashing through the sound barrier. If that wasn’t enough, Maryanne’s entire body began to quiver, starting at her arm and spreading outward in a rippling effect that caused her arms and legs to tremble.

“What the hell’s going on over there?” Nolan shouted from the other side of the wall. He didn’t wait for her to answer and a couple of seconds later came barreling through her front door, wild-eyed and dishevelled.

“What…Where?” He was carrying a baseball bat, and stalked to the middle of her apartment, scanning the interior for what Maryanne could only assume were invaders.

“I don’t have any heat,” she announced, tucking the thin scarf more tightly around her ears.

Nolan blinked. She’d apparently woken him from a sound sleep. He was barefoot and dressed in pyjama bottoms, and although he wore a shirt, it was unbuttoned, revealing a broad muscular chest dusted with curly black hair.

“What’s with you? Are you going to a costume party?”

“Believe me, this is no party. I’m simply trying to keep warm.”

His gaze lowered to the heavy skillet in her hand. “Do you plan to cook on that radiator?”

“I might if I could get it to work. In case you hadn’t noticed, there isn’t any heat in this place.”

Nolan set the baseball bat aside and moved to the far wall to look at the radiator. “What’s wrong with it?”

How like a man to ask stupid questions! If Maryanne had known what was wrong with it, she wouldn’t be standing there shivering, with a scarf swaddling her face like an old-time remedy for toothache.

“How in heaven’s name am I supposed to know?” she answered testily.

“What went on here last night, anyway? A wake?”

She glanced at the mound of tissues and shrugged. He was scanning the area as if it were a crime scene and he should take caution not to stumble over a dead body.

Walking across the living room, he picked up the two empty wine bottles and held them aloft for her inspection, pretending to be shocked.

“Very funny.” She put the skillet down and removed the bottles from his hands, to be deposited promptly in the garbage.

“So you had a party and I wasn’t invited.” He made it sound as though he’d missed the social event of the year.

Maryanne sighed loudly. “If you must know, Carol, Barbara and I had a pity party.”

“A what? You’re kidding, right?” He didn’t bother to hide his mocking grin.

“Never mind.” She should’ve realized he’d only poke fun at her. “Can you figure out how to get this thing working before the next ice age?”

“Here, give me a shot at it.” He gently patted the top of the radiator as he knelt in front of it. “Okay, ol’ Betsy, we’re trusting you to be good.” He began fiddling with knobs, still murmuring ridiculous endearments—like a cowboy talking to his horse.

“It doesn’t do any good to talk to an inanimate object,” she advised primly, standing behind him.

“You want to do this?”

“No,” she muttered. Having Nolan in her home, dressed in his night clothes, did something odd to her, sent her pulse skittering erratically. She deliberately allowed her attention to wander to the scene outside her window. The still-green lawns of Volunteer Park showed in the distance and she pretended to be absorbed in their beauty.

“I thought I told you to keep that door chain in place,” he said casually as he worked. “This isn’t The Seattle.”

“Do you honestly think you need to remind me of that now?” She rubbed her hands together, hoping to generate some warmth before her fingers went numb.

“There,” he said, sounding satisfied. “All she needed was a little loving care.”

“Thanks,” Maryanne said with relief.

“No problem, only the next time something like this happens don’t try to fix it yourself.”

“Translated, that means I shouldn’t try to fix the radiator again while you’re trying to sleep.”

“Right.”

She smiled up at him, her eyes alive with appreciation. He really had been good to her from the day she’d moved in—before then, too. Discounting what he’d written about her in his column, of course. And even that had ended up having a positive effect.

It’d been a week since she’d seen him. A long week. A lonely week. Until now, she’d hardly been able to admit, even to herself, how much she’d missed him. Standing there as he was, Maryanne was struck by just how attractive she found him. If only he’d taken the time to button his shirt! She reveled in his lean strength and his aura of unquestionable authority—and that chest of his was driving her to distraction.

She wasn’t the only one enthralled. Nolan was staring at her, too. The silence lingered between them, lengthening moment by moment as they gazed into each other’s eyes.

“I have to go,” he finally said, breaking eye contact by glancing past her, out the window.

“Right. I—I understand,” she stammered, stepping back. Her hands swung at her sides as she followed him to the door. “I really do appreciate this.” Already she could feel the warmth spilling into her apartment. And none too soon, either.

“Just remember to keep the door locked.”

She grinned and mockingly saluted him. “Aye, aye, sir.”

He left then. Maryanne hated to see him go, hated to see him walk away from her, and yet it seemed he was always doing exactly that.

Later that same afternoon, after she’d finished her errands, Maryanne was strolling through the park when a soft feminine voice spoke from behind her.

Maryanne turned around and waved when she discovered Gloria, the teenager she’d met here earlier. But this time Gloria wasn’t alone.

“This is my little sister, Katie, the pest,” Gloria explained. “She’s three.”

“Hello, Katie,” Maryanne said, smiling.

“Why am I a pest?” Katie asked, gazing at Gloria, but apparently not offended that her older sister referred to her that way.

“Because.” Looking annoyed, the teenager shrugged in the same vague manner Maryanne had so often seen in her younger brothers. “Katie’s three and every other word is ‘why’. Why this? Why that? It’s enough to drive a person straight to the loony bin.”

“I have brothers, so I know what you mean.”

“You do?”

“They’re several years younger than I am. So trust me, I understand what you’re talking about.”

“Did your brothers want to go every place you did? And did your mother make you take them even if it was a terrible inconvenience?”

Maryanne tried to disguise a smile. “Sometimes.”

“Eddie asked me to come and watch him play basketball this afternoon with Mr. Adams, and I had to drag Katie along because she wanted to come to the park, too. My mom pressured me into bringing her. I didn’t even get a chance to say no.” Gloria made it sound as if she were being forced to swim across Puget Sound with the three-year-old clinging to her back.

“I’m not a pest,” Katie insisted now, flipping her braid over one shoulder in a show of defiance. Looking up at Maryanne, the little girl carefully manipulated her fingers and proudly exclaimed, “I’m three.”

“Three?” Maryanne repeated, raising her eyebrows, feigning surprise. “Really? I would’ve thought you were four or five.”

Katie grinned delightedly. “I’m nearly four, you know.”

“Mr. Adams is already here,” Gloria said, brightening. She frowned as she glanced down at her little sister and jerked the small arm in an effort to hurry her along. “Come on, Katie, we have to go. Eddie wants me to watch him play ball.”

“Why?”

Gloria groaned. “See what I mean?”

“You go on,” Maryanne said, offering Katie her hand. The youngster obediently slipped her small hand into Maryanne’s much larger one, willingly abandoning her cranky older sister. “Katie and I will follow behind.”

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