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“I don’t suppose you had anything to do with the sale of my novel, either,” he said sarcastically.

Samuel Simpson shook his head. “For heaven’s sake, man, I didn’t even know you were writing one.”

“Your novel sold?” Maryanne shrieked. “Oh, Nolan, I knew it would. The little bit I read was fabulous. Your idea was wonderful. I could hardly force myself to put it down and not read any more.” She had to restrain the impulse to throw her arms around his neck and rejoice with him.

“For more money than I ever thought I’d see in my life,” he added, his voice hard with challenge. Although he was speaking to Samuel, his eyes rested on Maryanne—eyes that revealed a need and a joy he couldn’t disguise.

“Oh, Nolan, I’m so happy for you.”

He nodded absently and turned to her father again. “Do you honestly expect me to believe you had nothing to do with that?” he asked, more mildly this time.

“Yes,” Samuel answered impatiently. “What possible reason would I have for furthering your career, young man?”

“Because of Maryanne, of course.”

“What?” Maryanne couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was ridiculous. It made no sense.

“Your father’s attempting to buy you a husband,” Nolan growled. Then he turned to Samuel. “Frankly, that upsets me, because Maryanne doesn’t need any help from you.”

Her father’s eyes were stern, and he seemed about to demand that Nolan leave his home.

Maryanne stepped directly in front of Nolan, her hands on her hips. “Trust me, Nolan, if my father was going to buy me a husband, it wouldn’t be you! Dad had nothing to do with your success. Even if he did, what would it matter? You’ve already made it clear you don’t want anything to do with me.”

His only response was silence.

“I may have spoken a bit…hastily about not loving you,” Nolan said a moment later, his voice hoarse.

Samuel cleared his throat, murmuring something about giving the two of them time to talk and promptly left the room.

Maryanne stood gazing up at Nolan, her heart shining through her eyes. Nolan did love her; she’d known that for a long time. Only he didn’t love her enough to discard the burden of his self-doubts. The boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The self-educated, self-made newsman who feared he’d never fit in with the very people who were awed by his talent.

“You were right,” he grumbled, the way he always grumbled, as if he felt annoyed with her.

“About what?”

His smile was almost bitter. “About everything. I love you. Heaven knows I tried not to.”

Maryanne closed her eyes, savoring the words she’d never expected to hear. Her heart was pounding so furiously that her head spun. Only…only he didn’t say he loved her as though it pleased him.

“Is that such a terrible thing?” she asked. “To love me?”

“No…yes.”

He seemed trapped by indecision, dragged down by their differences, yet buoyed by the need to see her again, hear the sound of her voice, gaze at her freckle-dotted nose and run his fingers through her hair. Nolan didn’t have to say the words for Maryanne to realize what he was thinking.

“When everything started happening in my life, I thought—I assumed—your father was somehow involved.”

“Did you really?” she asked skeptically. The excuse was all too convenient.

Nolan lowered his gaze. “No, I guess I didn’t believe he really had anything to do with the sale of my book. But having my columns picked up nationally came as a surprise. For a while I tried to convince myself your family had to be behind that, but I knew it wasn’t true. What really happened is exactly what you said would happen. You haunted me, Annie. Every time I turned around I could’ve sworn you were there. I’ve never missed anyone in my life the way I’ve missed you.”

She smiled shakily. “That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Nolan’s look was sheepish. “I tried to tell myself your father was out to buy you a husband. Namely me. Think about it, Annie. He got you that job with the Review, and for all I knew he could’ve made it his primary purpose in life to give you everything you want.”

“I thought I’d proved otherwise,” she said. “My parents went out of their way to make sure none of us was spoiled. I was hoping I’d convinced you of that.”

“You did.” He slid his hands into the wide pockets of his raincoat. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that if your father’s willing to have me in the family, I’d be more than happy to take you off his hands.”

“Take me off his hands. How very kind of you,” Maryanne snapped, crossing her arms in annoyance. She was looking for romance, declarations of love and words that came straight from his heart. Instead he was handing out insults.

“Don’t get all bent out of shape,” he said and the smile that stole across his lips was so devastating Maryanne’s breath caught. “The way I figure it,” he continued, “you need someone…”

Maryanne turned to walk away from him. Not any great distance, of course, just far enough for him to know he wasn’t getting anywhere with this argument.

“All right,” he amended, catching her by the hand and urging her around to face him again. “I need someone.”

“Someone?”

“You!” he concluded with a wide grin.

“You’re improving. Go on.”

“Nothing seemed right after you left. There was this giant hole inside me I couldn’t seem to fill. Work didn’t satisfy me any more. Nothing did. Gloria and Eddie asked about you and I didn’t know what to say. I was grateful Mom’s Place was closed, because I couldn’t have eaten there.”

A part of her longed for all the romantic words a woman wanted to hear from the man she loved. But it wasn’t too likely she’d get them from Nolan. He wasn’t telling her he’d heard her name whispered in the wind or seen it written in his heart. Nolan would never say things like that.

“You want me to move back to Seattle so I’ll quit haunting you,” she finally said.

“No. I want you to come back because I love you.”

“And need me?”

He nodded. “I still think you could do a hell of a lot better than marrying an ornery guy like me. I promise to be a good husband—that is, if you’re willing to put up with me…” He let the rest fade. His eyes grew humble as he slowly, uncertainly, pulled her into his arms. “Would you…be willing?”

She smiled, and hot tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. She nodded jerkily. “Yes. Oh, you idiot. I could slap you for putting us through all of this.”

“Wouldn’t a kiss do just as well?”

“I suppose, only…”

But the thought was left unspoken. His kiss was long and thorough and said all the tender words, the fanciful phrases she’d never hear.

It was enough.

More than enough to last her a lifetime.

Epilogue

It was Christmas morning in the Adams household.

The wrapping paper had accumulated in a small mountain on the living-room carpet. The Christmas tree lights twinkled and “Silent Night” played in the background.

Maryanne sat on the sofa next to Nolan with her feet up, her head on her husband’s shoulder. The girls were busy sorting through their stash of new toys and playing their favorite game—“being grown-ups.” Bailey was pretending to be a young college graduate determined to make a name for herself in the newspaper business. Courtney played a jaded reporter from a rival newspaper, determined to thwart her. It was Maryanne and Nolan’s romance all over again. The girls had loved hearing every detail of their courtship.

“They don’t seem too disappointed about not getting a puppy,” he said.

“I’m so proud of them,” Maryanne smiled. Both Courtney and Bailey were thrilled about the new baby, and although it had been hard, they’d accepted that there wouldn’t be a puppy in the family, after all. Not for a few years, anyway.

“They’re adorable,” Nolan agreed and kissed the top of her head. “Just like their mother.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“When did you say your parents would—” Nolan didn’t get a chance to finish the question before the doorbell rang. “Is that them?” Samuel and Muriel Simpson had come from New York to spend Christmas week with the family.

Maryanne nodded. Sitting up, she called to her oldest daughter, “Courtney, could you please answer the door?”

Both girls raced to the front door, throwing it open. They were silent for just a second, then squealed with delight. “Grandma! Grandpa Simpson!”

“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.”

Maryanne’s parents stepped into the house, carrying a large wicker basket. Inside slept a small black-and-white puppy.

“A puppy?” Courtney said in a hushed voice. She stared at her grandparents, who grinned and nodded.

“We think every family needs a dog,” Maryanne’s father said.

“Oh, he’s so cute,” Bailey whispered, covering her mouth with both hands.

“He’s perfect,” Courtney said, lifting the squirming puppy from his bed. “Is he ours? Can we keep him?”

“Oh, yes, this is a special-delivery Christmas gift for my two beautiful granddaughters.”

Maryanne came over to take the puppy from Courtney. She cuddled the small, warm body and looked into sleepy brown eyes.” I guess you’ve come a long way, haven’t you?” she murmured. The puppy gazed up at her, unblinking, and Maryanne fell in love. Just like that, all her concerns disappeared. At least this baby would be house-trained well before their son was born. And the girls could help look after him. She looked up to meet Nolan’s eyes, and he nodded. So, despite everything, there’s be two new additions to the family this next year.

Nolan ushered her parents inside and took their coats. “Sit down and make yourselves comfortable. Maryanne and I have a Christmas surprise, too.”

“As good as a new puppy?” her father asked.

“Oh, yes,” Courtney told him after a whispered consultation with her sister. She stroked the puppy, still cradled in her mother’s arms. “I don’t know what we’re naming that surprise, but we’re calling this one Jack.”

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