Men were the bane of Susie O'Brien's life. She was
surrounded by them, all of them stubborn in the extreme,
beginning with her father, Jeff. Add in her uncles Mick and
Thomas, her brothers and, the very worst of all, Mack
Franklin, and it was a wonder she could get through a day
Today, in fact, already seemed likely to test the limits of
her patience in never-before-imagined ways. Before she'd
even had the first sip of her coffee, her uncle Mick came
charging into the Chesapeake Shores real estate management
company that she ran with her father.
"Where's Jeff, thatâ€”" At her frown, he cut
off the disparaging epithet he'd apparently been intent
on using. "Your father, where is he?"
"Dad had an appointment with a client," she said,
then chose her next words about her father's whereabouts
carefully. She knew that this particular piece of property
was a hot-button issue for Mick. "He's showing her a
house on Mill Road. It's the third time she's gone
through the place. He's almost certain she's going
to sign a contract today."
Mick frowned, obviously clicking through his own mental data
bank of properties on Mill Road. Then astonishment dawned.
"The Brighton house? He's finally going to unload
that old eyesore? How'd he get the listing? Last I
heard, no one in that family would even speak to an
Susie hid a smile. It still stuck in her uncle's craw
that old Mr. Brighton had refused to sell him a key piece of
shoreline property when he'd been developing Chesapeake
Shores. Apparently the refusal had something to do with a
Brighton-O'Brien family feud several generations back
that neither coaxing nor big bucks had been able to resolve.
For all Susie knew, some great-great-uncle's rooster had
chased a Brighton, who'd lopped off its head and cooked
it for Sunday dinner. In her family that was all it would
take to start a feud that could last for eons.
"Seems that way," she confirmed. "Apparently Mr.
Brighton's heirs don't have the same aversion to
dealing with an O'Brien that he did."
"Stubborn old coot," Mick muttered.
"Why did you want to see Dad?" Susie asked. "Is
there a problem?"
For years now the only things that brought the two brothers
together were problems and the entreaties of their mother.
Nell O'Brien insisted that even the sparring brothers
and their families had to spend holidays under the same
roof. Susie couldn't recall a tension-free holiday meal
in her entire lifetime. The antacid business probably
thrived thanks to the O'Brien dynamics.
Mick and her dad could be civil for an hour or two, which
was more than she could say for Mick and her uncle Thomas,
at least until recently. Lately they'd apparently struck
some kind of accord, which was akin to achieving peace in
the Middle East. Like those treaties, Susie suspected this
one didn't have a lot of hope of lasting, though now
that Thomas was with Connie Collins she seemed to have a
soothing effect on him. She also seemed determined to
maintain the detente.
"There's water leaking in Shanna's bookstore
again," Mick told Susie, referring to his
daughter-in-law's business on Main Street. "And,
frankly, the plumbing in Megan's gallery should be
checked, too. The last thing she needs is a flood ruining
all that expensive art."
Susie gave him an innocent look. "Isn't the art
hanging on the walls?"
Her uncle scowled. "What's your point?"
"Only that it would take quite a flood to ruin the
paintings." She beamed at him. "Besides, since you
gave Megan that space for a dollar a year, didn't you
agree to take care of all the upkeep? I can look at the
lease, if you like. We kept a copy hereâ€”at your
insistence, as I recall."
Mick gave her a sour look. "If your daddy stayed on top
of details the way you do, he'd be a better
"He doesn't need to," Susie retorted. "He
has me. I will get the plumber over to Shanna's today,
though. The last thing we need is another insurance claim.
And I can send him by Megan's as well, as long as the
bill comes to you."
Though he looked disgruntled, Mick nodded. "That'll
do." He studied her. "You'll be at the house for
He eyed her speculatively. "You bringing Mack?"
Susie stilled. "Why would I? I've never brought him
"I've seen you around town with Mack Franklin for at
least three years now," Mick replied. "Maybe longer.
Isn't it time the two of you either got serious or
called it quits? What kind of man drags his heels this long,
and what sort of woman lets him? You deserve better than
that, Susie. You're an O'Brien, after all, even if
you're not one of mine. Nobody would have gotten away
with treating one of my girls that way."
"Mack and I aren't dating," Susie said stiffly.
"We're friends. Besides, how he treats me is none of
Mick just shook his head. "Damned waste, if you ask me.
Reel the man in or move on, that's my advice."
"Not that I asked for it," Susie said. She'd
heard some version of the same advice for a couple of years
now from just about everyone in her family, and a few
outsiders to boot. It was getting tiresome, mostly because
it was sound advice she didn't particularly want to heed.
Unfortunately, as crazy as she'd been about Mack for
most of her life, she was also a realist. Handsome, sexy
ex-jocks who dated sexy, sophisticated, powerful women
weren't going to be seriously interested in a woman who
was ordinary on her very best day and downright pitiful when
the sun freckled her pale skin and her bright red hair
refused to be tamed. Despite a college degree and a few
family trips to Ireland, Susie was basically a smalltown
girl, not Mack's type at all.
Though Shanna, who was married now to Susie's cousin
Kevin, had suggested that Mack was as infatuated as she was,
Susie didn't entirely believe her. She'd also
discovered it was next to impossible to break a non-dating
pattern once it had been established. With Mack and her, it
was practically carved in stone. Other than one kiss under
the mistletoe that had gotten decidedly out of hand, their
relationship was strictly platonic. That kiss, however, had
given her enough hope to give things between them more time
to heat up.
"Maybe I'll ask Mack to dinner myself," Mick
said, studying Susie intently as if to gauge her reaction.
"How about that?"
She shrugged. "Up to you." Being around Mack
wasn't the problem. They were together all the time.
Turning it into anything romantic, that was the
problem. Tying him to her bed and having her wicked way with
him seemed extreme, though she was getting desperate enough
to consider it.
Beyond that, she didn't have one single idea about how
she could change things without risking total humiliation.
She wondered what her uncle would have to say if she asked
him straight out how to get Mack to make love to her. Her
lips curved just thinking about Mick's reaction to such
Mick regarded her suspiciously. "What are you smiling
"I was just wondering how far you'd be willing to
take your meddling," she said, studying him curiously.
"You pride yourself on getting all five of my cousins
happily married. What do you think you could do to get Mack
and me to the altar?"
At the immediate glint in his eye, she reconsidered her
question. "Not that I'm asking you to
intervene," she said hurriedly. "I'm just
Mick pulled up a chair and sat down, his expression suddenly
serious. "Okay, let's think about this. I imagine
I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve that might
The daring side of Susie's nature failed her at the
eagerness in his voice. The status quo might well be better
than the disaster her uncle might unleash. "Never mind,
Uncle Mick. I think I'd better deal with Mack myself."
"You sure about that?" he asked, looking
disappointed. "Like you said yourself a minute ago, I
have a track record."
Susie knew for a fact that most of her cousins had found
true love despite their father's interference, not
because of it. "I'm sure," she said.
He shrugged. "Up to you, but I'm around if you
change your mind. It's obvious your father's no
help, but you can count on me."
Susie fought to hide her smile. Once again, her uncle's
competitive spirit had reared its head. She might not know a
lot about what the future held with Mack, but she knew with
absolute certainty that the very last thing they needed was
having her father and Mick in the middle of their
relationship, vying for control of their future. Somehow
she'd just have to figure out a way to get Mack to stop
seeing her as a pal and realize that she was a desirable woman.
As Mick left the office, Susie glanced ruefully at her
reflection in the window. First, though, she had to learn to
see herself that way.
Mack walked into the managing editor's office at his
Baltimore newspaper a week before Thanksgiving, took one
look at Don Richmond's face and sat down hard.
"You're firing me," he said before his boss
could. He should have known that being summoned into the
office this morning couldn't mean anything good.
"I hate this," Don said, which wasn't an
outright confirmation, but it certainly wasn't a denial.
He met Mack's gaze with an earnest expression that
begged him to understand. "I don't have a choice, Mack.
You know how it is. We're making cutbacks in every
department. The newspaper business has been going downhill
for quite a while now, and we're not immune."
Don scowled at the computer on his desk. "It's
because of this," he grumbled. "Darn things are
taking over. I know the world is changing, but I didn't
think I'd live to see the day when newspapers would be
all but obsolete."
Mack had been anticipating the possibility of being fired
for a while now. His sports column was widely read and
sometimes controversial. The publisher didn't always
like dealing with the fallout after Mack had called some
local athlete or team management on a boneheaded move. He
said it was ruining his digestion when he had to face those
same people at some benefit or other and defend Mack's
Worse, of course, was that Mack was the highest-paid writer
in the sports department. By firing him, they could hang on
to a couple of low-paid interns and turn them into
reporters. As the theory went these days, what they lacked
in experience they'd make up for in energy.
"I'm sorry," Don said, looking miserable.
"You'll get a decent severance package that should
give you some time to look around for something else. Not
that someone as good as you are will need them, but I'll
give you glowing references and every contact I have in the
"But the bottom line is that I'm going to run into
the same cutbacks anywhere I go," Mack said realistically.
He'd tried to plan for this. The handwriting had been on
the wall for months, but getting the news was still a blow.
And none of his ideas for the future so far had excited him.
Still, as Don said, he'd have some time. It wasn't
as if he was going to be destitute. He was, however, going
to be unemployed. Even though it was through no fault of his
own, it left him feeling like a failure. He wondered if this
was the way his own father had felt when he'd been
jobless. Was that why he'd taken off before Mack was
"How soon?" he asked Don. "Will they keep me on
through football season?"
"Nope. End of the week. The publisher thinks keeping
people around once they're fired is bad for morale."
Or maybe he was just afraid that if the body count became
obvious, the remaining employees would cut and run.
That's what a few had done immediately after the last
round of cutbacks.
Mack wasn't sure he had the stomach for finishing out
the week, much less football season, anyway. "How about
I write a couple of columns from home this week?" he
suggested. "Wrap things up from there?"
Don looked torn. "You want to just slip away? People are
gonna be real unhappy about that. You should at least stick
around long enough for the kind of blowout party you deserve
down at Callahan's."
"No, thanks," Mack said, shuddering at the thought.
Being fired sucked, no matter the reason. He didn't want
to wallow in the humiliation in front of his colleagues. He
didn't much want to commiserate with them, either.
"Okay, then, whatever works for you," Don agreed
with obvious reluctance.
Unfortunately, what worked for Mack was keeping a job he
loved in a business that was disappearing practically overnight.
At home that night, as the news really sank in, along with
all of the financial implications for the short term, Mack
stared morosely at the black velvet box sitting on his
He'd finally decided to take a huge leap of faith and
ask Susie O'Brien to marry him, even though she'd
always said she'd rather eat dirt than even go out on a
date with a promiscuous player like him. He'd figured
several years of dating without acknowledging it ought to
just about equal officially courting her for a few months.
Maybe she'd overlook the fact that they'd shared
only one memorable, bone-melting kiss in all that time. He
doubted she'd forgotten it. He certainly hadn't. The
heat and sweetness of it were burned into his memory.
He'd never anticipated falling in love, much less with a
vulnerable bundle of contradictions like Susie, but it had
happened. It had caught him completely off guard.
Now, however, with his financial prospects in doubt,
proposing was out of the question. He couldn't even
think about marrying anyone until he figured out what he was
going to do with the rest of his life. And right this
second, with a couple of glasses of scotch dulling the pain
of his firing, he didn't even want to cross paths with
Susie, who'd been telling him for weeks now that he was
in a dying profession. Not that he'd ever contradicted
herâ€” how could he?â€”but he wasn't quite ready
for an I-told-you-so.
When his phone rang repeatedly that night, he ignored it.
When his cell phone rang off and on the next day, he ignored
that, too. Messages were accumulating on both lines, but he
wasn't interested. Normally an upbeat, positive guy, he
was in an unparalleled funk. He figured he was entitled to
wallow there for a few days at least.
Unfortunately, his friends Will Lincoln and Jake Collins had
other ideas. After one day of not joining them for their
regular lunch at Sally's, they were banging on his door.
Since each of them had a key for emergencies, Mack
wasn't surprised when they barged right in two seconds