Excerpt – One Last Objection

One Last Objection - Nancy StopperPrologue

Knock. Knock. Knock. Michael adjusted the collar of his polo and then slumped against the doorframe when Maggie didn’t answer right away. He really shouldn’t be here. There was a pile of work building on his desk by the minute. His boss had thrown him the stink-eye when Michael’d said he was actually taking the Labor Day holiday off. He’d busted his ass to get where he was, right on the brink of making partner. Five different cases demanded his attention right now, but the bombshell his sister Rachel had dropped had thrown him for a loop. So instead of heading back to the office, he found himself here.

He really didn’t have time to stay. But with all the crap running through his head, he’d make the time. Maggie was the only one who could make him forget everything, at least for a little while.

He knocked for the third time. One more minute and he’d leave. With the upcoming partnership evaluation period, he just didn’t know when he’d be back in town again.

He snatched his phone from his pocket to dash off a quick text to Maggie when the door opened behind him.

He turned.

Water dripped off of the deep red hair hanging over Maggie’s shoulders. She sopped up the moisture with the towel in her hand. When she raised her head, her smile grew even bigger.

“Get your ass in here and make love to me.” She fisted his polo and yanked him out of the hall and into her condo.

Michael had barely crossed the threshold before he fell hard into her, the silk of her robe soft against his arms. He cupped her ass, bare and smooth against his palms and the towel dropped to the floor. Holy shit. She wasn’t wearing any panties. Just like that, his cock was so hard he could pound nails. He pulled her tight against him, desperate to ease the ache in his crotch. He dug his fingers into her ass, and she held onto him like her life depended on it. When he speared his tongue into her mouth, she moaned, the sound digging deep into his gut.

Thank God she was here. She could take the edge off after the day he’d had.

She broke the kiss and stroked his chest. “Hello to you, too. I didn’t know you were in town.”

He trailed kisses down her cheek, to that spot right at the base of her neck that had her squirming every time. “Just a quick trip. Had to see you.”

She pushed him away and quirked her eyebrow.

That little trick may work on her patients, but he was immune to her interrogation techniques. Sort of. She had a way of getting him to talk about things he’d rather keep to himself. The skill made her a great counselor. But he wasn’t her patient—he was her lover.

“What’s wrong?”

“Who said anything is wrong?” He cupped her breast and kissed her again.

She pushed him away. “I know you, Michael Bennett, and I can tell when something’s wrong.”

“Don’t go analyzing me, Doc. I’m not your patient.” He licked her earlobe and then sucked it into his mouth.

She moaned.

That worked. He was not about to be psychoanalyzed. His life was perfectly fine, and he’d keep telling himself that as long as he had to.

She wasn’t deterred today. “You may not be my patient, but you are my friend, and if you need to talk, I want to be here for you.”

He sighed. Maggie deserved so much more than the hit and run relationship they had. Neither of them had the time or the interest in anything more, but they both enjoyed a few hours in bed whenever their schedules allowed. Even that had been a stretch recently with his schedule.

Maggie ran her finger between his brows. “Right there. It’s all scrunched up. You’ll get wrinkles if you keep scowling like that.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you saying you don’t find me sexy anymore?”

She slunk away, her hips swaying beneath the kimono that barely covered her ass. “Did I say that? I don’t think I said that.”

He toed off his shoes and ripped his polo over his head as he hustled behind her. When they reached her bedroom doorway, he grabbed her wrist and spun her into his arms.

She came willingly, her stiff-peaked nipples pressing against his chest and her core grinding into his cock. Damn. How long had it been? He counted the weeks in his head.

“Stop thinking so hard.”

He couldn’t help it. He’d never been able to turn his brain off. He couldn’t solve a problem if he didn’t analyze it from all directions and devise the best solution. A necessary skill for any successful lawyer.

Maggie was the only way he’d found to calm his mind, to really live in the moment. With her, every rational thought flew right out of his head. But it wasn’t just the sex. She challenged him, helped him look at a situation in a different way, made him admit to himself things he never would have otherwise.

But tonight, even the feel of her body against his wasn’t driving the anxiety out of his mind. It was no wonder, with the shocking revelation Rachel just dropped on him.

He nudged Maggie into the bedroom, never breaking the kiss, until they bumped against her king-sized bed. She fell backward, pulling him with her, until he was sprawled on top of her. She ran her hands up his chest, brushing his nipple, and he sucked in a breath. Her lips and tongue followed.

He moaned. Two could play at this game.

He backed away and slid the silky fabric up, exposing her sex. He nudged her thighs apart. Her musky smell and the fresh scent of her mango body wash mingled together, surrounding him. Damn, that was sexy. He breathed deeply, letting the aroma calm him before he lowered his head and licked.

Her fingers wrapped around his hair and held tight. “Oh, God.”

He chuckled. She was always ready. He tasted her again, driving a finger deep inside and stroking. She arched off the bed and her core thrust against his mouth. He licked and rubbed, turning his finger and finding that place deep inside that drove her wild.

Low, keening moans vibrated from deep in her throat. Her body shuddered and flexed as he swept his tongue over her again and then withdrew his fingers. With his eyes locked on hers, he brought his hand to his mouth and sucked her musky flavor off.

“Michael, please,” she begged. The sound had his cock twitching again.

The two of them were so good together. He had found her at just the right time in his life, and for her to live in Oak Grove, all the better. He snickered and lowered his head. Right as he plunged three fingers into her, he sucked her clit into his mouth. She screamed and yanked at his hair, her legs wrapping around his shoulders, holding him tight to her.

He didn’t mind. She could possess him anytime. She writhed beneath him while her sex clenched his fingers, throbbing as she moaned over and over.

He slowed his strokes and pulled back, circling her core one more time as the trembling slowed and she relaxed. Her legs fell to his sides and her body collapsed onto the bed as the final waves passed through her. Sated Maggie was almost sexier than aroused Maggie.

She huffed out a breath, her ragged gasps slowing. Damn, he loved watching her come. He slid onto the bed beside her, wrapped his arm around her waist, and tucked her head into the crook of his neck.

“I don’t know how, but that gets better every time.” A gentle smile crossed her lips. He sprinkled a kiss on each corner of her mouth and then fully on her mouth. She sighed as he continued peppering kisses along her nose, across her eyes, to her ear. She lay in his arms like a wet noodle.

Before long, a hand snaked along his back, tracing the muscles across his shoulder. Her other hand crossed her body and slid down his chest, across his belt, and stroked his cock through his shorts. He grew even bigger, throbbing as she pressed harder.

“Damn, that feels good.”

She ran her tongue along his lips and then spoke against his mouth. “What has you so stressed?”

He sighed and flopped back. She was trying to shrink him again. He must really be putting off a vibe for her to be asking all these questions. “Just family stuff.”

Her hand stilled and every muscle in her body stiffened.

He eyed her suspiciously. “What?”

She shook her head and climbed on top of him. “It’s nothing. Now where were we?”

Interesting. Maggie was his sister’s shrink. Did she know something about what Rachel had just revealed? Before he could consider that further, Maggie started to slide down his body. Nope, none of that. He wasn’t done playing yet. He flipped them over so her delicious curves lay beneath him. He slid his hands up her hips, hiking up her robe until he’d exposed her full breasts, nipples hard and begging to be kissed. “I think I was right here.”

Her skin tasted clean and fresh against his tongue. He sucked while he squeezed and kneaded her other breast. He let that nipple go with a pop and slithered to the other side. God, he could spend an hour just feasting on her breasts.

She shoved him away and he fell onto his back. “Oh, no, we weren’t there at all. I think we were…”

She grabbed his belt and in a minute, his shorts and boxer briefs were down at his ankles. His cock stretched up onto his belly. Maggie straddled his knees, the silk of her robe brushing against his thighs and her core so close to the satisfaction his cock begged for.

She grinned wolfishly at him as she cupped him. He dug his fingers into the sheets and gave himself over to her. He might be in charge in the courtroom—hell, he was the one in control in most of his life—but Maggie would have none of that. She loved sex as much as he did and could do some wicked things with those fingers and lips of hers. He’d happily share control if it meant having her hands on his body.

She stroked his cock, whispering her thumb over the tip and around the crown before squeezing and sliding her hand to the base. He couldn’t keep his eyes open. Up and down, again and again. Every muscle in his body tightened. He could barely breathe, his gasps coming in short huffs as she worked him. Before he could stop her, she drew him into her hot mouth, her tongue stroking the underside of his cock.

She sucked him deeper into her mouth, the delicious pressure building deep in his gut. Hell, he usually lasted longer than this. He shouldn’t wait this long between visits again. She released his cock with a pop and circled the tip with her tongue. She lowered her head to take him in again.

“Enough. Much more of that and I’m gonna blow.”

She chuckled, her mouth rumbling against him. “I love when you let loose.”

She leaned over, her breasts pillowing against his chest, and snatched a condom out of the nightstand. After ripping the wrapper with her teeth, she held the protection out to him. Just when he reached for it, she yanked her hand back and rolled the condom onto the tip of his erection.

She then slowly, oh God, excruciatingly slowly, slid her hands down, unrolling the condom and squeezing him along the way.

He pulsed against her hand.

That was it. Enough playing around. He ripped her robe up and over her head, exposing her naked body. With his hands on her hips, he lifted her up. “This is not going to be slow,” he said as he thrust up and into her.

She moaned.

It was always so good with Maggie. She seemed to know exactly what he needed right when he needed it. Fast or slow, easy or rough. Other times, it was him taking the lead and meeting her needs.

She pushed up onto her knees, sliding him almost completely out of her, and then she dropped onto him again. She rose again, her channel clenching tighter with each stroke. He pressed his hand onto her belly and nudged her back, driving himself deeper into her and giving him perfect access to her breasts. He sat up and laved her nipple, running his tongue over the peaked nub while his fingers teased her. Around and around, circling as she rode him.

His groin tightened. He wasn’t going to last much longer. But no matter how much control he gave her, no way would he come before her. He lowered his hand and at the same moment he sucked hard on her nipple, he caressed her.

She screamed, her wetness coating his hand as she clenched his cock. His groin tightened and he pulsed his own release into her.

Maggie collapsed onto him, her hands on his chest and his arms loosely around her back. Her breathing evened out as she lay sprawled over him. She rarely cuddled and he appreciated the few minutes when she let down her guard and exposed some of the sensitive woman he knew was lurking just beneath the surface. He absently ran his hand along her back, barely feeling her soft skin beneath his fingers. Even a mind-blowing release with Maggie hadn’t quieted the angst that had brought him to her door in the first place.

 


Chapter One

Oh my God. Maggie stared at the line of sticks laying on the bathroom counter. No way would she trust just one test. So there they were, lined up like soldiers, each proudly displaying their two lines, or plus signs, or whatever cutesy approach the manufacturers came up with to announce what to most women was good news. The one that sent her over the edge, though, was the test that proclaimed Pregnant. There was no rationalizing that result away.

She sank to the floor and her head slumped onto her knees. Rascal wound himself around her feet, begging for attention, but she shoved him away. How had this happened? This was… she wasn’t supposed to… Oh my God.

She beat her head against her knees a couple of times and then flopped back against the wall. What was she going to do? What about her practice? Her patients? There wasn’t room for a baby in her condo. Was she going to have to move? Where was she going to find the time to look for a place to live? And, oh God. The baby stuff. She had to buy lots of stuff for the baby. What did babies need?

Her head swam and a piercing pain set up right behind her left eye. She sat on the floor until the cold from the tile seeped through her skirt and chilled her. Sitting on the cold floor probably wasn’t good for the baby. The baby. Oh my God, I’m going to have a baby.

She climbed to her feet, and Rascal jumped on the counter, knocking all of the pregnancy tests onto the floor as he brushed up against her, begging for attention. Damn cat. She knelt to throw those bearers of her unexpected surprise into the trashcan. At least if she threw them away, they wouldn’t be staring at her, proclaiming the news she wasn’t ready to deal with.

On second thought, she should keep one. She might need to show it to… oh, crap. Michael. What in the hell was she going to tell Michael? It wasn’t like he was her boyfriend. They were friends with benefits, occasional lovers, who spent a few hours in bed whenever they could. Which hadn’t happened for at least a month. As a matter of fact, Michael hadn’t stopped by in quite a while.

She tapped her fingertips, one by one, as she counted back. Seven weeks. That was the longest they’d gone between visits in the eighteen months she’d known him. Since the day she’d met him in that nightclub in Philly and found out he’d grown up in Oak Grove, the town she’d just moved to, they’d rarely gone more than a couple weeks between hookups. How had so much time passed? He hadn’t even texted her. Not that she’d had time to contact him either since she’d been so busy.

She’d gotten so wrapped up in her patients and her work that her erratic periods hadn’t even been a blip on her radar. Not with all the struggles she’d had in that department. But add in sensitive breasts and feeling like crap to a missed period… or two, and she couldn’t ignore the answer. Not any longer.

She laid her hands over her flat belly. It wouldn’t be flat for much longer. Oh crap, she had to buy maternity clothes. She didn’t have time to go shopping for a new wardrobe. She barely had time to work, eat, and sleep, and sometimes eating didn’t happen. Had she hurt the baby by skipping meals already?

She rushed to the refrigerator and yanked the door open. Three containers of yogurt, a half empty bottle of wine, a bottle of ketchup, and two leftover containers from J.J.’s. She grabbed a yogurt and a spoon from the drawer. Yogurt was good. Babies need calcium, right? She shoveled a spoonful in her mouth and sank onto one of the three chairs at the table she’d tucked in the nook against the bay window. Rascal hopped onto his chair beside hers and curled up on the cushion. She didn’t know why she had three chairs, even, because no one ever came over. Except Michael. She didn’t have many friends in Oak Grove. She didn’t have the time to make them.

She ate another spoonful and had to choke that bite down.

What in the hell was she going to do about her practice? She shouldn’t have agreed to take on the sheriff and fire departments last year. Adding their referrals tacked another fifteen hours a week onto her already full schedule, giving her an overflowing roster. But she just couldn’t say no when they inquired.

She’d have to tell them she couldn’t take any more cases.

No new patients in her practice, either. What about her current patients? Her mentor Barry might be willing to take some of them on, but others would skip counseling before they’d drive to Philly. That just wouldn’t do. She’d need to convince Barry to come here a few days a week and lighten her load for a little while. She’d worked too hard to build her practice, her reputation, to risk all of it just because she was pregnant. Other professional women handled pregnancy without losing a beat. She could too.

 

Maggie brought the spoon to her mouth again and her stomach roiled. Dropping the yogurt and spoon, she hurried down the hall, barely reaching the bathroom before she threw up.

After she emptied her stomach, she wet a washcloth, swiped at the sweat on her brow, and cleaned her teeth. That explained the stomach bug she thought she had last week. Two of her patients had mentioned their kids were sick, so Maggie figured that was what she’d had, too.

A big ole nope to that.

Someone knocked on the door. Oh, God. What if it was Michael? After all this time. No way was she ready to see him or to tell him about the baby. She snatched the one remaining test off the counter and shoved it in her pocket on the way to the door. A quick peek through the peephole and she sighed.

She plastered a smile on her face as she swung the door open. “Mrs. Monroe. What can I do for you today?”

“Oh, dear. I’m so glad you are home. We are organizing dinners for poor Mrs. Fleming. She fell and broke her hip, you know.”

Maggie loved living in her condo building, with its low maintenance and easy access to work. She didn’t even mind Mrs. Monroe and Mrs. Fleming sticking their nose in her business from time to time. “Oh, no. I hadn’t heard. How is she?”

“She’s home from the hospital now but not getting around so well. I hope you’ll sign up for a dinner.” Mrs. Monroe held out a clipboard.

Maggie laughed. “I’m not sure she wants anything I make. I’m not a good cook. I’d better sign up to bring a meal from J.J.’s.” She pulled her hand out of her pocket to grab the pen, and the pregnancy test clattered onto the floor.

Mrs. Monroe’s gaze followed the object’s fall.

Maggie scrambled to block her nosy neighbor’s view and snatch the test up before Mrs. Monroe saw it. That was all Maggie needed, some meddling old lady sticking her nose in Maggie’s business. She could hear it now: In my day, honey, girls had babies a lot younger than you. When’s that man going to marry you?

No way was she going to marry Michael. She’d been taking care of herself for all of her adult life. Adding a baby shouldn’t be so hard, right?

Based on the expression on Mrs. Monroe’s face, Maggie hadn’t hidden the test in time. “I’m not sure the greasy food from J.J.’s would be good for her. And frankly, dear, in your condition, it’s not very good for you either.”

Maggie glared at Mrs. Monroe and snatched the list from her hand. After scribbling beside a day next week, Maggie shoved the clipboard under Mrs. Monroe’s nose. “I’ll figure something out.”

Mrs. Monroe patted her hand. “Thanks so much, dear. Make sure you take care of yourself… and that little one you’re carrying. Congratulations.”

“Uh huh,” Maggie mumbled before she slammed the door.

What was she thinking? How could she take care of a baby when she didn’t even have time to make Mrs. Fleming a meal, much less the know how to cook it. It wasn’t like she had a great role model in that department. Her mother spent her time jetting around Europe and Asia with her newest rich husband. She never cooked for herself or Maggie… dear old Mom had servants do that for her.

Maggie shoved a pile of clothes aside and slumped onto the couch, the pregnancy test still in her hand. Shoot, she couldn’t take care of her apartment… how was she going to care for a baby? She needed advice, and she needed it now.

She pressed a few buttons on her phone, and in no time, Cheryl, the one friend she’d managed to hold on to from her college days, was answering on the other end. “Hey, Maggie. Hold on a minute.”

While Maggie kept the phone pressed to her ear, Cheryl yelled at one child to stop drawing on the walls and another to leave her little brother alone. Maggie chuckled. Yeah, Cheryl was the perfect person to call when Maggie’s life was falling apart. Cheryl was Maggie’s voice of reason. Ironic, really, considering Maggie was a counselor. She was supposed to be the one who talked others off the ledge.

“Sorry about that. It’s been one of those days. What’s up?”

“It sounds like it’s not a good time. I can call back when you’re not busy.” Or maybe when she was done denying her condition. Was this what Maggie’s life was going to be reduced to? Shoving kids away while she tried to talk on the phone to clients? How in the hell was she supposed to do her job with a kid? This was why she’d never planned to have children. A career, she could handle. Throw a kid in the mix, and she was out of her league. She couldn’t do this. No way. Shrinks weren’t supposed to have nervous breakdowns, but here she was on the verge of one.

“No, really. This is a good time. I just shooed them off to the playroom. So what’s up?”

Maggie opened her mouth but no words came out. What the hell? It shouldn’t be that hard to talk to her best friend. Then again, she’d never had such shocking news to share. She cleared her throat.

“Maggie, what’s going on?”

Maggie gritted her teeth and then just spit out the words. “I’m pregnant!”

She sighed and collapsed.

“Oh, Maggie, that’s wonderful.” Cheryl grew quiet for a moment. “I didn’t think you were dating anyone. Have you been holding out on me, girl?”

“I’m not. I wasn’t. Wait, this isn’t coming out right… I’m not dating anyone. You know I would have told you.”

After a dramatic silence, Cheryl gasped. “Oh…”

Yeah, oh. Cheryl knew about Michael. She hadn’t approved of Maggie’s friends-with-benefits arrangement and had wanted Maggie to push for a real relationship. But Cheryl came from a home where her parents had been married thirty-five years and raised their two-point-five kids in a house with a picket fence. She was well on her way to duplicating their achievement with her own family.

Not Maggie.

Being raised in the city, cared for by nannies, while her parents ran around the world, and on each other, hadn’t provided Maggie with a great example of a productive family. Hell, her own father had another family somewhere. Siblings she’d never met. Neither of her parents could be held up as model parents. Being a counselor and often playing mediator between spouses didn’t exactly make it appear that great marriages were the norm, either. If her observations showed her the reality of what marriage was about, they could keep it.

“Yeah, it’s Michael’s. There’s no one else.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”

“How far along are you?”

“I’m not sure. Eight or nine weeks.” That sounded about right. Labor Day. How ironic.

“Eight or nine weeks! And you’re just now telling me?”

“I just found out. I don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t you think the first thing you should do is tell Michael?”

“No way. He’s never talked about kids and his job keeps him crazy busy.” What was she saying? Her job kept her crazy busy, too. And she’d never planned to have kids either. But here she was.

Cheryl was right, though. Michael deserved to know. But when? He hadn’t contacted her since he last stopped by. It wasn’t like she could call him and say hey, remember when you came by a couple of months ago, well…. “Besides, you know I didn’t think I could have kids, so it’s not like babies ever came up. And we were careful. Always.”

“Just because he hasn’t talked about kids doesn’t mean he doesn’t want them. Maybe he just hadn’t found the right person… yet.”

“But what if he doesn’t… what if he…” All of a sudden, Michael wanting this baby became very important to her. Her baby would not be rejected by its parents, like she had been.

“Don’t even talk like that. You know him. You know his family. He’ll do the right thing.”

Yeah, he would. She shouldn’t have doubted for even one minute. But what did the right thing mean to Michael? Would he be expecting a long white gown and vows?

What about his family? None of his siblings knew about the two of them. There had never been a reason. Michael knew she’d counseled Lucas and Rachel. But as far as Maggie knew, Michael hadn’t told his family about their… arrangement. What would she tell Rachel and Lucas? Would they want another therapist because she was about to be the mother to their niece or nephew? She placed her hand over her belly. A boy or a girl. A baby.

“Hello, Maggie… Are you still there?”

“Huh, yeah. I’m still here. Just got distracted for a minute. I’m not going to marry Michael just because I’m pregnant.”

“So when are you going to tell him?”

“I don’t know. I have to think about the best time.” And figure out how to keep Michael from dragging her kicking and screaming to the altar.

“Hey, why don’t you come into the city this weekend and we can have a girls day? We can shop for some maternity clothes for you and check out a couple of baby stores. I love shopping for babies.”

Maggie chuckled. Typical Cheryl, always finding a way to distract Maggie. “What, you didn’t get enough of that with the three you already have?”

“It’s more fun when it’s for somebody else. Besides, it sounds like you need a break.”

She could say that again. Tonight was the first night in weeks Maggie’d gotten home at a decent hour thanks to a last minute cancellation.

Her stomach growled and bile rose in her throat. “Listen, Cheryl, I gotta call you back. I’ll let you know about this weekend. Okay?”

“Are you okay?”

“I will be.” Maggie clicked off and ran down the hall.


Chapter Two

“Thanks, Mr. Taylor, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” Michael extended his hand to the man who’d just helped secure his future in Oak Grove. A year ago, if you had asked him whether he’d leave the practice in Philly and return to his hometown, he would have laughed. Well, he wasn’t laughing now. Two months ago, he’d been planning on making partner at Newland, Pearce, and Locke, and now everything had upended his quiet life in Philly.

He tucked the papers transferring Jeff’s practice to Michael into his briefcase. Michael’s initial client base would be small, but expanding into general practice instead of specializing opened up opportunities in Oak Grove and the neighboring towns. And he would finally get the break he’d needed for the last eighteen months.

“Son, you coming home happened at just the right time. I really wanted my Owen to take over the practice, but he had other plans.”

“I heard him playing at J.J.’s a few months back. He’s really good.”

“Yeah, he is. I’m so proud of him, even if he didn’t want to follow in his old man’s footsteps. But that left me without someone to hand the practice to. A Taylor has hung a shingle in Oak Grove for five generations.” Jeff sighed.

“I know it can’t be easy retiring after all these years. I’ll make you proud, sir.”

“I know you will.” Jeff tucked his copy of the papers in his drawer. “I’m sure your Mama’s thrilled to have you moving home.”

Oak Grove hadn’t been Michael’s home for a long time. As soon as he’d graduated college, he’d packed up and headed to Philly. He’d attended law school at UPenn and then made a life for himself in the city. Sure, he visited Oak Grove, but he never expected to find himself moving back.

Ma was thrilled. Lucas was engaged, Joey had a serious girlfriend, and Rachel had finally left that bastard Shane and started dating Sawyer. Michael relocating was just the icing on the cake for his parents.

He hadn’t seen either of them since he’d found out Rachel’s secret. His gut had dropped to his shoes when she revealed that his parents had separated when he was a child and that Rachel’s father was another man. The news had driven him to Maggie’s condo on his last trip.

At the same time, Rachel had asked Michael to look for her biological father. She shouldn’t be looking for him after all this time. She’d be better off letting sleeping dogs lie. But she’d asked Michael to look into him. And he’d never been able to refuse his baby sister anything.

The private investigator on retainer with his old firm had run into several dead ends but he’d finally found some information. He’d handed off his notes to Michael before he left, and what Michael had read was like a stab to the heart.

He checked his watch. Eight-thirty. He still hadn’t eaten dinner yet, and the movers were arriving tomorrow to pack his condo in Philly.

He couldn’t worry about the status of his relationship with Maggie now. He barely had time to grab a quick bite and head back to Philly. So he dashed off a quick text to Maggie, just to check in, and hopped in his car.

* * *

“Michael.” Joey motioned from behind the bar. Michael waved, and by the time he climbed onto a barstool, a cold beer was sliding toward him across the dark wood. He didn’t waste any time drawing a huge swallow.

“You okay, man?” Joey flung a bar towel over his shoulder and leaned on the bar. Did they teach that at bartender school because every barkeep Michael knew did the same thing.

“Yeah, just got a lot on my mind.” None of which he could tell Joey. He shouldn’t have agreed when Rachel had asked him not to share her secret. He didn’t like hiding things from his brothers. But wasn’t that exactly what his parents had done for years?

Rachel shouldn’t be afraid of how Lucas and Joey would react. They all loved their sister and would do anything for her. Knowing about her biological father wouldn’t change that. The fact that she didn’t trust them deep in her gut troubled Michael. Sure, Rachel had been the only girl in a family of boys, but she was clawing her way back from her relationship with Shane and processing what she’d learned, with Maggie’s help. Ultimately, whether he liked it or not, Michael had to respect Rachel’s timeline, so he shoved the words down every time he talked to his brothers.

Carla danced through the swinging door behind the bar. Her face brightened. “Hey, Mikey. How ya’ doin’? Joey looking out for you, because if he isn’t, you just tell me and I’ll take care of him.”

“Like you could,” Joey quipped, never even turning around.

She bounced on her toes and punched her fists in the air like a prize fighter. A five-foot-five prize fighter with blonde curls… definitely a lightweight.

Michael chuckled “Actually, I’d love to get a burger and fries.”

One of Carla’s punches landed on Joey’s shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Joey raised his hands and stepped back. “Hey, I didn’t know. He just walked in the door.”

“I’ll get Diego going on that.” Carla laughed her way back into the kitchen.

“She’s great. You’re lucky to have her.” Michael drank more of his beer. The liquid was cold going down but did nothing to cool his nerves. Between his change in career, Rachel’s secret, and the fact he hadn’t seen Maggie in way too long, it might be time to reevaluate his aversion to Maggie’s couch. Her counseling couch, that is.

He had no issues with her living room couch, or her bed, or the kitchen table, for that matter…

A hand landed on Michael’s back as Rachel slid beside him, her arm snaking around his waist. “I didn’t know you were in town.”

He kissed the top of her head. “I just signed the final papers to take over Mr. Taylor’s practice.”

A huge smile broke across Rachel’s face and his gut tightened. She knew he had information on her biological father, and every time he saw her, he held his breath. Eventually she’d be ready to hear what he’d found out. No matter how much he thought she should leave it alone, when Rachel was ready, nothing would deter her. And Michael refused to lie about what he’d uncovered.

He studied his baby sister. The dark circles beneath her eyes and the sunken cheekbones from this summer were nowhere to be seen. In their place, her eyes were bright and her cheeks were full. And the shadows that haunted her were all but gone.

If only he’d warned her about Shane’s reputation when they’d first started dating. Michael would have to live with the fact that maybe if he’d insisted, she wouldn’t have suffered as she did. But limiting his time in Oak Grove to a few hours a month didn’t give him insight into how bad her relationship had gotten until it was too late. By then, Rachel didn’t want to hear anything bad about Shane. Not that he hadn’t still tried. Hell, he’d never forgive himself that he’d been stuck in Philly working on a huge case when Shane had finally been arrested and she’d landed in the Emergency Room.

What did all those long hours and time away from his family get him? Nothing.

It wouldn’t be long now before he’d be back home full time and could keep an eye on his baby sister like a big brother was expected to do.

“I’m so proud of you. And I can’t wait to have you home for good.”

He hooked her around the waist and pulled her close. “Me either, squirt.”

“Are you staying the night?”

He shook his head. “Can’t. Gotta meet the packers tomorrow early, and I’ve got a bunch of cases to document before I hand them over. I’ll be back next weekend to bring some stuff.”

Carla bumped through the swinging door. She slid a plate across the bar. “Here it is, sweetie. Hot and ready to go, just like me.”

“Thanks, Carla.” Michael snatched up the burger and took a huge bite.

Rachel snuck a fry off his plate and shoved it into her mouth.

“Hey, Rachel, am I paying you to eat or to work?” To someone who didn’t know better, Joey’s words would sound harsh, but Michael’s younger siblings were very close. They teased and tormented as much as they supported each other.

Rachel grabbed the towel off Joey’s shoulder and flicked it at him before popping a kiss on Michael’s cheek. “I gotta dash. Need to finish up so I can meet Sawyer.”

“See ya later, brat.” As she waltzed off, a knot unwound in Michael’s gut.

All around him, his friends and family were pairing off. But he sat here alone. Now that the rest of his siblings were happy, Ma would probably start bugging him about a girlfriend. Being back in Oak Grove, maybe he could finally give Ma an answer she’d be happy with.

He could introduce Maggie to his family. Was she his girlfriend? Not technically.

Maggie was Lucas and Rachel’s counselor. Would they accept her as his girlfriend? And was he ready to call her that? Maybe not yet. His new practice would take a lot of time at first, more than the pressure-filled hours at the firm. He couldn’t start a serious relationship with Maggie just to leave her hanging while he worked late every night. That was why their arrangement had worked so well in the first place.

He glanced at his cell. She hadn’t answered his earlier text, or the one he’d sent on the way into town this morning. That was unlike her. Even if she couldn’t meet, she usually had an inappropriately sexy response or funny quip in return. He probably should have called her or come into town to see her sooner. He hadn’t even had a chance to tell her he was moving back home. Although, in a town like Oak Grove, there were no secrets. The entire town had probably been buzzing from the minute he’d reached out to Jeff Taylor.

“Hey, Michael. Lucas wants to know when you need help moving that furniture into your new office.” Joey slid his phone across the bar to Michael.

“Saturday after Thanksgiving, if that works for you guys. Then I can get everything set up and ready to go before Christmas.”

Joey gestured to the phone. “Tell him. I don’t need to know.”

“Oh, yes, you do. You’re helping.”

“Who says?”

“I said.” Brittany, Michael’s future sister-in-law, stepped up behind Michael and stretched over the bar to kiss Joey. She grabbed a fry off Michael’s plate and slid onto the stool beside him. “Hey, Michael. So glad I caught you. I’ve got those renovation plans for your office in the car.”

“Thanks, Brittany. Just in time, too. I signed the papers this afternoon.”

“Great. My guys are ready to go and they’ll have the reno done in a couple of weeks.”

“That’s great. I was just telling Joey that we’ll be set to move the furniture right after Thanksgiving.”

Michael’s law office renovation was no challenge for Brittany, certainly not as difficult as the homes with accommodations she designed for the veteran’s organization Jayden’s Hope and definitely not like the high-end condos she’d designed at her previous job in New York City. But he’d gladly accepted her help.

He checked his watch. “Geez. I gotta get on the road. I didn’t know it was so late.” Maggie still hadn’t responded to his texts. They’d never gone this long without being in touch. As she’d said the last time he was in town, she was his friend, and he cared about her. Something must be really wrong for her to not even answer.

Tucking his phone in his pocket, he checked his watch again. Yeah, he was running late, but that wouldn’t stop him from dropping by Maggie’s condo to check on her. She’d never ignored his texts before.

Something had to be up with her.

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