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The long-awaited finale to Marie’s beloved Treading Water Series is HERE at last!

Maggie Harrington is in way, way over her head, running Matthews House, the shelter her famous sister Kate and brother-in-law Reid have opened, using Reid’s family estate to provide support to women and children in crisis. This job is just what Maggie needed after a disastrous episode in New York—or so she thought. The constant life-or-death challenges she encounters have her emotions on a rollercoaster of soaring highs and crushing lows. Living near her sisters Kate and Jill and regular rides on Kate’s beloved horse, Thunder, are the best parts of her new life.

When Maggie hires Brayden Thomas to run an equine therapy program for the resident children, she does so knowing he’s hiding something from his past. But his sterling professional reputation and qualifications have her taking a chance on the handsome horse whisperer, who quickly becomes a friend and confidant. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also smoking hot, funny, easy to talk to and damned good at his job.

It’s her first time being “the boss.” Surely she ought to maintain some semblance of professionalism when it comes to Brayden, right? But day by day, hour by hour, he makes himself essential to her and has her teetering on the fine line between personal and professional as her feelings for him intensify.

The Harrington girls are together again in Nashville! Come along for a visit that’ll include the arrival of Kate’s baby, Jill’s wedding to Ashton and Eric Harrington’s high school graduation. Jack, Andi, Clare, Aidan, Jamie, Frannie and the O’Malley family also appear in the Treading Water Series finale!

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Finding Forever

(Treading Water Series, Book 5)

The long-awaited finale to Marie’s beloved Treading Water Series is HERE at last!

Chapter 1

Spring in central Tennessee happened suddenly. After weeks of seemingly endless rain, overnight the miles of rolling hills had turned emerald green, buds popped on the crepe myrtles, maples and oaks, and the sweet smell of new life filled the air. Forsythia, the first harbinger of spring, had exploded to yellow life weeks earlier than it did at home in Rhode Island and had been followed in quick succession by daffodils and tulips that filled lush flower beds with splashes of vibrant color. By the second to last week in May, the days had become longer and warmer, the rain less frequent.

Maggie Harrington took a mug of coffee with her when she walked across the driveway to the stables to see the horses. Having them nearby was one of the best parts of her new life running Matthews House, a shelter for women and children in crisis founded by her music superstar sister, Kate, and brother-in-law, Reid Matthews. Maggie had been crazy about horses all her life, and she’d missed being around them during the years she’d lived in New York City.

She found Thunder, the sleek, dark thoroughbred Reid had given Kate when they were first together more than a decade ago, in the paddock, turned out for a day of exercise and sunshine. The old guy gave a happy nicker when he saw Maggie coming, probably because he knew she always came bearing gifts, and trotted over to see her. Standing on the bottom rung of the white fence that surrounded the paddock, Maggie fed him apple slices and carrots, despite Kate’s edict that he needed to lose some weight.

Maggie disagreed. At this point in his life, he ought to have whatever he wanted.

His velvety tongue swept over her palm, scooping up the carrots in one swift lick.

Maggie laughed. “Pig.”

He snorted in response and nudged at her hand, looking for more. Kate swore the horse had human tendencies, and Maggie had to agree with her sister. In deference to her pregnancy, Kate had had Thunder moved to Matthews House so Maggie could exercise him while Kate couldn’t. Maggie was already sad about the thought of Thunder going home after Kate had the baby and could get back to riding.

Maggie found a single sugar cube in her pocket and gave it to him, feeling guilty for playing favorites among the horses. After feeding apple slices to the other horses who came over to say hello and giving them each some attention, she headed back to the house to start her workday. If no new crises arose, she might get done with work in time to ride before dinner at Kate and Reid’s.

The toot of a horn from a car coming up the long driveway stopped her from going inside. She recognized Ashton Matthews’s sporty silver Jaguar. Ashton, who was Reid’s son, was engaged to Maggie’s sister Jill and served as the pro bono attorney for the shelter. And yes, her sisters were involved with a father and son. Their story began when Kate first met Reid as an eighteen-year-old chasing the dream in Nashville.

Tall, blond, broad-shouldered and handsome, Ashton emerged from the car, tucking a leather portfolio under his arm. He wore a tailored navy suit with a matching tie. “Glad I caught you. I’m on my way to the office and was hoping to talk to you for a minute.” Since they got engaged last Christmas, Ashton had been living with Jill at her house on Kate’s estate. Ashton and Jill were getting married in the Harrington sisters’ hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, in late July.

“What’s going on?” Maggie asked him.

Ashton had wanted to be part of the project at his family’s home and had offered to handle any legal work involved. “I’ve got the background check on your horse-whisperer guy.”

Brayden Thomas had come highly recommended and was due to arrive for an interview after lunch. She’d asked Ashton to run a check on him, the way he had every employee they’d hired over the last few months. That he’d had to come here personally to discuss the results with her didn’t bode well. “And?”

“Everything came back okay, but there was one weird thing.”

“What’s that?”

“He has a juvenile record.”

“What did he do?”

“No way to know. Juvenile records are sealed. I did a little ‘extra’ digging, or I never would’ve found it.”

“Huh.” Maggie tried to wrap her head around this unexpected development. Brayden had come so highly recommended. She hadn’t expected to find any skeletons in his closet.

Ashton withdrew a printed report from his portfolio and handed it to her. “Whatever it was happened years ago. He’s almost thirty. His adult record is clean. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UT Knoxville in animal science.”

Maggie had applied for and received a grant to run a therapeutic riding program for the children who came to stay at the shelter and had planned to offer the job to Brayden if the interview went well. She’d wanted the program to be separate from what Reid and Kate had done with Matthews House, something that was entirely her own initiative. After having studied equine therapy in college, she’d been determined to make it available to their clientele.

“What’re you going to do?” Ashton asked.

“Have the interview and ask him about it, I guess.” It’d taken months to find Brayden and then a week of back-and-forth messages to schedule the meeting. The thought of starting over to find someone else made her feel tired, and it was only eight thirty.

“That’s what I would do. Maybe it’s some foolish adolescent prank or something like that.”

If it was anything more than that, Maggie would be reluctant to hire the man to work with the troubled children who would come through Matthews House.

Because Kate and Reid were personally funding the program, they were able to make their own rules and regulations for the program, but safety was their top priority. They’d installed manned gates to provide added security to their residents, many of whom had fled violent relationships. Keeping them safe had to also be Maggie’s top priority.

“Good luck with it,” Ashton said as he got back in his car. “I’ll see you at dinner later?”

“I’ll be there.”

He waved as he turned the car around and drove off toward town, away from the house where he’d grown up. Reid had become a single parent when Ashton’s mother was killed in a car accident when he was only two. Jill said Ashton had no memory of his mother except for the photographs his father had kept around the house and the stories his father had told him.

Maggie couldn’t imagine what it’d been like for him to grow up without his mother. She’d spent three years without hers after an accident had left Clare in a coma. The day she’d unexpectedly recovered had been the best day of Maggie’s life. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe everything that’d happened after her mother’s accident.

It had divided their lives into before the accident and after.

She shuddered, recalling the horror of the car hitting her mother, of Clare seeing it coming but not reacting, the sickening crunching sound at the moment of impact and the surreal, slow-motion flight of her mother’s body into the air, her head connecting with the windshield with a sound Maggie had never heard before or since.

“Stop. Don’t think about that.” Easier said than done. Images from that shocking incident were etched permanently upon her soul. They didn’t torment her the way they had in the months after the accident. Time and therapy had given her coping skills that kept the distress at bay most of the time. However, this time of year always brought the memories back to the forefront, as the accident had occurred on a day much like this one. Shaking off the troubling thoughts, Maggie went inside, poured herself another cup of coffee and brought it with her to the office to start her workday.

She took a second to check her phone and found a text from her brother Eric, who would soon graduate from high school.

Help me. They’re driving me nuts. I don’t want to go to college this year. I need a break from school. Promise you won’t tell? I have a secret!

Maggie wasn’t surprised to hear of his lack of interest in college. He’d been less than enthusiastic when her dad and stepmother, Andi, had taken him to tour a few schools and had only applied under pressure from his parents, teachers and school counselors. He’d gotten into all five schools he’d applied to and had reluctantly committed to Northwestern in Andi’s hometown of Chicago right at the deadline.

When have I ever told your secrets? Spill it!

I’m applying to the Peace Corps.

Whoa. That was huge news. I LOVE that. I can see you doing that for sure.

Really? I can teach ASL, he said, referring to American Sign Language. Eric had been born deaf, and Maggie had learned sign language from him and Andi. When Maggie had been unable to get a job as a family counselor after grad school, that skill had come in handy, as she’d been hired to provide sign language for criminal trials.

Really! It’d be such an adventure. Let me know how it goes, and when you’re ready to pitch it to the parents, I’ll help.

You’re the best. LY

LY2. Keep me posted.

He replied with the thumbs-up emoji.

Maggie hoped Eric would be able to pull it off, especially since their dad was super gung ho about all of them going to college. She’d met plenty of people in college who didn’t belong there and wasn’t afraid to say so to her dad and Andi if it came to that. Perhaps Eric could take a couple of years to volunteer and go to college later.

Teresa, the overnight program manager, appeared at the door to Maggie’s office a few minutes later. “Good morning.”

“Morning. How are things?”

“All quiet. The McBride family had a good morning. Debbie had the kids up and ready for the bus stop.”

“Did they have breakfast?” Two days last week, the McBride kids had gone without breakfast because they’d been running late to make the bus. Maggie had sent them off to school with granola bars and juice boxes.

“They did.”

“Well, that’s progress.” In addition to providing emergency shelter, counseling and career services, their program aimed to help struggling parents learn skills and routines designed to prepare them to eventually live independently with their children. Some of the mothers needed this help more than others. One of the things Maggie had come to appreciate was how the more experienced mothers stepped up to offer wisdom and counsel to the younger ones, which gave them a community of support that would hopefully outlast their time at Matthews House.

“In other news, Corey is having pains. Could be Braxton Hicks. I’ve got her first on the list for Arnelle when she comes in.”

Maggie was alarmed to hear that twenty-year-old Corey Gellar might be in early labor with her first child. She’d come to them via a referral from Davidson County police after they intervened in a domestic situation at her home. Her live-in boyfriend had been arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend and was still in jail. “How far apart are the pains?”

“Twelve minutes.”

“Damn it. She’s only thirty weeks. Should we call for rescue?” These were the moments Maggie found most challenging in her new job. When did a situation become a crisis, and how did she know whether she was doing the right thing?

“Corey didn’t think that was necessary.”

“Okay,” Maggie said, exhaling. “We’ll see what Arnelle has to say.”

Maggie’s day spun out of control from there. When Arnelle determined that Corey could be in early labor, they called the rescue. Maggie ended up at the hospital with Corey until they decided to admit her to see if they could stop her labor. Maggie stayed until a friend of Corey’s came to be with her.

“I’ll check on you after a bit,” she said to the petite young woman with blonde hair and fragile features marred by bruises that infuriated Maggie. How any man could hit a pregnant woman, she would never know.

Over the last few months, she’d had to take a mental step back from questions like that, or she’d go mad from the things she saw and heard on a daily basis. She would never understand how people could do such things to the people they loved, but it happened far too often.

Arnelle liked to say the crises kept them in business, which was sadly true. She also said dark humor was necessary to keeping one’s sanity when working with families in turmoil.

As Maggie drove back to the house, down scenic, winding country roads, she had the window down and the stereo volume cranked up. Around here, country music was all the rage, but it wasn’t her jam. She preferred her alternative playlist to country, not that she’d admit that to her sister Kate, one of country music’s biggest stars.

For Kate, Maggie made a rare exception to her no-country-music rule. She loved Kate’s work, as well as that of Kate’s husband-and-wife mentors, Buddy Longstreet and Taylor Jones. Buddy, Taylor and their four children were family to Kate and Reid, who’d grown up with Buddy.

Maggie took the last turn before the security checkpoint where the handsome young guard waved her through, flashing a big smile. Xander was always friendly and flirtatious with her. However, she didn’t encourage him because she was in no place to be thinking about men or dating or anything like that. The thought of it made her shudder in revulsion after what she’d been through with the last guy she’d dated.

She navigated the long lane that led to the Matthews estate, driving past the two-story Tudor-style guesthouse where Kate had spent her first night in Nashville, and pulled into her usual parking space behind the stables. Only as she walked around the stables and came face-to-face with a handsome man wearing well-worn denim and a formfitting Western-cut plaid shirt did she remember the meeting with Brayden Thomas that she’d failed to reschedule after Corey’s early-labor crisis.

The photos she’d seen of Brayden hadn’t done him justice. Tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and brown eyes, he looked like a movie-star version of a horse wrangler. He removed a battered tan cowboy hat from his head in a gesture of respect she found ridiculously charming.

“Are you Maggie?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

He stepped forward, hand extended. “Brayden Thomas. Nice to finally meet you.”

She shook his work-roughened hand and met his intense gaze. Manners and eye contact, two things that mattered for people who worked in equine therapy. “You as well. So sorry to be late for our appointment. I had an emergency with one of the women.”

“No worries. Arnelle told me what was going on. Gave me some time to look around. What a beautiful place you’ve got here.”

“It belongs to my brother-in-law and sister, actually.”

“Your sister is Kate Harrington, right?”

“That’s right.”

His eyes glittered with excitement. “I’m a big fan. I’ve seen her in concert five or six times. She’s fantastic.”

Maggie was never sure how she was supposed to reply when people praised Kate, so she said what she always did. “Thank you. We’re proud of her.”

“You don’t look like her.”

“Nope. I favor my dad, and she’s our mom’s twin. We do have the same eyes, though.” Why was she telling him this stuff when she ought to be asking him how he’d landed in juvie?

“I had a chance to check out the stables, and they’re some of the nicest I’ve ever seen. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about what you have in mind for the equine therapy program.”

This would be a really great time to tell him you can’t hire someone with a criminal record, Maggie. “As you know, most programs focus on children and adults with special needs. Here, it won’t be about that so much as providing therapy and riding lessons to kids who’ve been through traumas and/or suffer from PTSD.”

He nodded, listening intently to everything she said.

Maggie realized he’d begun moving toward the stables, and as if she’d been hypnotized or some such thing, she walked with him without having made the conscious choice to move.

“The kids have been abused, then?”

“Some of them were. Others have seen things that no child should ever see—parents overdosing, fathers beating mothers, mothers beating fathers, among other things that can’t be unseen.” Such as your mother getting hit by a car right in front of you…

“I see. My philosophy is all about building confidence. I tell the kids I work with if you can mount a thousand-pound animal and get him or her to do what you tell them to, you can do anything.” He reached out to scratch the nose of a quarter horse mare named Dandy, who leaned into his caress. “It seems like that approach might be a good fit for the kids in your program.”

It would be perfect. That was exactly what Maggie had dreamed of when she approached Reid and Kate about using a couple of the horses that were boarded at the Matthews estate for a therapeutic riding program. Once she hired someone to oversee the program, each horse would have to be evaluated for temperament and suitability.

Maggie had secured signed releases from the owners of the other horses, allowing them to be used for that purpose if it was determined their temperaments worked for the program. Most of the owners were friends of Reid’s or Ashton’s, so getting permission hadn’t been difficult. In fact, the owners had been thrilled to know that their horses would help to make a difference for kids in need and get regular exercise, too.

“As I mentioned on the phone, it’s important that I work closely with a counselor or therapist to tailor my program to the needs of each child.”

“That’s where I come in,” Maggie said. “My undergraduate degree is in social work, and my master’s is in family counseling.” She’d busted her ass to finish both programs in just over five years at NYU.

His gorgeous face lit up with a warm smile. “That’s an ideal fit for what I do.”

For some reason, hearing him say the words ideal fit made Maggie feel like laughing. Yes, he was an ideal fit for her program, and the fact that he was to-die-for handsome didn’t hurt anything, either.

“Are these the horses I’d be working with?”

Now would be the perfect time to tell him he couldn’t work there. “They are. All but Thunder.” She pointed to him. “He’s getting on in years, and Kate thought it might be better not to have him be part of the program.”

Brayden worked his way down the row of stalls, giving each of the horses a minute of his time and attention. Each of them responded favorably to him, even Lonnie, who didn’t like anyone—or so it seemed. “Is Thunder in good health?”

“He’s in excellent health and is gentle as a lamb.”

“He’d be ideal for the program, but I understand if your sister doesn’t want us to use him. In my experience, I’ve found that older horses are sometimes better for therapeutic riding. They’ve sown their wild oats, so to speak.”

“I’m sure Kate would be open to discussing it.”

He ran a hand over Thunder’s elegant neck, and the horse nickered in response. “Did you get the info I sent about my PATH certification and insurance?”

She licked lips that’d gone dry as she watched him interact with the animals and noted how each responded to him with trust. “I did, thank you for sending them.”

In addition to his obvious affinity for the horses, Maggie would have to be dead and buried not to also notice that he was, without a doubt, the best-looking man she’d ever met in person. He’d rendered her speechless and stupid in the head just by the way he interacted with the horses she loved like people.

He had a gentle, soothing way about him that would be ideal for the population of children he’d be working with. In fact, it was nearly impossible for her to reconcile the information Ashton had given her with the man currently standing before her.

Maybe he’d investigated the wrong Brayden Thomas.

That was possible, wasn’t it?

She took a deep breath for courage and released it. “We ran a background check, which is customary with everyone we hire.”

“Okay.”

“We discovered you have a juvenile record.”

“I do.”

“Can you tell me what that’s about?”

“Nope.” 

Chapter 2

Maggie was late for dinner, but that was nothing new. She, who’d prided herself on punctuality in her old life, was hardly ever on time in her new life. “Sorry,” she said to Kate when she walked into her sister’s spacious kitchen.

Reid and Ashton were sitting at the bar devouring chips and salsa, while Kate and Jill tended to the stove.

Kate kissed her cheek. “You haven’t missed much.” She glanced toward the guys. “They don’t speak until the first bowl of chips is consumed.”

“This is true.” Jill kissed Maggie’s other cheek. “How was your day, dear?”

“Insane.”

“Good insane or bad?” Kate looked at her carefully, the way she always did these days, as if trying to see if Maggie was breaking under the strain of her new job.

“Some of both.” Maggie prepared a weekly status report that she emailed to Kate and Reid on Fridays, updating them on each of the residents and the efforts being put forth by the team Maggie had hired to assist them. They’d settled on that plan so they wouldn’t feel compelled to talk about the facility every time they were together.

“Do you need us?” Reid asked.

“Not at the moment, but I’ll let you know if I do.”

“We’re always here for you, darlin’. You know that.”

“I do.” Maggie smiled gratefully at her brother-in-law, charmed as always by his delightful accent and inherent sweetness. “You know I appreciate the support, but what I’d appreciate even more right now is a margarita. Make it a tall one.”

“Coming right up.” Jill fired up the Ninja and produced a yummy strawberry margarita that she garnished with a lime.

Maggie took a sip, closing her eyes as the heat of the tequila moved through her system, calming her after another crazy day. “That’s delicious.” When she opened her eyes, the others were looking at her with concern. “I’m fine. I love every second of it. It’s just a lot, but I’m coping. I swear.”

Although she’d interned for a year at a homeless shelter in New York while in college, she’d worked in the donation center and helped kids with their homework. Running the entire show was a whole other level of challenge, which she loved most days.

Kate and Reid exchanged glances that told Maggie they were worried about whether she’d taken on more than she could handle by making their passion project hers. She didn’t want them worried. She wanted them to feel confident that they’d made the right choice by choosing Kate’s inexperienced sister as their director.

Maggie appreciated that they were always far more concerned about her than the program itself, although they’d both given tons of time and attention to the program over the last six months. They’d chosen to be more hands-off now that Maggie was in charge, but had made it clear they were a phone call or text away if needed. Before she could think of something more she could say to reassure them, Jill’s phone rang.

“It’s Mom FaceTiming about wedding plans.” The wedding, set for the last weekend in July, would be held at Infinity Newport, the hotel her dad’s company had built on Newport’s famous Ocean Drive. He’d met his wife, Andi, during that project, and she had later been appointed the hotel’s general manager.

“You’ve got all of us for the price of one call,” Jill told their mother, Clare, as she panned the gathering with her phone.

“All my girls together. I love it. How is everyone?” Clare had blonde hair and the same striking blue eyes as Kate and Maggie. Though now in her late fifties, she would say that Max and Nick, the sons she shared with her second husband, Aidan, kept her young.

“Maggie’s stressed, Kate’s huge and I’m great,” Jill said.

“I know why Kate is huge—she’s about to make me a grandmother, after all—but why is Maggie stressed?”

“I’m not.” Maggie glared at Jill. “I’m just adapting to my new job and being responsible for twenty extra people. No biggie.”

“She makes it look easy when it isn’t,” Kate said.

“Enough about them.” Jill flashed a giddy smile as she waved her hand to dismiss her sisters. “Let’s talk about me and my wedding!”

“See what you’re marrying?” Maggie said to Ashton.

He grinned like the lovesick fool he was around Jill. “Isn’t she magnificent?”

Maggie made barfing noises that had everyone laughing.

Jill flashed a huge, dopey smile at her beloved. “That earned you big points redeemable at bedtime, my love.”

Ashton stretched and yawned dramatically. “I’m feeling really tired all of a sudden.”

While the others laughed, Maggie experienced the oddest hollow feeling. Jill and Kate had their lives figured out, and she was still floundering. Granted, she was a few years younger than them, but still… Their delirious happiness had her wondering if she’d ever find what they had with Ashton and Reid.

For some reason, that had her thinking of Brayden Thomas. She wanted to laugh out loud at the trajectory of her own thoughts, but her family already thought she was on the brink of a breakdown. No need to give them proof.

While Jill and Kate talked wedding plans with their mother, Maggie checked the stove and stirred the chicken Kate had made for fajitas.

“How’d you make out with the horse whisperer?” Ashton asked.

“I’m not sure.”

He offered her another margarita, but she declined. One drink was her limit these days. She never knew when she’d be called to deal with a new crisis and had to be ready—and able to drive. “What happened?”

“I mentioned that we’d noticed he has a sealed juvenile record and asked if he could tell me why.”

“And?”

“He said, and I quote, ‘Nope.’”

Ashton tipped his head inquisitively. “That was it? Just nope?”

“That was it.”

“Huh, well, he’s not obligated to share that info with you as a prospective employer. The more important piece of information, in my opinion, is the twelve-year adult record, which is squeaky clean.”

“So you’d be comfortable hiring him based on that as well as numerous recommendations?”

“I think I would be.”

“Even knowing there’s something in his past that resulted in him being in juvie?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to have things I did as a kid held against me as an adult.”

“No kidding.”

Ashton flashed a wicked grin as he leaned in. “What did you do?” Before she’d met Brayden Thomas, Maggie had thought Ashton was one of the best-looking men she’d ever encountered. Now the bar had been set even higher.

“Dream on. I’m not telling you.”

“I’m sure you were a wild child,” he said, laughing.

“I had my share of fun but never got into any real trouble. What was it my grandmother used to say? ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?”

“Buddy’s mom Martha says that, too.”

“I guess the bottom line is we all have things we regret from the past. Brayden comes highly recommended and has a clean record as an adult. I called his references, and they raved about him. The last people said they only let him go because they lost funding for their program. I wanted to do a three-month probationary period, but Brayden said it’s got to be all or nothing. If he’s going to pull up stakes and move to the estate, he doesn’t want it to be provisional.”

“We can write his contract so he can be terminated at any time for cause.”

“What does that mean?”

“That you can find fault with him for any reason you’d like and fire him.”

“Is that fair?”

“It’s fair to you. It gives you an out if he’s not getting the job done or if other information comes to light. It’s fairly common language in employment contracts. It’ll also give him the right to quit at any time, with at least a week’s notice.”

“So we’d both have an out if we need it.”

“Right.”

The other employees she’d hired were regular full-time workers, not contracted. Ashton had recommended doing a contract with Brayden and anyone else who was brought in to oversee special programs.

“I’ll put the contract together and shoot it over to you in the morning. You can run it past him, and we’ll go from there. When he’s ready to sign, send him to my office. We’ll need witnesses, which my people can do.”

“All right, thank you. I appreciate your help with this.”

“No problem.”

“Maggie,” Jill said, “Mom and the boys want to talk to you.”

“I’m coming.” She spent the next few minutes catching up with her mother, stepfather, Aidan, Max and Nick.

“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Clare said.

“We’re waiting for her to pop.” Maggie glanced at Kate, who was on a chaise in the living room with her feet up and her husband by her side, as usual. “Any time now.”

“Dad has a plane on standby to get us all there.”

“Of course he does,” Maggie said, laughing. Her dad, Jack, was nothing if not predictable when it came to his children.

“We can’t believe Kate’s going to make us grandparents!”

“She’s taking the pressure off the rest of us.” Maggie felt like she was light-years from where her sisters were, settling into marriages and families. She was still figuring out her own life, and after what’d happened in New York… Stop. Don’t go there.

“How’re things going with the job?”

“It’s an adventure. Every day is different. Today, we were all about preterm labor. Tomorrow, it might be an outbreak of lice. It’s never boring, that’s for sure.”

“Yikes. In case I haven’t said it enough, I’m so proud of the work you’re doing. You’re helping to change lives.”

“That’s the goal. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Be confident, Maggie. Kate and Reid wouldn’t have hired you if they didn’t believe in you.”

As much as Maggie wanted to believe that was true, she wondered sometimes if she would’ve had a prayer of landing this job if her sister and brother-in-law weren’t the bosses. Probably not since she had zero experience in the field, but she was certainly acquiring on-the-job training on a daily basis. “Thanks for the pep talk, Mom. We’ll see you soon.”

“Can’t wait. Love you, honey.”

“Love you, too.”

Maggie walked Jill’s phone into the living room and handed it to her sister. “I’m not sure who’s more excited about this baby, Kate, you guys or the Rhode Island contingent.”

“It’s probably a tie,” Kate said. “She texts me every day to ‘check in,’ and so does Dad. Andi only texts once a week, so she gets the award for restraint.”

“Our little one will be very well loved,” Reid said. “That’s for sure.”

His accent was to die for. Maggie could easily understand how eighteen-year-old Kate would’ve been bowled over by the man who’d been a college friend of their father’s. At the time, Maggie had been unable to imagine being attracted to a man so much older, but Reid was an exception to every rule, and he was hopelessly in love with Kate. That much was apparent to anyone who spent time with them. They’d spent ten years apart before getting their second chance, and were deliriously happy together.

What more could anyone ask for than to see someone they loved as much as she loved Kate with a man who worshiped the ground she walked on? Both the Matthews men had become the gold standard in Maggie’s mind, making most of the men she’d met since knowing them seem lacking in comparison.

A memory of Brayden Thomas’s handsome face popped into her mind, reminding her she still needed to decide what to do about him. They’d left things open-ended earlier, and she’d promised to be in touch one way or the other soon. Normally, she’d run it by Reid and Kate to get their opinion, but the therapeutic riding program was her baby, and they’d tell her it was up to her to decide who was going to run it.

Besides, they had enough on their plates with the baby due at any moment without her adding to their concerns. Her job was to run the facility so they didn’t have to be involved on a daily basis. No, this was her challenge, and she’d deal with it.

After a lively, entertaining and delicious dinner, Maggie kissed Kate’s cheek. “I’m going to go. Thanks for dinner, you guys.”

“We love any chance to have you guys over,” Reid said.

Maggie rested a hand on Kate’s explosive belly. “Call me—day or night. I’ll come running.”

“I will, don’t worry. I can’t do this without you and Jill.”

“We’ve got you covered.” Maggie and Jill had agreed to remain close by while the baby was born, but had declined Kate’s offer to be in the room. They were both afraid of seeing things that could never be forgotten. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

“Hey, Mags?”

Maggie turned back to face her sister.

“If the job is too much for you, you’re not under any obligation because it’s us. You know that, don’t you?”

“I do, and while I appreciate the out, I’m in for the long haul. No worries.”

“If you need anything, darlin’, you know where we are,” Reid added.

“Thank you both. Don’t worry about me. Stay focused on finishing cooking my niece or nephew.”

Kate rested her hands on her huge belly. “That’s about all I’m good for these days.”

Maggie laughed at the bored-senseless face Kate made and went back to the kitchen, where Jill was locked in a passionate embrace with Ashton. “Get a room, will ya? Oh wait, you live together, so why you gotta do that here?”

“Don’t be a grouch, Maggie,” Jill said while gazing at Ashton’s face.

“I’m outta here.”

“Drive carefully,” Jill said.

“Bye, Maggie,” Ashton said.

Maggie drove home through the darkness, thinking about her sisters and the happiness they’d found with Reid and Ashton. She’d never come anywhere near finding what they had. She thought she had once… Thinking about that—about him—made her ache, so she tried to never let her mind revisit that difficult time when she was in college and thought she’d found “the one,” until he’d cheated on her and broken her heart. Sometimes, when she was with her happily-in-love sisters, it was hard not to think back to that heady first love, the one she’d thought would last forever.

Why was she thinking about that when she had so many positive things to focus on? Her new job, new home, new niece or nephew, the upcoming visit with the family and Jill’s wedding next month… Life was good and busy and fulfilling. She had absolutely no reason to be dwelling on the past.

As she took the turn down the long lane that led to home, she vowed to stay focused on the present and the future.

She was done living in the past.

 

“Do you think Maggie’s all right?” Kate asked Reid after he’d helped her change into a nightgown and get into bed. She was so big that she needed help with the simplest things these days. While she couldn’t wait to meet her baby, she was also looking forward to not being pregnant anymore. How pregnancy was supposedly the most natural thing in the world was beyond her comprehension.

Wearing only boxers, he slid into bed and snuggled up to her. “She’s adjusting to her new home and job, and there’re apt to be some bumps along the way.”

Kate had forgotten how to sleep without his arms around her, not that he could get them “around” her these days. “I worry that she wouldn’t tell us if it wasn’t working for her.”

“She would.”

“She wouldn’t want to let us down.”

“We’ll keep an eye on her. Try not to worry.” He kissed her forehead. “You want me to rub your back?”

“That’s okay.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I know.”

“What’s the matter, darlin’?”

“I’m so tired of being fat and gross, and I want to have sex with you, but I can’t because of this ridiculous belly, and… Are you laughing? If you’re laughing, I’m going to kill you.”

“Well, first you’d have to catch me, and that’s going to be a problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re making fun of me when you did this to me!”

“I’m not making fun of you.”

“Yes, you are, and I’m going to remember this when I’m no longer fat and you’re the one who wants sex.”

“Sweetheart, if you want sex, all you have to do is say so.”

“We can’t! I’ll break you with this thing.”

He shook with silent laughter.

“If you don’t stop laughing at me, I’m going to divorce you.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“Yes, I am.”

“If you divorce me, you won’t have sex tonight.”

“Now you’re just being mean to me.”

He cozied up even closer, running his hand over the obscene bump and down to her leg. “My sweet, sweet love, I would never be mean to you, as you well know. If my baby mama is feeling needy, all she has to do is tell me, and we’ll take care of that.”

“The belly is massive.”

“And your husband is endlessly creative.” From behind her, he cupped her sensitive breasts and had her quickly ready for more.

Her body was an endless source of fascination to her as the pregnancy neared the end. Right when she would’ve thought sex would be the last thing on her mind, she found herself craving it. Kate had mostly kept that information to herself, because she feared her husband was put off by her obscenely large belly. She should’ve known better.

His hand slid down her front, gently sliding over the baby bump.

Kate shivered from the nearly painful need she felt for him.

Her nightgown slid up over her legs, which moved restlessly as she sought relief.

“Easy, sweetheart. Nice and easy.”

She was so primed that all he had to do was slide his fingers over the tight knot of nerves between her legs to send her spiraling into an intense orgasm.

“Mmm, I do so love pregnant Kate. We may have to do this baby-making thing again very soon.”

Kate groaned. The last thing she wanted to think about right now was being pregnant—again. She already knew if they were going to have two, the second one would have to happen soon. Only when they discussed having children did the significant age difference between them matter. The rest of the time, she hardly ever thought about it.

She had learned that having an older, more experienced husband had its advantages, such as when he artfully entered her from behind and had her screaming out his name before a second, even more powerful orgasm ripped through her.

“God, yes… Kate.” He held her tight against him as he found his own pleasure, surging into her and then going still behind her.

They were quiet for a long time as their bodies cooled and throbbed with aftershocks that she felt everywhere.

“Feel better?” he asked in the Tennessee drawl that had gotten her motor running for him from the first time she ever met him. In all the years they’d spent apart, one of the things she’d missed the most was the melodic sound of his voice.

“Much.” Her eyes were so heavy, she could barely keep them open.

“Any time you need me, you know where to find me.”

She squeezed the hand he’d placed on the swell of her abdomen. Their baby chose that moment to let them know he or she was awake.

Reid’s low chuckle made her smile. “I’m afraid our little one is going to be a hellion.”

“If not a hellion, perhaps a kicker on the football team.”

“Or a star soccer player.”

“Or a prima ballerina.”

“Or a star gymnast, a downhill skier, a distance runner…”

Kate drifted off to sleep to her favorite sound in the world—her husband’s voice.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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