Mac & Maddie
She’s a single mom with no patience for a playboy until he proves he’s playing for keeps.
Maddie Chester is determined to leave her hometown of Gansett Island, a place that has brought her only bad memories and ugly rumors. Then she’s knocked off her bike on the way to her housekeeping job at McCarthy’s Resort Hotel by Gansett’s “favorite son,” Mac McCarthy. He’s back in town to help his father with preparations to sell the family resort and has no intention of staying long. When Mac accidentally sends Maddie flying over the handlebars, badly injuring her, he moves in to nurse her back to health and help care for her young son. He soon realizes his plans for a hit-and-run visit to the island are in serious jeopardy, and he just may be “maid” for love.
MASS MARKET PAPERBACK
Maid for Love
(Gansett Island Series, Book 1)
By Marie Force
Madeline Chester retrieved her nine-month-old son Thomas from his crib and checked her watch. She was due at the hotel for the morning housekeeping shift in fifteen minutes. After a diaper change, she handed Thomas his bottle, grateful he could now hold it himself.
He let out a squeal of delight that drew a smile from Maddie.
“You like that, huh, buddy?”
His pudgy legs bounced about on either side of her hips, and she tightened her hold on him while attempting to tame his soft blond hair. She grabbed the diaper bag, the tote she took to work, retrieved her lunch from the refrigerator and headed out the door. Across the yard, she entered her sister’s house through the screen door on the back deck.
“Morning,” she called out.
“In here,” Tiffany said from the living room, where she sat amid three babies and a variety of toys. One of the babies was her daughter, Ashleigh, born just a month before Thomas. The other two Tiffany cared for as part of her in-home daycare business.
Maddie kissed Thomas, whispered that she loved him and plopped him down on the mat with the others. “I’m running late as usual.”
“Go ahead. We’re fine.”
“I’ll be back by three.”
“See you then.”
Tiffany watched Thomas for free during the day in exchange for Maddie taking over the daycare from three to six, while Tiffany taught dance classes in her studio under the apartment Maddie rented from Tiff and her husband Jim. The delicate balancing act left Maddie worn out at the end of every long day.
She jumped on her bulky old bike and set off for McCarthy’s Gansett Inn on the other side of the island. Checking her watch one more time, she groaned when she saw how close she was cutting it.
From his vantage point in the ferry’s wheelhouse, Mac McCarthy watched the bluffs on the island’s north coast come into view and felt the vise around his chest tighten. Just the sight of the island where he grew up made Mac feel confined.
“Never gets old, does it?” Mac’s childhood best friend, Captain Joe Cantrell, owned and operated Gansett’s thriving ferry business.
“What’s that?” Mac asked.
“The first view of the island. Always gives me a thrill to see it appear out of the fog.”
“Even after all the times you’ve seen it?”
“I still love it.”
Mac studied his old friend. Time had worn some lines into the corners of Joe’s hazel eyes, and his sandy hair was now shot through with streaks of gray that hadn’t been there on Mac’s last trip home.
“You ever wish you’d done something else?” Mac asked. “Gone out in the world a bit?”
Joe took a long drag off his trademark clove cigarette and flicked the ashes out the open doorway. “Go where? Do what?”
“Those things are gonna kill you,” Mac said, nodding to the cigarette.
“No faster than working twenty hours a day is gonna kill you.”
“Touché,” Mac said with a chuckle.
“Are you planning to tell mama bear about your night in the hospital?”
“Hell no! She’d freak out all over me. That’s the last thing I need.”
Joe laughed. “What’s it worth to ya?”
Mac shot him what he hoped was a menacing scowl. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“So what happened?”
“The doctors said it was an anxiety attack—too little sleep, too much work, too much stress. They ordered me to take at least a month off to recover.”
“How’d your partners take that news?”
“Not so well. We’re busier than hell, but they’ll handle it until I get back.” Mac and his partners owned a company that reconfigured Miami office space for new tenants.
“And your girlfriend? Roseanne, right?”
“My ex-girlfriend. We decided to cool it for a while. And then I got the email from my mother about my dad selling McCarthy’s… I told my mom I’d help him fix the place up a bit.”
“I still can’t believe that.”
Mac shrugged. “He can’t work forever, and none of us want to deal with it.”
“How’s your sister doing? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Despite the nonchalant question, Mac knew there was nothing nonchalant about his friend’s feelings for Janey. “Still carrying that torch?”
Joe shrugged. “I’ve yet to meet anyone I like better.”
“She and David are engaged, man. Might be time to move on.”
“Maybe.” He flashed the grin that had made him popular with the girls in high school—not that he’d noticed after he gave his young heart to Janey McCarthy. “She’s not married yet.”
“I’m not going to show up at the wedding in a gorilla suit and cart her off or anything.”
Mac studied the expression on his friend’s face: staged indifference mixed with wistfulness. “That sounds a little too well planned.”
“No worries, I don’t own a gorilla suit. I am thinking about getting a dog, though.”
Mac laughed at that because Janey worked for the island’s veterinarian.
Joe steered the 110-foot ferry past the breakwater to the island’s South Harbor port.
Mac watched the town of Gansett come into view—the bustling port, the white landmark Beachcomber Hotel with its clock tower and turrets, the Victorian Portside Inn, the strip of boutiques and T-shirt shops, the South Harbor Diner, Mario’s Pizzeria and Ice Cream Parlor where Mac stole his first kiss from Nicki Peterson in eighth grade.
His overriding memory of growing up there was plotting his escape. Once he finally managed to leave, he’d never looked back except for occasional visits to his parents. Every time he came home, he counted the minutes until he could leave again. This would be his longest stay since he turned eighteen and left for college. Mac wondered how long it would take before he was chomping to leave again.
Salt air, diesel fuel and rotting seaweed—the aromas of home—filled Mac’s senses and turned his stomach. He hated the smell of rotting seaweed.
“Come on back with me,” Joe said.
At the ferry’s stern, Mac watched as Joe used a combination of engine power and bow thrusters to efficiently turn the ferry in the tightest imaginable space and back it into its berth. “You make that look so damned easy.”
“It is easy—especially when you’ve done it a thousand or two times.”
Once the ferry was docked, they stood at the rail and watched the throngs of trucks, cars and tourists disembark from the day’s first boat to Gansett.
“I still spend Friday and Saturday nights on the island during the summer,” Joe said as Mac gathered up his stuff. “Come on by the Beachcomber if you feel like grabbing a brew or two.”
“I’ll do that.” Mac shook Joe’s hand. “It’s good to see you, man.”
“Been too long.”
“Yeah.” But as Mac took a long look at the bustling town of Gansett, he decided it hadn’t been nearly long enough.
Carrying his oversize backpack, Mac navigated the crowds on his way to Main Street. He stopped to let a family on bikes pass and continued up the hill, mesmerized by the frantic activity.
To his left, in neat, orderly rows, cars, vans and passenger trucks waited to back onto the nine a.m. ferry for the fifty-minute return trip to mainland Rhode Island. Joe’s employees moved like a well-oiled NASCAR pit crew, offloading cargo from the arriving ferry and reloading the next boat. The island relied on the ferries to deliver everything from food to mail to fuel to milk. During the summer, when the island’s thirty restaurants and bars operated at full tilt, each ferry brought new shipments of beer, wine, liquor, fresh seafood, potatoes, vegetables and linens.
A forklift carrying a pallet of soda came within inches of running into Mac.
“Sorry, man,” the operator called out with a smile.
Mac waved to the driver. He cleared the cargo area and fixed his gaze on the Beachcomber, the iconic building that anchored the town. The quacking horn of a Range Rover painted yellow and tricked out like a duck—complete with a bill affixed to the hood—caught Mac’s eye. Laughing at the JSTDKY license plate, he stepped off the curb onto Main Street.
A searing pain stabbed through his left leg, sending him sprawling into the street.
Mac lay there for a second, trying to catch his breath and gather his wits. A young woman was lying next to him, her bike about to be run over by a pickup truck that would hit her next. Mac ignored the burning pain in his calf and leaped up to stop the truck inches from her. He wasn’t fast enough to keep the truck from mangling her bike, though.
Mac squatted down to help the woman. Her top had ridden up in the fall, so he noticed her extravagant curves and had to remind himself that she was hurt. She was struggling to breathe and must’ve had the wind knocked out of her by the fall. He quickly adjusted her shirt to cover full breasts.
“Take it easy,” he said. “Don’t struggle. That’ll only make it worse.”
Frantic caramel-colored eyes stared up at him
The impact of their eyes meeting hit him like a locomotive to the chest. What the heck was that? Long hair the same color as her eyes fanned out under her head, and blood poured from huge cuts on her knee, elbow and hand. Mac winced, wishing he’d been more careful.
Tears spilled from her eyes.
Mac reached out to brush them away, his fingers tingling as they skimmed over her soft skin.
Her eyes widened, and she seemed to stop breathing altogether.
“Breathe,” he said.
Anxious to get her away from the prying eyes of the crowd that had formed around them, Mac slid his arms under her and lifted her from the pavement.
She let out a startled gasp and then a moan as her injured leg bent around his arm. “W-what’re you doing?”
“My friend Libby runs the Beachcomber. She’s a volunteer paramedic on the Gansett Fire Department. Let’s go get you cleaned up. Did you hit your head?”
“No, just my arm and leg.” She turned her palm up. “And my hand.”
Mac’s stomach roiled at the sight of her pulpy hand. “God, I’m so sorry.” Still carrying her, he crossed the street to the hotel. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
She struggled against his firm hold. “I need to get to work, so if you could just put me down. Please…”
“You can’t go to work in this condition. You’re bleeding.”
“I have to go or I’ll get fired.”
Her twisting and squirming caused her round rear end to press against his belly, which sent a lurid message straight down to where he lived.
He groaned. “Do you mind holding still?”
“No one asked you to carry me,” she retorted, apparently misinterpreting his groan.
“Look, I can’t just put you down and send you on your way when you’re bleeding all over the place. Let’s get you patched up, and we’ll see what’s what.”
“I’ll get fired,” she whispered, her eyes flooding with new tears.
“Where do you work? I’ll call them and let them know you had an accident.”
“They won’t believe you. They’re bastards.”
“I can be very convincing.” He took the steps leading to the Beachcomber two at a time, ignoring the shooting pain from his own injured leg. The porch was full of people having breakfast, and his passenger turned her face into his chest. At the maître d’ stand, he asked for Libby and was shown to her office off the lobby.
“Mac!” Smiling, Libby jumped up from her desk chair. “I didn’t know you were coming home!” She glanced at the woman in his arms, whose shaft of long hair hid her face. “And bringing a friend. Don’t tell me you ran away and got married.”
“Not exactly. We had a little accident on the street.”
Libby glanced at the woman’s leg, saw the blood and went into paramedic mode. “Bring her in here.” She gestured to a sofa in her office.
“I don’t want to get blood all over your sofa,” the injured woman said.
Libby grabbed some towels and spread them out.
As Mac put down his passenger, her breast bounced against his arm, sending another burst of lust coursing through him. Her hourglass figure reminded him of the old pinup girl posters his father had in the garage when Mac was a kid. Betty Boop had nothing on this woman.
With her uninjured hand, she brushed the hair back off her pretty face.
“Maddie!” Libby cried. “What happened?”
Maddie gestured at Mac. “Someone wasn’t watching where he was going and knocked me off my bike, which is now totaled.”
Libby tied back shoulder-length dark hair and broke out an elaborate first-aid kit from under her desk.
Mac hovered in the doorway to the small office. “Do you want me to call your work to let them know you’ll be out today?”
“Just tell them I’ll be late. I can’t afford to miss a whole shift.”
No way could she work today, but Mac wasn’t going to argue with her—yet. “Where am I calling?”
“McCarthy’s Gansett Inn, housekeeping department.”
Smiling to himself, he reached for his cell phone and dialed the number from memory. Maddie watched him, a startled expression on her face.
Keeping his eyes fixed on her, he asked for the housekeeping department. “Ethel? Hey, it’s Mac McCarthy.”
Maddie gasped from the double shock of hearing his name and having antiseptic applied to her gruesome cuts.
He whispered to Maddie, “What’s your last name?”
“Chester,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Little Mac McCarthy, you devil,” Ethel said. “How in the hell are you?”
“I’m great. How are you?”
“I wasn’t on the island five minutes when I knocked one of your housekeepers off her bike.”
“Still causing trouble, I see,” Ethel said with her trademark guffaw. “Which one?”
“Maddie Chester. She’s with me at the Beachcomber, and she’s hurt pretty bad. Libby’s patching her up, but I don’t think she can make it in today.”
Maddie scowled at him.
Ethel released a deep sigh. “All right, if you say she can’t work, I’ll cover her shift.”
“Thanks, Ethel. I’ll be over to say hello, but don’t tell my mom I’m here. She doesn’t know I’m coming.”
“She’ll be over the moon, honey. Good to have you home.”
“That’s not what I told you to say,” Maddie snapped the second he ended the call.
“You really think you can clean today with your hand ripped to shreds? Not to mention your arm and leg?”
“He’s right, Maddie,” Libby said as she covered the ugly wound on Maddie’s leg with a large gauze pad. “It’ll hurt like heck in an hour.”
“Already does,” Maddie said with a wince.
Her face had lost all color, her mouth was twisted with pain and Mac hated that he had caused her suffering. Despite her killer figure, an aura of fragility surrounded her, with the notable exception of her hands, which were rough and obviously used to hard work.
“You’ll need to be real careful with that hand for a week or two,” Libby continued. “It won’t take much to cause a bad infection if you get something in those open cuts.”
Maddie closed her eyes and tipped her head back against the sofa. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “What am I going to do?”
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. The refrain played over and over as Maddie pondered the deep load of crap she was in—or, rather, the deep load of crap Mac McCarthy had pushed her into. From the second she’d looked up to see him leaning over her in the street, he’d seemed familiar to her. But with her injuries demanding her full attention, she’d been unable to put a name to the distinctive face. The nearly twenty years since he’d led Gansett High School to the state baseball championship had transformed him from a handsome boy into a stunning man.
Jet-black hair that curled over his collar, bright blue eyes, broad shoulders, defined pecs… After the way she’d ogled him in school, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t recognized him instantly. No, she’d had just enough time to call his parents bastards before she put two and two together to get Mac McCarthy.
Except for the dark circles under his eyes and the grayish tone to his complexion, the man was utter perfection. She knew from Mrs. McCarthy, who bragged about her five darlings incessantly, that Mac lived in South Florida. You’d never know it to look at him.
Back when he’d been five years ahead of her in school, he’d never even known she was alive. And now, the first time he saw her, really saw her, he got a full view of the bane of her existence—her overly large breasts. She wanted to die just thinking about it. Maddie wished she could either disappear or find a way to make Mac McCarthy and his big, hulking presence go away.
She opened her eyes. Still there. Still hovering. Still gorgeous. “You don’t have to hang out,” she said. “I can take it from here.”
“I’ll see you home.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“It’s my fault this happened—”
“I hit you.”
“Because I stepped in front of you.”
“You got hit by the bike, Mac?” Libby asked, turning to him. “Let me see.”
Mac turned his leg to show a huge bruise forming on his calf.
Both women gasped.
“It’s nothing.” Mac stood and put on his backpack. “If you’re ready,” he said to Maddie, “I’ll take you home.”
“And how do you plan to do that?”
“I’ll carry you.”
“What if I live on the other side of the island?”
“I’ll get a cab.”
“I don’t need you to take custody of me! I’ll figure something out the same way I always do.”
Mac leaned in so his face was inches from hers. “You’re injured because of me, and I’m going to help you. Now, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. What’s it going to be?”
The air crackled between them as they stared each other down.
“You’ve got a lot of your mother in you, huh?”
He glowered at her. “Now you’re just being mean.”
“I’ve, ah, got to get back to work,” Libby said. “Come in for lunch while you’re home, Mac.”
“I will. Thanks for your help, Lib,” Mac said without looking away from Maddie.
When they were alone, Maddie said, “You think just because you’re a mighty McCarthy everyone has to do what you say, don’t you?”
“I don’t know what my family has done to piss you off, but since I haven’t lived here in almost twenty years, I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with me.”
She attempted to cross her arms in impatience and grimaced at the pain that radiated from her elbow. For a brief, sickening second, she wondered if she had broken it. Then it finally gave way and bent the way it was supposed to. All she could think about was how much money this lost day of work was going to cost her, if it didn’t cost her the job itself.
“What’s it going to be? I can stay right here all day.” He leaned against the edge of Libby’s desk. “I’m on vacation.”
Oh! He’s so sanctimonious and infuriating! “Fine! If you have some sort of macho need to see this through to the gruesome finish, you can take me home, but for the love of God, take me out the back door so I’m not any more of a public spectacle.”
Mac scooped her up and gave her a moment to get her injured arm and leg settled. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, releasing a long, deep breath.
While she once again hid her face against his faded yellow T-shirt, he carried her through the lobby and out the back door. He smelled of sporty deodorant and laundry detergent, and his steady heartbeat echoed in her ear. Too bad he was a McCarthy. Otherwise, she might be tempted to forget about her no-men-ever-again policy.
Maddie directed him through a series of pathways behind the buildings that made up downtown Gansett.
“I used to play cops and robbers with my brothers back here.”
“I used to drag trash bags heavier than I was to the dumpsters when my mother worked at these places.” She let her gaze travel up over the strong column of his neck to focus on his jaw, which seemed tense. Maddie wondered what it would be like to trail her lips along his whisker-sprinkled jaw…
He glanced down to catch her studying him. “What?”
Her cheeks heated with embarrassment. “Nothing.” After a long pause, she said, “Your leg has to be hurting. Why don’t you put me down? I can walk.” He surprised her when he did as she asked. The sudden weight on her injured knee sent pain shooting through her, and she cried out from the shock of it.
“Have we proven that you could use a lift?”
A surge of nausea took her breath away. “Yes,” she whispered. “Please.”
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, surprising her again with the tender gesture. “I’m really sorry this happened.”
Maddie ventured a glance up at him and swallowed hard, taken aback by his intense gaze. “I know you are.”
“I’ll make it up to you.”
“You don’t have to. It was an accident.”
“An accident that was my fault.” He lifted her carefully and once again gave her a minute to settle her injured limbs before continuing on.
Maddie directed him to her apartment over Tiffany’s studio.
“Isn’t this the Sturgil place?” Mac asked.
She nodded. “My sister Tiffany is married to Jim Sturgil.” As they reached the foot of her stairs, Maddie realized her purse was still attached to the wrecked bike. “My bag! I never got it off the bike. My wallet, keys—”
“Take it easy.” He carried her up the stairs to her door. “I’ll track it down for you.”
Maddie tried to remember how much cash she’d had in her wallet. Twenty, maybe thirty dollars, but she needed every one of them. “The door isn’t locked,” she told him.
Somehow, he managed to carry her, open the door and get her inside without causing her any additional pain. She watched him take a quick survey of the small space and felt her defenses rise. No doubt he was used to much better, but she refused to be ashamed of the home she’d put together for herself and her son.
His eyes landed and settled on the baby toys stacked in the corner. “You’re a mom?”
“My son Thomas is nine months old.”
He lowered her to the tattered sofa she’d bought at a yard sale. “Where is he?”
“My sister watches him during the day. Oh God. The kids.”
“I take over for my sister at the daycare at three so she can teach her dance classes. She watches Thomas for me, and that’s how I pay her back.”
“I’ll do it.”
“I’ll watch the kids for you. How hard can it be?”
“Have you ever even changed a diaper?”
“I’m sure I have. Some time.”
“Right. Look, I know you’re probably some sort of Boy Scout—”
“Actually, I’m an Eagle Scout,” he said with a proud smile.
“Of course you are, but you’ve really got to go now. Your family is expecting you—”
“They didn’t know I was coming today.”
Maddie wanted to shriek in frustration. Why can’t he get the message and leave me alone? And then it hit her in a wave of sickening despair. “It’s not going to happen,” she spat at him.
“What are you talking about now?”
“Get out of my cabinets! What’re you doing?”
“Looking for some painkillers and a glass.” He produced a bottle of medicine and a glass of water and brought both to her.
“Thank you,” she muttered after she swallowed the pills. “Now, please, just go, will you?”
But of course he sat on the coffee table, and Maddie prayed the flimsy table would hold his two-hundred-pounds-of-pure-muscle frame. “So, what’s not going to happen?”
“I know what you’re after.” She wanted to smack the amused expression off his face.
“And what’s that?”
“You think if you’re nice to me that you’ll get something in return.”
Amusement faded to bafflement. “Like what?”
“Don’t be obtuse. I know you got a good look out there on the street, so you’re hanging around hoping to get your hands—among other things—on Maddie Chester’s famous breasts.”
He stared at her for a long, breathless moment. “That is so not true.”
“And how are you different from every other man alive?”
“When I look at you, the first thing I see are gorgeous eyes that remind me of the way melted caramel looks over vanilla ice cream. They’re a rather interesting combination of brown and gold. Your mouth, when it’s not twisted with cynicism and bitterness, is so lush and pretty that my personal fantasies—if I had them about you, that is—would definitely be focused there, not on what’s under your T-shirt. As spectacular as they may be, I’m more of an ass-and-leg man myself.”
Maddie had never been more shocked in her life—or more seduced by words alone.
“Now that we’ve got that subject covered, let’s talk money.”
That brought her right back to reality. “What about it?”
“I want to pay for your lost wages.”
“Absolutely not.” She might be short on cash, but she still had her pride, and no one—especially someone named McCarthy—was going to take that from her.
“You have to let me help you, Maddie. I know you can’t afford to miss work.”
“That’s the least of it! If I miss more than one shift, they’ll replace me. They need the job done. They don’t care who does it.”
“I believe we’ve established that I have some sway with the owners of the hotel and can prevent that from happening.”
“Good for you. That still doesn’t get my job done, and it won’t help me when they decide who they’re keeping for the winter and who gets laid off.”
“Then I’ll do the job for you until you’re back on your feet.”
Maddie cracked up. “Sure you will.”
“You don’t think I can do it?”
She realized he was serious. “You have no idea what it even entails. How can you be so sure you can do it?”
“I’m capable of building a thirty-story structure. I think I can handle cleaning a few hotel rooms.”
Maddie studied his supremely handsome face. “All right.” What else could she do? She couldn’t afford to lose her job, so she had no choice but to let him help her. “Since you seem determined to make it up to me, I accept.”
He flashed a victorious smile. “Excellent. Now what about the kids? Could I be your arms and legs there, too?”
“Have you ever changed a diaper? Seriously?”
“No,” he confessed, quickly adding, “but I’m a fast learner. If you tell me what to do, I’ll do it.”
He’d be saving her life if he stepped in for her, but wait until he saw what the summer people were capable of doing to a hotel room. Just the idea of a mighty McCarthy stooping to the level of manual laborer at the hotel his family owned brought a smile to her face. She offered her uninjured hand. “Deal.”
He shocked her again when he took her hand and brushed a soft kiss over the back of it. “Excellent. Now, let me go find your purse and see about getting you some lunch.”
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