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Page 18

“So she needs two grown men hovering over her?”

Mark replied carefully. “I need to be there.”

Shelby nodded and let out a slow breath. “Okay. Obviously there’s no point debating this right now. Should I take you to the airport?”

“I called for a cab.”

“I’d offer to come with you, but I want to be there for my cousin tonight.”

“I understand.” Mark put a hand on her back in a gesture of appeasement. Her spine was stiff and straight, as if it had been carved in ice. “I’m going to take care of dinner. I’ll leave my credit card number with the hostess.”

“Thank you. Bill and Allison will appreciate that.” Shelby looked glum. “Call me later and let me know how Holly is. Although I already know she’ll be fine.”

“Okay.” He leaned down to kiss her, and she turned her face so that his lips met her cheek.

Nine

The cab ride to the airport seemed to take forever. The flight back to Friday Harbor was so slow that Mark was certain he could have gotten there faster by kayak. By the time he’d driven back home to Rainshadow Vineyard, it was almost ten o’clock. An unfamiliar car was parked in the driveway, a white Sebring.

Mark entered the house through the back, walking straight into the kitchen. Sam was there, pouring himself a glass of wine. He looked haggard. The front of his T-shirt was water-splotched, and his hair was standing up in places. An array of medicine bottles and empty glasses had accumulated on the counter, as well as a plastic jug of rehydrating drink.

Sam looked at him with a flicker of surprise and shook his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” he said in resignation. “My God, Shelby must be pissed.”

Setting down his bag, Mark stripped off his jacket. “I don’t give a damn. How is Holly? Whose car is in the driveway?”

“It’s Maggie’s. And Holly’s better. She hasn’t thrown up for an hour and a half.”

“Why did you call Maggie?” Mark asked, nonplussed.

“Holly likes her. And when I met her on Halloween, she told me to let her know if we ever needed help with Holly. I tried Alex first, but there was no answer, so I called Maggie. She came right over. God, she is great. While I was at the store, she put Holly in a lukewarm bath, cleaned things up, and got her to keep down some medicine.”

“So the fever’s gone?”

“For the time being. It keeps spiking, though. We’ll have to keep checking on her.”

“I’ll take the night shift,” Mark said. “You get some rest.”

Sam gave him a weary smile and took another swallow of wine. “I could have handled it. But I’m glad you came back.”

“I had to. I would have been rotten company at the party tonight, worrying about Holly.”

“What did Shelby say?”

“She’s not happy.”

“She’ll get over it. This is nothing that a bouquet of flowers and a little groveling won’t fix.”

Mark shook his head irritably. “I’m not above groveling. But it’s not going to work out with Shelby.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “You’re going to break up with her over this?”

“No, it’s not this. It’s just that lately I’ve realized…never mind, I’ll tell you later. I have to see Holly.”

“If the two of you split,” Sam said as Mark headed for the stairs, “make sure that Shelby knows I’m available for revenge sex.”

The hallway that led to Holly’s room smelled like ammonia and bath soap. Lamplight sent a soft varnish across the rough wood flooring. For a moment Mark tried to imagine what an outsider’s impression of the house would be: some of the unfinished rooms, the floors that needed sanding, the unpainted interiors. It was a work in progress. At this point, they had spent their efforts on structural restoration, making the house safe and sound, but they hadn’t gotten around to doing much cosmetic work on it yet. No doubt Maggie had been appalled.

Entering Holly’s room, he stopped just inside the doorway. Maggie was on the bed beside Holly, who was snuggled in the crook of her arm. A new stuffed animal was tucked on Holly’s other side.

With her face bare of makeup, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Maggie looked like a teenager. There were scattershot golden freckles on her nose and the crests of her cheeks. She was reading aloud to Holly, who was glassy-eyed but peaceful.

Holly gazed toward Mark with drowsy confusion. “You came back.”

Mark went to the bed and leaned over her, smoothing back her hair. His hand lingered on her forehead, testing her temperature. “’Course I came back,” he murmured. “I couldn’t stay away if my girl is sick.”

“I threw up,” she told him solemnly.

“I know, sweetheart.”

“And Maggie brought me a new teddy bear and gave me a bath—”

“Shhh…you’re supposed to be falling asleep.”

He looked over at Maggie, and was caught by her dark gaze. He had to check himself from reaching out to touch her, from grazing his fingertips across the festive spray of flecks across her nose.

Maggie smiled at him. “One more page to finish the chapter?” she said, a question tipping her voice, and he nodded.

Drawing back, Mark sat on the side of the bed as Maggie continued to read. His gaze fell on Holly, her lids heavy, her breathing slow and steady. Tenderness and relief and anxiety tangled in his chest.

“Uncle Mark,” the child whispered when the chapter was done. A small hand fumbled out to him across the quilt.

“Yes?”

“Sam said I could have”—she paused with a yawn—“a Popsicle for breakfast.”

“That sounds fine.” Mark lifted her hand and kissed it. “Go to sleep,” he murmured. “I’ll be watching over you tonight.”

Holly settled deeper into the pillows and dropped off to sleep. Slowly, Maggie extricated herself, maneuvering off the bed. She was wearing jeans and sneakers, and a pink cotton sweater that had ridden up to her waist, revealing a strip of pale midriff. She flushed and pulled the hem of the sweater down, but not before Mark’s gaze had flickered to an intimate flash of skin.

They left the room together, turning down the lamp but leaving a night-light glowing.

“Thank you,” Mark said quietly, leading the way through the dim hallway to the stairs. “I’m sorry Sam had to call you. I should have been here.”

“It was no problem. I had nothing else to do.”

“It’s no fun, taking care of someone else’s sick kid.”

“I’m used to sickness. Nothing bothers me. And Holly is such a sweetheart, I would do anything for her.”

Mark reached for her hand and heard her breath catch. “Careful, the floor’s uneven here. We haven’t finished leveling it.”

Her fingers folded, and so did his, their hands tightening into a compact and intimate sphere. She let him lead her to the stairs.

“The house isn’t much to look at,” Mark said.

“It’s great. It has wonderful bones. When you’re finished restoring it, it will be the most charming house on the island.”

“We’ll never be finished,” Mark said, and she laughed.

“I saw two rooms that were beautifully finished…Holly’s room, and her bathroom. That says a lot.” Slipping her hand free of his, Maggie took hold of the banister.

“Let me go first,” Mark said.

“Why?”

“If you fall, I’ll be able to catch you.”

“I won’t fall,” she protested, but she let him precede her. As they went down the stairs, her voice descended on him like delicate petals. “I brought back your thermos. No thanks to you, I’m drinking coffee again. Although nothing tastes as good as the stuff you brought me.”

“Secret ingredient.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“If you could make it for yourself, you wouldn’t come back for more.”

A brief silence as she tried to interpret that. “I’m coming back tomorrow morning, to see Holly on my way to the shop. Does that mean I get a refill?”

“For you, unlimited refills.” Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Mark turned and caught Maggie just as she began to stumble.

“Oh—” She gasped and reached out for him, her body colliding softly against his. Mark steadied her, settling his hands at her hips. A few of her curls brushed the side of his face, the touch of cool silk arousing him instantly. She was poised on the step, her weight still balanced on a forward pitch, entirely his to control. He was acutely aware of her, the warm, quick-breathing tension that he longed to soothe.

“The banister ends before the last step,” he said. One of the house’s innumerable quirks that he and Sam had adjusted to, but it always caught visitors unaware.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” she whispered.

Her hands were on his shoulders. So easily, he could have urged her forward and kissed her. But he kept still, holding her in something that was almost an embrace. They were close enough that he could feel her breath stirring the air between them.

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