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“Hello, my beautiful girl,” Aidan McKinnon said to his best friend. “Long day. You’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ll tell ya.”
“Well hello to you, too.” Maura Callahan smiled and pulled him into her house, closing the door behind him. She couldn’t help but give him a full once-over; he was dressed in a navy suit, with a pale blue button-down shirt and striped tie that set off the brilliant marine blue of his eyes. “Aren’t you dressed up tonight? Looking sharp, there.”
“Yeah? Thanks. Big meeting at work.” He quickly unknotted his tie, as if he’d forgotten it was there until she mentioned his appearance. “Hate these bloody things. But I came straight here, didn’t want to waste time going home to change first.”
“I’m just not used to seeing you like this,” she said.
“Like what? A grownup?” he joked, pulling the tie out of his collar and tossing it onto the nearby armchair.
She admitted, “Aye, maybe.”
“Some people actually consider me quite the professional, y’know.”
“Well, they don’t know you like I do. They’ve never seen you passed out after one too many beers at university.”
“Fair point,” he said with a chuckle.
She watched as he opened the top two buttons of his shirt and discarded his jacket on the same chair as his tie. He exhaled with relief.
“So,” she asked warily, “what’s this mystery proposition of yours you mentioned on the phone, that you came over here for a visit?”
He grinned his famous crooked grin, one she’d seen so many times over the past decade—usually before he’d said or done something mischievous. “First things first. Ya got a beer for me, love?”
“You know where the fridge is,” she said, and gave him a soft shove towards the kitchen. “Help yourself, then get your arse back out here and tell me what’s going on.”
With a nod and a wink, Aidan went. She stared after him, curiosity furrowing her brow as she went to sit on her couch.
“Mummy, Mummy, Mummyyyy.” Her four-year-old daughter singsonged as she ran down the stairs and into the living room. Chloe’s long braids swung as she leapt into her mother’s waiting arms with a giggle and a smile. “I heared the doorbell. Did someone come?”
“Aye, Uncle Aidan’s here.” Maura gave the tiny girl an affectionate squeeze before setting her back down. “He’s in the kitchen getting a—”
Chloe took off running for the kitchen.
“Drink,” Maura finished with a laugh.
She sat on the couch and was able to get out one long exhale before they came back into the living room. She looked up to see Aidan strolling in, her daughter in one arm as he held a beer with his other hand. Tall and lean, with those bright blue eyes and dark blond hair that was longish and always tousled, wearing his dressy clothes, she couldn’t help but admire him. Best friend or not, he was a seriously good-looking man, and she could appreciate that—she’d made herself practically into a nun, but she wasn’t dead. Seeing him holding her little girl and chatting with her, with a besotted expression on his face, just made him all the more appealing.
She watched as he crossed the room, plopping Chloe down on the couch before sitting on the other side of her. Chloe looked from one adult to the other, a happy smile on her face.
“Now you’re a Chloe sandwich,” Aidan said.
The little girl laughed at his joke.
Maura shifted so Chloe could snuggle into her side, but the girl snuggled into Aidan instead. “Uncle Ay,” she asked, her big blue eyes wide with hope, “are you staying for dinner? We’re having pizza tonight, ’cos it’s just me and Mummy.”
“You are, eh?” He raked a hand through his already tousled hair as his eyes lifted from the girl to her mother. “Where’s your mum tonight?”
“Book club,” Maura said. “So Princess Chloe and I have the palace to ourselves.”
He smiled down at Chloe and said, “Aye, I’ll stay, if you’re inviting me to, miss.”
“I am!” Chloe cried.
He leaned in and dropped a kiss on top of the girl’s strawberry blonde hair. “Thank you, Princess Chloe. I accept.”
Maura smiled warmly. Aidan was so good with her daughter. He’d been her best friend since they’d met at uni a decade before, and they’d always been there for each other. But their lives were pretty different now; his social life was much more active than hers. Hell, to think that would imply she even had a social life, which she didn’t. Aidan was a young single, his career as a software programmer for a high profile social media company was soaring, and he lived it up in the center of Dublin. She was a struggling single mum in the suburbs, almost half an hour away from the city, living quietly with her mum. Her life had become… well, boring. She never thought she’d be so boring at twenty-nine, but it was true. Juggling a job one didn’t care about and single motherhood had that effect.
“You don’t have plans tonight?” Maura asked. “No hot date lined up?” He went on dates all the time; she often joked he dated enough for the both of them.
“Nope,” Aidan said. “Besides…” He turned his gaze down to Chloe and tweaked her tiny nose, his eyes dancing. “I won’t find a prettier girl out there than the two right here before me.”
Chloe smiled, pleased, and twisted the end of one of her long braids around her fingers. “Really, Uncle Ay?”
“Charmer.” Maura scoffed, rising from the couch. She had dark circles under her eyes, her hair was in a tangled pony tail, and her yoga pants felt a bit snug around her waistline. Yeah, she was a smashing beauty, all right. “I’ll go call for the pizza, then. Could be an hour by the time it gets here.”
“I’m buyin’,” Aidan said, reaching to his pocket for his wallet. “Here—”
“Put your money away, McKinnon,” Maura commanded. “We invited you to stay for dinner.”
“Don’t make me fight you in front of your daughter,” Aidan warned. His eyes twinkled as his long fingers held his credit card out to her. “Please. My treat this time.”
“You want to treat every time.”
“ ’Cause I’m a gentleman and my ma raised me right.”
“Aye, that she did.” Maura took the card from his outstretched hand. “Okay, this time. Thanks for dinner, then.”
“My pleasure.” He took another swallow of beer before setting it down on the coffee table. “So!” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “We’ve got the whole house to ourselves, eh? What should we do first?”
“Let’s play video games!” Chloe cried gleefully.
“Well, of course!” Aidan settled back into the couch. “You’re on, little miss.”
Maura watched her daughter spring up to retrieve her tablet from the other room, then looked back down at Aidan. “So what was this proposition…?”
“Aye! That. Right.” He reached for his beer again. “When are we going to be able to talk without Chloe listening?”
“Um… I’m not sure.” Maura narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s the big secret?”
“Not a secret,” he said, “but I just don’t want her to overhear and get excited if your answer is no. Not that I’ll take no for an answer on this one.” He took a sip of beer, his eyes sparkling and trained on her. “You’re dying to know now, aren’t ya.”
“You’re such a bloody tease.”
Aidan laughed, a warm, full sound that made Maura grin, too. She’d always loved his vibrant laugh.
Chloe wasn’t the only female in the family who treasured Aidan. Maura’s mother adored him, both her older sisters liked him… he meant the world to her. His friendship had been one of the few constants she could count on in the past few turbulent years. While most of her friends drifted away, living it up as singles while she had to move back home with her mum to raise her baby alone, Aidan had stuck by her. In fact, he was around enough for Maura to make him her daughter’s godfather, and for Chloe to call him “Uncle”. Maura and Aidan texted every day, talked often, and he came by once or twice a week to see her and Chloe, whether it was to watch a movie or grab a pint down at the local.
Now her eyes travelled over him as he stretched out his long legs and rolled up his sleeves to his elbows. Maura wasn’t used to seeing him dressed this way, not in his usual T-shirt or Henley and jeans, and it was strange how it’d thrown her a bit. He looked so… well, dammit, he looked… hot. Something low in her belly stirred the slightest bit and she blushed, turning away. Was that… was that a flash of lust she’d just felt? For Aidan? Good lord, she hadn’t sex in so long, she was eyeing her bestie just because he looked like some sinfully sexy executive tonight. That was insanity.
Of course, he’d find someone, sooner than later. He was a real catch. He’d turned twenty-nine just two weeks ago and had a great future in front of him. He was handsome and sexy, charming and funny, smart and had a good job, and adored kids. Well, he adored her kid, anyway. How had one of the many gorgeous women who threw themselves at him—and Maura knew that happened often—not snagged him yet and gotten him to commit? Would he ever settle down? It didn’t seem like it. He was having too much fun playing around, God bless him. A tiny barb stabbed at her as she thought about the woman who’d one day be lucky enough to own his heart. She better be good to him, or she’d have Maura to answer to, that was for sure.
“You’re staring at me,” he said. His brows lifted as he held her gaze. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Just thinkin’,” Maura mumbled, preoccupied with her thoughts.
What had brought all this on tonight? Just because he’d walked into her house dressed in a killer suit? That was crazy. But, sweet lord, he looked good. He really did. She was only human, after all.
“What’s the story?” He lifted the dark bottle to his lips and knocked back another swallow of beer. “C’mon, love, spill.”
Thankfully, Chloe interrupted, running back in and jumping onto the couch with an energetic flop.
She snuggled into Aidan’s side. “I have a new game, with letters. It’s an alphabet game. And it has bunnies. Want to see?”
“Bring it on!” His free arm slid around the little girl, but he shot one last questioning glance at Maura. “You okay, Em?”
He always called her “Em”, had since the first week they’d met. He’d turned the first letter of her name into an affectionate nickname that had stuck.
“Aye, I’m fine,” she assured him.
Seeing him with her daughter, so tender and adoring, made her heart give its usual little squeeze. Chloe had never known Niall, her biological father, much less anyone from his family, and Maura’s father had passed away when she was fourteen. Aidan was the closest thing to a dad Chloe knew, really. At the very least, he was a positive, male role model. He’d been more than a good godfather to Chloe, he truly loved her. Maura was so grateful there was one good man in their world. Aidan was her unicorn.
Chloe giggled as Aidan tickled lightly under her chin, making Maura smile, too.
“Em?” Aidan’s voice broke through her reverie again. “You’re startin’ to worry me. You’re standing here, but it’s like you’re on another planet. You feelin’ all right?”
“Aye, I’m fine, don’t be a hen.” Maura forced a grin. “I’m just zoning out because I’m hungry. Had a long day at work.”
“You callin’ for that pizza, then?” Aidan asked.
His eyes scoured her; he sensed something.
He knew her too well, dammit. “Right, right.” Maura turned away and swallowed a sigh. Her thoughts were so strange tonight. She needed a beer herself. She waved his credit card in the air. “Making the call now, ya worrywart.”
Aidan watched Maura cross the room to pull her cell phone from her bag. She’d totally zoned out there, with her gaze fixed on him. Not once, but twice. Weird.
“Uncle Ay,” Chloe said in her little helium voice that he adored, “you have to tap what letter is missing from the word, or the bunny doesn’t get his carrot.”
“Huh? Aye, sorry, love. Like this?”
They played together while Maura ordered the food, and didn’t stop when she rejoined them on the couch two minutes later. He stole a glance at her and she grinned; she seemed okay now. She relaxed into the soft cushions, watching them play with a sweet smile on her face. That face… God, how he adored Maura’s face. The light dusting of freckles that covered every inch of her pale skin, her blue-grey eyes that shone with intelligence, her high cheekbones, the sweet curve of her lips. Her long, rose gold hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a bit mussed and thoroughly adorable.
His best friend was a natural beauty. Apart from maybe some tinted lip balm, she rarely wore makeup, and she didn’t need any. She was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. He knew she didn’t think she was all that, but he sure as hell did. He had since the moment they’d met, back in their second year at university.
But tonight, she also looked tired. He wondered if he should be concerned. She worked long days, then went straight to pick up Chloe from the day care center if her mum couldn’t get there first. Though Maura was good at her job, she didn’t love it. She’d always had a head for numbers and found work in an accounting firm, as an assistant to one of the partners. The work was steady, but not challenging. The only reasons she stayed there were they were understanding about her child care situation and the office was less than ten minutes from both her house and the day care. She had very little time to herself. Sometimes he wondered if he was the only person left in her life who insisted that she have any fun.
Since she moved back in with her mum to raise Chloe, almost five years ago now, Maura had slowly isolated herself. He admired her determination to do what was right for her daughter, always putting Chloe’s welfare and needs before her own… but he’d wondered more than once if she wasn’t somehow punishing herself as well. For falling in love with and trusting Niall, a man who ended up hurting and betraying her in the worst ways imaginable. It had broken more than her heart when he ditched her and their unborn child; it had broken her spirit.
The truth was, she’d never been the same since. She wasn’t the sweet yet feisty girl he’d known before, open to everything and everyone, ready to take on whatever came her way with enthusiasm and an infectious smile. Sure she’d recovered, and made a decent life for herself and Chloe… but damn, he missed her brilliant, open smile. The one that reached her eyes. He rarely caught it nowadays.
When he met her back at uni, sure they’d both been young and idealistic, but Maura had spark and she had plans. Simple yet solid plans for her future. She’d planned to start her own business, so she wouldn’t have to answer to anyone but herself. She used to talk about opening a flower shop, but in the heart of Dublin, so she could enjoy city life. After graduation, she’d just started to embark on that, and had been close to achieving her goal… but an unplanned pregnancy had changed the course of her life. Even more so when her fiancé abandoned her; when Maura was seven months pregnant, Niall suddenly flipped. Claiming he didn’t have it in him to be a dad and husband, he broke their engagement and vanished. She’d had no choice but to move back home with her mum, something she’d sworn she’d never do.
Even now, almost five years later, Aidan scowled as he thought of Niall, that scumbag. He’d never once tried to contact Maura, or inquire about the baby he’d brought into the world. Being the youngest of eight children, Aidan treasured family. The McKinnons were all about honor, hard work, and loyalty to family. How any man could abandon their child like Niall had, Aidan would never know. And how any man could leave a woman like Maura, the most wonderful, beautiful woman he knew, was unfathomable.
He watched now as Maura reached out and ran her hand over Chloe’s hair, so like her own. Both had the most gorgeous strawberry blonde hair, long, thick manes of it that curled wildly at the ends. During the bad days after Niall first left, sometimes Maura would suddenly break down and cry, and Aidan would hold her and play with her hair. He’d just brush it back from her face in a rhythm meant to soothe, holding her close, rubbing her back, letting her cry it out in the safety of his arms because he didn’t know what to say or do for her… her hair felt like shiny ribbons of silk between his fingers.
“Chloe,” he said now, “I need to talk to your mum about something grown-up. Just for a few minutes. Could you please go to your room to play this game for a bit?” He tweaked the little girl’s nose as he gave what he hoped was a persuasive grin. “I promise we’ll call you back down as soon as we’re done talking. Okay?”
Chloe frowned, but got up from the couch. “Okaaaay. Promise it won’t be long?”
“I swear it, little miss,” Aidan said with mock solemnity. “You have my word.”
“Okay.” She looked at Maura and said, “I can bring the tablet with me, right?”
“Aye, you can. Go on now.”
They watched the little girl skip across the room and make her way up the stairs.
As soon as she disappeared, Maura turned to Aidan and demanded, “All right, enough. Out with it. What’s going on?”
End of Excerpt