New Year, New Love

What have you resolved to do by the new year?

Sharon Lawrence’s two daughters are determined to find a man for their mother. They even share their plans with Gabe Malone–part owner of the company Sharon’s hired to renovate her house. Before long, Sharon is “accidentally” meeting one inappropriate man after another.

At first, Gabe’s amused by the girls’ schemes. But now that he’s getting to know Sharon, he hates the idea of all these dates. He’s beginning to think he may be the only single man in the neighborhood who’s not part of the Man Plan.

And he’s beginning to wish his name was on the list.

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Also released as A Man for Mom

A Man for Mom


(copyrighted material)

CHAPTER ONE

Darkness had already dropped over the city as Sharon Lawrence drove home from work. The clock in her car said five-thirty, but the nearly empty streets—streets usually packed with traffic coming from downtown Denver at this hour—left her feeling out of place. She felt as if someone had ordered a massive evacuation, but she hadn’t been told.

Laughing softly at herself, she turned up the radio. Thirty-seven years old and still letting her imagination run away with her. How many times had her mother warned her about that? Too many.

As she braked for a red light, she studied the shops in a strip mall on the corner. One or two stray cars still sat in the icy parking lot, but most of the shops looked deserted. Everyone had plans for New Year’s Eve. Everyone, that is, except Sharon.

She hadn’t minded staying for the last-minute meeting with the new journalism department head at Arapahoe Community College. Heaven only knew she had nothing else to do tonight. Her daughters, Emilee and Christa, were probably home right now, getting ready to go out on the town with their dates. Sharon’s plans were to spend the night with a good book and her cat.

She’d tried to ignore what day it was—not an easy task in light of the party atmosphere that staff members and fellow faculty advisers had carried around all day. To Sharon, the holiday only meant that one year had slipped by and another loomed on the horizon. She couldn’t get excited about celebrations and resolutions. Her ex-husband had taken care of that.

She made a face at herself in the rear-view mirror and accelerated carefully on the ice-slick streets, turning onto Sycamore a few minutes later. When she saw her best friend’s car in front of her house and a dark-colored pick-up behind it, she smiled with relief and silently blessed Adelle for pitching in at the last minute and agreeing to meet the contractor.

If not for Adelle, Sharon would have had to cancel the long-awaited appointment to measure the basement of her big old house. She’d been waiting for a month already. She didn’t want to start over at the bottom of the contractor’s list.

She pulled into the garage and gathered her things from the seat beside her. Inside, she found Adelle at the dining room table, scratching Raoul behind one ear and leafing through a magazine. Her long, honey-colored hair curled softly on the shoulders of her silk blouse, and she kicked one slim foot gently while she read.

Sharon dropped her purse, briefcase, and sweater on the kitchen counter. “Sorry I’m so late,” she said, kicking off her heels and peeling off her suit jacket. “I owe you a huge favor.”

Adelle closed the magazine and waved away her apology with one well-manicured hand. “Don’t worry about it. Doug and I aren’t leaving until eight.”

“Did the girls get home?”

“About fifteen minutes ago. They’re both upstairs getting ready.”

Good. One less thing Sharon had to worry about. “Did they find what they needed at the mall?”

Adelle laughed and pulled Raoul onto her lap. “If they didn’t, they bought a lot of stuff they didn’t want.”

Sharon would have liked to shop with the girls, but the last-minute meeting with Dr. Stevenson had thrown the entire afternoon off schedule. “And the contractor’s here?”

“Oh, yes,” Adelle said with a grin. She shook one hand as if she’d touched something hot. “No wonder you’re going to spend your savings fixing up the basement.”

“Funny,” Sharon said with a laugh. Mr. Malone had to be at least sixty-five, and hardly what Sharon would call “hot.” “I’m fixing it up because it’s hideous down there,” she reminded Adelle. “The basement is huge, but there are only two walls by the laundry room—and those are only half-finished. And you’ve seen that atrocious orange and brown linoleum someone stuck to the concrete floor. . .”

Adelle grimaced. “Yes, I have. But why are you doing it now?”

“Because the girls have been sharing a bedroom their entire lives and now that can finally afford to do something with the house, I’d like to give each of them their own room.”

“Yeah, but Emilee’s a senior this year. And Christa’s only got one year of high school left. Before you know it, you’ll be by yourself in this mausoleum.”

“Emilee’s not going away to college,” Sharon told her. “She’s decided to stay here and go to Denver University.”

“I thought she wanted to go away to school.”

“She talked about it for a while, but she changed her mind.”

“That’s not the point.” Adelle waved her red-tipped hand again. “You should listen to Doug. Sell this place and buy a condo.”

Sharon stood and crossed to the kitchen, glancing at Adelle across the breakfast bar. “I don’t want to sell. I love this house, and so do the girls. It’s home.” She pulled two mugs from the cupboard and measured instant cocoa mix into each, then filled the kettle and sat it on the stove. She loved every inch of this house, and the thought of leaving it always made her a little gloomy.

“Don’t give me that look,” Adelle said with an exasperated laugh. “Your mind’s made up, and I’m being foolish to think you’ll listen to me. I just hope this guy you’ve hired is reputable.” She laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the table. “Maybe you should have let Doug check him out before you agreed to anything.”

Sharon leaned against the counter and scowled at her friend. “The company comes highly recommended. Honestly, Adelle, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of business without your husband’s help.”

“Oh, I know you are. Heaven only knows you’ve been doing it long enough. But if having some workman prowling around your house on New Year’s Eve is your idea of a good time, you’ve got big problems.”

“He’s not prowling, and tonight’s as good a time as any. I’m not going anywhere.”

“That’s my point,” Adelle muttered. “Doesn’t it ever bother you that your daughters have social lives and you don’t?”

Sharon rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Why should it bother me? I’m perfectly content with my life the way it is. Besides, I’m thrilled that the girls are so popular. I love watching them go out with their friends and get ready for their dates. I was lucky to have any boys interested in me. They have trouble keeping track of all the boys who ask them out.” She sighed wistfully. “They’re so different from the way I was at their age.”

“They’re different from the way you are at this age, too,” Adelle mumbled.

A dull ache started in the back of Sharon’s head. She massaged her neck gingerly. “Please don’t start with that tonight. I really don’t want to do anything tonight but finish the book I’ve been reading. Even if I wanted a date—which I don’t—I don’t appeal to men the way you do.”

Adelle had beauty, brains, and a sense of style that turned heads whenever she walked into a room. Sharon had never felt beautiful. She’d never attracted the opposite sex the way Adelle—and Sharon’s daughters—did. She’d had maybe two dates all through high school and married the first man who’d ever shown a real interest in her.

Adelle pushed her thick, blonde hair away from her face. “You know what you need?”

Sharon had no doubt Adelle planned to tell her.

“You need a man. Someone who’ll bring some excitement into your life. Someone who’ll get you out of this house once in a while.”

Sharon scowled over her shoulder. “I’m not interested.”

“You haven’t been interested for five years. When are you going to get interested?”

“I had a man once, remember?”

“You had Nick,” Adelle argued. “I’m not sure he qualifies.”

Sharon laughed softly and leaned both elbows on the breakfast bar. “You’re still angry with him than I am.”

Adelle gave her head a toss. “Yeah? Well, that’s because he hurt you. But that’s not the question. The question is, when are you going to start dating again?”

“If the right guy ever comes along—”

“You always say that,” Adelle cut in. “Most women in your situation would jump at the chance to meet new men.”

“I’m not most women.”

“That’s for sure.” Adelle propped her chin in one hand. “I honestly don’t know how you do it alone. Two teenage daughters, a new career, and this huge old house to take care of. . . . It’s too hard.”

“Have you really forgotten what it was like around here when Nick and I were married? My life is much better now than it ever was then. I waited on him hand and foot for fifteen years.”

Adelle’s expression shifted. “You should have gotten out a lot sooner than you did.”

Maybe. Probably. The marriage hadn’t been really good after the second year, but Sharon had been determined to stick it out. She’d struggled to hold their lives together until Nick realized just how boring she really was and moved onto greener pastures. A pasture by the name of Tanya, to be exact.

In spite of her own doubts about their marriage, Nick’s betrayal and eventual desertion had hurt terribly. And no matter what Adelle said, Sharon had no intention of putting herself at risk for that kind of heartache again.

But she didn’t want to let the conversation drift into those waters. She tried steering it back. “I’ve never understood how you do it with a husband. They take up too much time and energy.”

“Not all men are like Nick,” Adelle argued as the kettle started to whistle. “Doug makes my life easier.”

“I think that’s wonderful,” Sharon said, turning toward the stove again. “But I can’t even imagine it. Believe me, I don’t do anything more now than I did when Nick lived here.”

“You went back to school and started a new career,” Adelle argued. “You don’t call that more?”

Sharon laughed and filled the mugs with boiling water. “Okay. You win that one. But emotionally, there’s no difference. I was always alone then. I’m alone now.”

Adelle let Raoul jump, then crossed her legs. “Which brings us back to tonight. You need some fun. Why don’t you come with us tonight?”

“With you and Doug? No, thanks.”

“Come on. We’re just going to a party in Denver.”

“A party full of happy couples on New Year’s Eve?” The last thing Sharon felt like putting herself through. “Thanks, Adelle, but I really don’t want to.”

“I’m sure there’ll be other single people there.”

“Who?” Sharon asked, handing Adelle a mug. “Doug’s grandmother?”

“No,” Adelle said with a laugh. “She’s got a date. You ought to try it sometime.”

“As much as I appreciate your editorial comments about my lifestyle, I really don’t need them.”

“Maybe you do. If you don’t make some changes, you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone. Is that what you want?”

The question sent a spiral of panic through Sharon, but she forced it away. “What I want,” she said firmly, “is for you to drop this whole subject.”

Sighing, Adelle stood and smoothed her hands over the legs of her wool slacks. “Fine. Stay home if that’s what you really want. I’ll drink a toast to you and your cat at midnight.”

“Raoul and I thank you.” Sharon picked up her New Year’s Eve date as he strolled past on his way to the lower level. Immediately, a happy rumble started somewhere inside him and worked its way out. He flopped onto her lap and licked her fingertips. “And don’t worry. Raoul and I will be fine. Now, go home, give Doug a kiss for me, and get into that slinky black dress you just bought. And try not to envy me. I’ll be doing exactly what I want tonight.”

Adelle snagged her coat from the back of a chair and hitched her purse onto her shoulder. “Fine. Delude yourself if you want, but don’t expect me to believe you. You’re not happy.” Without giving Sharon a chance to argue, she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

Sharon smiled for half a second, then leaned her back against the door. Silence surrounded her, broken only by Raoul’s contented purr. She pushed away from the door, crossed to the kitchen and started stacking dishes in the sink. But she couldn’t get excited about housework tonight. Suddenly, her plans seemed a little less appealing than they had just ten minutes before.

Frowning, she paced to the window and stared outside at the snow. Adelle was wrong, she told herself. Completely, unquestionably wrong.

The instant she heard the door close behind Adelle, 17 year-old Emilee Lawrence tugged her sister, Christa, down the stairs to the basement. When Christa looked as if she might say something, Emilee jabbed her with an elbow to keep her quiet.

She didn’t speak until they reached the far end of the basement, and even then she kept her voice down. “Did you hear that?”

Christa nodded, but she didn’t look even the tiniest bit concerned. “Mom’s spending tonight alone. I knew that already.”

Emilee sighed heavily. Really, at sixteen, you’d think Christa would get a clue. “So did I. But Ididn’t know she was so miserable about it.”

Christa’s brows knit in confusion. “She’s not miserable. She said she wants to spent tonight alone.”

Letting out another sigh, Emilee leaned against a two-by-four and smoothed the fabric of her skirt. “Sometimes you have to listen to what people don’t say. Mom might think she wants to spend tonight alone, but she doesn’t.”

“She doesn’t?”

“No. She’s lonely.”

“Lonely?” Christa’s voice came out too loud. Even she seemed to realize that. She darted a look over her shoulder and softened her voice again before she went on. “Come on. Mom? She’s not lonely.”

“Of course she is. Think about it. Dad’s been married to Tanya for almost five years, and Mom hasn’t had one date in all that time. How would you feel if you hadn’t had a date in five years?”

Christa narrowed her eyes and ran a hand through her short hair. “But Mom doesn’t want to date.”

Emilee couldn’t believe the difference a single year made in their understanding of human nature. How could Christa be so dense? “That’s what she says.”

“You think Mom’s lying?” Christa looked offended.

“No. Not lying.” Emilee thought for a few seconds, then tried another approach. “Remember last year when Dad and Tanya decided to take that cruise for Christmas?”

“Well, duh,” Christa said with a deep frown. “Of course, I remember.”

“Remember how we both kept telling Mom we didn’t care because we didn’t want to go to St. Louis anyway?”

This time, Christa nodded as if she thought Emilee might be trying to trick her. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“I don’t know about you,” Emilee said, “but I wanted to go. I just said I didn’t because, you know, I felt bad that Dad and Tanya didn’t want us there.”

At last, understanding dawned in Christa’s eyes. “Yeah. Me, too.” She thought for a few seconds, then shook her head again. “But that’s not what Mom’s doing. It can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because. . .” Christa tried for a few seconds to come up with a reason. She couldn’t. Her eyes darkened and her lips puckered into a frown. “You really think so?”

Finally. Emilee let out a relieved sigh and worked up a smile. “I know so. It’s only obvious.”

“That’s kinda sad.” Christa leaned against the concrete wall and crossed one heavily booted foot over the other. “But even if you’re right, there’s nothing we can do about it—except stay home with her.”

“We can’t do that,” Emilee cried, horrified. “It wouldn’t be fair to Jason and Kyle. Besides, Mom wouldn’t let us.”

“We could pretend that we’re sick.”

“She’d never believe it.” Emilee tossed a lock of hair over one shoulder and frowned at her sister. “Besides, tonight’s not the real problem. You heard what Adelle said. If something doesn’t change, Mom’s going to spend the rest of her life alone.”

Christa stooped to pick up Raoul and rubbed one cheek against his fur. “Maybe she needs a boyfriend.”

“Mom’s not the boyfriend type. She needs a husband.”

Both Christa and Raoul stared at her. Christa laughed. “Are you serious?”

Emilee wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before. “Sure. We used to do all sorts of things when Mom and Dad were married that we don’t do now. Camping. Hiking. Vacations to Disney World. . .” Okay, it had only been one trip to Florida, but still—

Christa nodded slowly. “And the house boat we rented every summer on Lake Powell.”

“Trips to Yellowstone Park.”

Christa’s eyes grew dreamy. “Remember that summer we went to Vancouver Island?”

Perfect. Finally, she understood. “Then we’re agreed. Mom needs a husband. The trouble is how do we convince her?”

Christa let out a sharp laugh. “I’ll let you do that.”

“Very funny.”

After a few seconds Christa’s smile faded and her eyes glittered the way they always did when a plan began to form in her mind. “Maybe we don’t have to convince her,” she said slowly. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Such as—?”

Christa pushed away from the wall and ticked off points on her fingers as she talked. “Finding a guy who’ll be interested in Mom shouldn’t be hard. Right?”

“Right.”

“I mean, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with her. She’s pretty. She’s smart. And she’s tons of fun.”

“Right.”

“So, all we have to do is get her together with a few guys. Once they see how great she is, they’ll take it from there.”

When footsteps creaked on the stairs, Emilee tensed until she realized her mother must be going upstairs to change. Still, she lowered her voice even further before she went on. “There’s still one small problem. What guys are we supposed to introduce her to?”

“I don’t know.” Christa paced a couple of steps away. “It can’t be anyone who’s stubborn. Dad is way too stubborn.”

“You’re right. And he can’t be macho and pushy. You know how Mom hates that.”

“He has to like spending time at home. Nobody whose work is more important than their family.”

“And faithful,” Emilee added. “A one-woman man.”

Christa thought for a few seconds. “You know, Matt’s parents got divorced last year. His dad’s still single.”

Brilliant. Matt had been Christa’s friend forever. It wouldn’t be hard to convince his dad to come over for some reason. “Good. Who else?”

“What about Toni? Did her dad get married again?”

“Yeah, a couple of months ago. It’s too bad, too. Toni’s dad would have been perfect for Mom.”

“I can’t think of anybody else right now,” Christa whispered. “But we’ll come up with a list. There are lots of single guys out there. And it’s not as if we have to find her a husband by tomorrow.”

A tingle of excitement worked its way from Emilee’s stomach to her chest. This was the most perfect plan they’d ever come up with. “Okay. Let’s make it our New Year’s resolution. By this time next year, we’ll find the right guy for Mom.”

Christa held out a hand, pinky finger extended. “Whatever it takes, we’ll make sure she’s not alone next New Year’s Eve.”

Emilee locked her finger around her sister’s for a pinky pledge, just like the ones they’d made when they were little. Neither of them had ever broken a pinky pledge. “It’s a deal.” She used the serious tone they’d always used for important promises. “By the year 2000, we’ll have found the perfect man for Mom.”

Scarcely breathing, Gabe Malone waited inside the half-finished laundry room until the girls hurried away. Only a thin piece of sheet rock had separated him from them and, considering the tone of their conversation, he’d been reluctant to make any noise until they finished. Obviously, they had no idea he was down here.

He chuckled softly, released the catch on his tape measure and stuffed it into a pocket on his tool belt. Poor Mrs. Lawrence. Gabe hadn’t yet met her, but he could just imagine the kind of woman who needed her daughters’ help finding a date. Probably a plain Jane with zero personality. Hadn’t his dad told him she was an instructor at one of the local community colleges? He added “dowdy” to his list.

Pulling himself back to the moment, he checked his watch and groaned aloud. Nearly six o’clock already, and he still had to shower and change and pick up the roses he’d ordered for his date with Natasha. If he didn’t leave now, he might as well call her and cancel their New Year’s plans—whatever they were. She wanted to surprise him, and he’d agreed, as long as she let him foot the bill. Now, he was eager to find out what she’d arranged.

Just thinking about her sent a wave of anticipation through him. Now there was a woman. Real blood pumped through her veins, and nobody would ever have to enter into a conspiracy to get her a man. She was everything Gabe wanted in a woman. Or, more accurately, their relationship was everything Gabe wanted at the moment. No pressure. No commitment. No demands.

After dissolving his claustrophobic marriage to Helene two years ago, he’d vowed never to let himself get caught like that again. So far, he’d been successful. The instant a woman started talking commitment, Gabe moved on.

As always, thinking of Helene brought his daughter, Tracy, to mind. Before the ink had even dried on the divorce decree, Helene had packed up and moved half the country away to be near her family. For all the contact he had with Tracy now, Oregon might as well have been in another world.

Steering his thoughts away with the ease born of practice, he pulled on his jacket and picked up his toolbox. Thinking about Tracy only upset him, and he didn’t want to be upset tonight.

He climbed the stairs resolutely. No matter what his dad had promised when he set up this appointment, no matter what Mrs. Lawrence expected of him, Gabe was leaving.

His thoughts broke off abruptly when he reached the landing. He glanced into the kitchen, hoping to find Mrs. Lawrence or one of her daughters there. The kitchen was empty, but the sound of nearby voices pulled him into the room.

From there, he could see into the dining room, and what he saw surprised him. Instead of the dowdy teacher he’d been expecting, he found himself looking into a pair of deep brown eyes set in the face of a woman about his own age. She wore an oversized pair of sweatpants, a baggy Denver Nuggets sweatshirt, and a pair of thick white socks, but they couldn’t disguise the curves that showed up right where curves ought to be on a woman.

If he’d known college instructors looked like that, maybe he would have pursued his education after high school. He couldn’t imagine why her daughters thought she needed help finding a man.

Looking away, he reminded himself of his unwritten code of conduct. He had friends in the industry who’d made the mistake of getting involved with clients. He’d watched them go through all sorts of hell, from broken marriages, to lost contracts, to lawsuits. No, Gabe had no business checking out this woman’s figure. Not even for an instant.

He tried to focus on Mrs. Lawrence’s face, but her hair caught his attention next. Long, dark curls spiraled from a ponytail at the top of her head and brushed the tops of her shoulders. A few wisps had escaped their confines. They framed her face and made her eyes look even larger.

He shifted his gaze to the girls behind her. They were both as fair as their mother was dark. One had short, mussy hair and wore faded jeans and heavy boots. The other had long hair and wore a short skirt and sweater. Even a glance told him they were different as night and day.

Mrs. Lawrence let out a gasp when she saw Gabe gawking at them. She put one hand to her breast and laughed nervously. “You startled me. Are you from Malone Construction?”

He pulled himself together quickly and extended a hand. “Gabe Malone.”

“Oh.” She shook his hand and withdrew her own quickly. “I was expecting the other gentleman.”

“My father.” Gabe said, ignoring an unwelcome flash of awareness at her touch. “He sent me since I’m the one who’ll be doing the work.”

The daughters stared at him, one open-mouthed, the other with eyes wide as silver dollars. He bit back a grin and kept his mind on business. “I didn’t finish measuring the basement yet, but it’s getting late and I’ve got plans for this evening. Would you mind if I stop by next week to finish?”

“No, of course not. I don’t want to make you late.”

“Thanks. It looks like a fairly complicated project—we’ll need to rip out what’s already there and start almost from the ground up. If we could bring in a whole crew we could probably finish fairly quickly, but I have to be honest with you. We’re over-booked as it is. I can probably give you a couple of evenings a week and part of the time on weekends, which means it’ll take me a while. If you want to contact another contractor, I’ll understand.”

“No,” she said quickly. “I can’t bear the thought of starting over again. Besides, your firm came highly recommended. And I’m not in a real hurry.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll give you a call on Monday and set up another appointment.”

Sharon draped an arm around the taller girl’s shoulder. “Mr. Malone’s the contractor who’ll be finishing the basement for us, girls.”

“Call me Gabe, please. Mr. Malone always makes me think my father’s in the room.”

“Gabe, then. And I’m Sharon. Let me give you my number at work. If I’m not in my office, leave a message on my voice mail and I’ll get back to you.”

While she found a slip of paper and jotted down the number, the girls shifted uncomfortably and shared a wary glance. Gabe nodded to each of them and worked hard to keep his expression bland. He had no intention of telling their mother what they had planned for her. It was none of his business.

Eventually, though, she was bound to find out. And he wondered how she’d react when she did. It might be a kick to watch this little melodrama unfold.

(copyrighted material)


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