Hank Mallone knows he's in trouble when Maggie Toone agrees to pretend to be his wife in order to improve his rogue's reputation. Will his harebrained scheme to get a bank loan for his business backfire once Maggie arrives in his small Vermont town and lets the gossips take a look?
Maggie never expected her employer to be drop-dead handsome, but she's too intrigued by his offer to say no . . . and too eager to escape a life that made her feel trapped. The deal is strictly business, both agree, until Hank turns out to be every fantasy she ever had.
At the turn of the century the Bigmount Brick Company hired new arrivals from Eastern Europe to work in the New Jersey clay pits. The immigrants settled in the company town of Bigmount, and in the neighboring town of Riverside, building modest brick and frame houses on small lots. They kept their streets and windows clean, built bars on every corner, and poured time and money into the construction of their churches. Five generations later the population had been Americanized somewhat, but Riverside was still a blue-collar town with clean windows. The Russian Orthodox women still brought their bread to the church to be blessed, and the Polish National Hall was still booking weddings.
Ever since Maggie Toone was a little girl she'd wanted to hold her wedding reception in the Polish National Hall. The country club in Jamesburg was prettier and any number of area restaurants more comfortable, but the PNA Hall had a paste wax dance floor that was smooth and dusty. It whispered during the slow numbers and thumped like a heartbeat when the stout ladies came out to polka. The hall was a place for weddings, Christmas parties, and silver anniversaries. It was as much a part of Maggie's childhood as braids, cream of tomato soup, and the sound of the freight train clattering through town in the middle of the night.
Over the years the hall had lost none of its appeal to Maggie. She couldn't say the same about marriage. It wasn't that she was against the institution . . . it was more that she didn't have time to seek it out. Finding a husband seemed like a real pain in the neck. Especially now that her life was at a crossroads.
She sat at the head of the picnic table staring at the chocolate cake. She gave a silent groan. It was the beginning of July and it was ninety-two degrees, and the cake was ablaze with twenty-seven candles and one for good luck. The candles were melting the frosting. Molten candle wax slithered in red, yellow, and blue streams across the top of the cake, spilling over the sides and collecting in small pools on the cake plate.
Ordinarily Maggie loved birthday parties—especially hers—but today she had other things on her mind, so she took a deep breath and blew the candles out without further ceremony.
"Isn't this nice?" Maggie's mother, Mabel, said. "A perfect day for a birthday picnic." She'd made tuna salad and deviled eggs and bought little dinner rolls from the bakery on Ferry Street. She'd even cut the radishes to look like flowers. "Did you make a wish, dear?"
"Yes. I made a wish."
"You didn't wish something crazy, did you?"
Maggie felt her left eye start to twitch. She put her finger on it to halt the tic and answered her mother. "Of course my wish was crazy. I wouldn't want to disappoint you and Aunt Marvina."
She smiled because it was a family joke. Her mother and Aunt Marvina rolled their eyes and sighed to each other because that's what they always did when Maggie made a joke about her craziness.
She was a problem child. Always had been. Always would be. It didn't matter that she was twenty-seven years old today, she was a continuing source of frustration to her family. She was a throwback to her flamboyant Irish grandfather—the only Irishman in Riverside.
"Twenty-seven years," Aunt Marvina said. "Where did the time go? I remember when she was a baby."
Mabel cut into the cake. "Even when she was a baby she had a mind of her own."
"She wouldn't eat her green beans," Aunt Marvina said. "Remember that?"
Mabel shook her head. "It's the green beans all over again. No matter what's good for her, she does what she wants anyway."
Aunt Marvina waved her fork. "When Maggie was nine years old, I told you she would never get married. She was such a tomboy. Was I right? Was I right?"
"You were right. She should have married that nice Larry Burlew. Or Jimmy Molnar. He would have married her." Mabel stared at her daughter who was pouring coffee at the opposite end of the picnic table. "Now she's quit her job. How is she going to live with no man and no job? Six years of college. A master's degree. For what? Two years of teaching down the drain."
Maggie's eye was twitching worse than ever. She'd spent too many afternoons with her mother and Aunt Marvina, she thought. If she heard about the green beans one more time, she'd start screaming. And Larry Burlew was a slug. She'd join the Foreign Legion before she'd marry Larry Burlew.
"She's always been stubborn," Mabel said. "Once she gets an idea into her head, there's no turning her around. So, tell me again," she said to her daughter. "Tell me why you're not going back to teaching this year."
Maggie helped herself to a second piece of cake. "I'm going to write a book," she said, picking congealed wax from the icing. "I'm going to write a book based on Aunt Kitty's diary."
There was more eye rolling from Mabel and Marvina. "That's craziness," Mabel said. "How are you going to live? How are you going to pay your rent?"
"I'm looking for a job that's not as demanding as teaching. Maybe something part-time that will allow me to spend most of my day writing. In fact, I have an interview this afternoon." She stared in amazement at her empty plate and wondered how she'd eaten that whole huge second piece. Even the wax was gone. She cracked her knuckles and cleared her throat, wondering if anyone would notice if she took thirds.
"So, what kind of job is this?" Mabel asked.
"It's going to be a wonderful book," Maggie said. "Aunt Kitty's diary is filled with information—"
Her mother wouldn't be distracted. "The job. I want to know about the job."