The Reluctant Cinderella
"Aunt Megan, I really, really need to go," Olivia whispered anxiously.
Bent over to child level as she dumped the dishwasher detergent in the tray, Megan Schumacher snapped the tray shut, straightened to push the start button and shoved the door into lock position. Inside, the whooshing started. She edged the box of detergent onto the crowded kitchen counter and turned to look fondly down at her niece.
"Powder room." Megan pointed the way. "Quick."
Blond curls bounced as the little sweetie shook her head. "Someone’s in there." She wrinkled her button nose in childish disgust. "Being sick. And there’s someone upstairs in our bathroom, too." She meant the bathroom she shared with her brothers, Anthony and Michael. "Crying."
Great. "What about your mom’s bathr—?"
Olivia cut her off with a snort of wounded frustration. "Anthony’s in there. He yelled at me to go away." Anthony, the oldest of Megan’s sister’s kids, was nine. He’d developed a bit of an attitude lately. If he wasn’t silent and sulky, he was ordering everyone to leave him alone. Olivia rolled her blue eyes. "Aunt Megan. Come on. I need to use your bathroom."
"Well, sure. Why didn’t you just say so?"
Olivia let out a pained sigh. "Is it open?"
"You bet. Need help?"
The little girl drew herself up and spoke with great dignity. "Thank you. No. After all, I am seven." Then she whirled and took off for the kitchen door that led to the breezeway and the backyard entrance to Megan’s apartment over the garage.
"She’s a cutie, that one." Marti Vincente, who lived next door, pulled a tray of stuffed miniature Portobello mushrooms from the oven. The neighbors took turns hosting the annual Danbury Way early-summer block party, but Marti and her husband always provided most of the food. The stuffed mushrooms looked as delicious as everything else Marti and Ed had brought over to Angela’s bright kitchen that day.
Slim, stylish and attractive, Marti worked full-time at the restaurant she and Ed owned. She was up-close and personal with all that wonderful food on a daily basis—and she couldn’t weigh more than one-ten. How fair was that?
Megan looked down at her own baggy orange t-shirt and frayed jeans. Beneath the comfortable old clothes, she was no Marti Vincente. And she probably never would be.
"Mushroom?" Marti offered. "I’ve got some that are slightly cooled right here…"
Megan needed no more urging. She popped one of the delicious morsels into her mouth and groaned in delight. "Incredible." Through the window over the sink, she could see the neighbors gathered in groups under the shade of the patio cover, chatting and laughing, sipping iced drinks and chowing down on the Vincente’s delicious finger food.
Angela was out there, too, weaving in and out among her guests, carrying a trayful of Vincente delicacies. Since her sister was busy, that left Megan to check on Olivia’s story of sickness and sobbing in the bathrooms. Resigned, Megan swallowed the last of that to-die-for mushroom, thanked Marti, and headed off down the back hall.
She found Rebecca Peters hovering by the door to the powder room.
Rebecca was subletting the house on the other side of the Vincentes. She wore a skinny, strappy sundress in her trademark black, with the usual four-inch designer heels to match. Rebecca was so not the suburban type. No one in the neighborhood could understand why she’d moved to Rosewood, which was an hour-and-a-half train ride north of New York City and about as suburban as any town could get.
Her worried frown had Megan asking, "What’s up?"
Rebecca’s frown deepened. "I think Molly’s in there…" Molly owned the house at 7 Danbury Way. Happily single, she put most of her energy into her megasuccessful consulting firm.
"Is she sick?" Megan asked softly.
Rebecca nodded and pitched her voice to a confidential level. "She was fine. We were chatting out on the patio. And then she got this strange, green look and…" Rebecca shook her sleek brown head. "I don’t know. I just don’t know…"
Megan took charge, moving in close, tapping lightly on the door, asking gently, "Molly? Molly, are you all right?"
Several seconds passed before she answered, "Fine." Her voice was bright and cheerful—too much so. "Be right out." She practically sang the words. A moment later, the door swung inward and Molly emerged on a suspicious cloud of minty-fresh scent: breath spray. No doubt about it. "Hey." Molly fluffed her long, curly hair and smiled a wide, forced smile. "Great party, huh? Megan, I don’t know how that sister of yours does it. Single with three kids and a full-time job. But the house looks fabulous and the party is…perfect." She patted Megan’s arm. "I’m sure it helps to have you here to pitch in."
Before Megan could reply, Rebecca tried again. "Molly, are you certain you’re—"
Molly didn’t even let her finish. "Whew. I need some of that lemonade Angela’s been passing around. How ‘bout you?"
Rebecca got the message: whatever had been going on behind the powder room door, Molly had no intention of discussing it. "Uh. Well, alrighty. Sounds great. Megan?"
Megan still had to make sure the crier upstairs in the kids’ bathroom was all right. And check on Anthony. "You guys go ahead."
So the two women turned and left her just as Zooey Finnegan, the gorgeous model-slim auburn-haired nanny who looked after widower Jack Lever’s kids, came through the arch from the family room. "Terrific party," she said with a warm smile as she slipped into the empty powder room and softly shut the door.
Megan made for the stairs. Halfway up, she ran into Anthony, who came barreling down paying zero attention to where he was going.
"Whoa, there, cowboy." Megan laughed, catching him by the arms and righting him before he fell against the stair rail.
"Sorry, Aunt Megan," he muttered, looking down.
"No prob." She waited until he slanted her a glance before softly chiding, "Olivia says you yelled at her."
He let out a snort. "Well. I was in the bathroom. She kept knocking. What’d she expect?"
"She didn’t expect yelling," Megan said quietly. "Yelling is not a good thing."
"Okay, okay." He stuck out his lower lip, but he did mutter, "I’m sorry."
"Tell that to your sister."
He was staring at his shoes again. "Awright, I will. Can I go now? Please?"
She released him. "Remember. No running on the—"
He’d already zipped around her and was headed down—fast, but no longer at a run. He called over his shoulder, "Okay, okay. I won’t. I promise."
Megan stared after him for a second or two, smiling a doting auntie’s smile. Anthony was a good kid. He’d get past this sulky phase—soon, she hoped.
And there was still the crier in the kids’ bath to see about.
In the upstairs hall, the door to the bathroom was shut. Megan stood in front of it and wondered what she should do next. She couldn’t hear any crying coming from in there. Maybe she should just—
Wait. There: a sob. A stifled one, but still. A definite sob.
So okay. Maybe a little further investigation was required. She waited—and yep. There it was again: another sob, followed by a distinct sniffle and a tiny, choked-off wail. Olivia had got it right. Someone was in there crying.
When you cried in the bathroom at a block party, well, you should get sympathy. Someone should come and lend a shoulder to cry on.
That would be Megan. On Danbury Way, where she’d lived for three years now, Megan was considered a person everybody could trust: nonthreatening, patient and understanding. All the women liked her. They could tell her anything and she’d never betray their secrets.
Sometimes the role of confidante got a little old, especially lately, when so much had changed in her life outside the neighborhood. But then again, somebody had to "be there" for everyone else. And Megan was used to it. She’d been fitting in, getting along and listening to everybody else’s problems since she was seven and a half years old.
Discreetly, she tapped on the bathroom door.
After a thirty-second interval, she tapped again.
Finally, she spoke. "It’s Megan. Are you…all right in there?"
Another silence. Then a sniffle. And finally, hopefully, a woman murmured, "Megan?" More sniffling. "Is it really…" A sob. A tiny hiccup, then, "…you?" Even with all the sniffling, Megan recognized that soft Texas drawl. It was Carly Alderson.
Megan probably should have known. She made her voice even gentler. "Come on, Carly. Let me in…"
A second later, the door opened. Carly, strikingly pretty even with puffy eyes and a red nose, sniffled, sobbed, and ushered Megan inside. Once Megan stood on the fluffy green bathroom rug with her, Carly shut the door and punched the privacy lock.
Then, with a mournful little groan, she sank to the edge of the tub. Megan got the box of tissues from the sink counter and sat down beside her.
"Oh, Megan…" Carly paused to sniffle some more. She wiped her nose with a torn-up, wrinkled bit of tissue. "I just…I can’t…"
"Here." Megan extended the box.
Carly whipped out a fresh one. Then she buried her red nose in it and sobbed. "I just...I can't stand it, you know?"
Megan patted her slim back and stroked her soft blond hair and made soothing noises of support and understanding.
Finally, Carly pulled herself together enough to announce, "It’s final today. Our divorce. Greg and I are…no longer husband and wife. It’s over. Officially. Completely. Kaput."
"Carly. I’m so sorry…"
Greg Banning, Carly’s ex, had moved out months ago—well, actually, Carly had kicked him out. As a gesture of fury and defiance. Because he’d asked her for a separation. She’d kicked him out and started calling herself by her maiden name.
But it had all been pure bravado. Carly wanted him back. Desperately. Getting her handsome husband to return to her was all Carly wanted, all she talked about.
No one in the neighborhood knew why Greg had asked for the split. There had been no big scenes, no angry confrontations—not that anyone knew about. Carly claimed they never fought.
But then, out of nowhere he’d asked for a separation. She’d tossed him and his personal belongings out on the lawn of the great big house they owned that took up two lots in the heart of the cul de sac that was Danbury Way. Greg had left and never come back.
The neighbors assumed there must be another woman. But no one had seen such a woman, or had a clue who she might be.
Carly dabbed at her wet cheeks. "I know I shouldn’t have locked myself in here. But I couldn’t stand it downstairs. Everybody’s being so sweet to me, feeling so sorry for me. And then there’s Rhonda and Irene. Those two just won’t leave me alone. You know how they are. Like vultures, hanging around, picking at the bones of everybody’s troubles…" Rhonda Johnson and Irene Dare were the neighborhood’s most notorious gossips. They lived around the corner, next door to each other, on Maplewood Lane.
"Those two," said Megan, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Ignore them."
"Oh, I’m trying. I truly am. But every time I turn around, one of them is standing there, looking so sympathetic, whispering how I should tell her everything, every little detail, and she won’t breathe a word to another soul… I mean, they shouldn’t even be here. It’s our block party, not theirs." Carly sniffed. "Okay." She blew out a hard breath. "That was petty of me. That was just downright small."
"It’s all right…"
"No. Danbury Way parties are always the best ones. Everybody in Rosewood knows that. I can’t blame Rhonda and Irene for coming. I just wish they’d leave me alone."
"I totally understand."
Carly’s soft lip quivered and her china-blue eyes filled again. "Oh, Megan. If only he would call me. If he would just talk to me, you know?"
Megan dared to suggest, "Maybe it’s too late for that. Maybe what you need to do is to start finding a way to get over—"
"I just don’t understand," Carly cut in, shaking her head, oblivious to what Megan had been trying to tell her. "I’ll never understand. I’ve been the perfect wife to him. He’s the center of my world. I know I could make everything right between us, if he’d only…" A sob escaped her. "…only…" Her eyes brimmed. "…give me a chance…" And she dissolved into tears again, crumpling toward Megan in her abject misery.
Megan dropped the box of tissues and gathered her close. Carly sobbed all the harder. Megan stroked her soft blond hair and whispered that everything was going to be all right. Eventually, Carly wound down to a sniffle and a sob or two.
Just when Megan was about to take her by the shoulders and tell her it was time to dry her eyes and rejoin the party, someone knocked on the door. Carly gasped and snapped up straight. Megan called, "Try the master bath," and whoever it was went away.
But Carly did get the message. She heaved another big, sad sigh and pressed her palms to her flushed, damp cheeks. "Oh, I’m such a mess. I have simply got to pull myself together. We can’t stay in here forever. It’s just plain rude. And I was not brought up to be rude."
Megan smiled. She really did like Carly, who was always the soul of courtesy and southern gentility—even today, when her perfect marriage to the perfect man was over in the most final kind of way. "Come on. Splash a little cold water on your face, smooth that gorgeous hair and let’s get out there where you can show Irene and Rhonda that they don’t get to you in the least."
Carly took another tissue and dabbed her eyes. "Megan. Thank you."
"Hey. Anytime." She started to rise.
Carly caught her arm. "Wait."
As she sank back to the edge of the tub, Megan sent a little prayer winging heavenward that Carly wouldn’t turn on the waterworks all over again. "What?"
Carly straightened her delicate shoulders and hitched up her chin. "I’m calling Greg."
Megan blinked. "Well, if you really think you—"
"No, silly." Carly actually smiled. "Not for me. For you."
Megan wasn’t following. "I don’t…why?"
"Your company. What’s it called? Design…?"
"Yeah. That’s right. You’re a…?"
"I’m a graphic designer." And Design Solutions was all hers. Megan had a staff of six—okay, five and an intern. Her office was a short train ride away, in Poughkeepsie, close to home with low overhead.
Carly was nodding. "You do, um, brochures, business cards, flyers, things like that, right?"
"Right." Megan did a lot more than flyers and brochures. But whenever she tried to explain about the real scope of effective design, about branding and positioning and how a top designer could boost a corporation’s bottom line, her neighbors tended to get glassy-eyed. As a result, except for Angela, no one in the area really understood what Megan’s work was all about.
It was kind of funny, really. The neighborhood wives were always trying to help her out. They had her designing invitations to their kids’ parties, making flyers for their charity yard sales, creating letterhead stationery for their own personal use, that type of thing. Then they’d slip her a fifty in payment and tell her how "talented" she was.
Megan knew they meant well, that they were only trying to be supportive. But they saw her in a certain way; she was the nice "fullfigured" girl who rented the apartment over her sister’s garage.
They didn’t understand that she had owned a house three years ago, a house she’d sold so she could put all her money into starting up her business—and help her single-mom sister out with the kids.
Megan’s business venture had taken off. In a big way. She hardly had time anymore for a good night’s sleep—let alone for small jobs at nominal fees.
Carly muttered darkly, "Yeah. It’s the least Greg can do…"
Megan realized she hadn’t been paying attention. "Excuse me?"
"He can give you an interview. He can maybe hire you to do…the things you do."
"For Banning’s. You know. You can be their, um, graphic designer."
Megan was all-ears by then. "You’re serious."
"Oh, yes I am." Carly sniffed and forced a brave smile.
"Wow…" Banning’s was a small but nationally known family-run chain of upscale department stores. This was a real opportunity. Landing the Banning’s account would be a coup. And Megan would love a chance to freshen up their slightly stuffy image.
Carly reached out and patted her hand. "I’m grateful. I truly am. For those times, like now, when you’ve been there, to listen to me and comfort me when things have been so rough for me. You are a very sweet person, Megan, and I want to do something to pay you back for your kindness to me."
Megan returned Carly’s smile. "What can I say, except ‘wow’ all over again?"
"I'm glad to help you out..." Carly’s long lashes fluttered down and her forced smile softened. Megan knew she was thinking that asking Greg for this favor would be a good excuse to get in touch with him.
Megan also knew that Carly—and Greg Banning—would see this as strictly a mercy interview. Banning’s would, of course, already have a major design firm overseeing all their graphics and company-image print work. Greg would agree, for his ex-wife’s sake, to hear Megan’s pitch, all the while knowing he would end up politely turning her down.
What Greg Banning didn’t know was that Megan was Good—capital G intended. She was taking Carly’s offer and she was going to knock Greg Banning’s socks off.
In a purely professional sense, of course.
Megan realized that she, like Carly, was looking down. Because there was, after all, the little matter of…
The embarrassing truth was that, back when Megan used to see Greg now and then around the neighborhood, before he moved out on Carly and into an apartment in the city, Megan had had a slight—very slight and totally secret—crush on him.
A crush that was completely over and didn’t matter in the least. Puh-leese. In his own rich-guy-next-door way, Greg Banning was a complete hunk. He was so far out of Megan’s league there was no need to even think about that silly crush. It wasn’t as if he’d ever paid the least bit of attention to Angela Schumacher’s dumpy sister. Even ordinary guys never did.…
Now, wait just a minute! The voice of the new, successful Megan Schumacher piped up in her mind.
True, before Design Solutions, Megan had often wished that she wasn’t so shy, that she was prettier and thinner, that some nice guy might notice her.
Not so much. Lately, she was feeling much more confident on the man front. When Megan was in entrepreneur mode, dressed in the bright colored, snug power suits that she favored, men often looked twice. Some flirted, some even put moves on her.
Not that it made a whole lot of difference in her day-to-day life.
Between her booming, yet still fledgling, business and her commitment to help her sister with the kids, Megan was on the go 24/7. Even if she met someone who interested her more than her career, where would she find the time to be with the guy?
Uh-uh. Right now, romance was just not on her agenda.
And the slight—and so over—crush on Greg Banning would be no problem. This was business. Period. And it would be a major feather in Megan’s professional cap to bring in her team and create a whole new image for Banning’s, Inc.
"So, then," said Carly. Megan turned her head to find the other woman watching her. "You do want me to do it—give him a call for you?"
"Yes. Thank you so much. I’d love a shot at a contract with Banning’s."
"Great. I’ll call him. You can consider it done."
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