Jennifer Crusie

Maybe This Time

© 2010

This book is for

Sarah and Cecilia

who want cereal for breakfast every day

and who fill those days with joy.


My Thanks To

THE GLINDAS and the ARGH PEOPLE,

who suffered through this book with me

GAIL HOGAN,

who helped me with the TV research and who is nothing like Kelly O’Keefe

HEIDI and DAN CULLINAN,

who suggested the salvia

BROOKE BRANNON, SUE DANIC, MOLLY HASELHORST, LANI DIANE RICH, ROXANNE RICHARDSON, and ANNE STUART,

who beta read brilliantly

RACHEL PLACHCINSKI,

who gave me the original house that became Archer House, a picture of herself as a small child that became Alice, a translation of American English into British English for one character, and constant support throughout the writing of this (as in, “Hurry up and finish the [British expletive deleted] book, Crusie”)

JODI REAMER and AMY BERKOWER,

who went above and beyond the call of agenthood… again

JENNIFER ENDERLIN,

the finest editor an author can have

and

HENRY JAMES and TRUMAN CAPOTE,

who were here first.


This book takes place in 1992.

Because.


One

Andie Miller sat in the reception room of her ex-husband’s law office, holding on to ten years of uncashed alimony checks and a lot of unresolved rage. This is why I never came back here, she thought. Nothing wrong with repressed anger as long as it stays repressed.

“Miss Miller?”

Andie jerked her head up and a lock of hair fell out of her chignon. She stuffed it back into the clip on the back of her head as North’s neat, efficient secretary smiled at her, surrounded by the propriety of his Victorian architecture. If that secretary had a chignon, nothing would escape from it. North was probably crazy about her.

“Mr. Archer will see you now,” the secretary said.

“Well, good for him.” Andie stood up, yanked on the hem of the only suit jacket she owned, and then wondered if she’d sounded hostile.

“He’s really very nice,” the secretary said.

“No, he isn’t.” Andie strode across the ancient rug to the door of North’s office, opened it before the secretary could get in ahead of her, and then stopped.

North sat behind his walnut desk, his cropped blond hair almost white in the sunlight from the window behind him. His wire-rimmed glasses had slid too far down his nose again, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up over his forearms-Still playing racquetball, Andie thought-and his shoulders were as straight as ever as he studied the papers spread out across the polished top of the desk. He looked exactly the way he had ten years ago when she’d bumped her suitcase on the door frame on her way out of town-

“Miss Miller is here,” his secretary said from behind her, and he looked up at her over his glasses, and the years fell away, and she was right back where she’d begun, staring into those blue-gray eyes, her heart pounding.

After what seemed like forever, he stood up. “Andromeda. Thank you for coming.”

She crossed the office, smiled tightly at him over the massive desk, decided that shaking his hand would be weird, and sat down. “I called you, remember? Thank you for seeing me.”

North sat down, saying, “Thank you, Kristin,” to his secretary, who left.

“So the reason I called-” Andie began, just as he said, “How is your mother?”

Oh, we’re going to be polite. “Still crazy. How’s yours?”

“Lydia is fine, thank you.” He straightened the papers on his desk into one stack.

A lot of really big trees had died to make that desk. His mother had probably gnawed them down, used her nails to saw the boards, and finished the decorative cutwork with her tongue.

“I’ll tell her you asked after her.”

“She’ll be thrilled. Say hi to Southie for me, too.” Andie opened her purse, took out the stack of alimony checks, and put them on the desk. “I came to give these back to you.”

North looked at the checks for a moment, the strong, sharp planes of his face shadowed by the back light from the window.

Say something, she thought, and when he didn’t, she said, “They’re all there, one hundred and nineteen of them. November nineteen eighty-two to last month.”

His face was as expressionless as ever. “Why?”

“Because they’re a link between us. We haven’t talked in ten years but every month you send me a check even though you know I don’t want alimony. Which means every month I get an envelope in the mail that says I used to be married to you. And every month I don’t cash them, and it’s like we’re nodding in the street or something. We’re still communicating.

“Not very well.” North looked at the stack. “Why now?”

“I’m getting married.”

She watched him go still, the pause stretching out until she said, “North?”

“Congratulations. Who’s the lucky man?”

“Will Spenser,” Andie said, pretty sure North wouldn’t know him.

“The writer?”

“He’s a great guy.” She thought about Will, tall, blond, and genial. The anti-North: He never forgot she existed. “I’m ready to settle down, so I’m drawing a line under my old life.” She nodded at the checks. “That’s why I came to give you those back. Don’t send any more. Please.”

After a moment, he nodded. “Of course. Congratulations. The family will want to send a gift.” He pulled his legal pad toward him. “Are you registered?”

“No, I’m not registered,” Andie said, exasperated. “Technically, I’m not even engaged yet. He asked me, but I needed to give you the checks back before I said yes.” She didn’t know why she’d expected him to have a reaction to the news. It wasn’t as if he still cared. She wasn’t sure he’d cared when she’d left.

“I see. Thank you for returning the checks.”

North straightened the papers on his desk again, and then looked down at the top paper for a long moment, as if he were reading it. He’d probably forgotten she was there again because his work was-

He looked up. “Perhaps, since you haven’t said yes yet, you could postpone your new life.”

“What?”

“I have a problem you could help with. It would only take you a few months, maybe less-”

“North, did you even hear what I said?”

“-and we’d pay you ten thousand dollars a month, plus expenses, room, and board.”

She started to protest and then thought, Ten thousand dollars a month?

He straightened the folder on his desk again. “Theodore Archer, a distant cousin, died two years ago and made me the guardian of his two children.”

Ten thousand a month. There had to be a catch. Then the rest of what he’d said hit her. “Children?”

“I went down to see them at the family home where their aunt was taking care of them. They’d been living there with their father, their grandmother, and their aunt since the little girl was born eight years ago, but the grandmother had died before Theodore.”

“Down? They’re not here in Ohio?”

“The house is in a remote area in the south of the state. The place is isolated, but the children seemed fine with their aunt, so we agreed it was best that they’d stay there with her in order to disrupt their lives as little as possible.”

And to disrupt yours as little as possible, Andie thought.

North waited, as if he expected her to say it out loud. When she didn’t, he went on. “Unfortunately, the aunt died in June. Since then I’ve hired three nannies, but none have stayed.”

“Lot of death in the family,” Andie said.

“The children’s mother died in childbirth with the little girl. The grandmother died in her seventies of a heart attack. Theodore was killed in a car accident. The aunt fell from a tower on the house-”

“Wait, the house has towers?”

“It’s a very old house,” North said, his tone making it clear that he didn’t want to discuss towers. “The battlements are crumbling, and she evidently leaned on the wrong stone and fell into the moat.”

“The moat,” Andie said. “Is this a joke?”

“No. Theodore’s great-great-grandfather had the house brought over from England in the 1850s. I don’t know why he dug a moat. The point is, these children have nobody, and they’re alone down there in the middle of nowhere with only the housekeeper taking care of them. If you will go down there, I will pay you ten thousand a month to… fix them.”

“Fix them,” Andie said. Ten thousand a month was ridiculous, but it would pay off her credit card bills and her car. In one month. Ten thousand dollars would mean she could get married without debt. Not that Will cared, but it would be better to go to him free and clear. “What do you mean, fix them?”

“The children are… odd. We wanted to bring them here in June after their aunt’s death, but the little girl had a psychotic break when the nanny tried to take her away from the house. The boy was sent away to boarding school at the beginning of August, but he’s been expelled for setting fires. I need someone to go down there and stabilize the children, bring their education up to standard for their grade level so they can go to public school, and then move them up here with us.”

Andie shook her head and another chunk of hair slipped out of her chignon. “Psychotic breaks and setting fires,” she said, as she stuffed it back. “North, I teach high school English. I have no idea how to help kids like this. You need-”

“I need somebody who doesn’t care about the way things are supposed to be,” he said, his eyes sliding to her neck. “I think that’s where the nannies are going wrong. I need somebody who will do the unconventional thing without blinking. Somebody who will get things done.” He met her eyes. “Even if she doesn’t stay for the long haul.”

“Hey,” Andie said.

“I would take it as a personal favor. I’ve never asked you for anything-”

“You asked for a divorce.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.

He looked at her over the tops of his glasses, exasperated. “I did not ask you for a divorce.”

“Yes you did,” Andie said, in too far to stop now. “You told me that I seemed unhappy, and if that was true, you would understand if I divorced you.”

“You were playing ‘Any Day Now’ every time I came up to the attic. As hints go, it was pretty broad.”

He looked annoyed, so that was something, but it didn’t do anything for her anger. “There are people who, if their spouses are unhappy, try to do something about it.”

“I did. I gave you a divorce. You had one foot out the door anyway. Do we need to review that again?”

“No. The divorce is a dead subject.” And the ghost of it is sitting right here with us. Although maybe only with her. North didn’t looked haunted at all.

“I realize you’re getting ready to start a new life,” he went on. “But if you haven’t made plans yet, there’s no reason you couldn’t wait a few months. You could use the money for the wedding.”

“I don’t want a wedding, I want to get married. Why are you offering me ten thousand dollars a month for babysitting? You didn’t pay the nannies that. It’s ridiculous. For ten thousand a month, you should not only get child care, you should get your house cleaned, your laundry done, your tires rotated, and if I were you, I’d insist on nightly blow jobs. Did you think I wouldn’t notice that you’re still trying to keep your thumb on me?” She shook her head, and the lock of hair fell out of her chignon again. Well, the hell with that, too.

He sat very still, and then he said, “Why do you have your hair yanked back like that?” sounding as annoyed as she was.

“Because it’s professional.”

“Not if it keeps falling down.”

“Thank you,” Andie said. “Now butt out. Ten thousand is too much money. You’re still trying to pay me off-”

“Andromeda, I’m asking for a favor, a big one, and I don’t think the money is out of line. We didn’t leave our marriage enemies, so I don’t see why you’re hostile now.”

“I’m not hostile,” Andie said, and then added fairly, “well, okay, I am hostile. You didn’t do anything to save our marriage ten years ago, but every month you send a check so I’ll think of you again. It’s passive aggressive. Or something. You know the strongest memory I have of you? Sitting right there, behind that desk. You’d think I’d remember you naked with all the mattress time we clocked in that year together, but no, it’s you, staring at me from behind all that walnut as if you weren’t quite sure who I was. You have no idea how many times I wanted to take an ax to that damn desk just to see if you’d notice me.”

North looked down at his desk, perplexed.

“You hide behind it,” Andie said, sitting back now that she wasn’t repressing anything anymore. “You use it to keep from getting emotionally involved.”

“I use it to write on.”

“You know what I mean. It gives you distance.”

“It gives me storage. Have you lost your mind?”

Andie looked at him for a moment, sitting there rigid and polite and completely inaccessible. “Yes. It was a bad idea coming back here. I should go now.” She stood up.

“She said the house is haunted,” North said.

“Excuse me?”

“The last nanny. She said there were ghosts in the house. I asked the local police to look into things to see if somebody was playing tricks, but they found nothing. I think it’s the kids, but if I send another nanny down there like the previous ones, she’s going to quit, too. I need somebody different, somebody who’s tough, somebody who can handle the unexpected. Somebody like you. And you’re the only person like you that I know.” Suddenly he was the old North again, warm and real with that light in his eyes as he looked at her. “They’re little kids, Andie. I can’t get them out of there, and I can’t leave them there, and with Mother in France, I can’t leave the practice long enough to find out what’s going on, and even if I could, I don’t know anything about kids. I need you.”

Ouch. “I don’t-”

“Everybody they’ve ever been close to has died,” North said quietly. “Everybody they’ve ever loved has left them.”

Bastard, Andie thought. “I can’t give you months. That’s ridiculous.”

North nodded, looking calm, but she’d been married to him for a year so she knew: He was going in for the kill. “Give them one month then. You can draw your line under us, we don’t need to talk, you can send reports to Kristin, hell, take your fiancé down there with you.”

“I’m the least maternal person I know,” Andie said, thinking, Ten thousand dollars. And more than that, two helpless kids who’d lost everyone they loved, going crazy in the middle of nowhere.

“I don’t think they need maternal,” he said. “I think they need you.”

“A psychotic little girl and a boy who’s growing up to be a serial killer. He didn’t push his aunt off that tower, did he?”

“They’re growing up alone, Andie,” North said, and Andie thought, Oh, hell.

The problem was, he sounded sincere. Well, he always did, he was good at that, but now that she really looked at him, he had changed. She could see the stress in his face, the lines that hadn’t been there ten years ago, the tightening of the skin over his bones, the age in the hollows under his eyes. His brother Southie probably still looked as smooth as a boiled egg, but North was still trapped behind that damn desk, taking care of everyone in the family. And now there were two more in the family, and he was handling it alone.