Her Mother's Day
The Holiday Babies Series
Where powerful heroes meet
their cutest match yet!
from beginning to end."
Love is closer than you think.
Nothing will stop Riley Mathis from giving his baby daughter a safe and stable life growing up. After his wife passed away during childbirth, Riley moved to Point St. Claire, Maine, where families are close and people simply care. So, who had he ticked off to be lumped with this neighbor from hell?
Aster Lawrence could do without her friendly, happy, handsome new neighbor poking around in her business. This time last year, her world was shot down in flames. She’d been keeping her head above water before Riley Mathis introduced her to his baby. How could she keep her distance—keep surviving—when they were both so easy to love?
WAITING BESIDE a late model sedan, he stepped from the driveway onto the road and finally cornered her.
“I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself,” he called out in a sexy baritone that belonged in action films―those line-backer shoulders, too, come to think of it. “I’ve seen you jog by most mornings.”
Returning a quick nod—a tight grin—Aster rallied her burning muscles and prepared to forge on. Five miles down on her morning jog. The fireplace in her study was waiting. But her friendly, happy, handsome neighbor wouldn’t give in.
“Actually, you usually fly by. Are you training for a marathon?” he asked.
Aster shook her head no. She had been running a marathon, but not the kind he meant.
Last week, when laughter had drifted over between the snow-dressed pines that separated their half-acre lots, she had simply shut the window. How she was supposed to escape his smile—a block of white blazing out from a ruggedly handsome face?
Why couldn’t people just leave her alone?
But now she was caught…
Well, no need to come across all spleeny.
“You moved in a couple of weeks ago?” she asked, bracing hands on her knees as she stopped and got her breath.
“One month today. The name’s Riley Mathis.”
“Aster Lawrence. You’re from away.” Well, obviously.
“Way away. Sydney, Australia.”
“My wife’s family are all Mainers, though,” he went on. “Her favorite place on the planet. I like it, too.” A puff of frosty air expelled as he cast a wry look around the still surrounds. “I’ve almost gotten used to the idea of thirty-degrees in spring.”
His eyes were captivating—the color of the sea after a storm. Guess his wife thought they were pretty special, too. And he was tall, but not in a string bean way. From the Hollywood square-cut of his jaw to the generous size of his boots, Riley Mathis was as masculine as any man got.
He pulled his black stocking cap down more snugly over his ears as those big boots crunched on the driveway and he walked back to his vehicle.
“While we’re at it, there’s someone else you should meet.” He opened the passenger side rear door. “We were just heading out.”
Aster’s stomach looped and filled with knots. She knew what was coming. Hell, maybe it was time. She only had to stay calm. A person couldn’t run forever.
Aster’s morning jog normally set her in good stead for the rest of the day. Crawling out of bed had even gotten easier. When the alarm peeled in her ear, she willed her feet to greet the floor and corralled any sinking thoughts away, back to a place that was safe and hushed and hidden. A year ago, if anyone had said she’d be dodging potholes in a pair of iridescent Nikes come rain, hail or today’s March mud, she’d have told them to go tell jokes for a living.
But running was good. Was therapeutic. A gigantic effort that got a little easier each day. Then new people had moved into the triple-decker Victorian next door. A family.
With a baby.
As Riley Mathis leaned inside the car, Aster thought she heard the ethereal shake of a rattle. Then an image filled her head…sweet and soft and barely breathing. Panic coiled around her throat and her chest squeezed tripwire tight. Like it had happened only yesterday, a set of claws twisted and tore out her heart.
Mumbling an apology, struggling for air, she scrambled away. A moment later, inside her house, she shut her stinging eyes and leaned back against the closed front door. As her fingers tingled and turned numb, she prayed at the same time a hot tear trailed down one cheek.
It would get better. She only needed to stay strong.
Just not now.
Oh God, not today.
The pride Riley felt as he scooped his baby daughter out of her car seat was a warm, vital rush through his veins. This child made him feel alive. Feel as if, irrespective of life’s ups and crashing downs, everything was so amazingly worthwhile.
“She’s six months old,” he said, grinning into trusting baby blues that adored her dad. “First teeth through. More on the way. We’ve had a few sleepless nights.”
Turning, he nestled the baby the way she liked best—her back to his chest, giving her a clear view of the world. Edging forward, he cast a glance up and down the wide fir-lined street. Where had his marathon-running neighbour gotten to?
What the heck had he said?
Riley had decided to put down roots here for two reasons. Number one: Point St. Claire, Maine, was a great place to raise a family. No crime to speak of, plenty of space and community parks. On the bluff, a lighthouse—and its sea captain ghost—stood perpetual guard over the Point’s laidback population of close to ten thousand. Folk around these parts enjoyed a dry sense of humor, but they always nodded and said good mahnin’ whenever they passed.
So, what was with his neighbor?
Other than her morning jog no matter the weather, did she ever leave the house? As far as he could tell, groceries were delivered. No friends called by. Window shades were drawn most of the time. If Aster was a protagonist in one of his mystery novels, Riley might enjoy developing a gripping back-story or two.
Maybe she’d gone underground, hiding from a violent ex-lover. Perhaps Aster was a textbook agoraphobic. A chronic loner.
Or simply lonely.
Even at a distance, her deep green eyes had shone almost too brightly.
“Pity she didn’t get to meet you,” he said, pressing a kiss atop the baby’s pink woollen bonnet. “You’d have made her smile.”
Posy kicked her booteed feet and squealed like she was ready for the challenge. Oh, to be that innocent again. So many firsts to conquer and corners to turn. He wanted each step in Posey’s life to be the right one.
He was about to fold his daughter back into her seat when a car rolled up onto the shoulder out front. A woman dressed in a navy-blue topcoat slipped out of her late model SUV.
“No need to take the baby out today,” the woman exclaimed, striding down the driveway, black leather gloves waving. “Aunt Caroline is here.”
Reason number two for raising Posey in Maine: extended female family.
Riley didn’t have any blood relations left in Australia—although he did count former school buddies, Alex Eagers and Nate Jamison, as brothers. Riley and Alex had been groomsmen at Nate’s wedding last year where Alex had been smitten by the maid of honor. Riley wasn’t sure what had happened with those two after that. Two weeks later, his world had smacked a wall. He’d needed to make some tough calls, one of which had been moving here.
Family, his wife’s older sister, was only “up the road apiece,” as they said around these parts, and his sister-in-law dropped in often. Like all the time.
Riley appreciated Caroline’s help and advice, more than he could ever say. But lately he’d wondered. Given Caroline’s own situation—the difficulties she and her husband had endured in recent years—maybe she was getting a little too involved.
“We were on our way to pick up a few supplies at the market,” he said. “Posey’s happy to come along.”
“Posy would be happy anywhere. She smiles in her sleep.” Caroline scooped the baby into her arms and, cuddling the little girl close, sighed long and deep. “Lord above, how I’ve missed you.”
Folding his arms over his coat, Riley grinned. “You saw her last Friday.”
“And the weekend dragged by, don’t you think?”
When the neighbor’s closest double-hung slammed shut, Caroline’s eyebrows lifted and she turned toward the noise.
“Jeezum crow. Should we take that personally?”
Riley squinted at the window in question. “My neighbor’s a private person.”
“There’s private and then there’s downright rude.”
Riley could remember his mother saying many years ago, Mean people aren’t born that way. They’d been scratched and bumped by something big…something they couldn’t recover from. Being mean is unhappiness turned outward and hard, she’d say, like a tarnished suit of armour.
What was Aster Lawrence so unhappy about?
Refocusing, Riley gently shook Posey’s mittened hand. “I won’t be long, button.”
One thing these past months had taught him: time was precious.
As Caroline swept Posey inside and out of the cold, Riley opened his driver’s side door. One foot in the well, he stopped and scanned the quiet street again.
These past weeks, he’d gotten to know the neighbors. The Hanses had lived in the same four-bedroom Colonial for fifty-two years. The Petersens owned a vegan café in town and had twin boys rocking it at Point St. Claire’s middle school. The Mercers played classical piano every afternoon around four.
Did strains of Mozart lilting over the lake rub Aster the wrong way, too?
Did that woman have anyone she could talk to?
Giving in, Riley drew his foot from the well and closed the car door. She could bite his head off if she liked, but he had to know if his vanishing lady needed any help.
Treading around melting clumps of snow, hunching his shoulders against the famous Downeast cold, Riley cut through the wintry pines. Aster opened the door on his third set of knocks. Her eyes were red and face was blotched, like she’d been crying.
He pasted on a casual smile. No need to embarrass her.
“You disappeared,” he said. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“A stupid stitch,” she said, indicating her side. “Better now though. Sorry I left like that.”
She was holding the jamb like she might crumple. Surrounded by a mass of honey-blond waves, her face was pale and long lashes were glistening.
“If you’re sure you’re okay…” he said.
“Perfectly fine,” she replied. “Thank you.”
“Because if you need help, Clyde Lewis around the bend is an M.D. Not practicing anymore, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind—”
“I appreciate your concern.”
The clipped tone and subtle lift of her chin was his cue to leave. He didn’t want to pound home the point, but leaving her like this—visibly shaken—didn’t sit right. A year ago, he’d left Jasmine looking upset when she’d insisted that he go. Thank God he’d reconsidered and had come back.
Rubbing his hands together to generate heat, Riley gave it one more shot. “You really should meet Posey. She’s got the cutest grin. Always happy—”
“If you’re after a babysitter, Mr. Mathis, I’m not interested.”
His head went back. “I’m not after anything.”
“Then I reckon there’s somewhere else you must need to be.”
Prickly and reclusive and—attractive in an irritating way. She’d get lines if she kept pinching her mouth so hard. The thrust of her jaw was pronounced, as if she was bruising for a fight.
As if she were all alone in the world and desperate for a friend.
Slotting his hands in his coat pockets, Riley wound his visit up by extending a final olive branch. “Caroline’s staying at home with the baby now, if you need anything.”
“Please thank your wife, but I don’t need a babysitter, either.”
When Aster closed the door in his face before he could explain, Riley fought the urge to give her the bird before striding away. Not nice. Still, he didn’t know what was stuck in his neighbor’s craw. And, frankly—shoot me—but he didn’t care.
He couldn’t afford to.