Excerpt: When I Fall In Love

Excerpt: When I Fall In Love

The MacLeod Family

Prologue

Manhattan, Present Day

 

I did lock that door when I left this afternoon, didn’t I?

Jennifer MacLeod McKinnon stood in the hallway of her charming Upper East Side brownstone and looked at her apartment door. It wasn’t secured with the four deadbolts that she locked religiously no matter what side of the door she was standing on. It wasn’t even shut tight in a way that might have encouraged her to lean on it and rely on its strength.

It was ajar.

Ajar in a way that suggested strongly that someone had been inside. Someone who wasn’t her.

Jennifer frowned. That was not the kind of thing a girl wanted her deadbolt-encrusted door to be suggesting when she was out alone in the hallway well after midnight with only Mrs. Delinski and her brace of terriers across the hall to help her.

She leaned a little closer, on the off chance that she might have been mistaken, and heard nothing. Well, that wasn’t quite true. She could hear Mrs. Delinski’s television, a police siren outside, and someone having a fight upstairs. But in her apartment?

Silence.

It was possible that she had forgotten to lock the door. Possible, but not likely. It was Manhattan, for heaven’s sake. She locked the door when she talked to Mrs. Delinski out in the hallway.

She considered her options. She could call the police, but this was the third time this month her apartment had been broken into and she wasn’t sure she could face the thought of filling out another police report. She could leap inside and bean her potential intruder over the head with her violin case, but her violin was worth a lot of money so the odds of her being able to really put some oomph into the beaning were not good. Or she could call her sister Victoria and see if Victoria’s very intimidating husband might be willing to come take a little look-see inside to make sure that her apartment was thug-free.

Now, that was an appealing idea. Connor MacDougal loved trouble. Intruders were his favorite kind of trouble, though he was willing to settle for muggers and petty thieves when he had to. He’d done damage to all sorts of lowlife, to the endless despair of her sister, who was continually trying to convince him that swords, and just fake ones if you please, were better reserved for the stage. Connor did use swords on stage in his flourishing acting career, but Jennifer suspected it grieved him slightly that no real blood ever flowed.

And it probably wouldn’t matter to him that the odds of there being anyone still inside were very slim. He liked the role of protective older brother. There was no sense in not giving him the chance to play it. She pulled her phone out of her evening bag and called her sister’s cell. Victoria picked up on the first ring.

“We’re almost to your place,” she said without preamble.

“You are?” Jennifer whispered. “Why?”

“Connor had a bad feeling.”

“Wow, he’s good,” Jennifer murmured. “Why can’t I find myself a guy like that?”

“You’re looking in the wrong place. So, why did you call and why are you whispering?”

“My front door’s open.”

“Again? Did you forget to lock it?”

“Of course not!” Jennifer exclaimed, then she paused. “At least I don’t think I did.”

“Wait for us downstairs.”

“I–”

Victoria hung up.

“Was planning to,” Jennifer finished. What did her sister think she was, nuts? She had an intimidating brother-in-law to do her dirt work for her; she wasn’t going to do it herself.

She put her phone back in her purse, picked up the hem of her beaded gown, and walked carefully down the stairs. She had to walk carefully so she didn’t scratch the shoes that could have passed in a pinch for glass slippers. They had seemed like the appropriate accessory to match an evening gown that had promised to be nothing short of a fairy tale in the making.

She’d been asked at the last minute to fill in for the fabulous Victor Bourgeois who had been slated to play Paganini’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D Major with the Wildly Terrific Orchestra, an edgy group that wasn’t nearly as famous as the New York Philharmonic, but in her opinion almost as good. She could thank her agent, the fabulous and very longsuffering Charles Salieri, for the chance. He’d happily taken her on while she’d still been a student at Juilliard, ignored her complaints of burnout after she’d graduated top of her class in violin performance, and only sighed lightly as she’d jumped into business with her mother instead of leaping into the musical pond as he thought she should have.

Fortunately for her, his nagging and Victoria’s hounding had resulted in her spending a great deal more time practicing over the years than she’d let on. That had resulted in the invitation that she’d thought might be the start of a new direction for her.

So, she’d donned her Cinderella duds and headed toward the concert hall where the evening had been as glorious as she’d hoped it might be. She had played flawlessly, even by her own exacting standards. Clicking her glass heels together a time or two had resulted in yet another fairy tale happening, mainly the very talented, enormously gorgeous Maestro Michael McGillicuty, WTO’s brilliant conductor, asking her after the concert if she might like to share a cab home. It had seemed too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it had been.

Being forced to plant your fist into your Prince Charming’s nose because he had been less than a gentleman was not exactly the stuff dreams were made of.

She stepped out into the frigid March evening and wished for something more substantial than her flimsy shawl. She leaned against the iron stair railing and breathed as deeply as she dared. There she was in a fairy-tale gown with fairy-tale shoes; where was her knight in shining armor, riding up on his white horse to rescue her from all the creeps?

A cab screeched to a halt in front of her apartment and interrupted her gloomy ruminations. Victoria and Connor piled out and hurried over to her.

“How open was your door?” Victoria began without hesitation. “A lot? A little? Just your imagination imagining the extent of its openness?”

Jennifer scowled at her. “The door was open in a way that strongly suggests that a thief had recently been inside and had his arms too full of my stuff to really close it properly on his way out.” She looked at Connor. “Do you want to go up and check?”

Connor flexed his fingers. Jennifer thought he might have chortled as well, but she was shivering, so that could have been her teeth chattering.

“Aye,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ll ascend and see.”

Jennifer watched her brother-in-law bound up the stairs and into the building. The door shut behind him. She stared after him thoughtfully for a moment or two, then turned to her sister. “Vic?”

“What?”

“Why did Connor have a knife stuck into the waistband of his jeans?”

“Damn it,” Victoria said in exasperation. “I really should have a metal detector installed on the front door.”

“How can you ride across town in a cab with a man and not know he’s packing an enormous knife in the back of his pants?”

“I was distracted.”

“Were you worrying about me?”

Victoria actually blushed. “Not exactly. I was otherwise occupied.”

Jennifer laughed. “Vic, you’re married. It’s okay.”

“It’s humiliating. I was trying to put my arms around him so we could make out properly in the back of that cab, but he kept grabbing by hands and kissing them.”

“Romantic,” Jennifer noted.

“Ha,” Victoria snorted. “He said my hands were so beautiful and expressive, he couldn’t let them go. Now I see he just didn’t want me finding something better left under his pillow.”

“He’s good,” Jennifer said.

“He would definitely agree. He might also make use of that knife if we’re not there to stop him.” She took Jennifer by the arm. “Come on. We’ll follow at a discreet distance.”

“You know, there’s probably no one inside.”

“I know,” Victoria said with a wink. “I’m humoring him.”

Jennifer smiled and walked with Victoria back inside, up the flight of stairs, and along the hallway with the exposed brick until they stopped in front of her now wide-open door. Connor appeared suddenly in the doorway.

“Empty,” he said, sounding very disappointed.

“What do you mean by empty?” Jennifer asked. “Empty as in no stuff, or empty as in no thief?”

“No thief,” he said glumly.

“Better luck next time,” she said, giving him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. She walked inside her luxurious 400 square feet of apartment and looked around. At first glance it didn’t seem like anything was missing, but considering the state of things, it was a little hard to tell.

Her apartment looked like a fabric shop, with material she used in her mother’s business stacked on every available surface and most of the floor. She did have a bare spot over by the window where she practiced and an exposed bit of kitchen counter on which she had stacked take-out. The rest of the place, however, was a disaster.

Victoria put her hands on her hips. “Why does someone keep breaking in? You don’t have anything to steal.”

“Who knows? My building seems to be prone to it. It’s annoying, but at least no one ever seems to get hurt. Maybe it’s just Fate trying to tell me something.”

Get another apartment would be my guess,” Victoria said.

“I’m beginning to think the same thing.” Jennifer said. She started to work on a dangerously listing pile of fabric. “Maybe I need to get something bigger.”

“Smaller,” Victoria countered. “You’ll have less room for all Mom’s junk that way. Oh, and speaking of junk, guess who we saw on our way over?”

“I hesitate to ask.”

“Michael McGillicuty.”

“Did you indeed?”

Victoria smiled. “Yes, we did indeed. He was stomping back down your street, directing an unseen orchestra playing a symphony of disgust.”

Jennifer pursed her lips. “How poetic.”

“His nose was dripping blood.”

“That’s poetic, too.”

“We rolled down the window and asked him what had happened to him.” Victoria smirked. “He said he’d run into a wall.”

“He ran into my fist,” Jennifer said shortly. “And that wasn’t because he was trying to grab my violin.”

“Stop dating musicians.” Victoria advised.

“I wasn’t dating him. I was contemplating dating him.”

Victoria looked her over. “Then he’s an idiot for blowing it. You look like Cinderella. Why can’t you find a decent guy to match that dress?”

“I have no idea.”

“You should go to Scotland,” Connor said. “Your Gaelic is flawless. You might find a braw lad there in the Highlands.”

“It’s very tempting,” Jennifer said. “Do you think Granny would mind me marrying a guy who packed a sword?”

“That would probably be a prerequisite,” Victoria said. “Call her tomorrow and I’m sure she’ll tell you as much. Now, do you have anything to eat in that little corner masquerading as a kitchen, or are we going to have to order take-out again?”

“Take-out,” Jennifer said. “Mr. Chin delivers all night. The number is–”

“Probably the only thing listed on your speed dial,” Vitoria interrupted. “I’ll take care of it.” She paused. “By the way, you were fabulous tonight.”

Jennifer smiled. “Thanks.”

Victoria smiled in return. “Go see what’s really missing this time.”

Jennifer nodded. She no longer had a toaster or a microwave, courtesy of the first break-in. The second go-round had resulted in the loss of all her electronics. Victoria was right; there wasn’t much else to steal. She walked over to her small armoire, looked inside, then swore.

Everything was gone. All her clothes, all her jewelry, all her shoes. Not even her ratty flip-flops from last summer or her matted and quite disgusting sheepskin slippers had been left behind. She put her hands on her hips and frowned fiercely. What was she supposed to do now, run around looking like an extra from a kid’s fairy tale theater production?

Maybe Fate was trying to tell her something.

She sighed, then turned around, sat down in her empty closet, and gave thought to her sorry, clothesless, shoeless life. There she was, a successful designer of baby clothes who was preparing to leap headfirst into the kind of musical career people would have killed to call their own.

Somehow, the thought of is just wasn’t as satisfying as it had been that morning.

She looked at her sister talking on the phone, then at that sister’s husband. Connor was leaning against the now-closed front door, watching Victoria with a small smile on his face. Jennifer smiled to herself. He might try to disguise it with jeans and a sweatshirt, but anyone with eyes could see he was Hollywood’s idea of a perfect medieval Scottish laird.

And he loved her sister to distraction.

Jennifer watched Victoria hang up the phone, turn, and catch sight of her husband watching her. She smiled as well, the satisfied smile of a woman who was adored by a magnificent man.

Jennifer had to look away. She was closer to tears than she wanted to admit. She realized with startling clarity that what she wanted was what Victoria had. How in the world was she going to find that when her Prince Charmings included the likes of Michael McGullicuty?

She sat there in her cramped, cluttered apartment and suddenly felt more discouraged than she ever had in her entire life. She didn’t want to be alone anymore. She didn’t want that door to close behind Victoria and Connor. She didn’t want silence to descend inside, silence that would not be quite silent because she was surrounded on all sides by people and stereos and televisions. She didn’t want to spend any more nights pacing, tripping over stacks of material and feeling the walls close in on her.

She didn’t want to be wearing the perfect dress, with the perfect shoes, and find that there was no hope of a happy ending to go with it.

This was not the life she wanted.

She pushed herself to her feet and started to pace. She looked around desperately for a distraction and found herself suddenly staring down at the extra phone she’d bummed off her mother after the second reak-in. The light was blinking.

Blinking in a rather significant way.

Jennifer reached out to turn on her messages, then realized her hand was shaking. She took a deep breath, flexed her fingers, then pushed the button. Her other sister’s voice filled the room.

“Jenner, it’s Megan. I know this probably isn’t possible, what with the way your career has suddenly taken

off–” Megan laughed a little. “And yes, Victoria told me so. Anyway, we’re going to be at Artane next month and it just popped into my mind to call and invite you to come along. We’re having a little de Piaget family reunion and I need you to keep me company. You will come, won’t you?”

Jennifer caught her breath.

She could see rolling hills covered with forests and sheep and bordered by charming stone fences. She could hear the sound of endless waves against the beach and feel the damp, medieval stone beneath her fingertips as she wandered Artane’s hallowed halls. How would it be to have room to walk for miles and not see another soul, or have the space to actually touch raw earth and see unobstructed clouds? What would it be like to have peace and quiet where she could actually think?

And who knew that she might not find a bit more than she was looking for? Vic and Megan had found their heart’s desires in England.

“Hey,” Victoria said suddenly, “you look far too contemplative for your own good.”

Jennifer looked at her sister. “I need a change.”

“A new apartment? I agree.”

“No,” Jennifer said, standing up slowly, “I mean a big change.” She smiled suddenly. “I’m going to England.”

Victoria looked at her in shock. “But you’re embarking on a new stage in your career.”

“It’ll keep. This is Fate.”

“This is post-performance letdown,” Victoria corrected. “Besides, Dad will have a fit. You know he doesn’t like his offspring heading across the Pond. It means that if you find a reason to stay, he’ll have to head across the Pond as well and he doesn’t like chips and peas with his fish.”

“Artane has a great chef.”

“He won’t care.” Victoria looked at Jennifer seriously. “This is just a vacation, isn’t it?”

“I’ll take my violin with me.”

“It’s a sixty-thousand-dollar Degani, Jenner. You take it to the bathroom with you.” She peered at Jennifer for a moment or two, then sighed. “You’ve already made up your mind.”

“Vic, there are sometimes you sound like a stage mother.”

“And there are sometimes you sound like Paganini.”

Jennifer laughed. “In my dreams. I appreciate the vote of confidence, but right now I want to go land on Megan’s doorstep and feel the sea breeze in my hair.” She looked at Connor. “What do you think?”

“When change is in the air, you should follow it.” He advised. “Change was in the air when I met your sister.”

The look he shot Victoria almost singed Jennifer where she stood. She laughed.“There’s my answer. Vic, you don’t dare argue with him.”

Victoria looked a bit faint. In fact, she fanned herself. “I won’t.”

Jennifer smiled, then rubbed her hands together briskly. “Do you know any guys?”

“I know lots of guys. What do you want them for?”

“To bring some boxes for a couple of things, then carry everything left over to the nearest Dumpster.”

“And then what?”

“I’ll go crash with Mom and Dad for a few days,” Jennifer said. “The less stuff I have to put in the back of a cab, the better off I’ll be.”

“True enough,” Victoria said. “I’ll find you guys tomorrow. We’ll stay tonight and help you pack up.”

“Don’t you have rehearsal tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow–or today, rather–is Sunday and even Evil Stuart Goldberg takes a day off now and then.”

“What are you rehearsing again?” Jennifer asked.

“Connor and I are starring in Taming of the Shrew, which you knew already,” Victoria said severely, “so don’t make any jokes about it.”

“Me?” Jennifer said with a smile. “Never.” She smiled at Connor. “Fun for you.”

“It shows Victoria’s fire in all its most attractive lights,” he said solemnly. “How can I resist?”

Jennifer whistled. “You are good.”

“And you’re about to lose your help packing,” Victoria said pointedly. “Where’s dinner?”

“Give Mr. Chin a chance.”

Jennifer erased the message, then went to pull her Murphy bed down. She was relieved to find her pink flannel pajamas still under her pillow. Her thief might have had no standards when it came to shoes, but he also had apparently been too lazy to see what might be tucked under bedclothes. She went into the bathroom and changed out of her gown.

Maybe she would go to Scotland first and roam through the heather. Then she would head south and catch up with Megan. It would be wonderful. The calm before the storm. The big breath before leaping into the deep end of the musical pool. A chance to decide once and for all if performing was really for her. That wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do, despite all of Charles Salieri’s text messages and his promise of a full schedule of concert dates in the near future.

Besides, for all she knew she might find a fairy godmother waiting for her. Maybe she would find her knight in shining armor there as well. One who would actually like to listen to her play. One who had an ounce of chivalry in his soul. One who would love her forever.

It could happen.

But it wouldn’t until she’d gotten herself out of her present situation. She would call Charles in the morning and let him know about her trip, dump her few belongings on her mother’s doorstep, then head for the airport. It was the right thing to do.

She took a deep breath, left the bathroom, put away her gown and glass slippers, and got to work.