Andie Miller is about to get married to a nice, reliable writer, the complete opposite of her ex-husband North Archer. She just needs to sever any remaining connection to him by handing back all the alimony checks she's received since their divorce ten years earlier. Then she can get on with her life. Of course, seeing North again brings back all sorts of memories, and he's a very hard man to say no to.
North Archer is responsible for two young children. His cousin died two years ago, and the kids were orphaned. Once their aunt died, the kids were left alone in a huge mansion in the countryside in Ohio, with only nannies and an elderly housekeeper to take care of them. The third nanny just quit, claiming the house is haunted. She tried to take the children away from the house, but the little girl had a near-psychotic break and the boy was expelled from boarding school for setting fires. He needs someone sensible, stubborn and capable to sort out the children, get their grades up to scratch, and convince them to move in with him. Who better than his ex-wife Andie, who could always sort out anything? That this will take her away from her fiancee for an extended period of time is really just a bonus.
As North offers her ten thousand dollars to spend a month in the old house, Andie really doesn't feel she can refuse. She starts to wonder if she shouldn't have asked for more money once she sees the house and meets the inhabitants, though. The house is an old Victorian mansion, moved brick by brick from England, with furniture and brickabrack included. The driveway is falling apart, the garden is overgrown. The housekeeper is absolutely ancient, has lived there for most of her life, clearly drinks too much and refuses to listen to a thing Andie says until she hears the name Archer, forcing Andie to pretend she is still married to North. Carter, the little boy, barely speaks. Alice, a tiny, scrawny waif is more like a wild creature than a girl, and carries a mouldy, creepy doll with her everywhere. If Andie tries to make her do anything she doesn't want to, she screams hysterically at the top of her lungs.
While Andie finds Archer House unnerving and creepy, she is a practical and educated woman, and refuses to believe in any ghost nonsense. Even when she keeps seeing things out of the corner of her eye, Alice is clearly talking to someone in her room at night, when the rocking chair by Alice's bed seemingly rocks by itself and she keeps hearing voices as she drifts off to sleep at night. She also can't stop thinking about North all the time, and being in the run-down house means she keeps having to contact him for help. Then, just as she seems to be making progress, an unscrupulous reporter arrives on the doorstep with her ex-brother-in-law and a cameraman in tow, wanting to make a news feature on the "haunted house" and the poor, terrified orphans who live there.
Andie is similar to many of Jennifer Crusie's other heroines. Smart, self-sufficient, curvy, and in no desperate need for children of her own. She works as a teacher, but has never settled long in one place, having moved every year or so since her divorce to North. They got married after one day, and the marriage only lasted a year, before Andie bolted, as North puts it. She claims she couldn't take his neglect any longer, never seeing him because he worked sixteen-hour-days at his family's law firm. Now she is ready to move on, and marry the dependable Will, she just needs to sort out the Archer House mess, as she refuses to back down from the challenge.
North did not want to divorce Andie, and only suggested it because she seemed so unhappy. Still not over her after ten years, he has to acknowledge to himself that he sent her to Archer House to keep her in his life for a little bit longer, hoping that maybe something would happen to keep her from marrying the other guy. He's not entirely sure that Andie will stay with the kids for a whole month, as his experience is that she runs when things get tough.
Maybe This Time is first and foremost a ghost story, inspired by Henry James' classic The Turn of the Screw. Anyone reading it hoping for a fun and light-hearted romance like many of Crusie's other books (which I tend to adore) will be disappointed, as the romance is decidedly secondary to the suspense and ghost plot here. The kids have lived in their creepy house for a long time, surrounded by things that grown-ups don't believe in. They are not happy and cheerful and well-adjusted, having been orphaned, neglected and left to fend for themselves for far too long. There are actual ghosts in the story, and the majority of them are not nice. It's a good book, but in a different tone from most of Crusie's previous work, and I think I prefer her more easy-going romances to this one.