Historical-romance mistress Cookson puts her sure hand to work once again, this time blowing a blizzard of soap bubbles in a contemporary setting--working-class northern England, a world of uneasy dole lines and reheated shepherd's pies. Here, we find Fiona Nelson, a 28-year-old widow with three children (Mark, Katie, and Willy) to raise as best she can. When things get tight, she takes in--much to the horror of her snobbish mother--a paying lodger who arrives with a gust of fresh air and bluster and a name right out of song: Bill Bailey. He's the head of a construction firm, a self-confessed "middle-of-the-road man" who takes to Fiona's kids and puts a damper on her mother's romantic designs by telling her he's been divorced four times. Before long, however, he and Fiona take a trip to the altar, and immediately adopt yet another child, this one orphaned when Bill's best friend dies in an auto accident. The noisy Bailey household thrives, despite a passel of problems--like young Katie's kidnapping, Mark's wretched experiences at a fancy boarding school, Fiona's nasty appendix, and sabotage on one of Bill's construction sites. Meanwhile, Willy starts running with lower-class Sammy Love, who turns out to be an okay tyke when he saves Bill's life. And even the birth of a Down's syndrome daughter to Fiona and Bill doesn't make the Baileys loose heart. Not surprisingly, the author's ability to concoct trials for this family never flags, and her characters are a prick-'em-and-they-bleed realistic lot--all of which suggests that Cookson's historical fans should have no problem following her into the present.