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Three things happened the same week ready-to-wear designer Cassandra Brennan announced she'd be opening two more Cassie's Closet boutiques in the metro Atlanta area.
She broke up with her fiance, Ned Patterson.
Her estranged father sent word that he was dying and he wanted her to come home.
And once she arrived home, the man who had been her first love in high school walked out onto the front porch of Camellia Plantation with his arms around the woman who'd come between them. And he still looked good doing it, too.
The house hadn't changed all that much in the past twelve years. But everything else certainly had.
Why was Cal Collins back at Camellia? And what was he doing with Marsha Reynolds? Last she'd heard, after Cassie had caught them together and broken up with Cal, things hadn't worked out for Cal and Marsha after all. Too bad. And too bad they'd decided to take right back up on the very day she'd driven the four hours from Atlanta to get here.
Anxious to get inside and see her father, Cassie swallowed and inhaled a deep breath. She could do this. She had to do this.
Memories danced into her head, taunting her, some beautiful, some tragic. Cassie tried deep breathing, her breath stopping near her rib cage. The old camellia bushes, from which the plantation had gotten its name, grew with a lush abandonment all over the side yards and in front of the pool, their velvet pink blooms popping and exploding in the sun like clusters of chiffon.
She and Cal used to meet each other in the shadows of those tall, rich green bushes. Usually they'd sneak out at midnight after her parents had gone to bed. Cassie would leave by the French doors in her room that opened onto the upstairs porch and make her way down the outside staircase.
But everything had changed. In the blink of an eye, she lost her mother to a tragic horseback-riding accident, lost the man she loved to another woman and lost the father she'd always adored because of something she'd done or said during that horrible week.
Bracing herself, Cassie got out of her late model convertible and slammed the door hard enough to get the attention of the couple on the porch. She wanted to tell them to get a room. She wanted to scratch Marsha's green eyes right out of her head. And she wanted to grab Cal by the collar and ask him why he'd hurt her so badly.
But she didn't do any of those things.
A Brennan didn't act like a redneck.
A Brennan held everything inside and was always, always civilized and polite. And she wouldn't make a scene when her father lay dying just beyond that front door.
Cal turned then, his eyes meeting hers as he held a hand on Marsha's bare arm. "Cassie."
Cassie's heart pumped against her ribs, trying to beat a path out of her body. Just hearing him say her name in that low drawl caused a hot chill to run over her.
She thought about turning around and heading back to Atlanta. But she'd been running for way too long now. Her father needed her, even if he hated to admit that.
And she needed him. She'd been waiting far too long. She wouldn't let anything or anyone stand in the way of this homecoming. Not even Cal Collins. So she stiffened her spine and held her head up high.
"Hello, Cal. Marshalong time, no see. Looks like nothing much has changed around here."
Cal didn't say anything. He just stared at her long enough to make her sweat. But then, it was late spring in south georgia. It was hot all the way around.
She stared right back at him, hoping her hurt and fear and confusion didn't show in her eyes.
His dark hair hung in thick chocolate-colored chunks around his ears and neck. He looked the same but different, his cotton work shirt stretched across a broad back, his worn jeans low-slung and not too tight. When they'd parted they'd both still been in their teens.
Now she was looking at a full-grown man.
Would he see her as a woman?
"Well, if it isn't the long-lost Cassie Brennan," Marsha said on a smirk. "And looking like she stepped right out of some fancy fashion magazine."
Marsha looked ready to explode, her red hair falling around her shoulders with the same vibrancy as the blooming camellias, her angry frown for Cal and only Cal. She'd gained a few pounds, but then Marsha had always had a healthy figure. The kind boys loved. Just like in high school. Just like the day Marsha had explained it all to Cassie, shattering what was left of her heart, after Cassie had caught the two of them together.
She was going to be sick, Cassie thought, her pulse sputtering out of control, her blood pressure rising. She might actually throw up. Sweat pooled down her back and across her chest, her white linen sundress wilting against her skin like bruised magnolia blossoms.
Had her father invited them here to remind Cassie of her one great sin? Well, she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her sweat. So she continued on, one hand clutching her white leather purse, her stomach knotting and twisting in pain. But she couldn't take her eyes away from the dark-haired man and the curvy redheaded woman. Memories of seeing them in just such a way long ago invaded her head.
This was certainly not the homecoming welcome she'd expected. Her life had changed forever. But Cal Collins was still the same. And he still got to her.
"I told you, you need to leave."
Cal stared down at Marsha, hoping she'd take the hint. He'd been trying to get her out of the house before Cassie showed up, but now it was too late. He wasn't in the mood for a catfight. But both of these women, one cool and blonde and so in control and one ticked-off and redheaded and about to lose control, looked ready to go at each other.
This was a long-standing feud.
And obviously, he was still in the middle of it.
"I came to visit with Teresa, thank you," Marsha said, hurt in her eyes. "I like to give her some of the fresh produce from my garden."
Cal let go of her and put his hat on, adjusting it over his brow. "You still need to go. Hear me, Marsha?"
"I hear you. Don't get all hot under the collar."
Cal looked at the woman who tried to push his buttons and then he stared down at the woman he couldn't havethe one who went beyond button pushing to fullthrottle. Then he lifted his head and sniffed, the scent of magnolias hitting his nostrils. The huge magnolia trees in the backyard weren't blooming yet and Marsha didn't wear magnolia-scented perfume.
But Cassandra Brennan always had.
He didn't show it, but he took his dear sweet time watching Cassie standing on the bottom step, her blond hair curled around her chin in a thick sleek bob, her bare shoulders tanned and buff, her legs still long and curved in the right places. She held a pair of black sunglasses in one hand and wore a white dress with thick straps and a flared skirt. Her sandals glistened just as white as the crisp dress, a line of silver medallionlike studs marching up her foot in gladiator fashion. And the heels were killer high.
He couldn't help it. His gaze slid down her body and back up to her red-lipped mouth. "I'm glad you're home, Cassie."
She lifted her fancy sunglasses and placed them on her head and flipped that cool bob. "Thanks." Then she shot a questioning glance at Marsha, her expression caught between polite and haughty. "What's going on?"
Marsha's face sweated with a soft sheen that turned to a beet-red blush. "Not what you think."
Cal glared at Marsha. She'd pushed her way into the back door earlier, probably to purposely cause a ruckus right here on the porch. "Marsha, you need to go."
She eyed him. "I was just on my way."
The redhead whirled like a tornado and stomped down the porch steps, her tight cut-off jeans barely meeting the hem of her pink T-shirt. She gave Cassie a thunderous look as she passed, then said over her shoulder, "Just a warning, Cassie. Some things around here
aren't the way they used to be. And I should know that better than anybody."
Cal watched her traipse around the side of the house then heard a motor revving.
When Marsha's battered red pickup peeled down the long driveway, leaving a trail of mad dust, Cassie took her shades off her head and turned her face up, her eyes glistening as blue as the sky behind her.
"You don't let her park up front?" she asked as she swept up onto the porch.
He didn't know how to answer that. He wasn't even sure he should answer that. Cassie had left behind this little town and this South Georgia plantation and she'd never looked back.
And he couldn't ever look forward. Otherwise, he wouldn't have come back here to work for her father and torture himself with memories at every turn.
He let out grunt of a breath. "Marsha still thinks"
"It's obvious what she thinks. I don't know why y'all didn't go ahead and get married all those years ago."
He gritted his teeth then inhaled a breath. "There was no baby. So there was no reason for me to marry her."
Because he didn't love Marsha.
Cassie touched a hand to her hair, but she appeared flabbergasted. "Okay, enough about old times. I'm a bit confused. What are you doing here?"
"You really are behind on the family news, aren't you?" he asked, wondering how he was going to be able to stay here now that she'd come home. When Marcus had first come up with this plan, Cal's gut had told him this was a very bad idea. Now his stomach burned with the proof of that. No use trying to hide the facts. "I work here."
And that's all he needed to say to set things straight. So he turned and walked in the direction of the small foreman's cottage where he lived.
No, he wasn't married to Marsha. He'd never been married to anybody. But he wouldn't tell Cassie the whole ugly story. She didn't care and it didn't really matter. He'd only come back here as a favor to her sick father.
As a favor to the man who'd once told Cal he'd kill him if he ever set foot on this land again.
Sometimes Cal wished Marcus Brennan had made good on that threat.
Cal worked here. Again? How? Why? None of this made any sense to Cassie. That little welcome-home scene on the front porch had left her shaking, but she got herself together enough to go through the double oak doors of the house she'd grown up in. Camellia Plantation had been in her family for over a hundred and thirty years. Her ancestors had bought it in 1880 and restored it after the ravages of the Civil War had caused the previous owner to take his own lifeout under that infamous oak tree that hung over the driveway, as the legend went.
The same oak tree where her mother had died.
The same oak tree where Cal had kissed Cassie and promised her he'd always love her.
The oak tree had been here over three hundred years, its trunk and branches scarred and twisted. No wonder it was cursed. The big square house with the massive columns and wide wraparound porches on both floors had been in her family for a long time, passed down from generation to generation with a legacy that told many tales, her own parents being part of that. Her father was the last of the Brennans. If she didn't marry and produce offspring, she would be the last once he was gone.
Since she wasn't very good in the relationship department, there was little chance of Cassie ever becoming a wife and mother.
Maybe that was the reason she'd decided to come home. Because in spite of everything, this was her home. Lately, living in Atlanta had become unpleasant in spite of her growing fame as an up-and-coming fashion designer and the success of her downtown boutique aptly named Cassie's Closet, in spite of the spiffy midtown loft she'd redecorated and spruced up herself. And in spite of her much-touted love life with lawyer and hotshot Atlanta businessman Ned Patterson.
Or maybe because of her love life, or lack thereof. She'd broken things off with her fiance. But Ned hadn't taken it very well. Cassie couldn't blame Ned. She hadn't loved him very well.
Then she remembered Cal's eyes when he'd turned to look down at her there on the porch. Blue, a rich navy blue that bordered on velvet. Once a beautiful, loving blue that wrapped her in warmth. Now a hard cold blue that raked her with what looked like scorn and disdain. Did he hate her that much?