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Stars Crossing, Kentucky
Ten years ago
Eighteen-year-old Haley Shore was teetering on a maturity milestone. Tonight she was graduating high school. Excitement abounded as her father drove into the high school parking lot. She kept moving from one side of the backseat to the other, scanning the scene to see what her classmates were wearing and how they'd done their hair.
Haley had left her dark hair loose, letting the length brush the shoulders of her sleeveless jade-green dress, and chosen instead to focus on her makeup. A little eye shadow to highlight her green, almond-shaped eyes, a cherry-red gloss on her lips and she was good to go.
Her mother had spent the better part of Haley's life criticizing everything about her, especially her height and her mouth. She was five-ten in her bare feet, with sensuously full lips that had been the bane of Haley's existence until Angelina Jolie had burst onto the fame scene. At that point, Haley's attitude had shifted. Suddenly the face God gave her had become an asset, not a hindrance. While her mother continued to point out her flaws, Haley had grown old enough to realize Lena Shore was never going to approve of anything about her.
As her dad pulled in to a parking space, she leaned forward from the backseat of the car and tapped her mother on the shoulder.
"Mom. You brought the camera, right? Daddy.. you have to get a picture of me with Retta after graduation."
Lena Shore frowned at the question as she stared around the high school parking lot, checking to see if Mack Brolin's red sports car was anywhere in sight. Even though she didn't see it, she knew it didn't mean he wasn't there. She wasn't stupid. The fact that she had refused to let her daughter date a Brolin didn't mean it wasn't happening.
"No. I didn't bring the camera," Lena said.
Haley's heart dropped. "Mom! It's my graduation! How could you forget something that important!"
"I just did," Lena snapped. "Get over it. There will be plenty of people taking pictures. Ask for a copy."
"You shot four rolls of film the night Stewart graduated," Haley muttered.
Lena's face flushed. There was no arguing with the truth, but she wasn't going to discuss the fact that her older child and only sonwas her favorite. Getting pregnant with Haley had been an accident, and she never let Haley forget it.
Ever the referee within his family, Judd Shore pulled into a parking space. "I'll go down to Kennedy's and get one of those disposable ones," he said.
But Haley's joy was gone. "Don't bother," she said. "Mom's right. There will be plenty of people taking pictures because they're excited, and proud of their kids who are graduating, even if you guys aren't."
Haley flew out of the backseat before her father could respond and stomped off toward the gym with her red mortarboard in her hand and the red gown over her arm.
Judd looked at his wife. In all their years of marriage, he'd never understood her. She made no attempt to hide her favoritism.
"You could at least have pretended you were sorry you forgot the damn camera," he said.
But Lena was too locked into her own thoughts to care what Judd Shore thought. She'd just seen Tom and Chloe Brolin pulling up a few cars over. The rage that she'd lived with for the past twenty years surged upward, flushing her face to a dark, angry red.
"What the hell are they doing here?" she muttered.
"Chloe's niece, Betty, is in Haley's class, remember?"
Lena's frown turned into an ugly grimace, but she didn't comment. Instead, she got out of the car, grabbed Judd's arm and walked into the gym with her head high and her eyes straight ahead.
Inside, Haley's hurt was already fading as she gathered with her classmates in the lobby of the gym, waiting for the signal that would indicate the processional was about to begin. Within the hour, she would be officially graduated, ready to go off to college in the fall.
She was ready to get out of her house on so many levels, she didn't know where to start. All she knew was that living on her own, however lonely, would be far better than living another year at home with Judd and Lena Shore.
Excited, she kept peeking through the doorway of the lobby, watching families filing into the gym, then climbing up the bleachers, trying to grab seats as close as possible to the makeshift stage the graduates would cross to receive their diplomas.
The second best part of Haley's night was that Mack would be here. Even though he was finishing up his second year of college, he was still living at home and wouldn't miss her graduation.
She scanned the crowd, wondering where her parents were going to sit. It was for damn sure it wouldn't be close to the front. Her mother made no bones about the fact that Haley's exodus to college was nothing to be sad about.
The only thing Haley had ever done that wound up on her mother's radar was fall for Mack Brolin. To say the Shores and Brolins did not get along was an understatement, even though no one ever talked about why. The few times Haley had asked, she'd gotten slapped for her trouble, and that had been that. Lena Shore might control her household and her husband, and even her son, but she could not control her only daughter. Haley was having none of it. Her mother and father's personal issues had nothing to do with her. She loved Mack, and he loved her.
The end. And after tonight maybe a new beginning, as well.
Haley had always made sure there were plenty of opportunities for them to be together without her parents noticing. From the time she'd been old enough to date, Mack Brolin had been the first in line. And he hadn't needed to ask twice.
After tonight, everything about their relationship was going to change. They'd talked about it at length, and while Haley still felt unhappy about their decision, she knew it was for the best.
With two years at the local college behind him, Mack's plans were in motion. After having led the small college football team to nationals twicethe second time to a championshiphe'd caught the eye of several big-time college scouts. A couple of weeks ago he had received an offer from UCLA for a full-ride football scholarship for his last two years of college, and he'd accepted.
Haley's first thought on hearing the news had been, I will die if he leaves. But that wasn't what she told him. She pretended excitement, knowing he couldn't and shouldn't turn it down. It meant everything to his family, not having to come up with the money to put him through the last two years of college, and now his future as a professional football player was looking brighter every day.
Haley knew her family would never agree to let her attend the same college, and so, for the next two years, their lives were going to take them farther apart than they'd ever been before.
She also knew that if it was meant to be, Mack would still love her no matter how much time passed. She might appear to be a fragile female, but she had a fierce heart. She wasn't afraid to fight for who she loved and what she wanted out of lifeeven if her strongest opponent was her own mother.
A few minutes later the band director stood, tapped the podium in front of him and then lifted his baton. On cue, the band started playing, and the fifty-seven graduating seniors of Boone High School began to march onto the gym floor to take their seats.
Haley took a deep breath, put a smile on her face, lifted her chin and moved into stepin alphabetical order, just as she had for the past thirteen yearsright behind Charley Samuels. The moment she entered the gym, she started searching the crowd, but she was no longer looking for her family. She was looking for Mack.
Mack Brolin had driven into the school parking lot within seconds of the Shores. He watched Haley get out first, and he could tell by the way she was walking that she must have had another fight with her mom. It was hard for him to understand how a mother could be so cold toward her child, when his own mother was such a warm and loving person.
Still, he waited until Haley's family got out of their car and started toward the gymnasium before making his move. The parking lot was awash in families and graduating seniors in their red caps and gowns. He remembered vividly only two years earlier being where they were tonightexcited and at the same time a little anxious, knowing his whole life was ahead of him. He'd had so many dreams and aspirations, but everything he wanted included Haley Shore.
He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't loved her, but they'd made it official the night of her sixteenth birthday by making love in the backseat of his car.
He still considered it the highlight of his life. Despite every nightmare he'd ever heard about virgins and first times for girls being painful, Haley's experience had apparently been just the opposite. If she had suffered, she'd never said a word.
What she had done was laugh when it was over and ask to do it again. That was the moment that had sealed it for him. How could a guy go wrong with a girl that amazing? Everything he'd done since revolved around how to make their lives better.
Now, here he was, two years of college behind him and within weeks leaving for a bigger college on the other side of the country. Living in California would put him in virtual isolation from Haley for two long years. All this time he'd been waiting for her to grow up and catch up, and now they were about to be divided by time and space. It was hard to be elated about his college prospects without her at his side.
Oddly enough, it had been Haley who'd urged him to go. The joy in her voice had been evident the day they'd picnicked at Willow Lake. As he waited for the coast to clear so he could sneak into the gym, he thought of it again, as he had every day since it happened.
Willow Lake, just outside Stars Crossing, was a hot spot in the summer. But Mack and Haley had their special place that no one knew about: a tiny inlet between two heavily wooded areas that no one ever went to. And so he'd taken her there by boat, wanting everything to be perfect when he gave her the news about his scholarship..
"Today is gorgeous," Haley said, as Mack ran the boat aground and then helped her out.
"Just like you," Mack said, eyeing her long tan legs and slender body beneath the jean shorts and T-shirt she was wearing.
Haley grinned. "Are you angling for something besides a fish?"
Mack chuckled. He loved her sense of humor almost as much as he loved her.
"I wouldn't angle. I'd just come right out and say it, and you know it."
"Okay, okay. I was just teasing, anyway," Haley said. "Bring the food. I've got the blanket. I'm starving. Are you?"
"Always," he said softly, watching the sway of her hips as she walked ahead of him.
A few moments later they had the blanket spread out in "their spot"a large open space beneath the overhanging limbs of a giant weeping willow. Haley sat cross-legged on the blanket, poking through the picnic basket as Mack dug through the small ice chest for cold drinks to go with their food.
Soon they were eating their way through subs and chips, and washing it all down with cold lemonade, but it didn't take long for her to realize he had something on his mind. And Haley, being Haley, didn't mince words.
"What's up, and don't say 'nothing,' because I know better than that."
Mack sighed, then wiped his hands on his jeans and put his leftover stuff back into the picnic basket. She knew him well enough to know that if he wasn't eating, it couldn't be good. She dumped her own leftovers back in the basket, as well, and then leaned forward.
"Talk to me," she said.
Mack took a deep breath, then almost smiled. "Part of it is good news. I've accepted an offer to play quarterback at UCLA for my last two years of college. It's a full-ride scholarship, so Mom and Dad are off the hook. I couldn't turn it down."
She surprised him then, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him with all her might.
"Oh, Mack! That's fantastic! Why were you nervous to tell me?"
"Because it means two years away from you," he said.
"It'll be okay, Mack. You'll graduate from UCLA, probably get drafted into the NFL, which is something you've always wanted. And two years down the road, if you still want me, I'll be here."
"Want you? Are you crazy?" Mack muttered.
That was when he'd laid her down in the grass and, in the bright light of day, stripped them both naked and slid between her legs.
Mack paused only once to look down at the girl beneath himat the spill of her long dark hair, her Angelina Jolie lips and the green fire in her eyesand then he started moving.
Haley sighed as he filled her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and pulled him deeper without taking her gaze from his face. He knew she liked to watch his changing expressions as they made love, though what she saw in his square face, straight nose and wide-set blue eyes, he didn't know. Once, she had called him beautiful. His pleasure had been an instant turn-on for them bothjust like the passion he could see on her face now.
The sun was warm on their bodies, even though they were shaded by the sweep of willow branches brushing the ground. Birds were chirping in nearby trees, as if spreading the word of their union. A turtle slid off a rock and into the water only yards away, but neither one of them heard or cared. Right now, it was all about the moment and the feeling, the rhythm of making love.
Moments turned into a minute, and then another, and another, when all of a sudden he sensed Haley's focus begin to shift and he knew she was about to lose control. That was all it took.
Suddenly he stiffened, then groaned.
Haley gasped, then closed her eyes as his thrusts became harder and faster, and arched upward to meet him as a gut-deep moan slipped out from between her lips.
It was all Mack had been waiting for. With one last heroic thrust, he came showering his seed into her womb in a powerful and continuous burst, then collapsing on top of her, a sweating, quivering mass of muscle. He couldn't have moved at that moment if he'd tried.