Read an Excerpt
Two months earlier
Cassie Winters spied him across the Event Hall at the Mossy Oak Inn where the dinner and fund-raiser for the library expansion was being held. Her heartbeat increased at the sight of him, just as it had when she'd been in his journalism class ten years ago. But instead of his usual jeans, blazer and tie, he was dressed in a black tuxedo. She'd never seen him in formal attire, but Dr. Jameson King had changed little over time. His dark brown hair still looked tousled, and his tall, muscular build was still on the lean side.
"Cassie, are you listening?" Her friend Jennifer Pappas moved into Cassie's line of vision. "Have you heard anything about the skeleton they found under the library sidewalk?"
"Who hasn't? Everyone has been talking about it." Cassie shivered.
Kate Brooks, another friend, sidled closer and lowered her voice. "I hate to think what happened to the woman. Do you think it was someone who attended Magnolia College?"
"I hope not. But there were some women who didn't come to the reunion in June, who haven't been heard from in years." Suddenly cold, Cassie shuddered and hugged herself. "To think a murder happened ten years ago, not too far from here." Murder on their quiet campus. The very thought unnerved her.
"To someone we may have known," Jennifer added in her usual quiet voice.
Cassie scanned the crowd again, hoping to get another glimpse of Jameson King. Quinn Nelson, the assistant basketball coach, and Edgar Ortiz, the assistant director of Admissions, had joined him and Dr. Cornell Rutherford, the head of the English Department. The coach patted Jameson on the back, then laughed at something Dr. Rutherfordsaid.
Cassie started to look away when Jameson turned his head, and her gaze connected with his cobalt-blue eyes. For a few seconds, she experienced all over again the lure those eyes had for her.
He smiled at her. Heat scored her cheeks at being caught staring at him. He said something to Dr. Rutherford, then weaved his way through the crowd toward her.
"Excuse me," Cassie said to her two friends who were still discussing the recently found skeleton. "I see someone I haven't had a chance to talk to yet."
Kate laughed. "I see who's heading this way. Although you didn't major in journalism, I do believe he was your favorite teacher."
"He was a lot of students' favorite teacher." Cassie brushed her hair behind her ears, a nervous habit she wished she could break.
"He still is. His classes are always full from what I hear." Jennifer took a sip of her punch.
Cassie walked toward him before he had a chance to join the three of them. All she needed was an audience when she finally talked to him after all these years. She wondered what else he had been doing besides teaching. Her brother had kept her informed some since Jameson had been Scott's college adviser, but she'd dared not ask her brother too many questions or she would have never heard the end of it. It was bad enough her friends kidded her about her college crush on her professor.
Jameson stopped in front of her. "Cassie, it's so good to see you again."
The other people crowded into the room faded away. Cassie offered a smile, clenching a glass of punch in her hand. "It's good to see you, too. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was to hear about your wife's death last year."
One of his dark eyebrows rose. "You knew? It wasn't common knowledge in Magnolia Falls."
"As you know, Scott works for the Savannah paper, and he told me." She remembered her surprise when her younger brother had called her about the news. Although Jameson had always worn a wedding ring, there had never been any evidence of a wife. All the students had speculated about the mysterious woman whom no one had ever seen. Some people had even wondered if a wife had really existed.
"How's Scott doing? I haven't talked to him lately."
Suddenly she wanted to share her good news with someone who would care. She glanced around her, the press of people making a private conversation impossible. "I could use some fresh air. Care to join me for a walk?"
For a brief moment surprise widened his eyes before he said, "Sure."
Cassie put her glass cup on a nearby table, then led the way toward the entrance. After Jameson opened the door for her, she stepped outside into the warm August evening, but the large live oaks dripping with Spanish moss offered a cool, private canopy over the stone path. She paused near some gardenia bushes. Their sweet, heavy fragrance laced the light breeze.
"Is something wrong with Scott?" Jameson came to her side, his expression etched with worry.
"Oh, no. I didn't want to say anything inside, but I know you're aware of Scott's drinking problem. He has been sober for the past year. We went out to dinner the other night to celebrate his success."
A smile lit Jameson's face. "That's wonderful news."
"He owes you so much. Getting the job at the newspaper really helped him turn his life around after the accident. He wouldn't have gotten it if you hadn't contacted your friend there."
"Scott landed the job on his own merit. I just gave him a reference. Your brother's work was, is, excellent, and since he couldn't play pro ball, what better job for him since he majored in journalism."
Cassie glimpsed a stone bench nearby. "Do you want to sit?"
"No, let's walk some. I've been sitting at the computer way too much lately."
"I didn't realize you held that many office hours." He started forward. "I'm working on a novel. I recently sold one."
"Congratulations." Cassie fell into step next to him on the path that led to the back of the inn. The sun brushed the tops of a line of pine trees on the west side of the property. "Thanks. Since my wife's death, I've had more time on my hands, and it was something I've always wanted to do."
"Is this your first book?"
Jameson headed toward the small pond behind the inn.
"Yes, well, my first work of fiction. I've written several academic books over the years."
"Ah, yes. I remember you discussing one of them in class."
"That was a long time ago."
His voice sounded tired and matched a world-weary look in his eyes, prompting Cassie to peer at him as she stopped at the edge of the pond. "Twelve years. I was a sophomore the first time I took one of your classes. I believe that was your first year at the school."
The blue of his eyes darkened, revealing a hint of vulnerability in his expression. He shifted away from her and stared at the ducks swimming in the water. A subtle tension hummed in the air.
He blinked and focused on her face. "Sorry. I was just thinking about the past. And please call me Jameson. We're no longer teacher and student."
Weariness coated each of his words. She had a strong urge to comfort him but didn't know how. He had always been such a private person.
Determined to interject some lightness into the conversation, Cassie said, "I was surprised you were here this evening. I've been back several times for functions at the college, but you've always been in hiding." She would know because she'd always looked for him. "I guess now I know you've been madly composing the next American bestseller. Hemingway and Faulkner will have to move over for you."
He chuckled, the dullness in his gaze vanishing. "Hardly. It's a murder mystery. I hope a quick, entertaining read, but not a book anyone would proclaim a literary masterpiece. The truth is, I don't usually come to many events at the college."
"What made you this time?"
He looked long and deep into her eyes, his head tilted to the side. "You know, I'm not sure. I hadn't planned on it this morning, but I sold my book and wanted to celebrate. This seemed like as good a place as any." The corners of his mouth formed a grin. "I've seen quite a few former students at this fund-raiser. I have fond memories of your graduating class. Some of my best students were in it."
Her pulse quickened. His gaze seared straight into her heart. "So our class was better than my brother's?"
He laughed. "You can't draw me into a family rivalry. I plead the Fifth."
His husky laughter wrapped around her, its sound wonderful to hear. She suspected he hadn't laughed much lately, since his wife's death. She fixed an impish smile on her face and widened her eyes in mock innocence. "Oh, I'd never do that to my baby brother."
"Yeah, sure. I have an older sister. I know a few things about sibling rivalry."
That was one of the few personal pieces of information she knew about him. He had always been an enigma, which was what probably drew her to him. She loved to solve puzzlesin fact, did the crossword in the newspaper every morning before starting her day. "Interesting.
An older sister. Any other deep, dark secrets you want to share?"
Secrets? Jameson scrambled to keep his countenance neutral. For a brief time he'd forgotten. Cassie had that effect on him.
He turned away, staring at two ducks herding their babies up the slope on the other side of the pond. "Don't we all have secrets?"
"I'm an open book." She waggled her finger at him.
"And I see what you're doing. You're answering a question with a question."
He forced a grin. "Must be the journalist in me."
"Have you ever been a reporter?"
"While I was working on my doctorateyears ago. You would have been just a baby at the time," he said, needing to add the last sentence to remind him of their age difference.
"Yes, that's right. You're ancient." Cassie tapped her chin. "Let's see. You're what? Ten? Twelve years older than I am? Definitely ancient."
He chuckled. "Okay, you've made your point. I'm not that much older than you in years." He left unsaid how much older he felt in experience. There was an innocence about Cassie that she'd retained even after ten years in the real world. He yearned for that and realized he'd never been that way, even as a child.
"Well, I'm glad we've got that settled. The next thing I know they'll refuse to let me vote."
"Most women would love to be thought of as younger than they are."
"I'm not most women."
That's so true. He was tempted to discover what she'd been doing for the past ten years. When Scott had been in his class, he'd told him about Cassie working at a high school as a physical education teacher and coaching gymnastics. But that was when she had lived in Savannah. What was she doing back here in Magnolia Falls? The same thing? He started to ask and immediately stamped down his curiosity.
"We'd better go back inside before they send out a search party," he said, instead of asking all the questions he wanted to know the answers to, questions he had no business asking.
"Dinner should be served shortly. As usual Steff has outdone herself with the preparations."
Jameson walked beside Cassie toward the door into the inn. "Steff Kessler was the perfect choice to be alumni director."
At the entrance into the Event Hall Cassie turned toward him when he stopped. "Steff certainly has the connections. I think a third of the buildings at the college are named after someone in her family." She started into the room, noticed he hadn't followed and swung back around. "Aren't you coming in?"
"I'm not staying for dinner." He allowed his gaze to take in her black silk dress that fell in soft folds around her knees. She looked elegant and beautiful.
"Why not?" Disappointment furrowed her brow.
The urge to smooth the creases from her forehead inundated him, confirming his need to leave. "I've played hooky from writing long enough. Good night." He pivoted and strode away before he could change his mind. Cassie was a delightful, intelligent woman. He didn't need that complication in his life.