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"Hey, Michaels!" a gravelly voice shouted over the clamor of the newsroom. "Telephone!"
Brent Michaels turned from the bank of TV monitors to see Connie Rosenstein, his news producer, waving a receiver over her head. The cord stretched across her cluttered desk to his immaculate one. "You want to take it?" she called.
He glanced at one of the digital clocks mounted on every wall of the Houston newsroom. He had fourteen minutes, twenty-six seconds to air. Plenty of time. "Who is it?"
"Claims to be an old high school friend from . . . Beason's Ferry?" Connie shrugged as if that meant it could be any one of a hundred people.
Brent's chest gave an odd lurch at the mention of his hometown. "Did he give a name?"
"No name. But it's definitely not a he." Connie's wink belied her tough-as-nails New York demeanor.
Brent stared at her, unable to think of a single person he'd classify as an old friend from high school. A whirling click jarred him back to his senses as the tape finished downloading the satellite feed for his lead story. Handing the tape to a runner, he crossed to his desk. This close to airtime, the chaos was migrating down the hall to the control booths and set, leaving the newsroom quiet.
Connie exhaled a cloud of smoke as she handed him the phone and gave her watch a warning tap.
"I'll be right there," he assured her with a smile to hide his tension. Once she'd joined the exodus, he glanced at the receiver in his hand. He hadn't been back to Beason's Ferry since the day he'd left for college, had almost forgotten that sinking sensation in the center of his chest that came from being an outcast. How could something so simple as a phone in the palm of his hand bring it all back?
Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and brought the receiver to his ear. "Brent Michaels here."
"Brent! Thank goodness I caught you." The soft voice conjured an unexpected memory of honeysuckle. "I'm so sorry to bother you right before the news, but I couldn't take a chance on waiting."
Something in that voice made his pulse pick up speed. "Who is this?"
"Oh, goodness." The honest laughter triggered his memory, and he pictured white-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and wide blue eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses. "It's Laura. Laura Morgan."
"Laura Beth?" The air left his lungs in a rush of relief.
"Bre-ent. . . ." She dragged the name out in a teasing scold. "I used to count on you, at least, to call me Lauraeven if the rest of Beason's Ferry still insists on Laura Beth."
"Little Laura Beth Morgan." He propped his hip on the desk as he remembered the awkward, skinny kid. As the daughter of the town's doctor and most prominent citizen, she should have had the easy life.
Oddly, though, Laura had been nearly as much a misfit as he, which was probably why he hadn't thought of her the moment Connie mentioned an old friend from high school. While they had gone to school together, he'd never considered her a part of the high school crowd. Of course, he'd never exactly been part of the crowd either. "Good Lord, Squirt, how long has it been?"
"Fourteen years, seven months, and ten days. But who's counting?"
He laughed. "Only a math brain like you would remember something like that."
"It has nothing to do with brains," she insisted crisply. "A girl never forgets her first kiss. Not that that brotherly peck you gave me the day you left was all that memorable, mind you," she added quickly, making him smile.
That, at least, hadn't changed. Laura had always been able to make him smile. "Well, I didn't want to shock you, just give you something to remember me by."
"I would have remembered you either way," she said quietly, with the slightest touch of hurt.
Confused by a barrage of emotions her voice had stirred, he strove to keep his tone light. "So what has you tracking me down after all these years?"
"I'm running interference, if you must know the truth."
"Oh?" He could feel the old wariness tightening his chest.
"You remember the annual Bluebonnet Homes Tour?" she asked.
"Beason's Ferry's biggest festival?" He scowled. "How could I forget?"
"Well, I'm on the fund-raising committee this year."
"And?" he prompted.
She gave a heavy sigh. "You remember Janet Kleberg?"
"Big head but no brains. The cheerleader who made passes at me behind the school gym but wouldn't be caught dead talking to me in the hall? Yeah, I remember her."
"That's not fair," she chided. "Janet would have given her eyeteeth to go out with you, as would most of the girls in this town. You're the one who snubbed them."
"I was just saving them the effort," he said. "So what's ol' Janet Kleberg up to these days?"
"Actually, it's Janet Henshaw now. She married Jimmy right after graduation."
"My condolences to both of them."
"My congratulations, then."
"Anyway," she continued in an exasperated tone, "Janet is the chair of the fund-raising committee, and she's come up with a rather, uhm . . . imaginative idea."
"Spill it, Squirt."
He heard her take a big breath before she spoke in a rush, as she always did when she was nervous. "They want to have a Dating Game reenactment, like the old TV show, the one that used to run when we were kids?"
"I'm familiar with the show." Brent checked the clock. He had eight minutes and twelve seconds until airtime. He'd need exactly one minute, twenty-eight seconds to reach the set and take his seat.
"Yes, well." She cleared her throat. "They want to get a celebrity for the bachelor, so we can sell more tickets."
"And?" He could feel the trap closing around him.
"And, well, you are the nearest thing to a celebrity to ever come out of Beason's Ferry."
"Let me get this straight." He rubbed at the tension in his chest. "Back when I lived in that snobby little town, I couldn't have asked out a "decent' girl without the town fathers hauling me into some back alley for a
little talking to. And now, just because I'm on the evening news, they want to pay money to watch me ask one of their daughters out on a date?"
"That's not exactly how I would have phrased it, but I see you get the general idea." She fell silent, as if waiting for his answer. "So," she asked at last, "will you do it?"