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It had been at the Magnolia Falls College reunion last summer when he'd first seen her again.
She was standing out on the veranda, leaning over the stone banister, looking down on the grounds of Mossy Oak Inn's expansive gardens. Her dress was a shimmering white, sleeveless and flowing, the long skirt petaled out around her like the magnolia blossoms glistening in the trees just beyond the stone terrace. She had her hair pulled up, the light-brown curls cascading around a sparkling jeweled hair clasp.
Parker could almost smell her perfume, even though he stood across the elegant dining room near the staircase.
Should he go and say hi to Kate?
No, he thought, bitterness cloaking him, making him shrink back against the staircase. He looked down at the pearl-handled cane resting in the crook of his arm, the glimmer of the marbled white mother-of-pearl contrasting sharply with the jet black of his tailor-made tuxedo.
No, he couldn't go and speak to Kate. He'd rather stand here longing, remembering how he'd sat behind her in advanced economics class their senior year of college, drawing sketches of her. He'd almost failed that class, simply because he spent most of his time with his eyes closed, enjoying the gardenia scent of Kate's perfume. And when his eyes were open, well, that was a different matter. He'd seen a lot; but no one had seemed to notice him back then. It was as if he'd been invisible. But not to Kate, never to pretty Kathleen Brooksnow Kathleen Sinclair. Kate always had a smile for everyone. Even a nobody like Parker Buchanan.
And now he was rich and famous and everyone noticed him to the point of being intrusive, which was why he'd almost skippedtonight. Except, he wanted to see Kate again. He wanted to see that pretty smile.
He wanted to close his eyes and remember that smile.
A hand on his arm stopped him. "Parker?"
Parker turned to find an elegant blonde grinning at him. "Stephanie?"
Steff Kessler's grin turned into a becoming smile as she brushed back her bobbed hair. "Yes, it's me. Parker, I'm so glad you changed your mind and decided to come tonight. How are you?"
Parker took the hand she offered, glad to see a familiar face even if he and Stephanie Kessler hadn't been very close in college. "I'm okay. A bit nervous, I guess."
Steff nodded, seeming just as awkward as he felt. "Well, so am I, only because I want this night to be perfect. But I guess you're nervous because you might be afraid of too many adoring fans, right? Since you've been back in Magnolia Falls, I've heard only good things about your success." She leaned close and whispered, "In case you don't know this, you have a certain reputationyou're rumored to be a bit of a recluse."
Parker looked at the woman out on the terrace. He didn't listen to rumors. "Yeah, you could say that. Work keeps me busy."
Steff glanced toward where Parker was looking. "Well, from what I hear, kids love your comic books." She let out a dainty sigh. "What's that like, writing about superheroes all the time?"
Parker tore his gaze away from Kate. "It pays the rent."
"In a big way apparently," she replied, grinning again. "We all thought it was so great when you bought Magnolia Hall."
"I just always liked the house," Parker replied with a shrug, reluctant to discuss his wealth or his personal life. What did it matter? He was still all alone. Telling himself he liked things that way, he turned to face Steff again. "I think I'll go find something to drink."
Steff nodded. "Please do. We have freshly squeezed lemonade and anything else you might want to drink. And get something to eat, too. I don't want all this food to go to waste." Then she glanced around. "And I'd better get back to making sure things are running smoothly. I can't wait to see the old gang again."
"I suppose that's the plan," Parker responded. "After you."
He didn't miss the way Steff glanced at his cane. So he saved her the embarrassment of asking about that. "Three operations and this is the best I can get. A slight limp and a cane on my arm, just in case I fall on my face."
A sympathetic look passed over Steff's face. "I'm sorry you had to go through that. We don't hear much from Penny, even though I often think about how she left, all alone with a little baby. Do you ever talk to her or Josie at all?"
"No, I haven't heard from Josie since we graduated," Parker replied. "And Penny probably still blames me for the car wreck, even though she was the one at fault."
"Well, I'd say you've suffered enough because of that night."
"You think so?" Parker asked, wondering if he'd ever be free of his guilt and his sins. Tonight of all nights, he didn't want to remember the horrible wreck that had changed his life. In some ways, he owed his career to that accident, since he'd spent most of his time in the hospital drawing. But on the other hand, that night had damaged him in more ways than just the physical injury he would always bear. And people wondered why he was a recluse.
Steff gave him a thoughtful look. "Maybe tonight should be about enjoying the good memories and not dwelling on the bad ones," she said, lifting her chin toward the crowd roaming around the Mossy Oak dining room. "After all, we only have to do this once a decade. I hope."
That made Parker smile. "Me, too."
Then he looked back out to the terrace.
And saw Kate Brooks staring across the room at him.
Kate first saw him standing by the staircase, looking as if he'd stepped out of an eighteenth-century novel. The brooding blue-green eyes, the dark-blond hair, the expertly tailored tuxedo. And the cane.
Parker Buchanan probably thought the cane only drew attention to his disability, but to Kate, it made him look debonair and mysterious. Then she had to smile.
Parker was debonair and mysterious. Or at least that's what everyone around Magnolia Falls thought. He'd come back a few years ago, successful and wealthy thanks to the popularity of his Patchman comic-book series and the toys and games that went along with it. That return in itself had been enough to send the gossip mongers over the edge, but when he'd bought Magnolia Hall, the old, falling-down antebellum house that had once belonged to the town's founder, well, that bold step had sent his reputation right into legendary proportions. Parker had painstakingly repaired and remodeled the elegant old house, leaving no detail untouched. It was said that the house had been rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original design and that the furnishings ranged from priceless antiques to quirky modern art.
It was said, but it was hard to know for sure, since Parker rarely allowed anyone into his mansion on the hill. Not even his old college friends. Most of the information had come from the construction crews and interior decorators, but even they didn't talk about it too much. Parker demanded that kind of privacy now.
And while Kate herself had only been back a few months, she couldn't help but think about Parker each time she drove by the columned white mansion. What did one man do all day inside a six-bedroom, six-thousand-square-foot house?
In Parker's case, he worked. Day and night, according to the few people who'd been inside the house since he'd started occupying it.
Had he come home on purpose, to thumb his nose at all the people who'd scorned him in the past? To show those who'd pitied him after the accident that he could still stand tall and hold his head up high?
Kate couldn't stop staring at him. He was certainly holding his head up tonight. He looked as resigned and arrogant as a European aristocrat. Andshe realizedhe was walking toward her. Her heart seemed to be beating in rhythm with his cane as he made his way across the room. Trying to smile, she started to walk toward him as well, anxious to say hello, anxious to ask him how he was doing these days.
Anxious to get to know the Parker Buchanan who still remained a mystery to her, even after all these years.
Parker sat in the dank, stuffy police station, waiting to be interrogated one more time. How had it all come to this? He'd lived a quiet, law-abiding life since he'd returned to Magnolia Falls. And now, just when his life had taken a turn for the better because of Kate and Brandon, it had also taken a turn for the worse. What if he were arrested for Josie's murder? Who would believe that he was innocent? And how could he ever prove it?
Kate would believe him, he thought, his prayers holding him steady. Kate would have to believe him.
Trying to take his mind off his current circumstances, he thought back over the night of the reunion, and remembered how Kate had come back into his life for that brief time, her presence brightening his world like a flower opening to full bloom.
Parker couldn't believe Kate was actually coming to meet him. He had to remember to breathe. Just seeing Kate again caused his heart rate to accelerate. Leaning heavily on his cane, he watched her moving gracefully across the room, her smile shy and uncertain. "Parker," she said as they met in the middle of the dining room, just underneath one of the gleaming chandeliers. "It's so good to see you again."
"You, too," he said, his voice sounding raw and husky. Trying to find his courage, he nodded. "You look great."
She smiled again. "Thanks. I splurged on this dress."
"I'd say it was worth it," he responded, his heart warming to her smile. He might just make it through this yet. "How have you been?"
She shrugged, glanced around. "Oh, I'm doing fine. I'm a nurse now, at Magnolia Medical Center, in the neonatal department."
That threw Parker. "Wow. And here I thought you'd gone off to find fame and fortune in Nashville."
She shook her head, causing her dangling earrings to sway. "Oh, I went to Nashville, all right. But the only things I found were heartache and a a man who turned out to be the worst husband possible. But one good thing came out of itwe had a beautiful child together. We divorced five years ago, and then I went back to school to become a nurse. I like being able to support myself and Brandon."
"Brandon? You have a son." It was a statement, an acknowledgment to all that he'd missed in lifea family, a real home. Kate had had that. And apparently lost it. "I'm sorry about the divorce. But your ex-husband must have been a real loser to let you go."
She seemed surprised at that declaration, and a bit embarrassed. "It wasn't all his fault. I wanted a career and I guess I neglected him. Then when Brandon came along, things got better for a while, but by then my career had fizzled out and so had his patience. Apparently even though he resented my career, he had plans to capitalize on it. When his meal ticket ran out, so did he. Brought me down to earth pretty quickly."
Parker let that soak in. "Do you ever sing anymore?"
"Oh, yes, but only at church functions and hospital gettogethers. Around work, they call me the singing nurse. I like to sing lullabies to the tiny babies in neonatal."
Parker could just imagine her standing over a struggling infant, humming some soft sweet tune. He remembered hearing her sing in the college choir. Her solos had always been his favorite parts of those staid, proper concerts.
"I think that's a very noble cause," he said, wondering exactly when he'd forgotten how to speak without sounding like an imbecile. "I'm glad you still sing."
She grinned. "Ah, but singing doesn't pay the bills. I have a son to support now, since his father isn't known for being dependable." She let out a soft sigh. "Brandon is my first priority now."
Before he could stop himself, Parker blurted, "I'd like to meet him sometime."
She laughed. "Oh, Brandon would love that. He has several Patchman toys and he reads your comic books all the time. I find them hidden in his bedcovers, even when he's supposed to go to sleep early. He can't make out all the words since he's only eight, but he sure can memorize the pictures."
"A picture tells a thousand words," Parker replied, thinking her obvious love for her son spoke volumes.
"It was nice to see you again, Kate."
"Nice to see you again, too. Wow, I can't wait to tell everyone at work I actually talked to the famous Parker Buchanan."
Her words hit Parker the wrong way. Was she just like everyone else, only wanting to speak to him because he was "somebody" now? He should have known. But this was Kate. She'd always been polite to everyone. Parker had been away from his college friends for so long, he wasn't sure who he could trust. But he wanted to trust Kate.
"I guess I'd better find a seat," he said, ready to move on. If he didn't expect much, he wouldn't be disappointed.
Kate looked confused and hurt, but nodded. "All right. And Parker, I'd love to get together with you sometime. Now that we're both back here, no reason we can't stay in touch."
"Right," he replied, thinking she was once again just being polite. "I'll make a note of that."
He took his cane and turned to leave, thinking he might just have to skip the fancy meal Steff had planned after all. He suddenly didn't feel like going down memory lane.
But when he turned back to look at Kate, she was still standing there, that puzzled expression on her pretty face. Then she said something that really put his head in a dizzying spin.
"I still have it, you know."
An alarm went off in his head. "Have what?"
"The sketch you drew of me, remember?"
He'd only drawn her face about a thousand times, so yes, he did remember. "Yeah, sure."
"You always were talented, Parker. I'm glad you kept at it."
"Thanks." He watched as she turned and walked away. And he had to wonder if he'd somehow misread her. Maybe Kate Brooks truly did want to take up where they'd left off, if only for the sake of their old friendship.
A friendship that could have been so much more, if they'd been given a chance.
A tap on Parker's arm pulled him out of his memories. He was still at the police station, facing more questions.
"Ready to go back over this, Parker?" Nikki asked, dropping her badge onto the desk in front of them.
"As ready as I'll ever be," he replied. "I've already told you and Jim everything I know. Nikki, I didn't have anything to do with this murder."
"I sure hope not," Nikki replied. "I like Kate. Always have. I'd hate to see her hurt."
"But not me, right? I mean, you already think I'm guilty, don't you?"
The detective gave him a blank look. "Not for me to say. I just follow the evidence."
Parker reached inside his coat pocket. "Then you probably need to see this."
"Oh, right. The thing you and Kate wanted to show us. Let's have a look." Surprised, Nikki glanced down at the two gaudy toy lockets inside the plastic bag.
"Well, well, that does add a new wrinkle. Where'd you get these, Parker? And why didn't you show them to us right away?"
Parker let out a sigh and ignored the throbbing in his scarred right leg. "Why don't I start at the beginning?"