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Nathan Clay gazed out over the sparkling blue waters off Nantucket, scanned the pristine white beach and took a long, slow breath.
What a change from the tiny, windowless cell he'd left behind four days ago—his home for the past ten long years.
The juxtaposition was surreal.
Settling back in the white folding chair, he tugged at his unaccustomed tie, surveyed the seventy-five wedding guests assembled on the lush, garden-rimmed lawn that abutted the beach, and tried not to feel out of place. But it was a losing battle. He doubted anyone else in this high-class group had served time in prison. Especially the Supreme Court justice on the other side of the aisle, who was a longtime friend of the Morgan family.
The family his sister, Marci, would be marrying into in just a few minutes.
Talk about moving up in the world.
She deserved it, though. Marci had worked hard to build a better life. To rise above their tough upbringing.
He wished he could have done as well.
Then again, his childhood had been even rougher than Marci's or his big brother's had been. Thanks to the secret that had darkened his life for more years than he cared to recall.
Bile rose in his throat, and he forced himself to swallow past it, to suppress the ugly memories. Those days were history. They couldn't hurt him unless he let them. And he'd resolved never again to give his past that kind of power.
A string quartet positioned to his right began to play, and he focused on the baroque music, letting its measured cadence calm him. Attired in black dresses, the four musicians blended together perfectly, each handling her instrument with a confidence that spoke of long hours of practice.
But it was the violinist who caught his attention. Eyes closed, she swayed slightly as she drew the bow back and forth over the strings, producing pure, clear notes that quivered with emotion.
Nathan didn't know a lot about music. He hadn't had much opportunity to learn to appreciate the finer things in life. But he understood the creative process. Knew all about losing oneself in one's art. That had been his salvation during his decade behind bars. And he sensed this woman felt the same way.
He studied her, appreciating the sweep of her long lashes as they feathered into a graceful arc beneath her eyes. Although her light brown hair was secured at her nape with a barrette, the no-nonsense style was softened by wispy bangs that brushed her smooth brow. The early afternoon sun highlighted her classic bone structure and warmed her flawless complexion, while the whisper of a smile touched her soft, beguiling lips.
Nathan's gaze lingered on their supple fullness…and all at once he found it difficult to breathe.
Reaching up, he ran a finger around his suddenly too-tight collar and forced himself to turn away. Only to discover his new landlady, Edith Shaw, observing him with a smile of her own from two rows back. He had no idea how to interpret the gleam in her eye…nor the wink she directed his way.
And he didn't have a chance to figure it out, because all at once the music changed and an expectant hush fell over the guests.
The minister, groom and best man took their places beside the wooden gazebo where the vows would be exchanged. Nathan watched his sister-in-law, Heather, start down the aisle. The matron of honor was as radiant as a bride herself—due to the slight bulge in her tummy that heralded the arrival of a new generation of Clays, Nathan suspected.
As the music changed again and Marci appeared on J.C.'s arm, Nathan's breath once more caught in his throat. With her blond tresses and pinup figure, Marci had always been beautiful. But today she was luminous as she slowly made her way toward the gazebo—and the man she would soon promise to love and cherish all the days of her life.
She smiled at him as she approached, her wispy veil drifting behind her in the soft May breeze, her hand tucked in J.C.'s. It was fitting their older brother should walk her down the aisle, Nathan thought. He'd stood by both of them through the tough times, believing in them when neither had believed in themselves.
Much to his surprise, Marci paused beside his chair and reached out to take his hand. "I'm glad you're here, Nathan."
At her soft words, he blinked away the moisture that pooled in his eyes. "So am I."
With a gentle squeeze, she moved on to take her place beside the tall physician who had claimed her heart. As they joined hands beneath swags of white tulle held in place by sprays of pale pink roses and feathery fern, Nathan was glad she'd found her happily-ever-after.
He hoped someday he could do the same.
His escort duties finished, J.C. joined him in the first row. As Nathan shifted over to give his older brother a bit more room, he checked out the violinist again. She was looking over her shoulder now, giving him an excellent view of her appealing profile. Leaning back slightly, Nathan caught a glimpse of a little blond-haired boy sitting behind her on a white folding chair. Her son?
Checking out her left hand, he noted the glint of gold in the early afternoon sun. It figured. She appeared to be in her thirties, and most women that age were married.
Not that it mattered.
The odds of connecting with the first woman to catch his eye were miniscule at best.
But maybe…just maybe…there was a woman out there somewhere who would be able to overlook his past. Who would delve into his heart and see that it had been transformed.
"I, Marci, take you, Christopher…"
As his sister's words echoed strong and sure in the still air, Nathan shifted his attention to the weathered gazebo. Marci stood framed in the lattice archway, her head tipped back, her gaze on the man she loved as she repeated the words after the minister.
Today she would begin a new life.
And so would he, Nathan vowed.
So would he.
An hour later, a piece of cake in one hand and a glass of punch in the other, Nathan stepped into the garden of The Devon Rose. He wasn't surprised Marci and Christopher had decided to have their reception at Heather's tearoom, Lighthouse Lane's most prestigious address. It was where fate—or perhaps the Lord—had brought them together for the second time, setting things in motion for their courtship.
Once more, the genteel music of a string quartet drew his attention. Weaving through the crowd, he followed one of the brick paths that crisscrossed the formal garden with geometric precision.
When the ensemble came into view, he stepped off to one side. It was the same group that had played at the wedding, he noted, homing in on the slender violinist. The musicians must have packed up their instruments and headed straight for the reception the instant the ceremony ended.
The little blond boy was here, too, tucked into a nook a few feet away from his mom, who was shooting him frequent, protective glances. He was sitting on a folding chair, swinging his dangling feet, not in the least interested in the book lying in his lap. Instead, he was hungrily eyeing the plates of cake being juggled by the guests who were milling about.
On impulse, Nathan worked his way through the crowd and headed for the child. Holding out his untouched plate, he smiled. "Would you like some cake?"
The little boy's eyes lit up, but he hesitated and cast a silent plea toward his mother.
As Nathan glanced her way, his stomach knotted at the mistrust in her eyes. He was used to suspicious looks.
They'd been part of his life for as long as he could remember. But he'd hoped he'd left them behind.
Summoning up a stiff smile, he waited for her decision.
Finally, without missing a beat of music, she gave a slight nod.
At the youngster's enthusiastic reaction, Nathan's taut smile softened and he handed over the plate. "How come I knew you liked cake?"
The boy dived in, spearing a hunk of frosting with the fork. "I like the icing best." He proved it by putting the whole glob in his mouth at once. "Than koo."
Chuckling at the garbled expression of gratitude, Nathan lifted his cup of punch in salute. "Well, enjoy it."
He started to walk away, but the boy's voice brought him to a halt. "My name's Zach. What's yours?"
A quick look confirmed that the violinist's jade-green irises were fixed on him. Watchful. Warning him off. Her tense posture was in direct contrast to the soothing classical music emanating from her violin.
Instead of moving back toward the boy, Nathan responded from where he stood. "Nathan."
"You want to see my book?" Zach held up a Dr. Seuss classic, his expression hopeful.
"I don't think your mommy would like that."
Zach's face fell and he lowered the book to his lap. "Yeah. I guess not." He poked at his cake. "The only good thing about weddings is the cake."
"Do you go to a lot of weddings?"
"Uh-huh. They're all the same. Boring."
In his peripheral vision, Nathan could sense the boy's mother still watching him. He wanted to ask Zach some more questions. Find out why he wasn't home with his father. Or a babysitter. Sitting still for such an extended period had to be torture for a youngster.
But he didn't think the woman would appreciate his interest. Not in light of the strong back-off vibes she was sending.
It couldn't be personal, though, he consoled himself. He'd noticed her protective behavior at the wedding, too. And here, as well, even before he'd spoken to Zach. She was just wary, period.
And that raised more questions.
None of which were likely to be answered, Nathan conceded.
Writing off the encounter, he smiled once more at Zach. "Hang in there, champ. It'll be over before you know it."
"That's what Mom always says." The youngster heaved a resigned sigh and continued to shovel the cake into his mouth.
"She's right. It will still be daytime when this party is over. Maybe you can play with your friends later."
"I don't have any friends."
Before Nathan could follow up on that unexpected response, the song ended and the little boy's mother spoke in a soft but insistent voice.
"Zach, come over here and let me wipe that sticky icing off your fingers or it will get all over your jacket."
The youngster speared the last bite of cake and shoved it into his mouth. Scooting off his chair, he trotted over to Nathan and handed him the empty plate. "Thanks a lot. That was good."
He took the plate and watched the boy join his mother, she gave him another suspicious scan as she fished a tissue out of her purse and pulled her son close.
Taking the hint, he turned away and strolled back into the crowd of guests. Still wondering why the precocious little blond-haired boy had no friends.
And why the green-eyed beauty was so wary.
"Mom! You're gonna rub all the skin off my face!"
At Zach's protest, Catherine Walker eased off on the vigorous scrubbing she was giving her son's cheeks and double-checked to confirm that the tall, brown-haired man with the slightly gaunt face had disappeared into the throng of wedding guests.
"Sorry, honey." She took one more swipe at a stubborn speck of icing that had somehow found its way to his eyebrow, then pocketed the sticky tissue.
"How much longer is this thing gonna last?"
He huffed out a sigh. "That means a really long time."
"I brought a lot of books for you. And there are paper and crayons in the tote bag, too. Why don't you draw some pictures?"
"I'd rather go to the beach."
"I know. We'll go tomorrow, okay?"
"Yeah. I guess." He stuck his hands into his pockets and surveyed the wedding guests. "Maybe that man will come back and talk to me again."
"You know the rule about talking to strangers, Zach."
"He gave me cake. And he was really nice. Besides, he's not a stranger. He told me his name."
"Just because you know his name doesn't mean he's not a stranger."
"You were right here, Mom. You could see me the whole time." Zach gave her a disgruntled look and scuffed the toe of his shoe on the brick walkway. "I wish you weren't so scared all the time."
Jolted, Catherine frowned at him. "I'm not scared. I'm just being cautious."
"What's the difference?"
He wandered back to his seat and began to poke through the tote bag, his apathy for her time-killing suggestions obvious.
As her son withdrew a book and settled into his chair, Catherine pondered his question. What was the difference between caution and fear? Not much, she conceded. But she had good reason for both. Thanks to David.
Her stomach clenched, and she forced herself to take several deep, calming breaths. Someday…maybe…she'd be able to think about him with joy instead of sorrow. But she wasn't there yet. And after two years, she was beginning to wonder if she ever would be.
As for Zach…she was sorry he was unhappy. And she sympathized with his plight. Being confined to a chair for an extended period was about the worst possible punishment you could inflict on a boy his age. In the past, David had watched him during her musical engagements, saving her son this agony. But David was gone. And she didn't trust Zach with anyone else.
Nor had passing up this job been an option. In her short time on Nantucket, the high cost of living had been an unwelcome surprise. She needed the money this gig would bring in.
At a signal from the group's leader, the string quartet struck up "Ode to Joy." Scanning the crowd again, Catherine saw no sign of the man who'd spoken to Zach. That was good. Her trust level with strangers was zilch. Even ones who were guests at a lovely wedding like this. Because you never knew where danger lurked. Sometimes it was found in the most innocent of places. Places you'd assumed were safe.
Yet…as an image of the cake-bearing stranger who'd befriended Zach flashed across her mind, she found it hard to believe he was a man to be feared. Particularly in light of that moment when their gazes had connected. She knew hers had been filled with suspicion, and she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd reciprocated with coolness or antipathy. In fact, that kind of reaction would have been okay.
Instead, she'd been jarred by the hurt in his deep-brown eyes.
All she'd meant to do was warn him off. She hadn't intended to cause him pain. Yet she had. And that disturbed her. A lot. Causing pain was as unacceptable to her as letting Zach out of her sight.
But it was too late to fix things now. She doubted he'd come anywhere close to them again today, considering the unfriendly reception she'd given his kind gesture. And there was little chance their paths would ever cross again.
She needed to let it go.