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As Natalie Briggs looped her name badge around her neck, she casually checked out the remaining badges on the table.
Casually, until she saw the one that read Josh Carlson. Then she had to swallow hard and look away, hoping her panic wasn't obvious. How was this possible?
Her friend Melissa had assured her Josh wouldn't come. He'd made partner a couple of years ago at the Houston law firm he'd been working for since he got his law degree. That meant he didn't have time for a silly class reunion.
She didn't bear him malice, really. But it would be so awkward seeing him after all these years.
She found herself scooped into a bear hug by a five-foot-two tornado. Though Natalie couldn't see the tornado's face, she knew it was Melissa Bailey Pelton, the only person in tiny Camden, Texas, she'd kept in touch with over the last several years.
With her mounds of bright red hairalways completely out of controland mischievous green eyes, Melissa had an eternal youthfulness about her that would probably still be with her when she was a hundred. "Natalie, you look fabulous! I can't believe you actually came!"
"I told you I was coming, didn't I?" Then she added in a whisper, "But you told me Josh wouldn't be here.You promised."
"He RSVP'd at the last minute," Melissa said with a shrug. "Anyway, I want to see him. We've exchanged a few calls and e-mails over the years, but I haven't actually laid eyes on him since you guys split up what, twenty years ago?"
"Twenty years ago this month, as a matter of fact."
"Ah, so you keep track." Before Natalie could comment, Melissa led her to a table, where a few others from their old crowd were sitting drinking beer and noshing on chicken wings. "Look who I found!"
"Hey, it's Stick!"
Shrieks of recognition and lots of hugging followed. Back in high school, they'd been the brainy group, the ones who actually read the assigned books in English class and enjoyed them. The ones who'd planned on going to college, though not all of them had.
"Lookin' good, Stick," said Tommy, the one who'd dubbed her with her not-very-flattering nickname because she'd been so skinny.
"Not such a stick anymore," she said with a grin.
Natalie hugged each of them in turn and met a few spouses as warm memories flooded her. Diane Helms, who'd played flute in the marching band; Bud Conklin, who read books on theoretical physics just for fun; Tommy Garrett, who loved practical jokes. Though some of them had less hair, more padding and a few more laugh lines, they were all instantly recognizable and seemed exactly the same.
It was too bad she'd let these friendships slip away. After her mother died, she'd found no compelling reason to return to her small hometown.
Camden and her old friends had only been a painful reminder of how happy they'd all beenhow happy she and Josh had been before the struggles of the real world had taken their toll.
One more person came forward and Natalie found herself nose-to-chin with Josh Carlson.
She stepped back, and every molecule of air in her lungs whooshed out, leaving her unable to speak.
"Natalie." His voice was warm, sexy, almost provocative.
"Melissa said you couldn't come to the reunion."
Natalie shot her friend a scathing look, but Melissa pretended not to notice.
"I decided at the last minute," Natalie said when she could find her voice. It came out sounding remarkably normal. Oh, Lord in heaven, why couldn't he have aged like their friends like her? Josh Carlson in the flesh was just an assault on her senses. He'd filled out some, but he wasn't carrying an ounce of excess weight anywhere she could see, and his hair was as dark and thick as ever, though he wore it quite a bit shorter than she remembered. The slight silvering at the temples didn't detract from his appeal at all.
He was six feet of lean, broad-shouldered, gorgeous male, and Natalie's knees had suddenly turned to rubber.
"You look fabulous," he said. "The men are going to line up to dance with you like they did in high school."
Natalie laughed. The comment was such an exaggeration, and for some reason it put her at ease. This was the same Josh, even if he was a fancy lawyer now, and he didn't appear to hate her. Maybe that was what she'd feared most. "Sit down, you two!" Melissa insisted. "Here, have a beer." Someone had brought a round of cold bottles from a well-stocked cooler. "Hey, this is just like prom except we don't have to sneak the alcohol."
Natalie felt her face grow warm. Every class at Camden High held their junior-senior prom at the VFW Hall. It was the only place in town that could comfortably hold a few hundred people. Memories of her own first prom were sharp in her mind; that was the night she and Josh made love for the first time, at the end of their junior year.
She glanced over at him and saw that he was studying her, his expression pensive. Was he remembering that night, also? A lot of their friends had been slipping out to the parking lot to drink, or sneaking sips from contraband flasks. But Josh and Natalie hadn't needed any mood-altering substances. They'd been high on each other. They'd only been dating a few months, but they'd both known their relationship was special, and they'd decided to wait until that particular night to consummate their love.
Natalie had driven all the way into Austin, more than an hour away, to visit a clinic and get birth control pills. Ironic, now that she thought about it. She hadn't needed themwould never need them.
As if she didn't have enough nostalgia coming at her from all directions, the reunion committee had dug up the same band that had played at their proms. It was hard to believe they were still together. Now graying, some of them near retirement age, they nonetheless could still play, at least as well as they did twenty-five years ago, which hadn't been all that great. But the music was loud, and the songs were the hits of their era, each one with memories attached. "Hey, come on, what are we sitting around for?" Melissa demanded. "Let's dance!"
Oh, sure, right. Everybody at the table was already paired upexcept Natalie and Josh. She was going to kill Melissa when she got the chance.
Josh started to his feet, but Natalie froze. Melissa grabbed her by the arm. "Come on! You love to dance!"
"Stop being such a stick-in-the-mud," Melissa said with a gleam in her eye. "Drink down that beer, then y'all get out here and dance."
Stick-in-the-mud. Melissa's ultimate insult when she was trying to get someone to do something they shouldn't. Natalie had fallen for it every time in high school, and to her surprise she wasn't immune to it even now.
Josh drained his beer, then gave Natalie a challenging look. "C'mon, Nat. It's just dancing."
"Oh, all right." If she didn't agree, Melissa would bug her until she did. They would all be dancing in a big group anyway, like they used to, the girls dancing more for each other than for the guys, who always stood around like lumps and shuffled their feet.
The dance floor was crowded. Melissa carved out a spot for their group, and pretty soon they were all dancing to songs made famous by Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis and John Cougar. The years fell away. They were all seventeen againbut no one had a curfew.
Inevitably the band turned to country music, and almost without noticing, Natalie was in Josh's arms for an easy two-step. By the time she realized where she was, it was too late to back out.
Josh grinned at her. "It's great to see you, Nat. I've missed you."
She swallowed, trying to relieve the dryness in her mouth. This would be easier if he weren't so darned confident. She sought a subject of conversation, and decided something that reminded them both of the huge gulf between them would be welcome. "So, how are your boys?"
His smile widened. "The boys are great. Sean's going into his senior yearplays football and guitar. He has a girlfriend, too, which scares the hell out of me."
"Afraid he'll run off and get married?" Which was exactly what Josh and Natalie had done, right after high school graduation.
"Yeah. Or he'll get the girl pregnant. They're already, you know sexual."
"Your son tells you?"
"I pried it out of him. Wanted to make sure he was being responsible about it."
Natalie knew she would soon have those same kinds of worries. Her daughter, Mary, had turned sixteen just last month. She'd told Natalie she was still a virgin, and Natalie believed her. They were very close, and Mary knew Natalie would support her fully and love her unconditionally no matter what she did. But these days, Mary was looking more and more grown-up, and she seemed to be constantly on the phone with boys.
It was only a matter of time.
"So what about your younger son? Doug, right?"
He arched one eyebrow at her in surprise.
"Hey, I read our alumni newsletter."
"Ah. Doug is great. He's the serious onea little bit more like me when I was that age. Kind of shy, but he has lots of friends. And he's a brainiacstraight A's."
"I bet they're both handsome."
"They take after their mother. Blond hair, blue eyes. And very handsome, even if I do say so myself." He paused. "You have a daughter, I hear."
From Melissa, no doubt. Natalie was sure Josh didn't approve of her decision to adopt without a husband. She smiled, ready to prove to him that she'd done an excellent job raising her daughter alone. "Yes. Mary's sixteen and perfect in every way."
"That's motherly love for you. No teenager is perfect."
"Well, maybe not perfect. But she's my joy. Never gives me any trouble."
"My kids are great, too, but they keep me in a constant state of terror."
"There is that," Natalie conceded. "I guess I do worry about Mary, though she's never given me any real reason to."
"You wouldn't be normal if you didn't worry."
Well, that exhausted the subject of children. "Your parents? They doing okay?" Josh's parents, who'd owned the Camden National Bank, had sold the bank and moved to a posh retirement community in Galveston a few years earlier. They'd never been overly fond of Natalie, but she still felt obliged to ask after them.
"They're great. They live right by the beach, and my father plays golf every day. I was sorry to hear about your mom. I wanted to come to the funeral but "
"I know. Melissa said you were worried about making me uncomfortable. The flowers you sent were beautiful, and I very much appreciated the donation you made in her name to the American Cancer Society."
"Your mom was always really cool."
Unlike his parents, who were tense and controlling. If his father played golf, he was probably competitive as hell.
"Do you love being a lawyer?" she asked. Nice and safe.
"I like it a lot, though I still have to work too many hours. Makes being a single parent something of a challenge."
"I know what you mean."
"You're still doing the nurse thing?"
"Loving every minute of it."
"Hey, if I were in the hospital, I'd want you as my nurse."
Good Lord, he was flirting with her. "You're a little old."
"I'm a pediatric nurse. I work in the neonatal unit, so all of my patients are newborns."
Josh smiled again, a little sadly. "I can definitely see you doing that."
Of course he could. From the time she could walk and talk, she'd been fascinated with babies. How many times had Josh been forced to stand around while she oohed and aahed over some baby she'd spotted at the mall? She'd volunteered to take care of babies at the church nursery and she'd babysat every chance she got, looking forward to the day when she could hold her very own newborn in her arms.
Only that day never came. She'd thrown away her birth control pills the day she'd gotten married, with Josh's full blessing. Though they had no money and no plans, they knew they wanted kids.
But the pregnancy never happened.
They saw a fertility doctor. The problem was Natalie'sshe had under-functioning ovaries. If she ovulated at all, it had been extremely erratic. They'd tried fertility drugs, which hadn't worked, and they simply hadn't had the money to pursue the next step, which would have been in vitro fertilization.
The constant efforts, continual worries and monthly disappointments when pregnancy tests came up negative combined to put stress on a marriage already overburdened with money problems. They'd both been going to college and holding down various jobs, all while navigating around the strident disapproval of Josh's parents, who'd been horrified by the sudden marriage of their only son.
Natalie hadn't been willing to give up. She was going to get a baby, no matter what it took. She'd wanted to adopt, and she'd been ready to put them on a list, figuring that by the time a baby became available they would have the money for all the legal fees. But Josh drew the line. He'd wanted to raise his own child, and had insisted that they keep trying, pretending that some miracle was just around the corner.
In hindsight, she understood his hesitation. But at the time, she'd thought he was being narrow-minded.
Her attention was jerked back to the present when the lights dropped down low and the band switched gears to a slow song.
"Maybe we should sit this one out," Natalie said nervously. But Josh didn't look nervous at all. "Aw, come on, Nat, lighten up. It's a twenty-fifth class reunion. Comes along once in a lifetime. You're supposed to get a little bit crazy."
"Who says?" But she didn't object when he put his arms around her and pulled her closer. They did a slow glide around the dance floor, passing Melissa and her husband, Beau. Melissa grinned and winked at Natalie. Little did she know the revenge Natalie was planning even now.
By the end of the song, Natalie had relaxed to the point she was resting her head on Josh's shoulder and thinking about things she shouldn't. It had been a very long time since she'd been intimate with a man.Years, in fact. There'd been a couple of boyfriends after her divorce, but every time a relationship seemed as if it might take a turn for the serious, Natalie had ended it. She hadn't been able to bear the thought of falling in love with a man, then telling him she couldn't have children.
Then she'd adopted one-year-old Mary.After that, she simply hadn't had time for any other relationshipsif anyone had wanted to be with her, which they hadn't. It wasn't a myth, that most men viewed single moms as if they had leprosy. But she hadn't cared. Raising a daughter was completely fulfillingshe hadn't needed a man in her life, hadn't even missed having one.
Or maybe she had.
She'd forgotten how good Josh smelled. "Oh, my God."
"You're wearing Stetson aftershave."
"I might be." She heard the grin in his voice.
It was one of the first gifts she'd ever given him, a bottle of Stetson. The smell had seemed incredibly macho to her back when she was seventeen. He'd worn it for her, and it had been a couple of years before he'd been brave enough to tell her he didn't really like aftershave, that he preferred to smell simply like soap.
Yet he'd worn it tonight. "Is it that same bottle?"
"The old bottle turned to turpentine some years ago. I went out and bought a new one."
"But you don't like aftershave."
"Sure I do."
No, he most certainly didn't. His decision to stop wearing it had hurt her feelings, so she darn well remembered it. "Let's go get something cold to drink."
On the way back to their table, Bobby Salazar stepped into their path. He stared at them drunkenly. "Thought you two got divorced."
Josh slapped the other man's shoulder. "Hey, Bobby. Thought you got sober."
It took Bobby a moment to process the comment. "Heh, good one." Then he grinned and staggered off.
"I'm sure we're confusing a number of people," Natalie said as they reached their table.
"Yeah, but we won't see them again for another twenty or so years, so do we care?"
She shrugged. "Not really."