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CASSANDRA Ashe froze just inside the doors of the lecture hall, her gaze following the man moving back and forth between the overhead projector and the screen.
Seventeen years, give or take a few. That's how long it had been since her heart had jerked in her chest at the sight of a man. Not coincidentally, that was exactly how long it had been since she'd last seen John Deadmarsh, the only man who had ever been able to evoke that response.
Although she hadn't seen him since that long-ago summer, for years afterward her breath would hitch when she caught sight of a man on the street with that loose-limbed posture or close-cut black hair molded to a finely-shaped head. But those briefly glimpsed men had not been John. And neither is this one, she told herself fiercely, willing the hairs on her arms to lie down.
"Cass, honey, what is it?"
At her friend's words, Cass realized she was blocking the doorway. People were moving around her now, flowing down the steps of the auditorium to fill the seats. She consciously relaxed the death-grip on her books and produced a reassuring smile for Deanna. "Sorry, Dee, it's nothing. Just for a moment there, I thought I saw a ghost."
"Whoa!" Deanna said after taking a look at Cassandra. "Whose ghost did you think it was? Bluebeard's?"
"No, nothing like that," Cass said. "Just a guy I used to know."
"So where is this look-alike?" The younger woman was already scanning the room.
"Over there, fiddling with the--" Her voice tailed off. "Well, he's gone now, but I think he must be the technical support guy. He was setting up the projector. Oh, there he is!"
A man stood up, cominginto view over the heads of the crowd, a cable in hand. Cassandra watched broad shoulders bunching under the fabric of his shirt as he followed the cable, hand over hand, to the wall outlet where it terminated.
"Ooh, honey, that's a vision, not a specter!" purred Deanna. "So, is he who you thought he was?"
"No," she said softly, as the mystery man exited the theater. "Couldn't be. I can't see the guy I knew haunting the halls of learning, even as a techie."
"Pity," said her friend, plumping up her blond curls and smoothing her almost non-existent mini skirt. "Think I might sit up front for a change, just in case he comes back. Join me?"
Sudden fear closed Cass's throat. Damn! Ridiculous that she should react like this after all these years just because the owner of those faded Levis bore a certain resemblance to him, at least from the back. Her chin came up, along with her resentment. She was thirty-two years old, too old to be frightened by ghosts. She shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"
As she followed Deanna down the narrow aisle, she noted the seductive sway that had crept into her friend's gait. A hundred times a day, in a hundred ways, these kids who were her classmates reminded her of the age disparity. And for the hundredth time, she thanked her lucky stars that all of that adolescent mating stuff was behind her. She was old enough to be a mother to most of them or so it seemed sometimes.
Of course, this wasn't her first time around. She'd done a business degree, going on to build a successful commercial property development firm with her friends Danny Piazza and Rolf Piers. From the time the partnership was formed, there had been no looking back, their respective backgrounds in business, law and engineering a recipe for success.
But after eight years and one failed marriage, Cassandra needed a change. So she'd sold her shares in Cassiopeia Corp. to her partners and gone back to university, this time to prepare as a social worker, a career move Danny was quick to point out would yield a ninety percent salary cut. Of course, she'd countered that it would yield richer dividends in personal satisfaction to be able to do something for the aboriginal community. Besides, with prudent management, the proceeds from the sale of her shares would provide her with an income for life.
Stalled by a cluster of chatting students, Cassandra glanced around. Had she ever looked as young as these kids? No, unfortunately not. Oh, she'd been that young; she'd just never looked it. Taller than her peers, slender and poised, people had mistaken her for a young woman at the age of twelve. Waiters had offered her the wine list long before she'd been legal to drink. How different life would have been if she had been like other girls. Cass felt her stomach clench warningly, the memories coiled there objecting to the prodding. She heeded the warning, letting them slide back into darkness.
The human log jam having dissipated, Deanna forged ahead. Cass followed in her wake, only to collide with her friend as someone stepped into their path. A strong arm shot out to steady her.
Oh, God, it was him! She knew it the moment his hand made contact. Cold dread suffused her body. Her gaze flew to his face, seeking visual confirmation, and for the space of a heartbeat she thought she was mistaken. This wasn't the man she remembered. His face was harder, more brutally carved, and the lines about his mouth too deeply etched.
"Oops! Sorry. My fault," he said. "I'm always in such a hurry. You ladies okay?"
His voice shivered through her, eliminating all doubt. John Deadmarsh. In the next instant his gaze found hers over Deanna's head. For a split second, she thought he wouldn't remember. Then recognition exploded in those black depths.
"Good God! Cassandra?"
His face gone slack with shock, she glimpsed something of the young man she'd known. Her throat tightened. Say something! she commanded herself.
"Well, isn't this like old times? You, me, a hundred onlookers." A part of her marveled at her own composure, admiring the casual note she'd managed to inject. The rest of her wondered if a heart could actually explode from pounding too hard.
"I see you haven't lost your flair for the theatrical."
The face of the stranger was back in place, except now the hard features were edged with contempt. He'd looked just so in the dreams that haunted her in those early years. An involuntary shiver shuddered through her, which she hid by turning it into what she hoped was a passably indifferent shrug. The gesture must have passed muster, judging by the way his eyes hardened.
"Speaking of which," he said, "I think you'll find the drama classes are next door. This is an academic classroom."
"Oh, good, so you do know where you are!" she retorted, stung. "I thought perhaps it was you who were lost, since this is neither a back alley nor a vacant lot. I'm afraid we don't have much of that... urban ambiance... you liked so much here in Fredericton," she offered with mock apology. "Not really a tomcat's kind of town, I shouldn't think."
Beside her, Deanna drew a sharp breath.
"Oh, I don't know about that," he said, eyes hard, a flush staining his cheeks. "I'd say it has its share of cats."
Before Cassandra could counter, Deanna grabbed her elbow and began dragging her away. "If you'll excuse us, we were just going to find a seat. Weren't we, Cass?"
"Yes, I guess we were." With a last defiant look, she allowed herself to be led to the corner of the auditorium.
"Have you gone completely insane?" Deanna hissed as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Possibly." Cassandra sank into her chair, her limbs trembling now in the aftermath of the confrontation.
"Didn't you notice he's wearing a wireless microphone? That was a freaking professor you just defamed, not some janitor or electronics techie!"
Cass pressed her fingers to her right temple which had begun to pound. John, a professor?
"I can't believe you said that stuff to him!"
"I know," she groaned. "It was..."
Stupid? Dee didn't know the half of it! Her words had been more than stupid. They'd been deliberately cruel. And she was never cruel. Except that one time....
Copyright © 2002 by Norah Wilson