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"You're not nervous, are you?" Paige Stephens asked her fiancé.
"No. Why would you think that?"
"Because your knees are creating an air current under the table."
"Sorry." Michael Cross stopped wriggling and gave her a lazy half smile that caused a dimple to appear in his left cheek.
"Maybe I do feel a little like Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents."
"There's no need to. The Colliers aren't my parents. They're just friends."
Paige took a sip of the ice water in her glass. Even though she didn't want to admit it to Michael, she felt a twinge of anxiety herself. That's why she'd chosen Betty's Pie Shop for lunch instead of the dining room at the Cascading Waters Resort. She didn't want to be under the scrutiny of her coworkers. The pie shop was always crowded with lots of noise and commotion. Fidgeting wouldn't be as noticeable among clanking silverware and clattering plates.
"They must be special friends if you want them to be host and hostess at the wedding."
"They are special. I've known them most of my life. I think I probably spent more time in their home than mine when I was a kid."
"Because of their son Justin?"
"No, because Nancy ran a day care and my father made me stay there even when I was old enough to stay home by myself. I can remember the exact moment my father sat me down and told me I'd be spending the hours after school at her day care. I cried and begged him to let me stay by myself. He didn't think that nine was old enough to be left alone and didn't believe me when I said I could take care of myself."
Michael smiled indulgently. "I bet you would have been just fine on your own."
"Of course I would have," she insisted. "I was a veryresponsible child."
"I believe you." He gave her the smile she found the most endearing of all of his grinsthe one that made her feel warm and fuzzy. "You're such a capable woman. I can't imagine you were any different as a child."
"What a sweet thing to say. Thank you." She reached across the table to squeeze his hand. "No wonder I fell in love with you. You have a sensitivity that is rare in a man."
Actually he had quite a few qualities that she'd found to be rare in guys she had dated over the past twelve years. Michael was honest. Sincere. Trustworthy.
Until she met him she'd never believed in love at first sight, but all it had taken was one look from his deep-set eyes and a slow seductive smile on his lips and she'd been smitten. She had been a volunteer in the education building at the State Fair handing out buttons that promoted literacy. He kept returning to the booth until the entire front of his shirt was covered in "I like to read" buttons. She'd been charmed from the first moment he said hellonot an easy thing for any guy to do with her, especially one who made a living teaching golf. At first she thought it was the whole preppie look he had going the polo shirts, the casual pants, the carefully groomed black hair. But the more time they spent together, the more wonderful she found him to be.
"I aim to please," Michael said with a lift of his water glass. Then he looked again at his watch.
"Please relax," she urged him. "I don't think you were this nervous when you came to Thanksgiving dinner and had to meet my father."
"Probably because you talk about the Colliers a lot more than you talk about your dad. You're not very close to your dad, are you?"
She rubbed the moisture from the base of her water glass with her thumb. "We have issues."
"What kind of issues?"
She continued to run her fingers along the glass. "It goes back to when my mom died. It's nothing, really. We get along all rightyou've seen us together. But we're never going to be as close as we were before my mom died."
She was grateful that he didn't ask why not. There were only two people who knew the root of her problem with her dadJustin and Kyleand they had promised her they would never say a word to anyone. Someday she would tell Michael the reason she couldn't trust her father, but not today.
"It's okay," her fiancé said in understanding. "I'm not that close to my parents, either."
"So you shouldn't be nervous about meeting the Colliers," she reasoned.
"I'm just wondering what their son told them about me."
"Justin wouldn't say anything negative," she told him, which produced a harrumph from her fiancé. "He wouldn't," she insisted, although she wasn't completely sure. Both Justin and Kyle were as overprotective as older brothers. "He doesn't like me, Paige."
"Justin doesn't dislike you," she declared. "He just hasn't had time to get to know you. That's why I want you to come to the Bulldog Reunion with me."
"About that weekend " he said, tugging on his right ear. Paige knew it was another sign that he was nervous. "Are you sure you want me there?"
"Of course I want you there! I want you to meet my friends from college." Her shoulders sagged. "Please don't tell me that you don't want to come?" She gave him her most appealing look.
He gazed into her eyes. "It goes without saying that I want to be with you. I'm just worried that the others won't appreciate having outsiders crash what's traditionally been a private event."
That's what Kyle and Justin had said when she'd suggested they bring guests to their annual retreat at the Cascading Waters Resort. The five friends who made up the Bulldog Reunion had met their senior year before college while working as kitchen and housekeeping staff at the year-round resort on the northern shore of Lake Superior. All five had attended the same college, and this would be their eighth reunion. To bring guests would change the tone and the purpose of their gathering, which was why Justin had warned her it might be the last time they had it.
Paige didn't believe him. Amber Carlson and Ben Hendricks, who completed their circle of five, were happy with her suggestion and planned to bring guests.
"This isn't like a regular college reunion, Michael. We're just five friends who get together to spend a weekend in what has to be the most beautiful part of Minnesota. One thing I should warn you about though. Do not drink Ben's dandelion wine. He brews it himself and it has quite a kick to it."
"You know that if you don't want me to drink, I won't drink," he said simply.
That was another thing she loved about him. Paige wasn't a teetotaler, but she didn't drink often, and it didn't bother Michael.
"A penny for your thoughts?" he said.
"I was just thinking how lucky I am." She glanced out the window at a view she never tired of seeingthe rocky shoreline of Lake Superior, the sparkling blue waters. "Moving up here for the summer was the best thing I could have done."
"Then you don't mind waiting tables at the Birchwood Room?"
Paige was an elementary-school teacher, but had taken a summer job as a waitress at the Cascading Waters Resort to be closer to Michael. "No, it's only for the summer. Once school's back in session I'll work as a sub until I can find a full-time teaching position in the area."
"I'm glad you like it here. I was worried you wouldn't want to call this home once we're married. I mean, you are a city girl."
"Yes, but do you know how many vacations I've spent on the North Shore?" It was a rhetorical question.
"That's not quite the same as living here year-round," he warned her. "I hope you're as enthusiastic about it come January." He grinned again and the dimple in his cheek appeared.
"If you're here, I'll be happy."
He squeezed her hand. "That's what I like to hear." He glanced past her shoulder and said, "I see a middle-aged couple who look like they're trying to find somebody. Do the Colliers wear University of Minnesota windbreakers?"
Paige turned and caught sight of her old neighbors, Justin's parents. She stood and waved, then sat back down, noticing that Michael's legs were moving even faster than before.
"They won't bite, I promise," she said softly.
As Paige expected, Nancy and Elliot Collier treated Michael with a warmth and friendliness that put everyone at ease. That's why she wasn't surprised after lunch when Elliot accepted Michael's offer to show him the golf course at the Cascading Waters Resort.
It also gave Paige an opportunity to sit under the shade of an umbrella on the tiled patio of the resort clubhouse and have an iced tea with her former day-care provider. She wasted no time in asking Nancy, "So what do you think of Michael?"
"I think he's charming," she said with a smile. "And he's very attentive to you."
"He's sweet. I know he talks a lot about golf, but that's because he's passionate about it."
"It is his work," she pointed out. "So tell me about the wedding."
Paige took a sip of her iced tea. "It's going to be at the High Falls. That's always been my favorite spot on the North Shore."
"Ah, an outdoor wedding it should be lovely."
"Did Justin tell you he's going to be my maid of honoror maybe I should say man of honor," she corrected with a grin.
"He did say something to that effect," Nancy acknowledged. Paige glanced out across the greens and saw Michael and Elliot riding on a cart. "I'm just grateful he said yes. He's not very excited about me marrying Michael. Neither is Kyle but you probably already know that."
"Actually, neither one has said much about your engagement, but I'm not surprised that they're giving you a hard time. Ever since you three were kids they've put themselves in the role of being your protector."
"Well, we're not kids anymore and I don't need protecting. I know once I'm married my friendship with Kyle and Justin will change, but it doesn't have to end." It was a concern that had been on her mind ever since Michael had asked her to marry him. "I don't think you have to worry about that happening. Over the years I've seen the way you three have handled the growing pains of friendship and I'd say yours has a pretty good foundation. It can probably weather just about anything. Now finish telling me your wedding plans."
Paige was more than happy to do as she requested. Sitting on the terrace with Nancy talking about flowers and formal wear reminded her of all those times she'd turned to her neighbor after her mother had died when Paige was nine. It was Nancy who had taken her shopping for school clothes and helped her with her homework. It didn't matter how many kids Nancy had in her day care, she always found time for Paige.
That's why she was disappointed when the older woman said, "It looks like our guys are back."
Paige could have sat and talked with her for hours. "I'm so glad we had this time together," she said to Paige. "I am, too. It's means a lot to me that you're going to be a part of our wedding celebration."
"I'm glad that day is going to happen, Paige. You've come a long way from the little girl who walked into my day care and announced she was going to hate boys the rest of her life."
"Doesn't every nine-year-old girl hate boys?" She tried to dismiss Nancy's comment with a chuckle, but they both knew what had precipitated the comment. Although Nancy had never pressed her to talk about her mother's death, Paige was fairly certain that the older woman was aware of the circumstances leading up to the automobile accident.
News of the crash had spread through the neighborhood quickly. Her father and mother had been arguing. Paige had heard them. So had many of the neighbors. What the neighbors hadn't heard was the reason why. Only Paige knew it was because of a woman her father had met during one of his business trips. That discovery had prompted her mother to pack her bags and drive off in her car. The last words Paige had heard her say to her father were, "I can't trust you."
She realized that she'd been daydreaming and hadn't heard what Nancy had said. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I said I'd like to credit Justin and Kyle as being good influences on you, but I honestly think it was the other way around."
"Does it matter?" Paige asked.
"No, not really. I'm just so proud of all of you. I think of all of my day-care kids, including you and Kyle, as my own, you know."
"I do, and I appreciate that."
"Good. Because I want you to know that no matter what happens between you, Kyle and Justin, I'm always here for you."
"Nothing's going to happen. We'll always be friends."
BY THE TIME Justin Collier arrived home the sun was low in the sky. Not even the approaching dusk could hide the condition of the seventy-five-year-old house he called home. When he and Kyle had bought the place shortly after graduating from college they had intended to fix it up and sell it within a couple of years. That was seven years ago. All the money that should have gone into home improvements had been sunk into the landscape company they'd started. Now their business was flourishing and the house still looked neglected. As Justin went to get the mail from the dented box nailed to the porch, he saw an exterior badly in need of attention.
He added paint to his mental list of things to buy next time he was at the hardware store. Summer was always the busiest season for J&K Landscapes and this year was no exception.
Even with the addition of several new employees, he and Kyle often worked twelve-hour days. He consoled himself with the knowledge that by late fall and early winter they would have the time to work on the house. He kicked the dirt off his work boots and went into the kitchen, which showed the same signs of wear as the exterior. Faded floor tiles, permanently stained countertops and dated appliances were fine for a couple of bachelors, but he knew why Paige had been after them to update the place.
Justin grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and sat down on a wooden chair at the table. He glanced at his mail and saw little of interest except for a neon-yellow envelope. He ripped it open and found a schedule for the Bulldog Reunion. In her usual efficient manner Paige had made all the arrangements for the weekend. Only this year there was something different. At the bottom of the invitation were the words Friends are welcome. Justin frowned.
As he folded the schedule he noticed a personal note.
Can't wait to see you. It's been too long. Love, P
Yes, it had been a while since he had seen her but that wasn't his fault. She was the one who had been in a hurry to pack up her things and move a hundred and fifty miles away as soon as she'd finished her teaching job. But it wasn't simply the distance separating them. The reason it had been so long since Justin and Paige had been together was she had fallen in love. Annoyance rippled through him at the thought of Michael Cross. Of all the men Paige could have fallen in love with, he didn't understand why she had chosen one so totally wrong for her.
He and Kyle had been suspicious of the golf pro the first time Paige had brought him home. Not that it mattered to Paige. She was in love and didn't want to hear anything negative about her boyfriend. Ever since they were kids she'd been coming to them for advice, but before either one could tell her why he was wary of Michael, she'd looked at them and said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything."
He looked again at the Bulldog schedule. There was hiking, disc golf, sailing, volleyball, bonfires all the things they had done in the past that had made everyone want to continue reuniting each summer. Only this year while doing the fun stuff, Paige would be looking at Michael with that lovesick-puppy gaze. Justin didn't want to spend one hour, let alone an entire weekend, with the lovebirds.
He'd always considered a weekend at the North Shore to be more like therapy. No customer complaints to deal with, no long hours out in the hot sun digging and planting. It was a chance to reconnect with nature and with friends. Spending any length of time watching Paige act all lovey-dovey with her fiancé would be more like punishment.