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Forty years earlier
Olivia breathed in the glorious scent of freshly cut lilacsarmloads of them in a corner of the gymnasium. Tiny lights glittered along the edge of the stage, over the doors and windows, and the basketball hoops were draped with purple and yellow bunting, the Frampton High colors.
Olivia smiled in contentment as she and James placed stubby candles nestled in glass pots on each of the white-clad tables that ringed the large area. James McElroy hadn't left her side all day, and she gloried in the idea that now he was truly hers.
"Whew! That's it, I guess. I'm glad to be finished, aren't you?" she asked, not the least bit glad. She cherished every moment she spent with James.
"Don't wish your life away," James teased, taking the last of the candles from her hands and setting them on a nearby table.
The sounds of the room faded as James reached for her. "Every time I see that look in your eyes " he murmured, pulling her behind a huge potted rubber tree and kissing her.
"Be careful," she whispered. Tingling heat charged down her spine. She wanted him to kiss her again, to claim her the way he had last night.
"Or what?" James eyed her, his smile issuing a challenge as he nestled her closer. She breathed in the scent of his Old Spice cologne. His powerful hands slid down over her waist toward her bottom, his touch suggestive.
Her cheeks flamed, and she dropped her gaze. They'd gone all the way last night. He'd been loving and gentle, although she'd been terrified. It had hurt a little, but she'd never admit that to a living soul. It was what James wanted and she'd wanted it, too. Everything would be all right. James loved her.
Everything would be perfect.
They were both headed to Hastings College after graduation. When James graduated, he'd go to work for his father, and so would she. Olivia had been awarded the first full scholarship ever given to a woman in the marketing program at Hastings. Much to her embarrassment, her parents told all her relatives at the family reunion about their only child's plans for the future.
High-pitched laughter invaded the private space between them, making Olivia self-conscious that someone might see them. What would people think if they knew what she and James had done in the backseat of his Ford Mustang last night?
She hated herself for worrying about what people thought. If only she didn't know how much her classmates gossiped over girls who slept around. She'd heard those same girls brag about what they'd done, while she'd always harbored her mother's belief that it was wrong to have sex before marriage. Yet, deep inside, Olivia was thrilled to be part of the inner circle of girls who'd had sex with their boyfriends.
She and James had waited to be sure about their feelings. He'd given her his class ring; it would do, he'd said, until he could afford to buy her a diamond.
After last night, he'd been so attentive, so sweet. And even though he'd told her over and over how much he loved her, she still found it hard to believe. "You didn't have to stay and help me with all this."
"Where else would I be?" he asked, a mock frown creasing the smoothness of his forehead.
All her doubts faded as she smiled up at him. James and she were meant to be together; she'd known it from the very first time they'd spoken. That short drive to her house after basketball practice had changed her life.
"I wouldn't want you to be anywhere else, either," she whispered, sliding her fingers along the cleft of his chin.
He raised her face to meet his gaze, his fingers feather-light against her skin. His hands swept up her back, toward the hook of her lace bra. "Last night was great."
It had all happened so fast, so unexpectedly, that they hadn't had a chance to think about birth control. "Last night"
"Last night was everything I've ever wanted," James whispered in her ear.
"It was?" she whispered back, entwining her arms around his neck. Forgetting all her mother's warnings about not leading a guy on, Olivia pressed her body into his.
His pelvis strained against hers, his erection warm against the hollow of her belly. "It was. And we'll be careful, I promise. I went to the drugstore this morning."
"Oh, James, maybe we should've waited. I can't get pregnant."
"Trust me. You won't. And besides, you wouldn't make me suffer like this, would you?" He nuzzled her cheek, setting up a steady hum of need within her.
"I'm not sure," she teased.
"I am," he murmured, knitting his fingers into her hair.
"Easy for you to say." She gave him a playful shove as she smiled into his gloriously blue eyes with their fringe of dark lashes.
"There'll never be anyone for me but you." His thumb slipped under the gold chain that held his class ring between her breasts. "You'll always be part of my life," he said, his voice a warm caress against her cheek.
"I love you," Olivia whispered.
"I love you, too. So much." He held her gently, his kiss whisking the air from her lungs.
In that one moment, Olivia realized she'd never love anyone the way she loved James.
Abruptly, his lips left hers. "Damn! I forgot. Dad wants me to meet him at the house around six. He said it was urgent. I know we planned to go to Walden's Lodge for dinner before the dance, but I won't be able to make it. I'm sorry."
Disappointment clouded her happiness. She wanted to go with him to the restaurant, to be seen with the president of the senior class. She was so proud of him, of them. But there'd be other dinners at fine restaurants.
"I guess it's all right. We could go to the lake and watch the moon rise."
"That's not the only thing that's going to rise." He gave her a cheeky grin. "I'll get my penguin suit on and pick you up around seven."
"Better yet, why don't you meet me here? Emma's a little anxious about tonight. This is her first official event as head of the social committee."
"Olivia Banks, lady with responsibilities, comes to the rescue one more time."
"You got it."
"See you later, alligator," James said. He kissed her fingers before striding across the room toward the exit.
OLIVIA FIDDLED with the beaded strap on her evening bag as she glanced around at her classmates, who were standing in small groups, their voices tight with excitement.
"Doesn't everyone look great?" Emma Lawlor said, her enthusiasm evident in the way she clasped and un-clasped her hands.
"Yes, and you did a wonderful job decorating the gym for tonight," Olivia said, meaning every word.
Despite the small complication with James's father, Olivia was sure tonight would be everything she could ever wish for. She pictured James in his tuxedo, his arm circling her waist as he led her onto the dance floor. He was so handsome, and they had such plans for tonight after the prom. She would have him all to herself in the moonlight.
If he ever got here. Not wanting to appear anxious, she resisted the urge to let her gaze search the gym. Where was James? The music would start any minute, and she wanted to dance the first waltz with him. Olivia loved the way James danced so close she could feel the beating of his heart.
Feeling conspicuous, Olivia gave in to the urge and looked quickly around, hoping to see someone in the same predicament. Coming through the doors of the gymnasium just then was her best friend, Grace Under-hill. Relief whipping through her, Olivia hurried across the floor.
Doug Fields was walking beside Grace, a goofy grin on his face, his hair slicked down. Doug Fields was Grace's date for the senior prom? Grace, the single most beautiful girl in her graduating class, wouldn't be caught dead with someone like Doug. It didn't make sense. Doug the slug he was called, and for good reason. He was the last person in the whole of Frampton High that Grace would've dated.
Olivia never quite understood how she and Grace had become best friends. They played volleyball and basketball together, but it wasn't until they won the volleyball championship that their friendship really grew.
The Underhills had money and power and the second-biggest house in the town. Although Grace had an older brother, Mr. Underhill constantly lavished gifts and attention on Grace.
Unlike Grace's family, Olivia and her parents lived just off Main Street in a tiny Cape Cod-style house. Her dad worked for McElroy Manufacturing, which was owned by James's father, Thomas, while Grace's dad was the head accountant.
Grace floated toward Olivia, the long taffeta folds of her emerald-green skirt undulating around her hips as she walked. Her strawberry-blonde hair was held high on her head with mother-of-pearl combs and a long strand of pearls stood out against the backdrop of her clear white skin, making her plunging neckline seem even more revealing.
"Wow. What a dress."
"You like it?" Grace twirled around, nearly bumping into Doug. "You look so sexy," Olivia said, giving Grace a heart-felt hug of welcome.
"Thanks. I needed to hear that. I have something to prove tonight. And what about you? You're gorgeous. Blue velvet brings out the gold highlights in your hair," Grace said, returning the hug.
"Where's Barry?" Olivia whispered.
"Major fight. I'll explain later." Grace glanced around.
"With his dad. Some big discussion that couldn't wait."
"Wow. What do you suppose is going on? It's not like James to miss a party."
"No kidding!" Olivia tried to shrug off Grace's words.
"Looks like we both need a little consoling. Meet me at Bennie's for a soda tomorrow morning at ten and give me all the details, and I'll tell you what that snake in the grass, Barry, did," Grace said.
How could Grace be so calm about Barry not being with her for their graduation prom? Olivia nodded and forced a smile.
"See you then. I've got to go." Grace took Doug's arm and headed for the dance floor.
The opening notes of Bobby Vinton's "Roses are Red" began. Longing slid through Olivia as she looked around the gymnasium one more time. Smiling graduates and their dates were moving onto the dance floor, leaving Olivia alone with her anxiety.
What could be keeping James? He'd said he would be late, but this was ridiculous. Should she call him? She'd never called his house. In all the months they'd been together, there'd never been a reason. James had always been available, attentive.
Unable to bear it any longer, Olivia skirted the tables and walked over to the entrance. The damp night air rushed toward her as she dashed down the steps.
Somewhere farther out in the parking lot she heard a car door slam. Away from the muted glare of the street-lights, a man started toward her, his loping stride so familiar. "James," she called. Heedless of her billowing skirt and the hours she'd spent arranging her hair, Olivia ran toward him.
She noticed his jeans and rumpled T-shirt first. The tense lines around James's eyes were visible, even in the uncertain light of the parking lot. "James, what is it?" she asked, holding out her arms.
He stopped just short of her reach. "Olivia," he said, his voice lacking its usual vigor, "there's a problem. I can't stay here with you."
"Why? What's wrong?" She reached for his hand. The stiff set of his shoulders warned her off. His eyes were dark, his jaw clenched as he shook his head. "Don't, Olivia. I have to go away. Please don't."
Shock reverberated through her. This couldn't be happening. James loved her.
Hot, sticky tears smudged her cheeks. "You were supposed to be here tonight. With me. This is our night, our time together. Tell me what's going on. I love you, James. You can't leave me."
Olivia swiped at her tears, fighting the urge to throw her arms around him. She had too much pride to force herself on James, and he clearly didn't want to touch her. "Did something happen to your dad?"
"I can't talk right now." He rubbed his dark sideburns with one hand, grimacing with pain.
"James, are you hurt?"
His glance edged past her. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not." Olivia moved closer. "What's wrong with your cheek? Is that a bruise?"
"Olivia, never mind about my face." He began to reach for her, then stopped. "Olivia, please understand I don't have a choice. My father knows about us."
"He knows about us? What do you mean? Hasn't he always?"
James rested his hands on his hips and his eyes studied the ground between them.
"You kept our relationship a secret?"
He nodded but didn't raise his eyes. "I knew my father wouldn't approve."
"James, look at me," she demanded.
He didn't meet her gaze.
"We're only weeks away from leaving for college, starting our life together. What has your father got to do with us?" She put out her hands but the flash of warning in his eyes forced them back to her sides.
"Olivia, I can't tell you very much, at least not yet. But things will be better soon. You have to trust me on this. You have to."
"I trust you. I always have, but I don't understand why you can't tell me what happened."
"My father wants me to go to Ireland," he said, "to the electronics plant there"
"Ireland? Why Ireland?"
"He wants me to work for my Uncle Seamus. It won't be for long," he whispered, his Adam's apple straining against his throat as his gaze searched hers.
"What about college? Will you be back in time for college this fall?"
"I'll be back with you as soon as I can . It'll all be over in a little while and we'll be together like we planned."
"But James, why can't we be together now? Tonight?"
"Olivia, this is such a mess, but I'll explain it all once I figure out what to do.You have to believe in us," he whispered, his eyes dark with misery. "You have to."
"Oh, James, I wanted tonight to be special." Unable to restrain herself any longer, she slid into his arms.
"I know you did. So did I. And I'll be back, trust me." He held her and the solid thudding of his heart allowed her to hope that everything was still okay between them. She clung to him, to his strength, breathing in his scent. Surely this was some sort of mistake.
He smoothed her hair from her face. "Olivia, I'm flying out in a few hours."
Tears burned her eyes again. "I'll go with you. I don't care where we are as long as we're together."
"You'll wait for me?" he asked, his expression bleak.
"Always," she whispered, hugging him to her.
His sudden intake of breath and a muffled moan startled her. "James, did I hurt you?"
He moved out of her embrace, his movements awkward and so unlike him. "I fell."
"An hour or so ago. On the stairs. I hurt my ribs. It's not serious."
"Of course it's serious. Did you see a doctor? I'll go with you, if you want."
"Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry? You're injured, you're leaving, and I'm not supposed to worry?"
"Olivia, I have no choice but to be on that plane tonightby myself."