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Chad Martin left the Math and Science building at Stockville Community College after his last class Thursday evening mentally reviewing the semester's syllabus, which he'd spent the majority of class time explaining to the students. Sure, he crammed a ton in the Advanced Biology course, but he wanted them, or rather their parents, to get their money's worth. And he wanted to prove to the university that he could handle higher level courses in spite of his youth, show them that he could make the work challenging for the students but also entice them to enjoy the learning process. No, he hadn't planned on being a teacher, but if teaching was what he was doing, he wanted to do a good job.
He was so engrossed in calculating what he could cover the first week that he nearly missed the movement to his right, the slight shadow crossing the quad at an angle and heading toward the parking lot. The woman wore a midlength dark coat cinched tight around her waist and jeans. Her hair bounced against her shoulders as she moved, and her arms cradled several books to her chest. Small puffs of wispy smoke escaped her mouth as her warm breath hit the crisp January air. Northern Alabama wasn't as cold as most of the country at this time of year, but it was cold enough to cause her to huddle into herself as she briskly walked.
It was dark, but the campus lighting cast yellow ovals at sporadic intervals on the quad, and Chad stayed where he was, waiting for her to step inside the next patch of light. There was something so familiar about the way she moved, and he wondered whether he was doing it againexpecting to see Jessica one more time. For six years, he'd occasionally glimpsed someone who looked like her, walked like her, laughed like her. And each and every time, when he garnered the courage to approach the woman in question, he would see that his eyes, his ears had played tricks on him again. Jessica Bowman had walked out of his world six years ago, and he was a fool to think she'd suddenly burst back in.
But something about this woman
Finally, she stepped completely into the circle of light. Then she paused her pace, flipped open the top book in her arms and then ran a hand in her purse and withdrew a pen. She scribbled something on the page, nodded and then put the pen away.
And he knew. This wasn't merely another woman who resembled Jessica. After practically every class in high school, when they'd walk to the lockers, her mind would churn over everything that happened in the classroom, and she'd inadvertently remember some little tidbit that the teacher had said, something to do with her homework or any other thing that she didn't want to forget later. After she made the notation, she'd nod in satisfaction and continue down the hall, the same way this woman did, as she plunked her pen back in her purse and started to walk again.
Thankfully, the light covered her for long enough that Chad, now moving toward her, saw her completely. Her hair was shorter than it'd been back then but still long enough to suit her youth, with honey strands accenting the shiny chocolate hue. What would she be now, twenty-two? No, twenty-three. Have mercy, it'd been a long time.
A pale pink scarf circled her neck, its fuzzy length trailing down her back and the fringed trim dangling below the edge of her coat. Her jeans were cuffed, he now noticed, and she wore tennis shoes. She wasn't dressed showy, like many of the college kids trying to get attention, and quite often trying to get his attention. In fact, she was dressed comfortably and looked more her age, older than the average college student.
Just two years younger than Chad.
"Jess," he said and wasn't surprised when she didn't turn around. His voice came out barely above a whisper because his heart was lodged in his throat.
But he wasn't giving up that easily.
"Jessica," he repeated, maybe a bit too forcefully because she jumped, turned and dropped one of the books from her arms. Arched brows lifted, and those dark, insightful eyes studied him. Obviously startled, her mouth gaped for a moment before she recovered. And smiled.
He had really missed that smile.
Occasionally, at unique instances in his life, Chad's medical studies came back to haunt him. Right now ended up being one of those moments. Because he suddenly recalled the result of a surge of epinephrine, or adrenaline. When produced in the body, it increases heart rate, contracts blood vessels and dilates air passages. All of that was happening right now, and even with his med school knowledge, he wasn't sure how to handle it.
"What what are you doing here?" she asked, scooping up the lost book and tucking it back against her chest.
Her question jolted him back to reality. What was he doing here? He wasn't the one who'd left town so long agosix years ago.
A lifetime ago.
"I teach here," he said and was thankful that his voice remained calm. What he wanted to do was grab her and shake her, ask her why she'd come backand more importantly, why she'd waited so long. "Now, your turn."
"We I " Color tinged her cheeks, and she cleared her throat. "I'm sorry. I didn't expect to see you. You're teaching? Here? I thought you were living in Georgia, going to school at the University of Georgia. Or wait, Emory?" Her words came out in a rush, a slight quiver with occasional syllables, as though she were cold. Well, of course she was cold; it was January. But Chad didn't think that was what made her voice shake. Jessica's voice always trembled when she was nervous. She was nervous now. He wondered if she was feeling even an iota of the apprehension that he felt, being this close to her after they'd been apart for so long. "The bachelor's degree at UGA and med school at Emory, right?" she completed.
So she'd kept up with him. He'd attempted to keep up with her way back when, but she wouldn't return his calls or even tell him exactly where she went. He'd learned from his sister that she moved to Tennessee to live with her grandmother, but he didn't know where in Tennessee, and he sure didn't know why. Basically, Jessica Bowman, the girl he'd planned to marry, had left Claremont, Alabamaand himwithout a backward glance.
"I was at Emory, but I came back home last year. Well, close to home. I bought a house on the Stockville side of Claremont. I'm still near Mom, so I can help her if she needs me, and I have an easy drive to work." He was rambling. It had been six years since he'd seen her, and here he was talking about the drive to work. He wanted to smack himself in the head and tell himself to get a grip. But he didn't. Instead, he stood there, with Jessica again, and attempted to act as though it were completely normal to run into his first love on the Stockville campus.
"One of the new subdivisions?" she asked. "I noticed them when I came in. They're very nice. It's something, isn't it? When I left, there were only cotton fields on the edge of town. Now there are entire neighborhoods. I guess a lot of things can change in six years."
A major understatement. A lot of things had changed, but one thing hadn't. He wasn't the type of guy to skirt an issue back then, and he wasn't going to start now. He wanted answers to lots of questions, but he'd start with the basics.
"Jess, when did you come back? Where are you living? When did you leave Tennessee? And why are you here, on campus?"
She blinked, moistened her mouth and then ran her top teeth across her lower lip, like she always did when she was avoiding something.
What didn't she want to tell him?
"I moved back last week, and I'm staying with my parents until I find a place of my own. They paid my tuition to the college as a Christmas present. They wanted me to go back to school. I started my classes today."
Two women hurried across the quad toward them, and Chad and Jess moved to one side to let them pass.
"Hello, Mr. Martin," one of the girls said.
"Ladies," he acknowledged, recognizing the speaker as a girl who had taken his summer course last year.
The other girl waved at Jess. "Hey, it was nice to meet you. See you next week."
"Okay," Jess said, then looked at Chad. "She was in my last class. It seems kind of strange to be back in school again but in a good way. Luckily, they were only a few days into the semester when I registered. My instructors said I should be able to catch up without any problems." She visibly swallowed, her slender throat pulsing with the motion.
Chad wanted to slide his hand beneath the edge of that fuzzy scarf and feel that pulse for himself, to prove that she was really here and that he wasn't merely dreaming again.
"I'm still hoping to be a teacher eventually, but right now I'm working in a day care center. Actually, I got the job today. I start on Tuesday," she added, another warm puff of air escaping her mouth with the words.
Chad watched that wispy air fade away, as quickly as she'd faded from his life years ago. It was a reminder of how she'd left but also a reminder that this time she was real. And she was here with him.
"I can see you teaching." He had envisioned that very thing, her teaching kindergarten and the kids looking at her and thinking she was the best part of their day. He'd felt the same way about his kindergarten teacher; he'd bet most kids did. But with Jessica it'd be true.
She was certainly the best part of this day for him.
Shifting her books to one arm, she tucked a thick lock of highlighted honey hair behind her ear and asked, "How about you? I thought you'd be doing, what, an internship or something now in a hospital." She paused, then added softly, "I heard that you married."
Jessica took her gaze from his face to his left hand, wrapped around the handle of his leather briefcase.
The gold band glistened beneath the yellow light.
Chad cleared his throat. He'd forgotten all about the ring. "It's not what you think," he said, indicating the wedding band on his finger.
He shook his head. "I got divorced last year."
"Oh," she said, her genuine concern evident in the single word. "I'm sorry, Chad." Then confusion etched across her features as she tilted her head toward his hand. "Then, why do you wear the ring?"
"Like I said, it isn't what you think," he said and shrugged as he smiled. "I'm a good deal younger than the average college professor, not much older than my students, and the ring helps keep the freshman girls in line."
Her amused look embarrassed him a bit, and he added, "One of the other instructors suggested it, and it does work."
"Well, at least they have the decency to respect a marriage vow, even if it is a farce."
A farce. That'd be a good way to describe his marriage to Kate. But he wouldn't think about that now, now that Jessica had come home. To Claremont? Or to him?
Well, of course to Claremont. She'd clearly been surprised to see him here tonight, and she'd thought he was still married. She hadn't returned to him back then and she hadn't now.
Even so, she was here now, and Chad wasn't about to waste the opportunity to find out what had happened to her since she'd left. Naturally, there was one thing he wanted to know, had to know, before his heart started hoping again. Andlike he told his studentsyou can't get an answer if you don't ask the question.
"How about you?" he heard himself ask. "Have you married?"
Chad's prayer life hadn't been what it used to be before the divorce, but he said a silent one now.
Please, God, let her say no.
Jessica had heard people discuss experiences where it seemed as though they were merely watching life occur around them, where an individual wasn't actually participating in the event but an onlooker, observing the activity and wondering how the scene would play out. She'd never experienced anything like that herselfuntil now.
Chad Martin. Of all the people she thought she might run into on this small college campus, his name wouldn't have even been on the list. But if she could list the one person she'd want to see more than any other, his name would undoubtedly be the one. She'd thought he would still be in med school. She'd thought he would still be married.
Divorced? Chad? Why would anyone blessed enough to have Chad Martin for a husband ever let him go?
It'd been six long years since she'd seen him, and she hoped the darkness surrounding them hid the way she couldn't stop studying every feature of the boynow a manthat she'd first loved. He'd worn his hair in a crisp, short cut in high school. Now it was a bit longer, and she noticed that there was more of a wave to the streaks of sandy brown than she remembered. He seemed taller, too, at least six-one or maybe even six-two. Had he been that tall back then?
His jawline was exactly as she remembered, firm and straight, a little angled, so that he almost appeared to be clenching. But in a good way. A very nice, very good way.
She swallowed, then looked at the feature she remembered better than any other. Deep, forest-green eyes that seemed to pierce through to her very soul, and the tiny gold flecks within that sea of green that caught the illumination of the light surrounding them and made him look as though he'd harnessed a bit of fire and held it captive inside his soul.
"Jess? I asked if you'd married," he repeated, those intriguing eyes examining her carefully as he spoke.
She snapped back to the conversation. Married. The only man she'd ever wanted to marry was standing in front of her.
"No, I didn't."
His head tilted slightly, not really a nod but more of a questioning motion. And then Chad being Chad asked, "Why not?"
She couldn't help it; she laughed. "You still say whatever you want, whenever you want, don't you? You always said if you wanted to know something you simply asked, and people told you."
He grinned, and the deep dimple in his left cheek winked at her. "Hey, it usually works." Then he raised a dark brow. "So, why not?"