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Clay Sullivan strode into the cafeteria of his old high school. He hadn't even wanted to come to his fifteen-year reunion, yet he knew the confrontation he was going to have with Celeste Wells tonight was inevitable.
He hardly noticed the blue and yellow streamers that zigzagged across the ceiling, and ignored the classmates mingling and huddling around their old yearbooks. Catching sight of Celeste talking with a group of friends, a feeling of dread pulled tight across his chest.
Celeste rose when she saw him. Her light brown hair shimmered with highlights from the summer sun. The strapless white dress with pastel flowers decorating the full skirt showed off her creamy shoulders to perfection. She looked like his ex-wifeher fraternal twin sisterand at first glance he'd almost mistaken her for Zoie.
That was one mistake he couldn't afford to make.
"How are you?" Celeste asked as he approached her table. Her wide green eyes showed compassion. Was that an act? Like the one Zoie had put on for so long?
"I'm here because you emailed that you wanted to see me," he responded, his voice gruff. "How long are you staying in Miners Bluff? Just tonight? Through the weekend?"
Celeste's cheeks flushed as she seemed to think over what she wanted to say.
Before she could answer him, music began to play at the other side of the room.
Celeste asked hopefully, "Do you want to go somewhere else and talk?"
He intended to keep this short and sweet. He didn't want to give Celeste an inch. He thought about his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter at home in her pj's, playing with her dollhouse. Abby was the sole reason he got up each morning. She was the last person he thought of before he went to sleep each night. Zoie had signed away her rights, and he had sole custody. That was the way it was going to stay.
"We can talk here. I don't think anyone's going to interrupt us." Not with the tension buzzing around them like a force field ready to singe anyone who came too close.
Celeste had always been the quiet, understated twinin the way she dressed, the way she moved and the way she spoke. But now he saw something new come over her something that put fire in those green eyes and a determined set to her pretty mouth.
She took a step closer to him, and the scent of honeysuckle titillated his senses. He wondered crazily if his large hands would span her slim waist. He stopped the thought before it had a chance to tickle his libido.
"Have you heard from Zoie recently?" she asked in a low voice.
He caught the note of worry and felt his heart soften a bit.
"Not since she signed the divorce papers a year ago. The last I heard she was traveling through France."
"You mean she hasn't contacted you at all about Abby?" Celeste sounded shocked, and he had to wonder if she really knew her sister.
"Are you so surprised? She's wanted to escape responsibility for a long time."
Celeste clasped his forearm in obvious sympathy and said softly, "Clay."
He felt unexpected heat on his skin, and he pulled away, startled by it. He and Celeste had never been more than friends. He shouldn't feel heat where she was concerned. "It's over, Celeste. I should have realized that before we had Abby."
He wanted to walk away, go back to his house in the foothills of Moonshadow Mountain where he could wall out everything but his daughter. Yet he couldn't look away from the compassion in Celeste's eyes. He couldn't look away from the understanding only she could have because she knew his history with Zoie from the beginning to the endand she had played her own role in their drama.
Suddenly the music from the speakers blared louder. The DJ called, "Everybody find a partner."
Jenny Farber, one of the women Celeste had been conversing with when he'd walked in, came up to them and tapped both of their shoulders. "Come on, you two. Join in."
Clay had heard Jenny had helped organize this reunion. She was the manager of the Rocky D, a big spread outside of the town limits. He used their horses for his wilderness excursions. He liked Jenny and knew she was trying to lighten up the atmosphere between him and Celeste. But he doubted if anything could do that.
"Come on," Jenny encouraged them again. "It's nineties music at its best."
Maybe dancing with Celeste would throw her off her game would divert her attention would transport them into small talk instead of conversation about her and Abby.
"Do you want to dance?" he suggested. Yet as soon as he asked, the thought of holding Celeste in his arms made his gut clench. What had he gotten himself into?
As Celeste gazed at Clay's ruggedly chiseled face, his unruly dark brown hair, her stomach almost did back-flips. He'd never known it, but he'd been her one and only crush until her extroverted sister had swept him away. Celeste hadn't had a chance. She'd made peace with that fact a long time ago. But tonight wasn't about the past. It was about her future with Abby.
"Sure, I'll dance with you," she answered, her heart racing because so much was on the line tonight.
When Clay's arm went around her, she felt as awkward as a teenager and wondered what was going through his head. Was he remembering the hikes they'd taken on Moonshadow Mountain before he'd dated Zoie? What about the after-school gatherings when chocolate milk was the beverage of choice? Even then, though, the zing had been between him and Zoie, and Celeste hadn't known how to make him really look at her.
He left enough space between them so she could look up and study his expression. But his steady gray eyes told her nothing. Tall and muscled, yet lean, his body so close to hers caused her throat to tighten and her mouth to go dry. Ever since Zoie's departure, Celeste had waited and waited and waited for a signal from Clay that he was ready for her to be a part of his daughter's life. But he hadn't given her one. So she'd planned to use this reunion as a stepping-stone to get to know the little girl.
"Who's with Abby tonight?" Celeste asked, hoping fireworks wouldn't erupt at that question.
That was a surprise. Violet Sullivan was a society matron, and the way she'd felt about Zoie, Celeste had been afraid she wouldn't take her granddaughter under her wing.
"Does she babysit often?"
"She watches Abby while I work."
Celeste apparently couldn't keep her surprise from showing because Clay added, "After Zoie left, she stepped right in. She said those young babysitters Zoie used didn't know the first thing about taking care of a child."
It was hard for Celeste to imagine Clay's mother as cuddly and warm. She'd always seemed so forbidding and proper, so against Clay's dating Zoie and hanging around with Celeste because they were from the wrong side of the tracks.
Silence fell over them as the music swelled, bringing back memories of high school dances, a ride home in Clay's car before he and Zoie left to spend time together, hours listening to music on her Walkman in her and Zoie's small bedroom above the bar where their mother worked.
Clay's arm tightened as a couple brushed past them. The dance floor seemed to shrink until there was just the two of them. Her breath caught and she knew she should push away. But the scent of Clay's cologne, the feel of his body against hers, created sensations she hadn't felthadn't let herself feelfor a very long time.
Clay's stubbled jaw tensed, and she expected him to put more space between them again, but he didn't. Instead, he asked, "Are you still working for that graphic design firm in Phoenix?"
Work. That should be easy to talk about. "No. I went out on my own and have a client list now. I create websites for businesses. Do you need one?" she asked teasingly.
"I've always been busy enough with word of mouth and ads in the right places that I didn't have to worry about that." He was a tour guide who led excursions around the area traveling mostly to nearby Flagstaff, north to the Grand Canyon, and south to Sedona. Miners Bluff, too, pulled in its share of sightseers who were curious about this former copper-mining town.
She guessed he wanted to lead the conversation away from Abby. But she wanted to dive right in while they were face-to-face. "Designing websites makes me portable. I can do it from anywhere. I don't have to live in Phoenix."
She heard the warning note in Clay's voice and knew she couldn't postpone the reason she'd come to the reunion any longer. "I want to see Abby. I want to spend time with her."
Clay's booted feet stopped moving for a moment.
They were still in the midst of dancing couples. Out of the corner of her eye, Celeste barely registered Mikala Conti dancing with Dawson Barrett, Riley O'Rourke smiling down at Brenna McDougall, Chief of Police Noah Stone leaning against the wall, watching them all.
After what seemed like eonsduring which Celeste didn't know if Clay was going to break away or resume dancinghis hand tightened on hers, and he guided her away from the other dancers to a shadowed corner which, for the time being, was empty of classmates.
There he confronted her. "What do you want?"
The protective fierceness on his face should have scared her, but it didn't. This was Clay, the boy she'd known in high school, the young man who'd married her sister, the adult who had taken Zoie back after an affair, who'd tried to save his marriage by starting a family.
"I want to get to know Abby. I'd like to be a part of her life."
It was obvious Clay was greatly troubled by that idea and she suspected why.
She realized she had to give Clay a few minutes to think about her request. As they stood there close, yet not touching, she realized her attraction to Clay that had begun in high school had never gone away. She'd buried it as far down into her heart as she could. She'd never for a minute considered it would rise up to bite her now when she least expected it now when she wanted Abby to be her only concern.
Finally Clay broke the silence between them. "All right." He checked his watch. "Abby might still be up. Why don't you come see that she's safe and loved? Then you can go back to Phoenix."
He was purposely misunderstanding what she wanted, which was to see Abby regularly. But she wasn't going to propose that now when he was giving her this opening.
"Let's go," she said before Clay could change his mind.
Clay was aware of the swish of Celeste's skirt as she preceded him up the lit walk to his house, a log home nestled among Douglas firs and aspen. He must have been certifiably crazy to ask her back here. Holding her in his arms, something had happened to him. Maybe because he hadn't been with a woman since before his separation and divorce, his body had responded to her. Whatever the reason, he'd felt an arousal he hadn't wanted to feel.
Perhaps she'd leave after this visit and his life would go back to the normal he was trying so hard to find.
"It's been a while since I've been here," she said with an almost shy smile as she glanced at him over her shoulder.
The motion caused her shawl to slip, and he automatically reached for it. As they'd left the school, the July night had turned cooler, and she'd slung the delicate, crocheted wrap around her. Every movement of Celeste's was graceful and natural. He'd always noticed that when they'd hiked. Zoie's movements had been more frenetic, some calculated to entice, others just meant to gain notice.
Clay lifted the end of the shawl over her shoulder. His hand brushed her hair, which felt as silky as it had looked when they were dancing. That same ripple of sensual awareness coursed through him again, and he mentally swore, frustrated with himself and the situation.
When Celeste's gaze met his, for a moment he forgot where he was. He forgot everything but the two of them standing there on the walk outside his house.
"I love the scent of the evergreens all around your property. And the petunias look lovely."
All he could smell now was the scent of Celeste's perfume. "Abby likes flowers so I asked Mom's gardener to plant a few. If we're lucky and the cold holds off, they could last through September."
"I don't miss the winter snow," Celeste said with a laugh. "But I do miss the green. I prefer firs to saguaros."
"Where are you staying while you're in Miners Bluff?"
"In one of the guest suites at Mikala's aunt's. The Purple Pansy Bed and Breakfast doesn't have a lot of rooms, but I think it's still one of the most hospitable places to stay in town."
"How is Ms. Conti?" He should have guessed Celeste would be staying near Mikalaone of her best friends from high schoolbut he thought at this time of year, the B and B might not have a vacancy.
"Anna doesn't seem to let anything get her down."
"I hear good things about Mikala's music therapy practice. I took a family sightseeing who'd driven up from Sedona so their daughter could spend a week in sessions with her."
"She never discusses her clients."
"No, but her clients discuss her, and you know how gossip makes the rounds in Miners Bluff."
"Oh, yes," Celeste murmured as they climbed the porch steps, then stood at his front door. "Quicker than a high-speed train."
Celeste's mother had been a target of the whispering chain around town. There had been rumors about her morals and the kind of life she'd led. She supposedly spent afternoon to midnight at the bar, drinking with the clientele, and slept with men who were patrons. She left her daughters alone too much of the time. Yet Clay knew rumors never told the whole truth. Clay had liked Ms. Wells. She'd raised Zoie and Celeste on her own the best she could. Her death when the twins were in their twenties had hit them both hard.
After Clay took out his key, he cast a glance at Celeste and saw she was biting her lip. She was nervous. Nervous about not knowing what to expect with Abby? Or nervous about seeing his mother again? She'd spent Christmas with them all the year before Abby was born. She hadn't been back here since.
Clay opened the door, stepped back into the life he knew, the life he liked the life he was satisfied with now.
Celeste was right behind him.