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Caty McKenzie hated funerals.
As an attorney, she'd attended dozens of them, for personal and professional reasons, but she would never get used to them. Some were heart wrenching, others were just generally sad, but no matter the circumstances, she couldn't wait until the solemn ceremonies were over.
It was a two-hour drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, to her hometown. She pushed the speed limit most of the way and by the time she arrived in Harland, there wasn't a single parking space open near the church. Cars lined both sides of the street, and people were walking in from as far away as Main Street. She wedged her MG convertible into a spot reserved for motorcycles and hurried toward the oldest of the four churches that framed the town square. At the top of the steps, she found a hand-lettered sign tacked to the open door.
"Our little church is not large enough to hold everyone this morning. Please join us on the south lawn to honor our brother Ethan Sawyer."
She looked through the stained-glass window over the altar to see what must be more than two hundred people seated in chairs, on benches, some sitting on the ground or just standing. The outpouring of respect for Ethan made her throat swell, and her vision blurred with tears she didn't dare shed. Once she started, she wouldn't be able to stop. To get through this awful day, she had to be strong and composed. Later, when she was alone, she'd give in and cry her eyes out.
Caty went back down the steps and headed across the grass. It was a bright August morning, with sun streaming down through the leaves on the trees while birds circled overhead, chirping to each other. To her mind, the beautiful weather didn't match up with the congregation's somber clothing and muted conversation. Today they were burying one of her favorite people in the world. It should have been gloomy and dark, not cheerful and bright.
As she searched for a place to sit, she glanced toward the podium at the head of the makeshift aisle. Wearing his customary gray suit and paisley tie, Pastor Charles was talking to an incredibly tall, broad-shouldered man with dark, curly hair. He looked vaguely familiar, and she actually did a double take.
Caty hadn't seen him in, what? Ten years? Fifteen? She was in junior high when he had graduated from high school and left without a backward glance, off to adventures she could only imagine. Not that it mattered. Even back then, he probably couldn't have picked her out of a three-person lineup. A North Carolina all-state linebacker four years running, in high school he was good-looking, self-assured and cocky. She'd admired him in a general way, but they had never been friends. You couldn't be friends with someone who didn't even know you existed.
Judging by his stiff posture, he was uncomfortable being here, and she couldn't recall ever seeing him in church with his family. Caty didn't realize she was staring until his gaze swung her way. It wasn't her memory of her teenage years playing tricks on herhe really did have the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. Accented by the determined set of his jaw, today those eyes were filled with misery. Caty knew she'd looked much the same at her grandfather's funeral three years ago. No matter how long one had been away, it was always heartbreaking to come home to say goodbye to a loved one.
At a loss, she sent him a sympathetic look. All she got in return was a puzzled frown before he joined his family. One of his sisters leaned in and said something to him, but he scowled and shook his head. Undeterred, she said something else. His warning glare got through to her, and she gave up, facing forward with an exasperated sigh.
Calling for their attention, Pastor Charles addressed the crowd with arms outstretched. "If you'll all take your seats, we'll begin."
Caty found an empty seat near the back and perched on the very edge of the bench. Aunts, uncles and cousins of the Sawyers clustered around them, lending support on what must have been a horrible day for them. Pastor Charles, bless his heart, announced that he'd keep things short due to the warm day. For Ethan's children and grand-kids, the brief ceremony was a godsend.
"And now, let us pray." When everyone had bowed their heads, he continued. "Merciful Father, hear our prayers and comfort the Sawyer family in their time of need. Renew our trust in Your Son, whom You raised from the dead. Strengthen our faith that Ethan Sawyer, who died in the love of Christ, will share in His resurrection and live with You, now and forever. Amen."
Silently, Caty added her own prayer for Ethan's family. The aftermath of her grandfather's death was still clear in her memory, and she knew they'd need all the good wishes they could get.
Matt and his younger brother, John, stepped forward to take the lead positions to carry their father's casket out to the waiting hearse. John was clearly struggling to keep his composure, and Matt gave him a look of encouragement as they made their solemn way through the assembly. In response, John straightened and nodded back.
Caty had no idea how they endured that emotionally charged walk. Glancing up, she got the distinct feeling that Ethan was watching them with incredible pride. After the hearse door closed, the funeral director began organizing everyone for the trip out to the cemetery. Caty headed for her car, only to find it corralled tightly between a Cadillac and an enormous black SUV.
She turned to find Matt behind her and tried to laugh it off. "The top's down, so maybe I can just climb in without opening the doors."
He gave her a quick once-over, from her white blouse and slim black skirt, straight down to her four-inch black heels. Her "funeral uniform," it got more use than she liked. The skirt fell way below her knees, but for some reason his quick appraisal still made her blush.
"Not very likely." Now he gave her car the same assessing look. "Nice MG. What year is it?"
"A '68." From the way he'd asked the question, she could tell she didn't look familiar to him. "You have no idea who I am, do you?"
He really shouldn't admit it, Matt cautioned himself. Ladies liked to think they were unforgettable, and he always obliged. So he took a minute to study her. The longer he looked, the better he liked the view. She wasn't model material, but the sunlight picked up strands of red in her brown hair, set off by fair skin and the dark green of her eyes. Looking closer, he noticed the freckles sprinkled across her nose. Totally at odds with her classy outfit, they made him think of summertime, but he still couldn't place her.
Finally, he admitted defeat and shook his head. "Sorry."
"At least you're honest." She held out her hand. "Caitlin McKenzie."
As he shook her hand, he rolled the name around in his mind a few times but still came up blank. That probably meant he hadn't met her recently, so he took a shot. "From Harland."
He'd meant to make it a statement, stalling for time until he could place her. Instead it came out as a question, and he cringed at how lame he sounded. Then again, he'd already botched their little reunion so badly, he figured it didn't matter much.
"John and I were friends growing up," she explained patiently. "We graduated together."
"So you're a few years younger than me." Even as he said it, he knew it sounded as though he was dragging his feet in this conversation. Which, of course, he was.
Suddenly, something far back in his memory clicked. "I remember Hank and Martha McKenzie."
"And a quiet little girl with glasses." Considering how confident and classy she looked today, he had a hard time connecting her to that mousy kid. "That was you?"
"A long time ago."
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his key fob and pressed the button. Across the parking lot, a dark blue pickup chirped in response. "You can ride with me if you want."
As a limo pulled into line behind the hearse, she asked, "You're not going with your family?"
He shrugged. "Not enough room for all of us."
She gave him a doubtful look, but fortunately she didn't press. "Okay. Thanks."
When they got to his truck, he opened the passenger door for her. "Thanks for coming today."
"I'm glad to do it. I just wish it wasn't necessary," she said as she climbed into the truck.
Standing inside the open door, he looked in at her. Her response sounded so polished, he knew she'd rehearsed it many times. "You've said that about a thousand times, haven't you?"
"I guess so," she admitted with a frown. "I'm sorry if I sounded like a robot. I just never know what else to say."
"Yeah," he murmured, staring at the hearse as it slowly left the lot. "Me, neither."
As Matt settled into the driver's seat, he finally placed her. "Caty Lee McKenzie. Valedictorian, right?"
She didn't exactly smile, but it was closer to a grin than anything he'd gotten since she had introduced herself. "Right."
Trying to salvage the conversation, he added, "Guess we didn't run in the same circles at school."
"I wasn't a cheerleader." Her smile evaporated, and she gave him a chilly look before turning to stare out the window.
She really knew how to hurt a guy. Then again, he thought as he put his truck in gear, he'd never really been into brainy women. They were way too much work.
After the mercifully brief graveside service, the long parade of cars headed through town to the Sawyer farm. As they drove along Main Street, well-kept houses stretched out on either side. Alongside the pavement were the original cobblestones, flanked by a canopy of oaks that dated back to the Civil War. In Harland, gardens were immaculate, porches were welcoming and the sweet tea was always fresh. Even though she'd left to realize her dream of becoming a lawyer, Caty had always been drawn back to the place that had made her who she was.
"I'm sorry for the reason, but it's good to be home again," Caty told him with a smile. "Someday I want to come back for good. How 'bout you?"
"I plan to stay as far from Harland as I can get."
The certainty in his voice startled her, but she plowed ahead. "So, where are you living these days?"
"Really? Me, too." As of yesterday, that wasn't technically true anymore, but she didn't think he really cared that much. "How long have you been there?"
"A few months now," he answered without taking his eyes off the road.
He didn't elaborate, and she tried again. "I haven't seen you since high school. What have you been up to?"
"I'm a mechanic."
Oh, he was a real talker, this guy. "Whereabouts?"
"California, Arizona, Texas. Spent about a month in Michigan. Way too cold."
She realized he'd answered her questions without revealing a single personal detail. He'd done it artfully, as if he'd had a lot of practice. Fortunately, her legal training had made her adept at worming information out of reluctant people.
"Do you like Charlotte?"
"Yeah." Just when she thought he'd leave it at that, he added, "My boss hired me to work on classics at his body shop, which is great. I love old cars."
Progress, she congratulated herself with a little smile. "How did you get into that?"
"Got certified for regular work, then started playing around with some clunkers at the shop I worked at in Houston. When I was done, the owner sold 'em for more than he spent on the wrecks. He cut me in on the profits, so I did some more. When I decided to move back to North Carolina, he called a friend of his and gave me a reference."
She hoped to keep him talking by giving him a harmless compliment. "That takes a lot of skill. You must make good money."
He slanted her a look she could only define as suspicious. "I do fine."
Okay, so money was a bad subject. Caty switched back to classic cars.
"I love my MG, but I know next to nothing about it. If I get in and it starts, I'm happy. Come to think of it, it was making a weird clunky noise when I pulled in at the church earlier."
"I can look at it if you want," Matt offered as they pulled off the main road onto a lane marked Sawyer Farm.
"I didn't mean to hint for free help with my car," she explained. "I'm happy to pay your regular rates."
"No problem, sweetheart."
Matt drove past the rambling white farmhouse and parked beside several cars in the turnaround in front of one of the barns. He shut off the engine and came around to open her door. The truck sat high enough that she could look him dead in the eye.
Making full use of the higher ground, she gave him her most intimidating lawyer's glare. "Do not call me that."
He gave her the most clueless look she'd ever seen.