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Today was the day Olivia Dupree was going to meet the only man on the planet who saw life the way she did—as one long series of disappointments, as a perilous journey best navigated entirely solo—for the very first time, and she didn't have a thing to wear.
Not that what she wore really mattered. She wasn't that sort of fan. Not only didn't she think he would care what she looked like, but she would also be extremely disappointed if he did.
And yet she'd given in to the inner idiotic teenager that had never been her and stood on her bed, so she could gauge her appearance in the big mirror that was part of her dresser. She didn't own a full-length mirror. She'd never thought she needed one and still held that opinion. Her ordinary style was pretty basic. For work she wore skinny, knee-length pencil skirts with matching blazers when it was cool, and sensible pumps with two-inch heels. She kept her dark hair in a tight bun and applied her makeup in the same minimalist fashion every weekday. College English students didn't really care what their professor looked like, after all. And she wasn't out to capture the attention of anyone who might.
On weekends, she traded the suits for jeans, the bun for a ponytail and the makeup for sunscreen.
Now she needed something in between. Something relaxed but attractive. Not seductive, just attractive. She was not a doe-eyed, adoring fan. But she'd never met Aaron Westhaven before, and she wanted to make a good impression.
Freddy, her very best friend in the entire world—and the only specimen of the male gender, canine or otherwise, she trusted with her heart—tipped his massive head from one side to the other as he watched her standing somewhat unsteadily on the mattress. Standing was not what the bed was for, he seemed to be thinking.
She glanced down at him. "It's okay, boy. I'll get down momentarily. And standing on the bed is still verboten when it comes to you, okay?"
He heaved a giant sigh and lowered his two-hundred-pound, brindle-patterned bulk to the floor. He was only average size for an adult male English mastiff, but even she had trouble believing how big he was, and she'd had him for three years.
She hoped Mr. Westhaven didn't have an aversion to dogs. He hadn't written dogs into any of his novels, so she couldn't be sure, but she suspected he would love Freddy. Because anyone with a heart would love Freddy, and Westhaven certainly had a heart.
She felt as if she knew him well. The reclusive author's heartbreakingly tragic novels lined her shelves and spoke to her soul. They were her own guilty little secret. But they so reflected the way she felt about life and love. You really couldn't depend on anyone but yourself. He seemed to understand that. God knew she did.
And now she was about to meet him—right here in Shadow Falls, Vermont.
She glanced at the combination she now wore, a pair of dressy black trousers and a lavender button-down blouse with a black blazer over it. Too stiff. She unbuttoned the blazer and thought she still looked too formal. Then she took it off and thought she looked too casual.
Frustrated, she threw the blazer down by her feet. Big mistake. Freddy saw that as an invitation, sprang upright and bounded onto the bed with a giant "woof" that reverberated through her chest. The mattress sank, the box springs squeaking in protest.
"I couldn't see anything from the waist down," she explained, as she tried to keep her balance. He bounced in response to her words, and the mattress tidal-waved beneath her. Laughing, she fell onto her butt among the rumpled covers, and Freddy moved over her, trying to lick her face as she laughed too hard to breathe. "You're a lug. Get down!"
He obeyed immediately, then stood there waiting for her to join him. She got down, traded the trousers for a skirt, slid her feet into a pair of sandals and looked at the clock on the nightstand, then at her wristwatch. "Gee, Freddy. Mr. Westhaven is late." She frowned as a little knot of worry tightened in her stomach.
"He's really late."
And she was concerned. Because though she admired him, she didn't entirely trust him, simply because he was male. The fact that he'd agreed to be the surprise guest speaker at the English Department's summer fundraiser had been nothing less than a stunner. She'd invited him with every expectation that he would decline, if he replied at all. The man never made public appearances. She'd been shocked—and a little bit suspicious—when he'd accepted the invitation.
But she'd chalked that up to her own man issues, and tried to count on him to show up as promised and not pull a no-show.
Maybe that had been a mistake.
Time would tell, she supposed. She brushed the dog hairs off her lavender blouse and exchanged it for a sleeveless silk shell in jade green. It would just have to do.
Samuel Overton wasn't supposed to be driving at all without his mom in the car, much less driving a big Ford Expedition that wasn't even theirs. But he was doing it anyway. He didn't really know how she expected him not to. It was the Funkmaster Flex Edition, not just any SUV.
And it was freakin' sweet. Checkered flag design on the dashboard and console, unique black-and-red paint job, sound system to die for. Better yet, it had a 300 horsepower, 5.4-liter iron-block, 24-valve V-8 in it. Hell, this thing was a dream vehicle. Car-show worthy.
Besides, he didn't have any reason to think his mom would find out.
Kyle Becker, Sam's best friend, cranked up the music, and Sam shoved his hand away from the dial and turned it back down. "It's distracting."
"It's Metallica. You don't turn down Metallica."
"Then turn it off."
"No way. It'll do you good to get used to distractions," Kyle said, with the wisdom that came from being a licensed sixteen-year-old, and a whole six weeks older than Sam. "And while you're at it, you might want to go faster than thirty-five."
Sam pressed on the gas pedal, picked up speed and sent a cloud of dust up behind them. They'd taken a back road where there would be little traffic, so he could practice driving a car that had a little more guts than his mother's minivan.
He felt a little ping and knew he was throwing up pebbles in addition to the dust cloud. Shaking his head, he hit the brakes and pulled over. "This is stupid. This dirt road's no good for a cherry ride like this."
"I told you, we'll wash it before we take it back," Kyle insisted. "No one will ever know."
"Right, unless I end up dinging it or something.
Professor Mallory will notice that when he comes back from Europe, even if Mom doesn't." Sam sighed, frustrated with himself as he slowly realized there was almost zero chance he was going to get away with this undetected. Mom always found out. "I must have been a moron to have let you talk me in to this."
"No, you weren't. You've got to practice on something, right? How are you going to pass your test next week if you don't? And you can't take your mother's minivan when she has it parked outside the damn hospital all day every day."
"Yeah, well, I can't keep taking Mallory's dream machine out, either. I mean, I shouldn't. He left it with Mom for safekeeping while he's away. I doubt this is what he had in mind."
"Why the hell not? You're not hurting it any. And he did ask your mom to drive it once in a while to keep it loose, right? You're helping him, dude."
"You wouldn't be saying that if it was your dream machine I was driving over a cow path," Sam said. "If Mom finds out, she'll have a freakin' breakdown."
"She's not gonna find out." Kyle said it as if he were offering his personal guarantee that it was true.
The dust was clearing, and Sam sighed. "Let's just go. We still have to gas it up and wash it, and hope to hell nobody sees us driving it back."
"Yeah," Kyle said. "We probably better get on that. But we can take it straight back to your mom's garage, bring the gas in a can and wash it right there, so we don't draw notice. You want me to drive it back?"
Sam nodded. "Just in case we meet a cop or something," he said. "Mom would be even more pissed if I got a ticket for driving on a learner's permit without a licensed over-eighteen driver along." He opened his door, getting out of the SUV to go around to the passenger side.
Kyle got out his own side, but then he just stood there, staring toward the side of the road a dozen or so yards ahead of them.
And then he went really tense all of a sudden, and his mouth opened.
"What?" Sam asked, trying to see what he was looking at.
Kyle lifted a finger and pointed. "Holy shit, is that a body?"
"No way!" Sam turned and spotted the lump that had caught his friend's attention. Something that, he had to admit, looked like a person lay in the deep grass at the bottom of a patch of a slope.
The two boys headed for the human-shaped lump of clothing. When they got as close as they could without leaving the road, Kyle said, "Sure as shit, Sam, there's a guy down there. And he isn't moving."
Elbowing his friend, Sam said, "Go see if he's alive." Then he tugged his cell phone out of his shirt pocket.
"Screw you, you go see if he's alive!"
"Fine." Sam held out the phone. "You can call 911… and my mom at the hospital."
Sighing, Kyle shook his head. "I'm not calling your mom. I'll go see if he's alive."
When her telephone finally rang, Olivia had all but given up on her special guest. He was known to be rabid about his privacy. She should have trusted the instinct that told her to distrust his promise to appear. But at the time she'd been convinced that the director of special events would never agree to Aaron Westhaven's terms anyway. No press, no announcement, no photographs, no hotel. But he had conceded to all of it. Westhaven had even accepted Olivia's offer to let him stay in her guestroom, allowing him to forego any of the far more public local inns or B and Bs. The fundraiser was by invitation only, so the invited guests had been told only that it would feature a "secret guest speaker" guaranteed to be worth their donations. The tickets had sold out in record time.
And now it looked as if he wasn't even going to show up.
She never should have believed he would keep his word. People seldom did. Especially men.
When the phone rang, her hopes climbed in spite of her doom-and-gloom realism, though she scolded them back into place even as she snatched the receiver up so fast that she didn't even look at the caller ID first.
"Professor Dupree," she answered.
A female voice came from the other end. "Hi, Olivia. It's Carrie Overton. How are you?"
"Carrie?" It took her a moment to process the name, since she had been expecting her errant guest speaker to be calling with a huge apology and a fistful of excuses. Frowning, she held the phone away and looked at the ID screen. Shadow Falls General Hosp, it said, before it ran out of room. She lifted her brows and brought the phone back to her ear. "I'm fine, a little frustrated right now, but—is everything all right?"
Carrie was one of the few women she'd built something of a friendship with over the past sixteen years— and even then, only a casual one. Olivia knew it didn't pay to let too many people get too close when you had as many secrets in your past as she did.
"I'm calling from—"
"The hospital, I know," Olivia said, a tiny kernel of concern beginning to form in her chest. Carrie had no earthly reason to be calling her today—especially not from her job, which she took very seriously. "What's going on?"
Carrie drew a breath. "Okay, it's— I have a patient here. Male, mid-thirties maybe. Dark hair and eyes. Six feet or so, pretty buff. No ID."
"Sounds like you're looking for a home for a stray, Carrie."
"Sort of. He had your business card in his pocket, so I thought you might be able to help us identify him."
Olivia closed her eyes slowly as her mind fit Tab A into Slot B. God, was it Aaron Westhaven? Was that why he was so late? "Is there anything written on the back of the card?" she asked.
"Yeah. Your home phone number. Address, too. Do you know who he is?"
"I think so," Olivia whispered. It was him. It had to be. She didn't give anyone her home address. Ever. But she'd made an exception for the semifamous recluse with the direct line into her brain. "Is he all right? I mean how bad—"
"I really can't discuss that—"
"Right, right." Rules, regs, confidentiality. Carrie wasn't going to breech protocol and risk her medical license. Not over the phone, anyway.
"Can you come over here?" Carrie asked.
Olivia nodded hard, just as if Carrie could see the motion. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes," she said, then hung up the phone without another word. She headed for the door, the issue of what to wear entirely forgotten, and grabbed her handbag on the way.
Freddy ran ahead of her and waited by the door, tail wagging.
She crouched, but only a little, and cupped his great big, flappy jowled face between her palms. "You have to stay here, Fred. I'm going to the hospital, and they don't allow dogs there, so you have to stay here. But I promise I won't be long."
He sighed heavily and lowered his big head, just as if he understood every word.