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Josie had spent the past ten years trying to forget Nickolas Brennan existed. And now she needed him more than ever.
Hard to believe after all this time he worked less than two hours from where she lived.
She climbed out of her car, slammed the door and pulled her wool coat tighter. Flipping up the collar to ward off the chill slithering down her spine, Josie slid her purse over her shoulder and trudged through the slushy parking lot toward Twain Hall. The aged brick building, which housed the English department, crested a small knoll with a familiarity to the campus as worn leather patches on a tweed blazer.
Freezing rain stung her cheeks as she waited at the corner for a snow plow to lumber past, leaving a trail of salt on the icy blacktop.
She'd give up her family's secret Italian doughnut recipe to be lying on a tropical beach somewhere. Anywhere. Didn't matter as long as sun, sand and surf were involved. And she and Hannah could build sand castles that withstood the constant crashes of life's harsh realities.
She hurried across the street and stared at Twain Hall, with its arched stone doorway and faded redbrick exterior. Evergreen shrubs lipped the building. Two stout trees guarded the wide steps, their bare limbs hunching over the sidewalk, bearing winter's burden. No going back now.
Passing through the double doors, she paused to wipe her wet feet on the nubby industrial mat. The scent of disinfectant scorched her throat. Varnished wood molding, walls painted the color of aged parchment and gleaming tile floors greeted her. Photos in heavy wooden frames of men and women wearing stern expressions eyed her from the opposite wall as she passed by. Was Nick's picture among them? She didn't stop to check.
Upholstered chairs clustered around a circular table dotted with Starbucks cups where a small group of students gathered. Several balanced open laptops while leafing through textbooks and scribbling in notebooks. One guy lounged with his stretched-out legs crossed at the ankles and head back. His snores bounced off the frosted windows.
A woman, who appeared to be a little older than the other students, sat away from them, but watched with a wistful expression on her face. Josie caught her gaze and smiled, totally understanding how it felt to be on the outside of the circle.
While her friends had shopped for homecoming gowns and pedicures, Josie had bought maternity clothes and put together a nursery. Forget about graduation. Too humiliated to return to school, she had begged her father to homeschool her during her senior year. Her diploma came in the mail.
Josie shelved the memory and focused on her reason for being on campus. She followed the signs to the office and nearly choked on the floral perfume that saturated the air.
A young woman with straight salon-highlighted hair and wearing a black-and-silver Linwood Park Knights hoodie stood behind a counter, texting on her cell phone. Seeing Josie, she closed her phone and tucked it into the back pocket of her skinny jeans. "May I help you?"
Josie closed her fingers around the scrap of paper with Nick's office address, gripping it as if it were a lifeline. "I'm, uh, looking for Dr. Brennan."
"He's not in." The girl, probably a work-study student, pulled out her phone as if to say their conversation was over.
Not so fast, honey.
She should've called. But she couldn't risk him refusing to see her. He had to say yes. Had to.
Josie peeled off her turquoise leather gloves and shoved them in her coat pocket. "Do you know when he will be back?"
"He has class on Monday at eight." She blew a pink bubble and popped it, not even bothering to look up from her texting.
She couldn't wait until Monday. She needed to talk to him now.
Josie gripped the edge of the counter and fought to keep her voice calm. "Is there a way to reach him?"
"Leave him a voice mail, I guess."
"I really need to talk to Dr. Brennan." Josie cringed at the desperation seeping into her voice. She paused a second to regroup. "If I leave my number with you, would you call him and ask him to contact me as quickly as possible?"
"I guess." Again, she didn't bother looking up from where her thumbs danced across the keypad.
Josie balled her hands to keep from reaching over the counter and snatching the phone out of the girl's hands. "You guess? Listen, honey. Talking with Dr. Brennan is about the last thing on my want-to-do list for today, but my daughter's life depends on it. So, how about if you stow your phone along with your snotty attitude and try to be a little helpful?"
Campus Barbie rolled her eyes. She closed her phone and shoved it into her back pocket. She flashed a toothpaste commercial smile. "How can I help you?"
If she didn't need to see Nick so badly, she'd tell the girl exactly how she could help. But Hannah depended on her.
Josie pulled out a business card, scribbled her cell phone number on the back and slid it across the counter. "He can reach me at this numberday or night. Please contact him and have him call me as quickly as possible."
The girl took her card and nodded toward an older woman wearing a navy suit sitting at a computer with a phone cradled on her shoulder. "I'll give it to Irene. I have to head to class in ten minutes."
Josie forced a smile of thanks and strode out of the office, her leather boot heels clicking against the tile. She headed for the front door, passing the row of framed staff photos, then paused. Scanning the faces, she searched for Nick's. Had he changed much in the past decade?
There. Bottom left. Out of all the photos, he was the only one smiling. Glare from the overhead lights reflected off the glass, blocking a good look at his face. She glanced over her shoulders. Seeing no one in the corridor, she stretched on her tiptoes and pulled his picture down.
With one shoulder leaning against the wall, she stared at his face, turning back time to her junior year when he'd meet her at her locker, sling an arm over her shoulder and walk her to class. After classes, they'd hang out in the school newspaper office and work on the Ridgefield Review.
She traced a finger over the glass covering the onedimensional image of the only man she loved enough to hand over her heart. He returned it in pieces before he left for college, claiming it was for the best. Yeah, for him.
"I don't think those are to take."
A deep voice corded with humor startled her. She hadn't heard anyone walking behind her. Heat scalded her throat at getting caught staring at her past.
She jerked away from the wall and stretched to hook the frame back on its anchor. The picture caught on the nail. She dropped her hand only to watch the slow-motion descent of the frame smashing to the floor.
"Oh, no!" She crouched and picked up the frame. Cracks webbed from corner to corner, covering his face. A piece of the wood broke off and skittered across the floor. The man trapped it under his polished black loafer.
Josie wanted to pull her coat over her head and scurry out of the building. Unfortunately life taught her that running from her problems solved nothing.
She stood, refusing to make eye contact with the guy until her face no longer resembled the strawberry smoothie she'd sucked down that morning. Gripping the picture, she turned to face him.
And nearly dropped the frame.
The man standing in front of her with hair the color of her finest Columbian roast and chocolate-drop eyes crinkling around the edges like her homemade snicker-doodles mirrored the image pressed under the cracked glass. And that smile. It could melt the frosting off her homemade eclairs. For a second, the warmth in his eyes made her feel safe.
Instead of a black-and-white Ridgefield Panthers letter-man jacket and jeans, he wore a black suit, white dress shirt and blue-and-green diamond-patterned tie. The lanky boy she had fallen in love with over ten years ago had matured into a man who had the potential to break her heart all over again.
"Nick." His name came out as a gasp. Her heart raced.
"Yes, but most of my students call me Dr. Brennan." He took the frame from her hands and shook his head. "It's official. I've cracked."
Didn't Campus Barbie say he was out?
"I'm, ah, not one of your students." She swallowed back the rest of her words. She couldn't blurt out her reason for coming. Not here in the middle of the hall. She pulled out her gloves and slowly slipped them on, hoping to warm her suddenly chilled fingers.
"Oh, sorry. I just assumed you were a student. Do you make it a habit of removing pictures from walls?"
Was he laughing at her?
"What? No. I just " What could she say? She wanted a better look at the man who broke her heart? A better look at the man she desperately needed to save her daughter's life?
He glanced at his watch then the door, as if he had to be someplace. "I was just kidding. I'll take this back to my office and get it fixed. I need to head out to an appointment. Watch out for falling photographs." He walked backward a few steps, sent her another one of those dazzling smiles, then rotated on his heel to head back to his office.
"Wait." She hurried to catch up with him, trying not to let the fact that he didn't recognize her weigh down her heart.
Nick stopped and turned. His eyes swept over her. He stiffened. She saw the second recognition lit the lightbulb inside his head. A slow smile spread across his face. "Josie Peretti."
Her stomach shimmied. Only Nick could make her name flow like melted caramel.
"You look amazing."
"I'd love to stay and catch up, but I really must run. I'm late for an appointment."
She fished through her purse for another business card, took ten precious seconds to scrawl her cell phone number on the back and thrust it at him. "Please call me after your appointment. It's important. Please."
Nick glanced at the card, then tucked it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. "Okay. I'll do that."
Josie's shoulders sagged as he disappeared into his office. Would he follow through? The Nick she knew once upon a time was always true to his word. She had no idea who he had become.
But it had to be enough.
Okay, God, you opened the door. Please push him through. For Hannah.
Heart thrumming, she hurried back to her car and unlocked it with the remote. As soon as it chirped, she wrenched the door open, hurled herself behind the wheel and slammed the door. She drew in several deep breaths.
If it weren't for Hannah, she'd walk away and not look back. But it didn't matter what skeletons the past held, she needed to dig them up to save her daughter's life.