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Megan Conley didn't know if it was the heavy rainfall or a trick of her mind that made her think there was a blurry figure on that front porch as she drove past the house of her missing boyfriend, Michael.
A few days ago a dim light had glowed from a front window. By the time she found enough nerve to return, she encountered only a dark, locked house with no car parked either on the street or in back. A couple days ago she'd thought she glimpsed him in his car near the historic tour company. She'd blinked in surprise, and when she looked again, he wasn't there and the car wasn't Michael's.
Neither her mind nor her eyes seemed to work right anymore. Not since she'd received the text message she kept staring at as if it would change. He spelled out the words, instead of using shorthand text, as if that might make things clearer. It didn't.
I'M SORRY. FORGIVE ME. WILL EXPLAIN LATER. WITH LOVE, MICHAEL.
She'd signed "with love" on notes to male and female friends, relatives and even acquaintances and knew it didn't necessarily mean "I love you." So what was he saying? Where had he goneand why?
He'd been gone more than a month. She wasn't able to reach him by phone. His mom said she didn't know any more than Megan knew. "Michael is " Mrs. Nansen had said, paused, then added, "unpredictable at times. But he's a good boy. He means well."
Michael was 27. Three years older than she. He wasn't exactly a boy. She could think of many excuses for why he might leave. If he had found someone else, he only had to say so. In the past months, she'd had a few "say so" thoughts of her own about Michael.
She was well aware that people changed their mindsand their hearts. For more than three years, her friend Annabelle had planned to marry Wesley. But from the moment Symon DeBerry Sinclair returned to Savannah, he and Annabelle began to fall in love. Maybe Michael had fallen in love with someone else.
Megan pulled into the mall parking lot and found a space far down the row. After all the media coverage given to Sy DeBerry, the New York Times best-selling author now known as "Savannah's native son," all the city had probably turned out for the signing of his latest book.
The rain had stopped, and the afternoon sun shone brightly. Were it not for the visible humidity rising from the puddles on the pavement, she'd think it hadn't rained at all but that her eyes had simply grown hazy rather than filled with the tears that sometimes threatened lately.
She hurried inside and, upon reaching the bookstore, saw Lizzie and Annabelle near the entrance.
"I should buy a copy of Symon's book," Megan said.
Annabelle gestured to the crowded store. "Look at that line. All of Savannah has come out."
Megan glanced around. "Just what I was thinking."
"Anyway," Lizzie put in. "Annabelle said Symon will give us autographed copies if we'll be nice little bridesmaids and not make a fiasco of their wedding." She shook her head. "I made no promises."
Her mind still elsewhere, Megan took a deep breath as her gaze scanned the corridor. Lizzie took hold of her arm. "Not a good day?"
Annabelle spoke sympathetically. "We can look at dresses another time."
Megan shook her head. "No. I've told you beforedon't tiptoe around me. This thing about Michael is more confusing than anything." She sighed. "But I thought I saw him again."
"Isn't that a possibility?" Lizzie said.
Megan lifted her hands in a helpless gesture. She had no idea where Michael might be.
"Let's get something to drink," Annabelle suggested. "And you can tell us about it."
"We'll look at the dresses first," Megan countered. "Life doesn't stop for me." She meant it and joined in the conversation as they headed for the Bridal Shoppe. They examined several different styles of bridesmaid's dresses. "The strapless might be better for outside."
Lizzie wrinkled her nose. "My shoulders would end up with more freckles."
"Your freckles are beautiful," Annabelle said. "Anyway, wedding ceremonies never last long and the reception tables will have umbrellas."
"But on second thought," Lizzie mused. "If I did get more freckles, I'd just be auburn skinned. Could join the circus. Maybe meet a man who"
They continued to chat and joke, and they decided to give more thought and discussion to dresses and plans. When they got to the restaurant, Megan slipped into the booth and sat opposite her friends.
After the waitress came and they ordered sodas, Annabelle reached over and gently tapped Megan's hand. "Now, do you want to talk about having seen Michael?"
Megan sighed. "It's probably my imagination. Or," she said, looking at the sympathetic green eyes of her redheaded friend, "like you said, Lizziemaybe I did see him. He may still be around and just doesn't want to see me."
Their condescending nods made Megan feel worse. She wasn't one to wallow in what? Self-pity? Being dumped? Or was Michael sick? "Or," she continued, "maybe his dad or someone else was checking on the house." She slapped the booth's tabletop. "I'm going to forget it. We have a wedding to plan. Annabelle, have you decided on your colors?"
The conversation paused as the waitress brought their drinks. After unwrapping her straw and taking a sip through it, Annabelle said, "Whatcha think? Coral?"
Lizzie screeched and grabbed her mop of thick auburn hair. "Not with this hair. What about blue, to match your eyes?"
"Or," Megan mused. "Spring green. You'll have the white carpeted aisle, white wedding chairs, lush green lawn and backdrop of deeper green trees and bushes. Then there are all those blooming flowers Symon planted. The white arbor can be decorated with vines, flowers and yellow ribbon."
Both stared at her with thoughtful expressions and Lizzie began to nod. Annabelle pointed a graceful finger at her. "You have a knack for this, friend. It's sounding perfect. Now, should the ribbon be satin or mesh or"
Megan was nodding and smiling about her suggestion being accepted. Then she heard no more. Her gaze focused beyond them to the entrance of the restaurant. Her jaw came unhinged and her mouth opened.
"What?" her friends were saying.
"H-he's there," she whispered.
They turned to look. "Who? Where?"
"He left." Megan took several breaths. "He looked straight at me. And then he turned and walked out."
"Michael?" Annabelle asked.
"Yes." She sighed. "No." She began beating the ice in her glass with her straw, then stopped, moved her hands to her lap and held them. Looking over at her friends, she tried to explain. "That wasn't him. But at first glance I thought it was. H-he looked like Michael."
Now her friends stared at her with pity written all over their faces.
Megan stirred her soda. "Well, I didn't get a good look but he resembled Michael. His hair." She pleaded with her eyes for them to believe her. "You know, nobody has hair like his unless it's from a box."
She remembered even having looked at a box for the exact color and the best she had come up with was light blond, almost platinum. But the sun could make it look golden or silver, depending on the time of day. "He was kind of like an older Michael."
"How old?" Lizzie asked.
"Oh, not old. Couple years, maybe."
"Ah, that explains it." Lizzie declared. "You've said time and again you wished Michael was more mature and serious. Okay, Annabelle has mentioned the children who come to her modeling classes have growing spurts. Michael's been gone a few weeks, had a maturity growing spurt and now"
Annabelle poked her and Lizzie grimaced. "Sorry. Can't seem to help it."
Megan dismissed the comments with a flick of her hand.
That was part of Lizzie's appeal. She spoke her mind and often before thinking. "About now I could use a little humor."
"Humor?" Lizzie wrinkled her freckled nose. "That's my serious side."
Megan sighed. "I'm getting tired of so much serious stuff." She shook her head. "Maybe it was just the man's hair. It's like I keep looking for Michael. Thinking he's going to show up."
Annabelle nodded. "You could use a good dose of Aunt B."
Megan smiled. "Did a world of good for you."
Annabelle agreed, holding out her hand with the engagement ring on her finger.
Lizzie groaned. "Think it would do anything for me?"
Megan and Annabelle said in unison, "Couldn't hurt."
Noah Fairfax could kick himself. After all his attempts to remain inconspicuous, he'd walked right into the restaurant where she sat. He'd known she was in the mall. He wouldn't make a good private detective, that's for sure.
What he'd done so far was sit in his car he'd parked a couple spaces away from the trolley on which Megan would be conducting the tour. When she looked his way he'd ducked down, feeling like a criminal. Michael wanted him to make sure Megan was getting on with her life. Noah had felt guilty watching her approach the tour group. But he would feel guiltier if he couldn't give Michael a good report.
He didn't know if he would have recognized Megan Conley in the mall had she not been with the other two women he'd seen in a few pictures Michael had shown him on his phone and on their social media pages. The one with dark hair was very pretty. Michael said she was some kind of beauty queen. And he'd never seen a more colorful person than the one with red hair. He didn't know how to describe women very well, but having some design experience, he supposed if he had to portray Megan he'd say classic. Nothing outstanding, or detracting. Just right. A perfect balance for the other two women. All three were gorgeous and he didn't think that opinion was based on his having been away from civilization for the past few years.
After he'd spotted her at the bookstore and watched her walk down the corridor with her friends, all three in high heels with their well-turned calves showing, he'd smiled appreciatively. Then he entered the store to buy one of Sy DeBerry's books. Those thrillers had been among his and some buddies' favorite reading during their few snatches of spare time serving in Iraq. They'd discussed how a book could make sense of senseless killing, while some of their real experiences seemed far from making any sense.
Lately, he'd seen a lot of media coverage about the famous author and thought he'd like to meet him. He stood in line for more than an hour. He didn't want to take up anyone else's time, so he didn't engage in much conversation while getting the autograph. However, the author took time to ask about Noah's connection to Savannah and asked for his business card. After that, Noah thought it was time for a cup of coffee. Maybe he'd start reading the book.
However, the moment he entered the restaurant, he spied the three women in a nearby booth. The brunette and redhead had their backs to him, but while he was staring, Megan looked him right in the face and registered surprise. He knew she noticed his resemblance to Michael. He quickly turned and left, feeling as if he'd done something immoral or illegal.
When he'd first looked, the three women seemed happy, in casual conversation, and Megan's face was soft with pleasure. He hoped she wasn't devastated by Michael's actions.
Michael and the military had increased Noah's prayer life. Now he wondered what in the world would have happened with Michael had he not prayed for him. Michael was foolish for not confiding in Megan Conley and for just leaving like that. But it could have been worse. He shuddered to think it could have turned out like the disaster with Loretta.
However, in spite of that positive aspect, he also knew some reactions to life's situations were immediate, and some were delayed. People could put up a good front. Megan Conley certainly made a good appearance.
Noah did a little grocery shopping, returned home and discovered he didn't have half the things he needed and had a lot of stuff he didn't need. So he made a whopping sandwich and noted even that turned his kitchen into a mess hall, and his culinary attempt was simply chow.
One thing he could make was a hot cup of instant coffee. He settled at the kitchen table with the sandwich of deli meat, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and cheese between slices of whole wheat bread. He laid the book aside and chomped through the sandwich rather than let tomato juice drip on the new book.
When he finally got to the novel he was instantly engrossed. When the female character came onto the page, described as having flowing honey-colored hair, Noah's mind reverted to Megan Conley. Hers was like that. Flowing. Down around her shoulders. Maybe dark honey, with those golden-brownish
He shut the book and tried to divert his mind from going off on a tangent where it didn't belong.
Sure, he could keep Michael's confidence because he thought Michael would go off the deep end if he didn't. Noah had seen many guys do that. But he couldn't do this snooping like Michael asked him to do. He didn't need to hide from Miss Conley. He was not a sneak and didn't intend to live like one. And for now, he'd take a historic tour to wherever Miss Conley might lead.
He called to make sure it wasn't her night off. He learned she would be leading the hop-on/hop-off trolley tour that evening, which would suit his purpose of being obvious and accessible.
Because this wasn't the time or place to wear a helmet or a hard hat, he found a baseball cap Michael had left on a shelf in a bedroom closet. It covered most of his hair, the distinguishing feature about him and Michael that used to initiate glances and conversation. That hadn't been an issue during the past years when his was cut in a conservative military style.
He wore the cap at the trolley stop, although he felt it was contrary to his personality. When he stopped near her as each one in the group stepped up into the trolley, he knew he was not disguised. Her reaction was like it had been in the restaurantsurprised. Her lips parted slightly, and she inhaled audibly. Then her brown eyes, darker than honey, maybe like dark chocolate, first held a question and then something akin to a warning.
He felt like saying, "No, I am not Michael." He didn't have that so-called boyish charm. He was much more reserved than Michael and to prove it, he simply said, "Good evening," handed her his ticket and stepped up into the big red trolley. The hot, humid late-summer afternoon wasn't the only thing making him sweat.
Now he realized this excursion was not the thing to do. But what was? Keep showing up where she might be and hope she thought nothing of it? That was stupid. Go up to her and say that Michael asked him to make sure she was doing all right? That would be worse.
Maybe he should reenlist and return to Iraq. He was out of touch with relationships. Never been too good with them, come to think of it. That was Michael's department.
Here he was, finding a seat near the back of the trolley, feeling like an idiot and having no idea where to go from there. He should go home, but if he rose from his seat and approached her now she'd probably have him arrested for harassment.