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Melina Lawrence looked over her shoulder and winked at her sister Angie, the most effervescent bride Melina had ever seen.
"Don't trip!" Angie mouthed just as the wedding planner signaled to maid of honor Melina to begin her walk down the aisle.
Melina smiled, both at her sister's teasing caution and the beauty of the moment. The church was full. Happy faces greeted her with each step. Then about halfway down the aisle she spotted someone who didn't belong in the crowdRaphael Mendoza. Rafe Mendoza. Rafe, the love of her lifein high school, anyway, and a little beyond. Homecoming king to her homecoming queen. They were voted most likely to wed .
But they hadn't.
He came sharply into focus, the guests around him blurring into a muted montage of color. Why was he here? He lived in Michigan, fifteen hundred miles from Red Rock, Texas, where he was born and raised. Where they'd gone to high school together.
Don't trip. The muscles of Melina's cheeks ached as she tried to maintain her smile. All of her senses overloaded so fast it was dizzying. He gave her the slightest of nods as she moved past him, her pulse pounding in her ears so loudly she couldn't hear the music.
Don't trip. Her legs kept moving but felt numb.
When she could see clearly again, she noticed the expressions on the faces of old friendssympathy, but also people's blatant curiosity of a gossip-worthy event.
Angie must have invited him to the wedding but hadn't bothered to tell Melina he was coming. Then again, her sister still believed in fairy tales and happy endings. She'd never given up on Rafe and Melina finding their way back to each other. Angie had adored Rafe as the big brother she'd never had. Adored him so much, she'd gone into an extended and dramatic period of mourning for him ten years ago, after Melina and Rafe broke up when Angie was only twelve .
It was the look on her mother's facefull of understanding and maybe even a little annoyancethat drew Melina back into the moment. She managed genuine smiles for her mother and Gramps, seated next to her, then noted the panic in her about-to-be brother-in-law's eyes. She smiled consolingly at the very sweet Tommy Buchanan, then took her position alongside seven bridesmaids. The guests rose for the bride's shining moment, Angie's gaze locked with Tommy's all the way down the aisle.
The music faded out, then the family's longtime minister asked, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"
Jefferson Lawrence eyed his daughter, seeming to ponder the question, until she whispered loudly, "Daddy!"
He chuckled but dutifully said, "Her mother and I." He lifted Angie's veil a bit, kissed her, then presented her to Tommy and took a seat next to his teary-eyed wife of thirty-two years.
Melina went through the motions. She passed the groom's ring to the minister without fumbling, then handed back Angie's white-tulip bouquet after the celebratory kiss, during which Tommy bent her over to much laughter and applause. Then Melina slipped her hand into the crook of the best man's arm and followed the newlyweds up the aisle, leading a parade of bridesmaids decked out in lemon-colored chiffon gowns escorted by ushers trying not to trip over the voluminous dresses.
Because everyone was standing, Rafe was blocked from Melina's view until she was a few feet away. For years, she'd anticipated running into him again.
He wasn't supposed to look this good, this sexy. This tempting.
And he'd come alone.
And everyone there knew their history, used to have bets on how it would turn out. Now what would happen? Melina feared she'd be back in the spotlight again, with Rafe an unwilling focus as well.
The guests departed for the reception at the nearby Blue Sage Inn, then a lot of picture-taking ensued before white limos carried the bridal party to the reception. The festivities were well under way with music, appetizers and an open bar.
Because the early March day had crept into the low eighties, many guests had wandered into the courtyard from the main room, but Melina spotted Rafe instantly. He was crouched down, talking to Gramps, who looked so different without his usual Stetson and Wranglers, wearing a tux instead, his horse long ago replaced by a cane, and for today, a motorized wheelchair.
"You're awfully jumpy," Angie said to Melina as the wedding party sat down at the head table. "Aren't you having a good time?"
Melina kept her tone neutral, not an easy task when all around her people were looking from Me-lina to Rafe and back again. "You invited Rafe."
Her sister's lips compressed. "It's my wedding. I get to invite who I want."
"I hadn't realized you were still friends."
"We've stayed in touch." She clinked her water glass to Tommy's, kissed him then looked at Melina again. "Now that he's moved home, I thought he'd like a chance to reconnect with old friends."
Shock jolted Melina. "Moved home? To Red Rock?" Her breath felt trapped in her throat.
"A few weeks ago. He bought the old Dillon house, but his office is in San Antonio." She smiled. "He looks good, doesn't he?"
Yes, he looks good. He was a man now, not a boy, and it showed in every inch of him, from his stylish hair to his sharper facial features to his powerful body, fitted into a perfectly tailored dark gray suit.
"He's aged really well, don't you think?" Angie asked.
"Aged?" Melina replied, stunned. "We were born the same year, you know. Twenty-nine isn't exactly over the hill."
Their younger sister, Stephanie, leaned past Me-lina and said, "It is when you're a single woman." She elbowed Melina. "I know you're famous for your patience, Mellie, but sometimes it's better just to grab hold, you know, not keep waiting for the perfect man. And I do have to agree with Ang. I mean, just look at Rafe. He's like a dark prince stepped out of a grownup fairy tale."
"That's quite a label, Steph," Melina said, although agreeing about his physical perfection. His perfect height. His thick, black hair, those deep, brown, smoldering eyes that could coax out all her secrets.
"But he's a lawyer, not a prince, and life isn't a fairy tale. Except for Angie's," she added, lifting her glass, putting on a smile, not wanting to take away even the tiniest bit of her pleasure. "To your happily-ever-after beginning."
After dinner, the official toasts were made and the cake cut, then the dancing began. Rafe still hadn't left. He danced several times, but never twice with the same woman, and he never approached Melina. She partnered with the best man, Tommy's twin brother, Jay, then with several ushers, and eventually her father, who was having a great time in the role of father of the bride. It was the kind of arena in which the boisterous cattle broker shined.
"You fixin' to say hello to your former fiancé?" her father asked as they danced, his disapproving tone apparent.
Melina stopped short of rolling her eyes. He never pulled punches. "I wasn't planning on it, but I won't be rude, either."
"Best you don't go opening up those wounds, girl."
"I don't intend to."
"Then maybe you should stop giving him the eye, so he doesn't think otherwise."
She wasn't aware she'd been giving him the eye. In fact, she'd been trying not to, since everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath for something to happen between them, some kind of contact. Any kind of contact. Almost everyone knew what their plans had been. They'd wanted to buy the old Crockett building on south Main, open their law practice downstairs and create an apartment upstairs, at least until the second baby camewith two more to follow. The building was still there, but the plans had gone up in smoke years ago. It had finally stopped hurting to drive past it.
"A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since we broke up, Dad," she said, putting the past in its place.
"Since he broke up. I remember how long the tears lasted."
She remembered, too, almost as if it were yesterday. Total heartbreak was hard to forget. "I was nineteen. I can handle things better now." Or could she? She'd only imagined coming face-to-face with him before. The truth was entirely different. He still made her heart poundwhich could also be all the pent-up anger she'd held for years.
"You haven't been serious about a boy since Rafe."
"I've had my share of fun, Dad, believe me." She had, too, but she'd kept her relationships light and short-term on purpose. She didn't ever want to grieve over a man like that again. Her pride had taken an enormous beating. Once was enough. People should learn from their mistakes. And she'd definitely learned. "Who needs serious, anyway, Dad?"
"That's my girl. The only thing I take seriously is your mother, and that's worked just fine for me." He whirled her around. Always the best dancer on the floor, he guided her through a series of steps practiced and memorized through the years. Her mood lightened. She stopped wondering what Rafe was thinking and why he was hanging around at a wedding reception, which didn't seem like something he would do, given a choice.
Then suddenly he was gone, having disappeared during The Chicken Dance. Smart man, she thought. If she could've slipped out, she would have, too, especially since she wore a dress that required holding it off the floor so that she wouldn't trip and yet still somehow flap her arms. She was pleased and relieved that Rafe wasn't watching. Knowing he'd gone left her free to be silly instead of sophisticated like him, big-time attorney that he was.
She tried to picture him acting like a chicken in his power suit and tie and his pristine white shirt, an image she couldn't conjure up. She wondered if his hair ever looked less than perfect.
A long, long time ago, things like that had mattered little to him.
And a long, long time ago, she had mattered a lot.
Rafe leaned against a tree, hiding out with a few other guests who'd made a quick exodus upon realizing what song was starting up. He and the others grinned conspiratorially at their narrow escape but otherwise waited in silence, not wanting to call attention to themselves and be dragged back in.
From where he stood, Rafe could see the entire room in all its festive glory. The bridesmaids were especially easy to spot. If their gowns had been white, they would've resembled melting marshmallows, like Angie.
She seemed so young. Last year at his mother's funeral she'd looked somber, her clothes dark and sedate, as expected for the occasion. Now she looked like a starlet at a Hollywood premiere, all bright and sparkly. She was twenty-two years old and married.
Rafe's glance slid to Melina as she danced, stumbling a little, the best man catching her before she fell. If all had gone according to Rafe and Melina's plan, they also would've been married right after college graduation. They would have traveled a little before starting law school. Down the road they'd planned to open their own practicetogether. Later, when the time was right, they would've started a family. It was all mapped out.
Their plan had been set into motion when they were fourteen. He had lived in Red Rock all his life, but the Lawrence family had come to town when Melina was a freshman. Rafe fell in love with her the first time he'd laid eyes on her. For him, that was it. He'd never strayed. The Mendoza men were known for their passionabout life, work and their womenand Melina had loved him hard and completely in return.
Rafe had never doubted that love. At least not until she'd made choices without talking to him. His passion hadn't died, it had shiftedaway from her, from them, and into his career instead.
It seemed like a lifetime ago. Was a lifetime ago. He'd followed the plan, finding more success than he'd dreamed possible, thanks to some lucky breaks, good timing and a few smart, risky choices. Melina had made a one-eighty turn in another career direction. He wondered if she had regrets about that, if she'd reacted emotionally instead of logically then couldn'tor stubbornly, wouldn'tgo back.
The gimmicky dance ended. Rafe watched Melina fan herself, her cheeks flushed, her blond hair tumbling free around her shoulders, the swell of her breasts glistening. She was even more beautiful now as a woman than
She headed straight toward him, across the room, then through the exit to the courtyard. The air had cooled, night settling in. She stopped, closed her eyes, breathed deeply. Rafe inched farther into the shadows, away from the soft glow of thousands of tiny decorative lights that turned the space into a kind of fairyland.
He didn't know what to say to her. Words usually came easily to him, but he had no idea how to start a conversation with the woman he'd once loved, the one who'd hurt him more than he'd ever thought anyone could.