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For a moment, Trent Marlowe thought he was dreaming.
When he first looked up from the latest article on selective mutism and saw her standing in the doorway of his office, he was certain he had fallen asleep.
But even though the article was dry, the last time he'd actually nodded out while sitting at a desk had been during an eight-o'clock Pol-Sci 1 class, where the lackluster professor's monotone voice had been a first-class cure for insomnia.
He'd been a college freshman then.
And so had she.
Blinking, Trent glanced down at his appointment calendar and then up again at the sad-eyed, slender blonde. It was nine in the morning and he had a full day ahead of him, beginning with a new patient, a Cody Greer. Cody was only six years old and was brought in by his mother, Laurel Greer.
When he'd seen it on his schedule, the first name had given him a fleeting moment's pause. It made him remember another Laurel. Someone who had been a very important part of his life. But that was years ago and if he thought of her every now and then, it was never in this setting. Never walking into his office. After all, like his stepmother, he had become a child psychologist, and Laurel Valentine was hardly a child. Even when she'd been one.
Laurel wasn't that unusual a name. It had never occurred to him that Laurel Greer and Laurel Valentine were one and the same person.
And yet, here she was, in his doorway. Just as achingly beautiful as ever.
Maybe more so.
Trent didn't remember rising from behind his desk. Didn't remember opening his mouth to speak. His voice sounded almost surreal to his ear as he said her name. "Laurel?"
And then she smiled.
It was a tense, hesitant smile,but still Laurel's smile, splashing sunshine through the entire room. That was when he knew he wasn't dreaming, wasn't revisiting a space in his mind reserved for things that should have been but weren't.
Laurel remained where she was, as if she had doubts about taking this last step into his world. "Hello, Trent. How are you?"
Her voice was soft, melodic. His was stilted. "Startled."
He'd said the first word that came to him. But this wasn't a word association test. Trent laughed dryly to shake off the bewildered mood that closed around him.
How long had it been? Over seven years now. And, at first glance, she hadn't changed. She still had a shyness that made him think of a fairy-tale princess in need of rescue.
Confusion wove its way through the moment. Had she come here looking for him? Or was it his professional services she needed? But he didn't treat adults.
"I'm a child psychologist," he heard himself telling her.
Her smile widened, so did the radiance. But that could have just been a trick of the sunshine streaming in the window behind him.
"I know," she said. "I have a child."
Something twisted inside of him, but he forced himself to ignore it. Trent tilted his head slightly as he looked behind her, but there didn't seem to be anyone with Laurel, at least not close by. Trent raised an inquiring eyebrow as his eyes shifted back to her.
"He's at home," she explained. "With my mother."
He looked at his watch even though three minutes ago he'd known what time it was. Right now he wasn't sure of anything. The ground had opened up beneath him and he'd fallen down the rabbit hole.
"Shouldn't he be in school?"
Laurel sighed before answering, as if some burden had made her incredibly tired. "These days, he doesn't want to go anymore." Laurel pressed her lips together and looked at him hopefully. "Can I come in?"
Idiot, Trent berated himself. But the sight of his first, no, his only love after all these years had completely thrown him for a loop, incinerating his usual poise.
He forced himself to focus. To relax. With effort, he locked away the myriad questions popping up in his brain.
"Of course. Sorry. Seeing you just now really caught me off guard." He gestured toward the two chairs before his sleek, modern desk. "Please, take a seat."
She moved across the room like the model she had once confided she wanted to become, gliding gracefully into one of the chairs he'd indicated. Placing her purse on the floor beside her, she crossed her ankles and folded her hands in her lap.
She seemed uncomfortable and she'd never been ill at ease around him before. But there were seven years between then and now. A lot could have happened in that time.
"I wanted to talk to you about Cody before you started working with him, but I didn't want him to hear me."
Did she think the boy wouldn't understand? Or that Cody would understand all too well? "Why?"
"Cody's practically a statue as it is. I don't want him feeling that I'm talking about him as if he wasn't there. I mean " She stopped abruptly, working her lower lip the way she used to when a topic was too hard for her to put into words. Some things didn't change. He wasn't sure if he found comfort in that or not.
When she looked up at him, he realized that she'd bitten down on her lower lip to keep from crying. Tears shimmered in her eyes. "I don't know where to start."
"Anyplace that feels comfortable," he told her gently, a well of old feelings springing forth. He smiled at her encouragingly. "Most people start at the beginning."
No place feels comfortable, Laurel thought. She was hanging on by a thread and that thread was getting thinner and thinner. Any second now, she was going to fall into the abyss.
Clenching her hands together, she forced herself to rally. She couldn't fall apart, she couldn't. She had to save Cody. Or, more accurately, she had to get Trent to save Cody, because if anyone could help her son, it was Trent.
"He doesn't talk. Not a word since " Despite her resolve, her voice cracked and then suddenly deserted her. A wave of déjà vu washed over her.
Trent was sorely tempted to come around to her side of the desk and take her hands into his, tempted to coax her up to her feet and just hold her until her strength returned and she could talk again.
That was what he would have done once.
But they weren't high school sweethearts anymore, weren't freshmen at college, planning on a future together. They'd separated and gone their own ways, pulled apart by baggage that she couldn't seem to unpack before him.
Well, she'd obviously unpacked that baggage for someone else, he thought, an unexpected shaft of bitterness pricking him. He banked it down. Laurel had gone on to marry and have a family. She wasn't the Laurel he still sometimes dreamed about.
The Laurel he'd once asked to marry him—just before she had disappeared.
The best he could do was round the desk and sit down in the chair beside her, the very act cutting into the professional air that was supposed to exist between them. But that was all right. Now that he knew whose son Cody was, he wouldn't take the case. He'd be too close to it.
But he could definitely help her pull her thoughts together so that he could refer the boy to either his mother or one of the two other psychologists who shared the suite with him.
"Since?" he coaxed.
Laurel squared her shoulders, as if bracing herself against the next words she was about to say. "Since his father died."
"I'm sorry for your loss," he murmured. Trent glanced down at her hand and saw that she still wore a wedding ring. "How recently?"
"Almost a year," she whispered.
A year. Most women would have moved on by now, encouraged by their family or friends to meet life head-on. But then, Laurel had never been like most women.
Taking a breath, she appeared to regain some control over herself. The old Laurel would have gone to pieces first, then, after a while, struggled to rebuild herself. There had been changes after all, he thought, with distant admiration.
"It was a car accident." She was squeezing her hands together so tightly her knuckles were white. "Cody was with him."
Because he'd lost his mother at a very young age, the empathy Trent felt was immediate, opening a distant door inside him. She had died in a plane crash and it had haunted him and made attachments very difficult for him. He could only imagine how much worse it would have been to have watched life ebb away from her. "He saw his father die?"
"Yes." Laurel's voice was hoarse. "Cody was in the car for almost an hour while the fire department tried to get him out." Cody and Matt had been on their way to a campsite. She'd wanted to come, but Matt had told her to stay home, that he had wanted to spend some time alone with Cody, and she had reluctantly agreed. She still couldn't shake the feeling that if she'd been there, things might have gone differently. "When I got to the hospital, I expected Cody to be hysterical, crying, something. But there was nothing. No emotion at all. It was as if his body had remained and the rest of him had just gone away.
"At first, I thought it was shock, that it would wear off, but " She looked up at Trent helplessly. "It hasn't. He hasn't said a single word."
"Have you had him checked out physically?"
"What kind of a mother do you think I am?" A tiny spark of anger flared in her eyes and he was glad of it. Anger helped people survive situations that would have otherwise crushed them. "Of course I had him checked out.
I took him to a pediatrician, then another pediatrician, then a neurologist and finally to our family doctor." The kindly man had been her last hope. "There's nothing physically wrong with Cody." She took another deep breath. "Dr. Miller suggested I try a child psychologist. He gave me your name."
He knew a Dr. Miller. The man was on the staff of Blair Memorial, but he couldn't recall that he had ever particularly impressed the physician. "My name?" he questioned.
"Well, your office's name," Laurel amended with a small shrug, as if it were all one and the same. "But when I saw your name on the referral card he gave me "
His name had jumped up at her and her heart had all but stopped. For the first time in months, she'd started to think that there was hope for Cody. She raised her eyes to Trent's. "I remembered how kind you could be, how patient."
He was going to turn her down, she could tell by the tone of his voice. And he had every right to, because of what she'd done. But desperation made her cut him off. She began talking more quickly. For Cody's sake.
"Trent, he was the brightest boy. Outgoing, friendly, smart." Her heart almost broke when she thought of the way things used to be. "He could read when he was four. I know this was a huge trauma for him. He loved his dad and this just devastated him. But you can find a way to get through to him, I know you can."
Everything told Trent to walk away. Everything but the look in her eyes. Still, it wouldn't be right. He tried to make her understand why he was turning her down—or trying to. "I really don't think that I'm the right person to treat him."
She wasn't going to take no for an answer, she wasn't. Trent was her son's last hope. "Because of our past history?"
There it was in a nutshell. Trent made no attempt to deny it. "Yes."
She refused to accept that. She had to make him understand. "But that's exactly what makes you so right. Because I know you have this way about you, of drawing people out." Laurel didn't want to get into specifics, it was too painful for her. But she would if she had to. This wasn't about her, it was about her son and she would do anything to save him, to pluck him out of the living hell he was in. "I don't trust people very readily."
"I remember." It had been hard, getting her to finally open up, to tell him what haunted her. But ultimately, even knowing hadn't helped. If anything, it had made her leave. Because he knew. It was the only excuse he could think of for her abrupt departure from his life.
"But I trust you," she continued. The vulnerability in her voice wove its way under his skin, into his very soul. "Trent, I've tried everything to make him speak. I got him a special tutor to help him keep up. But his grades just kept dropping off. Kids make fun of him and I can literally see him going further and further into his shell." She slid onto the edge of the chair, her body rigid with fear. "I don't know what to do anymore. I can't lose him, Trent. He's such a special little boy and he's so helpless."
Laurel paused, as if debating whether or not to tell him more. Taking a breath, she made her decision and plunged in. "I caught him playing with matches the other day. He knows better than that." Her eyes held his, pleading for his help. "I'm afraid that he's really going to hurt himself if something doesn't happen to pull him out of this."
Trent watched her for a long moment. He should stick to his principles and refer her to Lucas Andrews, whose technique was similar to his, or even to his stepmother. Kate Llewellyn Marlowe could make anyone open up. She had worked wonders on all four of them when she'd come into their lives as their nanny more than twenty years ago. And along the way, she'd even changed his father, making him more human.
Everything he'd ever learned about patience and love had come from Kate, as had mending broken souls. It was for the best if Laurel took her son to either of them. But it was hard saying no to the expression in Laurel's eyes. There was a part of him that still loved her after all this time, even though he'd made his peace and accepted the way things had turned out a long time ago.
Or so he had told himself.
He supposed it wouldn't do any harm to ask questions, find out a few things and get them out of the way.
"What does Cody do with his time?" Trent asked. "Does he play with other children?"
Laurel shook her head. "Not anymore. Not even his best friend, Scott, who stuck by him when the other kids started to tease him. He used to be so sociable, so outgoing. To see him now
" She pressed her lips together again, shaking her head.