One Summer Eveningby Mary Lynn Baxter
Cassie and her young son narrowly escape the nightmare of an abusive marriage. She hides her scars well, and guards the terrible secret that could change their lives. But when her ex-husband is paroled, and their son suddenly disappears, Cassie must reveal her secret for the sake of her child.
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Cassie Wortham removed her attention from the low-flying seagull and turned to face her latest boyfriend. "What?" she asked.
"I think we ought to get married."
Cassie's mouth gaped ha shock. "Now I know you've lost it. Your mind, that is."
Lester Sullivan frowned, deeply grooving an otherwise smooth forehead. "I'm a long way from losing my mind. In fact," he stressed in a conceited tone, "I'm probably the smartest person you know."
This time Cassie rolled her expressive green eyes. "Well then, you must have a fever."
"Ah, come on, Cassie, give me a break."
Cassie lifted her head and focused once again on the same bird, which continued to breeze through the sky as if it hadn't a care in the world. She should be experiencing that same freedom. After all, today was her eighteenth birthday.
She and her parents had come here a few days ago, to their summer home on the Louisiana coast, not far from Jasmine, where they lived. Yesterday her friends had driven down, and they had partied all day, swimming, eating and laughing.
This evening her parents and their friends planned to celebrate in grand style.
Wealth could do mighty things, and Cassie considered this luxurious beach compound to be mighty. Her mother's parents had owned it, and with their passing, her mother and aunt had inherited it. Cassie couldn't imagine her life without this wonderful place made up ofhot sand and secret coves.
She had already celebrated her coming of age in her style, alone. Before her friends' arrival, she had slept for hours on end, and played in the ocean and the pool until her heart was content.
The curt frustration in Lester's tone broke into her thoughts and angered her. She almost wished she hadn't invited him. He had arrived yesterday and had been in one of his moods since. Apparently popping the question to her had been preying on his mind.
Heaven forbid. That was the last thing she wanted, at least at this time in her life. And even if she did have the hots to get married right out of high school, like so many of her friends, Lester wouldn't have been her choice.
"So, what's your answer?"
Cassie looked back at him, swallowing the giggle that was dying to come out. But then that giggle died on its own. When she watched Lester's scowl deepen, she actually believed he was serious. No, she corrected herself mentally. He couldn't be; he had to be toying with her. Though for what reason, she had no idea.
Something didn't ring true, or maybe she didn't know Lester as well as she thought. The Lester she knew was too focused, too driven, too unbending in his desire to reach his goal, which was a career in the military, to let anything interfere. And marriage would certainly do that.
Even so, she would go along and let him down gently. "You're sweet to ask, and I'm flattered, believe me. But the answer is thanks, but no thanks."
"You think I'm full of shit, don't you?"
Cassie thrust a hand through her cropped brown hair, then sighed. She wished her best friend, Jo Nell, were there. She would know how to handle this unexpected crisis. But Jo Nell had a bad case of strep throat and couldn't come. Her friend's timing sucked, Cassie thought, her gaze returning to Lester.
"No, I don't think that," Cassie said carefully, "but something obviously snapped inside your brain. You don't want to get married any more than I do."
"You don't know what I want."
Lester's tone had turned sullen now, which meant he was gearing up for an all-out argument. But she wasn't about to let him get away with that. Today was her day, and he wasn't going to ruin it.
"Look, Lester, why on earth would you want to get married now, when you're just a sophomore in college? I thought getting your degree and joining the service was what you lived for?" Cassie paused and squinted at him.
"My plans haven't changed, but that doesn't mean we can't get married."
"You think marriage wouldn't throw a kink in those plans?"
He didn't so much as blink. "Nope."
"Dammit, Lester, what's really up with you?" Cassie's tone was incredulous.
"I think I love you."
"Think?" This time Cassie's laughter did erupt.
He flushed. "Okay, so I do love you."
"And what's that love based on?" Without waiting for him to answer, she went on. "Our having had sex twice?"
"That's part of it."
Cassie shook her head. "This conversation is getting too weird. And we both know sex is not love. Besides, it's been almost three months since we've even done anything."
Hopefully that would remain the case, she thought silently. She hadn't enjoyed sex with him. Maybe it was because he had taken her virginity and hadn't known how. Right now, she didn't care to analyze the reason behind her feelings or his. It didn't matter.
"That's not my fault." Lester's tone was as hard as his blue eyes.
"What's not your fault?" Cassie asked absently.
"Us not having had sex more often."
Cassie did not respond, but she didn't back down from the look in his cold eyes, either. She liked Lester and would concede that he was good-looking, though a bit on the short side. Besides, he more than made up for his lack of height by lifting weights. Actually, he had too many muscles for her taste, but then, that was his business.
He was different, too. That was part of his attraction. He seemed more mature than the other guys she'd gone out with, more mysterious, too, like he was hiding something. What that something was, she had no idea.
Still, Lester was not the man she wanted to spend her life with, so somehow she had to pour cold water on his unexpected desire to marry her, especially since, come the fall, she would be attending the same university.
If she couldn't stop this now, a nightmare was in the making.
"How do you feel about me?" he asked into the growing silence.
"You're a good friend, and we have a good time together." She paused, not knowing quite how to finish.
He cursed. "I don't like the thought of anyone else touching you."
"Holy cow, Lester. Is jealousy what this is all about?"
"That's part of it. I want you to myself. Marrying you is the only way I can be sure of that."
"God, you make me sound like some kind of trophy you want to flaunt in front of your friends."
Lester's flush deepened, which made her think she'd nailed him.
"Well it would be great to have everyone know that we were a couple."
"We are not a couple, Lester. Granted, we've gone out together a lot. But make no mistake, when I go to school, I want no strings attached. I want to be free to date anyone I choose."
"I don't like that," he muttered darkly. "If your daddy knew we'd had sex, he'd expect us to get married."
"You're saying that just because he's a preacher."
"So what? I'm right."
Cassie laughed again, but with no mirth. "You may be right, but Daddy's not going to know about us, nor is he going to pick the man I marry."
"I'm not taking no for an answer."
"You're nuts." Cassie flounced over to the railing, putting as much distance between them as possible. "Say we were madly in love and were to get married, what would we live on?"
"My parents would help, and so would yours, I'm sure."
"Well, I'm not."
"You have some money, don't you?"
Cassie's full lower lip stretched into a thin line. "I have a small trust from my grandmother, but I can't touch that yet."
"We'd manage. I'd get a job."
Cassie held up her hand. "Look, I don't want to talk about this anymore. Our getting married is not going to happen. If that means you don't want to see me anymore, then so be it." She peered at her watch. "It's getting late, almost time to get ready for dinner."
As if on cue, her mother, Wilma, opened the French doors onto the deck and smiled her cool smile. "Hope you two don't mind some company."
Cassie examined her mother, who she thought was beautiful and always would be, even if she lived to be a hundred. At thirty-six, the same age as her husband, James, Wilma Hillcrest Wortham was tall and rather robust. Because her skin was like porcelain and her prematurely gray hair immaculately styled, one overlooked the fact that she could easily become overweight. With Wilma, that would never happen, Cassie knew. Her mother had too much willpower and self-discipline to be anything other than the best she could be, which was perfect.
At the moment, Cassie wanted to hug her, considering her timely interruption. Hugs, however, weren't her mother's thing. More often than not, Wilma held herself aloof. Cassie sometimes wondered if she really loved her or merely tolerated her.
"Where's Daddy?" Cassie asked in a bright tone.
"He's coming. And Alicia's already here," Wilma added.
"Good," Cassie said with less enthusiasm. Alicia was her mother's only sibling. Although she was only two years younger than Wilma, she had never married. Cassie suspected it was because she had chosen a career over a home and children.
Cassie couldn't figure out what made her dislike her only aunt, but she did; the woman flat got on her nerves. Too sweet. That was one reason, too cloyingly sweet. No one could be that nice all the time.
"Happy birthday, Cassie," Alicia said, breezing through the door, interrupting Cassie's thoughts. "And Lester, how are you?"
"Fine," Lester murmured, looking away.
What a rude bore, Cassie thought, tensing her mouth, then jerking her gaze off Lester and back onto her aunt, who favored Wilma in looks, though Alicia was smaller boned and had dark hair instead of gray. Cassie had always considered her mother standoffish, but Alicia, despite her surface sweetness, was even more so. Cassie thought she was a cold fish.
With Alicia watching her, Cassie forced a smile, then turned away so that her face wouldn't show. She feared Alicia could read her thoughts. Alicia was sharp that way, so sharp that she had put the family hotels on the map.
The chain was made up of three upscale, independent hotels whose concept was small and intimate, but that offered high-class service, minus the formality.
Her mother ran the one in Jasmine, enabling her to perform her duties as a minister's wife whose husband pastored the town's largest church. Alicia spent her time between the other twoone in Baton Rouge and one in Shreveport.
"More mint julep, anyone?"
Cassie's features brightened even more as her eyes landed on her daddy, who stood in the door. Smiling, she held up her empty glass. "Your timing's perfect. I'm running on empty."
James Wortham chuckled. "You, my favorite daughter, on empty?"
"Your only daughter, Daddy dear."
His chuckle deepened, and he bowed. "I stand corrected. Still, I've never seen you empty. You're always filled with high octane."
"Funny," Cassie responded drolly.
"I thought so myself," James said, walking over and filling her glass, then turning to Lester, holding the crystal pitcher out to him. "How 'bout you?"
"No, thank you," Lester responded in a clipped tone.
Cassie wanted to yank a handful of his short hair out of his head, only she wasn't sure he had enough for that. He wore it in the severest of military cuts, another aspect that didn't suit her taste.
But then, nothing about Lester suited her taste today. He had pissed her off, and she was not in a forgiving mood, especially when it came to being rude to her daddy.
"By the way, Daddy," she said, ending the sudden silence. "Thanks for praying for the sun to shine today."
A sigh escaped Wilma's lips. "Mind your mouth, child. That sounded almost flippant."
"Not so, my dear." James faced his wife with a smile. "Actually, I did pray for perfect weather. After all, it's our girl's special day. And she herself is perfect."
"Have it your way, James," Wilma said in a testy tone, which said loud and clear that, in her opinion, their daughter was not perfect.
Watching her parents and hearing that exchange made Cassie wonder again how they had ever gotten together. James was certainly not handsome. Though not short, he was shorter than her mother. His slightly stooped shoulders might have something to do with that. Added to that defect was a nose much too large for already mediocre features.
But his green eyes were sensational. Those, along with his well-modulated voice, could mesmerize anyone, especially his congregation. He was both a minister on the rise and a father she adored.
"By the way, where's Austin?" Alicia asked, breaking another silence.
James made a face. "Don't know. That scoundrel should've been here long before now."
"He's probably showing a house," Alicia said, flouncing across the deck, where she plopped down on one side of a flowered love seat.
Something was clearly not to her liking, Cassie thought snidely. Austin was too good in more ways than one for her aunt. Why couldn't he see that?
"He'll be here in time for dinner, I'm sure," Wilma said. "He's never let us down before."
"Who's never let you down?"
All eyes turned in the direction of the landscaped lawn and watched as Austin McGuire strolled toward them, a grin spread across his face.
"You, my friend," James was saying, meeting Austin halfway and slapping him on the shoulder.
Cassie couldn't understand what had drawn those two men together. But she'd heard the story many times about how James, a senior at the university, had met Austin, a freshman, and had taken him under his wing.
Something had obviously clicked, and they had been best friends ever since. In fact, Austin was almost as much a part of her life as her parents, though she never considered him a parent. A brother, perhaps, but never another father.
At thirty-two, fourteen years her senior, his six-foot, two, hundred-and-eighty-pound body was all muscle and brawn. But it was his dark hair that brushed his collar and his dark lashed eyes that were the kickers. Both gave him a sultry look that was a total turn on.
If he was aware of his sex appeal, he gave no indication. He seemed to take everything in stride, a trait she admired in him and something she couldn't do. She didn't have a laid-back bone in her body.
"Hiya, brat," Austin said, coming straight to her and kissing her on the cheek.
Cassie pushed him away and placed both hands on her hips. "From now on, that word is off-limits."
That brought a round of laughter.
"I'm eighteen today, in case you've forgotten."
"Who could forget?" His eyes glinted devilishly. "You've been rubbing our noses in it for weeks now."
Again, everyone laughed, and for a while, they chatted about everything and nothing. Even Lester seemed to warm up a bit. Warm, however, was not the word for Alicia; hot was more appropriate. When she wasn't by Austin's side, she was looking at him like a lovesick cow.
Cassie was fighting the urge to puke when her mother took charge.
"I suggest we all go to our rooms and rest," Wilma said in a tone that brooked no argument. "It's not long till we meet again for cocktails, then dinner." She paused and smiled her cool aristocratic smile. "A few other friends will be joining us."
Within seconds, it seemed the deck had cleared and Cassie was alone. But that was always the way it had been. When her mother spoke, people obeyed, except her. She had as strong a will as Wilma; that was why they often clashed.
Cassie peered at her watch and saw that she had ample time to take a stroll on the beach, to feel the wind tumble through her short hair one more time. Tomorrow she would return home and begin to get ready for school, which was both exciting and sad.
She bounded down the steps, only to stop in her tracks when she heard his voice. "Where you headed, brat?"
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