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By Susan Crosby
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn hour before Sam Remington graduated from high school fifteen years ago, he stuffed the sum of his belongings into three grocery sacks and flung them onto the back seat of his 1977 oil-eating Pacer. Five minutes after the ceremony ended he made his final trip through town, his tailpipe spewing a noxious farewell of good riddance.
Today he returned in a black Mercedes so new it didn't have plates. He'd paid cash for it. But Sam wasn't here to advertise his success to the people he left behind. Normally he wasn't one to dwell on the past. Today was different. He'd chosen the day of his return to his hometown specifically. Certainly he could have come another time. Maybe should have. But news of his fifteen-year high-school reunion set the date for him. Some unfinished business of his had gone ignored for too long. He had two people to see. He'd just come from seeing the first one. Now he would deal with the other.
Sam negotiated the winding roads of Miner's Camp, a community of 3,100 people nestled in the Northern California foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. He kept his gaze straight ahead as he passed the turnoff leading to the house where he was raised - the house from which he'd escaped - although the unusually cool August evening took him back to the nights of his childhood, when he'd roamed the countryside, looking for something he never found.
He ignored the bruising memories and headed to the Elks Lodge. The parking lot was full, the fence posts dotted with red and gold balloons, the colors of Prospector High School, which served a community of several small towns.
Sam pulled off the road and slowed to a stop, gravel crunching under his tires. The party was well under way. Laughter spilled from the open doorways and windows as Madonna sang the 1980s classic "Like a Virgin."
Nostalgia didn't overtake him - he'd never understood the appeal of reunions - still, there was that one person he'd come to see. Only one out of a graduating class of eighty-seven. He was sure she would be in the crowd. And he had something to say to her. To Dana Cleary. Dana Sterling, he amended. Her married name. Then he could close the book on his past forever.
He had a choice in the timing. He could wait until the party ended and catch her at her parents' house, where she would undoubtedly spend the night. Or he could get it over with now and be in San Francisco for his latest assignment before midnight, his past shoveled six feet under....
After a moment Sam turned off the ignition and got out of the car. He'd been in some tight circumstances, life-and-death situations. He'd welcomed the challenges, gloried in the risks, exulted in his escapes. He could channel the adrenaline flow in his body deliberately, but the anticipation of seeing Dana sent a rush through him that he couldn't control. He wondered at the rare sensation, even savored it.
He approached the building but stopped short of entering, waiting for his internal anticipation to settle. Lingering near an open door he noted more balloons, and a disco ball that dappled the room with speeding stars. Memories washed over him of his junior year and another dance. Watching through a window. Music and laughter, dinner and dancing. A longing so painful ...
He'd taken her to the senior prom the next year, but their relationship hadn't changed for having gone to the dance.
None of that mattered fifteen years later as Sam slipped into the Elks Lodge just as the deejay took a break from his chatter and the 1980s music. Candi James bounded onto the stage and scooped up the microphone, the same pep-squad perkiness she'd had in high school still evident as she read from a long list, leading the cheers for such notable accomplishments as who had the most children, who'd come the farthest and on and on and on.
With everyone's attention directed at Candi, Sam moved around the perimeter of the room. He stopped when he spotted Dana. He didn't fight the initial jolt of seeing her again, taking a moment to watch her instead. A little taller than average, she was more angular than curvy, her hair not strictly blond or brunette but a honeyed mix of both, and shoulder length now, not the rich waterfall to her waist that had made him want to wrap his hands in it and pull her close.
He couldn't see her eyes from where he stood, but he knew they were obsidian, pitch-dark eyes that had issued him challenges since elementary school.
She wore an unrevealing, blue couture dress and low heels, understated, practical and elegant, befitting her position, but a far cry from the hot-pink number she'd worn at the junior prom.
"And finally," Candi said, folding her list and setting it aside, "our three mega success stories. Harley Bonner, who owns the eighth largest ranching operation in the state of California."
Cheers went up. Sam's blood froze. If he were a vengeful man -
"Lilith Perry Paul, whose radio talk show is now in syndication all over the country." More hoots and hollers. "And finally, Dana Cleary Sterling. Dana - you've made us so proud. Here's to six more years!"
So, Sam thought, the speculation was over. She'd made a decision.
"We'll have music and dancing for two more hours," Candi shouted over the din. "Don't forget the picnic in the park tomorrow at noon. If you haven't had your picture taken for the memory book, you've only got a half hour left. Remember to sign the update forms, too. Have fun!"
Sam watched as well-wishers surrounded Dana, who seemed surprisingly uneasy at the attention. A barrier went up, an invisible wall that kept people at a distance. She held her wineglass in both hands, a silent signal. No handshakes, please. No hugs. Only her friend Lilith got close enough to bump arms, and that lasted but a second.
The change in her surprised him. When had she become so reserved? When had she lost the outward joy of life? She'd touched people. Him.
The music started again, Sting singing "Every Breath You Take," blasting Sam with fresh images of the junior prom where he'd painfully watched Dana with her date, her smile bright. She hadn't been a cheerleader, but almost everything else, including student-body president. She'd seemed golden to him, the way she combined academics, sports and extracurricular activities.
Sam shouldered his way past the memories and through the crowd. Conversation quieted enough for him to hear the reaction being voiced at his appearance.
"I think that's Sam Remington -"
"Really? But he's so -"
"Gorgeous. Can't be Sam. He never dressed that good."
"He sure has filled out."
Sam never broke stride. When he did, the murmuring stopped. Surprised pleasure stole across Dana's face, startling him. The anger he'd harbored for years broke loose from its moorings, leaving only what had been good between them.
He put his hand out to her, invading her invisible barrier. Then he waited. The next move was hers.
Excerpted from Private Indiscretions by Susan Crosby Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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