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Mikala checked the music-note-shaped wall clock, her heart pounding faster with each passing minute. Her studio, a two-room cabinlike structure in the backyard of the Purple Pansy Bed-and-Breakfast, was her second home. Growing up, she'd wrapped herself in musiclistening to it, playing it, getting lost in the emotion of itwhenever life got complicated.
Now Dawson Barrett wanted her to use music to help his son.
Last summer they'd reconnected at their high school reunion. Then before Christmas Dawson had called and confirmed he'd be moving back to Miners Bluff and putting Luke under her care.
The cabin's chiming doorbell melodically announced Dawson's arrival. He'd said he'd be here at one-thirty, and it was one-thirty on the dot. She'd dressed with more care than usual, wearing a deep purple cowl-neck sweater over gray slacks. Smoothing her hands down over her hips, she took a deep breath and pushed her long, black hair over one shoulder.
When she opened the door, the January wind swept in. Right away she noticed the deep lines around Dawson's eyes, a furrow in his brow and fatigue on his face. His sandy brown hair was windswept and his leather jacket was zipped tight against the cold.
Their dance last summer was vivid in her mindthe way he'd held her, the way her heart had fluttered madly. Also still vivid were memories that went farther backprom night, how he'd given her the ability to dream.
But then he'd left without a word. And all these years she'd wondered about him and the life he'd found, even though she'd heard rumors that he'd been widowed, was a wealthy CEO and a success in the field of construction.
"Come in!" She motioned to the office area of her studio, thinking Dawson looked as if he needed to get warm.
"I cut it a little close." He gave her one of those smiles that had always affected something deep inside of her. "You said on the phone you had an appointment to meet with the principal at the elementary school at three-thirty."
"I do, and none too soon."
She felt an urgency about Dawson now that hadn't been in his voice when they'd spoken before. "Did something happen?"
"Luke tried to run away."
"Oh, Dawson. Let's sit."
Besides her mahogany desk, there was a cranberry-colored corduroy love seat and two camel leather club chairs. They gravitated to the love seat as Dawson unzipped his jacket and shrugged out of it. She couldn't help but notice the breadth of his shoulders in his navy sweater, the way his jeans hugged his slim hips and long legs.
This was Dawson, she told herself sternly. He was a friend who needed her help.
Memories from high school came rushing backporing over algebra in the library with him, catching a ride home in his yellow Mustang, talking with their friends around the kitchen table at the B and B the night of the prom.
Shoving any thoughts but those of his ten-year-old son aside, she suggested, "Tell me what happened."
He tossed his jacket over a chair and lowered himself to the love seat beside her. After taking in his surroundings in a glance, peering into the music room with its sofa, folding chairs, instrumentsthe piano front and centerDawson brought his gaze back to hers. "Luke's class has been exploring the benefits of computers as far as exchanging information with other schools. They partnered with a school in Kentucky and Luke made an online friend. When he tried to run away, he almost hopped a bus to Kentucky where Jared lives."
She could hardly imagine the scare Dawson had experienced with Luke trying to run away. Longing to be a parent herself, the past few years she'd considered registering with an adoption agency. If she was a mom, the idea of a child being lost out in the world would be terrifying.
Dawson raked his hand through his hair. "I'd been working in my home office, and I didn't even know he was gone. Another half hour and he would have been on that bus."
"What exactly is going on?" She knew the basics. She'd received the evaluation and notes from Luke's two previous therapists, who hadn't been able to make headway with him. Dawson's wife had died in an automobile accident and Luke had been in the car with her. Yet he didn't remember the day of the accident or the accident. Most of all, he refused to cooperate with any attempt to form the trust-bond so necessary to counselor-client success. Mikala knew about losing a mom, though her circumstances had been very different from Luke's. No child got over that loss easily.
"Bottom line, he's unhappy," Dawson said. "He's fighting at school. He hardly talks to me. I think he feels pressured to remember what happened and believes I expect him to. I only want him to remember if it will help him."
Mikala thought about that. "It might help. It could hurt. We won't know until I get to know him a bit."
After a few beats of silence Dawson admitted, "For the first time since I started my business, I'm going to be hands-off for a while. Luke is my main concern. My dad's my right-hand man and he'll stay in Phoenix overseeing the company. I have other good people there, too. I won't be working like I used to."
"Long days to make the business thrive?" Through Miners Bluff's gossip mills, she'd heard Dawson's contracting company had found success when other companies couldn't. But that was no consolation now. She could see regrets in his green eyes and couldn't figure out exactly what they were from. She needed to know about his regrets if she was going to help his son. Some of them might have touched Luke.
"What's bothering you most?" she prompted, hoping Dawson would be open with her so she could help.
"Most?" he asked with a wry grin that wasn't really a grin. "I've worked sixteen-hour days for as long as I can remember. Not as many since Kelly died, but enough. Maybe that made Luke's problem worse."
Mikala's radar went on alert at his regretful tone. When she'd known Dawson in high school, she'd not only wanted to be around him because he was sexy. She'd loved spending time with him because he was kind and respectful and never took advantage of any of his friends. Were his regrets tied into his success or his marriage? Years of practice had her wait in silence for Dawson to continue.
"For years I thought Kelly and I were happy," he finally said. "As my business grew, we moved to a bigger house, and when Luke was ready, enrolled him in a private school. I wasn't home much, but when I was, I thought everything was okay. But after Luke started school, Kelly began to change."
Dawson broke eye contact. "Maybe none of this matters. My main concerns are Luke's fighting, his not getting along in school, his grades plummeting. But most of all his general attitude. I just need to know how to talk to him how to get through to him."
Before Mikala could stop herself, she covered Dawson's hand with hers. To her surprise, the contact was electric. She glimpsed a startled look in his eyes, too, and she pulled her hand back quickly.
"It all matters, Dawson. Children are sponges. They soak in their surroundings, everything they hear, everything they see and even the feelings swirling around them. So whether you think something's important or not, it doesn't hurt to tell me."
Quickly Dawson swung his gaze back to her, studying her face. Then he rubbed his forehead. "Okay." After a few pensive moments, he blew out a breath. "Kelly and I married because she was pregnant. And " He hesitated. "She didn't go back to work after Luke was born. I was making serious money then, so her working didn't matter. We decided not to hire a nanny. But once Luke started school, she seemed to want her freedom more to work out, attend clubs, join charity groups. I think she came to resent the fact she was the one who had most of the responsibility for Luke."
When Dawson stopped, she had the feeling there was something he wasn't telling her. But she didn't halt the flow of his thoughts. "I made the point of coming home early now and then to be there when Luke got off the bus. He seemed happy and I was always grateful for that."
Dawson went silent again, then continued, "That December Luke had the day off for teacher in-service. A babysitter was supposed to watch him so Kelly could go holiday shopping in Flagstaff and stay overnight. At the last minute the babysitter canceled, and Kelly couldn't reach me. I was on a job site and my phone went to voice mail. So she left me a message that she was taking Luke with her."
Mikala watched as Dawson's face became set, his shoulders more square. He seemed to want to distance himself from the memory. His voice dropped to a faraway monotone. "There was ice on the road. She went off the side of a deep shoulder, the car rolled and hit a tree. She wasn't wearing a seatbelt she was killed on impact."
Dawson cleared his throat, pain all too evident in his expression.
Mikala said gently, "Take your time."
One of his hands balled into a fist. "I lost Kelly, but I was so grateful Luke survived. He was in the hospital for a week, recovering from a concussion and internal injuries. It was touch-and-go for two days and when he woke up, he didn't remember anything that had happened the day of the accident or that night. I took him to therapists and he wouldn't talk to them. He withdrew even more. I can't get through to him. My dad can't, either. When I found him at the bus station, he cried and screamed that he didn't want to go home."
Mikala could only guess what that had done to Dawsonhow it had hurt him more deeply than he could say.
"I don't know what to do for him," he said in a low voice, as if the admission cost him. "When I found out you were a music therapist who came highly recommended, I came to the reunion believing the idea of you treating Luke seemed to be the best one because Luke loves music. He's taken piano lessons since he was seven. And I think Miners Bluff will be good for us both."
When she and Dawson had danced together at the reunion, an old attraction to him had tugged at her.
But it had no place here. Dawson's life was in turmoil and his son was his priority and would be hers, too.
Still, as their gazes held, the room seemed to shake a little. Yet Dawson was counting on her as a friend who could help his son. She would assist any child in this situation.
"I'll do my best to help put Luke on a healthy emotional path. I can't tell you I'm going to solve anything, Dawson, but I can at least try to get the two of you talking again."
A light rap on the door startled them, and Mikala knew it must be her Aunt Anna. She didn't have her in-session sign up. But if she didn't answer the knock, her aunt would go about her business, knowing Mikala couldn't be interrupted.
Glancing at Dawson's face, she could see he hadn't wanted to revisit the past, but he'd done it for his son's sake. She assured him, "I don't have to answer that."
"Go ahead," he said with a small smile and she could see he was glad for the break.
When she stood, her arm brushed Dawson's shoulder. Again there was a quick meeting of their gazes, but neither said anything. She felt totally unsettled and was glad to open the door again and feel the cold breeze.
Her Aunt Anna smiled at her. "I saw the car, but your sign wasn't turned around so I thought"
"It's okay. Come on in. Dawson Barrett's here." She didn't say more. If Dawson wanted her aunt to know anything else, he would tell her.
Her aunt's wavy, steel-gray hair attractively framed her face. She was wearing a jogging suit with a down jacket and her favorite pair of sneakers. Mikala's heart contracted with love for this woman who had raised her. She owed her aunt more than she could ever repay and she loved her dearly.
Dawson stood and came forward, hand extended.
"Hello, Ms. Conti. It's good to see you again."
Aunt Anna never stood on ceremony. She wrapped her arms around Dawson for a hug. "Don't give me that 'Ms. Conti' baloney. You called me Aunt Anna when you were a teenager. You can still call me that." She stood back to take a better look at him. "Mikala told me you were at the reunion. She's never forgotten you, you know. You were her white knight at the prom."
Mikala wanted to crawl under the love seat, but Dawson chuckled. "I don't know how much of a white knight I was."