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Standing at the back of the A-E line at the registration desk, her dark sunglasses shielding her eyes and her stiff posture discouraging communication, Lauren Desantos came to a sudden realization. The Marquis de Sade had invented the high school reunion. Him, or that torquemada guy from the Spanish inquisition.
It made perfect sense; there could be no other explanation. Only someone who enjoyed seeing others squirm in discomfort, who got off on inflicting pain, who thrived on reducing mature adults back to their overemotional, whiny, bitchy, competitive, miserable adolescent selves, would have thought this reunion thing was a good idea.
As if that wasn't bad enough, along with the fear and discomfort came other remnants of high school daysnervous twitches, weak, fake-sounding laughter. Heck, even long-left-behind acne seemed to show up. It was probably brought about by the stress of wondering who you were going to run into first, who looked better than you did, who would notice the extra ten pounds you'd put on since graduation, who would remember you had once slipped on mashed potatoes in the cafeteria. And, more important, who would ask if you ever fulfilled your dream of becoming a magazine editor and what they would say if they found out you worked in marketing for a grocery store chain.
Yeah. Pure hell. Straight evil. Really, only a masochistic idiot would ever agree to attend one of these reunions.
So what on earth am I doing here?
There were a thousand ways she could be spending this lovely summer weekend, including staying with her family during this all-too-rare visit back to the Chicago area. Instead, she'd driven outside the city to this sprawling, dubiously themed hot spot called Celebrations, which catered to the let's-relive-past-glory-days-and-pretend-we-aren't-bitterly-crushed-by-the-reality-of-our-adult-lives crowd. In other words, a reunion resort. Blech. Next thing you knew, they'd be opening a spot for post-hemorrhoidal-surgery patients to get together and shake their recently-operated-upon backsides.
So get out. Go before anybody sees you.
She considered it, but knew she wouldn't. Lauren couldn't disappoint her oldest friend, Maggie, who had been there for her during some rough times. Now, when her friend was so unhappy and lonely after her recent divorce, how could Lauren let her down? She wasn't a coward, or a quitter, so she just had to suck it up and get through this weekend no matter what.
She inched closer to the front of the line, staying quiet, hoping not to be seen by any of the former classmates ahead of her. Some de Sade descendant had decided nobody could get their room key until they checked in at the reunion registration desk. She had fully planned to go to her room and get cleaned up before risking running into anyone, but instead, she got stuck standing here with her suitcase and her messy hair, trying to remain invisible.
The odds weren't good that she'd stay unnoticed. Every minute somebody recognized somebody else and the squealing commenced. Watching air kisses between girls who had ripped each other to gossipy shreds ten years ago, and man hugs between former jocks whose beer guts now got in the way of a good old-fashioned chest bump, she could only hope the first person to ID her wasn't kissy or bumpy.
Oh, God, she would take kissy, bumpy, fake, shrill, sexist, knowing, biting, sarcastic or slobbering over the voice she'd just heard from directly behind her.
How can this be happening?
"You're not supposed to be here," she said, still staring straight ahead, not turning her head so much as an inch. Surprisingly, she didn't stammer, sounding in control. She couldn't imagine how that was possible, considering her throat felt filled with a huge, anger-flavored lump.
"Was that why you decided to come?"
"Yes." The one condition she'd imposed on Maggie was that Seth not be attending. As of yesterday, his name hadn't been on the list of attendees. Obviously he'd decided at the last minute to crash. "Still have a problem with that RSVP thing, huh?" Showing up when he wasn't supposed to, bailing out when he was.
"Honest as ever, huh?"
His voice was still smooth, easy, sexy and masculine. Just like it had been when he was joking, flirting, whispering sweet words in her ear and breaking her heart.
Hopefully the rest of him had changed and he had become one of those overweight, prematurely balding, red-nosed-from-too-much-beer guys. Because if he got to keep the delicious voice, he ought to at least have been forced to give up his damn good looks. And maybe a few teeth. And all his hair.
A limb might not be stretching it, either. Or his peni Don't even go there. She wouldn't even allow herself to think about certain body parts and Seth in the same brain wave. Allowing them to come together would be like crossing the beams and disrupting the whole space-time continuum or something.
Needing to know either way, she swung around to face him.
"Oh, hell, you would be gorgeous."
Had she said that out loud? Yikes, the way his brow shot up told her she had. "So you were hoping I'd be a total dog?"
"It would only have been fair for your looks to match your character."
He winced. "Score one for Desantos."
"I'm not keeping score," she insisted.
She didn't want to keep score with him, or to exchange zingers. She wanted to go on believing she was completely over him Which was easier to do when she didn't have to look at his unfairly handsome face.
The eighteen-year-old Seth had been super cute in the way young, lean guys are. The twenty-eight-year-old one ought to have one of those hazard labels, like the kind on the side of cigarette packages. Warning: Guys This Hot Are Dangerous To Your Heart and Your Underwear.
Because he was so very, very hot. He'd break hearts and melt panties. Seth was a veritable perfect storm of good looks and sexuality, designed to sink a woman's resistance and drown her in her own physical hunger.
His hair was thick and dark, shorter now, but he had a few of those tiny finger-tempting curls at his nape. The dark green eyes were deep-set, heavily lashed, punctuated by light laugh lines on either side, and they still twinkled. Ugh.
His face was a little scruffy, unshaven. No more smooth-cheeked youth, he had the kind of rough jaw a woman would want rubbing against her skin, leaving deliciously wicked red marks.
And his body wow, the body had definitely matured. Seth had played football in high school, but he'd been the quarterback, so he'd been fast and lean, not bulky. Now he had muscles on top of his muscles. Every inch of him looked powerful, from the broad shoulders clad in a tight black T-shirt down to the massive chest, the rippled stomach with hair.
Stop it. You can't see his stomach or any hair.
Only, she could. In her mind's eye.
She suddenly realized he'd caught her staring. Heat rushed into her cheeks. Jeez, she hadn't blushed since she was a teenager.
"So, do I pass inspection?"
"Not even close."
"Why do I get the feeling you were wishing I'd be bald and covered with scars from a virulent case of shingles?"
"You're too young for shingles. Chicken pox would have suited me fine," she said with a smirk. "I bet you'd be a scratcher."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you were always ready to scratch your itch the minute it started to bug you," she replied, remembering his rep as a player from when she'd first started school with him in their junior year.
"As I recall, I was kept unscratched and uncomfortable for a pretty long stretch there before graduation."
She ignored the implication. "What would you know about graduation?" He hadn't shown up there, either.
"Touche. By the way, it's nice to see you, too," he said, his grin widening, fully aware she was angry about finding him every bit as sexy as she'd hoped, as hot as she'd prayed he wouldn't be.
"Nice isn't exactly the word I'd use."
Ignoring her, he took a long second of his own to look her over, from top to bottom, and Lauren sent up a mental curse against the person who'd designed airplane seats to be tiny and clothes-rumpling, and their processed air to be hair-flattening and makeup-melting. Of course it hadn't helped that a harried mommy and her way-too-big-to-be-a-lap-baby demon spawn had been seated beside her. The kid kept throwing tantrums and lollipops, one of which had landed in Lauren's hair, which now probably had a sticky streak of red mixed in with the golden brown. And the little brute had been a kicker, so she had a bruise on the side of her arm.
Worst. Day. Ever.
Okay. Nix that.
Second. Worst. Day. Ever.
He stared at her, as if he couldn't look enough, and Lauren found herself shifting from foot to foot, like a nervous kid being inspected by the school principal.
Good grief, she so needed to get away from this reunion. She was degenerating back to high school mode, even in her thoughts! It didn't help that she suddenly remembered the secret Senior Class Superlatives that had made their way around campus, outside of the safe, sanctioned ones in the yearbook. Seth had been voted "Most Likely to Score with the Prom Queen." She'd forgotten all about it until right now when she was face-to-throat with the potent male who was supposed to have been her first lover.
It was one more thing to be mad at him for. Because of Seth, she'd lost her virginity to a guy she didn't even like much. Being abandoned by her first love had made her anxious to prove herself worthy of sexual desire, so she'd gone to bed with the first guy she'd dated in college.
He'd thought her clitoris was inside her belly button.
"What are you doing here, Seth?" she finally asked.
"Last time I checked, I was part of the class of '02."
"You didn't show up at graduation," she reminded him again.
"That doesn't mean I didn't get a diploma." Well, that was news to her.
"I got them to mail it to me," he continued. "I had the grades, even without being there to take my finals."
He'd definitely been smart enough, which had been part of his appeal. Handsome, athletic, sexy and supersmart. Could any girl have resisted him? Certainly none back in high school. He could have had anyone he wanted but he'd sworn he only wanted her.
They had gone to an exclusive, pricey private school in Chicago. She'd been a scholarship commuter kid from a blue-collar neighborhood who took a city bus to and from classes every day. He'd been a golden boy, a blue blood, living in the Ivy League-priced dorms, occasionally mentioning a family estate outside the city, but mostly not talking about his parents, with whom he didn't get along.
She and Seth had been as different as chocolate and sauerkraut yet those ten months they'd been together, she'd believed there was nobody else on the planet as right for her.
"Did they mail your diploma to the dark side of the moon?" she asked with a sweet smile. "I mean, I assumed you were kidnapped by aliens, the way you disappeared."
"You can't know how badly I feel about that."
"It killed me not to be able to take you to prom."
"Yeah, well, believe me, if you'd been close and I'd had a weapon that night, I would have happily taken care of that killing thing for you."
"Then, on Monday, when I found out you'd withdrawn from school, I stopped hating you long enough to be really worried," she admitted, though she chided herself for the note of concern she still heard in her voice.
But she had been concerned. Concerned enough to forgive him, enough to think something truly awful must have happened. Enough to decide to be there for him during whatever calamity must have befallen him. She'd waited for him to reach out to her to explain. And she'd waited.
Finally, she'd callednumber disconnected.
She'd writtenletter returned to sender.
Only the fact that his younger sister, a middle schooler, had also withdrawn the same day convinced her Seth hadn't been murdered. That, and his second call. He'd phoned her house that autumn, saying he was okay, and he was sorry.
Lauren had already been living in Georgia with her aunt, having just started her freshman year of college, and her parents had refused to give Seth her number. When her mom called to give her the message, Lauren had only cried for about ten minutes before going back to her regularly scheduled plan of get-over-Seth-and-move-on. End of contact. Until today.
"Hey, look guys, it's Seth and Lauren! The king and queen of the prom are finally together!"
"Oh, fuck my life," she muttered under her breath.
Seth's quick, short bark of laughter told her she hadn't been quiet enough.
Never had Lauren so wished for a time machineshe'd get in it and go back ten minutes, to the moment when she'd pulled up her rental car in front of this overly lavish place. Instead of parking, she'd have kept on driving. Canada was nice this time of year. Or Mexico. The Sahara. Anywhere else.
Though, honestly, if she had a time machine, she'd be better off going back to warn her young, vulnerable self to never say yes to Seth Crowder in the first place. She could even take an extra minute during the trip to offer herself a stock tip: Starbucks, yes. Borders, no. Oh, and since you're single, cruise on up to Harvard and introduce yourself to this dude named Mark Zuckerberg. He's single right now, too. He's a bit of an egghead, but he's got an idea for this thing called Facebook
"Pose for a picture guysthe one you never got on prom night!"
"Fat chance," she snapped, turning quickly. They could take a picture of her butt as she walked away. "Lauren, we need to talk," Seth said. "No, we don't."
"Please!" He held out a hand and put it on her arm.
She shivered slightly, affected in spite of herself. Seth was here, looking at her with desperate longing in his beautiful green eyes, touching her with those strong hands that had once given her as much pleasure as a girl could get with her hymen still intact. This man had been born understanding a woman's anatomyno belly button confusion for him. He and her clitoris had made friends on their third date. By the fifth they'd been drinking buddies.
But it didn't matter.
"Let me go, Seth," she told him.
"Can't you give me a chance to explain?"
"Come on, a half hour, that's all I ask."
Considering she was already standing here thinking about her panties and her girlie bits, and his habit of making them sing, five minutes was already too long.
"It's not going to happen."
She answered the only way she could. Truthfully. "Because I have spent the past ten years either crying over you or hating your guts. I'm over the crying, and I'm past the hating. Now all I feel for you is nothing. And I intend to keep it that way."