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Blossom Valley. In a fast-paced world, David Blaze thought, a trifle sardonically, his hometown was a place unchanging.
Built on the edges of a large bay that meandered inland from Lake Ontario, it had always been a resort town, a summer escape from the oppressive July humidity and heat for the well-heeled, mostly from Canada's largest city, Toronto.
The drive, two hours-with the top down on David's mint 1957 two-seater pearl-gray rag-top convertible-followed a route that traveled pleasantly through rolling, lush hills dotted with contented cattle, faded red barns, weathered fruit stands and sleepy service stations that still sold ice-cold soda pop in thick, glass bottles.
Upon arrival, Blossom Valley's main street welcomed. The buildings were Victorian, the oldest one, now an antiques store, had a tasteful bronze plaque that said it had been built in 1832.
Each business front sparkled, lovingly restored and preserved, the paned windows polished, the hanging planters and window boxes spilling rainbow hues of petunias in cheerful abundance.
Unfortunately, the main street had been constructed-no doubt by one of David's ancestors-to accommodate horses and buggies and the occasional Model T. It was too narrow at the best of times; now it was clogged with summer traffic.
David, though he had been here only on visits since leaving after high school, found himself uncharmed by the quaintness of the main street, pretty as it was. He still had a local's impatience with the congestion.
Plus, once there had been two carefree boys who raced their bicycles in and out of the summer traffic, laughing at the tourists honking their horns at them____
David shook it off. This was the problem with being stuck in traffic in his hometown. In Toronto, being stuck in traffic was nothing. He had a car and driver at his disposal twenty-four hours a day, and it was a time to catch up on phone calls and sort through emails.
He was accustomed to running Blaze Enterprises, his Toronto-based investment firm, and he had only one speed-flat out. His position did not lend itself, thank God, to ruminating about a past that could not be changed, that was rife with losses.
Then, up ahead of him, as if mocking his attempts to leave the memories of those kids on bicycles behind, he saw a girl on a bike, threading her way through traffic with a local's panache.
The bicycle was an outlandish shade of purple, and the old-fashioned kind, with a downward sloping center bar, high handlebars and a basket. Pedaling away from him, the girl was in a calf-length, white, cotton skirt. The midday sun shone through the thinness of the summer fabric outlining the coltish length of her legs.
She was wearing a tank top, and it was as if she'd chosen it to match the bike. The girl's narrow, bare shoulders had already turned golden from the sun.
She had on a huge straw hat, the crown encircled with a thick, white ribbon that trailed down her back.
He caught a glimpse of a small, beige, wire-haired dog, or maybe a puppy, peeping around her with a faintly worried expression. The dog was sharing the bicycle basket with some green, leafy lettuce and a bouquet of sunflowers.
For a moment, David's impatience waned, and he felt the innocence of the picture-all the things that had been so good about growing up here. The girl herself seemed familiar, something about the slope of her shoulders and the way she held her head.
He could feel himself holding his breath. Then the girl shoulder checked, and he caught a glimpse of her face.
Someone honked at a jaywalker, and David began to breathe again and yanked his attention back to the traffic.
It wasn't Kayla. It was just that his hometown stirred a certain unavoidable melancholy in him. The loss of innocence. The loss of his best friend.
Kayla. The loss of his first love.
Grimly, David snapped on his sound system and inched forward. The street, if he followed it a full six blocks, would end at Blossom Valley's claim to fame, its lakefront, Gala Beach, named not because galas were held there, but after a popular brand of apples that grew in the local orchards.
Gala Beach was a half kilometer stretch of perfect white sand in a protected cove of relatively calm, shallow water. The upper portions, shaded by fifty-year-old cottonwoods, held playground equipment and picnic tables, concessions and rental booths.
It had been a decade since David had been a lifeguard on that beach, and yet his stomach still looped crazily downward when he caught a glimpse of the sun-speckled waters of the bay sparkling at the end of Main Street.
David Blaze hated coming home.
He turned left onto Sugar Maple Lane, and the difference between it and Main Street was jarring. He was transported from the swirling noise and color and energy of Main Street to the deep, shaded silence of Sugar Maple: wide boulevards housed the huge, century-old trees that had given the street its name.
Set well off the road in large, perfectly manicured yards were turn-of-the-century, stately homes-Victorians. Solid columns supported roofs over deeply shadowed verandas. On one he caught a glimpse of white wicker furniture padded with overstuffed, color-splashed cushions that made him think of sugary ice tea in the heat of the afternoon.
And there was the girl on her bike again, up ahead of him, pedaling leisurely, fitting in perfectly with a street that invited life to slow down, to be savored-
He frowned. There was something familiar about her. And then, as he watched, the serenity of the scene suddenly dissolved.
The girl gave a small shriek and leaped from the bike. It crashed down, spilling sunflowers out onto the road. The puppy, all five pounds of it, tumbled out of the basket and darted away, tiny tail between tiny legs.
The girl was doing a mad jig, slapping at herself. It momentarily amused, but then David realized there was an edge of desperation in the wild dance. Her hat flew off, and her hair, loosely held with a band, cascaded out from under it, shiny, as straight as the ribbon around the brim of her hat, the soft light filtering through the trees turning its light brown tones to spun gold.
David felt his stomach loop crazily for the second time in a couple of minutes.
He had slowed his car to a crawl; now he slammed on the brake and shoved the gear stick into Neutral in the middle of the street. He jumped out, not even bothering to shut the door. He raced to the girl, who was slapping at her thighs through the summer-weight cotton of the skirt.
His shadow fell over her and she went very still, straightened and looked up at him.
It wasn't a girl. While he had denied it could be her, his deepest instincts had recognized her.
Despite the snub of the nose and the faint freckles that dusted it, making her look gamine and eternally young, it was not a girl, but a young woman.
A woman with eyes the color of jade that reminded him of a secret grove not far from here, a place the tourists didn't know about, where a waterfall cascaded into a still pond that reflected the green hues of the surrounding ferns that dipped into its waters.
Of course, it wasn't just any woman.
It was Kayla McIntosh.
No, he reminded himself, Kayla Jaffrey, the first woman he had ever loved. And lost. Of course, she had been more a girl than a woman back then.
He felt the same stir of awareness that he had always felt when he saw her. He tried to convince himself it was just primal: man reacting to attractive woman.
But he knew it was more. It was summer sunshine bringing out freckles on her nose, and her racing him on her bike. Look, David, no hands. It was the way the reflection from a bonfire turned her hair to flame, and the smell of woodsmoke, and stars that she could name making brilliant pinpricks of light in the inky black blanket of the sky. David Blaze hated coming home.
For a moment, the panic of being stung was erased from Kayla's mind and replaced with a different kind of panic, her stomach doing that same roller-coaster race downward that it had done the very first time she had ever seen him.
Except for the sensation in her stomach, it felt as if the world had gone completely still around her as she gazed at David Blaze.
She tried to tell herself it was the shock of the sting-knowing that she was highly allergic and could be dead soon-that made the moment seem tantalizingly suspended in time. Her awareness of him was sharp and clear, like a million pinpricks along her arms.
Kayla didn't feel as if she were twenty-seven, a woman who knew life, who had buried her husband and her dreams. No, she felt as if she were fifteen years old all over again, the new girl in town, and the possibility for magic shimmered in the air around her that first time she looked at David.
No, she told herself, firmly. She had left that kind of nonsense well behind her. That pinprick feeling was the beginning of the allergic reaction to the sting!
Still, despite the firm order to herself, Kayla felt as if she drank him in with a kind of dazed wonder. It seemed that everyone she ran into from the old days had changed in some way, and generally for the worse. She'd seen Mike Humes in the hardware store-her new haunt now that she had been thrust into the world of home ownership-and the former Blossom Valley High senior year class president had looked so comically like a monk with a tonsure that she had had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
Cedric Parson ran Second Time Around- an antiques store that she also haunted, ever on the lookout to furnish her too-large house- and the ex-high school football star looked as if he had an inflated tire tube inserted under his too-tight shirt.
Cedric was divorced now, and had asked her out. But even though she had been a widow two years, she was so aware she was not ready, and that she might never be. There was something in her that was different.
Even the fact that she judged her two high school pals in such a harsh and unforgiving light told Kayla something about herself. Not ready, but also harder than she used to be, more cynical.
Or maybe "unforgiving" said it all.
But trust David Blaze to have gotten better instead of worse. Of course, she knew what he did-the whole town took pride and pleasure in following the success of a favored son.
Even though she'd been back in Blossom Valley less than two weeks, one of the first things Kayla had seen was his picture on the cover of Lakeside Life. The magazine was everywhere: in proud stacks at the supermarket, piled by the cash registers of restaurants, in leaning towers of glossy paper at the rental kiosks.
The magazine had recently done a huge spread about his company, and the cover photo had been of David standing in front of the multimillion-dollar Yorkton condo he had developed, in a suit-even her inexperienced eye new it was custom-that added to his look of supreme confidence, power and success.
Though she had contemplated the inevitability of running into him, given where she lived, the photo hadn't really prepared her for the reality of David Blaze in his prime.
How was it that someone who made investments, presumably from behind a desk, still had the unmistakably broad build of a swimmer: wide shoulders, deep chest, narrow waist, sleekly muscled limbs?
David was dressed casually in a solid navy-colored sport shirt and knife-creased khaki shorts, and despite the fact a thousand men in Blossom Valley were dressed almost identically today, David oozed the command and self-assurance-the understated elegance-of wealth and arrival.
His coloring was healthy and outdoorsy. That combined with that mouthwatering physique made Kayla think his appearance seemed more in keeping with the lifeguard he had once been than with the incredibly successful entrepreneur he now was.
His hair, short enough to appear perfectly groomed despite the fact he had just leaped from a convertible with the top down, was the color of dark chocolate, melted. His eyes were one shade lighter than his hair, a deep, soft brown that reminded her of suede.
It had been two years since she had seen him. At her husband, Kevin's, funeral. And that day she had not really noticed what he looked like, only felt his arms fold around her, felt his warmth and his strength, and thought, for the first time, and only time: everything will be all right.
But that reaction had been followed swiftly by anger. Where had he been all those years when Kevin could have used a friend?
And she could have, too.
Why had David withheld what Kevin so desperately needed? David's chilly remoteness after a terrible accident, days after they had all graduated from high school, had surely contributed to a downward spiral in Kevin that nothing could stop.
Not even her love.
The trajectory of all their lives had changed forever, and David Blaze had proven to her he was no kind of friend at all.
David had let them down. He'd become aloof and cool-a furious judgment in his eyes- when Kevin had most needed understanding. Forgiveness. Sympathy.
Not, Kayla reminded herself bitterly, that any of those things had saved my husband, either, because everyone else-me, his parents-had given those things in abundance.
And had everything been all right since the funeral? Because of Kevin's insurance she was financially secure, but was everything else all right?