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The instant Deputy Sheriff Nathan Jefferies pulled his cruiser into the diner lot and saw his dad, P.J., standing out front instead of waiting inside like he always did, he knew something was up. He grabbed the phone he'd lobbed onto the dash when he'd walked Cody into day care, and, sure enough, there were two missed calls from his dad and two more from his mom.
By the time he killed the engine and climbed out of the car, his dad was standing at the driver's side doordefinitely not their usual routine. "Something wrong?"
The old man shrugged. "I just thought maybe we could try someplace different for a change."
Someplace different? Was his dad forgetting where they lived? With a population of 1,633, Paradise, Colorado, didn't exactly have a huge selection when it came to dining establishments. There was Joe's Place, but that didn't open until lunch, and there was Lou's Diner. Aside from those, and the Howard Johnson's on the highway several miles east of town, there wasn't anywhere else within twenty miles to get a decent breakfast. Or any breakfast for that matter.
Something was definitely up. "What's going on, Dad?"
His dad sighed and rubbed a hand across a jawline beginning to sag with age. "Son, she's back."
Nate wasn't sure what was more pathetic: that he knew exactly who "she" was, or that he still gave a damn after all these years.
He steeled himself against the residual sting of rejection, the burn of betrayal that still seared his heart like acid.
"Was bound to happen eventually, I s'pose," his dad said. "She couldn't stay away forever."
Not forever. Just seven years.
Seven years with no explanation of why, after two years together, she'd packed her bags and left town. Nothing but that pathetic excuse for an apology she'd sent him weeks later.
Dear Nate, I'm so, so sorry
Nate shook away the memory.
"We could skip breakfast today, son. We don't have to go in there."
Nate blinked. "She's here, at the diner?"
His dad nodded.
Everyone in the restaurant had seen him pull up. He had no choice but to go in. And it wasn't just a matter of his pride, although that was part of it. As a deputy sheriff, he had a reputation to uphold. If people began to see him as a coward, his credibility as peacekeeper in town would be compromised. And what could be more cowardly than turning tail and running from an estranged girlfriend seven years after the breakup?
"Let's go." He marched up the walk and shouldered his way through the door. The second his shoe hit the black-and-white-checked linoleum floor, twenty or so pairs of eyes snapped in his direction and bore into him like an auger biting through steel. In a town the size of Paradise, where everyone's nose was in everyone else's business, good news traveled fast.
And bad news traveled even faster.
This reunion would be stressful enough without an audience, but it was too late to turn back now. A swift survey of the interior revealed many familiar and curious faces, but not the one he was anticipating. And dreading.
The short walk to the counter felt like a mile. He slid onto his usual stool beside George Simmons, owner of Simmons Hardware, and his dad sat beside him.
"Mornin', Deputy," George said, then nodded to Nate's dad. "Mornin', P.J."
"Mornin', George," P.J. returned. "How are things down at the hardware store?"
George shrugged. "Can't complain. How's the house coming along?" he asked, referring to the Victorianera home Nate's parents had been renovating.
"Got that tile laid in the downstairs bathroom?" P.J. nodded. "Just about."
They had a similar conversation every morning, yet today it felt stilted and awkward. To add to the tension, Nate could feel the gaze of the entire restaurant pinned against his back.
Their waitress, Delores Freeburg, who had worked at the diner as long as Nate could remember, appeared with a decanter of coffee and poured them each a cup. "Morning, Nate, P.J. Will you have the usual?"
"Just coffee for me," Nate said. His belly was too tied in knots to choke down eggs and bacon.
P.J. patted the paunch that had begun to creep over his belt and said, "I'm starving. The usual for me."
Delores winked and left to put in the order, but not before shooting Nate a glance rife with curiosity.
There was a brief, awkward silence, then George said, "So, Nate, I guess you've heard the news."
"I heard." And he didn't care to talk about it.
"Been a long time," George persisted.
Nate poured cream and sugar in his cup. The idea of drinking it made his stomach turn, but he forced himself to take a sip, burning the hell out of his tongue in the process.
"Seven years," his dad answered for him, and Nate shot him a look that said, Don't encourage him.
But George needed no encouragement. He was a worse gossip than most of the women at Shear Genius, the salon Nate's ex-wife owned.
Nate pulled out his phone and pretended to check his messages, but that didn't stop George.
"Guess she got herself into a fix up there in New York." George shook his head, as though he could relate, even though he'd never lived a day outside of their small town. "Some sort of federal investigation into her financial firm."
"I hope you also heard that I'm not personally under any suspicion," a female voice stated from behind them. A voice that after seven years was still so familiar, Nate's heart climbed up his throat and lodged there. Caitlyn Cavanaugh walked around the counter, facing them now, but Nate kept his eyes on his phone screen.
"Welcome back, Caitie," his dad said.
"Hi, P.J. Long time no see."
"When did you get home?"
"Just last night."
"And your parents have you back to work already?''' "I offered. Deb called in sick. But I'll warn you, I may be a bit rusty. I haven't waited tables in almost five years."
"Well," P.J. said with a shrug. "You know that nothing much ever changes around here."
"I guess not."
Nate could feel her eyes on him, but he couldn't make himself lift his gaze. Maybe if he ignored her, it wouldn't be real.
"Hello, Nate," she said, her voice quiet.
He had no choice but to look at her now, and when he lifted his head and his eyes snagged on hers, every bit of pain and rejection he'd felt when she left slammed him in the gut like a fist.
In her waitress uniform she looked almost exactly the same. A little older, maybe, her pale blond hair longer than the shoulder-length, no-nonsense style she'd worn in high school. And her smile wasn't quite as carefree. But she was still his Caitie
No, she wasn't his anything.
Underneath the pain, the anger still simmered. It threatened to boil over and spill out like molten lava onto the Formica countertop.
He said the only thing he could, so she would understand exactly where she stood. "That's Deputy Sheriff to you, Miss Cavanaugh."
So that was the way it was going to be?
Caitlyn Cavanaugh wasn't really surprised. Of course she had hoped that after all these years Nate would have forgiven her, or at the very least, let go of the animosity.
Apparently not. And that was not at all like the Nate she used to know. That Nate was so laid-back, so easygoing and nonconfrontational. After two years together she could count on one hand how many times they had argued. Come to think of it, she'd never seen him really angry at anyone.
Under the icy exterior, he was seething. And though she would never admit it to another living soul, after all these years, it stung. Badly. But she refused to be labeled the only bad guy when he was just as guilty of betrayal. She may have left town, and she wouldn't deny that sending a vague letter in lieu of a real explanation was a cowardly thing to do. But he seemed to be forgetting that he married her best friend only three months after she left.
If it killed her, she would never let him know just how much that had hurt.
"I beg your pardon, Deputy," she said, pasting on a polite yet vaguely disinterested smile. One he didn't return, not that she had expected him to. He'd always had a sweet, slightly lopsided grin that never failed to melt her on the spot. And hadn't that been one of their biggest problems? She never could tell him no.
Thank goodness her dad, Lou, who was manning the grill, chose that instant to call an order up, putting an end to what would only become an increasingly awkward conversation.
"Enjoy your breakfast, gentleman," she said, then turned and crossed to the order window to grab the plates. Her dad peered at her from the other side. Concern crinkled the corners of his eyes. Kind eyes, her mom liked to say.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Fine," she said, even though she was anything but.
"You don't look fine. Why don't you take a break? Delores can cover your tables for a few minutes."
As much as she wanted to escape, at least until Nate finished his coffee and left, that wasn't even an option. If she could handle high-profile clients with multimillion-dollar portfolios, she could handle a snarky ex-boyfriend. And if she couldn't well, she would never give him the satisfaction of knowing how much seeing him had rattled her. Besides, if they were going to live in the same town together, even if it was only temporary, she would just have to get used to running into him every now and then.
"I'm okay, Dad."
He didn't look as though he believed her, but he didn't push the issue.
She grabbed the plates and turned, slamming into Delores, who was standing at the juice machine. The glass she was filling slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor, shattering into a million pieces.
"Oh, Delores! I'm so sorry," Caitie said, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. She didn't have to turn to know that everyone was staring at her. She could feel it.
Could this morning get any worse? Any more humiliating?
"It's okay, hon," Delores said, patting her arm. "I'll clean it up."
"You take care of your order. I'll get it."
"Are you sure?"
Delores nodded and said softly, "Just take a deep breath and try to relax, hon. It'll get easier, I promise."
A divorcée five times over, Delores was pretty much the town authority on failed relationships, and Caitie knew she was right. This was just harder than she thought it would be. The feelings she'd buried a long time ago were fighting their way up to the surface.
Avoiding the counterand NateCaitie delivered her order to the customers in the back corner, then stopped at the booth beside it whose occupants had just been seated. She knew Lindy and Zoey from high school, and though they'd been a grade ahead of Caitie, they had all been on the cheerleading squad together.
There was a third woman with them Caitie didn't recognize. It was obvious by their sudden silence as she approached the table that they had been talking about her. No doubt Lindy and Zoey were telling their friend the tale of Cait's defection from her hometown.
What a stellar first day back this had turned out to be and it was barely 9:00 a.m.
Caitie raised her chin a notch and smiled. "Hello, Lindy, Zoey. Long time no see."
"That's bound to happen when you leave town without a word," Lindy said, her eyes cold.
Making a clean break had been her only option. She didn't expect Lindy or anyone else to understand that.
At least Caitie had escaped the grips of their small town. She had followed her dream and for a while had been a successand would be again just as soon as she found a new job. This trip home was a temporary diversion. She hoped.
"Word is you had some trouble," Zoey added. "I'm sorry things didn't work out."
Caitie kept the smile firmly in place. Most people would consider going off to college, landing a cushy job at a prestigious finance firm and making a life for herself in New York an impressive feat. Zoey, on the other hand, seemed to revel in her failure. "I'm here temporarily. I'm going back to New York as soon as I find a new job."
"We should all get together for drinks and catch up," Zoey said, with a plastic, artificially whitened smile. She and Caitie had never been what anyone would call close friends. And from the looks of her styled hair, manicured nails and designer clothes, her wealthy father was still spoiling her rotten.
"That sounds like fun," Caitie said, knowing she would do no such thing. It would be a fishing expedition for gossip that Zoey would then spread all over town.
"This is Reily Eckardt," Lindy said, gesturing to their companion. "She just moved to town a few months ago. She's engaged to Joe Miller."
If the rock on the cute blonde's finger was any indication, Joe, the owner of Joe's Place, the local bar and grill, was doing quite well for himself.
"Nice to meet you, Caitie," Reily said with a friendly smile. The fact that she already knew Cait's name was a clear sign that she'd been the topic of conversation. She was bound to get that a lot now. That was the way things worked in small towns. If the flow of gossip in Paradise could feed the Foothills Hydro plant in Denver, they would have enough electricity to power the entire state of Colorado for the next fifty years.
"What can I get you ladies?" she asked, then quickly took their orders. Though she promised herself she wouldn't do it, as she walked back to the kitchen, she glanced over at Nate. He sat with near-perfect posture and, because of his broad shoulders, occupied slightly more than his share of space at the counter. He'd been the star running back on the high school football team, and Nate had always been impressively built. But now? She didn't need to see him out of his clothes to know that he was still ripped. His biceps and pecs strained the fabric of his uniform shirt, and his wide shoulders stressed the seams to the limit.
As if he sensed her staring, he turned to look at her. Their eyes met and locked, and his flashed with such naked contempt her stomach did a violent flip-flop.
She forced herself to look away.
Petty as it was, a small part of her had hoped that he would be balding with a spreading waistline. In reality he looked better than he ever had before. At eighteen he had seemed so mature to her, but in reality, he was just a kid. Now, he was all man. And then some.
She turned in her order, and when she glanced back over at Nate a few minutes later, he was gone. She breathed a silent sigh of relief. That could have gone worse, but not much.
He betrayed you, too, she reminded herself, so why did she still feel so darned guilty?
For as long as she could remember, she had been dependable Caitie, always doing exactly what was expected of her, sacrificing her own dreams, her own needs, to make everyone else happy. Until one day she had just snapped. When the acceptance letter to an East Coast school arrived with a full scholarshipone she had only applied for on a whim thinking she would never get itshe knew it was destiny. An opportunity she simply couldn't pass up.
She'd hurt two of the most important people in her life when she'd left so abruptly that fall, and she didn't expect them to understand why she'd done it, but they couldn't hold it against her for the rest of her life. At some point they would have to forgive her.
Caitie made it through the breakfast rush and was about to sit down for a much-needed break when her dad called her into the back office.
"Would you mind running these papers home to your mom?" he said, handing her a manila folder. "I forgot them last night when I closed up."
She took the folder. "She's not coming in today?"
"She does the bookkeeping and ordering from home now. Her headaches have been much more unpredictable lately, and more frequent."
As long as Caitie could remember her mom had gotten bad headaches. Sometimes two or three a month. "How frequent?"