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Stars studded an inky summer sky. Bright sparks drifted upward to dance briefly with fireflies before disappearing forever. It was the perfect night to say good-bye.
"Good-bye," Sophie Holtzheim said out loud. "Good-bye foolish romantic notions and dreams."
Her voice sounded small and lonely against the stillness of the night, the voice of a woman who was saying farewell to the future she had planned out so carefully for herself.
Sophie was in her aging neighbor's backyard. She was taking advantage of the fact he was away for the night to utilize his fire pit, though the absolute privacy of his huge yard and mature landscaping had irresistible appeal, too.
Sophie's own house, in this 1930s neighborhood of Craftsman-style homes, was next to this one, on a Sugar Maple Grove corner lot. Despite a barrier of thick dogwood hedges surrounding her property, she did not want to risk a late-night dog-walker catching a glimpse of a fire burning… or of a woman in a white dress muttering to herself.
Let's face it: when a woman was wearing her wedding dress, alone, at midnight on a Saturday, she wanted guaranteed privacy. And reprieve from the small-town rumor mill.
Sophie Holtzheim had fueled that quite enough over the past six months!
Taking a deep breath, Sophie smoothed a hand over the white silk of her wedding gown. She had loved it instantly, with its simple spaghetti straps, non-dramatic V-neck, fabric floating in a subtle A-line to the ground.
"I am never going to walk down the aisle in this dress." She hoped to sound firm, resolved, accepting. She hoped saying it out loud would help, somehow, but it didn't.
Sighing, Sophie opened the lid of the box beside her, and contemplated its contents.
"Good-bye," she whispered.
It was a wedding-in-a-box. Inside were printer's samples of invitations and name plates, patterns for bridesmaids' dresses, magazine cuttings of flower arrangements and table settings, brochures for dream honeymoon destinations.
Sophie forced herself to pick up the invitation sample that sat on the very top of the bulging box.
"Don't read it," she ordered herself. "Just throw it in the fire."
Naturally, she did no such thing. In the flickering light of the bonfire she had roaring in Dr. Sheridan's stone-lined pit, she ran her hand over the raised cream-colored lettering of the printer's sample. It was the invitation she had selected for her wedding.
"This day," she read, "two become one. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Hamilton invite you to join them in a celebration of love as their son, Gregg, joins his life to that of Miss Sophie Holtzheim…."
With a choking sob, Sophie tossed the invitation into the fire, watched its ivory edges turn brown and curl before it burst into flame.
Gregg was not joining his life to Miss Sophie Holtzheim. He was joining his life to Antoinette Roberts.
For the past few months Sophie had held out hope that this was all going to get better, that Gregg would come to his senses.
But that hope had been dashed this afternoon when she had been handed a brand-new invitation, with Antoinette Roberts's name on it. Instead of hers.
It wasn't a wedding invitation, but an invitation to an engagement celebration at Gregg's parents' posh estate on the outskirts of Sugar Maple Grove.
"Gregg and I were engaged. We never had an engagement party." Sophie felt ridiculously slighted that all stops were being pulled out for the new fiancée.
It was the final straw and set the tears that had been building all afternoon flowing freely. She was glad she hadn't applied any makeup for her good-bye-hopes-and-dreams ceremony!
How could Claudia Hamilton, Gregg's mother, do this to her? Sophie was the one who was supposed to be marrying Gregg. It was too cruel to invite her to the engagement party where all of Sugar Maple Grove would be introduced to the woman Gregg had replaced Sophie with!
But his mother, who had once pored over the bridal magazines with Sophie, had made her motivations very clear.
"It can't look like we're snubbing you, dear. The whole town is going to be there. And you must come. For your own good. Your split was months ago. You don't want to start looking pathetic. Try not to come alone. Try to look as if you're getting on with your life."
Meaning, of course, it was way too obvious that she wasn't.
"We can't have the whole town talking forever about Gregg breaking the heart of the town sweetheart. It will be bad for his and Toni's new law practice. It's really not fair that he's looking like the villain in all this, is it, Sophie?"
No, it wasn't. This whole catastrophe was of Sophie's own making.
"If only I could take it back," she whispered, as she rubbed a fresh cascade of tears from her cheeks. If only she could take back the words she had spoken.
She relived them now, adding fuel to the fire in front of her in the form of a picture of a wedding cake, three tiers, yellow roses trailing down the sides.
"Gregg," she'd said, as he was heading back to South Royalton to complete law school, and pressing her to set a date for their wedding, "I need some time to think."
Now she had her whole life to think, to mull over the fact she had thrown everything away over a case of cold feet.
The truth was Sophie had thought she'd known Gregg as well as she knew herself. But she could never have predicted how Gregg would react. She had pictured him being gently understanding. But in actual fact, Gregg had been furious. How dare she need time to think about him? And who could blame him really?
The Hamiltons were Sugar Maple Grove royalty.
And Sophie Holtzheim was just the sweet geek whom the whole town had come to know and love for putting Sugar Maple Grove on the map a decade ago as a finalist in the National Speech Contest with, "What Makes a Small Town Tick."
Even years after she'd shed the braces and glasses, Sophie had never quite shed her geeky image.
So, naturally, she'd been bowled over when Gregg Hamilton had noticed her.
If he seemed a little preoccupied with how things looked to others, and if he had always been more pragmatic than romantic, those could hardly be considered flaws.
Especially in retrospect!
But it hadn't been those things that bothered her. It had been something else, something she couldn't name, just below the surface where she couldn't see it, identify it. It had niggled, and then wiggled, and then huffed, and then puffed and then, finally, it had blown her whole world apart.
Because when she couldn't ignore it for one more second, when her stomach hurt all the time, and she couldn't sleep, she had told Gregg, hesitantly, apologetically, I can't put my finger on it. Something's wrong. Something's missing. And she'd slid the huge solitaire diamond off her finger and given it back to him.
But nothing could have prepared Sophie for the startling swiftness of Gregg's reaction. He had replaced her. Rumors that Gregg had been dating a new girl around the campus had found their way home within weeks of her returning his ring.
Sophie had thought he was just trying to make her jealous. Surely what they'd had was not so superficial that Gregg could replace her within weeks?
But today, hand-delivered confirmation had come that, no, he wasn't trying to make her jealous. She really had been replaced. It was no joke. He was not on the rebound. He was not going to realize that Antoinette, beautiful and brilliant as she might be, was no replacement for Sophie. Gregg was not going to come back to her. Ever. An invitation to an engagement party could not be rationalized away.
It was final. It was over. Over.
Claudia had instructed her not to become pathetic. Was it too late? Was she already pathetic? Was that how everyone saw her?
If Claudia Hamilton could see Sophie now, conducting her druidlike ceremony, hunched over her box of dreams in a dress she would never wear again, it would no doubt confirm the diagnosis.
Pathetic. Burning up her box of dreams, reliving those fateful words and wondering what would have happened if she had never spoken them…
"I am not going to that party," she said, out loud, her voice strong and sure for the first time. "Never. Wild horses could not drag me there. I don't care how it looks to the Hamiltons."
There. She relished her moment of absolute strength and certainty for the millisecond that it lasted.
And then she crumpled.
"What have I done?" she wailed.
What had she done?
"I wanted to feel on fire," she said mournfully. "I threw it all away for that." She sat in the silence of the night contemplating her rashness.
Suddenly the hair on the back of her neck rose. She sensed him before she saw him. A scent on the wind? An almost electrical change in the velvety texture of the summer night?
Someone had come into the yard. She knew it. Had come in silently, and was watching her. How long had he been there? Who was it? She could feel something hotter than the fire burning the back of her neck.
She turned her head, carefully. For a moment, she saw nothing. And then she saw the outline of a man, blacker than the night shadows.
He was standing silently just inside the gate, so still he didn't even seem to be breathing. He was over six feet of pure physical presence, his stance both alert and calm, like a predatory cat, a cougar.
Sophie's heart began to hammer. But not with fear. With recognition.
Even though the darkness shrouded his features, even though it had been eight years since he had stood in this yard, even though his body had matured into its full power, Sophie knew exactly who he was.
The man who had wrecked her life.
And it wasn't the same man whose name was beside hers on a mock-up wedding invitation, either.
It was the one she had thought of when she'd made that fateful statement that she needed some time to think. That something was missing.
Oh, she hadn't named him, not even in her own mind. But she had felt a longing for something only he, Brand Sheridan, wayward doctor's son, wanderer of the world, had ever made her feel.
She knew it was ridiculous to toss her whole life away on something that had begun whispering to her when she was a preteen, and had become all-consuming by the time she was fifteen years old.
But there was no substitute for that feeling. It was like the swoosh in the pit of your stomach when you jumped off the cliff at Blue Rock. There was a thrilling suspended moment after the decision to go and before you hit the ice-cold pool of water, where you felt it. Intensely alive. Invigorated. As if that one glorious moment was all that mattered.
Brand had made her feel that. Always. She'd been twelve when her family had moved in next door to his, he'd been seventeen.
Just setting eyes on him had been enough to make her whole day go as topsy-turvy as her insides. Filled with a kind of wonder, and an impossible hope.
Sophie had loved the man who stood behind her in the darkness as desperately as only a young teen could love. She had loved him unrealistically, furiously, unrequitedly.
The fact that she had been only the teeniest glitch on Brand Sheridan's radar had intensified her feelings instead of reducing them.
She felt the familiar shiver in her belly—the damn something missing—when he spoke, his voice rough around the edges, sexy as a touch.
"What the hell?"
She knew his eyes to be a shade of blue that was deeper than sapphire. But in the shadows where he stood, they looked black, sultrier than the summer night, smoky with new and unreadable mysteries.
For a moment she was absolutely paralyzed by his puzzled gaze on her. But then she came to her senses and lurched to her feet.
This was not how Brand Sheridan was going to see her after an eight-year absence! Pathetic.
Sophie scrambled toward the safety of the little hole in the hedge that she could squeeze through, and that she hoped he couldn't—or wouldn't. She would have made it, too, if she hadn't remembered the damned box.
She wasn't leaving it there for him to find, a box full of her romantic notions, as ridiculously unrealistic as a princess leaving a glass slipper for her prince to find.
The rest of the town might know she was pathetic, still think of her affectionately as their sweet geek—a romantic catastrophe now adding to her reputation—but she could keep it a secret from him.
She turned back, grabbed the box and then, disaster. She tripped over the hem of a dress she had left too long in the hope it would make her look taller and more graceful as she glided down the aisle.
Sophie crashed to the ground, face-first, and the box sailed from her hands and spilled its contents to the wind. Papers and pictures scattered.
He moved toward her before she could find her breath or her feet.
And then his hand was on her naked shoulder, and he turned her over. And she gazed up into his face and felt the sizzle of his hand on the tender flesh of her shoulder, whatever had been missing between her and Gregg bubbled up so sweetly in her it felt as if she had drunk a bottle of champagne.
He stared down at her, his brow furrowed, his expression formidable and almost frightening. This was Brand?
And then the hard lines of his face softened marginally. Puzzlement knitted the line of dark brows. "Sweet Pea?"
She drank in his face. Still a face that could stop the sun, but a new dimension to it, the lines cast in steel, his eyes colder, she thought, dazed. Something in his expression that had never been there. Haunted.
His hand moved from her shoulder, he brushed a smudge of something from her cheek.
It would be way too easy to mistake the leashed strength in those hands for all kinds of things that it wasn't.
Just taking care of his awkward-situation-prone little neighbor, as always. Picking her up and dusting her off after yet another catastrophe. Her love for him giving her an absolute gift for clumsiness, for downright dumbness, for attracting mishap and mayhem.
She closed her eyes against the humiliation of it. The truth was, in those tender adolescent years after he had gone away and joined the military, she had imagined his return a million times. Maybe a zillion. The day he would come home and discover her. Not a gawky teenager with not a single curve, unless you counted the metallic one of the braces on her teeth.
But a woman.
She had imagined his voice going husky with surprise. Delight. Sophie, you've become so beautiful.
But of course, nothing ever went as she imagined it.
"Sweet Pea, is that you?"
She allowed herself just to look up at him, to drink in his scent and his presence and his mystery.