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THE EMPTY SEATS in his station wagon haunted Gavin Gray as he drove up to the biggest house on the crescent. He stopped the car and gazed through the windshield at the classic Cape Cod colonial. The house looked a little tired. Welcome to the club. But it had good bones. Cindy Buchanan, his real-estate agent, beckoned to him from the door.
"You have to see this one. It's a real family home."
Cindy was a friendly, plump woman in her midfifties. She'd been showing Gavin houses all day, her patience never wavering. He was sure she'd have felt terrible if she knew how much pain her cheerful words had just brought him.
A family home.
He turned around to face what was left of his familyone little girl strapped into a booster chair in the middle of the backseat. "Tory? Want to see another house?"
Predictably, his daughter offered no opinion, but she scrambled out willingly and held his hand as he led her up the sidewalk to the welcoming front porch.
"It has a huge pie-shaped yard. And it's the only house on this road that backs onto the lake." Seeing his concerned frown in reaction to her comment, Cindy added quickly, "But there's a fence, so it's perfectly safe."
He walked through the rooms, hardly noticing the details. But then he stopped cold at the sight of the view from the kitchen windows. It was fabulous.
On Golden Pond had been filmed at Squam Lake and the town had never forgotten its moment of cinematic glory. Gavin had seen signs on the main road guiding tourists to the actual sites used in the movie.
"The house does need a little work." Cindy ran a hand over a crack in the kitchen wall. "It's changed owners several times in the past few years. You should have seen it when Old Man McLaughlin was still alive."
He couldn't have heard that correctly. "Did you say McLaughlin?"
"That's right. It was just Adele and her daughter living here in the end. And when Marianne left home
He felt as if he'd been submerged in ice water. He couldn't breathe. Was his heart still beating? "Marianne McLaughlin used to live here?"
"Yes. Do you know her?"
How many times had he asked himself that question? The ultimate answer being that he couldn't have. But he wasn't about to share that insight with Cindy Buchanan.
He looked around with sharpened interest, trying to picture the beautiful, remote woman in this place. "I used to, but I haven't seen her in about six years."
His breathing returned to normal as he contemplated the significance of what he'd just learned. Could it possibly be this easy? "Do you know where Marianne's living now?"
"Afraid not. She came back once, to bury her mother in the family plot. I haven't heard anything about her since then. But maybe someone in town has. How did you say you know her?"
He hadn't. And he wouldn't. "We were friends."
"Quite the beautiful girl."
True enough. Where looks were concerned, Marianne could not be beat.
Tory came round the corner then, moving so quietly that Cindy didn't even notice her. His daughter had been wandering upstairs, checking out the bedrooms, but Gavin knew that if he asked her whether she liked what she'd seen, Tory wouldn't have anything to say. Even when Samantha was alive she'd been reluctant to express an opinion, relying on her twin to do it for her.
He decided to try anyway. "So, what do you think?"
Cindy turned in time to see Tory shrug. The real-estate agent's thin eyebrows rose in surprise. "Speaking of the devil, your daughter looks remarkably like
"I think I've seen enough." He wasn't interested in taking the conversation in that direction. Besides, he really had seen enough. The house was in need of work, but it was on a quiet street and the link to Marianne was a coincidence that couldn't be ignored.
"I'd like to make an offer."
Cindy Buchanan looked surprised but pleased.
ON ALLISON BENNETT'S thirtieth birthday she found a special delivery package on her front porch. It wasn't a birthday gift, though. The return address was from Abby's Print Shop in North Conway.
Darn. The wedding invitations. She'd meant to cancel the order, but there'd been a lot of cancellations to take care of in the past two weeks and she'd dropped the ball on this one.
Breaking off an engagement six weeks before the wedding was a pain in the butt.
Since there was no sending them back at this point, she ripped open the box and pulled out one of the printed cards. They were lovely.
Buff card stock, silver print, very elegant. Avoiding a loose board she'd been meaning to fix, Allison sat on the front porch step to take a closer look.
Allison Moore Bennett and Tyler Paul Jenkins cordially request your presence
She remembered the afternoon that she and Tyler had ordered these. They'd argued over the wording. Tyler had wanted traditional invitations, while she'd been in favor of something more casual. She read through the rest of it. The ceremony at the chapel on Church Island at three.
Canceled. Reception to follow at the Lakeside Inn. Also canceled.
She sighed, and then lifted her head at the sound of heavy footsteps out on the street. New owners were moving into the McLaughlins' old house today. Two men in baggy jeans and dark T-shirts carried a sofa from the moving van down the ramp and in through the front door. They'd been hard at work for over an hour and now the van was nearly empty.
Allison had been keeping tabs on their progress, though somehow she'd missed the arrival of the family itself. The new owners were already inside, she surmised from the red station wagon parked next to the garage, which was being used as an unloading area for all sorts of things. A lawn mower, a canoe, a mountain bike, a cherry-red tricycle
She hadn't been snooping. It was just that she'd had a number of chores to take care of out here this afternoon. The late summer sunshine was perfect for watering plants, sweeping the porch and shaking the cushions on her outdoor furniture.
Okay, she was snooping. But she couldn't help being curious. The house next door, 11 Robin Crescent, had always been Allison's idea of the perfect family home. It was larger than hers, a lovely colonial complete with a copper weather vane on the roof. Best of all, it backed onto the lake. When she was growing up, living on the other side of town, she'd spent a lot of time in that house.
Her somber mood returned as she thought of her childhood friend Marianne. They'd had fun together. They both loved art, though her talent had been no match for Marianne's. And they'd spent hours in the sun and swimming together behind that house.
But somehow the good memories were always overtaken by the bad ones. Allison tried not to think of those as often. It was easier now that Marianne didn't live here anymore. She'd moved away years ago, leaving her mother alone in that house until the day she died. Since then, several other families had taken up residence. But none had stayed longer than a year or two.
Allison had watched them come and go with envy. If she had had the money, she would have loved to buy the house herself. But she'd been lucky to afford the one she hadthanks to an inheritance from her grandmother.
The movers emerged from the house next door again. Instead of unloading more furniture and boxes, they grabbed brown bags from the cab of the van. A late-afternoon snack.
Allison realized she was hungry, too. Time to start dinner. Just as she was heading inside, though, her new neighbor and his young daughter made an appearance. He was a nice-looking man, about her age or maybe a few years older.
The girl was adorable. Allison gave her a second lookshe seemed familiar. But Allison couldn't have met her before. The red wagon in the driveway had Connecticut plates.
She glanced back at the father. Definitely she hadn't seen him before. She would have remembered. He was slender and tall and moved with a natural grace that reminded her of John F. Kennedy, from the old footage she'd seen on TV.
Allison watched as the man scooped his daughter onto his shoulders, then paused to talk to the movers. Next, he went to the garage and pulled out the tricycle. Gently, he set the girl onto the seat.
"Give it a try," he urged. And then his gaze met Allison's.
She left the opened box of invitations on her porch and went to meet him halfway. "Hi!
Welcome to the neighborhood. I'm Allison Bennett."
He hadn't shaved for a few days. Lucky for him, he was one of those men who managed to look sexy, rather than unkempt, as a result.
He offered a tired smile and shook her hand. "Thanks. It's good to be here, finally. I'm Gavin Gray. And this is my daughter, Tory."
Allison squatted to say hello, but the young girl wouldn't look at her.
"Tory? Can you say hi to our new neighbor?" Apparently not. She pedaled off down the sidewalk as if she hadn't heard her father's request.
That was when Allison placed the resemblance. Tory Gray looked a lot like Marianne McLaughlin had at that age. Dark hair, glowing skin and wide blue eyes.A miniature Snow White.
Even as a small child, Marianne's beauty had worked to her advantage. In kindergarten, the little boys were forever sharing their lunchbox treats with her and all the girls scrambled to be her partner during gym and class projects.
Allison wondered if Tory's grade-school years would be equally blessed.
"I'm sorry." Gavin apologized for his daughter's behavior. "She doesn't mean to be rude. She's just shy."
"That's okay. Is she starting grade one this year?"
He nodded, keeping his eye on the child. When she reached the end of the block, she turned the trike around and started back for home.
With the full sun in Gavin's face, Allison saw lines around his eyes and mouth that she hadn't noticed before. He didn't just seem tired. He looked sad.
For that matter, so did Tory. She pushed the pedals on her tricycle grimly. No trace of pleasure on her pretty face.
" Gavin began. "How long have you lived here?"
"In Squam Lake, all my life. But only in this house a few years." Allison chatted about the town for a while, and Gavin explained that he was an architect, with plans to support himself here designing cottages.
"I used to work at a downtown office in Hartford, but I want to be around for Tory as much as possible. Provided I can line up enough clients to keep bread on the table."
Admirable goals for a father. Only where was the mom? Inside unpacking? Gavin might think she was prying if she asked. Worse yet, if he was a single dad, he might think she was hitting on him.
"I should get going. I was about to make dinner." She took a few steps toward her house.
"Do you and Tory like lasagna? I'm having it for dinner and I always make extra. I'd be happy to bring over a casserole."
Tory stopped her tricycle by her father's feet. He held her hand as she got off. "What about it, Tory? Would you like lasagna for dinner?"
She looked at her father mutely. Gavin seemed disappointed by her silence, but also resignedas if he'd expected nothing more. He forced a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "If it isn't too much trouble, that would be great."