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Strawberries. The leading story on the news was about strawberries. No murders, no robberies, no political scandals. "Xander," he said to himself with a wry chuckle, "you're not in D.C. anymore."
Xander Langston had been glued to the local news tonight, as he had been for the past two nights, waiting for things to hit the fan. He'd come home to Cornwall to handle the fallout, but so far the local broadcasts had focused on the unseasonably mild weather, the local youth baseball team's successes and the upcoming strawberry festival. He flipped off the old fuzzy television in the living room and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. He was ordering a flat-screen television for the bunkhouse and the main house the next time he got on his laptop. He wouldn't have time to drive into Canton and buy them in person.
If the biggest buzz around town was the Strawberry Days Festival, life was good. No news was good newsespecially with his first book hitting shelves next week and an election year coming up. His critics liked to point out that he'd been elected the first time only because his predecessor and mentor, beloved longtime congressman Walt Kimball, had hand-selected him to follow in his footsteps. Whatever the reason, Xander had succeeded in a landslide victory over his opponent. At the time, he was one of the youngest congressmen ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, just making the age requirement of twenty-five.
This fall he would be kicking off yet another reelection campaign and Xander would prefer to remain gainfully employed. That meant a solid voting record, no sound bites that could be taken out of context and absolutely no scandals of any kind. Typically, it was easy for Xander to avoid scandals. He wasn't married, so he couldn't have affairs. He didn't have an interest in prostitutes. He'd never been offered any bribes, and even if he had, he would have turned them down.
But everyone had a skeleton in their closet, so to speak. And that was why he was back in Connecticut at the Garden of Eden Christmas Tree Farm watching this crappy television instead of burning the midnight oil in his Capitol Hill office.
With a sigh, Xander got up from the couch and walked over to the window. The sun had already disappeared behind the rolling green hills, but it was still light enough to illuminate the farm. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but balsam and Fraser fir trees.
It was a startling view after being away for so long. Looking out the window of his office in the Longworth House Building earned him an excellent view of the Capitol Building and the sea of tourists and buses traveling up and down Independence Avenue. Those people traveled thousands of miles for the sights he ignored on a daily basis. He was too busy to appreciate the classic architecture and historic significance surrounding him. Most of the time, he took the underground tunnels to the Capitol Building and missed it entirely.
He might have a plush, professionally decorated town house a few blocks from the office in the Capitol Hill district, but this placewith its old, worn furniture and acres of treeswas home. This was where he'd grown up. Being back here, surrounded by the calming influences of nature and fresh air, Xander felt more at ease than he had since he left home for Georgetown and a fast-track career in politics. There was no traffic gridlock here, no honking cabs, no frantic running through the metro stations. He could finally breathe.
Things wouldn't stay peaceful here for long, though. The literal skeleton in Xander's closet belonged to Tommy Wilder and last Christmas it had been unearthed by a construction crew on land that used to be part of the farm. So far there had been no luck in identifying the body, but that would soon change. Brody, his computer-genius foster brother and one of the four "Eden boys," had emailed them all about a week ago with news that the police had commissioned a facial re-creation sketch, but it hadn't been released to the public yet. Xander hadn't asked how Brody knew about it. He was just grateful for the heads-up.
When the sketch hit the news, people would start sniffing around the farm for answers. They'd garnered some attention when the body was first unearthed, but no one really believed it had anything to do with his foster parents, Ken and Molly Eden. The sketch would change that. When Tommy was identified, it would place the dead teenager in their care and people would be forced to consider their involvement. His foster parents weren't fit to deal with the journalists and police that would knock on their door looking for information. Ken was recovering from a heart attack and Molly would be too distraught by the idea of Tommy's death to answer questions. They needed someone at the farm to run interference and Xander was the best choice.
From a very early age, he'd had a way with people. He could talk anyone into anything. His mother used to tell everyone he was a born politician. Ladies found him charming. His constituents described him in a poll as "trustworthy, well-spoken and honest." He would use every tool in his arsenal to fight off the press and protect his family.
Xander had been back in Cornwall for two days and so far nothing but Little League and strawberries. That meant he should really take advantage of the peace to run the errand he'd been considering since he arrived home.
He picked up the hardback book on the coffee table and admired his handiwork. "Fostering Faith by Xander Langston," he read aloud. It was still a little surreal even after having author copies for a month already. He'd never intended on writing a book, especially a memoir. Xander had never thought his life was particularly exciting, but the publishing house that had approached him about the project felt otherwise. He was a young and successful congressman whose parents had died tragically and young, thrusting him into the foster-care system. Apparently, that was nonfiction gold.
It had taken a year to write between his official duties and volunteer work at the D.C. Fostering Families Center. Knowing a portion of the proceeds would go to his favorite cause had kept him going when he was stuck in the middle of chapter seven. That and the hefty advance he'd have to return if he changed his mind.
The book came out next week. There would be a charity gala and signing in a couple weeks back in D.C. to raise money for the Fostering Families Center. Hopefully, his reason for coming home wouldn't sink his plans and his sales.
While he was in Cornwall, he wanted to make one special personal delivery. He'd already given copies to his foster parents and his brothers and sister, of course, but he'd brought an extra one on this trip for his high school sweetheart, Rose Pierce. She'd featured heavily in the book as one of the best things to ever happen to him. He wanted her to have an autographed copy and he needed to give it to her in person.
Xander looked down at his watch. It was after seven. His foster brother Wade now lived in Cornwall and had told him that Rose still worked most evenings at Daisy's Diner, just up the highway. This seemed like the perfect time to go. Tonight was Molly's night to play Bunco, so he was on his own for dinner anyway.
He could deliver the book and get a good meal. Daisy's had been a favorite haunt of his teenage years. Rose had worked at the diner back then, too, and he'd wasted many an hour sitting at the counter, sipping milkshakes and talking to her between customers.
Xander climbed into his black Lexus SUV and decided he would get a milkshake tonight for old times' sake, especially if Rose would make it for him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had one. It might have been the summer before he left for Georgetown. The August heat and his lovesick heart had lured him to the diner nearly every day for a chocolate shake and a few last moments with Rose.
Once he'd left town, life had started moving so quickly. Years had flown by in what felt like minutes. His trips back to Cornwall had been short and infrequent. Lately, he was more interested in a crisp Chardonnay with his meal than a tall glass of chocolate ice cream. Daisy's Diner and its milkshakes had become a distant memory from his childhood. But not Rose.
He still remembered touching her as if it were yesterday. They had been each other's first lovesthat young, passionate, all-consuming and overly dramatic love. You never forgot about that. If it were up to him, he would've taken her with him to D.C. He'd asked, damn near begged, but she wouldn't go. She'd had a terminally ill mother and admission to a nearby college that allowed her to stay close to home and care for her.
He'd understood, but he hadn't liked it. He'd also attempted to meet her demand that he go on to Georgetown and forget about her. He'd avoided her when he came to town. He'd even skipped their high school reunion, but he'd realized that forgetting about Rose was impossible. He'd always remember those big brown eyes and pouty lips. He'd always wonder what happened to her.
No longer. Tonight he was going to focus on tracking her down and catching up on lost time. Writing the memoir had brought his memories of Rose to the forefront of his mind. Now that he was back in Connecticut, he had to see her and he wouldn't be distracted from this task, not even by Tommy Wilder's corpse.
Xander pulled into the gravel parking lot at Daisy's. It was a Thursday night and not a particularly busy one if the cars in the lot were any indication. Through the front windows he could see a couple old guys drinking coffee at the counter and a family in the corner booth. He didn't see Rose, but perhaps she was in the kitchen.
He went inside and opted for a booth near the entrance. It was fairly warm in the diner, making him wish he'd chosen a polo shirt and khakis instead of the long-sleeved dress shirt and blazer he had on. He slipped out of his navy Armani jacket and hung it on the coat hook before he sat down on the red leather bench and tossed the book beside him.
The menus were clipped in a metal stand behind the ketchup and the napkin dispenser, so he reached over and started studying. Not much had changed since he'd been here aside from the prices. They still had milkshakes and his favorite bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and crispy onion rings.
It was a heart attack on a platter, but tonight he wouldn't worry about that. He never got to eat casual, home-cooked food like this in D.C. There it was nothing but expensive multicourse meals at gourmet restaurants. Quick lunches included fresh hand-rolled sushi or gyros and falafel from the carts on the street. But the common feature was always eating while working; talking legislation and deals with other political insiders over a meal was standard practice.
This diner made him feel as if he were seventeen all over again. The only thing missing was
"Hey there, can I get you something to drink?"
Xander looked up and found himself lost in the wide brown eyes that headlined his teenage fantasies. Rosalyn Pierce, his first love, standing right in front of him after all this time, as though he were dreaming while he sat there.
"Xander?" she said, her jaw initially dropping in surprise before she tightened her lips into a stiff line of concern. She was real. His fantasy Rose would've climbed into his lap and nibbled on his ear as she used to.
"Rose," he replied, his mouth suddenly dry. He'd come here specifically looking for her, yet finally coming face-to-face with her threw his entire body for a loop. "Wade mentioned I could find you at Daisy's. I'm so glad you're still working here
." His voice trailed off when he realized it sounded as if she hadn't done much with her life in the past decade. Rose's guarded expression was proof enough of that. Normally he would've phrased that better, but seeing Rose had robbed him of his usual polished poise. "I apologizethat didn't come out right."
She gave him a watery smile and shook her head. "Not to worry. Most people aren't lucky enough to turn their after-school job into a full-time career like I did. If it helps at all, there was a five-year gap where I didn't even step foot in the building, but they couldn't keep me away forever."
A million thoughts raced through Xander's mind and he fought to put them in some sort of order. His heart began pounding in his chest as if he were in a live televised debate and had just been thrown a curveball question by the moderator. Fortunately, he performed best under pressure.
Rose was as beautiful as he remembered, maybe even more so. In high school she'd been just a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. Now her familiar curves were more lush, making the little cotton uniform cling more deli-ciously than he recalled. Her long straight brown hair was pulled into a sleek ponytail that fell over her shoulder. The tip teased at the swell of her breasts, allowing his gaze to follow to her cleavage and, eventually, over to her name tag. It still read Rosalyn P., as it had in school.
Had no one snatched her off the market yet? He quickly glanced at her ring finger, which was as bare as his own. That was a crime. A woman like Rose should've been married years ago to a man who appreciated and worshipped her. Sometimes he wished that man had been him. He should've fought for her, asked her to marry him and not taken no for an answer, but how could he ask her to leave her mother when she was so ill?
Xander wanted to talk to her, to see what she'd been doing since the last time he saw her. She'd left Cornwall to go to Western Connecticut University when he went to Georgetown. The school had a teaching hospital where her mother was being treated and a great elementary education program. She loved kids and had wanted to teach. What had happened? Why was she back to waitressing when she had so much potential?
"I meant I was glad you're still working here because it made you easier to find. Do you have time to chat with me and catch up some?"
She glanced around the restaurant, biting at her lip. He couldn't tell if she thought she shouldn't or she just didn't want to talk to him. There was a hesitation in her that he didn't quite understand. They'd parted well, hadn't they? She'd broken up with him, so if anyone should be upset, it was him, right?
"Maybe in a little bit after this family finishes up. I'm the only server tonight, but they're almost done. In the meantime, what can I get for you to eat?"
Xander turned away from her confusing expression to let his gaze flick back over the menu and then remembered what he'd chosen. "First I think I'll take some iced tea with lemon. Then I'll have the Texan burger with fries and one of your awesome chocolate milkshakes."
Rose stopped writing on her pad and smiled. He could tell she recognized his order even though it had been eleven years since she'd brought him food to the counter. She looked up at him, her expression softening for the first time. "The usual, huh? Some things never change, do they?"
Xander shook his head and held her gaze. Her beauty hadn't faded. His body's reaction to her was just as immediate, powerful and distracting as it had ever been. Every inch of his body had grown tense when he caught a glimpse of her familiar curves and breathed in her perfume. It made him wonder if the magic they'd make under the summer stars would be just as explosive. "They sure don't. And I'm glad."