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Three days earlier Fund-raiser Dinner and Auction, Mossy Oak Inn
Late summer painted the sky in shades of gold and purple, the setting sun sliding toward the horizon in a final blaze of light as Lauren eased out of her sister's car and smoothed her hand over the simple lines of her black cocktail dress. "Ready or not, here we go."
"I'm definitely ready, but you look like you're going to chicken out." Dee's words held a hint of humor, but her gaze was somber as she rounded the car and put a hand on Lauren's arm.
"Chicken out of what? It's just a dinner."
"And an auction."
"Which I said I'd participate in."
"And which we both know you regretted doing two seconds after the fact."
It was true and Lauren didn't bother denying it. Her older sister knew her too well to be fooled by anything she might say. "It's not that I don't want to help raise funds for Magnolia College. It's just that this stuff isn't my thing. I'd rather not have all the attention."
"You'd rather let other people take center stage while you hide in a back room somewhere." Dee smiled, her perfectly applied makeup showcasing flawless skin and vivid blue eyesthe only feature the two sisters had in common. Pretty and popular in high school and college, Dee had never seemed to mind being in the spotlight. Lauren always had.
"There's nothing wrong with that."
"No, but this will be good for you and good for your business. Just think of all the clients you'll gain."
"I don't need any more clients. I'm busy enough." Her personal chef business had taken off in the past year, word of mouth expanding her clientele enough that she was considering hiring another chef.
"Then skip out. I can tell Steff you're not feeling well. You can go back to my place and chill. Come back and pick me up when the fund-raiser is over."
"You know I can't do that."
"I know you won't do it, which is why there's no sense standing around here talking about it any longer." Dee tightened her hold on Lauren's arm and started toward the door of Mossy Oak Inn.
Lauren wanted to pull back, take a minute to study the people moving in groups toward the entrance. She wanted to search their faces, looking for the one person she didn't want to see. If he wasn't there, she'd be fine. If he was
She'd still be fine.
After all, she'd agreed to participate in the auction knowing that Seth Chartrand might be there. That's exactly what she intended to do. If that meant coming face-to-face with a past she'd just as soon forget, so be it.
A few yards ahead, two women and three men neared the door, laughing and talking, their easy camaraderie drawing Lauren's attention. The tall broad-shouldered man walking just a step ahead of the rest kept it. Purposeful stride, taller than the other two men, he had an easy confidence that made Lauren slow her pace and pull against Dee's hold.
Maybe she wasn't as ready to face Seth as she thought she was.
Dee shot her a look, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow. "Relax. That's not Seth."
"I didn't think it was."
"Sure you did, but you don't have to worry about running into the jerk. He never attends alumni events. Probably too embarrassed to show his face after what he did to you."
"What happened between Seth and me happened eleven years ago, Dee. We're both over it now, so there's no need to call him a jerk."
Dee shrugged slender shoulders. "Any guy who talks marriage with my sister and then breaks her heart will always be a jerk to me."
Lauren laughed, her sister's support easing some of her anxiety. She still didn't want to see Seth tonight. Jerk or not, he had been a huge part of her high school years. Their breakup during college had been heart shattering. It had also forced her to grow up and face the world alone.
But that wasn't something she wanted to worry about tonight. Tonight she wanted to relax and enjoy the company of old friends, the ease of having no clients to cook for, no menus to plan. She refused to let anxiety about seeing Seth ruin that for her.
Dee tugged her across the parking lot, pulling her along at a swift pace, her perfume wafting on cool September air, her stride brisk and confident despite the high heels she wore. Lauren's own heels threatened to trip her up and send her spilling onto the pavement. "Slow down, Dee. You know I can't walk fast in these shoes."
"You can't walk fast in anything higher than a tennis shoe, but I forgive you. Now, hurry up before we miss something good."
"Like what? Two hundred people all gossiping about someone just out of earshot?"
"Not someone. The skeleton that was found near the library. That's all anyone in Magnolia Falls is talking about lately."
"Yeah? It sounds like a pretty morbid topic for dinner conversation."
"Morbid doesn't bother people nowadays. They want information and they don't care how or when they get it. The more they have, the more important they feel."
"What's to feel important about? That poor woman's death has nothing to do with anyone here tonight."
"We'll see. I plan to find out what people are saying, what they're thinking. How it's going to affect Magnolia College." An employee at a successful public relations firm, Dee was always interested in how information could affect the reputation of organizations. It didn't surprise Lauren that her sister was interested in hearing what was being said about the human remains that had been found on Magnolia College's campus.
Lauren, on the other hand, cared more about the menu than the gossip. Balance and aesthetics, temperature, taste, those things could be controlled and predicted. People could not. "I don't see how something that happened years ago could have any effect on the college."
"How could it not? Finding a body on campus is sure to bring bad publicity. It already has. You've seen the papers. All the talk about safety on campus and whether or not Magnolia College is doing enough to make sure its students are protected from predators." Dee was moving even faster now, her body nearly humming with excitement and energy. It had been that vibrancy that had made her popular in high school and college, and still made her the center of any gathering.
"I thought all publicity was good publicity."
"Maybe if you're an actress. What parent is going to want to send a son or daughter to a school where a body lay buried and unnoticed for ten years?"
"Good point. I guess that's why you're a publicist and I'm a chef." Lauren pushed opened double-wide doors and stepped into the warmth of the inn. Muted light illuminated the spacious foyer and gleamed off rich mahogany furniture. The elegant simplicity made it the place to be, and most high-class Magnolia Falls functions were held there.
"You're here! I was worried you weren't going to show." Stephanie Kessler hurried toward them, blond hair bouncing as she moved, violet eyes reflecting both worry and relief.
"Have you ever known me to not do something I said I would?" Lauren smiled and leaned forward to embrace her friend.
"No, but the way things have been going lately, I wouldn't have been surprised if you broke with tradition."
"The way things have been going lately? It seems to me they've been going pretty well for you. You've met the man of your dreams and are desperately in love. What could be better?" Dee air kissed Steff's cheeks.
"Being in love and not having to worry about things at the college." Steff smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.
"You're always worrying about that."
"Now more so than ever." Steff glanced around, then spoke quietly. "I'm getting enough e-mail to crash my computer and phone calls all day long. Someone's body was under that sidewalk. Everyone wants to know whose." She shook her head.
"The police aren't any closer to identifying the remains?"
"No, but I can't help wondering"
"If it's someone we knew." Lauren had been wondering the same.
"There were a lot of people missing at the reunion. Payton Bell. Josie Skerritt. Angela Heaton." She shrugged, turned toward the corridor that led to the ballroom. "I guess now isn't the time to talk about it. Dinner's going to be served soon. Then the auction. You're up first, Lauren."
"I'll introduce you and the service you're offering. All you need to do is stand there and look gorgeous while people bid."
"Gorgeous is more Dee's thing than mine."
"Give yourself a little credit, Laur. You look beautiful.
Even if you can't walk in those shoes." Dee smirked and hurried down the corridor with Steff.
Leaving Lauren no choice but to follow.
She walked more slowly, her wobbly heels twisting under her as she headed for the ballroom muttering under her breath. "If I make it through tonight without falling on my face and completely embarrassing myself it'll be a miracle."
"Still talk to yourself? I thought you'd have outgrown the habit by now." The gruff voice came from behind her, deep, quiet and filled with humor and warmth. And a million memories Lauren refused to acknowledge.
"Seth." She schooled her features as she turned to face him, pasting on the cool, professional smile she'd perfected over the years. "I wondered if you'd be here tonight. It's been a long time."
"It has been. So long I wondered if you'd even remember me." He looked the same, but older. The fine lines at the corner of his eyes, the serious expression in his gaze speaking of a maturity and depth he hadn't had when he'd been a young, brash high school student, or a law-school-bound young adult.
When he'd been the man she'd put her hopes and dreams in. The man she'd loved.
"How could I forget?" The words slipped out, and Seth smiled, the slow, deliberate curve doing exactly what it had the first time they'd metweakening Lauren's knees, speeding her pulse, muddling her thoughts. Fortunately, it was eleven years and a broken heart too late for her to feel more than mild surprise at her reaction. "What I mean is"
"I know what you mean. It's hard to forget what we had."
"And how it ended."
"That, too." He smiled again. "Are you here with your sister? Or do you need a dinner companion?"
Was that an invitation? If so, Lauren had no intention of acknowledging it. "I'm here with Dee and a few friends."
"Let me guessSteff, Jen, Cassie and Kate."
"Then I'd better get you inside the ballroom before they miss you and come looking." He reached for her arm, but Lauren sidestepped, avoiding his touch. Seeing him was bad enough. Feeling the warmth of his hand would be a hundred times worse.
"I can manage on my own. Thanks."
His gaze locked with hers, then dropped to the simple black cocktail dress she wore. She'd planned her wardrobe to reflect how she wanted to portray herselfelegant, in charge, independent. Strong. Much different than the shy young woman she'd been in high school and college.
Maybe he saw that. Surprise flashed in his eyes. Then speculation, as if he were trying to match the woman he was speaking to with the one he'd known so long ago. "I'm sure you can. It was nice seeing you again."
She nodded, but didn't say the same. Nice wasn't the word she'd use. Uncomfortable. Strange. Even a little alarming. Not nice.
She'd already turned away, but his voice, the pet name he'd used so often when they were young stopped her in her tracks. "Don't call me that, Seth."
"Why not? It's how I think of you."
"I'd rather you not think of me at all."
"That's a little cold." He moved up beside her, relaxed and at ease. Confident. Just as he'd always been.
"I didn't mean it to be. I just meant that we stopped thinking about each other years ago. There's no reason to start again."
He stared into her eyes for a minute, searching for something. Forgiveness? Acceptance? Neither was Seth's style. At least it hadn't been.
Finally, he nodded. "Point taken."
"Good. Now I really had better go find my sister and friends. Enjoy your evening." She smiled, hoping he wouldn't see how shaken she felt, how off balance. Seeing Seth had been harder than she'd thought it would be, but it was over and the rest of the evening could only get better. Right?
Except for the part where she'd have to stand up in front of the ballroom while people bid for her chef services. And the part where she'd have to explain to Dee and the other girls why it had taken so long to get to their table. Not to mention the whole being-in-a-room-filled-with-people-she-didn't-know thing.
At least she'd have Dee and the gang close by. They were always good for conversation, laughs and distraction. For now, she'd let that be enough.