Karen Rose Smith



Fifteenth Year High-School Reunion

      Her heart racing, Mikala Conti watched as Dawson Barrett crossed the cafeteria floor and extended his hand.  "Would you like to dance?"

     She hadn't seen him for fifteen years.  The blue and yellow streamers decorating the ceiling and the spinning silver mirror ball faded away as she remembered catching glimpses of him in this cafeteria so many years ago.  Memories sifted around her, like the reflective silver light.  One stood out—prom night and the way Dawson had rescued her from a terrible situation.

     "It's been a long time," she said, shaking off the flash from the past as she took his hand and rose to her feet. 

     He guided her a short distance away to a free spot on the tiled floor and took her into his arms.

     Mikala felt breathless—sort of light-headed—and she knew she had to get a grip.  She wasn't like this.  She was never giddy or impulsive or even daring.  But as Dawson's hand skimmed across her back under her long, wavy black hair, as it came to rest on the silky fabric of her sedate yet dressy black dress, she couldn't seem to control any of her body's reactions. 

     He seemed to enjoy the moment, too.  When she gazed up into his eyes she remembered the boy he'd been and realized what an absolutely sexy man he'd become! They danced together as if they had done it more than once before.  His green eyes didn't reflect all the years between then and now.  They reflected a bond they'd once had.

     But then he said—

     "I didn't come tonight just for old times' sake.  I needed to talk to you.  I know you're a music therapist.  My son needs your help.  Will you consider taking him on as a patient?"

     Remembering again the night of her prom, Mikala knew she'd do anything she could to help Dawson.

     For old times' sake.


Chapter One


     Mikala checked the music-note shaped wall clock, her heart pounding faster with each passing minute.  Her studio, a two-room cabin-like structure in the backyard of the Purple Pansy Bed and Breakfast was her second home.  Growing up, she'd wrapped herself in music—listening to it, playing it, getting lost in the emotion of it—whenever life got complicated. 

     Now Dawson Barrett wanted her to use music to help his son.

     Last summer, they'd reconnected at their high school reunion.  Then before Christmas, Dawson had called and confirmed he'd be moving back to Miners Bluff and putting Luke under her care.

     The cabin's chiming doorbell melodically announced Dawson's arrival.  He'd said he'd be here at one-thirty, and it was one-thirty on the dot.  She'd dressed with more care than usual, wearing a deep purple cowl-neck sweater over gray slacks.  Smoothing her hands down over her hips, she took a deep breath and pushed her long, black hair over one shoulder. 

     When she opened the door, the January wind swept in.  Right away she noticed the deep lines around Dawson's eyes, a furrow in his brow and fatigue on his face.  His sandy brown hair was windswept and his leather jacket was zipped tight against the cold.

     Their dance last summer was vivid in her mind—the way he'd held her, the way her heart had fluttered madly.  Also still vivid were memories that went farther back—prom night and how he'd given her the ability to dream.

     But then he'd left without a word.  And all these years she'd wondered about him and the life he'd found, even though she'd heard rumors that he'd been widowed, was a wealthy CEO and a success in the field of construction.

     "Come in!"  She motioned to the office area of her studio, thinking Dawson looked as if he needed to get warm.

     "I cut it a little close."  He gave her one of those smiles that had always affected something deep inside of her.       "You said on the phone you had an appointment to meet with the principal at the elementary school at three-thirty."

     "I do, and none too soon."

     She felt an urgency about Dawson now that hadn't been in his voice when they'd spoken before.  "Did something happen?"

     "Luke tried to run away."

     "Oh, Dawson.  Let's sit."

     Besides her mahogany desk, there was a cranberry-colored corduroy loveseat and two camel leather club chairs.  They gravitated to the loveseat as Dawson unzipped his jacket and shrugged out of it.  She couldn't help but notice the breadth of his shoulders in his navy sweater, the way his jeans hugged his slim hips and long legs. 

     This was Dawson, she told herself sternly.  He was a friend who needed her help.

     Memories from high school came rushing back—pouring over algebra in the library with him, catching a ride home in his yellow mustang, talking with their friends around the kitchen table at the B&B, the night of the prom.

     Shoving any thoughts but those of his ten-year-old son aside, she suggested, "Tell me what happened."

He tossed his jacket over a chair and lowered himself to the loveseat beside her.  After taking in his surroundings in a glance, peering into the music room with its sofa, folding chairs, instruments—the piano front and center—Dawson brought his gaze back to hers.  "Luke's class has been exploring the benefits of computers as far as exchanging information with other schools.  They partnered with a school in Kentucky and Luke made an online friend.  When he tried to run away, he almost hopped a bus to Kentucky where Jared lives."

She could hardly imagine the scare Dawson had experienced with Luke trying to run away.  Longing to be a parent herself, the past few years she'd considered registering with an adoption agency.  If she was a mom, the idea of a child being lost out in the world would be terrifying. 

      Dawson raked his hand through his hair.  "I'd been working in my home office, and I didn't even know he was gone.  Another half-hour and he would have been on that bus."

     "What exactly is going on?"  She knew the basics.  She'd received the evaluation and notes from Luke's two previous therapists, who hadn't been able to make headway with him.  Dawson's wife had died in an automobile accident and Luke had been in the car with her.  Yet he didn't remember the day of the accident or the accident.  Most of all, he refused to cooperate with any attempt to form the trust-bond so necessary to counselor-client success.  Mikala knew about losing a mom, though her circumstances had been very different from Luke's.  No child got over that loss easily.

     "Bottom line, he's unhappy," Dawson said.  "He's fighting at school.  He hardly talks to me.  I think he feels pressured to remember what happened and believes I expect him to.  I only want him to remember if it will help him."

     Mikala thought about that.  "It might help.  It could hurt.  We won't know until I get to know him a bit."

     After a few beats of silence, Dawson admitted, "For the first time since I started my business, I'm going to be hands-off for a while.  Luke is my main concern.  My dad's my second-hand man and he'll stay in Phoenix overseeing the company.  I have other good people there, too.  I won't be working like I used to."

     "Long days to make the business thrive?"  Through Miners Bluff's gossip mills, she'd heard Dawson's contracting company had found success when other companies couldn't.  But that was no consolation now.  She could see regrets in his green eyes and couldn't figure out exactly what they were from.  She needed to know about his regrets if she was going to help his son.  Some of them might have touched Luke.

     "What's bothering you most?" she prompted, hoping Dawson would be open with her so she could help.

     "Most?" he asked with a wry grin that wasn't really a grin.  "I've worked sixteen hour days for as long as I can remember.  Not as many since Kelly died, but enough.  Maybe that made Luke's problem worse."

     Mikala's radar went on alert.  When she'd known Dawson in high school, she'd not only wanted to be around him because he was sexy.  She'd loved spending time with him because he was kind and respectful and never took advantage of any of his friends.  Were his regrets tied into his success...or his marriage? 

     Years of practice had her wait in silence for Dawson to continue.

     "For years I thought Kelly and I were happy," he finally said.  "As my business grew, we moved to a bigger house, and when Luke was ready, enrolled him in a private school.  I wasn't home much, but when I was, I thought everything was okay.  But after Luke started school, Kelly began to change."

     Dawson broke eye contact.  "Maybe none of this matters.  My main concerns are Luke's fighting, his not getting along in school, his grades plummeting.  But most of all his general attitude.  I just need to know how to talk to him...how to get through to him."

     Before Mikala could stop herself, she covered Dawson's hand with hers.  To her surprise, the contact was electric.  She glimpsed a startled look in his eyes, too, and she pulled her hand back quickly.

     "It all matters, Dawson.  Children are sponges.  They soak in their surroundings, everything they hear, everything they see, and even the feelings swirling around them.  So whether you think something's important or not, it doesn't hurt to tell me."

     Quickly Dawson swung his gaze back to her, studying her face.  Then he rubbed his forehead.  "Okay."  After a few pensive moments, he blew out a breath.  "Kelly and I married because she was pregnant.  And..."  He hesitated.  "She didn't go back to work after Luke was born.  I was making serious money then, so her working didn't matter.  We decided not to hire a nanny.  But once Luke started school, she seemed to want her freedom more...to work out, attend clubs, join charity groups.  I think she came to resent the fact she was the one who had most of the responsibility for Luke."

     When Dawson stopped, she had the feeling there was something he wasn't telling her.  But she didn't halt the flow of his thoughts.  "I made the point of coming home early now and then to be there when Luke got off the bus.  He seemed happy and I was always grateful for that."

     Dawson went silent again, then continued, "That December, Luke had the day off for teacher in-service.  A babysitter was supposed to watch him so Kelly could go holiday shopping in Flagstaff and stay overnight.  At the last minute, the babysitter canceled, and Kelly couldn't reach me.  I was on a job site and my phone went to voice mail.  So she left me a message that she was taking Luke with her."

     Mikala watched as Dawson's face became set, his shoulders more square.  He seemed to want to distance himself from the memory.  His voice dropped to a far-away monotone.  "There was ice on the road.  She went off the side of a deep shoulder, the car rolled and hit a tree.  She wasn't wearing a seatbelt...she was killed on impact."

     Dawson cleared his throat, pain all too evident in his expression. 

     Mikala said gently, "Take your time."

     One of his hands balled into a fist.  "I lost Kelly, but I was so grateful Luke survived.  He was in the hospital for a week, recovering from a concussion and internal injuries.  It was touch and go for two days and when he woke up, he didn't remember anything that had happened the day of the accident or that night.  I took him to therapists and he wouldn't talk to them.  He withdrew even more.  I can't get through to him.  My dad can't, either.  When I found him at the bus station, he cried and screamed that he didn't want to go home."

     Mikala could only guess what that had done to Dawson...how it had hurt him more deeply than he could say.

     "I don't know what to do for him," he said in a low voice, as if the admission cost him.  "When I found out you were a music therapist who came highly recommended, I came to the reunion believing the idea of you treating Luke seemed to be the best one because Luke loves music.  He's taken piano lessons since he was seven.  And I think Miners Bluff will be good for us both."

     When she and Dawson had danced together at the reunion, an old attraction to him had tugged at her.  But it had no place here.  Dawson's life was in turmoil and his son was his priority and would be hers, too.

     Still, as their gazes held, the room seemed to shake a little.  Yet Dawson was counting on her as a friend who could help his son.  She would help any child in this situation.

     "I'll do my best to help put Luke on a healthy emotional path.  I can't tell you I'm going to solve anything, Dawson, but I can at least try to get the two of you talking again."

     A light rap on the door startled them, and Mikala knew it must be her Aunt Anna.  She didn't have her "In Session" sign up.  But if she didn't answer the knock, her aunt would go about her business, knowing Mikala couldn't be interrupted. 

     Glancing at Dawson's face, she could see he hadn't wanted to revisit the past, but he'd done it for his son's sake.  She assured him, "I don't have to answer that."

     "Go ahead," he said with a small smile and she could see he was glad for the break.

     When she stood, her arm brushed Dawson's shoulder.  Again there was a quick meeting of their gazes, but neither said anything.  She felt totally unsettled and was glad to open the door again and feel the cold breeze.

     Her Aunt Anna smiled at her.  "I saw the car, but your sign wasn't turned around so I thought—"

     "It's okay.  Come on in.  Dawson Barrett's here."  She didn't say more.  If Dawson wanted her aunt to know anything else, he would tell her.

     Her aunt's wavy, steel-gray hair attractively framed her face. She was wearing a jogging suit with a down jacket and her favorite pair of sneakers.  Mikala's heart contracted with love for this woman who had raised her.  She owed her aunt more than she could ever repay and she loved her dearly. 

     Dawson stood and came forward, hand extended.

     "Hello, Ms. Conti.  It's good to see you again."

     Aunt Anna never stood on ceremony.  She wrapped her arms around Dawson for a hug.  "Don't give me that 'Ms. Conti' baloney.  You called me Aunt Anna when you were a teenager.  You can still call me that."  She stood back to take a better look at him.  "Mikala told me you were at the reunion.  She's never forgotten you, you know.  You were her white knight at the prom."

     Mikala wanted to crawl under the loveseat, but Dawson chuckled.  "I don't know how much of a white knight I was."

     His green gaze rested on Mikala and she remembered everything about that night in vivid detail—her torn dress, the date who had tried to maul her in the back of his car, Dawson coming to her rescue when she'd called out.  Even more than all that, she remembered Dawson's gentle kiss on her forehead after he'd taken her home.  She'd told her aunt what had happened.

     After what seemed like an excruciatingly long time, Dawson turned back to Anna.  "Did Mikala tell you I'm moving back to Miners Bluff?"

     "No, she didn't."  Anna waited for him to explain.

     "I have a ten-year-old son.  My wife died and he's having a hard time.  So I thought moving back here, giving him roots in a smaller community might help.  Mikala's skill as a music therapist is well-known.  She's going to spend some time with him."

     "Well, if anyone can help him get settled again, I'm sure she can.  Is your son with you?"

     "No, not yet.  I came up today to meet with Mikala, to see the school and register him, to stay over and refamiliarize myself with what's here.  I'll bring Luke up to Miners Bluff in a couple of weeks when his term in Phoenix ends."

     "I see."  Anna paused, looked at Mikala, and then asked Dawson, "Do you have a place to stay tonight...or when you move back?"

     "Not yet.  I was going to check into a motel and look for something temporary until I find a house.  I'm going to check around before I return to Phoenix."

     "If I could make a suggestion," Anna offered.

     "I'm open to suggestions," Dawson responded with that smile that could disarm anyone. He'd always been an easy conversationalist.  As senior class president and a basketball star, he'd had his pick of girls to date.  Yet his circle of friends had been most important to him.

     "January isn't a prime tourist month in Miners Bluff," Anna explained wryly.  "So the bed and breakfast has two suites vacant, one on the first floor with one bedroom and one on the third with two bedrooms.  You could have your pick.  For tonight and for when you return.  I'd even give you a weekly rate since you don't know how long you'd need to stay."

     "Aunt Anna, Dawson might want something...different than the B&B."

     Actually, Dawson looked relieved.  "No, I think the Purple Pansy might be perfect.  Convenient for tonight.  And just right for me and Luke.  Staying here could be good for him.  That is if your biscotti and pie are part of the deal."

     Anna laughed.  "You drive a hard bargain.  But biscotti are always in the jar and I make pies twice a week.  I never know who will drop in, or if I'll get a last-minute reservation."

     "Could I take a look at the suites now?" Dawson asked.

     "Well..." Anna drawled, "I have a meeting in town.  But Mikala could show them to you."

     Her aunt hadn't mentioned a meeting that morning when they'd spoken.  She wasn't trying to play matchmaker, was she?  Because Dawson wasn't ready for that.  She wasn't sure she was, either—or would ever be.

     Dawson was looking at her expectantly. 

     "Sure, I can show them to you.  We should have enough time before your appointment."

     Mikala took her wool jacket from the coat rack behind the door, slipped it on and buttoned it up to the neck even though they weren't walking very far.  For some reason she felt as if she needed all of her defenses buttoned into place around Dawson.  Which made no sense.  Her dreams of attracting someone like Dawson had died a long time ago.  She knew she wasn't sexy.  She knew loving brought heartache and doubled a woman's insecurities.

     In high school, Dawson's casual good looks had gotten him dates with all the popular girls and his souped-up Mustang had made him the envy of most of the guys.  Dawson had been popular and cool.  Playing basketball and being able to talk to anyone had helped that image.

     She, on the other hand had been mostly quiet and introspective.

     Locking up the high school memories in a tight box, she led Dawson out the door and up the flagstone path to the Purple Pansy, not only a well-liked B&B on the northern Arizona tourist route, but her home for all of her thirty-three years.  Her aunt had run the B&B since before Mikala was born, in addition to giving piano lessons, taking in typing for a temp agency and working as a receptionist on and off.  Anna had worked hard to keep a roof over their heads, good food on the table and laughter in the kitchen.  Mikala knew she could never repay her aunt for raising her when her mother had left and hardly looked back.

     "There's snow in the air," Dawson remarked, as they walked along the path profuse with flowers in summer and fall, now barren with the winter cold. 

     Glancing over at Dawson, she had to look up.  She wasn't short.  She was a good five-eight.  "Very different from Phoenix."

     "Maybe I can coax Luke outdoors more here and involve him in winter sports.  He spends too much time cooped up in his room.  Cactus and heat don't help."

     "Does he have a specific reason for fighting the move?"  No one particularly liked change, but children could be more resilient than adults.

     "He's protesting in part because my dad's staying there.  And, of course, Phoenix is the only home he knows.  It's where we were a family.  Where he had his mom."

     Mikala saw the sadness in Dawson's eyes when he spoke of his deceased wife.  But she sensed he was hurting more for Luke than himself.  Was she right about that?  Had Dawson's marriage been less than he expected it to be?  Had an unplanned pregnancy made it rocky from the start?

     On the patio of the B&B, Dawson looked around at the sycamores and pines, Moonshadow Mountain and Feather Peak in the distance.

     "It's just as I remembered it."

     There was nostalgia in his voice and she wondered exactly what he was remembering. 

     When they stepped into the kitchen, Mikala caught the scent of vanilla and lavender.  The whole house seemed to have that scent, except when she or her aunt were baking.  Then cinnamon and fruit smells filled the every nook and cranny. 

     There was surprise in Dawson's voice when he said, "This changed."

     The house was about a hundred years old and well-maintained.  Overall, it had an old-fashioned air with its bronze sconces on walls that resembled oil lamps, ceiling lights with chandelier bulbs and wallpaper with tiny purple and yellow flowers.  However, the kitchen had seen a major overhaul.

     Glancing around the kitchen, Mikala smiled.  "Stainless steel moved in so I guess it's more modern.  We have a new counter and floor, too.  But some things are still the same."

     Dawson's gaze passed over the oak clock above the sink, the railing above the cupboards holding Hummel figurines, the maple table and chairs that were antiques now.

     "She still has the purple pansy curtains."  He couldn't keep the amusement from his voice.

     "Yes, she does.  They're fairly new, though, the old ones had faded."

     "This still feels...homey," Dawson mused, and Mikala had to wonder if his house didn't.

     Decisive again, he motioned down the hall.  "Let's look at the third floor suite.  Two bedrooms would be better to give both Luke and I some privacy."

     As they walked down the hall, Mikala tried to avoid thinking about the fact that if Dawson took the third floor suite, she'd be on the second floor.  Her quarters and her aunt's were there.  Having Dawson under the same roof gave her stomach an upside-down kind of feeling.

     The carpet runner on the stairs quieted their footsteps.  As they climbed the second flight, she asked him, "How much will you be bringing with you?"

     "Just enough to make Luke comfortable.  I'll have his bedroom furniture and the piano trucked up here when we're ready, but the rest of it I'm going to leave at the house.  The market is picking up there, and with everything priced right, I'm hoping a furnished house will sell quickly.  If Luke and I are starting a new life, it will be better that way."

     "You might ask him if there's anything else he wants to keep.  Baggage is one thing, Dawson, but memories are another.  You don't want to tear him away from everything he knows.  He could be fighting the move because he feels that's what you're doing."

     At the landing now, Dawson looked troubled.  "I hope I'm not making a mistake.  But nothing is working for Luke in Phoenix."

     "What's your gut telling you?" Mikala asked, as they stood at the door to the third floor suite, close enough to share confidences and remember friendship that might have been more.  If only—

     If only Dawson's family hadn't moved away, whatever the reason.

     "My gut's telling me this is right." 

     "Then maybe I can help him marry the past with the present."

     The word marry seemed to hang between them and she wondered why she'd chosen that word.  To remind herself Dawson had been married?  That even after two years he might still be grieving?  That nothing could come of any attraction she might feel?  That she didn't trust that anyone would stay and not leave, especially a man...especially someone she loved?  She'd been left behind more than once and she wouldn't let it happen again.  The memory of Alan Taylor telling her he'd fallen for someone else still stung...still hurt...bringing back a feeling of inadequacy she'd fought against since she was a teenager.

Mikala took a key ring from her pocket.  It jangled as she poked an old-fashioned key into the door and turned the lock.  The solid wood door swung open.  She and Dawson stepped inside to a sitting room where braided rugs in hunter green and navy dotted the floor.  The navy leather couch was accompanied by a green and blue plaid chair. 

Mikala switched on a multi-colored Tiffany lamp so Dawson could see there was a small kitchen area with a microwave, two-burner stove and a table for two.  Yellow curtains and placemats brightened up the small space. 

     As Dawson assessed the suite, Mikala crossed the room to a short hall.  She opened one door to reveal a nice-sized bedroom with a hand carved oak bed and dresser.  A hand-made quilt with navy, red, green, and yellow patches stretched across the bed.  The second bedroom, slightly smaller with a slanted ceiling, had an oak washstand with mirror, a shorter dresser, and a double bed.  Light poured in the double-hung windows, splashing over the green and tan spread.

     "This is perfect," Dawson decided.  "I think Luke and I will both feel comfortable here."  He took a checkbook from his inside jacket pocket.  "I should give your aunt a deposit."

     Automatically Mikala's hand closed over his.  "No, don't worry about that.  She'll settle up with you when the time comes."

     Time seemed suspended for a moment as she could feel the heat of his hand under hers.  He didn't move and neither did she.  Then she realized she should let go.  She shouldn't be touching him. 

     Hurriedly she released her fingers from his and dropped her hand to her side.  But Dawson still seemed frozen in place.  He studied her, maybe searching for the girl she'd once been, a scared lost teenager, not knowing exactly who she was or where she belonged.

     Before she could square her shoulders and tell him she was somebody very different now, he took her back fifteen years by gently grazing his thumb over her cheek.  "When we were in high school—"  He suddenly stopped, dropping his hand to his side.

     "What?" she urged him, believing it was somehow important that he went on.

     "I was going to ask you to the prom."

     Knowing the value of silence, she waited.

     "But too much was going on at home.  Then someone else asked you instead."

     Oh, yes.  Carson Simmons had asked her to the prom and she'd gone with him because he'd been a football player, one of the in-crowd, someone who lots of girls wanted to go out with.  But she'd found out that night why he didn't seem to date anyone more than twice.  She'd found out the hard way that some boys wanted to do more than talk and couldn't—wouldn't—take no for an answer.

     "After I brought you home that night," Dawson added, "I was going to call you." 

     This time she couldn't keep quiet.  "But you didn't."

     "All hell broke loose at home and things got...complicated."  Their gazes locked until he said, "A little bit like now." 

     As if the moment had been much too intense for both of them, he slipped his checkbook back into his jacket pocket then checked his watch.  "I'd better go."

     "I spend some of my time at the elementary school working with students who need help with communication and behavioral issues.  Do you want me to go with you?  I can show you around before your meeting with the principal."

     As soon as she offered, she wasn't sure she should have...because Dawson was looking at her the same way he had the night of their prom.

     "I'd like that," he responded huskily.

     At that moment, Mikala knew she had to bury whatever feelings she'd once had for Dawson so she could help his son.

     That was the professional road to take...the one she must take.

Copyright:  2012 by Karen Rose Smith
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.


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