Cassie opened her front door at 9:17 p.m. “You’re late.”
Grayson had changed into jeans, a green flannel shirt which he wore open over a black thermal T-shirt, and a pair of black work boots. He wasn’t wearing a jacket though an arctic blast of December night air swooshed in through Cassie’s open door. Aside from the slightly frazzled expression on his face, he looked… casual. Sexy casual.
“I got held up.” He met her gaze. “By your dad.”
She started at his head and let her eyes scan down to his work boots. “You’re not bleeding.”
“Miraculously.” He grinned and a balloon filled with something hot and alive burst open inside Cassie.
How can he still be so beautiful after all this time?
Because there was no doubt. Grayson Northe was beautiful. No, scratch that. He was Beautiful. Capital B. His eyes were that forest green with hints of brown, reminding Cassie of all those summer afternoons the two of them had spent hiking in the woods around her family’s lake house in Vermont when they were teens.
Teens in love.
Cassie hadn’t felt anything close to what she’d felt for Grayson with any other guy. Probably why she was still alone, as Aunt Rae had so helpfully pointed out earlier this evening.
“Can I come in?” Grayson asked.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” Get it together. How long had she stared at him in her doorway, remembering the past? Moron.
She stepped aside and let him pass by her. The air around him smelled like soap and wood and man. She inhaled deeply then closed the front door, trying to trap his scent inside her home.
“You want something to drink?” She gestured to the couch in her living room.
He pointed to the mug on her coffee table. The one that said Touch This at Your Own Peril in bloody red writing along the side. “What are you drinking?”
“Tea.” Could she sound any more nursing-home ready? Luckily the scarf she was knitting for her mother was in her bedroom along with her supermarket tabloid reading materials.
“Tea sounds wonderful.” He lowered to her couch with the grace of a leopard and instantly looked as if he belonged there.
Cassie scurried off to the kitchen before she did something stupid like cuddle up close to him. Unfortunately, tea preparation only took mere moments, and she was back in the living room before her body was armed and ready to stay away from him. His arm was draped along the top of the couch now, creating a nice little nook by his side. A nook that screamed her name and had a magnetic pull.
Setting the mug of tea down on the coffee table, she backed up a few steps and sat on the recliner, a safe distance away from him. “What did my dad say to you? Was it about that night?”
Grayson leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Okay, we can jump right into this conversation if you want.”
“I want.” She’d been waiting a long time to find out why Grayson had suddenly disappeared on her—right after graduation. Right after proposing to her. She hadn’t had to think twice about her answer. She’d loved him. Completely. Infinitely. Yes, they’d been young, but neither of them had wanted to waste any time. They were perfect together. They had a glorious future ahead of them. They couldn’t wait to get started on their lives.
But she’d said yes that night, they’d kissed in their caps and gowns, and gone home with their families. The next day, Grayson was gone.
“Let me start by saying I didn’t want to leave, Cassie.” He ran his hand through his hair, his eyes closing as if he were in pain.
She wanted to reach for him, but she forced herself to remain seated in the recliner. She had to hear what he had to say first. She had to know the truth.
“Then why did you leave?”
Grayson slid down on the couch so he was within touching distance. “I don’t want you to think I’m blaming him.” He rested his hand on her knee, and she could feel the heat of him through her pants. “Your father found me that night after I asked you to marry me. He somehow knew already. He told me we were too young. That we’d be ruining our lives if we got married right out of high school. That he wouldn’t allow you to marry me.”
Cassie had always suspected her father was involved in her one true love’s sudden disappearance. He’d never liked Grayson for reasons she couldn’t figure out. Grayson was a good student, a responsible kid even if he was from the “wrong” side of town, but he apparently wasn’t enough for the daughter of Captain Henry Shreaver.
“He told you to go?”
“He paid for me to go.” Grayson got to his knees now in front of Cassie. “Your father paid for my college education. In Australia. He made sure I was all set up, but warned me not to come back for you. He wasn’t going to let us get married. You know my parents couldn’t afford college, Cassie. It seemed like the right thing to do for both of us at the time. The only thing to do.”
“You could have said something to me, Grayson.” She squeezed her eyes shut, remembering the pain his sudden absence had caused. Her heart had been bruised. Badly. She hadn’t been able to get close to anyone else, fearing that someone new would also leave her without a word. She wouldn’t have been able to take that kind of hurt again. “I didn’t know how to find you. No one would say where you went.”
Grayson rubbed his chest as if he had the same ache that she had there. He could have tried to contact her. Left her a letter. Something. The more she thought about it though, the more she knew her father would have stopped that contact. He had been so controlling when she was a teenager. He hadn’t let up much now that she was an adult.
“I hated every moment away from you, Cassie,” Grayson said. “Every moment. I loved you so much.”
“And now?” She was furious at her father, but there’d be time to deal with him later. And it was high time she dealt with him. At this moment, however, she needed to know how Grayson felt about her. If he still felt anything for her.
“I don’t know how it’s possible,” he said, taking both her hands in his, “but after seeing you again, I love you even more.” He cupped her cheek, his palm rough against her skin, causing her to want his touch everywhere. With that one connection, everything she’d felt for him came rushing back.
Not that it’d ever gone away.
“I know I was a coward,” he said. “I know I hurt you. I know I should have talked to you that night. I know it’s been too many years. I also know it’s way too much to ask, but tell me you’re willing to give me another shot, Cassie.”
She couldn’t stand the distance between them any longer. Sliding off the recliner, she landed on Grayson’s lap, her arms instantly going around his shoulders. His arms wrapped around her waist and they held each other, their years apart evaporating like frost on a window.
“I’ll give you another shot, Grayson, because I never stopped loving you. Not for a minute.” She ran her fingers along his bottom lip and he kissed her fingertips.
“Me either. I will always love you, Cassie.”
“I love you too, but you have to promise me one thing,” she said, pushing on his shoulders a bit so she could look him in those stunning hazel eyes.
“Anything. I’ll do anything.”
“No vanishing acts. Ever. No matter what my father may say to you.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” He squeezed her up against his chest. “There’s only one place I want to be. Right here. With you.”
When their lips met, Cassie knew she’d gotten the best Christmas present ever. Her uncle’s passing had brought her soul mate back to her.Thank you, Uncle Sammy. Maybe her favorite uncle had been more Santa Claus than she’d realized.
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