Sunset at Lake Crane by Casey Hagen - Read Online
Sunset at Lake Crane
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Summary

Love, truth, and pain lie buried beneath the Sunset at Lake Crane . . . 

Faced with a blackmailer’s ultimatum, 19-year-old Erynn O’Neal protects her lover by disappearing from his life. Brokenhearted, she vanishes—and takes a life-altering secret with her. 

Grant Alexander crossed the line when he took former student, Erynn O’Neal, as his own a mere two months after her high school graduation. Knowing the truth revealed would shred his career and reputation, he accepted the risks in exchange for the promise of a lifelong love. A heartbeat later, Erynn abandoned him without a word. 

Years pass as Grant and Erynn lead separate lives–he as a reclusive author, she as an ambitious reporter. Yet, despite scarred hearts, true love lost is never forgotten, and Grant devises a way to draw Erynn back into his sphere of passion. Their aching hearts begin a tentative détente, but old jealousies flare, devastating truths come to light, and Grant and Erynn must resurrect and overcome the painful secrets of the past if they’re ever to love again. 

Published: Hagen Novels LLC on
ISBN: 9780996769426
List price: $3.99
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Sunset

at

Lake Crane

A Livingston Valley Novel

Casey Hagen

Hagen Novels LLC

BUSHKILL, PENNSYLVANIA

Copyright © 2015 by Casey Hagen.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below.

Hagen Novels, LLC

PO Box 231

Bushkill, Pennsylvania 18324

www.caseyhagenauthor.com

Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.

Book Layout ©2013 BookDesignTemplates.com

Editing By Kim Huther of Wordsmith Proofreading Services

Back Cover Summary by Lisa Ricard Claro

Sunset at Lake Crane/Casey Hagen.  1st ed.

ISBN 978-0-09967694-2-6

The worst feeling isn’t being lonely, but being forgotten by someone you can’t forget.

―Unknown

Prologue

Intent on getting to Grant’s, Erynn closed the cash register, locked it, and dumped out the remains of the ginger ale she had nursed throughout the day for her queasy stomach. Almost free, she shut down the lights in the entrance of the bookstore and stepped out into the warm, humid air. Traffic moved up and down the road as she pulled the door closed and locked it.

She turned the corner, arrived at her car, and used the key fob to unlock the doors. She looked up as she started the engine, noticing the manila envelope tucked under her windshield wiper. With a frustrated sigh she stepped out, grabbed the corner of the envelope, and snatched it out from under the wiper. She peeled the tab away and reached in to pull out the contents.

The image on the paper stole her breath. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her skin tingled as she looked all around her. Glancing back at the photo, there she was, on Grant’s front porch, trying to leave while he pulled her back for one more kiss. She knew the image had been taken this morning, could remember the exact moment, the last time she kissed him. 

She flipped the picture over and saw nothing but clean white paper with a translucent Kodak symbol in diagonal strips along the back. The image wasn’t crisp like it would be had it been developed professionally. No, this was the work of a home printer. At a loss, she peered back in the envelope to see a folded piece of plain white printer paper. Her hands shook as she read the words on the paper.

TWO CHOICES:

1. PACK YOUR THINGS AND GO AND THIS PICTURE WILL DISAPPEAR.

2. STAY AND THIS PICTURE WILL BE DISTRIBUTED THROUGHOUT THE COMMUNITY. RUINING YOUR REPUTATION, AND HIS, AS WELL AS HIS CAREER.

CHOOSE WISELY. YOU HAVE 24 HOURS.  AND ERYNN...DON’T EVEN THINK OF STOPPING TO SAY GOODBYE TO HIM.

The image fell in her lap as she looked around through a haze of tears. Was there even a choice? She loved him. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect him. Reputations were one thing, but careers were another. Could he be arrested for this? It was ridiculous, nothing happened while she was a student and, damn it, she’d been a legal adult for a year and a half. 

None of the justifications her mind could come up with relieved that niggling in the back of her mind that this would ruin his career. Look at what one accident had done to her life and reputation. Now, a few months shy of two years later, and she still suffered the effects. Memories were long in a small town.

Erynn had no doubt about how the majority of the town would view a young teacher dating a former student, just two months after graduation. They would salivate over the juicy gossip. They would speculate as to when it started, how much extra credit she had to do for her good grades, where it took place…the list was endless. She was used to people talking about her, but Grant? He hadn’t been marred by any scandals. His career would be ruined by this. How would he ever get another teaching job?  His family—God. His family would find out and be so ashamed.

She couldn’t let it happen. She loved him too much. If he had to be hurt, it would be because she left protecting him, not because she stayed and let his life fall apart.

The pain welled inside her, threatening to bubble to the surface, as tears streamed down her cheeks. She made the short drive home on autopilot, the roads so familiar, the movements between steering wheel and pedals second nature. She didn’t notice anything going on around her.  She didn’t see the driver in the silver Toyota parked on the corner, focused solely on Erynn’s car, just waiting to see what road she took.

The minute she walked through the door she threw her keys on the oak entry table and ran down the hall to her room. She picked up the phone and dialed Kat’s number with shaking fingers. Kat answered on the second ring, but Erynn couldn’t make a sound beyond a whimper. 

Kat, sounding worried, managed a rushed I’m on my way before hanging up.

Erynn dug out a couple big red suitcases and started filling them with the contents of her dresser and closet. 

She wasn’t going to chance it. She would leave now, not in ten hours, fifteen hours, or even twenty three hours. Now.

Erynn heard Kat burst through the front door without knocking, frantically calling Erynn’s name. 

In here. Erynn yelled, as she heard Kat making her way through the house. 

Kat froze in Erynn’s bedroom doorway. She looked to the luggage covering the bed.

What the hell?

Erynn looked at her and handed over the letter. She continued throwing clothes into the suitcase–socks, underwear, bras, all of it–carelessly tossed in a growing pile.

Kat looked up sharply. You can’t be serious? You’re leaving?

I can’t stay. I can’t do that to him.

And if this is some sort of prank? What if you do this and it’s all just some sick joke?

Erynn’s eyes flashed to Kat’s. And if it’s not? She shook her head and turned back to her task. I can’t take that chance. Not with him.

Kat sat on the bed and laid a gentle hand over Erynn’s, stilling her frantic movements. You know what this means don’t you? You can’t come back...as long as he’s here, you can’t come home. 

Fat tears gathered in Erynn’s eyes, falling a second later. For how long? Would it ever be safe? Or would the person doing this always be out there waiting to see if she had the nerve to return?

She took a seat next to Kat and swiped angrily at her tears. I know, but I can’t let this happen to him. Maybe one day he’ll move or this will be so far in the past that it will be a nonissue. Maybe he’ll change careers. I don’t know. 

She took Kat’s warm hands in her cold ones. Bill and Anna already planned to take care of the house while I’m on my trip with Uncle Sammy. When it gets close to time for me to come home, I’ll call and let them know I’m not coming back. Maybe Uncle Sammy can deal with the house at some point. I should have done it already.

She pulled Kat in and hugged her tight. Promise me—, she choked up. Promise me you’ll come to see me, wherever I end up.

Kat nodded against her shoulder. Erynn pulled away abruptly and with tears streaming down her face, she zipped the suitcases shut. Erynn took in the room around her, the pictures of her and Kat—on a class trip to a horse farm, bowling with Uncle Sammy, posing in the photo booth at the mall. Erynn still had the bright blue wig from the picture. She knew Kat did too, on the top shelf in her closet, displayed on a mannequin head. Erynn eyed the stuffed turtle Kat won for her at the county fair, sitting on a corner chair. All reminders of what she was about to lose. She wasn’t prepared, but looking at the haphazard stack of luggage piled by the door, she knew her time was up.

It took two trips to get everything into the car. In just minutes, Erynn was locking the front door. She nervously looked around before stopping to take in what would be her last view of her home—the white clapboard and brick house where she spent all of her best times, and her worst. Now, she walked away, without time for a proper goodbye. 

Erynn grabbed Kat’s arm and spun her around for one final tight embrace. I’ll miss you so much. She hugged Kat and tried to commit the feeling to memory. I love you…call me, all the time…promise me.

I promise, every day, Kat whispered fiercely.

Erynn let Kat go, jumped into her car, and fastened her seatbelt. 

Wait. Kat’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the car door. What do I say? If he asks me why you left?

Erynn knew the one thing she could say that wasn’t overtly mean, but would most likely keep him from looking for her. Tell him, more wasn’t enough.

Erynn shifted into reverse. She backed out of the driveway and her life as she knew it.

1

Grant stood before the large windows facing Lake Crane. He jingled the change in his pocket with one hand, while lifting the glass to his lips with the other. The whiskey burned a trail down his throat and warmth settled in his belly. His new career afforded him the ability to live anywhere, to own multiple homes, even, but his needs were few. He wanted a house he loved, and this log cabin he’d built fit the bill. He required knotted wood walls, rough beams, huge windows, a modern kitchen gleaming with granite, and stainless steel for his dream home. Perhaps most important, a stone fireplace with stonework extending up two stories to the ceiling.

 He valued his space, so he’d opted for five-thousand-square-feet. The cabin took the builder eleven months to finish. He enjoyed a massive master bedroom, an office with a full lake view, a library, and two guest suites. With some modifications to the plans, he ensured that fireplaces were in the master bedroom, library, and office.

 The decorating took another two months with the help of his mother’s decorator friend Monica. Dynamic, driven, and ten years older. She stood just shy of his six foot three, jet black hair to her waist, blue eyes, thin, with a tight ass and high breasts. While she did the house, he did her. At the end of the job, they parted ways, both having gotten what they wanted professionally and personally. She’d created a warm space with plenty of custom log tables, soft leather couches, hand-woven Navajo area rugs, and tasteful art from only local artists.

 Tonight, comfort and beauty couldn’t quiet his agitation. Tension lingered after spending the past ten hours in his office, finishing final edits for his third thriller. Two weeks after Vengeance Fulfilled was released, he would know whether or not it would be a bestseller. Time would be up and decisions would need to be made about the multimillion-dollar contract offered to him.

 After draining the last of the amber liquid, Grant left his dog Brewster snoring by the fireplace and returned to his office. He shut down his computer, picked up the three days’ worth of mail accumulating, and entered his library. With the flick of a switch, the flames sprang to life. Lifting the decanter, he refilled his glass and took a seat in one of the two leather chairs facing the fireplace. The familiar groan of the old leather chair was the only sound in the stillness. He loved that old chair, it had been handed down from his grandfather. Many a night he’d spent in his grandfather’s lap, in this very chair, reading story after story. Happy memories flitted through his mind, giving him a small measure of comfort, but no relief from the restlessness that plagued him.

After sifting through the accumulated stack of neglected mail and seeing only bank statements and insurance documents, he slid his copy of Contemporary Literature from under the pile, opting for entertainment over responsibility.

 They featured an in-depth article on Kevin Korian. Interesting. Grant had met him once, and within minutes determined he was a tool. Curious to see Norah West’s take, he opened the magazine to page fifty-six. Intellectual Adventurer.

 Nice title.

 He read the next line and his blood ran cold.

 What the fuck?

 By Erynn O’Neal. He didn’t have to ask if it was his Erynn. Her smiling headshot confirmed it.

 A myriad of emotions coursed through him; anger, sharp and distinct, at the root of it. So she’d surfaced. He tossed the magazine to the table, telling himself he no longer cared to read the article. Liar. He wanted to devour every word. His desire spoke volumes about the hold Erynn held on him, even after eight years. Disgusted, he topped off his glass and walked to the window to stare out into the darkness concealing the lake where it all began.

 He’d considered hiring a private investigator to search for her, but decided not to bother. He’d spoken to Kat, Erynn’s best friend, she’d relayed Erynn’s parting words. So, why would he? He got the message loud and clear. He wasn’t enough and would never be enough. Why else take off? Why not end it? Instead, she took off fast, without a word to anyone other than Kat.

 He’d nursed his anger toward her for years, never quite acknowledging she’d broken his heart. He didn’t know how their relationship would work, but he knew she was the one. Where would they be now if she’d stayed? Where would she have gone to college? Would they be married? Would she be warm against him now? Would their kids lie sleeping upstairs, energetic little redheaded girls who looked like their mother?

 He used to dream about her, her laughing at one of his stories while snuggling on the couch. The creases formed between those delicate arched brows when she concentrated on his partially developed novel ideas. He remembered every detail of her soft, beautiful face relaxed in sleep after he spent much of the night inside her. Worse, he dreamed of her pregnant with his child, rocking with him on his porch swing, his hand pressed against her belly, feeling their restless child kick against him. The dream, so real, he surged upright, drenched in sweat, his eyes and throat burning.

 After eight years, he still wanted her, which made him a world-class idiot. Shit.

 He was no longer young and stupid, he’d turned thirty-three this year, and enjoyed a successful career. No way was he getting sucked in again. Now, payback—that held appeal. Mind made up, he picked up the phone and called his agent. Charlotte Simms had represented him since his first book. Her no-nonsense approach when giving direction kept him on track. If she said he had time to think about something, he had time. If she said it was time to shit or get off the pot—well, it was time to do just that.

 Hello, Grant. Give me good news.

 Her unwavering energy, even now, at almost eleven at night, reassured him he had chosen well. She sounded fresh for a new day. I’m ready, but on my terms. One interview, in depth, but only with Norah West at Contemporary Literature.

 Grant listened to the stunned silence on the other end and smiled. His first smile in quite some time, in fact.

 Wow. What brought this on? I mean, I’m happy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s unexpected, though.

 More confident in his decision now, he went on, It’s time. I’ve wrapped up my book. I have a contract to consider. If I do it now, I keep it on my terms, and they won’t be easy.

 So let’s hear the details.

 Thirty days, with only Norah West. I want a meeting ASAP with her. I’ll be in New York next week, either Tuesday or Wednesday, at Lorenzo’s, seven p.m.

 You got it. I’ll give you a call when I set the plans up.

 He wished Charlotte a good night and hung up. Abandoning his drink, he stepped over to the bookshelf. After scanning the titles for a moment, he spotted the one book he sought. He opened the brittle cover, the familiar scent of a well-worn tome filling his nostrils. He pulled out the picture tucked inside. Erynn’s face, upturned to his as they smiled lovingly at each other. It would be different this time. He would run the show. No falling in love with her again, no making plans, no hoping for a future. Their relationship would be on his terms. He would take his fill, get her out of his system, and after thirty days, he would say goodbye and not look back.

Erynn awaited word about her reassignment. Ten minutes into her day, she received the call. She dropped everything and hurried to John’s office. After being home for a week, she itched to research her next subject. Learning the public’s perception of the writer before going into these assignments boosted her confidence.

 His door stood open, but she knocked anyway. John glanced up from his desk, nudged his glasses up higher on his face, and greeted her. He gave her a quick hug, enveloping her in the scent of Old Spice, reminding her of her father. At one time, she struggled with those painful reminders. With time and perspective, they provided comfort. She’d shed the sadness and focused on the wonderful, cherished memories she had of her parents. He gestured toward one of his leather chairs. Please sit.

 She took a seat in the high-back leather chair opposite him. Mounds of paperwork in neat stacks on each side waited for his attention. He shuffled the last of the papers before him off to the side, crossed his hands, and addressed her. Before we get to your new assignment, I need to apologize. Clearly, you didn’t see it, but a mistake was made in the editing department and your last article went out with your real name, and a headshot next to it.

 Her breath stuttered in her lungs. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms. A loud hum began in her ears. How did this happen?

 Korian threatened us with his lawyers, and frankly, I didn’t like it. To stick it to him, I rushed the article to print. Avery was unavailable to sign off, so I gave it to Carmen. Carmen decided to try to make her mark by altering your article in a way she thought was for the better. Little did she realize your contract stipulates a confidentiality clause that, I’m sorry to say, we breached.

 Erynn couldn’t speak. Literally couldn’t find words. The article had been out for a week. She hadn’t heard a word from home, her family, or anyone else who might crop up to make her life difficult. No news was good news. Right?

 I’m sorry, Erynn. I can have new copies sent out, but the damage is done. Your true identity is out there. I’ve arranged for profits from this month’s publication to be direct-deposited into your account, as a small compensation for the breach. I’m so sorry Erynn, it’s the best I can do.

 I understand, she choked out. I just ask that next month, I’m featured as Norah West again. I also need your assurance this will never happen again.

 Absolutely. You’re being very understanding about this.

 Shock and fear did that to a person. It’s not like I can un-ring a bell, right?

 No, I don’t suppose you can. He grinned. So, your new assignment…I think it’s going to make up for our blunder. I don’t know how you did it, but you landed the interview of the century.

 Her mouth fell open. Excuse me?

 You’ve been requested by none other than Alex Cole.

 She sat there, stunned speechless again, this time with her mouth hanging open. This, of course, only made John laugh.

The kicker: he’s requested only you, for thirty days. There are details he wants to work out, in person, tomorrow night at Lorenzo’s. He leaned back in his chair. I’m assuming your assignment works for you?

 Yes, it does. Alex Cole had gained huge, instant success three years prior when he released his bestseller, Vengeance Torn. The internet produced nothing on him. She’d searched after reading his first book, then searched again after reading his second book. He was a ghost. For the first time, she would walk into a situation blind. What time do I meet him tomorrow?

 John glanced at his notes. Seven p.m. He’ll be waiting. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. With this being such a long interview, and since it is Cole, we’re going to spin this as the midyear special feature. He gave us sole rights. We’ll reveal his true identity.

 Her mind raced in contemplation of the preparation ahead. Did he say why me?

 No, he didn’t. Charlotte said he would only work with you. John shrugged. He might be a fan.

 Hmmm. With less than forty-eight hours until our meeting, I better start researching. Maybe if she tried again she would find something this time around.

 John stood to walk her out. Don’t worry about the meeting this afternoon. I prefer you take the time to prepare. Go get ‘em.

Several hours later, after no results from her research, she stood in front of her closet. She pondered the contents, she needed just the right clothing for her meeting. Nothing too sexy. Without knowing anything about Alex Cole, she would exercise care in her choice. She searched for professional, but feminine attire. She settled on a black pencil skirt stopping at the top of her knee, and a dark red V-neck cashmere sweater, with three-quarter-length sleeves. To finish the outfit, she chose high-heeled boots. Satisfied, she joined her roommate Avery in the living room to relax in front of some much-needed reality TV.

 As much as she tried to focus, her thoughts drifted to the meeting tomorrow night. She detested going into this blind. Cole protected his privacy. She honestly figured that tomorrow night, she’d be the one under the microscope, not Alex Cole. Her more guarded interview subjects struggled to open up after being so private. Easy conversation and answers were sure to be in short supply.

 Avery paused the DVR and turned to her. He raised her chin with his finger. What’s going on in your pretty little head, love?

 Any woman would drool at the sight. Tall, lean, well-muscled, blond hair, tan skin, perfect teeth, looked great in suits, jeans, on the beach, and his accent…Australian. Yummy. Regretfully there was no spark, and there never would be, she hadn’t been born with the right equipment. They sought comfort from each other, incapable of finding true intimacy with others.

 What a pair we make.

 Avery also worked at Contemporary Literature, as head editor. They’d bonded the first time they met in Manhattan, outside of the magazine headquarters. She’d suffered a wardrobe malfunction when one of the ties of her wrap dress caught in the door of a cab. When she spun around, it fell open, leaving her standing in a scant lace bra and a small pair of bikini panties. Avery, bless him, wasted no time removing his suit jacket and holding it up to protect her privacy as she put herself back together. They’d remained inseparable ever since.

 He’d proven himself honest, kind, and protective. His flawless fashion sense was the whipped cream on top of her butterscotch sundae. Working and living together ruined many friendships. Different positions in the magazine allowed them both space.

 I have nothing on Alex Cole. Not the usual nothing, but nothing nothing. Nervous, she plucked the edges of the blanket.

 Avery turned to her, propping his leg on the cushion next to her. You’re not one for surprises, are you?

 She rested her head against the back of the couch. Surprises are fine. I’d call this the unexpected, though. The unexpected never works out well for me. Her grandmother’s stroke. Her parents’ car accident. Leaving Grant. Losing the small pieces of him she took with her. The unexpected sucked.

 It was a long time ago, love. Life went on for you. You achieved success. It’s time to take a chance again.

 Really? I don’t see you taking any chances.

 My situation is different.

 No, it’s not. We’ve both lost people. We both still want people we can’t have. We both let our issues keep us from connecting on an intimate level.

 We’ve connected with each other.

 With a deep sigh, she abandoned her nervous plucking and turned her head. The cool leather soothed her hot cheek. Yes, but I’m not attracted to you and you’re attracted to men.

 Erynn, you’re the kind of person made to fall in love, get married, and raise babies. You’re not the torrid affair type.

 Hopping on this merry-go-round again changed nothing. I could have a torrid affair.

 Ha, please. Like the one you have with Paul. You meet every few months to scratch an itch. That doesn’t a torrid affair make, love.

 One eyebrow rose. Who’s scratching yours?

 Avery glanced away. Why are we even talking about this? This is about Cole. So what do you think he’ll be like?

 Ah, the million-dollar question. All she had to go on were his two grotesque thrillers. His books indicate he’s disturbed.

 Maybe he’s hot.

 Or maybe he’s old and incontinent, she said.

 Well, that’s disgusting.

 But possible.

 He took her small hand in his big one. This isn’t like you. You’re cautious, not pessimistic. You might walk into the most amazing interview of your life. Be positive.

 I’m trying. Something seems off. Why the extreme lengths to hide his identity? Why me?

 He shrugged. Or don’t be positive. Look, you’re smart; you’re excellent at seeing inside authors; you find the pieces of their past and present that shape their writing and you put it flawlessly on the page. Our magazine is the only one of its kind, and, I might add, is well-respected. So, why not you?

 I guess. I just hope I’m not walking into a nightmare.

2

Erynn left work early to touch up her hair and makeup before her dinner meeting with the elusive Alex Cole. She’d nursed a nervous stomach all day. Now, after a second shower and the application of fresh peach body butter, she twisted her hair into a low bun at the nape of her neck. She finished with her treasured locket, it had been handed down through each woman in her family, and simple diamond solitaire studs.

 The train ride into Grand Central Station took forty minutes. She spent the time running every possible scenario through her head. Now that the time had arrived, there was no turning back.

 The ride went much faster than she’d anticipated, considering the lingering of smoke in the cabin from someone disregarding the no-smoking sign. As she exited the station and hailed a cab, she wished for more time to compose herself. She took a deep breath. The air was humid and the lingering clean scent of the spring rain, that had washed the city clean not even an hour earlier, clung to the air.

The driver left her alone with her thoughts, thank goodness, because she was too nervous to keep up with idle chitchat. She ignored the familiar city lights, her focus on a family photo taped to the dashboard. The corners had curled with age, the image faded. No matter how time and the harsh effects of life had worn the image, the smiles of the kids clustered in the arms of their mother shone brightly through. What was his story? Had his salary supported and nurtured that family? Or was this a second job to bring in much-needed tuition money now that they were older? Somehow, knowing she rode with a man who so obviously cared about his family, put her at ease. She relaxed into the worn cloth seat and rested her eyes for a precious few minutes.

Before too long, they turned onto a quieter street in Manhattan lined with restaurants, pubs, and nightclubs. Light traffic flowed, with handfuls of people entering and exiting various establishments.

 On Friday and Saturday nights, the same sidewalks and businesses were filled to capacity with endless lines weaving between velvet ropes, hoping for an opportunity to get inside. Cole had picked a weeknight. Give the man one checkmark in the pro column.

The digital clock in the taxi assured her she’d arrived three minutes early. Erynn slid her company charge card through the card reader. Not waiting for a receipt, she handed a five to the driver for a tip from her personal cash and stepped out of the cab.

 Situated in a historical brick building, Lorenzo’s was a cross between loft and lodge style, with exposed heating, pipes, brick, and dark wood beams. Dim lighting, leather booths, and a mingling of styles gave a contemporary yet historical atmosphere to the space. The cream walls on each side of the long, narrow dining room held black-and-white movie stills from the Hollywood classics, A Farewell to Arms, Night and Day, and Casablanca. Muted lamps in between the photos cast a golden light on the heavy black frames. Pendant droplights with soft illumination dotted over every booth, creating a warm, intimate atmosphere for the patrons.

 Patrons laughed and talked in hushed tones. The mouth-watering scents of garlic, butter, and meaty pasta sauce drifted through the air, making her stomach growl. Her nervousness throughout the day had made it virtually impossible for her to eat.

 She stepped up to the dark mahogany podium and stared at the tall, striking blonde hostess wearing a snug black cocktail dress. She belonged on a catwalk. Her nametag read Caroline. Nope, no boy name for her. Erynn cursed her lack of height and the extra twenty pounds she carried. Most times she liked her curves. However, when she saw a woman with a svelte body, she fought the urge to tug at her fitted clothes and double-check she wasn’t squeezing out anywhere.

 My name is Norah West. I’m here to meet Alex Cole.

 The hostess’s warm smile made it impossible to hate her. Erynn really wanted to hate her. Absolutely. Right this way.

 Erynn’s heart pounded with each step. Those wildlife videos of the innocent zebra, drinking from a small pond in the serene wilderness, only to be pounced on by a ravenous lion, played through her head.

Her skin heated on the three wide steps leading into one of three intimate dining areas. Caroline stopped short of the most private booth and extended her arm for Erynn to precede her into the bench across from Alex Cole. He sat with his back to her, lifting a highball glass to his lips. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood up as she sensed the stirrings of recognition. She stepped forward and stumbled to a stop, gripping the high back of the bench for support.

 Familiar chocolate-brown eyes regarded her and her professional composure went up in flames. This could not be happening.

 Caroline’s brows wrinkled, Are you all right Miss West? She clasped Erynn’s elbow, steadying her.

 Erynn pasted a smile on her face. Thank you, yes, I’m fine.

 She took a seat quickly, before her shaking legs gave out on her. Her cheeks flamed. Her blood raced. Could he see how he affected her? She tucked her purse next to her on the soft leather. Feigning calm, she looked up into his eyes, his were laser-focused on her.

 More gorgeous than ever, his once boyish face had matured into hard lines and edges. He stared at her, his chiseled face hard and his sensuous mouth unyielding. A touch of gray threaded through his dark, wavy hair at the temples. He had become ridiculously sexy with a broader and harder body. Her traitorous eyes fell to his hard arms, hugged by the fitted