Authors: Karen Toller Whittenburg
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
A DISTANT SUMMER
Karen Toller Whittenburg
She reminded him of someone ... or perhaps of a distant summer.
The patina of dark wood haloed the champagne paleness of her hair. Subtly darkened brows arched over eyes that he knew would be blue, had to be blue to conform with her Nordic fairness. Delicate bone structure, creamy skin, small straight nose, lips tinted with moisture, she possessed all the fine points of arresting loveliness, and he watched her with a purely masculine approval.
He would have liked to touch her hair, to loosen the confining style, to feel the texture of its blond coolness in his hand. But even across the width of the courtroom he recognized the protective distance she unconsciously projected. She wore solitude as quietly as her clothing whispered good taste.
She stood just inside the heavy doors of the courtroom, alert to the tension in the air yet looking as if she had wandered through the wrong doorway. Scanning faces, her gaze searched past the crowd of observers to settle on him.
Tucker felt the impact of that single look lodge in his chest, and he immediately broke the unsolicited eye contact. He turned toward Mark Braison, the man beside him, and envied the calm, nerveless confidence the attorney affected. But Tucker found his gaze returning to the blonde, and he wondered how in hell he could even think of a woman, any woman, no matter how attractive, at the moment. She was still there, still watching him, and for a split second he thought she was smiling.
She wasn’t smiling, though, and he didn’t know why he’d had that sudden glimpse of her lips curving upward with seductive pleasure. Nerves. God, he was nervous. So much so that he was imagining things. Maybe he’d even imagined her. But as he narrowed his eyes in concentration, he decided she
real. Delicately, distractingly real.
Pushing away from the wooden doors, she walked to an unoccupied long bench and sat down. “Graceful,” he added to his list of her feminine attributes. Then he forced himself to face front. But he was conscious of her continued observation, aware of her interest, and the knot of frustration in his chest tightened.
Why the presence of one more spectator among so many should bother him, he didn’t understand, but he recognized the discomfort she caused. He wished the woman, whoever she might be, weren’t here to witness the impending drama. Hell, he wished he weren’t here either. He shouldn’t be here, sitting at the defendant’s table, prepared to defend his professional integrity against an unjust accusation.
It was all wrong. Mark was certain that there was no evidence to support a malpractice charge, no substance to the false claims that Tucker had violated his Hippocratic Oath. He’d saved a life, and now, against every moral instinct, he was expected to justify that. This was the first day of jury selection, and Mark assured him it wouldn’t go any further; but then no one had thought the litigation could progress to this point either.
It was a circus, Tucker thought, a caricature of both the medical and the legal professions. And the illusion of wrong had been carefully drawn by the skilled hands of an opportunist. If he turned around, Tucker knew he would see the pompous serenity of John Abernathy, an unappealing sight in the best of circumstances. Here in the solemn courtroom, it was a nauseating incongruity. Tucker knew, also without looking, that Sarah Abernathy was not present. She was safely tucked away in some sanitarium, where her testimony couldn’t hinder the publicity-hungry ambitions of her husband.
Tucker shifted in his chair and glanced toward the back of the room again, toward the blonde. Dark lashes lowered, then lifted to capture him in the faint knowledge that she had been staring. Another, stronger sense of familiarity tugged at his remembrance. There was something, an indefinable memory, a certain feeling that he should know her.
“All rise.” The bailiff’s voice brought instant attention, and Kristina DuMont flowed to her feet with the rest of the courtroom crowd. The judge seated himself in a swirl of black robes, and in a moment Kris sank onto the wooden bench again. She shouldn’t have come. She’d realized that the moment she saw him. Her heart jerked unsteadily with the thought.
She corrected herself as her gaze centered on the austerity of his navy jacket. The material pulled tautly across his back, and she tried to remember if his shoulders had seemed so broad then. He had been twenty-one ... twenty-two? She didn’t even know how old he’d been. She had been seventeen, barely, a very young, very childish seventeen.
Maturity suited him, she decided. Self-confidence lined the set of his shoulders; experience softened the stubborn angle of his chin. Gray feathered his dark hair; shadows deepened the intriguing shape of his eyes. He was much the same as the young man she’d known briefly, yet he was very different. Kris wondered if she would have recognized him under other circumstances. If she hadn’t come to the courtroom expressly to see him, if she’d passed him by chance on the street, would she have known who he was?
Impossible to answer and a moot point besides. Curiosity had brought her here, to this room, to see Tucker McCain, and she had known him at once. She wondered about courtroom protocol. Could she just slip away now that she’d seen him? But both the attorneys stood and approached the judge’s bench. Tucker glanced in her direction, and Kris responded with a questioning lift of her brow.
He smiled, turned away, then looked back as if he weren’t sure he should. Did he recognize her? She hadn’t considered that. She hadn’t really considered anything except the persistent impulse to see him again, to discover if he’d changed.
It had been strictly chance that she’d even seen his name in the morning newspaper. Ordinarily on vacations she made little effort to keep up with current events. But this morning the
Rocky Mountain News
had come with coffee, compliments of the Brown Palace Hotel, and she had begun to read for the simple pleasure of knowing that she could do so at her leisure.
And then, there on the second page, his name had caught her unprepared, had whirled her back to another place, another time, another life.
The attorneys were returning to their chairs, and the judge began to speak. Kristina glanced toward the courtroom doors and sighed. She would stay for a few more minutes, then leave and continue her tour of Denver as planned. There was no reason this impulsive detour should change anything. She’d wanted to see him, and she had.
It meant nothing.
Tucker heard the judge’s announcement with mingled anger and relief: recessed until tomorrow morning.
He leaned forward. “What in hell does this mean?”
Mark frowned and with a shrug lifted the file folder. “It means Abernathy got another delay and another day’s worth of publicity. It means you and I are going to walk out of here cool and collected, as if we had time to burn.” Mark slipped the folder inside his briefcase and closed it with a frustrated click. “It means, my friend, that I’m going to spend the afternoon in my office waiting for a settlement offer.”
Tucker drew in his breath. “After all this—?”
“Abernathy’s no fool. He knows he’s milked this malpractice charge as long as he can without putting himself in jeopardy. I’m not fond of his attorney, but Walt Cooper is nobody’s fool either.” Mark rose, and Tucker followed him to his feet. “No, Tucker, I think they’re ready to call it quits.”
“I’d like to shove that offer—”
“But you’re not going to, remember? We’ve discussed this several times.” With a touch of his hand to Tucker’s shoulder, Mark adopted a smile and turned to leave. “Now, cool and collected.”
“Sure thing.” Tucker tightened his lips around the words. “I’ll talk to you later.” He walked beside his attorney to the doorway, then stopped to hold the heavy wooden door for a couple of people behind him. As they moved past him, he thought of the blonde and glanced back to the almost empty courtroom, but she wasn’t there. A brief scrutiny of the anteroom proved equally futile, and he decided it was just as well. He didn’t feel up to the polite social games necessary for initiating an acquaintance.
Tucker started to join the group waiting for an elevator but changed his mind and pulled open the door of the stairwell. It closed behind him with a quiet sound, and then he saw her. She was several steps below him on the landing, and her head was bent. The muted light above her tangled in the smoothness of her silvery hair, tinting it with an amber warmth....
She looked up, and he knew. Memory shivered through him in indistinguishable images. Her eyes, not blue, as he’d supposed, but gray. Soft, mysterious gray. Now, suddenly, he remembered their color just as he remembered her hair tumbling over her bare shoulders, cloaked in the amber glow of fire. So long ago he’d all but forgotten. But seeing her, he wondered how he could have forgotten for even a moment.
He took a step forward and stopped. “Kristina?”
She froze, panic whispering through her veins. Too late to run, too late to consider the consequences of her impulse. Tucker McCain faced her, his voice rough with memory, a memory she’d hoped he couldn’t possibly recall.
“Hello, Tucker,” she said, answering the question in his dark eyes. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
He struggled for comprehension. “God, Kristina. I can’t believe this. I didn’t even know you. What are you doing here? Do you live in Denver? Are you—?” There was so much to know, to discover, and he was suddenly awkward. “You’re—you look wonderful. Lovelier even than I remembered.”
Her smile bore little resemblance to the winsome smile he’d imagined earlier. She appeared in control, confident and comfortable with her femininity. He knew, on the other hand, he must look as embarrassingly bewildered as he felt. His thoughts were a scramble of disjointed scenes as he tried to piece together his memories of this woman. He remembered her saying that she’d been twenty-one.
Self-assurance took hold with that bit of information. It all would come back to him if he didn’t push it. Slowly he returned her smile. “I have this silly idea that I should say something very collegiate in honor of our first meeting, but all I can think of is the football team cheer. Not really appropriate for the courthouse.” He paused, letting the hesitation mask his doubts. “We did meet at a football game, didn’t we? It’s been so long you’ve probably forgotten.”
“No,” she admitted with the complete awareness that he was struggling to remember even the most significant events of that day. “I mean, yes, it
was a football game, at the University of Missouri. And no, I haven’t forgotten. It was a ... special day for me.”
Best not to comment on that,
he thought. But there were other things to know. “Have you had lunch? I know just the place to get reacquainted over a glass of wine and some of the best food in town.”
“Oh, no, thank you,” Kris answered too quickly. “I’m on vacation, and I’ve already made plans for this afternoon.”
A shadow of disappointment altered the curve of his mouth. “I see. You’re meeting someone. Your husband, maybe? The three of us could—
“No.” Her interruption was automatic and sounded brusque, even to her. She should have let him think she was married. But she couldn’t. Perhaps because she’d lied to him before, it seemed important not to deceive him now. “I’m not meeting anyone.”
“Then have lunch with me. Please.” His blue eyes deepened to twilight, and she thought that the years had served only to enhance his charisma. She would have liked to accept, but it was impossible. Words of refusal formed, but he spoke first. “Don’t refuse, Kristina. I’d really like to talk to you.”
Talk? What could they talk about? She didn’t know the etiquette for renewing an acquaintance with a man she’d spent one weekend with almost eleven years before. Still, she couldn’t ignore the odd note in his voice. He needed to talk to someone, probably wanted to tell her about the court case. How ironic that Tucker McCain should need to talk to her. And how fitting that she found it so difficult to turn her back on him now.
What was the harm? It was only lunch. And maybe it would be good to give herself an opportunity to ask him a few of the questions that had always bothered her. Nothing specific, of course, but during the past years she’d learned how to elicit the information she wanted. It was, she soothed the voices of reason, just lunch. She would be careful about what she said. What could go wrong? “All right,” she agreed. “Lunch.”
When he walked down the stairs to her side, Kris knew she was taking an incredibly foolish risk. Everything could go wrong. So easily that her heart pounded with the possibility. Yet she smiled and accompanied him from the building, answering polite questions with polite answers, giving information, but revealing nothing of importance.
Yes, she was on vacation. No, she’d never been to Denver before. Yes, she liked the city very much. No, she was staying only until the end of the week.
She didn’t like the feeling of awkwardness that settled between them in the back seat of the taxi. She didn’t like the awareness of Tucker, sitting so close that she was warmed with remembrance. But when he smiled, almost shyly, as if he also felt awkward with his thoughts, Kris knew memory wasn’t the only cause of her disquiet.