“How long will you be in town?” Dr. Vaughn Brooks's deep bedroom voice lifted Benita Hawkins from that place halfway between sleep and wakefulness.
She shifted under the sheets of Vaughn's king-sized bed and spooned into his warm naked body. “About one month. Aunt Helen said her former colleagues planned to make the announcement about the endowed chemistry chair they're naming in her honor either at the end of April or the beginning of May.”
Doctor Helen GastonâMs. Helen to the residents of Trinity Falls, Aunt Helen to Benitaâwas a retired chemistry professor. She used to teach at Trinity Falls University. The endowed chair was a gift to the university from one of her former students.
“A month?” The Trinity Falls University music professor played her body like a virtuoso. His large, hot hand left a trail of electricity from her waist, over her hip, stopping at her thigh. His sleepy drawl played a sexy melody with her stomach muscles. “That's about thirty times longer than your usual visits.” His hand moved again, back up her thigh, along her hip, past her waist to cup her breast.
Benita pressed into his hold. Her nipple pebbled. “I have a job back in Los Angeles, remember?”
“You work for yourself.” Vaughn molded her breast in the palm of his hand. He whispered into her ear. “You can afford to be away longer than an overnight trip.”
Benita swallowed a groan as Vaughn's caresses reawakened her recently sated passion. “Overnight trips? Stop exaggerating.”
Vaughn's hair-roughened chest moved against her back. “I'm not. When you came home for the Trinity Falls Sesquicentennial Celebration, you arrived Friday night and left Saturday.”
Benita rolled over to face him. His left arm embraced her loosely. His erection flexed against her stomach. She rested her right hand on his bare broad shoulder and stared into his cocoa eyes. Her gaze roamed his beloved nutmeg features: well-shaped, clean-shaven head, high cheekbones, strong nose, full lips, and wicked goatee.
“As much as I'd like to spend a month with you every time I come back to Trinity Falls, I can't usually be away from work that long.”
Vaughn sighed. “Benny, you have your own business. You're an entertainment lawyer and business manager. You can work from anywhere. You can work from here.”
Familiar arguments. They'd been having them since Benita moved to L.A. three years ago. Why wouldn't he understand her need for more than Trinity Falls? “When my clients are in the middle of contract negotiations and business dealings, they don't want to wait a week, much less a month for me to weigh in on their contract offers.”
“That's why you have e-mails, cell phones, and faxes. You don't have to be in Los Angeles to negotiate for your clients.”
“I've made a life for myself in L.A.” She searched his almond-shaped eyes. Would he ever accept her need to spread her wings? “Since we were in high school, you knew I'd eventually leave Trinity Falls.”
“Yes. You and Ean had that in common in high school. But Ean eventually came to his senses. He moved back two years ago.” Vaughn rolled onto his back. Suddenly, the mood was gone.
Benita lay on her back as well. The late afternoon sun penetrated Vaughn's cream venetian blinds to illuminate his dark wood bedroom furnishings. “I guess it depends on your point of view. From my perspective, Ean lost his mind.”
“No, he lost his father.” Vaughn's retort was muted. “That's when he realized the rat race wasn't for him.”
Ean Fever had been a year behind Vaughn and Benita at Heritage High School. Like Benita, Ean had earned a law degree. He'd made partner with a prestigious firm in New York City, the culmination of his childhood dream. Then his father had died of cancer. That's when Ean had thrown away the life he'd worked so hard for in New York. He'd returned to Trinity Falls and opened a little law practice in the town center. Nuts.
“Ean probably just needed a break.” Benita had known Ean's father. Paul Fever's death had been a great loss for the community. She could only imagine how devastating it had been for the Fever family. “He didn't have to move back to Trinity Falls.”
“You sound like your parents. What happened to the college student who spent her Christmas breaks and most of her summer vacations in Trinity Falls?”
Vaughn was right. Benita's parents had been very vocal about hating Trinity Falls. They'd had their reasons: nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to see, no one to talk to. As soon as she'd graduated from college, her parents had moved to Alexandria, Virginia. Benita had followed them before moving on to L.A. It was probably natural that she'd adopt at least some of their attitudes. But unlike her parents, she didn't hate her hometown. She just wanted more.
Benita turned her head on the fluffy pillow and studied Vaughn's profile. The softness of youth had hardened into the strong, determined lines of adulthood, complete with an attractive goatee. In high school, she'd been crazy about the boy. As a woman, she could easily fall in love with the man. Maybe she already had. But how foolish would that be if she wanted to build a life in L.A. while he stubbornly remained in Trinity Falls?
“If you really want to spend more time with me, you could move to L.A.” Benita offered him a hopeful smile. But she may as well have saved herself the effort. They'd played this verbal game before.
Here we go again.
The thought flickered across Vaughn's mind. His sigh was long and deep. Why did they keep rehashing this debate? “Trinity Falls is my home.”
“We could be happy in L.A.”
“You mean you could be happier if someone you knew was with you.” Vaughn searched Benita's hazel brown eyes, noting the midnight ring around the irises. “There's a town full of people you know and who know you right here. You've given Los Angeles three years, Benny. If you're not happy there, it's time to come home.”
Benita's eyes widened. “What makes you think I'm not happy in L.A.?”
“I've visited you six times. You're a different person when you're in Los Angeles. You're stressed and distracted.”
She frowned. “I thought you enjoyed visiting me.”
Vaughn shook his head against the pillow. “I want to be with you. But when we're in Los Angeles, you're mentally somewhere else. You're checking e-mails, texting, or answering a hundred calls a day. And when we're out, you're less interested in us than in who might see us.”
Benita seemed to become more tense with every accusation Vaughn aimed at her. “I didn't know you felt this way.”
Vaughn lifted her chin. He held her troubled gaze. “Didn't you?”
“If you want to get to the top, you have to be willing to put in the time. And I want to get to the top.”
As an answer, that didn't tell him anything. “What are you willing to sacrifice to get there?”
“Why do I have to sacrifice anything?”
Vaughn climbed from the bed. The chill in his bedroom prompted him to reclaim his jeans from the thick navy carpeting. He pulled them on before turning back to Benita. She walked toward him, bold, beautiful, and completely naked. At five feet, five inches in height, Benita was a small woman. But she had long, toned limbs. Her body was slender. Her breasts were full, the nipples pouting toward him. Her hips were round and swayed in a mesmerizing rhythm. When she bent forward to collect her blue jeans and matching purple underwear, she wiped Vaughn's mind clean.
She straightened, meeting his gaze with wary hazel eyes that still captivated him after eighteen years. Her dark brown hair was tousled in waves around her heart-stoppingly beautiful face. Had she somehow cast a spell on him? Was that the reason he'd put his life on hold these past three years as he waitedâprayingâfor her to return to Trinity Falls?
Vaughn watched her slip on her underwear and fasten her bra. He didn't want to start this next conversation. He'd rather fly to the moon, dive to the bottom of the ocean, or grade finals and projects. But she didn't leave him a choice. “We can't go on this way, Benny.” Vaughn's voice was gruff with reluctance.
“What do you mean?” Benita hesitated in the act of pulling on her form-fitting jeans.
Vaughn struggled to get the words out. “Our relationship isn't working for me. I'm almost fortyâ”
“You're only thirty-five.”
“Which is almost forty. I want to get married, buy a house, raise a family.”
“I want the same things.” Benita fastened her jeans, then bent to reclaim her orange lightweight sweater.
“But you don't want them here.”
“Trinity Falls isn't enough for me.” Benita pulled on her sweater. “You know I've always wanted more.”
Her words hurt even more than he'd thought they would. They turned his world on its behind, making it seem as though the ground beneath his wall-to-wall navy carpeting shifted. “Then I'm not enough for you.”
Benita's lips parted in surprise. “That's not true.”
“Then come home and build a life with me.”
“Why are you so resistant to moving to L.A.? You could do so much more with your music there: teach, produce, write, perform. Or all of those things.”
“I can do all those things here.”
“In Trinity Falls?” Benita sounded skeptical. “L.A.'s concert venues hold more people than this town's entire population.”
“I won't argue that Los Angeles has more of everything: people, theaters, traffic, smog, crime, earthquakesâ”
“So it's not the Garden of Eden.” Benita held up her right hand, palm outward. She was like a very small, somewhat irritated traffic officer. “Still you can do so much more there. You could
so much more there.”
“I can do and be everything I want right here at home.” Vaughn pulled on his dark gray jersey.
“That's always been your problem.” Frustration leaked into Benita's words. “You've always been willing to settle. You've never had any dreams or aspirations.”
“I have dreams, Benny.” Vaughn reined in his temper. “But I've put them on hold for you.”
“I never asked you to do that.”
“I've been waiting for you to return to your senses and come home.”
“And I've been waiting for you to join me in L.A.”
They'd reached the impasse. He'd been expecting it, but still he wished they could have avoided it. Vaughn locked his legs, hoping the act would prevent him from dropping to his knees and begging her to reconsider. Otherwise, he'd have to make a tough decision of his own. “I don't want a long-distance relationship. I need to move on with my life here in Trinity Falls.”
It was a stretch to call what they had a relationship. It was more like periodic hookups during Benita's quick visits home or the few times he'd gone to Los Angeles. But even as Vaughn spoke the words, something was drawing him to Benita like a magic spell.
“Why won't you give L.A. a chance?” The tears pooling in her eyes tore at his heart.
“Los Angeles is changing you. You're not the woman I know when you're there.” She wasn't the caring, considerate woman he'd fallen in love with when they were teenagers, the woman he'd fallen in love with all over again as adults.
“So this is it?” She lifted her chin.
“I'm sorry, Benny.” He strode from the room, giving her time alone to finish dressing. Giving himself time alone to deal with his breaking heart.
Early Monday morning, Vaughn thought himself alone in Trinity Falls University's auditorium. He sat on the faux black leather cushioned bench before the university's eighteen-year-old Steinway baby grand piano. His fingers danced over its ivory keys, running up and down the chords, calling forth an evocative ballad. A love song, one of his original pieces, swelled from the notes and sketched images on his mind: Benita, laughing, loving, breaking his heart. He drove the piece past its crescendo, then allowed the music to fade and, finally, to end.
The applause startled him.
Vaughn's eyes shot open. His gaze swung around the room until he spotted Dr. Peyton Harris, standing in the second row.
“Encore!” The petite history professor stopped clapping and maneuvered her way onto the auditorium's aisle. She approached him, her caramel eyes twinkling in her honey-and-chocolate-cream, heart-shaped face. “Is this Untitled Opus Number Six or does this one have a name?”
Vaughn smiled at his friend's reference to the last time she'd found him at the piano. He checked his watch. It was almost half past seven in the morning. His first class wasn't until nine. Peyton's must be earlier.
“âForever Love.'” He couldn't stop tinkering with it.
Peyton stopped beside the piano. Her curly bright brown hair bounced just above her shoulders. “That's intriguing.”
“Thank you.” Vaughn rose from the bench. He escorted Peyton from the auditorium.
It was a large room in Butler Hall, the university's administrative building and one of the oldest buildings on campus. It was named after the university's founder, Clara Butler. The auditorium's three sections of approximately six hundred mahogany chairs were bolted in place. The red cement floor gave the impression of carpeting climbing subtly toward the doors. Long, narrow gothic windows were carved into the walls just below the high ceiling, giving the auditorium a cathedral-like appearance. In front of the room, a concert pit stretched between the audience and the mahogany stage.
He could feel the history that filled the sweeping space: plays and concerts that had taken place during the almost century and a half since the auditorium's debut, actors and musicians who'd performed, audiences that had been entertained and inspired.