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Authors: Susan R. Hughes

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction

Secret Vow

BOOK: Secret Vow
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Secret Vow

 

Susan R. Hughes

 

© 2012 Susan R. Hughes. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Brooke stepped through the church doors into the bright afternoon sunlight. She paused on the third step, letting the other mourners spill out around her, respectfully subdued as they shuffled past. Though she hadn’t seen them in over a decade she recognized many of their faces; no doubt they’d approach her at the reception following the burial to express their pleasure at her return to town, and to ask what she’d been up to since she left—a few might boldly inquire why she hadn’t been back in so long.

But pleasantries were for later; now they were headed into the cemetery, where Ross Kinley, the sixth generation of Kinley men to have lived and died in tiny Eastport, would be laid to rest among his ancestors
,
and next to the wife he’d lost years ago.

Sitting stoically through the service, Brooke hadn’t managed to summon much sorrow for the loss of this particular man; she’d come to the funeral only because his daughter had once been her best friend.

She’d caught sight of Faith in the front pew next to her husband, their eight-month-old son restless on her lap. The two women hadn’t had a chance to talk, and these were hardly the circumstances in which Brooke would have chosen to reestablish contact. She realized she had no one to blame but herself for the lapse in their friendship; at times she missed Faith terribly, intending always to call her at some later time that never came.

Descending the last few steps, Brooke followed some distance behind the crowd as the others began to gather at the gravesite. On impulse, she turned and wandered the opposite way, her gaze drifting over the rows of headstones reaching every corner of the manicured lawn. She could see the oak tree at the edge of the grounds that sheltered her grandparents’ graves, where she had often visited as a girl—but her compulsion drew her elsewhere, to a sunny spot just behind the church.

Stepping off the paved path, she stood on the grass before a polished black granite stone, its gleaming surface engraved with the name
Mary McCarthy
.

Brooke’s chest constricted as she stared at the stone, and she drew a deep breath, holding it in as her throat closed over with sudden emotion. She’d hoped to be able to stand there with some sense of detachment now. Why was it still so hard to look at the name? Surely eighteen years was long enough to tuck the memories safely away, along with the remorse.

“Brooke Eldridge, is that you?”

She whirled around, releasing her breath in a startled squeak. A man stood before her, dapper in a dark suit and tie, his hands resting in his pockets. Tall and lean with striking looks, he was at once familiar to her—though she might not have recognized him so quickly were it not for his wide-set eyes, their deep-green hue unmistakable.

“Ian?”

His generous mouth widened into a smile every bit as engaging as she remembered—only the boyish grin with which he’d once favoured her now held a more grown-up, masculine appeal. The lanky build of the eighteen-year-old she’d known had filled out in proportion to his broad shoulders, while the sweet, soft lines of his young face had developed a more rugged appearance. His thick dark hair, worn to his shoulders in high school but now cropped short, lifted slightly at the crown as a warm breeze whispered through the cemetery.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, with a slight shake of his head. “How long has it been?”

Brooke lifted her shoulders, her heart throbbing against her ribcage. She hadn’t seen him inside the church and somehow hadn’t expected to run into him—although, in a small town, it wasn’t easy to avoid someone. “About twelve years, I guess.”

“That long? You look fantastic.” Ian’s gaze swept down to assess her black sheath dress and dark stockings, one of his eyebrows arching slightly. “Even dressed for a funeral.”

Brooke couldn’t suppress the smile that crept over her face, or the blood that rose to her cheeks. “You as well,” she replied, taking the opportunity to survey his tailored suit. She’d heard he went away to law school and returned to Eastport to practice his trade—not that a small-town Ontario law office would make him a rich man, but it was one of the more prestigious professions the town had to offer.

“I heard you landed a big-time Bay Street job in Toronto,” he said.

“I did. But I just left that job.” Seeing his brows tilt in mild surprise, she didn’t give him a chance to ask for more details. “And you, still a lawyer?”

One corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Isn’t it a fitting profession for the son of the town crook?”

“Ian—”

“Sorry. I’m only making a bad joke,” he said, spreading his hand. “I haven’t seen you in so long, it feels a little like I’ve been transported back to high school. Anyway, I just thought I’d pay Mom a short visit while I’m here.” He nodded toward the headstone behind Brooke. “What brings you to this spot?”

“I was wandering past and I noticed the name,” she said, trying to affect a casual air as her stomach made a sharp dip. “I thought I’d pay my respects.”

His smile broadened, lighting his eyes. “I’m touched.”

Brooke bobbed her head, clutching her purse with both hands as the warmth of his smile tingled through her senses. “It was a nice service for Mr. Kinley.”

One of Ian’s shoulders rose, his smile faltering. “As far as funerals go, I suppose. Normally I avoid them at all costs, but I felt I should be here for Faith. Losing a parent is never easy.” His gaze drifted again to his mother’s headstone, lingering this time.

Not knowing how to respond, Brooke let her own gaze sink to the grass at their feet. “Better get back,” she said quietly, nodding toward the gathering at Ross Kinley’s grave.

“Right. It was nice seeing you again, Brooke. I hope we’ll meet again, before you go home.”

Home
—wherever that was.

“I’m sure we’ll run into each other,” she agreed, before turning to hurry along the path, letting him remain on his own at his mother’s grave for a few moments more. As she walked her nerves pulsed with a peculiar agitation; it was the same uneasy feeling that years ago had invariably washed over her in Ian McCarthy’s presence—tangled up with a powerful pull on her feminine senses, as unsettling as it was exhilarating.

 

* * *

 

With a smile and nod of thanks, Ian accepted a cup of hot tea from Eva Randall, Ross Kinley’s plump elderly neighbour and the first person to leap into action whenever an occasion required organization and refreshments. Thanks to her efforts the reception was running smoothly, the modest Kinley home accommodating a sizeable crowd. Ross Kinley may not have been the most highly regarded citizen of Eastport, but his son-in-law being the town’s mayor was enough to draw mourners in droves.

“Did you notice Brooke is here?” Eva asked, her dark-blue eyes alight behind thick lenses. “Lovely girl. Haven’t seen her in
ages
. Too bad it takes a funeral to bring some people home for a visit.”

“Yes, too bad,” Ian replied, though he doubted she heard him over the din of jumbled conversation around him. He took a sip of his tea, then set the cup down, wishing he’d asked for a cold drink. Although it was a mild June day the room was headed toward stifling, the air conditioning no match for the combined body heat of the multitude of guests.

From his corner behind Ross’s old easy chair, Ian’s gaze had already been fastened on Brooke for some time. She was standing by the kitchen entrance with Faith, struggling through what looked like stilted conversation, judging by the rigid postures and forced smiles. It was the first time he’d seen the two girls—women, now—together since high school, when it had been rare to see them apart.

Brooke looked much the same as she had then, still delicately pretty. Her hair, darkened slightly from ash blonde to a golden brown, had been cut into long layers that draped smoothly over her shoulders. The daughter of the town’s only doctors—the closest thing to a power couple in Eastport—she’d possessed a keen sense of style and carried herself with uncommon poise. Still slender, her figure had developed a womanly shape, the curves of her hips and breasts more defined.

Her appearance by his mother’s grave had been a surprise, though a pleasant one, especially when he noted the sudden bloom of colour in her cheeks as he spoke to her. He couldn’t deny that the sight of her had caused a surge in his own pulse, despite not having seen her since she left Eastport for university a dozen years ago. She still crept into his thoughts now and then. Certain images from that time remained pressed into his memory, Brooke’s wide, luminous dark eyes and the demure tilt of her head when she smiled being chief among them.

Ian remembered, too, the night he had kissed her, when they were both sixteen. After a moment she’d pushed him away, blurting that he just wasn’t her type—but not before he’d felt her grip tighten reflexively on his shoulders, just as a quiver ran through her, rippling down her spine to the small of her back where his palm rested. He’d let her go, though, understanding what “type” he was: the motherless son of the only ex-con living in their idyllic little town.

He rubbed a hand over his face, blowing out a breath to release the memories. His mother’s tragic death was well in the past, faded into memory alongside his father’s unsavory reputation. Ian was well respected now, no longer that boy whom people either politely avoided or treated with cloying pity. But it was difficult, when he saw Brooke, not to let self-doubt filter back in. He hadn’t cared what most people thought of him, but he’d so badly wanted her to see that there was much more to Ian McCarthy than the sullen, frustrated boy whose life had become defined by neglect and misfortune.

Then Brooke’s gaze drifted over, meeting his. Her eyes darted away and then snapped back, locking onto his as her face registered surprise at catching him watching her. Ian offered a friendly smile, eliciting a bashful curve of her lips, along with an appealing glow in her cheeks. It gratified him to recognize that she was still attracted to him after all this time, even if she wouldn’t likely admit it.

Ian stepped forward, a moment too late. Wrapping her hand under Brooke’s elbow, Faith pulled her away, drawing her out of the living room and into the kitchen, out of his sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

“Is something wrong?” Brooke asked, alone with Faith in the relative quiet of the kitchen.

Faith leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms over her abdomen. Her shoulders looked thin and fragile, her elegant features hollowed with strain. Back in high school she’d have sooner worn a veil over her face than be seen without make up, but today she hadn’t bothered with more than a touch of lipstick, nor had she taken much care in tying her long strawberry curls into a loose bun at her nape.

Still, some of the colour had returned to her face since the burial. Though the stress of her father’s illness had taken a toll on Faith, Brooke suspected it would be a relief to be able to refocus her attention back to her husband and son.

“You tell me,” Faith said, her voice low and even. “I saw you talking to Ian McCarthy by his mother’s grave.”

Brooke felt her heart turn over, but she lifted her shoulders, making light of it. “It was a coincidence. We happened to show up there at the same time.” Even now, the memory of it made the flesh on her arms prickle, and she rubbed her palms along her forearms compulsively.

Her old friend observed her with a narrowed gaze. “What were you doing there?”

“I don’t know. It was an impulse.”

Turning to the side to rest her elbow on the countertop, Faith reached for the knitted tea cozy that lay nearby, set aside by Mrs. Randall when she began brewing tea for the guests. Faith had made it for her mother when she was about ten, and it was now badly stained and covered in yarn pills from repeated washings. Everything else in the kitchen, as in the rest of the house, was clean and well kept, due to Faith’s efforts. Her younger brother had moved away years ago, leaving her to care for their ailing father, which she’d done with selfless resolve.

At one time Brooke had been able to tell what Faith was thinking just by studying her expression. It wasn’t so easy now. They’d barely been adults the last time they were together, hardly foreseeing their future selves as a disillusioned former investment banker and the wife of the town’s mayor. Neither had they imagined not seeing one another for more than a decade.

Faith turned the tea cozy over in her hands, absently studying the faded bands of colour as she spoke. “You shouldn’t go there. Haven’t you been able to put it out of your mind?”

Brooke hesitated, considering her answer. Though she’d longed to see Faith again, this was just the conversation she’d dreaded. As girls they’d become adept at ignoring the subject most of the time, but in stressful situations it had a way of leaping to the front of their minds.

“Usually,” she replied at last. “But I haven’t set foot in that cemetery for years.”

“You haven’t even been in Eastport for years,” Faith said tightly—then she blew out a breath, offering a soft smile. “Never mind. Dad’s gone now. It’s all over with, once and for all. Right?”

BOOK: Secret Vow
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