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Authors: Anna DeStefano

The Prodigal's Return

BOOK: The Prodigal's Return
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Now Entering Rivermist, Georgia

The faded sign was the same one that had been there for as long as Neal could remember. He was hands-down the most unwelcome person ever to enter Rivermist. But somewhere between his apartment and the office that morning, he'd accepted the inevitable. He had to make sure his father was all right.

He'd been so certain staying away the past three years was the right thing. He'd finally faced his mistakes and he'd moved on. But second thoughts had hounded him the entire drive over.

Neal shoved the transmission into Reverse. Gripping the steering wheel, he fantasized about turning around and barreling back to Atlanta and the people he could actually help. Then with a curse he yanked the gearshift back to Neutral and set the hand brake.

“Jennifer Gardner.”

There. He'd said her name, and it hadn't hurt a bit. With the discipline that came from years of practice, he refused to let her face materialize in his mind. But as always, the perfection of her crystal-clear laugh haunted him.

What if she was still in Rivermist?

 

Dear Reader,

You can never go home again, or so the saying goes. You can look back and yearn for a simpler time, or wish that things might have been different, but rewriting the past is beyond man's power.

But since yesterday plays a hand in our future, in who we are now, gazing back is about so much more than longing and reminiscing. We see ourselves most clearly sometimes in our mistakes and failures, and in the journey we take as we make our way back home.

In
The Prodigal's Return
our hero and heroine face what they've fought for years to outrun and learn to find strength in how far they've come. To claim the freedom of accepting what is broken and in letting that weakness guide them to their second chance.

The weakest thing inside us often holds the promise of our greatest strength. And the lowest man in our midst can be the key to others soaring to their greatest heights—if only they can see that unconditional love is the source of forgiveness, and that it is in the heart that second chances are born.

Whether your dream is to return to a life left unfinished, or to reclaim a loved one let go too soon, I wish for you the acceptance and understanding and hope you'll need along your journey. Trust your heart to lead the way, and what you are seeking will come back to you.

Blessings,

Anna DeStefano

PS. I love to hear from readers. Come join me at my Web site and in my daily journal at www.annawrites.com.

The Prodigal's Return
Anna DeStefano

www.millsandboon.co.uk

For my editor, Johanna Raisanen.
Your touch flourishes in so much that I do,
but
The Prodigal's Return
more than others is yours.

This story was years in the making,
but I can't imagine not having taken the journey,
or not having you there at each turn.
I pray others, as they read, see what I see:
your glorious patience and wisdom shining from every word.

For my agent, Michelle Grajkowski.
You are generosity and strength and grace personified.
You believed in the heart of this story
long before anyone else, even I, did.
It's your confidence and encouragement
that helped me find my own faith.

PROLOGUE

“D
O YOU SWEAR
to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” a courtroom officer asked sixteen-year-old Jennifer Gardner.

“What?” She blinked at the bailiff who stood before the witness box, tearing her gaze away from where Neal Cain slouched beside his father at the defendant's table.

Tell the truth.

That's what Neal wanted her to do, or so his dad had said.

He knows the prosecutor's going to call you to testify,
Mr. Cain had insisted as he'd prepped her that morning. He'd been more a surrogate father at that moment than the county's top defense attorney.
Don't be afraid. Just answer the D.A.'s questions, and everything will be fine.

But normally fun-loving Mr. Cain had looked worried. After his wife's death ten years ago, he'd built his world around his son and his law practice. Now, Neal was on trial for involuntary manslaughter.

Mr. Cain didn't believe everything was going to be
fine
any more than Jenn did.

“Miss Gardner?” Judge Pritchard's voice dragged her attention to where he sat on a dais beside her. “Even though this is merely an arraignment to determine if a trial is warranted, you are required to speak the full and complete truth, under risk of perjury. Do you understand?”

She nodded, and the legal proceeding began, with every eye in the room locked on her—all of them but Neal's. She fought not to throw up as the district attorney took the bailiff's place and forced her to relive the worst night of her life, one painful memory at a time. Like a vulture, he kept circling the fact that she'd allegedly chosen to leave the homecoming dance early, to walk the mile and a half home, alone, in her formal gown.

“Did you by any chance arrange to meet Bobby Compton at his car?” The ugly suspicion in D.A. Burnside's question echoed what many in town had been thinking for weeks.

“No!” Jenn said to the entire courtroom. “I was going home. That's all.”

Good little Jennifer Gardner
, her father's secretary had whispered to Mary Jo Reece last Sunday. She hadn't noticed Jenn and her mother sitting only a pew away, so why bother with the charity and tolerance Jenn's pastor father expected from his staff.
I just can't believe it. The preacher's daughter, making out in the school parking lot. Drinking. Lord knows what else. And those two boys fighting over her. She was leading them both on, everyone thinks so. What else could it have been…?

“I didn't know I'd run into Bobby when I left,” Jenn said, her tears blurring the D.A.'s face.

“Your statement to the sheriff says you became angry with Bobby Compton at the dance.” Mr. Burnside made a show of reading notes from a file.

“Yes, because—”

“Yet you left early without your date, so you could have a private moment with the boy in a deserted parking lot? A boy the defendant had just been fighting with.”

“Yes—no! I left early, but not to talk with Bobby. It wasn't like that.”

The D.A.'s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “You told the sheriff you got into Bobby Compton's car.”

“I couldn't let him drive home the way he was.” She glanced at her dad.

Concern filled Joshua Gardner's eyes. Sadness. Disappointment that she'd never seen, before a few weeks ago. Never thought was possible. Not from the man who'd been her hero. Her rock.

“Drunk, you mean?” the lawyer asked.

“What?”

“You stopped because you thought Bobby was drunk?”

“Yes. I…I'd seen him drinking at the dance.”

“And were you and Neal drunk as well?”

“No!”

Her parents and their pricey Atlanta lawyer had insisted that she not speak with anyone about that night, not even to defend herself against the rumors flying all over town.

“But you
had
been drinking with the deceased?”

“Y-yes.” Her father closed his eyes, crossed his arms, as the courtroom's attention shifted his way. It had sent shock waves through the county, the preacher's child admitting to the police that she'd been drinking since she was thirteen. “Bobby, Neal and some of the other football players snuck some beer in. A lot of us were drinking it, but Neal and I weren't dru—”

“But Neal and Bobby
had
been fighting before you decided to leave the dance?”

“Y-yes.”

“Because Mr. Compton kissed you on the dance floor?”

“Bobby… He'd just broken up with Stephie Blake. He was upset. I was talking with him, trying to make him feel better… To get him to stop drinking. He said I was being so sweet, that Neal was
lucky…Then…I'm not really sure how it happened, but—”

“Bobby Compton kissed you?”

She chewed her lip, shuddering at the memory of the argument that had followed. Bobby trying to shrug off Neal's hand, hauling her even closer. Neal's accusing glare as it shifted between her and his best friend. Her plea to Bobby to stop it. To let her go.

“Miss Gardner?” the D.A. pressed.

“Yes.” Neal wouldn't look at her, no matter how long she stared. He hadn't spoken to her since the night Bobby died. “He kissed me.”

Shock whispered through the room.

“And he and the defendant fought?”

“They… Neal was angry, and Bobby wasn't thinking straight.”

“How long have you and the defendant been dating?”

“Almost two years.” The most perfect years of her life.

“Yet, you kissed his best friend right in front of him?”

“Bobby kissed me—”

“Would it surprise you to learn, that I have eyewitnesses from that night who would testify to the contrary? Maybe you wanted your boyfriend to see you kissing—”

“Objection, Your Honor.” Mr. Cain shot to his feet. “Miss Gardner's behavior is not on trial. It's irrelevant to these proceedings who kissed whom, or why.”

It took several pounds of the judge's gavel to settle the room.

“Mr. Burnside,” he warned. “Keep your questions focused on the defendant's actions.”

“So,” the prosecutor continued with a nod, “the defendant and Bobby Compton fought over you at the homecoming dance. Mr. Compton left. Then you followed him.”

“I didn't follow Bobby.”

The D.A. laid his folder on the witness box's ledge. It was open to a report that ended with Neal's signature. “The statement the defendant gave the sheriff says that when he found you, you were inside the car with Bobby.”

“Yes. I took Bobby's keys away so he couldn't drive home. He asked me to sit with him while he cleared his head.”

“You sat together?”

“Yes.”

“In his car?”

“Yes.”

“And then?”

Jenn swallowed the lump her breakfast kept making in her throat. “Bobby grabbed me again.”

“Your Honor!” Mr. Cain was on his feet once more. Neal stayed seated, his fists clenched on the tabletop.

“I tried to stop him,” she insisted.

“Get to your point, Mr. Burnside,” Judge Pritchard warned.

The D.A. placed his hands on his hips, every speck of friendliness gone from his unsmiling face.

“Miss Gardner, please describe for the court Neal Cain's reaction when he found you
trying to stop
the advances of his best friend.”

“Neal was angry. He was hurt.”

A hollow weight settled on her chest. If Neal would only let her close again, maybe then she could survive everyone else deserting her, even her parents. She searched his downcast features, desperate for any sign that he hadn't given up—on both himself and on her.

D.A. Burnside retrieved the folder from in front of her. “The defendant pulled Bobby Compton from the car?”

“Yes.” Her stomach took another threatening roll upward.

“And they began to fight again.”

“Yes.”

“And the defendant hit the victim.”

“They were hitting each other.” She brushed at her tears. If only there were some way to wipe away the memories. “I tried to stop them—”

“You tried to stop the defendant?”

“Yes… No! Both of them. I tried to stop them both.”

“But you couldn't.”

“No. And then Bobby fell and he… He hit his head against the curb.”

After a long pause, the D.A. plucked more papers from his briefcase. “The police report states that while Bobby Compton received a blow to the head—one we now know was the contributing cause of his death—the defendant escaped the confrontation with little more than a black eye. If they were fighting each other, as you say, how do you account for the defendant's lack of injuries?”

“I don't know.” She gripped the edge of her straight-back chair. “Maybe because Bobby was drunk, and Neal was—”

“Angry?” the D.A. offered.

“Neal didn't mean to hurt him.” She turned to address the judge directly. “They were best friends.”

“But Bobby Compton
was
hurt,” the D.A. interjected. “He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, where he later died. While Neal Cain spent that night, and every night since, sleeping peacefully in his own bed.”

“But he hasn't. I don't think he's slept at all.” And anyone who thought differently didn't know him. Neal had already convicted himself for Bobby's death—so had the rest of the town. But she couldn't.
She never would. “He's devastated by what happened. He's lost his best friend.”

“And Bobby Compton lost his life,” D.A. Burnside added softly, his words carrying through the now-silent room.

A stifled sob drew everyone's attention to the back, to the very last row of benches. Mrs. Compton, her face partially buried against her husband's burly chest, was shaking, clinging to him.

Jenn closed her eyes against the sight of the same shock and grief that were eating her and Neal alive. She looked to her father for… For what?

Understanding? Forgiveness?

Not a chance.

Not for her.

Not now.

It was as if her parents had become strangers to her.

“Please, stop this,” a heart-breakingly familiar voice begged.

Her head jerked around to find Neal on his feet beside his father, pulling away from Mr. Cain's grasp.

“Sit down!” Mr. Cain bit out.

“Stop it, Dad.” Neal faced the judge. “Your Honor, for the sake of Bobby Compton's family, please, call this off.”

“Neal!” Mr. Cain looked ready to deck his son to
keep him quiet, but Jenn knew he loved Neal too much to ever hurt him.

She'd always marveled at the bond, the honesty, between them. At how much they even looked alike, despite the difference in their ages. They shared the same blond good looks, the same height and effortless athleticism and dreamy dark eyes. The same intensity when they were determined to have their way, as both were now.

“Your Honor,” Mr. Cain pleaded. “My son's distraught over his friend's death. He doesn't understand—”

“I
do
understand.” Neal's voice was the scariest calm Jenn had ever heard. “And I want to plead guilty.”

“No!” Jenn and Mr. Cain cried in unison.

The room burst into a sea of babbling voices.

“That's enough.” Judge Pritchard's gavel rapped. He leveled an accusing stare at the spectators. “I'll have no more outbursts, or this courtroom will be cleared.”

When silence returned, it was harder to bear than the gossipy confusion it replaced. Because in the room's quiet, nothing remained but the end that Jenn knew she'd never survive.

Judge Pritchard returned his attention to the defendant's table.

“Have a seat, Mr. Cain.”

“But, Your Honor—”

“Have a seat!”

“Son,” the judge said when Neal was standing alone. “Do you understand the consequences of what you're saying? You're not being charged as a juvenile. You'll serve your sentence in an adult correctional facility.”

“Yes, sir. My father's explained everything to me. I'm pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and I'm going to prison. It's where I belong. We all know that. Don't put Bobby's parents through the motions of a trial that won't change anything.”

“Neal.” Mr. Cain's voice sounded too old, too lost, to belong to the fearless defense attorney prosecutors all over the state dreaded facing in a courtroom. “Please, we can find another way.”

Please.

Jenn wanted to run to Neal. To beg along with his dad. But she couldn't move. Worse, nothing she said would make the tiniest difference.

“I told you this morning, Dad.” Neal shook off his father's touch one last time. “I have to do this.”

His gaze finally connected with Jenn's, his dark eyes at first apologizing, then emptying of every promise and dream they'd shared.

“Bobby's gone because of me.” He continued to stare, through each awful word, as if to be sure she understood most of all. “There is no other way. It's over.”

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