Chapter One

 

THE PANEL saw ripped into the two-by-four with a satisfying bite. Alexander Morrison leaned the finished piece along the wall with the other completed cuts and pitched the remainder into the scrap bin before reaching for the final stud. He measured and marked the length, double-checked the notes he’d scribbled at last night’s class reunion committee meeting, and measured again before making the final cut. As the saw blade whirred to a stop, he pulled off his dust mask and ear protectors and ran a hand through his hair to dislodge at least some of the sawdust.

Working at the last minute like this was mildly irritating. He’d prepped the plywood panels and support beams for the backdrops to decorate the high school gym weeks before, so the art team had time to paint them. But at what was supposed to be the final meeting three nights before the big event, Stephanie Keyes, the committee chair, had decided it was essential to have a decorated arch for couples to pose under for photos. With a smile that reminded Alex of a shark advancing on its prey, Stephanie delegated the task to Alex. It wasn’t a surprise, since he owned the only hardware store in the town of Freeland, Oklahoma—along with his sister, Alanna, who was six years younger, and he had no doubt when her ten-year class reunion came along, they’d be providing lumber and supplies for it too. It wasn’t that Alex minded donating the materials or the time—he’d volunteered for the committee, after all. He believed in giving back to the community. Some parts of the community were just more demanding than others.

After locking the saw blade, Alex was about to run the shop vac to pick up the loose sawdust when the bell over the front door jingled. He recognized Stephanie’s sugared tone even from the back room.

“Afternoon, Alanna. Where’s your hunk of a brother hiding himself today?”

Alex was tempted to stay hidden and let Alanna deal with Stephanie, but she’d been handling the front of the store while he’d worked in the back for the better part of the day. It wasn’t fair to make her fend off Stephanie’s advances on his behalf, no matter how unwelcome he found them.

“I’ll take over if you want to take a break,” he told Alanna as he closed the shop door behind him. Alanna’s smirk told him there was no way she planned to miss the show. “Hey there, Stephanie,” he added. “I just finished cutting the lumber for the arch. I’ll put it together tomorrow night, and as long as Jennifer and Claire have what they need to decorate it, you’ll be all set.” He wasn’t sure what the ribbons and gauze and whatever the art team planned to wrap the bare wooden structure in had to do with the reunion theme, “Party Like a Rockstar,” but he kept that to himself.

“I knew you’d be able to make it happen,” Stephanie cooed, and Alanna rolled her eyes, hopefully out of Stephanie’s sight. Though Stephanie didn’t seem to have eyes for anything but him. He ran his hand through his hair again, not sure how to respond. Stephanie and her husband, Jim, had divorced earlier in the year, and she’d flirted enough at the reunion committee meetings to make it clear she had Alex in her sights as his replacement. He’d tried to ignore or deflect her as much as he could without making it equally clear he just wasn’t interested.

“I can’t wait to see how everything turns out,” Stephanie continued, moving closer to Alex. “We’ve all put so much work into this. It’s going to be the best reunion Freeland High has ever seen.”

“I’m sure it will be.” With the counter at his back, Alex couldn’t move far. “You’ve done a great job.”

“It means so much to me that you think so.” Stephanie raised a hand to her cheek as if to hide a blush. “Have you decided what lucky girl you’re going to escort yet?”

Alex blinked, and Alanna muffled a snicker from behind the register. Stephanie seemed to think they were still teens angsting over who to ask to the homecoming dance. He hadn’t planned to “escort” anyone, but if he said that, he’d wind up with Stephanie glued to his side all evening. “I, ah, I’ll probably be there with Sam.”

He and Samantha Burchart had been Freeland High’s golden couple their senior year. As star running back of the football team and head cheerleader, they’d been voted homecoming king and queen and widely expected to continue their relationship into college when Alex was offered a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. A lot had happened over the past ten years that no one had anticipated, but he still considered Sam his best friend. And if people like Stephanie thought their relationship went further than that, who was he to disillusion them?

“Oh, Samantha, of course,” Stephanie faltered. “I wasn’t sure she was planning to attend. We haven’t received her RSVP.”

“She wasn’t sure she’d be able to come until Chief Cowart released the duty roster for the week.” No one in high school had expected Sam to wind up an officer on the Freeland police force, but then, no one expected Alex to be running the family hardware store either. “She’s on patrol until nine, but she plans to come by after that.”

“Well, I’m glad she’ll be able to make it.” Despite having starred in the drama department production of You Can’t Take It with You their senior year, Stephanie wasn’t a very good actress. “I’ll see you tomorrow night for the final setup, then.” With a wave of her hand, she left the store, the bell on the door jingling jauntily behind her.

“‘I, ah, I’ll probably be there with Sam’?” Alanna parroted. “Smooth, Xan. Really smooth.”

“Give me a break, Lan,” Alex answered, smiling at the nicknames no one but the two of them used. Despite the years between them, he and his sister had always been close, especially now that both their parents were gone. She might tease him more fiercely than anyone else, but he also knew she’d always have his back. “If it wouldn’t cause a scandal, I’d skip the whole damn reunion. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. I see ninety percent of the people who’ll be there around town every single day.”

And the one person he’d want to see wouldn’t be there, but that wasn’t something he’d share with anyone, even his sister.

“It’s a chance for everyone to dress up and show off what they’ve accomplished since high school,” Alanna said. “You wouldn’t begrudge Stephanie a chance to strut her stuff in search of husband number two, would you?”

“She’s welcome to search all she wants as long as she stops eyeing me for the role.” That his own accomplishments since high school were so far from the expectations that had led to his being voted “most likely to succeed” was another reason the reunion held little appeal. “I don’t know why she thinks I’d be a good catch anyway.”

“Are you kidding? You’re one of Freeland’s most eligible bachelors. You have an established business with a steady income, and even I have to admit you’re kind of attractive.”

Alex shook his head with a grimace. “An established business I inherited from my parents after I couldn’t make it in college football, much less the pros. I live in an apartment over the store with my kid sister.” He smiled at her to take any sting out of the words. “I didn’t do all that well in the marriage department either, in case you’ve forgotten.”