By Karen Leabo

strictly confidential by Karen Leabo cover

Copyright 2005 by Karen Leabo, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person or business is purely coincidental.

This is Chapter One only. If you enjoy Chapter One, click the 'Buy Now' button to purchase the entire eNovel for only $2.99.

Chapter One

"Miss Fitzhugh, I thought we'd agreed on the lilac dress for the window, not the peach one." Emma Messenger folded her arms and glared up at Lauren Fitzhugh, who stood precariously balanced on a stool in the display window, her mouth full of pins.

"Ih din' fih," said Lauren, quickly removing the pins before she swallowed one.

"I beg our pardon?"

"I said, the lilac one didn't fit the mannequin. This new mannequin is, well, fuller busted than the others, for some reason. The peach dress is the only one that accommodates all of her. She looks rather, uh, brazen in the lilac."

"Hmmph. The last thing I need is brazen bridesmaids adorning my window. All right, peach it is. Maybe you can do something with the lilac next month."

"I'll start thinking about it." Lauren responded as coolly as she dared, though she would have liked to let loose with an unbridled "Whoopee!" So Emma Messenger planned to use Lauren's window-dressing services on a regular basis. That was the best news Lauren and her depleted bank account had heard all month.

Impatiently she brushed an auburn curl out of her eyes and returned her attention to the task at hand. The mannequins were dressed and in position, but now the trickiest part of her job began. With just a little wire and some nylon thread, she would make it appear that the bride's train was billowing out behind her in the wind. Her silk bouquet would be suspended mid-air--just out of reach of the two laughing bridesmaids.

If she achieved her goal, people who passed this window would have to look twice--just to be sure the mannequins weren't really moving. That was the quality for which her little company, Windows Etc., would become famous some day, she was positive.

Two hours later, standing on the stool once again, she adjusted the angle of the suspended bouquet just as someone knocked on the window from outside.

Though she was used to people doing that, it still startled her. She paused to compose herself, then looked down through the glass at the man who had knocked.

All she could see was a tall, tweed coat. The glare of the spotlights in the window shielded his face. But by the time she'd hopped off the stool to have a better look he was gone.

Shrugging, she slipped her feet into black ankle boots. The display was finished except for the clean up, and she climbed out of the window to tell Mrs. Messenger. But she'd taken only a few steps before the front door of the bridal shop opened to admit Mr. Tweed Coat, along with a gust of cold wind.

Lauren started to greet the man and then froze, her heart thump-thumping from the shock. Standing before her was the man she'd sworn to love--and then to hate--until her dying breath.

They measured each other up for several more heartbeats. Judging from the look on his face, he was just as surprised to see Lauren as she was to see him. Finally he spoke.

"Lauren Fitzhugh, is that really you?"

"In the flesh." She gave him what she hoped was a neutral smile.

He looked good, she'd give him that. He almost glowed with a healthy California tan. His black hair was shorter than she remembered, the laugh lines around his brown eyes more pronounced. But Mick Hanover was still the choicest-looking male she'd ever laid eyes on.

His face broke into an ear-to-ear grin. Well, don't just stand there, give me a hug!" Mick came closer as he spoke, and Lauren had no choice but to accept the friendly embrace. Unconsciously she inhaled. The woodsy scent of his aftershave was the same, the very same, and her memory of it hadn't dimmed in all the years. Her head reeled with unwanted emotions that curled up from somewhere deep inside her.

She took a step backward. "You look great, Mick," she managed, wondering if he noticed the slight choke in her voice.

"And you look gorgeous." Again he flashed the smile that had broken dozens of hearts. "I can see life's treated you well over these past my God, how many years has it been?"

"I don't know." That was a lie, of course. She knew how many almost to the day--seven and a half. "The closer I get to thirty the less often I count backward. But it's been forever. What are you doing in Minneapolis?"

Mrs. Messenger favored them with a throat-clearing that was too loud to be anything but intentionally disruptive.

"I can see you're busy," Mick said, dropping his voice. "When do you get off work?"

"Oh, I don't work here," Lauren explained. "I was hired to dress the window. I should be through in a few minutes." Good God, what was she saying? What was she doing?

Mick followed with the inevitable question. "Why don't you meet me somewhere in, say, an hour? Pushman's Grill?"

"Pushman's? That's a college kid's hang-out."

"It was our hang-out."

As if he needed to remind her, Lauren thought, suddenly on her guard as long-buried memories struggled for her attention.

"Come on, Lauren. I'd like to hear what you've been doing with yourself."

"All right, then. In an hour."

Lauren kicked herself from seven different directions after he'd gone. Why hadn't she invented some excuse, any excuse, for avoiding him? An appointment with her chiropractor, or a sick aunt who needed her anything?

She didn't want to talk to Mick Hanover. That was a chapter of her life that was long closed and as far forgotten as it would ever be. She didn't want to know anything about her current life, or anything about his current life, or anything about the lovely Mrs. DeeAnn Hanover, either. Did they have children? Did they own a summerhouse in Catalina? God. She so didn't want to know.

"Miss Fitzhugh, are you all right?"

Lauren unclenched her fist and looked down at the handful of silk rose petals crushed in her deadly grip. "Oh. Yes, I'm fine." She dropped the ruined petals into her canvas tote bag and nodded her head toward the completed display. "So what do you think?"

Mrs. Messenger sighed as she gazed at the spring-like scene in the window. Lauren had arranged the spotlights so they cast sunny-looking dapples of light and shadow in all the right places. It was her best work, even if she did say so herself.

"It's beautiful," Mrs. Messenger breathed, her habitually stern expression having melted into something close to pretty. "You've worked a miracle. You'll bill me?"

Not if I could get you to write me a check on the spot, Lauren thought, again recalling her pitiful bank balance. "Of course," she answered with an obliging smile, donning her coat and wrapping a green wool muffler around her neck.

She could stand Mick up, Lauren considered as she climbed into her comfortably old truck and shut the door against the biting January wind. She was sure he wouldn't make the effort to find her. He hadn't so much as dropped her a postcard in seven-and-a-half years. Why would he change now?

After a day or two she could forget that she'd seen him at all, and everything would be normal again. But even as she rationalized, she let the truck drive itself to Pushman's.

* * * *

Mick struggled with confused emotions as he nursed a beer at a back booth in Pushman's, his long legs propped up on the seat across from him. Lauren. She'd be here in a few minutes. What could he ever say to her that would bridge the gap of almost eight years, during which he'd tried to deny her existence?

Perhaps he was foolish for wanting to see her again. But he was determined to see her, no matter what the consequences. If fate hadn't intervened and thrown them together, he would have sought Lauren out, sooner or later. He could admit that now. In the back of his mind, Lauren was half the reason he had insisted on coming to Minneapolis. He was still drawn to her like a cat to cream--a starved cat.

But he hadn't adequately prepared himself for the reunion. When he'd knocked on the bridal shop window, it had been simply to tell the woman that he admired the scene she'd created. It wasn't until he went inside to talk to her about her work that he'd gotten his first really good look at her--and what a shock that had been to his nervous system. Would his reaction have been any less dramatic if he'd had time to prepare? Probably not.

Emotions he'd thought long buried had reared up in his consciousness. He couldn't even remember what he'd said to her exactly--only that he'd folded her into his arms. Lauren in his arms the dream that had tormented him for these many years was suddenly very, very real.

His heart lurched as she came through the front door of Pushman's. She removed her coat and scarf, looking around the crowded bar for a familiar face.

Mick lifted his hand and waved; their eyes connected and she began making her way toward the back booth. It hadn't been his imagination; she was a knockout. Of course, he'd always thought her appealing, even when she was thirteen years old with long, red braids, braces on her teeth and a body like a fence rail. And in later years he'd thought her pretty, even, though his frat brothers often commented that she was only average at best.

How wrong they'd been, Mick mused. Maturity had awarded her curves in all the right places, along with a definite aura of self-composure and capability she'd lacked before. Even her clothes--a clingy, pumpkin-colored sweater over snug tan pants and pointy-toed boots--spoke of a certain panache Mick had never before associated with Lauren. And that cloud of auburn hair

He stood to greet her. "Hey, it's almost like old times, watching you make your way through the crowd to our favorite booth."

"Not quite." She slipped into the booth across from him, a teasing gleam in her eye. "Pushman's has never seen you in a tie."

"Well, that's easily taken care of." He pulled off the offending tie and unbuttoned his collar. "There, much better. Lauren, I can't get over seeing you again."

Her tentative answering smile was bright, but it didn't extend to her eyes. "So tell me what you've doing in Minneapolis. I thought you were on the West Coast."

"This is my hometown. I'm allowed to come back for a visit every now and then, aren't I?"

The waitress came by, and Lauren ordered a glass of Chardonnay, then laced her fingers on the table in front of her and waited patiently for more of an explanation.

"Actually I'm here on business," Mick added. "If you've been by Hanover-Beck's in recent years, I'm sure you've noticed how sadly out of date it is. It was my grandfather's first store, and I swear not a penny's been put into its upkeep in twenty years."

Lauren nodded in agreement. "I can't tell you how my hands have itched to get hold of those display windows--oh, not that they're ugly or anything--"

Mick held up his hand to stop her. "They're hideous, and I'll be the first to admit it. But Hanover-Beck's is going to get a multi-million-dollar facelift. That's why I'm here--to oversee it.

"Oh, so you'll be here awhile," said Lauren. "DeeAnn came with you, then."

Mick didn't miss the brittle smile. God knows Lauren had no reason to like DeeAnn. Back in their college days, DeeAnn was pleasant only to those she wanted to impress. Lauren hadn't been one of those people.

He shook his head. "DeeAnn and I are divorced."

That admission drew a reaction from Lauren, Mick noted with satisfaction. For just an instant, that cool façade had crumbled to reveal the puzzlement and sudden confusion behind the hooded eyes. But she quickly regained her composure.

"I'm so sorry, Mick. When did that happen?"

"It was final only recently, but we've been separated for more than two years." He grinned at her. "You don't have to look so stricken. You were right about DeeAnn. You knew all along she was lousy wife material, even if I wouldn't admit it."

"I never said--"

"You didn't have to say. Those big green eyes of yours spoke volumes."

They stared at each other a few more moments until finally Lauren smiled--a real smile, this time, and Mick felt his bones going warm and liquid from the sheer power of it. If he'd thought the years might have softened his desire for her he was dead wrong.

"So, what about you?" Mick asked, handily changing the subject. "Married with a dozen kids?" He caught himself waiting almost breathlessly for her answer.

"No." Though he couldn't deny he was relieved, her answer was a little too crisp and final-sounding to suit him.

"And your dad? How's he doing?"

She lowered her lashes and sipped at her wine before answering. "He died years ago. Bone cancer. I thought you knew he was terminal."

Mick cringed inwardly. He hadn't meant to be so callous. He supposed he had known about the cancer, but the few times he'd seen Mr. Fitzhugh he was so cheerful and vital it had been hard to remember he had a grave illness.

"I'm sorry, Lauren. That was stupid of me to--"

She waved her hand, dismissing his discomfort. "It was a long time ago, after all. He was a grand old guy, and I'll always miss him, I suppose, but I'm hardly still grieving. There's no need for you to tread lightly. So ..." She raised her half-full glass in salute, and Mick lifted his to clink lightly against hers. "Now that we've covered death and divorce, shall we discuss nuclear holocaust?"

They silently sized each other up once again, and Mick pondered the changes he saw in her. This wasn't the same forlorn Lauren Fitzhugh he'd abandoned at the back door of a dormitory those many years ago. This wasn't the same, transparent girl who'd given of her love so generously, so unquestioningly. Her physical curves might have softened, but psychologically she'd taken on a sharp edge, a wariness, a dryness to her sense of humor.

He liked it, Mick decided. He'd left behind a sweet, vivacious girl who adored him, and had returned to discover an intriguing woman whose feelings he couldn't even begin to guess.

"Tell me about this window-dressing business of yours," he asked, dissolving the tension. "Your own company?"

She nodded, obviously proud. "It's just me and a college student who helps out sometimes, but I've only been in business for myself a few months."

Hmm. Lauren, a businesswoman. He'd never thought of her in those terms. "I figured you'd be hanging your paintings in the Metropolitan Museum by now," he said, acutely aware of her long, artistic fingers as she twirled the stem of her wineglass between them.

"Fine arts is a wonderful thing to study in college," she said, "but completely useless in the real world. I think you tried to tell me that one time."

Mick rolled his eyes at the reminder of his own pomposity. "Hell, I didn't know what I was talking about half the time back then. You're a gifted artist, Lauren. Whether on canvas or in a store window, your talent shines." He meant what he said. That bridal shop window had an indefinable quality about it, a sensation of reality that he'd seldom seen matched, even at Hanover-Beck's in L.A. And that store could afford any window dresser in the world, and always went with the most expensive and sought after.

"Thank you." Lauren accepted the compliment gracefully, and Mick could tell she was pleased.

"You said you were itching to get hold of Hanover-Beck's old windows. That's actually the reason I came into the bridal shop in the first place--I need some help, and I like your work. Want to give it a shot?" He threw out the invitation casually.

"What? Oh, well, I was just talking out the side of my mouth. You--you're not serious, are you?"

"Sure. We aren't actually to the window-dressing stage, but I'm not sure I like what the architect's done with the re-design of the windows themselves. I could use your expertise." Mick fiddled with his cardboard coaster, thumping it with his forefinger and sending it skittering around the table like a hockey puck. He was trying to conceal his tension, for suddenly Lauren's answer was very important to him.

He needed her help. But more importantly, he didn't want to see her walk away from him today. He wanted to get to know her again, find out more about the woman she'd become.

She remained silent for a long time, staring out the window at the darkening sky, a pensive look on her face. So she was taking his idea seriously.

"Why don't you just come down to the store tomorrow and look things over?" Mick suggested. "And if the project interests you we can talk specifics."

Lauren nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. It would be silly of me to jump up and say, 'Yes, I'd love to take the job' when I don't even know what's involved." She extracted a small calendar from her oversized handbag and chewed on the end of her pen as she contemplated tomorrow's schedule. "How's early in the morning? About eight?"

"Great. Come around to the South entrance. The guard will let you in and show you where my office is." Mick felt inordinately pleased. He allowed himself to relax a little, and he openly studied the tall, slender woman across from him as she made the notation in her calendar.

The soft, loose style of her auburn hair suited her. He remembered her hair from their college days, thick and soft and hanging down to her waist. It was always pretty--touchable--but the old style did nothing to accentuate her delicate features. Now her shiny locks reached just past her shoulders, a curly copper frame for her cameo face. He wanted to run his fingers through the silky-looking strands....

He forced himself to look away, irritated with the direction of his thoughts. He must be crazy to think for one moment that anything physical could happen between himself and Lauren. She could have been his, once upon a time. But he'd forfeited any right he might have had to her affections. If she felt anything for him at all, it ought to be, probably was, contempt.

So far he and Lauren had deftly skirted the subject of their last night together, both of them trying to pretend it hadn't ever happened. But scarcely a minute had gone by this afternoon that Mick hadn't remembered what it was like to make love to Lauren. The guilt, suddenly fresh and sharp, was there, too. And regret.

Was she thinking about it too? Or had she dismissed their lovemaking as a childish, one-night affair, a mistake?

Lauren snapped her calendar closed and dropped it into her bag, simultaneously looking at the gold watch on her slender wrist. "I hate to run, but I really do have to."

"You mean you won't stay and have a Push-burger with me? For old time's sake?"

"No, thanks. I loved those grease bombs once, but I'm sure now they'd give me indigestion." She stood and offered her hand.

A handshake seemed so cold, Mick thought. He took her hand and clasped it between both of his. "It was great running into you, Lauren. Sometimes it's especially nice to see a face from the past."

She squeezed back, just for an instant, and then slipped her hand out of his grasp. "See you tomorrow, then."

He absently peeled the label off his beer bottle as he watched her leave, wondering if she had any idea what she did to him.

* * * *

As soon as she had entered her apartment and closed the door behind her, Lauren dropped her tote bag, kicked off her boots and collapsed into the nearest chair. She let her eyes wander over her familiar surroundings, thinking that they might lend some aspect of normality to this otherwise upside-down day. But the cozy living room, with its warm, colorful décor and its overgrowth of potted philodendrons, did little to ease Lauren's distress.

She slipped out of the chair and onto the Navajo rug that covered the hardwood floor, easing herself onto her back and curling her knees to her chest. She rocked gently back and forth, from neck to tailbone, a technique Melissa, her part-time help, had taught her to relieve muscular tension in the back.

Tonight it wasn't working. Perhaps that was because the tension she felt had nothing to do with her back, Lauren acknowledged with a grimace.

How could this have happened? She'd done such a good job turning herself against Mick, learning to hate him instead of love him. He'd taken the fragile love she'd held out to him on a platter, and abused it unmercifully. She'd sworn she could never forgive him for that. And in truth, she'd never believed she would have to, because she hadn't dreamed he'd pop back into her life.

Yet here he was ... and all that healthy animosity she'd hoarded over the years seemed conspicuously absent.

Sitting at Pushman's, staring into those warm brown eyes, letting his quirky grin and those dazzling white teeth work their magic on her, the only feelings she could dredge up were nice ones--memories of the good times they'd shared, tender feelings for that one, unforgettable night of passion when he'd so eloquently initiated her into womanhood.

And then he'd dangled the plum in front of her--he wanted her to consult with him about Hanover-Beck's windows. Her first instinct had been to say no. Definitely no. The idea of establishing an association with Mick, even a business relationship, was preposterous, dangerous, and out of the question. But Lord, she could wait a lifetime for another job like that to come along.

She thought about what the extra work would mean to Melissa, who was struggling to make her tuition payments and who worked so tirelessly for the dreary wages Lauren paid her. As for Lauren's business? She could kiss those low-paying, low-budget dime-store displays goodbye. Photos of her Hanover-Beck windows tucked into her sample book would make all the difference in the world.

And talk about challenge! What she could do to those windows!

All of these thoughts had flashed through her mind as she'd pondered Mick's offer. And then her professional self had taken over. She was a businesswoman, and her business came first. Then, she'd been confident that she could handle her feelings for Mick.

But now she wasn't so sure. Those feelings flowed swift and stronger than she could have guessed.

She stood abruptly and marched to her bedroom bookshelf, where a possible answer might lie. Tucked into a corner, was a three-foot stretch of spiral notebooks--dozens of them--which represented fifteen years' worth of her personal journal.

She'd started the diary when she was a freshman in high school, overcome for the first time with emotions she was afraid to confide in anyway. So she'd ripped the first few pages of notes out of her history notebook and had begun a habit that had evolved into a daily ritual.

Unwillingly her feet led her to the bookcase, and she pulled the first volume out. She had to smile when she read the bold, red letters printed on the cover: "Hands Off! Strictly Confidential!" As far as she knew no one had ever violated that mandate.

She opened the notebook and started reading the first page:

I think I'm in love. And I have to tell someone. He's Number 12 on the JV football team...

Lauren didn't have to read on to know who Number 12 was.

It should have made her angry, thinking of that skinny, knobby-kneed little girl in the throes of her first big-time passion. But she could only smile, remembering how Number 12, an impossibly handsome, older man--a sophomore--had eaten ten of the cookies she'd baked for the rally after football practice. He'd playfully tugged one of her long braids and told her they were the best cookies he'd ever tasted--and Lauren had been hooked.

She replaced the first volume and flipped through the spiral bindings of the others, wondering where she might find the passage she sought--the one that might put her feelings back into perspective. She chose a notebook randomly out of the middle and opened it:

DeeAnn showed me her engagement ring today. Normally she wouldn't talk to me, of course, but I know she just wanted to rub it in that Mick officially belongs to her now. She always resented my friendship with Mick, though there's nothing for her to be jealous of. Mick has never so much as kissed me, more's the pity. Anyway, she just about made me sick, showing off the ring that way...

Lauren snapped that volume shut and shoved it back between the others, out of order. Later in that same volume was the passage she'd written after she and Mick had made love. That wasn't what she needed to read just now.

Carefully this time, she chose the next volume. She glanced through the pages, mostly containing wooden descriptions of her senior classes and her plans for after graduation. The passage she sought was written in red, she remembered--angry red. She never understood what triggered the sudden, intense rage after several months of mourning the loss of her friend and one-time lover. But there it was:

Mick Hanover is a low-down weasel, a miserable excuse for a man. I opened myself up to him, gave him everything of myself, and he used me and threw me out like yesterday's stale bread. He had the gall to tell me he loved me, when he had every intention of going right back to DeeAnn and marrying her.

How could I have thought I loved such a contemptible jerk? I'll never mention his name in this journal again as long as I live.

She'd felt better after writing it, she remembered, as if she'd cleansed something poison out of her system. And true to her word, she hadn't mentioned his name in her journal ever again. Not yet, anyway.

You hold on to that anger, she admonished herself as she replaced the notebook to its rightful position on the shelf and straightened the others. Anger was her only defense against that devastating smile, the contagious laughter, the sparks of light in his rich brown eyes...

She fixed herself a hasty dinner of scrambled eggs and toast, then spent several minutes contemplating the contents of her closet, wondering what to wear for her meeting with Mick tomorrow. Personal feelings aside, she would do everything she could to win this job.

She settled on gray wool pants and a black cashmere sweater set--sedate and businesslike--matched with pink suede boots and a pink-and-black checked muffler. Since she was an artist, she was allowed to add her own dash of outrageous. Then she took a long, hot bubble bath and climbed into bed. She opened the drawer of her nightstand, intending to pull out the suspense bestseller stowed there and read herself to sleep, but the corner of a blue spiral notebook caught her attention instead.

She still wrote in her journal occasionally, perhaps once a month rather than every day. She was comforted by the fact that when she was old, she would have an accurate accounting of her life over which to reminisce.

She pulled out the notebook and a pen, turned to the first blank page, dated it, and wrote: "He's back."

There. She still hadn't mentioned his name.

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