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A Distant Summer

A Distant Summer by Karen Toller Whittenburg
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Kristina DuMont couldn’t forget that long-ago summer weekend she’d spent with Tucker McCain. Seeing him now, it’s as if the intervening years never happened. She knows she’s in danger of falling in love with him all over again, but if Tucker discovers the secret she’s kept from him all this time, can he ever forgive her? Can they start anew and find a future together? Contemporary Romance by Karen Toller Whittenburg; originally published by Dell Candlelight Ecstasy

Belgrave House; April 1985
ISBN 9781610847117
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: A Distant Summer
Author: Karen Toller Whittenburg
 
Excerpt

She reminded him of someone ... or perhaps of a distant summer.

The patina of dark wood haloed the champagne paleness of her hair. Subtly darkened brows arched over eyes that he knew would be blue, had to be blue to conform with her Nordic fairness. Delicate bone structure, creamy skin, small straight nose, lips tinted with moisture, she possessed all the fine points of arresting loveliness, and he watched her with a purely masculine approval.

He would have liked to touch her hair, to loosen the confining style, to feel the texture of its blond coolness in his hand. But even across the width of the courtroom he recognized the protective distance she unconsciously projected. She wore solitude as quietly as her clothing whispered good taste.

She stood just inside the heavy doors of the courtroom, alert to the tension in the air yet looking as if she had wandered through the wrong doorway. Scanning faces, her gaze searched past the crowd of observers to settle on him.

Tucker felt the impact of that single look lodge in his chest, and he immediately broke the unsolicited eye contact. He turned toward Mark Braison, the man beside him, and envied the calm, nerveless confidence the attorney affected. But Tucker found his gaze returning to the blonde, and he wondered how in hell he could even think of a woman, any woman, no matter how attractive, at the moment. She was still there, still watching him, and for a split second he thought she was smiling.

She wasn’t smiling, though, and he didn’t know why he’d had that sudden glimpse of her lips curving upward with seductive pleasure. Nerves. God, he was nervous. So much so that he was imagining things. Maybe he’d even imagined her. But as he narrowed his eyes in concentration, he decided she was real. Delicately, distractingly real.

Pushing away from the wooden doors, she walked to an unoccupied long bench and sat down. “Graceful,” he added to his list of her feminine attributes. Then he forced himself to face front. But he was conscious of her continued observation, aware of her interest, and the knot of frustration in his chest tightened.

Why the presence of one more spectator among so many should bother him, he didn’t understand, but he recognized the discomfort she caused. He wished the woman, whoever she might be, weren’t here to witness the impending drama. Hell, he wished he weren’t here either. He shouldn’t be here, sitting at the defendant’s table, prepared to defend his professional integrity against an unjust accusation.

It was all wrong. Mark was certain that there was no evidence to support a malpractice charge, no substance to the false claims that Tucker had violated his Hippocratic Oath. He’d saved a life, and now, against every moral instinct, he was expected to justify that. This was the first day of jury selection, and Mark assured him it wouldn’t go any further; but then no one had thought the litigation could progress to this point either.

It was a circus, Tucker thought, a caricature of both the medical and the legal professions. And the illusion of wrong had been carefully drawn by the skilled hands of an opportunist. If he turned around, Tucker knew he would see the pompous serenity of John Abernathy, an unappealing sight in the best of circumstances. Here in the solemn courtroom, it was a nauseating incongruity. Tucker knew, also without looking, that Sarah Abernathy was not present. She was safely tucked away in some sanitarium, where her testimony couldn’t hinder the publicity-hungry ambitions of her husband.

Tucker shifted in his chair and glanced toward the back of the room again, toward the blonde. Dark lashes lowered, then lifted to capture him in the faint knowledge that she had been staring. Another, stronger sense of familiarity tugged at his remembrance. There was something, an indefinable memory, a certain feeling that he should know her.

“All rise.” The bailiff’s voice brought instant attention, and Kristina DuMont flowed to her feet with the rest of the courtroom crowd. The judge seated himself in a swirl of black robes, and in a moment Kris sank onto the wooden bench again. She shouldn’t have come. She’d realized that the moment she saw him. Her heart jerked unsteadily with the thought.

Tucker McCain.

Dr. Tucker McCain.

She corrected herself as her gaze centered on the austerity of his navy jacket. The material pulled tautly across his back, and she tried to remember if his shoulders had seemed so broad then. He had been twenty-one ... twenty-two? She didn’t even know how old he’d been. She had been seventeen, barely, a very young, very childish seventeen.

Maturity suited him, she decided. Self-confidence lined the set of his shoulders; experience softened the stubborn angle of his chin. Gray feathered his dark hair; shadows deepened the intriguing shape of his eyes. He was much the same as the young man she’d known briefly, yet he was very different. Kris wondered if she would have recognized him under other circumstances. If she hadn’t come to the courtroom expressly to see him, if she’d passed him by chance on the street, would she have known who he was?

Impossible to answer and a moot point besides. Curiosity had brought her here, to this room, to see Tucker McCain, and she had known him at once. She wondered about courtroom protocol. Could she just slip away now that she’d seen him? But both the attorneys stood and approached the judge’s bench. Tucker glanced in her direction, and Kris responded with a questioning lift of her brow.

He smiled, turned away, then looked back as if he weren’t sure he should. Did he recognize her? She hadn’t considered that. She hadn’t really considered anything except the persistent impulse to see him again, to discover if he’d changed.

It had been strictly chance that she’d even seen his name in the morning newspaper. Ordinarily on vacations she made little effort to keep up with current events. But this morning the Rocky Mountain News had come with coffee, compliments of the Brown Palace Hotel, and she had begun to read for the simple pleasure of knowing that she could do so at her leisure.

And then, there on the second page, his name had caught her unprepared, had whirled her back to another place, another time, another life.

The attorneys were returning to their chairs, and the judge began to speak. Kristina glanced toward the courtroom doors and sighed. She would stay for a few more minutes, then leave and continue her tour of Denver as planned. There was no reason this impulsive detour should change anything. She’d wanted to see him, and she had.

It meant nothing.

Tucker heard the judge’s announcement with mingled anger and relief: recessed until tomorrow morning.

He leaned forward. “What in hell does this mean?”

Mark frowned and with a shrug lifted the file folder. “It means Abernathy got another delay and another day’s worth of publicity. It means you and I are going to walk out of here cool and collected, as if we had time to burn.” Mark slipped the folder inside his briefcase and closed it with a frustrated click. “It means, my friend, that I’m going to spend the afternoon in my office waiting for a settlement offer.”

Tucker drew in his breath. “After all this—?”

“Abernathy’s no fool. He knows he’s milked this malpractice charge as long as he can without putting himself in jeopardy. I’m not fond of his attorney, but Walt Cooper is nobody’s fool either.” Mark rose, and Tucker followed him to his feet. “No, Tucker, I think they’re ready to call it quits.”

“I’d like to shove that offer—”

“But you’re not going to, remember? We’ve discussed this several times.” With a touch of his hand to Tucker’s shoulder, Mark adopted a smile and turned to leave. “Now, cool and collected.”

“Sure thing.” Tucker tightened his lips around the words. “I’ll talk to you later.” He walked beside his attorney to the doorway, then stopped to hold the heavy wooden door for a couple of people behind him. As they moved past him, he thought of the blonde and glanced back to the almost empty courtroom, but she wasn’t there. A brief scrutiny of the anteroom proved equally futile, and he decided it was just as well. He didn’t feel up to the polite social games necessary for initiating an acquaintance.

Tucker started to join the group waiting for an elevator but changed his mind and pulled open the door of the stairwell. It closed behind him with a quiet sound, and then he saw her. She was several steps below him on the landing, and her head was bent. The muted light above her tangled in the smoothness of her silvery hair, tinting it with an amber warmth....

She looked up, and he knew. Memory shivered through him in indistinguishable images. Her eyes, not blue, as he’d supposed, but gray. Soft, mysterious gray. Now, suddenly, he remembered their color just as he remembered her hair tumbling over her bare shoulders, cloaked in the amber glow of fire. So long ago he’d all but forgotten. But seeing her, he wondered how he could have forgotten for even a moment.

He took a step forward and stopped. “Kristina?”

She froze, panic whispering through her veins. Too late to run, too late to consider the consequences of her impulse. Tucker McCain faced her, his voice rough with memory, a memory she’d hoped he couldn’t possibly recall.

“Hello, Tucker,” she said, answering the question in his dark eyes. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

He struggled for comprehension. “God, Kristina. I can’t believe this. I didn’t even know you.  What are you doing here? Do you live in Denver? Are you—?” There was so much to know, to discover, and he was suddenly awkward. “You’re—you look wonderful. Lovelier even than I remembered.”

Her smile bore little resemblance to the winsome smile he’d imagined earlier. She appeared in control, confident and comfortable with her femininity. He knew, on the other hand, he must look as embarrassingly bewildered as he felt. His thoughts were a scramble of disjointed scenes as he tried to piece together his memories of this woman. He remembered her saying that she’d been twenty-one.

Self-assurance took hold with that bit of information. It all would come back to him if he didn’t push it. Slowly he returned her smile. “I have this silly idea that I should say something very collegiate in honor of our first meeting, but all I can think of is the football team cheer. Not really appropriate for the courthouse.” He paused, letting the hesitation mask his doubts. “We did meet at a football game, didn’t we? It’s been so long you’ve probably forgotten.”

“No,” she admitted with the complete awareness that he was struggling to remember even the most significant events of that day. “I mean, yes, it was a football game, at the University of Missouri. And no, I haven’t forgotten. It was a ... special day for me.”

Best not to comment on that,

he thought. But there were other things to know. “Have you had lunch? I know just the place to get reacquainted over a glass of wine and some of the best food in town.”

“Oh, no, thank you,” Kris answered too quickly. “I’m on vacation, and I’ve already made plans for this afternoon.”

A shadow of disappointment altered the curve of his mouth. “I see. You’re meeting someone. Your husband, maybe? The three of us could—

“No.” Her interruption was automatic and sounded brusque, even to her. She should have let him think she was married. But she couldn’t. Perhaps because she’d lied to him before, it seemed important not to deceive him now. “I’m not meeting anyone.”

“Then have lunch with me.  Please.” His blue eyes deepened to twilight, and she thought that the years had served only to enhance his charisma. She would have liked to accept, but it was impossible. Words of refusal formed, but he spoke first. “Don’t refuse, Kristina. I’d really like to talk to you.”

Talk? What could they talk about? She didn’t know the etiquette for renewing an acquaintance with a man she’d spent one weekend with almost eleven years before. Still, she couldn’t ignore the odd note in his voice. He needed to talk to someone, probably wanted to tell her about the court case. How ironic that Tucker McCain should need to talk to her. And how fitting that she found it so difficult to turn her back on him now.

What was the harm? It was only lunch. And maybe it would be good to give herself an opportunity to ask him a few of the questions that had always bothered her. Nothing specific, of course, but during the past years she’d learned how to elicit the information she wanted. It was, she soothed the voices of reason, just lunch. She would be careful about what she said. What could go wrong? “All right,” she agreed. “Lunch.”

When he walked down the stairs to her side, Kris knew she was taking an incredibly foolish risk. Everything could go wrong.  So easily that her heart pounded with the possibility. Yet she smiled and accompanied him from the building, answering polite questions with polite answers, giving information, but revealing nothing of importance. Yes, she was on vacation. No, she’d never been to Denver before. Yes, she liked the city very much. No, she was staying only until the end of the week.

She didn’t like the feeling of awkwardness that settled between them in the back seat of the taxi. She didn’t like the awareness of Tucker, sitting so close that she was warmed with remembrance. But when he smiled, almost shyly, as if he also felt awkward with his thoughts, Kris knew memory wasn’t the only cause of her disquiet.

It was the man beside her. It was the subtle physical strength of him, the long, sinewy length of his legs, the muscular hardness of arm that brushed against her shoulder with the motion of the cab. Her senses were alert to his every movement; her gaze was tempted again and again to his navy trouser-clad thighs.

He was tense, but she didn’t actually believe she was responsible. His tension was a result of frustrations with the law and probably with the medical profession as well. She knew that without knowing quite how she knew. And it bothered her: not just the knowing but the sympathy that winged from her heart to his.

“Are you staying in town long?” he asked, and then grimaced in apology. “I already asked that, didn’t I?”

“Yes.” She bathed her expression in pleasant understanding. “And I’m still staying only until the end of the week.”

“Are you visiting friends in the area?”

“No. Denver just seemed like an interesting destination when I started driving. It’s been a very beautiful trip. The Colorado scenery is breathtaking.”

“You drove all that way?” He paused and gave a short laugh. “I don’t even know where you live. You might have driven over from Boulder.”

“I might have, but it was a little out of the way, considering that Arkansas is southeast of here.”

“Arkansas?” A minuscule frown creased his forehead. “But I thought—” Another self-directed laugh rumbled in his throat. “You’ve moved from Missouri, of course.”

She smiled in wry concurrence. “ ‘Et tu, Brute’?”

“Yes, I also,” he said with a glint of humor. “I could hardly wait to leave my home state behind. The fact that I was accepted at the medical college here helped stir my wanderlust. What about you?”

“I’ve never been much of a wanderer, except for vacations. The rest of the time I stay close to home.”

“And family?”

An old pang tightened across her stomach. “No family, just home and friends.”

His gaze brushed her cheek with a more intimate question, but he didn’t ask. “Where are you staying in Denver?”

“The Brown Palace. Is there any other place?”

“Several, but none quite so steeped in tradition.”

She smiled. He smiled. Silence clustered thickly in the narrow confines of the cab. She shouldn’t have come. Kris accepted her judgment as she adjusted her position on the seat beside him and smoothed the crisp fabric of her skirt. There was no graceful way to excuse herself now. Why had she decided to vacation in Denver? And in all the vacations of the past why hadn’t she ever, once, met a man who was as attractive, as physically compelling, as Tucker McCain? But she knew. She’d never met anyone else who could compare because she’d met Tucker first.

The taxi pulled to the curb, and in a matter of minutes she was walking under a green awning and into Cafe Giovanni. It was crowded but thinning in the lull between the lunch-hour and early-evening clientele. There was only a brief delay before they  were walking up the curved stairway to the dining area.

Tucker seated himself across from her at a small out-of-the-way table, and Kris opened a menu and perused it without seeing at all.

“May I order for you?” The persuasive tone of his voice made her lower her menu, and she faced his dark sapphire eyes. And in that split second of contact she knew he could rearrange her life again if she wasn’t careful.

“A cocktail?” he asked. “Or would you prefer wine?”

“Wine, I think. And something light to eat. A salad maybe?”

He nodded and spoke quietly to the waiter. Kris looked around the restaurant, noticed the exposed red brick walls, the plush carpet, but her attention was entirely on Tucker, on the easy confidence that seemed so much a part of him. She heard him order, and the wine he had chosen was Chablis. Against her will she wondered if he remembered the firelight diffused through crystal goblets or the wine she’d nervously spilled on the less than plush carpet. He barely recalled meeting her. Why would he remember the type of wine?

He shouldn’t have ordered the Chablis, Tucker thought as he turned to watch Kristina’s interested study of Cafe Giovanni. The moment the words had left his mouth, he’d realized the connection between that kind of wine and his first encounter with the woman now seated across from him. What a situation.

She was very lovely, and the intangible distance that shielded her intrigued him. Why hadn’t he met her for the first time today? But since fate hadn’t allowed that, why hadn’t she taken her vacation in another month, a month in which his life wouldn’t have been in upheaval, a month in which he could have given her his concentrated attention?

The thoughts evolved into a slow question, and he ran a pensive fingertip over the hemmed edge of his napkin. “Kristina? How did you happen to be at the courthouse today?”

Her gaze returned to him with a hint of smoky apprehension. She glanced down as if weighing her response and then met his eyes. “I saw your name in the morning paper and I decided to go. I didn’t intend to talk to you. I was just curious, I guess.”

Her voice trailed into an unsettling hush, and Tucker felt a spiral of disappointment. Curiosity had brought her into that courtroom. She had wanted to see Dr. McCain on the legal hot seat. Nothing more. Certainly not Tucker McCain, victim of circumstantial publicity, a man in need of a friend. He couldn’t prevent himself from leaning back against his chair ... away from her.

Kris recognized the defensive movement and knew that somehow she’d offended him. Even knowing she should not say more, she couldn’t seem to prevent herself. “When I read the article about your—about the litigation, I couldn’t believe it. I know how much, I mean, I remember that you told me, how much becoming a doctor meant to you. This lawsuit must be a nightmare.”

“It hasn’t been pleasant,” he answered in cautious acknowledgment. “But then I don’t suppose malpractice suits ever are.”

He had stressed the word, and Kris felt another tug at her sympathy. Malpractice. He must hate the very idea, and to have it associated with his career! Small wonder that he exuded such intensity. “Will the case be resolved soon? Out of court?”

“My attorney seems to think so, but ...” He lifted his shoulders in a heavy shrug. “Frankly, I’m at the point where I don’t give a damn whether or not it’s ever resolved.”

Oh, he gave a damn all right. Even a casual observer could see just how much he cared—or how much he hurt. Why hadn’t she simply skipped the newspaper that morning and gone ahead with her original plans? Then she wouldn’t be here now, caring because he cared, hurting because he hurt. “You worked very hard to become a doctor, a good doctor.”

He tilted his head slightly at her confident tone. “Did I tell you that, too?”

“There are things I don’t have to be told.”

The corners of his mouth curved upward but didn’t quite become a smile. “It’s comforting to know I have a champion in the state of Arkansas.”

“You must have a lot of supporters here in Denver.”

His only answer was to glance, as if impatient, in the direction the waiter had taken. Restless fingers danced along his napkin before curling into a fleeting fist, and then he brought his gaze to her. “Tell me about Arkansas.”

Kris accepted his change of subject gracefully. “The capital is Little Rock. The population is somewhere around—”

He interrupted her. “I meant to say, tell me about you.”

She’d been hoping he wouldn’t ask; she’d been wondering what she would say when he did. The napkin in her lap began to acquire nervous pleats. “I’m a newspaper editor. It’s strictly small-town news, but I’m very proud of it.”

His dark brows lifted in acknowledgment, and Kris realized her defensiveness. She hated the unexpected feeling. After her first year at the Maple Ridge Gazette the guilty feeling that she should apologize for her career choice had vanished. Why should the old attitude reappear now? And why had she been so quick to classify herself by her work, as if the sum of her existence could be found in the equation of newsprint and ink?

“And where is this small town?”

“Arkansas.” Her tone was flippant, but it was threaded with a quiet panic. He smiled, and Kris saw an unavoidable and perfectly legitimate question rising in his eyes. As it parted his lips, the waiter arrived with the wine, and she thought it couldn’t have come at a better time. She didn’t want to tell Tucker anything more about her life. Maybe he wouldn’t ask.

“You’ve never married.” Tucker offered the statement in the same careful way he extended a glass of wine, and just like that, he altered the mood and swept her into an ambiance of conflicting emotion.

Accepting the glass, she pretended an interest in the transparency of the drink. “Why do you say that?”

“Just a hunch.” He took a slow sip of wine and set the glass on the table. For a long moment he stared at it. He didn’t look at her, and she didn’t look at him, at least not directly. But the longing to do so was enclosing her, tightening across her lungs, increasing the beat of her heart. It was hard to breathe, and she knew release would come simply by lifting her eyes to his. But she must not.

“I’m not married,” he said in an offhand manner. “There’s never been time. Or maybe there’s just never been a good reason. I don’t know.” His pause was contemplative; his soft sigh, weary. “That doesn’t surprise you, does it?”

“No,” She wasn’t surprised at the information— she knew he would be the type of doctor whose commitment to medicine superseded any other commitment—but she was surprised that he’d mentioned the subject at all. The fact that he had was a measure of his uncertainty at the moment. It provided a glimpse of the vulnerable man beneath his cloak of confidence.

Silence came again, but this time she welcomed its comfort, and she sensed that Tucker did, too. Kristina continued to stare at her wineglass, remembering, oddly, that the last time—the one time—she’d been with this man, they had allowed not a second of silence. There had been a constant flow of words ... looks ... touches.

Luncheon arrived, and she banished memory to the safe past. Suddenly she was hungry and eager to lighten the mood and the pensive line of Tucker’s smile. “Do you have a private surgical practice?” She picked up a fork and poised it above her salad.

“Yes.” Tucker focused first on the fork and then slowly raised his gaze to her face. Her gray eyes met his, and for an instant he thought her sudden cheerfulness faltered, but she recovered quickly with a general comment. And although he answered in the same vein, he did not recover as quickly. There had been something in that momentary exchange, something muted and almost fearful—but real. Very real.

Tucker tried to define that intangible reality during the course of the meal, but he never came close to solving the enigma. If there were shadows in her gray eyes, Krishna never allowed him another clear glimpse of them. She was quietly animated, talking around many topics of conversation yet drawing out his opinions and his attitudes with skilled subtlety.

He realized what she was doing without being truly aware of how she did it. He knew only that he was talking, voicing thoughts that seemed to form without conscious effort. What he said seemed unimportant. It was the type of conversation he might have had with any new acquaintance, but he had an odd sensation that she was learning more about him than he would have willingly told anyone else.

Each time he tried to turn the tables, to discover the person behind her beautifully delicate face, she gave answers that left him dissatisfied and hungry to know much more than she revealed. By the time he paid the check Tucker was certain that he wanted to see Kristina again.

“Have dinner with me tonight,” he said, impulsively reaching across the table to touch her hand. Her fingers were cold, and he thought they trembled slightly beneath his. “We can make it late, if you prefer, and light.”

She met his gaze and slowly withdrew her hand to her lap. “No. Thank you, Tucker ... but no.”

His palm lingered against the crispness of the tablecloth as he sought again to penetrate the elusive veil of reserve that sheltered her. “Tomorrow, then. I’ll phone your hotel room,”

“I might not be there.”

“I’ll leave a message.”

“That isn’t necessary. Really.”

“It is necessary, Kristina. I want to see you again. I intend to see you again.” He couldn’t understand her reluctance, couldn’t explain his own persistence, but he knew he had never meant anything more sincerely.

She looked as if she might make another protest, but then a polite smile erased the impression. “I think I should be getting back to the hotel now. Thank you for lunch. It was very nice.”

He rose just in time to grasp the back of her chair as she stood and tucked her purse under her arm. His hand went automatically to her waist, and, although she permitted the faint brush of his fingertips, he felt her become instantaneously alert. As they left the dining room and descended the stairs, nothing else was said, no smiles were exchanged. There were no glances that held a small treasure of meanings, and Tucker was lost in the puzzle.

When he followed her into the afternoon brightness, she turned to him. “Again, thank you. It was good to see you, Tucker.”

A knot of frustration pulled taut inside him. She was going to walk out of his life as inexplicably as she’d walked in. He couldn’t allow that, but what could he do to stop her? Without actually considering a course of action, he bent his head and whispered a zephyr-soft kiss to her lips. It was a mere touch, yet it told him more than he had learned during the entire afternoon.

There was a bond between his heart and hers. He didn’t know if it had been forged in a long-forgotten moment or if it had bloomed into being within the past hour, but he didn’t doubt its existence, and he didn’t doubt that Kristina was aware of it, too.

“I’ll phone you.”

The husky tone of his voice sent a sweet unrest rippling through her composure. She didn’t protest. She simply turned from the dusky determination in his eyes and stepped inside a waiting taxi.

Tucker came forward to close the door, leaning down to offer one last promise. “Tomorrow.”

The cab pulled from the curb into the flow of traffic, and Kris knew he watched until her taxi rounded the corner.

Only then did she let her head drop back against the cushioned seat.

Only then did she rub the tension from her forehead.

Only then did her shoulders slump and the quiet panic swirl helplessly inside her.

She had broken the cardinal rule, the one absolute in her life: “Don’t look back.” Today, for reasons she didn’t completely understand, she had. And the consequences stretched before her like a deserted highway on a misty night. She couldn’t see him again; she couldn’t not see him again.

A trembling finger relived the brief caress of his kiss.

Tomorrow. He would call tomorrow.

What was she going to do?

Subject categories
ISBNs
1610847113
9781610847117