She knew he would be there. Long before she reached the end of the familiar path, Autumn heard the sound of his soft melodious whistle. Of course Cade would be at the boat dock. Where else would he be on her first day back?
He could have been at the marina. Or at the store. He could have been sailing the blue-gray waters of Chesapeake Bay, but she had known with the intuition of long-standing friendship that he would be here.
Quiet pleasure stirred inside her and her smile began even before the boat house came into full view. The weathered shingles on the rooftop were as colorless as the clapboard siding, but Autumn felt a reminiscent contentment surround her. For as long as she could remember, the boat house had stood just so ... a patient, friendly sentinel between her home and Cade's. Technically, she supposed, it belonged to the O'Connors, but she had claimed it for the Tremaynes when she was six years old and no one had ever questioned her right to be there.
Autumn stopped to dwell on the familiar scene and the childhood memories that echoed with laughter, her laughter and Cade's. It had been so long since she'd seen him and until now she hadn't realized how much she'd missed him. Much more than she'd missed her brother, Ross, and his family. Even more than she'd missed the peaceful solitude of this quiet corner of the world.
And she'd never expected to miss any of it. Her lips completed the smile. It was, at last, good to be home.
The low whistle came again, tugging her forward, teasing her with its indiscernible tune. With a tingle of anticipation Autumn walked to the wooden dock, then hesitated, one foot on the grass, one foot on a redwood slat. Cade was on the sailboat polishing the curved railing of the bow and unaware of her presence.
Knees bent, faded cutoffs stretched tight across muscled legs and hips, without a shirt or hat, he concentrated on the task. His shoulders were tanned and broad and his arms flexed with subtle strength. His skin glistened bronze in the sunlight and his sun-streaked hair was dark with moisture.
He'd been swimming, Autumn thought, suddenly recalling the many times she had dived cleanly into the water to race him to the float. He'd always won and she'd always been furious. How many times had she lain on that old wooden float, breathless from exertion and so angry that she could have heated the entire cove with a touch of her hand? And then within moments she had been laughing, swearing that she would beat him one day. She never had, though, and she'd long since forgotten why she'd been so determined to win. Funny, how a once all-important ambition could become unimportant.
Autumn stepped onto the dock and walked closer to where Cade was working. Her sandals flipped silently against her heels, protesting the rough surface beneath them. As she came up beside the sailboat she let her gaze stray from Cade to the sleek lines of the boat.
Shiny new and expensive, she decided. Built for racing, but seaworthy for a trip to the Caribbean, providing the crew numbered two or less. It was a beauty, but Autumn felt a twinge of sadness that this new boat had replaced The Seasons, the boat on which Cade had taught her to sail.
Slowly her eyes moved back to him and her lips curved a greeting. "Need some help?"
She watched the tension that rippled across his shoulders, noted the stillness that settled over his movements, and then heard his half-whispered question. "Autumn?"
He sounded so disbelieving that she gave a husky laugh and immediately he twisted on his heels to see her. "Autumn," he repeated, his voice stronger, but oddly cautious, as if he weren't sure it was really she.
He straightened slowly and her eyes were drawn to the dark hair that curled in damp profusion across his chest. She couldn't stop her gaze from dropping to the snug fit of his wet cutoffs and the long sinewy legs that extended below the hems. Had she noticed and forgotten what a wonderful physique he possessed? No, she wouldn't have forgotten, so she must have been youthfully blind before.
Her eyes returned to his face, to the well-remembered angles and intricate pattern of character lines that defined the experience of his thirty-six years. There were barely discernible threads of silver at his temples, but surely that was only a trick of the sunlight. Still, he seemed different, somehow older than she remembered, endearingly familiar and yet almost a stranger. Silly thought. She'd known Cade forever. How could he be a stranger?
Then despite the several feet that separated her from him, Autumn recognized the blue mischief of his eyes. A small sigh of relief eased from her throat. Cade hadn't changed.
Realizing that he was assessing the changes in her, too, she resisted the impulse to pat the fashionable feather-cut of her hair. Cade wouldn't like it. Or maybe he would. At least he couldn't complain about the color, she thought as her memory replayed his horror on the day years ago when she'd dyed the vibrant October shades to an unbecoming black. She smiled now at her own adolescent foolishness and clasped her hands loosely. The silence was a comfortable exchange between friends and she simply waited for him to speak.
"Hello, Autumn. You're a long way from home, aren't you?"
Warmed by the sound of his voice, she shook her head and made a slow pirouette. "Home is the sailor, home from the sea and, as you can see, I'm home, safe and sound, from the big city."
His smile was a long time in coming. It lacked the roguish slant she remembered, but more than made up the difference in sheer masculine appeal. "It looks as if you just brought the city with you."
Autumn tilted her chin in defense of her designer clothes and the easy elegance with which she wore them. "Is that any way to welcome the best first mate who ever crewed for you? In case you've forgotten, Kincade O'Connor, you would never have won the Cambridge Regatta if it hadn't been for me."
"Same old Autumn," he said from his slightly elevated position on the boat deck. "Stubbornly determined that you won that race single-handed, even though it was my experience, my skill and--"
"...your boat." Autumn finished the sentence for him and laughed at the memories it evoked. Companionable amusement chipped away at the years that separated them, and she felt suddenly more at ease. Her gaze dropped to the polished sheen of the deck below his feet. "I'll bet you could win the Cup single-handedly with this. She looks fast."
"She is." He surveyed the boat with an air of pride. "Want to come for a sail?"
"I'd love it." Eagerness faded, though, as Autumn followed his downward gaze. The tips of her Italian sandals peeped from beneath loose-fitting, wine-colored trousers that matched the braided scarf belted at her waist. Her deep burgundy tunic delineated her softly curving femininity with casual understatement. She could have walked into the most exclusive restaurant on the Eastern shore without a second thought, but sailing ... With a wry lift of her brow Autumn met his laughing eyes. "How about tomorrow?"
"I have to work tomorrow, Autumn. Have you been gone so long you've forgotten what Mondays are like at the store?" He wiped his hands on the rag he held, tossed it to the deck, then jumped lightly down beside her. His deck shoes made a whispery sigh when they struck the wood, and Autumn felt an odd, breathy pressure in her lungs. At close range Cade was bigger, taller, and more male than she remembered and a ridiculous wish that she was meeting him for the first time whisked through her mind.
"Mondays." Silently scolding that unexpected flight of fancy, she nodded in a knowing way. "Inventory lists, weekend backorder forms, restocking the shelves, phone orders from the marinas, at least one minor catastrophe in the shipping department. Mondays at Eastport Boat Supply isn't something easily forgotten, Cade. No matter how long I've been gone."
"And how long has it been since you ran away from home?" His tone was light, teasing, and somehow irritating.
"Five years, seven months, give or take a few weeks. And I didn't run away."
"That's right, I remember. You left to 'follow your dreams.' " He brushed a palm against the waist of his shorts and slipped his thumb inside a pocket.
"Dancing until dawn, sleeping until afternoon, tasting the opulent life of the idle rich--all the things you used to daydream about."
Autumn clasped her hands a little tighter and thought that once she would have pushed him off the pier for using such a superior, I'm-older-and-wiser tone of voice. Well, she was older and wiser now, but if he continued this perplexing attitude, she just might have to reconsider.
"I never dreamed that people really lived such a day-to-day fantasy, Cade. During the two years I was Mrs. Colburn's personal secretary, I got to travel extensively. I spent a Christmas on the Riviera. I've been to the Louvre, the New York City Ballet, opening nights on Broadway. It was exciting and fascinating and I'll never regret taking the opportunity that was offered to me."
He looked past her shoulder for a few seconds before his eyes returned, reluctantly it seemed, to hers. "Sounds like the sort of lifestyle you always wanted. I'm surprised you can find time for a visit."
"I'm not visiting now, Cade. I'm home to stay." She was prepared to smile, maybe even laugh, at his expected surprise, but she had never anticipated the solemn tightening of his jaw. Her pleasure in this homecoming crumbled a little and she looked searchingly into his eyes, past the forget-me-not blue to the man she'd always known as her best friend. He had changed. Or perhaps the change lay within her. Autumn knew only that the comfortable, easy camaraderie between them was gone and she felt oddly lost without it.
"So, Autumn Tremayne, world traveler, ingenue in disguise, comes home to stay. That ought to make the Eastport headlines." He was teasing in much the same way he'd always teased her, but it wasn't really the same at all.
"I really doubt that," she said with a deliberately pointed look. "It's hard to believe the newspaper would be interested when my best friend is noticeably unimpressed."
His eyes met hers in a silent struggle that she couldn't quite understand, and then his expression softened, the smile on his lips finally settling in his eyes. "I'm impressed, Autumn. And surprised. And sorry that I didn't greet you properly to begin with." His big hands cupped her shoulders and drew her to him.
She went into his arms without resistance, knowing he was going to kiss her hello as he'd done countless times in the past. But as her palms came to rest on his chest, a fugitive shiver of longing slid unexpectedly down her back. The undiluted sensuality of him caught her completely off-guard and her belated protest came too late. "Cade ... ?"
His lips came to hers in that fragile moment of parted awareness ... a gentle, light, affectionate touch that stated their relationship in a brief fragment of time. More than friends, less than lovers. It was the way he'd always kissed her, yet now her lips trembled beneath his with the sure and sudden knowledge that it was no longer the way she wanted him to kiss her.
Confused by her reaction, Autumn pulled back. He released her at once, his hands sliding the length of her arms in casual, but lingering relinquishment.
Her eyes sought his hesitantly, searching for an elusive answer that was nowhere to be found in the smiling gaze he returned to her. "Welcome home, Sprite," he said evenly.
With his use of her nickname the panicky flutter in her stomach subsided. A measure of perspective returned and she decided she was imagining a tempest in a teapot. "You haven't called me that in years, Cade. I thought I'd outgrown it long ago."
"You never outgrow nicknames. Especially when I can remember the first time you trotted down the path, all arms and legs and eyes under a mop of coppery hair. I never thought anything so small could contain so many questions." His voice warmed with reminiscence. "Then you challenged me to a race, dove off the end of the dock, and swam to the float as if you were a water sprite. How old were you then? Four, five years old?"
"Six," she answered, uncomfortably conscious of how very young she must seem to him even now. Shifting away from the thought, she took a few steps forward and placed a loving hand against the boat house. "And twenty-one years later this is still my favorite spot in all the world. It feels good to be back." She felt his disquieting regard and knew he was in some way displeased.
"Ross didn't tell me you were coming."
It sounded a little like an accusation and Autumn looked over her shoulder at Cade. "He didn't know. I just decided a week ago and ... well, here I am."
Cade agreed with a nod. "Yes, here you are. So what are you planning to do now?"
Eager confidences sprang to mind, but Autumn found herself hesitant to mention any of her fledgling ambitions. "I'm not really sure," she said in compromise. "Maybe an investment in a local business, something where my experience will be--"
"Experience?" His short laugh was edged with skeptical amusement. "Eastport isn't exactly a haven for rich socialites looking for paid companions, you know."
She swung to face him, annoyed that he had placed her on the defensive. "I was never a 'paid companion,' Cade. I worked for Mrs. Colburn as her personal secretary, a demanding job with many responsibilities. And then three years ago I took over the position of merchandising manager for the Col-burn chain of boutiques. Both jobs gave me valuable experience in dealing with the public and in managing a business. How could you believe I would waste six years of my life? You, Cade, of all people, should know me better than that."
"You've been gone a long time, Autumn, with hardly more than a half dozen weekend visits in between. It's been at least three years since I last saw you. The few letters you sent were little more than postcards describing someplace you'd been. How can you expect me to know everything about you?"
"I don't!" she snapped, but she knew that she had expected him to. The fact that she hadn't had a real conversation with him since she'd left, the fact that he had seldom answered the brief, overly cheerful letters she'd sometimes written, shouldn't have made such a difference. It was shared experiences and the affinity of spirit that marked the boundaries of their relationship, not the amount of time spent together.
Wasn't that the best thing about a friend you'd known all your life? No matter how long you'd been apart, there was never any need for pretense or explanation. There was just the understanding and acceptance that come with years of knowing each other. With a sigh Autumn calmed her irritation and wished fleetingly for the uncomplicated past when awkwardness had never intruded between them.
"I missed you." He was beside her, looking out across the quietly rippling water. With his hands lounging in his hip pockets, he made no move to touch her, but she knew he was reaching for a common bond, a familiar harmony of thoughts. "It's been ... quiet since you left, Autumn."
She put her hands behind her and leaned against the coarse siding. Lonely. She had thought he was going to say it had been lonely without her and she suddenly knew the name of the haunting, restless feeling that had followed her all over the globe. Loneliness. For a long time it had lain dormant, obscured by the glittering call of each new horizon, but she had always known it was there, that silent, unobtrusive feeling that she didn't really belong. Once she had belonged here, but Autumn wondered if that was still true. She was home again, yet there was an emptiness inside her that she couldn't explain.
"At this rate, it will continue to be quiet around here." Cade's voice brought her attention full circle and she smiled softly, hesitantly.
His lips curved into a matching smile and her tension began to ease. "Give me time, Cade. I've been home only a couple of hours. It takes a while to organize noise. Remember how long it took me to plan my high school graduation party?" She patted the rough wall behind her. "The boat house shook with noise that day."
"The whole town shook that day."
"As I recall, you did your part, Cade. Every girl at the party was madly in love with you."
Her eyes widened with sudden question, but he looked away, still smiling, still puzzlingly different. "I was the only one who knew you were just teasing." She paused and tilted her head inquiringly. "Is that why you seem so ... so unapproachable today? Has it been too long since you had someone to tease, Cade?"
He pinned her with cool regard. "I haven't exactly been friendless all these years, Autumn. There are people who find me very 'approachable,' and when I want someone to tease, I invite ... friends ... out for a sail."
Why the hesitation? Autumn wondered, and then asked lightly, "Anyone I know?"
"No," he answered, piquing her interest by his very brusqueness.
"How can you be so sure, Cade?" She couldn't resist teasing him a little. "Eastport isn't that big and I know most of--"
"Jay and his mother moved here from the Midwest. You don't know them, Autumn."
Her desire to tease him vanished. "I'll have to meet Jay ... and his mother ... now that I'm home. Especially if they're frequent visitors to our dock." His only response was a noncommittal lift of his brow and, against her better judgment, Autumn pressed the issue. "Of course, if they are frequent visitors, it would be nice to know a little about them first."
His sigh was half-impatience, half-resignation. "Jay Meyers is a sturdy five-year-old who makes me wish that I had a son."
The warmth in his voice pricked her heart like a splinter pricks the skin. She hated the tight knot of curiosity in her stomach, but she had to ask, "And his mother?"
"Marilynda." Cade looked past Autumn, his mouth forming a smile that she knew wasn't meant for her.
"Marilynda?" Autumn repeated the name thoughtfully, disliking the way the lyrical syllables rolled easily on her tongue, disliking even more the way Cade had made them sing.
"She's been the office manager at the store for about two years now. She's efficient, organized--"
"Married?" Autumn hated her own lack of tact, but she couldn't stop the question.
"No," he answered evenly, "she's a widow."
"Oh." A dozen different reactions swirled through her mind, puzzling, unsettling reactions that culminated in another tactless question. "Is she the special woman in your life, Cade?" Autumn waited for his answer, her heartbeat a dull vibration in her chest, her gaze never leaving his unrevealing profile. She waited, afraid she would see that secret smile again.
An osprey called loudly as it skimmed across the cove, piercing the stillness with its brusque cry. Unwillingly Autumn turned to watch its flight, wishing that Cade had answered her, knowing that by his silence, he had. The osprey winged from sight and Autumn thought that auld lang syne sailed with it.
With determination and a ready smile she looked at Cade. "I suppose I should get back to the house. Lorna and the kids were gone when I arrived, but they should be back by now. It's been so long since I saw my niece and nephew and my sister-in-law, too, for that matter, I'm really anxious to"--she lost the train of her vacant thoughts and paused--"to see them."
Cade shifted to face her, his expression a study of friendly interest. "Lorna has always said she and Ross hoped you'd come back and live with them some day, but I don't believe either of them thought it would ever happen. I'm not sure I believe it now."
Autumn wasn't sure she believed it either. This half-sad welcome certainly was not the homecoming she'd imagined. "Would it seem more real if I challenged you to a race?"
"I'm afraid to accept," he said with a grin. "You may have been training all these years just so you can beat me to the float by a dozen strokes or more."
"You'd win, Cade, just like always." With a wry shrug she moved away from the boat house. "Don't you know that heroes never lose?" She began walking toward the main path, expecting him to fall into step beside her. When he didn't, she stopped and glanced over her shoulder. He looked as if he had no intention of walking anywhere with her.
She pushed a reluctant laugh from her throat. "That was a setup, Cade. Didn't you recognize my subtle effort to lull you into a sense of security? The next time I race you to the float, I fully intend to win."
After what seemed a very long moment he winked at her. A wink that made her feel better and worse--better, because of its reassuring memories, worse, because it made her feel childishly young. She watched him lift a hand in good-bye before he moved to the boat and stepped aboard.
Following the path from the dock to the boxhedge that marked the official boundary of O'Connor-Tremayne property, Autumn slipped through an opening in the shrub. She had always considered the hedge a prickly nuisance that begrudged her entrance to the other side of the fence, but today it seemed appropriate. Something had definitely pricked her high spirits and, with a frown, she admitted that Cade, and only Cade, was responsible.
Ross had been glad to see her, eager to make her at home in the house that legally belonged to them both. Lorna would be pleased too. Autumn didn't doubt the sincerity of their welcome or her place in their family circle. It was Cade's lack of enthusiasm for her return, his whole puzzling attitude, that bothered her, left her feeling like an outsider.
The leather strap of her sandal tugged irritably at her heel and she reached down to strip the shoes from her feet. She would snag her nylons, of course, but it didn't seem important. Dangling the sandals from her fingertips, Autumn remembered running barefoot across the lawn and wished that she hadn't outgrown that carefree innocence. If she were still the child of yesterday, she would have been able to coax Cade into a real welcome, no matter what sort of mood he was in.
From almost the first moment of meeting him she had tagged his footsteps like a faithful puppy, incessantly chattering to him. Heaven alone knew why he'd put up with her then, or later, when she'd been so adolescently awkward. Perhaps he had thought of her as a pesky little sister, although she'd never considered him as an older brother. He had bullied her at times, encouraged her at others. He had teased her, flattered her, and often ignored her, but she'd always known she could depend on him. The friendship between them was something she'd never thought to question. She had simply accepted it as her right. Cade loved her and, with childish faith, she'd believed he always would.
White clouds scooted aimlessly in the late August sky. Autumn watched them, her thoughts drifting in the same disorderly pattern. You might as well face it, she told herself finally. Things aren't the same anymore. Cade is different. You're different. Nothing stays the same, you know that.
Of course she knew, but in her secret heart Autumn hadn't thought it possible that his feelings for her could change. Always his friendship had been there to support her. He had been her confidant, her trusted advisor, the only one she had ever been able to really talk to--until now.
She had been starry-eyed when she'd left, determined to discover the end of the rainbow. She'd been too naively young to know that what she longed for was something she already possessed. It had taken a long time for her to realize that home was the best place to be. Had she selfishly expected everything and everyone she loved to remain the same? Frozen in time until she chose to return and appreciate what she'd once scorned?
She breathed deeply of the fragrant air. The sweet scent of home surrounded her, the smell of salt water and trees and fresh air. It was Cade's scent, reminiscent of his smile. In her mind's eye she saw him as he'd looked today, standing on the new sailboat, his body lean, muscular, and glistening wet in the sunlight.
Today, for the first time, she'd seen him as more than a friend. And today she'd heard him speak another woman's name in a quiet, special way. A totally useless teardrop fell down her cheek and punctuated her melancholy sigh. "Welcome home, Autumn," she said aloud to no one in particular.
Cade sat back on his heels and frowned heavily at the sailboat's forward deck. It gleamed with the furious and largely unnecessary polishing he'd just given it. He had rubbed it as if, by some miracle, he could also rub the image of Autumn Tremayne from his thoughts.
He had told himself dozens of times that she would never come back to stay. He'd promised himself a thousand times that even if she did, it wouldn't matter. But when he'd seen her, heard the husky voice he remembered so well, he had known it still mattered.
It still mattered.
Cade pushed the rag over the deck once again and stared blindly at his hand, but he kept seeing her coppery-bronze hair, glinting gold in the sun, and her brown eyes that danced with her enthusiasm for life. Autumn.
He'd missed her. Until today he hadn't let himself acknowledge it. When she'd left home he decided he'd wasted enough time waiting for her to grow up and into love with him. If it had been meant to happen, she would have stopped thinking of him as an older brother long ago. She wouldn't have needed to leave home; she would have realized that she belonged with him.
Cade had never completely understood his feelings for Autumn. At first, she'd been simply a precocious child who, for some inexplicable reason, could coerce him into laughter when he least intended to laugh. With all the fierce devotion at her command she had loved him, looked up to him, believed he could do anything from bandaging a scraped knee to sailing to the farthest star.
He didn't know when he'd first realized that her role in his life was changing. But somewhere along the way to becoming a beautiful, bewitching woman, Autumn had captured his heart and he'd waited patiently, foolishly, for her to give her heart to him in return.
He had never told her. At first she'd been too young, then as the age difference diminished in importance, he'd thought she wasn't ready to accept more than his friendship. So he'd waited. He'd been the companion she wanted, the hero of all her daydreams, and he'd asked nothing in return. Like a fool he'd loved her and he'd thought she would know it when the time was right. But that time had never come.
And now. Now that he'd finally convinced himself that there was no point, no future in loving her, she was back. He wondered what had precipitated the move. Autumn had always been impulsive, but he couldn't quite believe this homecoming was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Something must have happened and the most likely "something" was a man.
Cade hated that idea, hated the very thought of Autumn in another man's arms, but he couldn't discount it as sheer speculation. She was more lovely than he'd ever imagined she would be, and she had the look of a woman who'd known love and lost it. And when he'd kissed her, with considerable self-restraint, he had recognized her trembling response, that tentative seeking of reassurance.
Flinging aside the rag, he stood and balanced himself against the sway of the sailboat. Damn you, Autumn, he thought. I can't nurse you through a broken heart. I don't want to be your hero anymore. I don't even want you here.
His lips formed a tight line as he battled the impulse to shout his thoughts to the wind. Maybe if she heard, she would leave him to the peaceful, contented pattern of his life. Maybe he would forget her. Maybe in time he could love Marilynda.
Is she the special woman in your life? The memory of Autumn's question was a soft hurt inside him. He'd let her believe it was true, let her walk away thinking that someone else had become more important to him than she. Why had he done that?
Hell, he wanted it to be true. He wanted a family; he needed a woman who could give him something in return, a woman who saw him as a man and not as the heroic answer to her every need.
He couldn't blame Autumn for her attitude toward him. He'd spoiled her, taught her to depend on him, but he'd always expected that one day she would grow up. Maybe if he could go back, he would do things differently. He had loved her, he thought with a derisive frown, not wisely, but too well. If only she'd stayed away another year, maybe he could have welcomed her home with no lingering traces of regret.
But no matter. Autumn was back, but he wouldn't let it make any difference.
"Welcome home, Sprite," he said aloud before he forced his whole attention back to the boat.