Ocean Breeze, Florida
Lara Cameron and Ted Westwood had been friends since childhood.
Ted was the only child of a widow who had bought the house next to Lara and her father, Ian Cameron. But there had never been any sparks between her and Ted. They'd known each other since she was ten, he eleven, and were firm friends.
When Ted was eighteen, he decided to go to Columbia University, his father's alma mater, and Mrs. Westwood moved to a small, expensive co-op in Manhattan to be close to Ted.
A year later, Lara went to a nearby college for her degree in fine art, so she could live at home with her father, protecting him from their scheming housekeeper, who was trying hard to become the second Mrs. Cameron, to Lara's and her Dad's dismay.
The Westwoods' house was bought by Brent Houghton's parents, who moved in after Thanksgiving that year. And the moment Lara and Brent met, they both seemed to know that what flared instantly and insistently between them was different, exceptional.
Brent was in his last year at Harvard, reading law, but he flew home every chance he got, to be with Lara. His mother, although pleased to see him, was scathingly dismissive of his feelings for 'that irritating Cameron girl'. But Brent was an adult, she could not tell him what to do, although she had tried, with a spectacular lack of success. And Brent had his own money, inherited from his maternal grandfather, much to his mother's chagrin.
When Lara was eighteen, she and Brent became lovers that summer. Years later, when Lara thought back, she still felt a frisson, remembering Brent's passion.
After Brent got his law degree, his father had been surprised, his mother enraged, when he refused to go to Europe with them for three months. Brent told them he wanted to get started on his career. His mother nagged that she was arranging for him to join her brother's prestigious Boston law firm, where he had interned in the summer after his second year, but Brent ignored her.
Sooner than anyone expected, Brent found a business sphere that interested him. Ignoring his mother's horrified objections, he joined a firm of realtors in Jacksonville, Jason Goldman Real Estate. It was a comparatively small firm, and Brent correctly surmised that his business acumen would be noticed more readily here than in a huge, nation-wide chain. Brent's intuitive understanding of real estate proved so astute that Jason soon offered him a partnership. But Brent preferred to start his own realty firm, Houghton Inc.
Brent went to Lara's father, formally asking for her hand in marriage. Her father liked Brent, and gladly gave his permission.
Six months later, her father was killed instantly by a drunk driver, and Lara was desolate. Only Brent's love and support kept her sane.
After her father's death, Brent sold the big house on Oleander Crescent for her, and found her a beachside cottage in the north end of Ocean Breeze. Brent's mother sniffed that it was in an unfashionable part of the village. Brent mocked that Ocean Breeze wasn't large enough to have an unfashionable part.
His mother never realized Brent was living with Lara in her cottage, commuting the fifty-odd miles to Jacksonville.
Finally, the lovers set the date for their wedding. To the indignant but impotent fury of Brent's mother, who wanted a grand wedding to which she could invite all their important friends and acquaintances, Lara insisted on a small, very quiet wedding. She was still grieving for her father, and wanted her wedding to Brent to be a very private occasion for the two of them, with just the immediate family and close friends present.
And then, two weeks before their wedding, everything fell apart.
Brent had to be away for the best part of the first week, a ski resort development in the Colorado Rockies. Lara was busy with preparations for their small wedding. Only Brent's parents and Jason Goldman would attend from his side; Lara had no living relatives, inviting her closest friends, Ted, Marcella Mellis, her lawyer, and Marcella's life-partner, Robert 'Mac' MacGregor, the bookseller.
Ted was gaining fame steadily on Broadway for his imaginative, innovative theatre set designs. He also taught stage design at Columbia. When he received Lara's invitation to the wedding, he managed to free up enough time to drive down to Ocean Breeze. He drove down in one day, arriving at Lara's cottage at three in the morning, deadly tired.
Overjoyed to see her best friend, Lara insisted he take the bed, Ted's six-foot-two wouldn't fit on her five-foot sofa. She had never got around to furnishing the second bedroom, thinking Brent might want to make it into his study-library, once they were married.
The next morning, Lara got up early, quickly folding her sheets and pillow case, carrying them into the small laundry room off the kitchen. As she began to make coffee, she heard a key in the lock of the kitchen door, and to her delighted surprise she saw Brent.
"Brent..." she whispered, flying into his arms.
"Lara, my love," he exulted, wrapping her tightly in his embrace. "I missed you so."
"Sssh, don't wake Ted," Lara warned in a whisper.
"Ted? Ted is here? Asleep?"
"Yes, he arrived around three this morning, he's asleep in our bed, he's too tall for the sofa," Lara explained, still whispering. She was totally unprepared for the explosion which followed.
"This is beyond belief. I went away for a few days and you slept with Ted. You slept with him in our bed," Brent expostulated, his handsome face rigid with anger, his blue eyes as dark as an Arctic night, and as cold, as he thrust Lara from him.
"No, Brent, of course not," said Lara, astonished by his rage. "I slept on the sofa. There are my sheets and p-pillow--" She gestured to the laundry room. Brent barely glanced in the direction she indicated.
"Very clever. Covering your tracks in case I came back earlier than I said. Lara, how could you do this to me? My mother was right, after all. She always said you and Ted were so thick, you had probably been lovers throughout your teens. And it was only because Ted went to Columbia that you took up with me." Brent's face was expressionless except for the white line in the muscles around his mouth, which he kept pressed together in pain, unbearable pain.
Dismayed and deeply distraught, Lara faltered, "Brent? You know that isn't true. I've never been with anyone but you. You know I was a virgin when we--Your mother hates me, she'd say anything to get you to stop loving me."
"Well, she doesn't have to say anything any more. I'll leave you and Ted to your ecstatic reunion. Good bye, Lara. You'll realize I can't marry you after your cruel betrayal."
Brent gave her one more fulminating glance before storming out of her kitchen. Lara hurried after him. She caught up with him just as he was opening the door of his car.
"Brent, please, don't do this to us. Ted and I have been friends since we were children. We're platonic friends, that's all. Please, Brent?" Lara clung to Brent's arm.
With a fastidious gesture, he removed her hand from his arm as if it were a distasteful foreign object. He bit out, "Don't touch me. I loved you. And you betrayed me."
Brent slid behind the wheel of his car, refusing to listen to Lara's desperate denials, "No, Brent, no. I didn't. You know I love you, only you. Brent, please?"
Without sparing Lara another glance, he reversed out of her car-port and drove away quickly.
Devastated, she walked slowly back into her kitchen, where Ted was just entering. He yawned prodigiously.
"Lara? What was all that row? It woke me, and I'm not nearly slept out." He glanced at Lara and was struck by the look of utter desolation on her deathly pale face. "Hey, what's up?" he asked.
"Oh, Ted--Brent just came back from that ski resort he's developing, and when I shushed him because you were asleep, he thought--Oh, Ted."
"He thought what, Lara?"
"That you and I--And I told him no, I'd given you the bed because you're too tall for my sofa. But he didn't believe me. He said his mother had always warned him about you and me. And now she was proved right. He said he won't marry me. Oh, Ted, what am I going to do?"
Afraid that Lara might collapse where she stood, Ted quickly picked her up and stretched her out on the sofa, sitting down by her feet.
"I'll call Brent and explain things," he said calmly.
But when Ted tried to get through to Brent's cell phone, it was turned off. Later that morning, Lara called Jason Goldman, who told her in measured tones that Brent was on his way to Canada where they had several big new developments going. He refused to give her Brent's address.
"If you don't mind my saying so, Lara, I think you would be well advised to leave Brent alone. He is too devastated by your betrayal."
"But Jason, I didn't betray him. I love him. Ted is my childhood friend, he came over to be at our wedding, that's all."
She could hear from Jason's voice that he did not believe her. "That's between you and Brent," he said coolly. "Goodbye, Lara. Please don't call again."
"No luck?" said Ted sympathetically, one eyebrow raised. All Lara could do was shake her head, disconsolate. She sank back against the sofa cushions. When Ted raised a brow, she sighed, trying hard not to cry.
"Brent was in such a hurry to leave, I never got the chance to tell him I'm about a month pregnant with his child," Lara said unsteadily.
"You're pregnant? Oh, dear God," said Ted. He thought for a moment, then seemed to make up his mind. "Listen, why don't you marry me? I'll look after you. You know I inherited Mom's co-op in Manhattan, you'll enjoy living there."
In spite of her deep unhappiness, Lara smiled. "Ted, that's so very kind of you, but no, thanks. I'll manage. I love this cottage, I have a job at the art gallery--" When she saw Ted's blank expression, she explained, "The St.George Art Gallery, on Main Street, where I work. Tom Fredericks, the owner, said he was going to give me more hours and a raise. And I have the income from Dad's money. I'll be just fine."
"I don't like leaving you while you're so desperately upset, but I'll move to a motel. Just in case Brent comes to his senses, realizes he's behaved appallingly to you and comes back. After all, you've been lovers for several years, he should know you well enough to realize you'd never, never do what he accused you of."
A little sadly, Lara said, "That's what I was thinking, too."
But Brent did not come back.