Darcy O'Malley sat on the front porch steps as the hot afternoon sun headed westward, watching her best friend's car pull into the driveway next door. She sucked in a deep breath, tension easing out with it.
Six months. Six long months since Luke Jordan had been home—the longest they'd ever gone without seeing each other. Having his car parked where it belonged brought a sense of normalcy.
Of course, these days, he called Tennessee home.
Darcy waved, but he couldn't see her from behind the overgrown boxwoods.
He climbed out of the car and stretched. As expected, his hair had grown shaggy. Unruly brown hair that begged a girl to push it off his forehead.
Darcy gave a derisive snort. It was ridiculous how many girls had held that honor. Too many to count.
She stepped out on the sidewalk. Luke spotted her and waved, his face lighting with a big goofy grin.
"Come on over," he called, motioning her toward his car.
He met her halfway and held out his arms. She fell into his embrace, wrapping her arms around his neck. When he lifted her off the ground and gave a brotherly squeeze, she felt as if she were the one who had come home. She'd missed him.
"I'm so glad to see you," she said against his cheek, breathing in the familiar scent of his Prell shampoo. "But you need a haircut."
"Glad to be back in Georgia where you can hound me into going to the barber." He set her on her feet and smiled, but his eyes looked shadowed.
She should have anticipated the sadness. This was his first visit home since his mother's funeral. "Tough coming back?"
"Yeah. Seeing the house " He sucked in a deep breath and glanced up at the two-story brick home he'd lived in from birth.
She waited, knowing better than to push him to talk about his mom.
"I'm surprised to see you here in the middle of the afternoon," he said, effectively changing the subject. "Thought you'd be at one of your many jobs."
Typical of him to slip in a jab about her over-packed schedule, though Luke was simply spouting what everyone else around her had been spouting. He always joked about her overcommitment, but underneath, he was being protective, worried about her stress level and health.
"I only have two jobs," she said. "Finished one for the day and am about to head to the other."
"Only two." He shook his head. "You're finally living your dream of being a microbiologist and have the luxury of living rent-free. Why put in so many long hours?"
The muscles in Darcy's neck tightened with nagging concerns over losing that rent-free status before she was ready. "I don't remember asking your opinion," she said, snippier than she'd meant.
One corner of his mouth tilted up in a grin. He'd always loved riling her up and blaming her temper on her red hair.
"Hey, I just want you to have a life," he said. "Maybe go out, have fun, find that Prince Charming you've always dreamed of."
For now, her life was consumed by work and paying off student loans. Even if by some chance Prince Charming did show up, she couldn't squeeze in a moment for him.
She'd missed their banter, though, and couldn't help returning his smile. "Once again, I don't remember asking for your opinion."
He laughed and nudged her shoulder with his.
"So, how long are you staying?" she asked.
"A week, two at most. I brought some work, and Roger's covering for me."
"Not long, but I'll take what I can get." She hooked her arm around his and looked up. "So when can we hang out?"
Their gazes locked, and his teasing smirk faltered. "Um, I may be pretty busy." He glanced at their joined arms, then at his parents' house.
The action felt like a snub. Had she somehow made him uncomfortable?
"You're not going to like why I'm here," he said.
"Dad's been talking of downsizing. I'm here to help get the house ready to put on the market. I'm hoping he and Granny will join me in Nashville."
Her heart stuttered. Surely Luke didn't mean it.
He didn't laugh. Didn't bump her shoulder like he usually did when he was joking. Her stomach sank to the sidewalk, and the excitement that had fueled her for days tumbled along with it.
Her best friend might stay in Tennessee permanently?
Stunned, Luke looked into Darcy's eyes—had they always been so blue? Had her auburn hair always been so shiny and silky, her fair, freckled skin so smooth? When she'd wrapped her arm around his, every inch of that smooth skin touching his ignited his nerve endings.
What was wrong with him? This was Darcy. Darcy. And she was simply acting like she always did.
He needed to get control of this sudden, weird attraction. Hadn't he learned the hard way that going from friend to anything beyond friend would end in a mess?
Remember Chloe, he thought, repeating his and Dar-cy's long-ago mantra. Darcy's sister, Chloe, barely spoke to him nowadays. He couldn't imagine the pain of losing Darcy's friendship.
"It's been six months since you were home, Luke." Darcy glared at him, playful, yet chastising. "Your family can't move away. We'd never see each other."
The hurt tone of her voice made him want to pull her close, to comfort. Instead, he eased his arm out of her grasp. At the moment, even incidental contact left him reeling. "Dad's been depressed, so I need to do something. He's obviously lonely, says the place is too big for him since Mom died."
"It wouldn't be if you moved back to Appleton." The pleading in her eyes was all too familiar. They'd had this conversation several times.
Hands jammed in his pockets, he put extra space between them. "You've missed me that much, huh?" he teased.
"Dream on." She laughed and hitched a thumb toward the house. "I can't believe your dad would abandon so many memories."
"Once we have a plan in motion to sell the house, I'll ask him to come to Nashville and become a partner in what will soon be my law practice."
She stilled. "You're really going to do it? Stay in Nashville and ask Burt to join you? He's been building his practice here in Appleton for decades. Why don't you join him, prove yourself like you wanted to do when you were a kid."
That dream had died when his dad had told him he wasn't cut out for law school. When he'd said Luke should probably consider another career. Granted, Luke had goofed off in high school, but midway through college, with Darcy's help, he had buckled down. He'd applied and been admitted into law school the following year. He'd headed to graduate school without his dad's support, and had worked hard to prove Burt wrong.
Looking into her eyes, Luke said, "You know how strongly I feel about making my own way." He nodded toward his car and headed that direction.
"Yeah, I know." She sighed and followed. "I just wish Burt would recognize how good you are at your job. And that youwould let go of the past and come back here where you belong."
Luke had been working as an associate for Roger Young for nearly a year, had thrived on the challenge and done well. Once Roger retired, Luke would take over. "Business is great. There's more opportunity in the city."
She arched a brow. "Your dad has been very successful in Appleton. Together, you could be more so."
Of course she and the townspeople would assume Luke had gone off on his own and refused an offer to join his father's practice. They didn't know the painful truth. Dad himself didn't even realize how the snub had hurt. "He's never asked me to come work with him."
Darcy's face scrunched in disbelief. "What?"
Luke wished he could take the humiliating words back, but this was Darcy. He could tell her anything. "It's true. Dad never once mentioned having me join his practice, even when I told him about other job offers."
Which had been the death of Luke's dream—Jordan & Jordan, Attorneys at Law in the big Victorian house on Golden Street.
Darcy laid a soft hand on his arm. "I can't believe that."
"You know he doubted me every step of the way, which is why I plan to stay in Nashville." Luke reached in the backseat and pulled out his luggage.
"Then why ask him to join your practice?"
"I've been worried about him, have been thinking for weeks about asking him to move closer. Figured a new start might help."
She sighed. "I understand your concern. I've been there with Mom."
"I also want to bring in a partner with experience, someone who'll inspire confidence in the clients Roger is sending my way. I'd like to think Dad and I could work well together, especially if I get a chance to show him I'm capable."
As Darcy glanced at her watch, the sun shone on her hair, highlighting coppery strands that brushed well past her shoulders. Most of her life, she'd worn a ponytail. When had she started wearing her hair down? Had it been down the last time he saw her?
"Time to head to the mall job." Eyes so deep blue they sometimes looked violet sparked with frustration. "It doesn't sound as if I'll be able to change your mind about coming back home for good."
Luke shook his head. "I closed on the office building last week. Roger has sent out letters to all his clients informing them of his pending retirement, inviting those who haven't yet worked with me to drop by."
Darcy frowned. "What about your grandmother? You really think she'll move, too?"
That part of his plan didn't sit well with Luke. He hated to uproot Granny after she'd lived in Appleton her whole life. "I hope she will."
"If you ask me, dynamite couldn't blast her out of her home." Her eyes heated before she glanced away, angry. "But, you didn't ask me."
"Come on, Darcy, be happy for me."
"If anyone can persuade Burt and Grace to move, it's their beloved only child and grandchild." Her gaze darted everywhere except directly at him, silently voicing her disapproval, pricking at his conscience.
He hadn't come home looking for approval, though. He'd come home with a goal to help his dad while securing his own future. And he intended to see his plan through.