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Authors: Karen Stivali

Leave the Lights On

BOOK: Leave the Lights On
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Dedication

My eternal gratitude to Nikka Michaels, my tireless beta reader, for loving Parker and for always being there for me.

Many thanks to Tiffany Reisz for her invaluable insight and her superhero-like speed-reading ability.

This book is dedicated to Mandy Pennington because I wish her nothing but happily ever afters and because she brightens my day, every day.

I can’t imagine not having the three of you in my life.

Chapter One

Parker Wood pulled into the circular drive of the house he’d grown up in, as he’d done a thousand times, but it didn’t feel like coming home. It felt like starting over. He couldn’t help but notice the immaculate condition of the lawn. Every shrub, every tree, every mulch bed, groomed to absolute perfection even though the house had sat empty for over three months. A perk of owning the most successful landscaping-design company in the area.

The door of his Land Rover creaked as he opened it, the only flaw he’d found with the vehicle since he’d driven it off the lot two days earlier. He stepped onto the cobblestone drive, careful to make sure his feet landed on level surfaces. He’d never imagined that twenty-four could feel like eighty-four, but today it did.

“You can’t expect to spend two days on your feet and not have it take a toll on you,” his physical therapist Tanya had said to him as she dug her hand into the sorest spot on his hip.

“I expect to be able to do a hell of lot more than that.” Parker had gritted his teeth and tried not to cringe as she pushed harder. Sparks of pain shot down his leg, but he knew that was good. With the number of surgeries he’d had after the accident, he knew he was lucky to have any sensation in his leg. Pain was a reminder that he could still feel.

“Patience, my dear. Not your strong suit, I know. Think about how far you’ve come this year. When I first met you, you could hardly stand. Now I can barely keep up with you when you walk. You’re strong as an ox, Parker. This leg is ninety percent healed. You just overdid it. And the stress doesn’t help.”

Pain he could handle, but the comment made him flinch. He closed his eyes as she continued to work her fingers into him, pressing every excruciating spot she could find. None of it hurt more than the memory of the last two days. He’d hoped his first days out of the rehab center would be memorable in a good way, but instead he’d spent them at his father’s wake and funeral. He breathed through his nose, trying to focus on the pungent scent of menthol rather than thinking about the fact that now that he was finally going home, his father wouldn’t be there anymore. At only sixty, his body had lost its battle with prostate cancer. Parker couldn’t help but wonder if the stress of having his only child in medical facilities for two years hadn’t caused his father’s condition to worsen.

Blowing out a long, slow breath, he hoisted a box out of the backseat. He made his way to the front door, amazed by how much everything looked the same. The brick front of the house, the ivy-covered trellis, the granite steps leading to the heavy black double doors. For a moment, he imagined it was three years earlier, and he was home from college for summer break—that the box he carried contained things he’d packed up from his dorm, that he’d find his father sitting at the kitchen table, reading a newspaper and muttering about the housing market.

He unlocked the door and stepped inside, holding his breath. The silence that greeted him knotted his stomach.
I’m home.

The house smelled musty, but familiar. He set the box down at the base of the stairs. Hardwood floors. He never in his life thought he’d be so happy to see wood floors. Two years of the linoleum of hospitals and rehab made them a welcome sight. He ran his hand over the smooth curved banister.
Stairs. And I can actually climb them again.

The knock at the door startled him. He whirled to see Mr. Nardo dressed in his mailman uniform, taking a tentative step into the house.

“Hey Mr. N.”

“I figured it was your car in the driveway.” Mr. Nardo’s kindly eyes looked into his, full of sympathy. Parker could only hold the gaze for a second.

“Yeah, just got here. Unpacking the truck.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, trying to strike a natural pose. The ache in his leg returned.
Stress makes it worse,
Tanya’s voice echoed in his head.

“I was real sorry to hear about your dad.”

Parker nodded. “Thanks.”

“He’ll be missed around town. Good man.”

Parker studied the floor again, raising one hand to massage the back of his neck.

“You doing okay, kid? You need anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good. Got the okay from the docs to start work on Monday.”

Sympathy passed across Mr. Nardo’s face again, followed by an encouraging smile. “I heard you were taking over the business. I bet your dad was real proud to know he was leaving everything in good hands.”

“Yeah, I think he was.” Parker felt desperate to change the subject. “How’s Joey doing?”

Mr. Nardo’s eyes lit up. “He’s doing great. Still can’t believe my boy’s playing in the big leagues.”

“You always knew he would.”

The smile left Mr. Nardo’s expression. “It shoulda been both of you, kid.”

“Another lifetime.” Parker shrugged.

Mr. Nardo nodded and clapped him on the shoulder. “They say things happen for a reason.”

“That’s what my dad told me the whole time I was in the hospital.”

“Like I said, good man.” He patted Parker’s arm before stepping back out onto the porch. “It’s good to see you, kid.”

“You too, Mr. N.” Parker leaned against the doorframe as Mr. Nardo descended the stairs. He turned back as he started across the walkway. “You know you’re not the only kid back in town. Sophie Vaughn just moved back into her parents’ place.”

Parker’s gaze automatically shot to the next yard, to Sophie’s house.

Mr. N chuckled. “I thought that might get your attention.”

Parker’s cheeks prickled with heat. He and Joey had taken turns having a crush on Sophie since grade school, but neither of them had ever dated her. “I thought she got married.”

“She did. And divorced. Her parents moved down to Florida full-time a few months back, so she decided to move into their place. Just moved in a few weeks ago. You should go say hi.”

Parker’s heart pulsed an extra beat. “I may just have to do that. Thanks for the heads-up.”

“Any time, kid.” Mr. Nardo continued down the path, climbed into the mail truck and drove down the street.

 

 

Sophie Vaughn tried to control the nervous fluttering in her stomach as she peered out her kitchen window for what seemed like the hundredth time in an hour. She swiped a finger full of chocolate frosting from the bowl on the counter and glanced at the Rubbermaid cake holder, hoping she’d put enough frosting on the actual cake.
Maybe I should pipe some around the bottom edge.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a car door slamming. She glanced out the window just in time to see Parker heading up his walkway, arms full of groceries.

He’s home.
Her heart doubled its rhythm. She’d barely been able to believe her eyes when she’d seen him the day before. The possibility of him moving back to his dad’s house had crossed her mind when she’d heard that he was taking over the landscaping company. Seeing him unloading boxes out of the truck had made it a reality. They were neighbors again, after all these years.

Sophie gave her finger a final lick then washed her hands.
You can do this.
She inhaled deeply.
You’re just paying condolences to an old friend. Nothing wrong with that.

Except that she knew that wasn’t all she was doing. This wasn’t any old neighbor or any old friend. This was Parker Wood. The boy she’d spent years palling around with, hoping against hope that one day he’d see her as more than just a buddy.

She shook off the thoughts before she got herself too freaked out and lost her nerve.
Do it.

The walk across their yards seemed eternal. Standing at his front door with the cake holder balanced on her right hand, she reached for the doorbell. The chime echoed through the closed door, and Sophie wondered if she’d be able to stay upright until he answered.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe he’s in the shower or…

The sound of the latch clicking open made her mind go blank, and then there he was. Taller than the last time she’d stood so close to him, at least six foot two now. Jaw line even more chiseled. Hair a deeper shade of brown and longer than she’d ever seen it—long enough to give him a sexy just-out-of-bed look but not long enough to cover his still-breathtaking blue eyes. She’d spent years looking at guys’ eyes and had never found another pair that compared to Parker’s. Black-ringed irises so entrancing she felt like she could stare into them forever. His expression remained emotionless until he made eye contact with her, and in a heartbeat, his entire face changed.

“Sophie,” he said, surprise evident in his voice as a smile tugged at his gorgeous lips.

“At your service,” she said.
What? Oh, God…

He let out a laugh, giving her a quick look up and down. “Wow, you look so… You look great.”

“So do you.” She felt her cheeks flush from the compliment and the admission. “I heard about your dad. I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks.” Parker nodded and looked at the ground.

“I made you a cake.” She held the container up. “I know a casserole or something is probably more traditional and practical, but when I need cheering up, I always want cake.”

Parker eyed the container. “You made it?”

Sophie nodded. “It’s my mom’s old recipe.”

“Chocolate fudge?”

“Yep.”

“I still dream about this cake.”

Sophie felt her eyes bug.
He said cake, not you.
“Good dreams, I hope.”

His smile grew broader. “Sinfully good.”

Something Sophie couldn’t identify flickered through his eyes. A memory? She couldn’t stop staring at him.

“Hey, you know I kind of make it a policy not to leave beautiful women with cake standing on my front porch. You wanna come in?”

Sophie nodded, not trusting her voice. Parker stepped aside, and she moved past him.
God, he smells good.
He closed the door and followed her into the kitchen. The house looked almost exactly like she remembered it. For a minute she felt as if she were back in high school, coming over to study for a test or watch a movie with him and Joey.

“I just got back from the grocery store, but I forgot to buy coffee. There’s milk, though.”

Sophie set the cake down on the kitchen table and watched as Parker got out plates. The muscles in his arm flexed as he reached up into the cupboard. A fading scar snaked around his biceps, disappearing under the sleeve of his black T-shirt.
Must be from the accident.
He turned and caught her staring, and she felt her cheeks heat again. Parker rummaged through a drawer and set down forks and a knife. Sophie removed the lid from the cake server and the scent of chocolate filled the air. She cut two slices, pleased to see the hungry look in Parker’s eyes as she slid a plate toward him. “Hope it’s as good as you remember.”

“I’m not worried.” He smiled as he took a forkful.

Sophie held her breath.

Parker’s eyes closed as he chewed. “Oh, man, dreams don’t do this justice.”

A giggle escaped Sophie, and she couldn’t keep from grinning. She scooped up a forkful. “Not bad. Even my mom might give this a thumbs up.”

“How is your mom?” Parker was already halfway through his piece of cake.

“Good. She and my dad really like living in Florida full-time. They’ve got a big group of friends down there, so it’s been perfect for them.”

“So the house is yours now?”

Sophie shifted in her chair and twirled her fork through the frosting. “All mine. I can have parties whenever I want.”

The deep, rich sound of Parker’s laughter warmed Sophie to her core.

“God, I remember your parties.”

“Me too.” Sophie’s stomach fluttered. What she remembered most was hoping that maybe at one of them Parker would see her as more than just the girl next door. But that had never happened.

BOOK: Leave the Lights On
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