The leaves were turning various shades of gold, orange, and red. The air was cooler, and the days grew shorter. Hensley's campus was brilliant in autumn and showed off its fall foliage grandly. The towering oaks and maples had burst into color, and tiny animals skittered around, gathering up food for the cold months ahead. Fall was quick as winter came much sooner to this part of Maine.
Noah stood and gazed out at the campus from his second-story office window. Students had pulled out their sweatshirts, and the summer clothing had been put away until late spring semester when it would emerge again in different fashions. The cycle was constant. Comforting.
His classes were going fairly smoothly now that his students had realized that he was serious about teaching them and expected hard work from them in return. Absences were rare as most of his students had actually expressed their enthusiasm for the class. Their enthusiasm for his teaching style.
He was not a great teacher by any means, but he hoped that he was good. That whatever he taught them would remain inside them always. One day, years from now, he hoped that they could remember their introductory music theory class and reminisce on how he had helped them.
He desperately hoped that he'd helped someone.
Some of his students had requested his help as a voice coach. Three of the young women and one of the boys had begged him into giving them tutorial lessons during the evenings. Noah glanced at the clock and noted that there was still another hour or so until Jessica Sullivan would arrive for her lesson. Maybe he could start grading their last compositions.
He turned and found Lucas in his doorway. "Hey! Come on in."
Lucas stepped into the room and, when Noah gestured him into a seat, he sat across from Noah. "I hope you weren't busy or anything."
"No, not at all." Noah settled into his own chair. "I never really see you around campus. How have you been? I'm assuming everything's going well over in the bio department."
"Oh, yeah. Sure, the research is going well. The semester's not too bad either." Lucas hesitated for a moment. "Noah, I know we don't know each other too well, but I'm hoping I can shoot straight with you."
"Uh, sure." Noah frowned. "Is something wrong?"
"It's about Izzy. Isabella."
At her name, Noah felt his pulse bump up a notch, and his frown deepened at the annoyance he felt. He was supposed to be over her. After all, he hadn't seen her in weeks. He'd purposely avoided her, hoping that whatever residual feelings he had would fade. Apparently, not.
"Is she alright?"
Lucas sighed. "Yeah. Of course, she's fine. She just goes along in her own world, at her own pace, and, if you want to be a part of her world, you have to keep up. You know what I mean, right?"
Noah hesitated, wondering how much he could say. "Well, it sounds as though she's still the same as ever. Is something wrong between the two of you?"
"Yes. No. I don't know. I love her. I'm head over heels in love with her." Lucas shook his head at the crazed rush of words. "We've been together for two years, and I'm ready to take our relationship to the next level. I bought a ring in August."
Oh, God. Noah's mind whirled at the implications of Lucas' words. If he asked Isabella to marry him, and she said yes…He'd lose her forever. In that moment, Noah realized he'd been wrong. Bella would always be in him, in his heart, his soul. Always. But he could never have her. Couldn't afford to.
"I see," he said after a few moments. "Have you asked her yet?"
"No. But that's where I need your help."
Lucas leaned forward. "I have this feeling that Izzy still thinks that there's something between the two of you. Ever since you came, she's been spending less time with me. When I manage to get her alone, she's always broody. Noah, I need you to tell me that there's nothing between the two of you. Please."
"I don't—I don't know what to tell you, Lucas." Noah sighed. "There hasn't been anything between Isabella and I in the last ten years. I couldn't tell you if she has any feelings for me because, frankly, I haven't spent much time with her since I returned to Hensley. That's the truth."
Lucas let out a relieved sigh. "Okay. Okay, good. I really don't know what I would've done if it had been otherwise. I really love her, Noah."
He could see that clearly. In big, bold red letters. "I know. But you can rest assured that I have no plans on stealing her from you."
"I understand that. The thing is, I think Izzy needs to hear that, too. From you." Lucas rubbed his hands over his face wearily. "I don't think anything I say will keep her from thinking of you. I need you to talk to her. Explain things."
"I, uh, I don't know how much help that'll be," Noah replied after a moment. How could he even talk to her about the past, about his feelings? How could he lie to her? Did she really harbor all those feelings for him? Still? But she had been the one to break things off. He shook his head. There was no way she still felt anything, but one look at Lucas' face had him considering. "But I guess I could talk to her about it. Clear up any lingering doubts or whatever. Is that okay?"
The relief was so apparent on Lucas' face that Noah felt like he'd just saved the man's firstborn or something. "Thanks. Seriously, thank you so much. I know it can't be easy rehashing the past, but it means a lot to me."
When Lucas had gone, Noah checked the clock and decided he had enough time before the lesson to go over and see Isabella. Schedule a time to sit and talk to her. It was going to be the most painful—and most awkward—conversation he'd ever have, he knew.
He stepped out of his office and shut the door behind him. Making his way out of the building quickly, he crossed the campus to the biology building. Inside, he wound his way through until he found her office. There was no response at his knock, so he hurried down the hall to her lab. Sure enough, there she was, holed up behind the microscope and muttering to herself as she jotted something on a pad of paper. Her dark curls were piled on top of her head, exposing the creamy skin of her neck. Noah had the urge to sneak up and press his lips to her skin as he had, once upon a time, done. Isabella had always yelped in surprise and thrown her arms around him happily. Now, though, it wouldn't go over so well.
"Isabella." Though he called her, she was too absorbed in her work and didn't answer. "Dr. Flynn." Nothing. He stepped closer. "Bella."
The uttering of the nickname that only one person had ever called her by had her lifting her head and turning quickly to face him. "Noah." A smile lit her face. "Hi. What brings you to my corner of the campus?"
Damn it, he'd always liked that smile. He shoved his hands in his pockets to resist putting them on her. "I was wondering if I could talk to you about something."
"Oh. Well, I'm kind of busy at the moment, but if you-"
"No, no." Noah cut her off. "I actually have to get back to my office in a few minutes, too. I was just wondering if you were busy maybe later tonight? There's something I really need to talk to you about."
Isabella frowned. What was it that had that tone of urgency slipping into his voice? "It sounds important. I should be out of here by seven-thirty at the latest. Anytime after that will work for me."
"Great! I think my home is actually on the way back to your place, so maybe you could drop by for coffee or something?" Wow, he sounded like a horribly awkward teenage boy asking a girl out for the first time.
"Sure. Where do you live?" She found a fresh sheet of paper to scribble his address on.
He smiled now. "It's a fairly easy place to find. I bought Bakerfield manor. I think you know where that is."
Her jaw dropped. "That was you? Damn it, Noah! You knew I'd always wanted to live there."
There was a moment of silence between them where the tension of unspoken words was palpable. Both thought of how, if they'd still been together, she would have lived there, too. Neither said a word.
Finally, Noah broke the silence. "Sorry about that. But, it's home for me now. So if you could drop by around eight, that would be great."
"Okay." She nodded. "I'll see you tonight at eight then."
"Yeah." Noah moved towards the door. "See you."
As the door shut behind him, Isabella sighed heavily. She really needed to get over him. Unfortunately, her heart had been lost to him twelve years earlier, and she didn't know if she even wanted it back.
Five minutes after eight, she guided her car through the automatic wrought-iron gate at the beginning of the winding lane that led to the impressive home she'd always dreamed of. It sprawled, a beautiful, three-story, red brick and white stone structure, lazily across green lawns, surrounded by magnificent old oaks and pines. It had been built at the turn of the twentieth century and had been abandoned by the original owners when they'd gone bankrupt. They'd sold the property to a couple who'd wanted to turn it into a bed and breakfast inn, but the cost of renovations to bring the building up to code had driven them, and each succeeding owner, away.
Now, Noah owned the grand estate, but he wouldn't abandon it. Already, there was scaffolding over the east wing, indicating that he'd hired a crew to begin repairs.
"Don't waste any time at all, do you, Noah?" she muttered, parking her car behind his.
She followed the stone pathway up to the wraparound porch and knocked on the door. There was no response, but she heard the strains of guitar music from somewhere within the house. When she turned the doorknob, it opened easily. Shrugging to herself, Isabella stepped into his home…and sighed with envy.
Perfect. Just absolutely perfect. He'd restored the enormous crystal chandelier in the main foyer, and the double curving staircases on either side of the entrance hall had been repaired. Last time she'd seen them, there had been steps dangerously missing.
She wandered through the parlor, the study, and the kitchen with its sparkling new appliances before she found Noah in what she assumed was his music room. His fingers moved over the guitar strings and coaxed out an old country song from the eighties that she remembered he'd loved. His eyes were closed, but a small smile played across his features. He'd never been so fascinating as when he'd been lost in his music.
His eyes opened, and, when he saw her, he smiled. "Hey. You made it."
"Yeah. Your house is amazing. You've already fixed up so much of it. You're restoring it perfectly."
Her approval made his smile widen. "Thanks. It's always good to have a second opinion on these things." He set the guitar in its stand and gestured for her to sit. "I was going to start a pot of coffee before you got here, but then I picked up the guitar and, well, I guess I sort of lost track of time. Would you like any?"
"No. Coffee would make me too jittery right now." She settled into a cushy armchair. "Why don't we just discuss what it is you wanted to talk about? I'm sure we've both had a long day, and I'd really like to just get home and put my feet up."
Noah nodded. "Sure, yeah." He sat across from her. "I don't entirely know where to start with this. It's, uh, sort of weird to talk about it."
"What is it?"
"Lucas loves you," he blurted out without preamble. Wishing he could smack himself, he winced inwardly at her expression.
Her warm gray eyes had cooled. "I'm aware of that. I don't see what that has to do with you, though."
Noah took a deep breath. "Lucas came to see me today. He really, really loves you, Isabella, but he's afraid that your feelings for him aren't as strong. Is that true?"
This was definitely an odd, and awkward, conversation they were having, she decided. "I don't think that's any of your concern, Noah. Why on earth did Lucas speak with you about this?"
"Because he's afraid you still have feelings for me."
The silence that followed his statement was long, and Noah desperately wished the floor would open up and swallow him. It was just too embarrassing to have this discussion, and he opened his mouth to say so and end it, but Isabella beat him to it.
"I don't know what you want me to say." She stared at her hands for a moment before lifting her eyes to meet his. "Noah, I care about Lucas. A great deal."
"I know. I need to know if you still have any feelings for me, though." He ran his fingers through his hair wearily. "I don't think you do because, after all, you ended our relationship, but, for Lucas, I need to be sure. He deserves your whole heart, Isabella."
She studied Noah for a long moment. "And if I said I did have feelings for you still? What would happen then?"
He sighed. "I'd have to tell you that I'm sorry I can't say I have the same. Isabella, there's nothing here anymore." The lie stuck in his throat, but he managed to spit it out.
The ache in her heart nearly brought tears to her eyes, but she fought to hold steady. He was right. Lucas did deserve her whole heart, but, at the moment, she couldn't think of him. All she could think of was Noah and his last words. She didn't believe him. There was still something between them—she could see it in his eyes—and she refused to believe that she meant no more to him than an old friendship.
"Nothing at all, Noah?" Her voice was quiet and should've alerted him had he been paying attention. "So, if there's nothing between us anymore, you won't mind if I make certain of that, right? If I just carry out an experiment to be absolutely certain of both of our feelings, you'll let me?"
What, he wondered, was going on in that gorgeous head of hers? "Isabella, you told me, ten years ago, that you felt nothing for me any longer. I don't know why you'd need to conduct any sort of experiment now when you were so sure all those years ago. But," he continued, "if you really want to rid yourself of any doubts, go ahead. Be my guest."
"Great." Isabella moved over to where he sat and, without giving him any warning, cupped his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his.
Noah was startled for a moment, not knowing what to do. The uncertainty lasted an instant, though, before her taste filled him. His hands traced her face, ran down her arms, and, finally, banded around her waist and brought her into his lap. He could feel her heart pounding against his and dimly wondered what she'd conclude from this experiment. Then, he deepened the kiss and his mind went blank of everything but her.
It was the same, she thought breathlessly. His taste, the feel of his arms, everything was the same. And, yet, it was better. They'd both changed with the years, and, she decided, Noah had definitely improved his once-amazing skills. Now, he was spectacular, and she no longer knew what she'd been trying to prove.
When he broke the kiss, they stared at each other, breathless. Unsure of what to do or say, Noah threaded his fingers through her curls, his eyes a deep, intense blue and locked on hers.
"Noah." His name was a whisper. He wondered what she was thinking; if she was about to push him away or pull him closer. Her eyes, though, were the dark gray that they'd always been when they'd made love.
Isabella brushed her lips over his again, no longer caring about the consequences. When his hands tightened on her hips, her heart leapt. "Noah. Say my name," she murmured against his lips.
He changed the angle of the kiss, making her moan a little. "Isabella," he whispered.
She broke off and rested her forehead against his, eyes direct on his. "No," she said quietly. "You've barely said my name. Say it."
Noah kissed her again and watched her eyes flutter shut. "Bella." And again, "Bella." He pulled her fully into his arms and sighed.
Isabella rested her head in the curve of his neck and was quiet for several moments. "Results were inconclusive," she said finally.
Her dry tone made him laugh, though the laughter hovered too close to a despairing sob. They were together, but only for the moment. Noah pressed his hands to her shoulders, holding her far enough away so that he could see her face. "Isabella, I don't-"
The ringing of the doorbell cut him off. "Damn it."
She scrambled off his lap and stood uncomfortably. "You should answer that, and I should get going. I heard what you said about Lucas and my feelings for him. I, uh, I need to figure things out on my own, though."
"Okay." He led her through his home and wished for the right words to say. They didn't come. "Thanks for stopping by," he finally said and decided that he couldn't have sounded more lame.
She managed a small smile. "Right. Thanks for having me." And, gosh, we sound like perfect strangers.
The doorbell rang again, and Noah yanked the door open. On the other side stood a man and a woman, both wearing somber expressions. "Uh, hi. Can I help you?" Noah asked them.
"Mr. Caspian?" the woman asked.
Noah felt Isabella step up next to him and reached for her hand. "Yes, that's me."
"And you are…?" she asked Isabella.
"Dr. Isabella Flynn. From Hensley," she added.
The man pulled out a badge. "I'm Detective Jensen and this is my partner, Detective Taylor from the State Police. May we come in?"
Noah frowned, though he suddenly felt dread creep through him. "Of course."
When the four of them were seated in the parlor, Jensen turned to Noah. "Mr. Caspian, we need to ask you a few questions about your whereabouts today. I hope you don't mind as this is just routine."
"My whereabouts?" He was confused and edging into nervous. "What's going on? Did something happen?" Isabella's hand was still in his, and he squeezed it.
The two detectives exchanged a glance before Taylor turned back to him. "There's been a murder."