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The street was deserted in the early-morning hours. Sunlight slanted over the roofs of the brick buildings as Lexi Preston huddled on the front stoop of a dark storefront. She rested her head in her hands and watched the wind swirl a small pile of autumn leaves. The air held a chill, but it felt good after being stuck in her car for the last day and a half.
Almost six months had passed since she'd set foot in Brevia, North Carolina. She couldn't imagine the reception she'd receive, but was desperate enough not to care. Her eyes drifted shutjust for a minute, she told herselfbut she must have fallen asleep. When she blinked them open again it was to the bright sun shining and someone nudging a foot against hers. She scrambled to her feet, embarrassed to be caught so off guard.
"What the hell do you want?" Julia Callahan's voice cut through the quiet.
Lexi backed away a few steps. Yes, she was desperate, but Julia had every reason to hate her. Still, she whispered, "I need your help. I have nowhere else to go."
Julia's delicate eyebrows rose. Lexi wished she had the ability to communicate so much without speaking. She could almost feel the anger radiating from the other woman. But Julia's furrowed brow and pinched lips did nothing to detract from her beauty. She was thin, blonde and several inches taller than Lexi. The epitome of the Southern prom queen grown up. Lexi knew there was more to her than that. After all, she'd spent months researching every detail of Julia Callahan's life.
"You tried to take my son away from me." Julia shook her head. "Why would I have any inclination to help you?"
"I made sure you kept him in the end," Lexi said, adjusting her round glasses. "Don't forget I was the one who gave you the information that made the Johnsons rescind their custody suit."
"I haven't forgotten," Julia answered. "It doesn't explain why you're on the doorstep of my salon. Or what kind of help you need."
Lexi crossed her arms over her chest as her stomach began to roll. She should have stopped for breakfast on the way into town. "They found out it was me," she continued. "Dennis and Maria Johnson fired my father's firm as their corporate attorneys. Several of their friends followed. We lost over half our business."
Her voice faltered as memories of her father's rage and disappointment assaulted her. She cleared her throat. "In response, my dad made a big show of humiliating me in front of the entire firm. Then he officially fired and practically disowned me."
Lexi had worked for her father's firm since she graduated from law school six years ago. Following in his footsteps, doing whatever he expected, had been her overriding goal in life. She still lived in the apartment he'd paid for since college. Her eviction notice had come two days ago.
She drew a steadying breath. "He said he regretted the day I'd come into his life. That I'm nothing more than "
"Your father is an ass." Julia's clear assessment almost made Lexi smile.
"True," she agreed, blinking against the sudden moisture in her eyes. "But he's all I have. Or had."
"What about other family?"
"I was adopted when I was six. I was in the foster-care system and barely remember my biological mother. My dad never married. He was an only child and my grandparents died years ago."
"I have work acquaintances, country-club cliques and clients. I'm not very good at making friends."
"It's probably hard to be a backstabbing, underhanded, slimy lawyer and a good friend at the same time."
Although the words hurt, Lexi couldn't help but hear the truth in them. "I guess."
"Sheesh. That was a joke." Julia stepped past her and turned a key in the front door. "Lighten up, Lex."
Lexi followed her into the empty salon, the emotional roller coaster of the past week finally sending her off the rails. "Are you kidding?" she yelled. "I just told you that my life is destroyed because I saved you and your son. I have nothing. No job. No home. No friends. No family. And you want me to lighten up?"
Julia flipped on a bank of lights and turned. "Actually, I want you to tell me how I'm supposed to help. Other than playing the tiniest violin in the world in your honor. I appreciate what you did for me. But we both know you put me through hell trying to give custody of Charlie to my ex-boyfriend's family. That doesn't exactly make us long-lost besties."
"I want a fresh start."
"So make one."
"It's not that easy. As ridiculous as it sounds, I'm twenty-seven years old and my father has controlled every aspect of my life. Hell, he even handpicked a personal shopper to make sure I always projected the right image. The image he chose for me. Since the moment I came to live with him, I've wanted to make him happy, make him believe I was worthy of his love and the money he spent on me."
She ran her hands through her hair and began to pace between the rows of styling chairs. "I'd never done anything without his approval until I gave you that file. I don't regret it. You're a great mother and I feel awful about my part in the custody suit."
"You should," Julia agreed.
Lexi sighed. "If I could take it all back, I would. I know it was wrong. But helping you cost my father a lot. I thought he'd understand and forgive me."
"He still might."
"I don't know if I want him to. At least not on his terms. I don't want to be the same kind of attorney my dad is. I don't even know if I still want to be a lawyer. I need time to breathe. To figure out my next move. To make a choice in life for me, not because it's what's expected." She paused and took a breath. "I thought maybe you could understand that."
Julia studied her for a few moments. "Maybe I can."
Lexi swallowed her embarrassment and continued, "If I stay in Brevia for a few weeks, I could figure out my options. I don't want my father to find me. I don't think he's going to forgive me, but I do expect him to come looking. He likes the control and he's not going to give that up so easily."
She patted her purse. "I have five hundred dollars in cash. I don't want to use credit cards or anything to help him track me. Not yet."
"You're kind of freaking me out. Is he dangerous?"
Lexi ran her hand along the edge of a shelf of styling products. "Not physically. But I'm not strong enough yet to stand on my own. Who knows if I'll ever be. But I want to try. I liked Brevia when I was here. I admire you, Julia. Your fierceness and determination. I know you have no reason to help me, but I'm asking you to, anyway."
"And you couldn't have called on your way?"
"I'm sorry," Lexi said quickly. "I wasn't thinking. I just got in my car and started driving. This was the only place I could think of to go. But if you"
Julia held up a hand. "This is probably more of my typical bad judgment, but I'll help you."
Lexi felt her knees go weak with relief. Julia Callahan was her first, last and only hope. She knew her father well enough to know he was punishing her. That when he felt as if she'd been gone long enough to learn her lesson, he'd pull her back. In the past, Lexi would have been scrambling to find a way to return to his good graces. Something had changed in her when she'd chosen her act of rebellion. From the start, she'd known he'd find out, and she'd understood there would be hell to pay. She also believed it couldn't be worse than the hell she called a life.
"Thank you," she whispered with a shaky breath. "I promise I won't be an imposition on your life. I could answer phones or sweep up hairwhatever you need."
"A job?" Julia looked confused. "I thought you needed moral support. You're an attorney, for Pete's sake. Why do you want to sweep the floors of a hair salon?"
"I'm licensed in North Carolina to practice, but if I register with the state's bar association, my father will find me. I told you, I need time."
"I'm going to make coffee. I need the caffeine." The stylist looked over her shoulder at Lexi. "Have you had breakfast? We keep a stash of granola bars in the break room."
Lexi followed her to the back of the building. "A granola bar would be great. And I really will help out with anything you need."
Julia poured grounds into the coffee filter and filled the machine with water. She turned back to Lexi, shaking her head. "We start renovations next week on the salon's expansion. I can't hire anyone right now."
"I get it. I appreciate the moral support. I guess."
"No wonder your father can manipulate you so easily. Your emotions are written all over your face. You need to work on a tough exterior if you want to do okay on your own. Fake it till you make it, right? I thought lawyers were supposed to be excellent bluffers."
Lexi slid into one of the folding chairs at the small table. "I'm not much of a bluffer. That's why I was usually behind the scenes. I'm good at details and digging up dirt."
"Yes, I remember," Julia answered drily.
"Do you know anyone who's hiring in Brevia? Just temporarily."
A slow smile spread across Julia's porcelain features. "Now that you mention it, I do know about an available job. One of the waitresses at the local bar had twins last night. They came about a month early and were practically born in the back of Sam's police cruiser."
"Are you thinking I'd make a good nanny?"
"I wouldn't wish that job even on you. I'm thinking you'd make a perfect cocktail waitress."
"I don't drink," Lexi said quickly.
"You have to serve the drinks. Not guzzle them yourself."
Lexi unwrapped the granola bar Julia handed to her, her empty stomach grumbling in anticipation. "I don't like those types of places."
"I don't like exercise," the other woman countered, "but I still run five days a week."
Lexi closed her eyes for a moment. Julia's quick wit and no-nonsense attitude were what she'd initially found so fascinating. Almost a year ago, Lexi and her father had been hired by their longtime clients Dennis and Maria Johnson to investigate Julia's life so they could try to take custody of her young son away from her. The boy's biological father was the Johnsons' son, Jeff.
Lexi knew if you threw enough money at a problem, it likely went away. But Julia had kept fighting. Sure, she had her problems, but Lexi had never seen someone stand up to people with so much power. Julia might have been faking her confidence some of the time, but it had made Lexi realize she didn't have to be her father's puppet forever.
Even if she owed him everything, didn't she still deserve to make choices in her own life? To live life on her terms? She had to at least try.
"Could the work last six weeks?"
"I think so. Amy is going to have her hands full, but I know she doesn't want to lose her job. She works at night, so she'll be able to manage around the babies once she gets back on her feet."
"It sounds good, although I don't have any experience as a waitress."
"Are you a quick learner?"
Lexi swallowed. "I made it through law school at the head of my class. I'm not sure how that applies to wait-ressing, but it's all I've got."
Julia watched her for another moment. "Are you sure you want to do this? It would be easier to go groveling to Daddy and beg him to give you back your cushy little life."
Lexi stood. "I want a real life."
"I know how that feels. I've got a place you can stay while you're in town. Let me text my receptionist to come in early, then we can get you settled." Julia took out her phone and began punching the keypad. "No offense, but you could use a shower and change of clothes."
Lexi looked down at her wrinkled pants and the stain of coffee on her collared button-down. "I stayed at a cheap motel off the interstate last night," she admitted. "The bathroom creeped me out too much to use this morning."
"Clearly." Julia finished her text, then grabbed a set of keys from a hook behind the door. "Are you ready?"
"As much as I appreciate your help, I can't possibly impose and stay at your house," Lexi argued.
"No doubt. You can have my apartment. With everything happening so quickly, I'm still on the lease. I've been subletting it to Sam's dad, but Joe and my mom got married a few weeks ago. The place is empty."
"Two family weddings in one year. Congrats, by the way."
Julia smiled. "Thanks. It's been a whirlwind but I'm happy."
"Your relationship with Sam really started as a fake arrangement to help with the custody case?"
"It did, but then it became so much more."
Lexi thought for a moment, then said, "I guess you could say that I'm partially responsible. Without the custody fight, who knows if or when you two would have gotten around to figuring out you're perfect for each other."
Julia laughed out loud. "Don't push your luck. I said I'd help you. I'll make sure you get the job, and sublet my apartment to you. I've got another three months on the lease. But as far as figuring out your life and growing a spine when it comes to your father, that's all you."
Lexi wondered if she'd ever be able to loosen her father's hold. In the past she hadn't realized how bad she wanted that. Now she did, and if this was her only chance to make it happen, she wasn't going to blow it.
She nodded, her throat tight with emotion. "I'm going to give it my best shot."
Scott Callahan heard the crash as he took another deep swallow from his glass of whiskey. He glanced toward the back of the bar as he jiggled the glass, determined to loosen every bit of liquor that clung to the melting ice.
"Sounds like she broke another one," he said to the waitress who brought him a third round. His instructions upon his first order were clear: as soon as his glass was empty, he was ready for another. No questions asked and there'd be a hefty tip at the end of the night. When Scott drank, he did it fast and he did it alone.
In his case, misery did not love company.
"New girl," the waitress answered. "The absolute worst I've ever seen." She put the fresh glass on the table and picked up his empty. "Julia vouched for her, but it's like she's never even held a tray. Luke is desperate for the help. Hell, he's desperate for a lot of things. But I don't know if we have enough glasses in the back to keep her around much longer."
Scott leaned back in his chair. "You said Julia vouched for her." He nodded toward the red-faced pixie who came around the back of the bar. "That little mouse is friends with Juliauh, Morgan?"
"Julia Callahan now," the waitress corrected. "She married the town's police chief a few months back."
Scott nodded. "I'm happy for her. Do they make a good match?"
"Perfect." The woman's voice turned wistful. "Sam Callahan was the biggest catch this side of the county line. I never really pegged him for a family man. But he dotes on Julia's boy. It's true love."
"Good for them," Scott mumbled, not wanting to reveal his connection to Sam. He wrapped his fingers around the cool glass once more.
"How do you know Julia?"