Read an Excerpt
Only four days remained of her vacation.
Half listening to the TV meteorologist promising balmy days and cool nights along the Michigan coast, Laurel Eden fluffed the pillows behind her back and, with a sigh, selected several more of the brochures she'd requested from the state tourism department. She hadn't expended all this time and effort to face a dead end.
Somewhere in this blizzard of information was the answer. The ideal site for her gift store. She'd budgeted carefully and wisely invested her lump sum divorce settlement. She'd made the necessary contacts, done her research. Yet despite all her preparation, the right location continued to elude her.
Adding to her frustration was pressure from her parents to settle in the mountains of West Virginia, where they lived, instead of in Michigan. Without hurting their feelings, she'd patiently explained that, with her failed marriage finally behind her, she needed to make a success of something all her own.
As a sales rep for a cooperative of Appalachian artisans and craftsmen, of which her parents were members, she'd traveled throughout the North Central states, but it was western Michiganand the lakethat drew her with an elemental pull. Once she'd decided to settle here, she'd assumed picking a site would be a simple matter. Wrong.
She turned to the sole remaining brochure. A small resort community on Lake Michigan, near Lake City. A viable weekend destination for Chicagoans. So far so good. She unfolded the glossy paper and studied the photographic spread.
Her breathing slowed.
A quaint lakeside gazebo, surrounded by tulip beds. In the distance, blue-green foam-tipped breakers.
A shiver of anticipation ratcheted down her spine. She couldn't ignore the hope that filled her. Besides, she had nothing to lose by going to Belle-porte, which wasn't that far out of her way.
Even the name of the town seemed a positive omen. After all, belle meant beautiful.
Arriving in Belleporte late the next morning, Laurel was immediately captivated by the diverse architecture of the residencesa Cape Cod, a charming faux-Tudor, a boardinghouse box of a home with a huge wraparound front porch. Winding roads curled away from the core of the town through thick woods and on toward the dunes and lakeside beach cottagesalthough in her judgment, "cottage" hardly did justice to the high-priced dwellings.
By midafternoon she'd checked into Primrose House, one of several local bed-and-breakfasts, and explored the business district. Though small, there were a few shops as well as a law office, a real estate agency and a branch banking facility. The owner of the sandwich shop where she stopped for lunch was a longtime resident and filled Laurel in on the town's history.
Founded in the 1920s as a summer retreat for wealthy Chicagoans, Belleporte had always been a family-oriented community. Although the town's population more than doubled in the summer months, over half of the homes were now permanently occupied, and many had passed from the original families.
Late in the afternoon, Laurel strolled along the beach, considering her options. The repetitive sound of the waves beating against the sand helped ground her runaway enthusiasm. Was Belleporte the place? Or was she merely frustrated by her fruitless search and impatient to make a decision?
If she decided on Belleporte, The Gift Horse would have to fill a specialized niche, attracting both locals and visitors, and be profitable enough to support her during the off-season.
When the wind freshened, she plunged her hands into her jacket pockets and lowered her head, lost in thought. Business considerations aside, she also had to be realistic about her personal motives. She needed to be sure about Belleporte. After all, she would be giving up a lucrative job to pursue this dream. She could hardly afford another impetuous mistake like her doomed marriage to Curt Vanover. It had taken her four years to get out of that situation, reclaim her maiden name and forge a new life for herself.
She paused and looked around. Whether it was the homey cottages perched on the dunes, the cry of gulls or the gathering clouds scudding across the sinking sun, she was hooked. Taking a deep breath, she reversed direction. Okay. Tomorrow she would look for property.
A persistent, mournful clanging intruded on her thoughts. She glanced up at a large brown-shingled house perched on the edge of the dunes. In the side yard, a metal cable knocked against a flagpole with a hollow, forlorn sound. Squinting, she studied the house. Stone chimneys dominated either end, and tall, curtained, second-story windows, set in gables, resembled eyes forever fixed on the horizon. A sun-bleached deck. Playground equipment.
A faint memory, like a wind-driven mist, swept over her, and for reasons she couldn't explain, she found herself mounting the wooden steps leading from the beach to the house. An eerily familiar house. But that couldn't be. She'd never been to Belleporte before.
When she reached the deck, she clutched the railing, exulting in the magnificent lake view. It was easy to picture a summer sun setting on the blue, blue lake, while adults gathered on the deck for cocktails and conversation and children exchanged playful shouts in the yard. This had to be one of those cottages where family members returned year after year, each generation enjoying it anew.
Beneath her fingers, in the weathered wood of the railing, were indentations, carved initials and dates, the earliest from 1929. "KL" and "FS," then "JK" and others she couldn't quite make out. She smiled to herself, imagining a family rite of claiming one's territory.
Once, she, too, had envisioned herself at the center of this kind of family. Once she'd thought she would have a happy, enduring marriage, lots of children and a rich legacy of rituals and traditions.
Momentarily, bitter memories threatened her peace of mind, but she shook them off.
The covered deck furniture, drawn curtains and smokeless chimneys all suggested the house had been closed for the winter. Surely it wouldn't hurt if she walked around it. Viewing it from the front, maybe she'd remember what other home it reminded her of.
What could it hurt to satisfy her curiosity?
Ben Nolan shut his briefcase, checked his calendar for the next day, shrugged into a windbreaker and walked out of his office.
"What's up? You're leaving early." Janet Kerns, his plain-spoken receptionist, secretary, legal assistant and gofer, swiveled from the file cabinet to face him.
"My buddy Jay Kelley phoned earlier from Chicago to ask if I'd check on the Sullivan place. His grandmother was concerned after the vandalism last week at Maxwells'. Besides that, Mom called. It's Mikey again. I don't know why that brother of mine can't keep himself out of trouble."
"He's a teenager, counselor." Janet arched her eyebrows. "And if memory serves, the rest of you Nolan boys weren't angels, either."
"You've hit on one of the drawbacks of working in the town where you grew up. You can't escape your past." He glanced at his watch. "I'll run by Summer Haven first, then double back by Mom's. After that, I can retreat to my lonely bachelor pad, nuke a pizza and tackle the Pendleton brief."
"You're breaking my heart."
He grinned. "I was just seeing if I could get a little sympathy around here."
"Was that in the job description?" Janet scooped up a stack of folders. "Anything you need me to do before I leave?"
Ben shrugged. "Maybe flush a few clients out of the woodwork."
The older woman shook her finger. "None of that talk. Building a new law practice, especially in a small community like this, takes time."
"Now I remember another reason I hired you, besides, of course, those sparingly rendered doses of sympathy. You're one fine cheerleader." Smiling, he turned to leave. "See you in the morning."
"Have a good evening, Ben," she said softly.
A good evening. He hoped so. Despite his joking, he desperately needed to complete the brief, but he also needed to see what was going on with his brother. It hadn't been easy on any of them when their dad had died last spring. The older siblings, Bess, Brian, and, to some extent, Terry, were out on their own like Ben. But that left Megan and Mikey at home, and his mother worried about their not having a father. Although he was doing what he could to help, Ben feared he sometimes came across more as an interfering parent figure than a concerned big brother. He didn't worry so much about Megan, who was a high school senior and a pretty responsible kid, but fifteen-year-old Mikey was a different story, and Ben didn't enjoy his role as the heavy.
He tossed the briefcase onto the back seat of his Honda and eased away from the curb. It shouldn't take long to check the beach house, and it was a small enough favor to do for his friend Jay, whose Grandmother Sullivan's family had built Summer Haven well over half a century ago. Without the legal business Jay, his father John and Mrs. Sullivan had thrown his way, Ben would never have been in a position to return to Belleporte and open his practice. Although Jay insisted the family sought out Ben because he was a talented attorney, Ben suspected their friendship, begun on the beach when they were boys, had played a major role.
He drove along the nearly deserted serpentine road that led to a cluster of exclusive beach houses, then pulled to a stop in the Sullivans' driveway. Stepping out of the car, he paused, listening to the crashing waves. Earlier the weather had been mild, but now a gust of chilling November wind caught him, and he turned up the collar of his jacket.
From the front of the house, all appeared shipshape, but as he rounded the corner to check the rest of the property, he was startled to discover a small figure in a red jacket peering in the French doors off the patio.
"What do you think you're doing?"
The kid spun around, a startled expression on his Hold it. This was no kid. Staring back at him was a petite young woman with short curly black hair poking from beneath her red-and-purple stocking cap. One gloved hand covered her mouth and her brown eyes widened in surprise.
"Hey, I asked you a question," Ben said in his courtroom voice.
She removed her hand from her mouth, then smiled with an expression he could only characterize as anticipation. "Who are you? The owner?"
"Then what are you doing here?"
Wait, this was all backward. He was supposed to be the one conducting the cross-examination. He stepped toward her. "The owners asked me to check their property, and I don't think they'll be pleased that a trespasser was peeping in the window."
She raised her hands in a gesture of innocence. "I'm not a trespasser exactly. Well, maybe I am, but one with honorable intentions." She pivoted and spread her arms wide, as if to embrace the house. "How could I resist? This is the grandest place. I can just imagine generations of people having parties and picnics and reunions here, and"
Ben signalled for a time-out. "Whoa. Can you slow down long enough to tell me who you are and what you're doing here?"
"Sorry, I guess I did get a little carried away. My name is Laurel Eden."
"Okay, that's a start."
"And you are ?"
"Ben Nolan, a local attorney" that little tidbit ought to get her attention "and the owners are my clients. So out with it. What are you doing prowling around Summer Haven?"
"Unbelievable as this sounds, I was walking along the beach, and when I saw this house Summer Haven, you called it?I had the strongest sense that I knew it. But that's crazy, because I've never been to Belleporte before. You know how it is when you have that deja vu feeling? You simply have to investigate." She smiled engagingly. "So I did. End of story."
Ben had had no experience with deja vu feelings, but something in her manner made a believer of him. She started around the corner of the house, then stopped to admire the chimney.