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When the bells above the door of the coffee shop jangled, Dodie Westerveld looked up from the latte she was making and felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her.
He had returned…and with him came the dark shadows of the past.
It had been a week and a half since Jace Scholte had come back to Riverbend. And in those ten days, Dodie jumped at the sight of any man with dark hair wearing a suit. The sound of a deeply timbred voice sent her heart into overdrive.
But each jolt had been a false alarm.
Dodie knew it was just a matter of time before Jace made an appearance, however.
And the time was now.
From where she stood Dodie could see his sculpted cheekbones. A distinctive scar down one side of his face added a sense of mystique to his strong features. His icy blue eyes were edged with dark lashes.
Jace's suit sat easily on his broad shoulders. His tie was cinched in proper lawyer fashion and he carried an expensive-looking briefcase.
Dodie swallowed, wishing she could have prepared better for this moment.
She forced her gaze back to the espresso machine, trying to contain her chaotic thoughts. Why did Janie have to choose this time to do inventory at the back of the store? Dodie could have used her sister's support.
Then, to her relief, her mother came bustling into the shop. "Hello, Dodie. Jace." She nodded in acknowledgment of each of them, her smile growing extrabright when she saw Jace.
Her mom had always liked Jace.
"Good afternoon, Mom. What can I get for you?" Dodie pasted on her brightest smile and zeroed in on her mother, who was easier to face than Jace.
"I'll have my usual, Dorothea," her mother said, glancingfrom Jace to Dodie, as if checking out their reaction to each other.
"Cappuccino it is," Dodie said cheerfully, bracing herself as she turned to Jace.
He was a potent reminder of what could have been. A reminder of happier times when they had dated through high school, college and that first year and a half of law school.
A reminder of her life before…
The shadows from the past loomed once again, overwhelming her for a moment.
Dodie clenched her fists and willed the darkness away. She could deal with this. It had been six years. Their life together was over. Done with.
She took another breath, relieved that the shaking in her hands subsided, that the thudding in her chest had settled to a steady beat.
"What would you like, Jace?" she asked, keeping her tone light. "Your usual?" She flashed him what she hoped was a casual smile.
The comment was a poor attempt at a joke. Since Jace had come back he hadn't been in the coffee shop once. She had wanted it to stay that way, but now that was just wishful thinking.
"Just a coffee to stay." He held her gaze, as if trying to figure her out. Dodie was the first to break the connection.
She filled a paper cup, snapped a lid on it and handed it to Jace.
"Is this a hint?" Jace asked wryly, as he took the cup.
"I believe he wanted his coffee to stay," Tilly reminded her daughter.
A flush crept up Dodie's neck and she pushed it away. Jace didn't need to see the effect he had on her this time around. A year and a half had passed since the last time he was in town. He had just passed the bar and started working at the Riverbend branch of Carson MacGregor's legal empire. Dodie managed to avoid him by finding work out of town for most of the time he'd been here. Then Jace moved back south to Edmonton, up the career ladder and out of her life again.
But two weeks ago Jace had unexpectedly returned. Rumor about town had it that he was here to clean up the mess left behind by the last lawyer working Carson MacGregor's Riverbend office.
"Sorry. I'll get you a mug," she said, holding her hand out for the cup.
"No…this is fine." Jace glanced around the coffee shop. "So this is where you're working today?" He lifted one eyebrow in her direction. Had she imagined his slight emphasis on his last word?
"Yeah. Tomorrow I'm selling eggs at the farmer's market. Monday afternoon I'm back to the thrift store. I keep busy." His question made her feel defensive. She knew her daily work schedule was vastly different from the one she would have led, had she'd stayed the course she and Jace had once mapped out for their lives when they were college sweethearts.
Their plan had been to finish law school, article for Carson MacGregor, and then, when they were both accepted to the bar, a fulfilling career of being defenders of justice and truth.
Some defender, Dodie thought. She couldn't even protect herself.
Dodie pushed down a wave of old too-familiar grief and pain. It was all Jace's fault. Being around him resurrected the agonizing memories. She should have followed her first instinct and stayed away until he returned to Edmonton. Except that would have meant running away again. And she was tired of doing that.
"Is there a day you don't work?" Jace asked.
"Day of rest. Like you used to tell me," he said quietly. "Day to attend church."
Don't read more into the comment than necessary, Dodie reminded herself. You don't have to make excuses for your choices or the fact that you don't go to church as much as you used to.
"So I imagine I'll be seeing you at the meeting tonight, Dodie?" Tilly asked, as she took her cup from her daughter.
Dodie's mind skipped frantically backward, mining her memories for even a hint of which meeting her mother was referring to.
"You've forgotten, Dorothea. Haven't you?" Tilly's disappointed sigh cleaved the air. "After promising me you would come? If you'd come regularly to church, you would have read the notice on the bulletin reminding everyone. She turned to Jace. "I swear this girl would lose her head if it wasn't so firmly attached to her neck."
Another sigh as she turned back to her daughter. "Tonight is the second meeting for the fundraiser for the Crisis Counseling Center. You said you were coming to the first one and you missed it." Tilly cupped her hands around the mug she still held, angling her head to one side in question. Not a hair on her perfectly coiffed head moved. "You do owe me." Her faintly arched brow underlined the simple statement, reminding Dodie of how grateful she'd been when her parents helped her move to her new apartment.
Dodie remembered too well how she had told her mother that if she ever needed anything to just ask. But that had been three months ago, and she assumed her mother had simply taken her promise as another way of saying thank-you.
Apparently she'd been wrong.
"I'm sorry. I forgot." Dodie reached up to push a stray strand of her own blond hair back behind her ear, then stopped, trying not to fidget. She noticed Jace discreetly sitting down at a table, ostensibly to give mother and daughter some much-needed privacy.
"You can make up for last time. I asked Randy Webber, the chairman of the fundraiser, if you could still come and he said yes." Tilly glanced past Dodie and smiled. "There you are, Janie. I had wondered where you'd gone. Maybe you can help me convince Dorothea to live up to her obligations and help out with the fundraiser?"
"Is that the one for the Crisis Center?" Janie asked, tossing a towel over her shoulder. She adjusted the bandanna holding back her dark hair as she gave Jace a piercing glance.
"That's the one."
"But…" Janie glanced from her mother to Dodie. "You can't go to that fundraiser, anyway."
Dodie felt a flush of relief. Janie was going to come up with an excuse for her. That's what sisters were for!
"That's Dodie's birthday," Janie explained.
Tilly lifted one perfectly plucked brow. "And?"
Janie sighed. "I was going to have a party. It's her thirtieth, remember?"
Dodie sighed, wishing her sister would forget.
Many years ago, she hadn't imagined that on her thirtieth birthday she would be a single woman flitting from job to job, still unable to settle down with either a man or a career.
Her vision, at that time, included the beginning of a promising career as a lawyer.
And a somewhat hazier vision included being married to the man standing across the counter from her.
"But I'll be attending the fundraiser, as will your father," Tilly protested. "Surely you can have her party on another day?"
"We always have the thirtieth birthday parties right on the day. Tradition," Janie said, angling her sister a triumphant look.
Dodie glanced from her sister to her mother, dread settling into the pit of her stomach.
Caught between a rock and a hard place. Commit to the fundraiser and end up working with her mother, or commit to the birthday party and spend the night being confronted with the stark reality of her life.
"Sure. I'll help," she said with a false heartiness. "What time is the meeting?"
"Okay. I'll be there." Not willingly, but she had no other choice.
"That's wonderful. I've got Jace to join, as well."
Jace? On the committee? She had just made a huge tactical error.
Her mother's eyes narrowed slightly, as if she could read Dodie's mind. "So I'll see you tonight, then."
"Yeah. Sure." She gave her mother a wan smile, let her gaze tick quickly over Jace, then ducked her head to put the money they had given her in the cash register.
Tilly joined Jace at the table in the corner. Dodie turned her back on them, fighting the urge to bang her head on the counter. What had she done? There was no way she could work with Jace.
Janie sidled up to her and nudged her with her elbow. "I gave you an out," she hissed. "Why didn't you take it?"
"I told you I don't want a birthday party." Dodie glanced over her shoulder, but her mother and Jace were still deep in conversation.
"And helping Mom and Jace with a fundraiser is a better option?"
Dodie pulled her attention back to her sister, but she couldn't answer Janie's question. Janie knew how hard Dodie had tried to avoid Jace Scholte the last time he was in town. Which suited Janie fine. She had never liked Jace and hadn't been too disappointed when Dodie had come back from her spur-of-the moment trip to Europe, six years ago, claiming she and Jace were over.
"Look, I owe Mom," Dodie said with a heavy sigh. "And I said I would come. So I'll make an appearance, find out what's up and see if there's some way I can be involved without actually attending the meetings."
"So we can still have your birthday party?"
"Well, no. If I'm involved in the fundraiser, then I'll have to show up at that, won't I?" Dodie gave her sister a tight smile, then went to the back of the shop to get some more coffee beans as she tried to untangle the mess she'd just gotten in.
You said you would, an annoying voice reminded her. And what would your mother think if you tried to get out of it? Or Jace, for that matter?
But I don't need to prove anything, she countered. Either to my mother or to Jace.
Sure, she used to be Miss Involvement. Sure, she used to be on the school's honor roll, help at every single church function, go to Bible Study and have regular devotions.
What did all that busywork get her?
Zip. Less than zip, in fact.
She stopped her thoughts from making a nasty detour into the past. She had to focus on finding a way to keep her mother happy and herself away from Jace and all the memories he dredged up from the past.
By the time Dodie was finished in the back of the coffee shop, Jace and Tilly were gone, and she felt as if she could breathe again.
For the rest of the day, she poured coffee, sold muffins and cookies, traded cheerful banter with the patrons and with each passing minute tried to find a solution to her problem.
Surely she could find another way to repay her mother and keep Janie from throwing her an unwanted birthday party?
By the time she and Janie locked up for the day, she had found a partial solution to her problem: she wouldn't go tonight—simple as that. If Jace would be there then she just had to stay away. No sense resurrecting the past. Besides, he was only in town temporarily. He would be gone again, just like last time.
Although she felt a pang of guilt about letting her mother down again, she didn't see any other option. Hopefully, she'd find a way to get Tilly to understand her side of things.
Her mind made up, she planned on phoning her mother after the meeting to ask her what job she could do that wouldn't necessitate attending the meetings.
Dodie was mopping up when a knock on the locked shop door caught her attention.
Stifling a groan, Janie wiped her hands on the cloth and tossed it in the sink. "Now what?" she mumbled to herself, as she opened the door for her mother.
"Are you girls just about done?" Tilly asked, as Janie let her in.
"We were just cleaning up," Janie said.
"I'm so glad I caught you here." Tilly's voice was bright. Cheerful even. "This works out perfectly."
Dodie turned, dread hanging over her like a cloud. "What do you mean?"
"I need a ride to the meeting," Tilly explained. Her manicured fingertips adjusted the lapels of her blazer. "I had to unexpectedly drop my car off at the mechanic, and I won't be able to pick it up until tomorrow."
Dodie sensed what was coming next.
"So we can go together to the meeting, right?" Tilly emphasized her suggestion with a lift of one perfectly plucked eyebrow.
Dodie should have known she couldn't buck her mother. Tilly Westerveld could teach courses on manipulation and get even the most reluctant person to do her bidding.
Fine, Dodie thought. She'd go to this meeting and only this meeting.
Tilly pointed at Dodie's ripped blue jeans and hot pink T-shirt. "You should go home and change first."
Dodie lifted her shoulders in a vague shrug. "I don't mind wearing this tonight." If her mother was going to finagle her into making sure she attended, then she had to take her as she was.
Tilly's glare almost sent Dodie's hair flying back. "Very well, then, let's go."
In that moment Dodie felt every bit of the disappointment she had subjected her family to since she dropped out of law school six years ago.
She grabbed her denim jacket and her purse. "Okay. I'm ready."
The only expression on her mother's face was a faint tightening around her lips as Dodie wound a long, purple scarf around her neck. But then she forced a smile, waved at Janie and marched out of the coffee shop ahead of her daughter.