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"Oh, you aren't real, are youfrom outside I thought you were "
Only when Nati Morrison heard the man's voice did she remember how she'd positioned the life-size scarecrow she was working on behind the checkout counter. Nati wasn't visible to the man; she was sitting on the floor behind the counter, sewing straw to the inside hem of the scarecrow's skirt.
She couldn't see her visitor, but it could be Gus Spurgis, the Scarecrow Festival's organizer, bringing her fliers for the October festivities. She decided to joke with him.
In a silly voice, she said, "May I help you?" and pushed forward on the pole running up the scarecrow's back to animate her.
There was no immediate response.
Then Nati looked up, and there, leaning over the counter, was a complete strangernot Gus Spurgis. Instead it was a man with a staggeringly handsome face and the most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen.
He smiled. "I hope you don't pay your receptionist muchshe's a little stiff. And kind of freaky."
"She does work cheap, though." Nati played along as she got to her feet.
And took in the full picture of the man in the business suit standing on the other side of her counter.
Tall, broad-shouldered, with the body of an athlete, he had dark brown hair the color of bittersweet chocolate; a long, slightly hawkish nose; just the right fullness of lips; and a pronounced bone structure that included a finely drawn jawline and chin. It all came together with those incredible cobalt-blue eyes to make him so good-looking that it left Nati a little breathless.
And since he also seemed vaguely familiar on top of it she was lost for a moment in wondering where she might have seen him before.
But she decided she must be imagining things. She was sure that if she had evereverencountered this particular man before, there wouldn't have been anything vague about the memory.
After a moment, she pulled herself together to stop staring at him, and returned to the subject of her scarecrow.
"Freaky, huh?" she mused, glancing at her handiwork. The scarecrow had a real-looking painted clay face surrounded by hair made of straw, a puffy calico dress with more straw sticking out at the wrists and bloomers that came out from beneath the hem of the dress to form legs. "Since I sculpted and painted the face in my own likeness, I think I'm insulted."
"It's interestingI'll give you that. But you didn't do yourself justice."
Was that a compliment or a comment on her sculpting skills? Nati decided not to take it personally one way or the other. "It's supposed to be sort of a caricature," she explained. "I know my nose turns up a little at the end"
"Just enough to be kind of perky," the man said, his gaze going from her nose to the scarecrow's.
"But in order to exaggerate it, I gave her a ski-jump nose," Nati went on. "And I'm grateful that I don't have that pointy of a chin"
"No, your chin is just fine Delicate. Nice "
She hadn't been fishing for compliments but she was flattered.
He went on with his critique. "And you definitely missed on the mouth. Yours is goodyou have nice, full lips. But that's one tight-lipped smile on the scarecrow."
Her chin was delicate? Her lips were nice and full?
Nati felt some heat come into her face even as she told herself that it was silly. There was nothing flirtatious about what he was saying or the way he was saying it. Was there?
It had been a long time since a man other than her grandfather had noticed much of anything about her, and maybe it was going to her head. Just a little.
It was silly, she told herself again. Silly, silly, silly. They were just making small talk.
Her shop door opened just then and a tiny, frail old woman came in.
"Hi, Mrs. Wong," Nati greeted, glad for the distraction. Then she said to her male visitor, "If you'll excuse me for a minute. Feel free to look around."
Turning her back on the man, who was somehow managing to unnerve her without even trying, Nati grasped a small cheval mirror and brought it around to the front of the counter.
"Oh, that's just beautiful!" Mrs. Wong said.
She had brought the heirloom to Nati to restore the painted ivy decoration on its frame.
"I'm just amazed," the older woman said. "There wasn't much more than a shadow left and you brought it back to life. It's as pretty as it was the day my father gave it to methat was seventy-two years ago."
"I'm glad you like it. Let me carry it out to the car for you."
"Why don't you let me do that?" the male customer offered.
"No, that's okay, it isn't heavy," Nati assured him.
But she had an ulterior motive. As she carried the mirror out to the elderly woman's car parked at the curb, Nati took a peek at her own reflection, making sure her appearance compared favorably to the scarecrow's.
She'd worn her chin-length, golden-brown hair loose today, just barely turned under at the ends. She would have liked it if she had a comb to run through it to neaten it up a little. As it was, her swept-over bangs were falling a bit in her face.
She had on her usual makeupa little pinkish powder she'd brushed onto her apple-round cheekbones, a little mascara to bring out her brown eyes, and although she'd applied a light lipstick when she'd left the house this morning, it was four in the afternoon and it was long gone.
She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that suddenly seemed awfully plain and maybe a size larger than necessary. She was comfortable, but now she would have liked to look more stylish. And maybe show off some of her curves.
But still, as she slid the mirror onto its side into the backseat of Mrs. Wong's car, she decided that she wasn't too much the worse for wear.
She was better off than the scarecrow.
Not that it mattered. The guy was only a customer, she reminded herself. At least she thought he was. Whatever his reasons for visiting her shop, they weren't about her personally.
Once she'd made sure the mirror was secure, she closed the car's rear door and turned back toward her shop, noticing that while Janice Wong was browsing through the painted and stenciled tole pieces she had for sale, the good-looking guy was watching her through the plate-glass windows. Rather raptly
At least he was until she caught him at it, and then he glanced away.
Maybe he was a summons server and he felt guilty about what he was really there to do .
There had been a summons server from the Pirfoys' attorneys at the start of the divorce, who had acted a little like this guy.
But the divorce was final. The settlement had been signed. The almighty Pirfoys couldn't come back and try to take anything else from her or from her grandfather, and surely Doug wouldn't be bothered doing anything else six months after the fact, would he? Especially when the divorce had been so much to his advantage.
No, she was just being paranoid.
First she had been silly to think something was clicking with this perfect strangereven though she wasn't in the market to have things clickand now she was afraid the guy was there to cause her some kind of problem.
She must be delirious. That's what she got for eating nothing but gummy bears for lunch.
"All set," Nati announced to the older woman as she went back into the shop.
"And I paid you in advance, didn't I?" Mrs. Wong asked.
"You did. You're good to go."
"I'll make sure my neighbor is careful when he takes the mirror out of the car and brings it in for me," Janice Wong promised. "And I just might come back another day for one of those old tin coffeepotsthey're so cute!"
"I'll be here," Nati assured her, holding the door open for the tiny woman.
Then she turned her attention back to the man.
"I'm sorry for the interruption," she apologized. "But now I'm all yours" She cut herself off the minute the words came out. But she couldn't help itshe warily enjoyed the sight of this gorgeous guy's amused grin. She liked how the small lines crinkled at the corners of those excruciatingly blue eyes of his.
"What can I do for you?" she finally asked.
"I'm looking for Natalie Morrison."
Nati felt dread run up her spine.
"You found her," she said, going back behind the counter where she felt somehow safer. "It's Nati, though. No one calls me Natalie."
The man did not bring an envelope out of his breast pocket. Instead he merely said, "Okay, Nati. I'm Cade Camden."
Not a summons serverthat was good. But a Camden?
That was why he looked familiar. They'd never met but pictures of the Camdens showed up in newspapers and magazine articles periodically because they were one of Denver's preeminent families. There were a lot of them, so Nati couldn't have put a name with any of the faces, but she had seen the faces. And she certainly knew the family name.
Her own family's first negative encounter with the wealthy had been with H. J. Camden. He was the reason the Morrisons moved to Denver in 1950, the reason behind Nati's great-grandfather losing his farm and needing to pack up his wife and sonNati's grandfatherin order to find work beyond the confines of the small Montana town where he was born. It was a story she'd heard numerous times.
But did Cade Camden know it? And what was he doing in her shop? Looking for her specifically?
Nati considered battering him with questions.
She considered throwing him out of her shop in honor of those who had come before her.
But instead, with more reserve than she'd shown so far, she repeated, "What can I do for you, Mr. Camden?"
"Call me Cade."
Nati didn't do him the courtesy of saying his name. She merely waited for his answer, not quite sure how to feel about a Camden standing right there in front of her.
"I bought a house not long ago," he said. "It has a wall in the dining room that has the most hideous wallpaper you've ever seen. It's ripped and peeling and falling off. The wall underneath looks like it could be kind of a mess, too, and I've heard that you can do wonders with wall treatmentsnot stenciling or anything frilly, but something understated, classy."
"How did you hear about me?" she asked, and this time she was fishing.
"I believe you did something in a nursery for one of my grandmother's friends. You come highly recommended."
Nurseries were a large part of her business outside of the shop, so that claim was feasible. But it didn't explain whether or not he knew about their families' past.
Knowing who he was and what he said he wanted was a start. But Nati contemplated a few more things as she studied him.
She considered saying she was too busy and didn't have time for a project like that now. And then recommending someone she knew would botch the job.
She considered taking the job and charging Cade Camden an arm and a leg, effectively cheating him to get even in some small way.
But in the end she didn't like what that approach would say about her own integrity. Having a clear conscience was more important than making some sort of petty point with this stranger who was generations away from the man who wronged her great-grandfather decades ago. A stranger who might not even know what had gone on.
She could merely refuse to work for him, she told herself, and send him on his way.
But her shop had only been open a few months and she wasn't in any position to turn away work. She needed any money she could make. And Camden or not, he was offering her a job.
"I'd have to look at the wall," she said without enthusiasm. "I need to see what kind of shape it's in before I know what will need to be done and how much it might cost. Plus we'd have to talk about your preferencesdifferent textures and finishes take different amounts of time, so labor charges can add up."
"Sure," he said, seeming undaunted by the potential expense. The Camdens were rich enough to buy and sell her a billion times over.
"Is there any chance you could stop by tomorrow?" he asked. "Maybe late in the day, after you close up here and I get home from work?"
"I can come anytime." Nati nodded toward the double pocket doors to her right, just behind her counter. They were open, exposing the shop next door. "I'm friends with the owner of the Pet Boutique. Whenever one of us needs to be away we open those doors to connect the two stores and take care of both shops at onceI'm doing that right now while Holly goes to the bank." Too much information.
"And you're free tomorrow?"
Nati didn't have to check anything to know that she was. "Just tell me what time's good for you."
"Six-thirty? I'm in Cherry Creek, just past the Denver Country Club, off University, if that's okay."
"Sure," she said. "But aren't there people in your neck of the woods"
"Like I said, you came highly recommended and I want it done right."
"Okay," she said, wondering why she was feeling let down that they'd gone from the easy banter about the scarecrow to this all-business approach.
But all businessonly businesswas how it should have been from the start. And now that she knew who he was it was certainly how it would be from here on.
He gave her his address and directions to his house. Then he said, "Tomorrow night, six-thirty. I appreciate your coming that late, on a Friday night. I've been trying to get in here to meet you all week but I've had too many fires to put out at work and this was my first chance. It shouldn't waste too much of your night to just take a look, though."
If only he knew that she spent most Friday nightsand every other night of the weekpainting inventory to sell in her store.
But she wasn't going to tell him that. "It's fine. No problem," she assured.
He should have left then. But he stayed staring at her for another moment before he said, "When my grandmother's friend told her about you she gave her your card. The name rang a bell. My grandmother said she knew some Morrisons a long time ago. Jonah Morrison in particular. When she lived in"
"Northbridge. In Montana. Jonah Morrison is my grandfather," Nati said pointedly.
So was this a coincidence?
Somehow that seemed farfetched to Nati.
"Well, then," Cade Camden said with a sigh, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow night."
Why did it seem as if he was looking for an excuse to stick around?
But Nati wasn't going to give him any reason to. Even if there were an infinitesimal part of her that wanted to.
Instead she said, "Six-thirty. I'll be there."
"I'm looking forward to it. ." he said almost more to himself than to her.
Then he walked out into the bright October sunshine of a Colorado day while Nati watched him go.
And as she did, she recognized some very conflicting emotions roiling around inside of heramong them what seemed like it might be an eagerness to see Cade Camden again.
But she mentally stomped the feeling out like a cinder from a campfire.
At least she thought she did.
Until a moment later when there it was again.