Hometown Cinderella

Hometown Cinderella

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by Victoria Pade

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It was her first time back in Northbridge since graduating from high school and Eden Perry still felt like an ugly duckling. Yet her gorgeous transformation impressed her small-town neighbors, not to mention long-ago crush Cameron Pratt. And as luck would have it, Cam's dark good looks had only improved with age.

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It was her first time back in Northbridge since graduating from high school and Eden Perry still felt like an ugly duckling. Yet her gorgeous transformation impressed her small-town neighbors, not to mention long-ago crush Cameron Pratt. And as luck would have it, Cam's dark good looks had only improved with age. Now forced to work with him on a local investigation, Eden couldn't slow her racing pulse or control her sweaty palms. But as the intimacy between them grew, could the way she looked on the outside conquer the fears of the vulnerable teenager living inside?

Northbridge Nuptials
Where a walk down the aisle is never far behind

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Northbridge Nuptials , #1804
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"She's here..."

Cam Pratt was in the break room of the police station. His shift had just ended and he'd brought his coffee mug in to wash when Luke Walker poked his head through a crack in the door to make his announcement.

Cam pumped some soap into the mug and glanced over his shoulder at his friend and fellow officer. "Who's here?"

Luke Walker grinned. "Eden Perry."

Cam screwed up his face and groaned. "Now?"

"Right now. She just walked in the door. She wants to take a look at the computer setup she'll be using."

"It's four-thirty and you're on duty, I'm not. You show it to her," Cam said, hoping for an out.

"Uh-uh. You know it's already been decided that this is your baby. Even if it means working with someone you have some leftover high school hang-up about for reasons you don't want to say. And since I caught you before you left..."

Cam curled his upper lip like a fractious hound dog. Then he said, "I'll be there in a minute."

"You won't recognize her," Luke threw in just before he disappeared from the doorway and closed the door.

Cam couldn't have cared less if he recognized Eden Perry or not. The little pain-in-the-ass—

He cut his own thought short, knowing that recalling the past would only piss him off. As it did every time he thought about it. Or about Eden Perry. Every time he'd thought about her since learning before the holidays that he'd be overseeing the work of the former hometown girl and forensic artist when she arrived.

But he'd already tried convincing his superior officer to let him steer clear of this portion of an investigation that had been ongoing for months now and it hadn't done him any good. Luke was right—this was his baby.

Whether he liked it or not.

Whether he liked Eden Perry or not.

And he didn't like Eden Perry. Or having to be anywhere around her, let alone work with her. In fact, when he'd returned to the small town of Northbridge, Montana, two years ago, he'd been happy to learn that Eden Perry had left for college shortly after he had and had rarely even visited since then.

But apparently things had changed for her and now here she was—back to live and hired to do an age-progression of the woman who had become the focal point of an old case that also happened to be the biggest scandal ever to rock Northbridge. And, to make matters worse, Eden Perry was also his neighbor.

"Which is why you decided to try to tolerate her, remember?" he told himself as he pumped more soap into his mug because he'd forgotten he'd already done it.

Not that he regretted repeating a step. He sure as hell wasn't in any hurry to go out to the person he would have just as soon never set eyes on again.

But he didn't have that option and he knew it.

On the other hand, he thought, the sooner he got this going, the sooner he could be finished with it. Finished with working with Eden Perry, even if he couldn't be finished with living right next door to her.

But finishing with at least one thing to do with her was better than nothing, he reasoned.

And maybe after this they could just ignore each other. "But so help me, if she shoots off her mouth I don't care who she is or how lucky we are to have her do this, I'll blow her right out of the water," he muttered as he finally turned on the faucet and began to scrub his coffee cup with a punishing fervor.

"You'll be working with Cam Pratt," Luke Walker told Eden as she stood waiting in the outer office of the police station. "I don't know if you remember him—"

"I remember him," Eden said, not thrilled with that news. At all.

"From high school," Luke Walker seemed inclined to say anyway. "You two graduated the same year, didn't you? I know you started out in my class but then you were skipped ahead, right?"

"Right," she confirmed a bit stiltedly. She hadn't been—or felt—stiff before. It had just happened at the mention of Cam Pratt. And at the idea that she'd be working with him.

"I didn't know he was on the force," she said then. "Or even in Northbridge. Last I heard he didn't live here."

"He moved back a couple of years ago."

"Ah," Eden said as if it were an irrelevant revelation when, in fact, she had to fight the urge to recoil. "Is there a particular reason I'll be working with Cam and not with you or someone else?"

"Yeah, Cam was a cop in the heart of Detroit for a long time. He's had experience with the kind of stuff you do but this will be a first for the rest of us, so he was the logical choice."

Eden nodded, hating that she was so on edge suddenly and at a loss for anything else to say to Luke Walker now that her mind was spinning in a different direction.

"I just came on duty," Luke said then, into the awkward silence she'd left. "I should get out, do my first patrol...."

"It's okay, you don't have to stay on my account. Go ahead."

"Cam will be right out. He just finished for the day so he's wrapping up a few things. I'm sure he'll only be another minute. Why don't you have a seat at his desk? It's the one facing mine."

Eden nodded again but didn't sit. She was too lost in thinking that of course Cam Pratt didn't hesitate to leave her cooling her heels. After all, she was an inconsequential little nobody and he was probably still hot stuff just the way he'd been then. The Man. The guy every senior girl—except Eden—had wanted to end up with. It shouldn't have come as any surprise that he would appear when he deigned to appear and not before. As if he were doing her a favor, which he probably thought he was—

Eden put the brakes on her runaway thoughts, shocked to have so instantly reverted to what would have gone through her head in this instance fourteen years ago.

But this wasn't fourteen years ago.... "Are you okay? You're kind of flushed all of a sudden," Luke Walker said then.

He must have been waiting for her to take the seat he'd offered because he hadn't moved, either. But she'd been oblivious to him and his voice drew her out of her reverie.

She pressed the fingertips of one hand to her cheek, feeling the increased heat of her skin. "It's a little warm in here. Maybe the coat's too much inside."

"And maybe you should sit down," he suggested again. As she slipped off her camel hair jacket and went to hang it over the back of the chair he'd indicated she said,

"I'm fine. Go ahead out on patrol. There's no reason for you to stick around. Really. It's not as if I'm a stranger to cop shops."

Luke Walker acknowledged that with a raise of his chin but even as he went to the coatrack for his own jacket he kept an eye on her.

Was she making a fool of herself?

She hoped not.

It was just so amazing how one mention of Cam Pratt could send her right back to high school. Right back to being the geeky, braces-on-her-teeth, glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired, flat-chested brainiac in a grade she might have belonged in academically, but certainly hadn't belonged in socially. Right back to where she'd been made fun of on a daily basis and then suddenly thrust into dealing with the big-man-on-campus himself. One-on-one.

And she hadn't dealt with it well. Or in a way that she was proud of.

In fact, it embarrassed her to recall that time in her life. The time she'd spent with Cam Pratt. And how she'd behaved.

"I think maybe I'll use your restroom," she said suddenly, wanting to escape Luke Walker's continuing scrutiny from across the room as he seemed to be stalling his departure. Besides, she needed a moment to get a grip on herself.

"The ladies' room is down the hall," he informed her, pointing with his thumb.

"Great. Thanks. Nice to see you again," she said, subtly encouraging him to leave as she headed in the direction he'd indicated.

"Yeah, you, too," Luke Walker called after her, giving no indication whether or not he would be on his way once she was out of sight.

Although maybe it would be better if he didn't leave, she thought as she found the restroom and went in. Maybe it would be better if she had a buffer when she had to face Cam Pratt.

Cam Pratt.

She was going to have to work with Cam Pratt. She let that thought sink in as she closed the restroom door behind her.

Cam Pratt, of all people.

No crime goes unpunished....

Not that she'd committed an actual crime against him. But she had been wretched toward him. Wretched enough to be ashamed of herself.

Maybe he doesn't remember, she thought hopefully. Maybe to him it was nothing. No big deal. Not worthy of recall any more than I was worthy of notice....

That seemed possible—that this was a bigger thing in her own memory than it had been to him. After all, he'd been a supreme being in high school and she'd been a complete and total nobody. A nonentity. He probably didn't even remember her, let alone anything that she might have said to him so long ago. She was probably making a mountain out of a molehill.

This was a new day. A new page. A new chapter. And she should just take things as they came and not go in expecting the worst.

Even if that wasn't altogether easy for her when old insecurities reared their ugly head. When offense just instinctively felt like the best form of defense the way it had fourteen years ago.

But things had changed. She'd changed, she reminded herself. And to reinforce that reminder she moved to the sole sink in the single-stall restroom to have a glimpse of the present-day Eden Perry.

Because lo and behold, the geek was gone. No more braces—her teeth were completely straight now.

No more glasses—contacts had replaced them a decade ago and eye surgery had removed even the need for those more recently, so her ice-blue eyes were only adorned with mascara.

Her skin had cleared; in fact, there wasn't a single blemish or red mark marring it. Instead it was smooth and creamy and even-toned with just a little blush to brighten it.

She'd grown into her arms and legs. And her head—

—thank goodness! Nothing was out of proportion the way it had been when she'd been all elbows and knees and skinny, scrawny body.

Her bustline had developed—there was no question that she was female now, she could fill out a bra with the best of them. Well, with the best of the B-cups, anyway.

Her hair had darkened to a burnt-sienna red—no one had called her pumpkinhead in fourteen years. And the relaxer she used eased the kinky curls into mere waves that she could keep manageable at shoulder length.

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