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Mari understood, for the first time in her life, the full meaning of the word bittersweet when she returned to Harbor Town after nearly fifteen years. The feeling strengthened when she left the empty office complex on the north end of town and saw Lake Michigan shimmering through the trees.
"We're not far from Silver Dune Bay here, are we?" she asked Eric Reyes as he paused beside her. She waved goodbye to Marilyn Jordan, the real estate agent who had just shown them the commercial property.
"Fancy a swim, do you? It's hot enough for one, that's for sure." His grin faded. "Mari? Are you okay? You're very pale."
She brushed a tendril of hair off her sweaty brow and steadied herself by leaning against the wall of the building. She swallowed thickly, trying to calm the nausea swelling in her belly.
"I'm fine. I think I caught a bug. The guy who sat next to me on the plane was coughing nonstop for the whole trip."
Eric studied her through narrowed eyes. Mari was suddenly reminded that her friend was a doctor, a very gifted one by all accounts.
"It's nothing, Eric," she assured him. "It comes and goes. I'm sure this heat isn't helping matters any."
She stepped away from the wall, willing her quea-siness to ease. She didn't have time for illness. This was a trip she'd needed to make for a long time, and she'd planned to complete her mission in a quick and dirty fashion. Because of her impulsiveness with Marc Kavanaugh five weeks ago, her desire to take care of business and get out of Harbor Town as soon as possible only intensified by the hour.
She forced a smile and walked with Eric toward his sedan.
"Were you one of the daredevils who used to jump off Silver Dune? It's got to be a forty-foot drop to the bay," she reflected as Eric unlocked the passenger door of his car. In her mind's eye, she pictured her summertime best friend Colleen Kavanaugh leaping off the tall dune without a backward glance, her long blond hair streaming out behind her like a golden cape.
Mari had always been a little in awe of the Ka-vanaughs' fearlessness. All the children had seemed to possess that indefinable, elusive quality that Mari thought of as American royaltythe golden, effortless beauty, the easy confidence and quick smile, the love of a dare, a fierce temper and an even fiercer loyalty to those they loved.
"It's fifty feet, actually," Eric replied once she was seated in the car. He shut her door and came around to the driver's side. After he flipped the ignition, he immediately turned the air conditioning on high to cool the stifling interior. "And yeah, I took the leap plenty of times in my day." Took the leap.
Mari had only had the nerve to leap once in her life. She still could see Marc staring down at her, his mouth quirked in a sexy, little smile even as the rest of his features were softened in compassion for her fear.
Stop thinking so much, Mari. Just jump.
She had jumped, back when she was eighteen years old. It'd been the summer her parents had been killed.
Foolishness had caused her to take a similar reckless leap five weeks ago in Chicago. As a thirty-three-year-old woman, Mari hardly had the excuse of a girlhood infatuation any longer, yet something fluttered in her belly as she clearly recalled Marc pinning her with the blazing blue eyes as he fused their flesh. She heard his desire-roughened voice in her ear.
I've waited for this for fifteen years, Mari.
She clenched her eyelids shut and placed her hand on her stomach, not to soothe her nausea this time, but to calm the thrill of excitement and wonder the memory evoked. When she opened her eyes, she saw Eric's curious glance raking over her.
"So are you going to keep me in suspense or what?" he asked as he pulled onto Route 6.
"What do you mean?" she asked warily, still under the influence of the carnal memory.
Eric gave her a bewildered glance. "I'm wondering what you think of the property, Mari."
"Oh!" She laughed in relief. For a second there, she'd thought those physician's eyes of his had x-rayed straight into her skull and read her thoughts. "I do like the office space. Very much. It's in a private area, and I love all the sunlight. It's nice that it's so close to the woods and the lake. There's plenty of room for The Family Center to grow as we get new funding and programs. Thank you so much for doing all the preliminary groundwork before I got here, Eric. You and Natalie have done a hundred times more than I'd expected."
"It wasn't that much, especially with all the research and ideas you sent us. Plus, you'd already compiled most of the paperwork for the state."
"Most people will think I'm nuts for doing thisa cello player opening up a facility for victims of substance abuse," she muttered.
Eric's dark brows quirked upward. "Good thing the Reyes aren't most people then."
Mari smiled. Of course the Reyes weren't most people. Eric and Natalie had been just as impacted by the effects of substance abuse as Mari and her brother, Ryan, had.
And the Kavanaughs
It'd been fifteen years since a drunk Derry Ka-vanaugh, Marc's father, had gotten behind the wheel of his car. Marc's father had caused a three-way crash that night, killing himself, both of Mari's parents and Eric's mother. The accident had left Eric's sister, Natalie, scarreddamage both physical and psychological.
This was the old wound that Mari had felt compelled to return to Harbor Town and try to heal. Not just for herself or Eric or Natalie or Marc, but for anyone who had ever been impacted by the devastating effects of substance abuse.
Eric grabbed her hand as he drove. "Nat and I are right here in Harbor Town, and we're one hundred percent behind you on this. Are you sure you don't need any of the money from the lawsuit? Do you really think it was the best idea to transfer all of it over to a trust for The Family Center?"
"Of course I'm sure. You know I've planned to start this project with money from the lawsuit for years now. I never could touch that fund for anything else. It just seemed like" she paused, trying to find the right words "that money was meant for something bigger than me. I just haven't had the time to get things moving until now. Besides, I'm selling the house on Sycamore Avenue. That'll give Ryan and me a nice nest egg."
She glanced out the window at the rows of perfectly maintained lakeside cottages. Each and every one looked to be occupied with vacationers. The population of Harbor Town swelled in the summer months.
She smiled wistfully as she watched a little girl with a dark ponytail run around the corner of a house. She'd sported a pink bikini and an inflatable green dragon around her waist.
"I'm not sure I'll ever have the time I need to do what needs to be done," she murmured.
Eric wiggled her hand in his before he let go. "You know what I think you need? I think you need a little fun and relaxation, Harbor Town-style."
"What did you have in mind?"
"The Fourth of July festivities, of course. Don't tell me you've forgotten the downtown parade."
Mari laughed warily. "How could I forget such a spectacle?"
"Let's go have a peek, get an ice cream, goof off. There's plenty of time later to sit down and talk about the plans for The Family Center."
"Eric " Mari hesitated, hating the idea of being seen in such a public place. Marc had mentioned five weeks ago that he rarely returned to Harbor Town, but she knew that his sister, Colleen, still lived here, as did their mother, Brigit. At the thought of running into either of themespecially Brigitdread rose.
"Mari," Eric said gently. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. Isn't that one of the reasons you wanted to start up The Family Center, to get past the pain of our history, to make something positive come of it? You can't do that by hiding in your house the whole time you're here."
Her eyes felt moist as she stared blankly out the window. Eric was right. Surely it was part of her own healing to remember not just the bitterness but the sweetness associated with the quaint lakeside community.
"All right," she replied softly. "Let's go to the parade."
Mari stood next to Eric on the curb of Main Street. A boisterous crowd of locals, vacationers and day-trippers surrounded them. A trombone blared off-key, startling her. She glanced up at Eric, and they shared a smile.
A huge sailboat float, surrounded by the smiling, waving men and women of the Arab-American Business Council, followed the marching band. Harbor Town was one of many quaint Michigan towns that lined the lakeshore, drawing vacationers from Detroit and Chicago and everywhere in between. A small population of Arab-Americans had settled in many lakeside communities over the past several decades. Harbor Town was often held up as a banner example of how a minority group could not only blend with a community, but enrich and improve it. Her parents had belonged to a Lebanese faction of eastern orthodox Christianitythe Maronites. Despite the minority status of their religion among Arab-Americans, Kassim and Shada Itani had taken comfort in having others around who shared so many common cultural elements.
"Oh, look! It's Alex Kouri," Mari exclaimed as a distinguished man in his sixties marched past. His eyes widened incredulously as his gaze landed on her, and he waved and mouthed her name.
Mr. Kouri had been one of her father's closest friends. Both of them had been Detroit-based businessmen who had brought their families to Harbor Town for summer vacations. Mr. Kouri and her father would frequently drive back and forth together from Harbor Town to Dearborn, Michigan, on Friday and Sunday evenings, leaving their families to idle away the hot, summer weekdays while they worked at their corporate jobs.
Mari noticed how gray Mr. Kouri's hair had become. That's how her father would have looked, had he lived.
She saw a woman standing at the curb, her rapt attention on Mari and Eric, not on the parade. Still as nosey as ever, Mari thought with a flash of irritation, recognizing Esther Fontel, the old neighbor from Sycamore Avenue. The woman had once ratted her out to her parents when she observed Mari sneaking out her bedroom window and down the trusty old elm tree to join Marc on his motorcycle one hot summer night. Mari still recalled how angry her father had been, the hurt and the disappointment on her mother's face.
Until she'd turned fifteen, Mari hadn't fully understood the impact that her parents' ethnicity and religious views would have on her. Her brother had dated and enjoyed any number of summertime, teenage dalliances in Harbor Town. When Mari became a young woman, however, she'd learned firsthand that Ryan and she would not be treated the same when it came to dating. Especially when it came to Marc Kavanaugh.
Marc and Ryan had been close friends since they were both ten years old. Her parents had actually both been very fond of Marc, and he was a regular visitor in the Itani vacation home.
But the summer Mari had turned fifteen, everything had changedand Marc Kavanaugh had quickly moved to the top of her parents' list of undesirable dating partners for Mari.
Mrs. Fontel looked pointedly across the street, and Mari followed her gaze. She stared, shock vibrating her consciousness. Two tall, good-looking men with healthy, golden tans and dark blond hair stood in the crowd. Her gaze stuck on the one with the short, wavy hair. He had a little girl perched on his shoulders.
He looked just as good in shorts and a T-shirt that skimmed his lean, muscular torso as he had in the gray suit he'd worn in Chicago, Mari thought dazedly.
Her glance flickered to the right of Liam and Marc, and Brigit Kavanaugh's furious glare struck her like a slap to the face from an ice cold hand. Marc's stare was fiercer, though. It seemed to bore right through her across the span of Main Street.
It felt like someone had reached inside her and twisted her intestines. He'd said he only returned to Harbor Town a few times a year, she thought wildly. What were the chances he'd be here for the same handful of days she was?
She shivered despite the heat. It was Independence Day. Tomorrow would be the anniversary of the crash. Perhaps the Kavanaughs had gathered to visit Derry Kavanaugh's grave. Why hadn't she considered that possibility?
She jerked her gaze back to the parade, making no sense of the flashing, moving, colorful scene before her eyes, still highly aware of him watching her. He'd always been able to melt her with those blue eyes. She could only imagine the effect they had on the people he'd cross-examined in the courtroom.
Mari had certainly felt the power of his stare during that night in Chicago.
He must be furious at her for not showing up at their agreed-upon lunch, for not returning his calls especially after what had occurred between them in that hotel room.
"Well, if it isn't Mari Itani," Liam Kavanaugh drawled under his breath.
Marc followed Liam's gaze, too surprised by his brother's statement to comment at first. He immediately found Mari in the crowd. She wore her long hair up and a casual, yellow dress that tied beneath her full breasts in a bow. The garment set off Mari's flawless, glowing skin to perfection. Not to mention what that innocent-seeming ribbon did to highlight the fullness of her curves.
"Mari Itani?" Marc's sister Colleen asked incredulously from behind him. "Where?"
"Stop pointing, Liam," Brigit Kavanaugh scolded when Liam tried to show his sister where Mari stood.
"Did you know she was back, Mom?" Marc asked sharply.
"I knew it. She's just here to get the house in order before it goes on the market. Can't believe she and Ryan have waited this long to sell it, but obviously they haven't been hurting for money," Brigit replied bitterly.
"Mommy, can we follow the parade down the street? I want to see Brendan again. He looked so funny," Marc's niece, Jenny, begged from her perch on his shoulders. Marc's nephew, Brendan, had marched in the parade as part of the Harbor Town Swim and Dive Club.
Colleen laughed and reached up for her six-year-old daughter. Marc bent his knees to make the transfer easier.
"Aren't you coming, Uncle Marc?" Jenny asked, tugging on his hand once her feet were firmly on the ground.
"I'll stay here and keep Grandma company. Tell us if Brendan trips or anything," Marc replied.
Jenny grinned broadly at the prospect and yanked her mother down the sidewalk.
Liam chuckled. "How come sisters always want to see their brothers humiliated?"