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Georgia Bodine pulled into the crushed-shell parking space of the aging beach house and got out, the breeze off the ocean lifting her hair and filling her with a wave of courage that was as unexpected as it was welcome. She might be a total failure at standing up for herself, but to protect her beloved grandmother, she could battle anyone.
Refusing to let even the hint of a negative thought take hold, Georgia trotted up the worn wooden stairs. The beach house, like most on the Charleston barrier islands, had an elevated first floor to protect against the storms everyone hoped would never come.
The dolphin knocker smiled its usual welcome. The corners of her lips lifted in response, and she rushed through the door, calling for her grandmother as if she were eight instead of twenty-eight.
"Miz Callie! I'm here!"
Her impetuous run took her through the hall and into the large living room that ran the depth of the house. Sunlight pouring through the windows overlooking the Atlantic made her blink.
Someone sat in the shabby old rocker that was her grandmother's favorite chair, but it wasn't Miz Callie.
The man rose, looking as startled by her bursting into the house as she felt finding him here. Aside from the stranger, the roomwith its battered, eclectic collection of furniture accumulated over generations and its tall, jammed bookcaseswas empty. Where was Miz Callie, and what was this stranger doing here?
The man recovered before she could ask the question. "If you're looking for Mrs. Bodine, she went upstairs to get something. I'm sure she'll be right back."
A warning tingle ran along her skin. The interloper was in his thirties, probably,dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks that were more formal than folks generally wore on Sullivan's Island. He stood as tall as the Bodine men, who tended to height, but tense, as if ready for a fight. Brown hair showed a trace of gold where the sunlight pouring through the window hit it, and his blue eyes were frosty. The few words he'd spoken had a distinctly northern tang.
This was the lawyer, then, the one causing all the trouble. The one who had Uncle Brett muttering about Yankee carpetbaggers and her daddy threatening to call everyone from Charleston's mayor to the South Carolina governor, with a few council members thrown in for good measure. This washad to beMatthew Harper.
He took a step toward her, holding out his hand. "I'm Matt Harper. And you are "
"Georgia Lee Bodine." No matter how rude it was, she would not shake hands with the man. Her fists clenched. "Miz Callie's granddaughter."
Wariness registered in his eyes at the name, and he let his hand drop to his side, his mouth tightening. He knew who she was. Maybe he even knew why the family had called her home from Atlanta in such a rush.
Do something about your grandmother, Georgia Lee. You've always been close. She'll listen to you. You have to talk some sense into her before it's too late.
Who were they kidding? Nobody ever talked Miz Callie out of anything she'd set her mind on. Certainly not Georgia Lee, the least combative of the sprawling Bodine clan.
A flurry of footsteps sounded, and Miz Callie rushed into the room.
Georgia barely had time to register a quick impression of her grandmotherfive foot nothing, slim and wiry as a girl, white hair that stood out from her head like a halo before she was wrapped in a warm embrace.
She hugged in return, love rushing through her like a storm tide, and had to blink back tears. Unconditional love, that was what Miz Callie had always offered the shy, uncertain child she'd been, and it was still there for the woman she'd become. Georgia had never been as aware of it as at that moment.
Help me. Her heart murmured a fervent prayer. Help me keep her safe.
Over her grandmother's shoulder she stared at Matthew Harper, her determination welling. She had come home because the family said Miz Callie was in troublethat she was acting irrationally and that this man, this outsider, was trying to con her out of what was hers.
He wouldn't succeed. Not without walking over the prone body of Georgia Lee Bodine, he wouldn't.
Harper's face tightened, as if he could read her mind.
Fine. They knew where they stood, it seemed, without another word being spoken. The battle lines were drawn.
So this was the granddaughter from Atlanta. Matt couldn't help having some preconceived notions about the woman, like it or not, from what he'd seen of Miz Callie and the rest of her family.
He'd already clashed with several members of Miz Callie's large clan over what she planned to do. The two sons he'd spoken to had had the same goal, though they'd gone about it in different ways. Georgia's father, the eldest son, had been all Southern charm and hints of powerful influence, while Brett Bodine, the second of the brothers, intimidating in his Coast Guard uniform, had been blustery and outraged. He hadn't heard from the third brother yet, but no doubt he would.
They hadn't worried him, although he'd been taken aback that Miz Callie's family was so determined to keep her from doing what she wanted with what was hers. Still, he knew, just from the way Miz Callie's face softened when she spoke of Georgia, that this granddaughter had a special place in her heart.
That was undoubtedly why Georgia was here. After failing to influence or intimidate him, the family had sent for her, banking on Miz Callie's affection to sway the decisions she intended to make.
Miz Callie released her granddaughter. "Matthew, I didn't mean to ignore you like that. My manners have gone astray 'cause I'm so excited to see this long-lost granddaughter of mine."
"Miz Callie, you know I was just here at Christmas time." Georgia stood with her arm loosely around her grandmother's waist. Staking out her territory, apparently.
Christmas time? Six months ago, and Atlanta wasn't that far away. If you care so much about your grandmother, Ms. Georgia Lee, why don't you come to see her more often?
"Nice that you could come for a visit, Ms. Bodine." He smiled, sure she'd take that exactly the way he intended. "What brings you back to Charleston business or pleasure?"
"I'm here to spend a little time with my favorite grandmother."
Miz Callie's cheeks flushed. "Your only grandmother, as you well know. Georgia, this is Matthew Harper. Matthew, my granddaughter, Georgia Bodine."
She hadn't identified him as her attorney, and he wondered if the omission was deliberate. He extended his hand again, his eyebrows lifting. Georgia wouldn't refuse it this time unless she wanted open warfare in front of her grandmother.
Georgia took his hand, holding it as gingerly as if it were a clump of washed-ashore seaweed. He closed his fingers around hers, holding on a bit longer than she'd probably want.
Small, not much taller than her tiny grandmother, Georgia was all softnesssoft curves of her body, soft curls in that long, dark brown hair, a soft curve of the smooth cheeks. Until you got to her eyes, that is. A deep, deep brown, he guessed they could look like velvet, but they were hard as stone when they surveyed him.
Those eyes issued a warning, but that wouldn't deter him. Fulfilling his client's wishes was a trust to him.
And on a personal level, he had to succeed at this. He couldn't keep depending on his partner to pull him through. His daughter's face flickered in his mind. For Lindsay's sake, he had to make this work. He was all she had.
"What brought you to Charleston?" Georgia turned his own question back on him. "I can hear from your voice that you're not a native."
"Only of Boston," he said. He doubted she meant the words as a compliment. "I came south to go into partnership with my law-school roommate, Rodney Porter."
Her eyebrows liftedshe obviously recognized the name of an old Charleston family. She couldn't know that Matt was as surprised as anyone at the enduring friendship between the Boston street kid and the Charleston aristocrat, a bond that went back to their first year at Yale.
"I think Rodney was in high school with one of my brothers." Her voice was cool, but he sensed she was giving him a point for that connection.
"I'll have to ask Rod about that."
Her brothers weren't among the family members he'd met, but they were probably all cut from the same cloth down-home Southern slow-talkers with a touch of innate courtesy, even when they were castigating him as an interfering outsider who should go back where he came from.
Georgia was different, thoughmoving at a quicker pace, honed to a sharper edge. Her grandmother had called her a big-city businesswoman. That should make her easier to understand than the rest of her family.
"I'm sure Rodney will remember whether it was Adam or Cole." She smiled. "We all tend to know one another around here."
And you don't belong. That was implicit in her tone, although he didn't think her grandmother caught it.
Georgia wouldn't get under his skin that easily. "You work in Atlanta, I understand. What do you do there?"
"I'm a marketing director for a software firm." Something flickered in her eyes as she said the words, so quickly that he couldn't identify it, but it roused his curiosity. Job problems, maybe?
He'd spun this conversation out as long as possible. Clearly he wouldn't make any progress on Miz Callie's problem today.
He shifted his attention to his elderly client. "Why don't we discuss our business later? After all, your granddaughter has just arrived." In the nick of time, she probably thought.
"I don't want to inconvenience you " she began.
"I'm sure Mr. Harper will be happy to postpone your meeting," Georgia put in.
Until you've had a chance to try and dissuade your grandmother, he thought.
"That's not a problem." Better to take the initiative than have it taken from him. "I'll give you a call."
"At least take this information with you." Miz Callie picked up a folder she'd dropped on the bookcase when she'd rushed into the room. "It contains the notes I've made on what I want."
Georgia's fingers flexed as if she'd like to snatch that folder. "Maybe we could talk about this first"
"No." Miz Callie cut her off with what was probably unaccustomed sharpness. "Here you are." She thrust it into his hands.
He took the folder, encouraged by the sign that Miz Callie was set on what she wanted. Maybe Georgia wouldn't find this so easy a task.
"Thank you. I'll go through this and give you a call, then." He turned to go.
As he did, the older woman slipped her arm around her granddaughter's waist again, a look of apology on her face.
Miz Callie knew what she wanted, all right. But if there was one person who could talk her out of it, that person was clearly Georgia Bodine.
With Harper gone, Georgia's tension level went down a few degrees. She hadn't been able to prevent him from taking away that folder, but whatever business he'd intended hadn't been accomplished yet. She had breathing space to find out exactly what was going on with her grandmother, and how much of her family's wild talk was true.
"You must be hungry." Miz Callie spun and started for the kitchen at her usual trot. "I'll fix you a sandwich, some potato salad"
"I don't need all that." She followed her grandmother to the kitchen, where African violets bloomed on glass shelves across the windows and a pitcher full of fragrant green basil graced the counter next to the sink.
She closed the refrigerator door her grandmother had opened. "Honestly. I stopped for lunch on the way. Maybe just something to drink. Is there any sweet tea?"
Miz Callie's smile blossomed. "It'd be a sad summer day there wasn't sweet tea in this house. You fill up the glasses with ice."
It was like old times, moving around the kitchen with her grandmother. In moments they'd assembled a tray with glasses, the pitcher of tea, a sprig of mint and a plate of Miz Callie's famous pecan tassies.
Georgia's mouth watered at the sight of the rich, sweet tarts. Her favorite. But her grandmother hadn't known she was coming, had she?
She'd ask, but Miz Callie was already heading out to the deck off the living room, picking up the battered sun hat she wore outside. Carrying the tray, Georgia followed.
She stepped through the sliding glass door and inhaled the salty scent of sea air. The breeze from the water caressed her skin as it tossed the sea oats that grew thickly on the dunes.
"I love it here." The words came without thought as the endless expanse of sea and sky filled her with a sense of well-being.
Miz Callie gave her characteristic short nod. "Then you understand how I feel." She sat down, reaching out to take Georgia's hand and draw her to the chair next to her. "Stay here at the beach house while you're home, won't you? I'd love to have you."
She hadn't really thought about where she'd stay on this rushed visit, but she could combat whatever Matthew Harper was planning better if she were on the spot.
"I'd love to. I'm sure the folks won't mind."
That was a positive step forward. Now if she could get Miz Callie talking about what the family called her odd behavior
"You want to tell me what happened to your engagement ring?" Her grandmother's soft voice interrupted her thoughts.
Her gaze flew from Miz Callie to her ring finger. "You noticed." Her mother hadn't, when she'd stopped briefly at the house, and that had been a relief.
"Of course I did, the minute I saw you. What happened with you and James, darlin'?"
One part of her wanted to spill the whole sorry mess into her grandmother's sympathetic ear, the way she would have poured out her problems when she was ten. But she was a grown woman now, and maybe she should act like one.
"It was nothing very dramatic." Wasn't it? A shaft of pain went through her. It hadn't been dramatic only because she lacked the courage to make a scene. "We both realized we'd made a mistake."
She could still see James's facehis amazement that she'd object to his stealing her work, jeopardizing her job and lying about it. The irrevocable differences between them had been shown up as if by lightning.
She forced his image from her mind. "Better now than later, right?"
"That's certain." Her grandmother's clear blue eyes said that she knew there was more. "Still, if you want to talk about it "
"I know where to come." She pressed Miz Callie's hand.
"Does your mamma know?"
Georgia shook her head. "I'm not looking forward to that. The day I told her I was engaged was the first time she felt proud of me since I learned to tie my own shoes."
"Oh, sugar, that's not true." Miz Callie looked concerned. "You and your mother don't always see eye to eye about what your life should be like, but she loves you."