Welcome back to Petal, Georgia in this spin-off of the Chase Brothers series by Lauren Dane.
A town divided. A family torn apart.
Is one love strong enough to overcome it all?
Caroline Mendoza left home to become a lawyer with one goal in mind: prove her father’s innocence. Now she’s back, and nothing will stop her from uncovering the truth—not the folks of Petal, who have their own ideas about the case, not her siblings and definitely not Royal Watson, who should probably stand trial for being indecently and undeniably hot.
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About the Author
Visit Lauren on the web at www.laurendane.com
You can write to her at: PO BOX 45175, Seattle, WA 98145
Read an Excerpt
Caroline adjusted the front of her blouse as she waited in the elegantly appointed reception area of the Law Offices of Chase and Chase.
She'd prepared for the interview much the same way a general might prepare for war. Every contingency had been planned for. Every possible question she might be asked needed to have an answer.
All the research and preparation kept her mind off being back in Petal for good instead of one of her usual visits, which tended to last just a few days.
The receptionist, as pretty and elegant as the walnut furniture and framed black-and-white photographs of Petal over the last century plus, spoke quietly over the phone and then turned her attention to Caroline.
"They're ready for you now."
She led Caroline into a small conference room where three men, all clearly related, stood upon her entrance.
"Ms. Mendoza, it's a pleasure to meet you." One of the men she recognized from the pictures on the website — the younger of the Chase brothers who ran the firm — held out a hand. "Peter Chase."
She took it. "Nice to meet you as well. Caroline Mendoza."
The silver fox she knew was Edward Chase smiled at her, warm and open, as he held his hand out. "Edward Chase."
She shook his hand and objectified him. In her head of course, she wasn't a savage.
He was the next generation, she knew. Peter's youngest son.
Edward indicated a chair. "Please sit. Would you like some tea or some coffee?" "No, thank you."
Clearly Edward was in charge as he conducted the interview. He led her through the interview basics. Asked her what drove her.
Finally, Peter Chase broke in. "Why then? Why make the move from a city where you'd built a successful practice, where you could bill nearly four hundred dollars an hour, to Petal where you'll be lucky to make half that? And not even a third of that on those two or three cases we take on from the county?"
"Some things have happened recently that led me to reevaluate my life and my future. I was born and raised here. Lived here until I was sixteen. My sister and brother live here with my maternal grandparents. My brother is about to graduate high school and head off to college. I just want to be around them more than a few times a year. Life is too short to be halfway across the country. I've missed enough of their lives."
"We're the only firm in town. What would you do if we said no?"
"Well, I could hang out my own shingle. But that's a lot of work, and though I've done it before, I don't really want that at this stage in my life. I've got my resume in at firms between here and Atlanta. I sat for the bar here a few years back, just to have it in case I ever wanted to move to Georgia again, so I'm good to go. No matter where I end up."
"You're ambitious and accomplished. You aren't averse to going down to the jail or out to the prison. We'd be fools to say no. We already have a client list that encompasses a fifty-mile radius or so. I do most of the criminal-defense work now, but with you on board, we could do a lot better. You have the appellate experience we'd like as well. You're a hometown girl. You're incredibly qualified and we'd like to offer you a job here. Partnership track if that's what you're looking for." Edward pushed a piece of paper her way detailing salary, bonus structure, benefits and the steps to partnership.
She looked it over. It was exceptionally fair. She already had a nest egg from selling her share of her firm in Seattle. Most of it she wanted to hold aside for college for her siblings so this would enable her to live a comfortable life and not have to touch that other money.
"Before you accept though, I'd like to address the elephant in the room," Peter said.
Ah. There it was. "My father."
All three Chases nodded.
"My father's arrest, trial and incarceration are what sent me to law school to start with. I've spent the last fifteen years of my life in one way or another trying to prove his innocence. Despite his death, I plan to continue to search for my mother's killer and to exonerate my father."
Edward drew in a slow breath, probably trying to find the right words to bring up the other elephant in the room. "Your grandparents aren't going to like that."
"I love my grandparents, but we don't agree about who was responsible for my mother's murder. Regardless, the person who killed my mother is walking free, maybe even here in Petal, and I will not allow that to continue unchecked. My mother is dead. My siblings and I grew up without our parents. My father spent fourteen years in prison slowly dying. It's offensive to me that the real killer has been free all this time. I'll be careful to keep my actions separate from Chase and Chase, but it isn't something I'm prepared to stop pursuing."
"We've discussed this, Peter, Justin and I. I'm of the opinion that if I were in your place, I'd do the same. You understand the difference between your personal search for justice and what we do as a firm. That's the only issue we have any business caring about. You keep that distance and we're just fine. Can you start next week?"
She agreed and found herself with a job.CHAPTER 2
Caroline took a stroll along the sidewalk to peek in the various storefronts on her way to the grocery store.
Some of the places she remembered remained. The Honey Bear with its bright red tabletops and black-and-white striped booths and chairs. Her dad would bring them home blond brownies as treats sometimes. She warmed at the memory.
A tiny woman in towering heels and equally towering hair hurtled in her direction. Caroline smiled even before she recognized Polly Chase, Edward's wife and something of a town matriarch.
"Mrs. Chase, hello." Caroline took the hands Polly held out, squeezing them. She'd always liked the older woman who'd often volunteered in the school and library as Caroline had grown up. Her sons were several years older, but they were each so ridiculously handsome and well mannered it had been impossible for any young woman to have not known who they were.
Polly Chase was lovely. The kind of Southern woman Caroline had always admired. Mrs. Chase wasn't just old school in her appearance, Caroline bet the other woman never left her house without being done up. She'd certainly never go to the market in pajama bottoms.
At the same time, she managed to pull it off without being judgmental or uptight. She owned herself in ways Caroline found herself admiring greatly.
"You look pretty today." And Polly did. She wore a blue scarf that brought out the green in her eyes and the gold-blond in her hair too. Her nails were done up nice and she smelled really good.
"Thank you, sweetheart. I was just out visiting a friend of ours recovering from surgery." She paused a moment. "I am so glad I ran into you today. Are you too busy to have a cup of cocoa and something sweet with me at the Honey Bear?"
This was the boss's wife and someone she admired.
There was no drawback to saying yes.
"That would be wonderful."
They headed back the other way and into the Honey Bear, which was warm and smelled like the best thing on Earth.
The woman behind the counter erupted into a sunny smile when she saw Polly. "Hey there, Mrs. Chase!"
Then she turned to Caroline. "I'm so glad you came in. I've been on the lookout for you."
Melissa Gallardo had been an acquaintance back in school but over the last several years they'd become social-media friends. It had been nice to come to Petal and have a friend already.
"I told you yesterday I was finally finishing up with emptying all my boxes and I'd call you."
"You two know each other? I came in here and planned to introduce Caroline to you, Melissa." Polly grinned.
"We knew each other in school and reconnected online three or four years back. I'm concerned about the impact on my wallet now that someone who loves bags as much as I do lives in the same town." Melissa winked. "Well then, I assume you two would like a table?"
Polly nodded. "Oh yes, a table would be good, thank you, honey."
Melissa grabbed two menus and took them to a booth with a great view of the sidewalk. "This way you can people watch."
"Can you start us off with two hot chocolates? I'm pretty sure we're going to order something to eat too, but I want to look at the menu first."
Melissa patted Polly's arm. "You bet."
Once they'd gotten their hot chocolates and Polly had ordered vegetable soup for both of them along with some cinnamon buns, she turned back to Caroline.
"Edward is so pleased you're joining the firm. He's been talking about you so much it makes me laugh. I think my husband has a crush on your career."
Caroline laughed and then wondered if she should feel bad. Was that a warning? Was Polly mad?
Polly patted her hand with a chuckle. "Justin — that's my nephew — anyway, he's been pushing his dad and Edward to hire some new blood to expand what they do. He came over to the house with your resume when it arrived in the mail a few weeks back. He and Edward talked about you for hours at the table that night.
"And it means Edward can take a step back more often and spend time at home. We have an anniversary trip coming up and lots of grandbabies to love up on, so you help him do that more often."
"Well, I'm happy to hear that. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in your job, especially when it's your firm. When Edward gave me a tour of the place, he showed me all the pictures in his office of your growing family. He was so proud of each and every one of them."
"I would have had ten kids if I could have. Having grandchildren is the best of both worlds because I get to see them all the time and spoil them and hand them over to their parents. It's funny, I've been in love with Edward since I was seventeen years old and I didn't think it was possible to find new things about him to adore. But watching him with our children and their families, well, it's something special."
Caroline smiled but the realization that she'd never have that settled into her stomach like lead. Her mother was dead. Her father was dead.
Polly's smile fell away. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry, I didn't even think."
Caroline shook her head. "You have every right to be happy about things like that. They're good things."
"I knew your parents. I liked them both a great deal, and I have never believed that your daddy could have done it."
Relief washed through Caroline at Polly's words. "He looked at her like the sun rose and set with her.
And she looked at him right back that way. It just never made sense to me the way the whole thing was handled. I just want you to know that. It's going to be difficult here in town sometimes. People judge you based on what they've heard, not always what they know. But you hold your head up."
Caroline blinked back tears. "Thank you for that. Truly."
Their food came, and Melissa tipped her chin to indicate the heaping plate of french fries she'd also delivered. "Fries because why not? They were hot and crispy." She winked at Caroline.
Caroline popped one in her mouth, wincing at the heat, but they were so good. "So awesome. Thank you. I'll call you tonight. I need to go grocery shopping first because I have peanut butter and a box of stuffing. I did maybe eat pie for breakfast."
The Proffits, the people who'd owned and run the Honey Bear for near thirty years, wanted to retire. Their son was an architect and didn't want the business. Melissa and her fiancé had owned and run a cooking school. Something bad had happened, and Melissa, who was Maryellen Proffit's niece, had moved to Petal seven months before to take over and run the Honey Bear and seemed to be happy she had.
"Okay. We close up at five thirty so any time after six or so." Melissa hustled off to help some customers while Caroline and Polly chatted an hour more or so before Caroline needed to get going or she'd never get her grocery shopping done.
On the sidewalk, after Polly had bussed her cheek and click-clacked away in her heels, Caroline could only smile and shake her head at what a total force of nature Polly Chase was. Edward was a really lucky man.CHAPTER 3
Caroline stared up to the box she needed.
On the top shelf.
Sighing, she looked through her cart to for something to use to tip it down. Nothing that would work.
Muttering a curse, she stretched and just barely missed it. She'd totally climb the shelves if she had to but the last time she'd tried it, she'd ended up knocking a bunch of jars down and they broke and it was pretty embarrassing. Heaven knew she had enough to work against as it was without an incident on aisle ten with cereal.
"Lemme get that for you."
She looked to the side at the very tall cowboy who'd sidled up to use all his height to retrieve her box of cereal. "This here?" He pointed at the natural cereal she liked.
He grabbed it.
"Can you please get two? I figure I may as well just have a backup now, you know in case you aren't around the next time I'm here."
He pulled one more down and turned to drop them in her cart. That's when she realized it was Royal Watson. All grown up.
He faced her and all her parts stood up and cheered.
Like a full-stadium wave.
"Hey, it's Caroline Mendoza."
Oh. That accent. All Southern charm. Sexy and slow, like he tasted every word, savoring it before he let it go. She did love a Southern drawl coming from a man who used words like ma'am when they opened doors and retrieved things from high shelves. She knew it was pretty old school of her, but damn she didn't even care.
"Hey, it's Royal Watson. Thanks again for the assist." His grin made her want to moan.
Back in high school, he'd been two grades ahead. He'd been that super cute older boy who probably never noticed her existence. And of course by the time she'd grown into her body, he'd grown into his everything and she'd left town.
He had great hands. She tore her gaze away from them and her brain from imagining them on her because hello, grocery store, in front of people and all.
As if he knew what she was thinking, he got just a smidge closer. "It's good to see you. You're in town. For a visit or?"
She laughed, putting a hand at her hip. "Come on now. Are we pretending you haven't already heard I moved back to Petal? I may have forgotten my share of things about living in small towns, but your business is everyone's business." And her past had so much meat for the gossip table, she knew tongues had been wagging ever since she signed the lease on her apartment three weeks before.
"All right. Well, my aunt Denver is famous for two things. First, she makes the best coconut cake in a hundred-mile radius. Maybe even the whole state of Georgia, but there's some serious old-lady cake competition out there so I can't be totally sure. Second, she's got a nose for gossip that is, as my uncle says, unparalleled. I was just being neighborly and was gonna let you divulge all the details to me yourself."
She pushed her cart and he followed. "Yes, I'm back for good."
He loped along at her side. "I may as well come with you. You're what they call size challenged. In case you need something else from the top shelf, I'll come in handy."
"Oh you're not going to use the S word? Go on then.
Short. I'm short."
"Why, Ms. Mendoza, I do believe you're yanking my chain. I think you're more fun sized than short."
She blushed. "I don't know why they have to have shelves that are so high to start with. How do all the little old ladies get their cereal anyway?"
"Darlin', they eat Cheerios and mother's oats. All that fancy organic stuff is on the high shelf 'cause it's just you city girls who eat it. I'd check the sell-by date on it, just in case it went bad in 2010 or something."
"There's not a darned thing wrong with wanting healthy options."
He grinned again. "I'm teasing. Well, I'm telling the truth, but also teasing. Heck, we converted the farm into an organic operation three years ago. I'm always happy when people want the healthier option."
"You did? That's awesome."
Before she could ask more questions, they had to skirt around a gaggle of women who gave him the once-over twice.
"I see it'd be impossible to take you anywhere." Caroline gave him a raised brow.
He held his hands out all innocent-like. "You, sweet thing, can take me anywhere you like. In any case, I can't be blamed for being so handsome and charming."
She laughed. Good Lord he was adorable.
"So you're working with Edward Chase then?" "I bet the gossip already knows what color my sheets are too. Yes. My first day is Monday."
"Makes sense you're a lawyer now. You did love to argue back in school."
As if he'd ever noticed her! Had he?
She managed to pretend she was cool and not giddy. Probably worked. "My uncle says it's a wonderful thing when you can make a living off your most annoying trait." She paused to put some soup in her cart. "Can you?" She pointed toward the chicken broth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Count On Me"
Copyright © 2019 Lauren Dane.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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