But Jenna Malloy will never forget the murder she witnessed when she was a girl. Or that Nate is the son of the man who killed her father.
How could either of them know they'd be blindsided by a secret that would force them to face the truth and their feelings for each other?
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Los Angeles, California
Nate wlked out of Vincennti's and slipped the claim check for his BMW through the window of the valet hut. Carlo, who'd been parking cars here for as long as Nate had been coming to the renowned bistro, grabbed his keys from among dozens hanging on the board behind him and joined Nate in the sunshine.
"How was your lunch, Mr. Shelton?" he asked.
Seeing no point in answering truthfully, Nate swallowed the first symptom of indigestion and said, "Just fine, Carlo." He glanced nervously over his shoulder to the restaurant entrance. "I am kind of in a hurry, though."
"Sure, I understand. Isn't everybody in this town?" Carlo jogged across the circular drive, the keys jangling in his hand, and zigzagged through a maze of vehicles.
Nate needed Carlo to return with his car before Brendan Willis and his associate finished the last of their pricey merlot and came outside. It was bad enough that Nate had paid the hundred-and-fifty-dollar lunch tab. He didn't need another helping of condescension.
And he'd been so confident this time. He'd chosen Willis's Boneyard Films as the perfect production company for his latest screenplay after the big studios had turned him down. Boneyard's innovative producer was getting his name in print in Variety and Entertainment Weekly.
Still, Boneyard was a small independent, which meant Willis should have jumped at the chance to sign a Nathaniel Shelton script.
Now, an hour-and-a-half lunch later, Nate was fairly certain that even though the producer had agreed to read the script, their collaboration was going nowhere.
"I'll call you in a week or so," Brendan had said.
A week or so? Nate was used to getting offers an hour after dropping off his work. Of course, that was before he'd produced three flops in a row. But he was an award-winning writer, for Pete's sake, though most of the power brokers in this town seemed to have forgotten that accomplishment.
His steel-gray BMW pulled up to the curb and Carlo jumped out. "You have a good day, Mr. Shelton," he said. Nate pressed a modest tip in the guy's hand and drove off.
He headed toward his Beverly Hills condo. With the weekend ahead of him, he had to regroup, study the latest industry news journals and come up with another production company to pitch his latest project to. This was a big town, with countless possibilities, and Nate was a hell of a writer. No need to panicyet.
The ringing of his cell phone jerked him back in his seat. He hit the speaker button and snapped, "Shelton."
At the sound of the gravelly voice, his heart constricted. "Dad? Is everything okay?"
"It's better than okay."
"Why, what's happened?"
"I didn't tell you before, son, because I didn't know what the parole board would decide."
"What are you talking about?" Nate's father had been incarcerated twenty years of a twenty-four-year sentence. Was parole possible this soon for a second-degree murder conviction? Nate knew his father had only been before the board one other time.
"I didn't get my hopes up," Harley said. "Guys are almost always flopped the first few times around."
Flopped. Prison talk for turned down. Nate had learned a lot of new meanings for old words since his father had been taken away. "Dad, what are you saying?"
"I'm going to be approved, Nate. Dr. Evanston told me a few minutes ago that I'm getting out May 23."
Nate's jaw dropped. He did a quick calculation. "For real, Dad? That's only five weeks off."
"It's real enough. Assuming I don't make anybody mad or break any rules in the meantime. There's still some paperwork " He paused.
"Notification of victims, housing plans, probation details, that sort of thing. There's also one more review before the parole board processes my release. But the doctor wouldn't have told me if he wasn't sure of the outcome. We've been through too much together."
Nate's mind raced. He'd have to make arrangements for Harley to come to L.A. His father would have to find a place to live, a way to earn a living. But all that could wait. "Congratulations," he said. "This is great news."
"It's a lot to take in," Harley said. "To go from having no thoughts about tomorrow to all of a sudden having a future, to having to make decisions. I'm just getting used to the idea."
Nate hadn't had that luxury yet. "Don't worry, Dad. We'll work it out. I'll take care of plans to bring you to Los Angeles, and we'll"
"No, Nate. I'm not coming to California. That's about all I'm certain of at this moment."
"But where will you go?"
"I'm moving back to Finnegan Cove."
Nate swerved, nearly hit the curb. "What? You can't be serious."
"I'm dead serious."
"But, Dad, you won't be welcomed there. Hell, I wouldn't even go back to Finnegan Cove."
"It's the only place I know, Nate," Harley said.
"All I've ever known. It's home."
Nate refrained from pointing out that Finnegan Cove hadn't been kind to the Sheltons and chances were, wouldn't be now. "I don't think that's wise."
His father lowered his voice soothingly. "It'll be okay, Nate. I know what I'm doing."
The hell? In the past twenty years maybe a few people had come and gone from the small town on Michigan's western shore, but Nate figured the population would have stayed pretty much the same. Two thousand folks, give or take, lived in comfortable bungalows, and a few fancy Victorian houses from the town's lumber boom days. The same mom-and-pop businesses probably still lined Main Street.
And no doubt the same attitudes prevailed. And memories for certain details had probably only grown sharper. Like Harley Shelton's face on the front page of the Finnegan Cove Sentinel. Like the face of his eighteen-year-old son as he'd left the courthouse after the verdict was read. Like the absence of Harley's older son, who hadn't shown up for the trial at all. It baffled Nate why Harley had decided to go back where he wasn't wanted.
"Where will you live, Dad? You think you're going to just put down a welcome mat at your door and neighbors will drop by?"
"No, Nate, I don't. I'm not naive."
"Frankly, I'm beginning to think you are."
"I've found a place to live. A place where nobody'll bother me, and I'll be able to stay pretty much to myself."
"In Finnegan Cove?"
"The outskirts, yes. But I need a little help. It might take a couple of bucks to get this place in shape."
"I don't mind helping you. I've always told you I would, but you've got to be reasonable. Going back to Finnegan Cove is not a good idea. Why don't you consider L.A.? You can start over, make a new life for yourself."
"Believe it or not, son, there are aspects of my old life I remember fondly. It wasn't all bad."
Nate pulled into his underground parking garage, grateful he didn't have to drive anymore. Paying attention to the busy Los Angeles thoroughfare while having this unexpected conversation with his father would tax anybody's ability to concentrate. He parked in his assigned spot. "Where is this place you found, and how did you find it?"
"I read about it in the Sentinel about six months ago."
His father read the local newspaper? This man was surprising him more and more. Nate wanted nothing to do with the town, yet his dad maintained his ties. Maybe prison life did that to a person. Made you appreciate what you had before, even if it was less than ideal. "Okay, where is it?" he said. "It's right on Lake Michigan," Harley told him.
"In fact, you know it well." He paused. When Nate didn't say anything, he said, "It's the Cove Lighthouse, Nate. It's for sale."
"The lighthouse?" Nate's voice sounded unnaturally high-pitched in his own ears.
"Yep. It's perfect."
How could a lighthouse be for sale? Weren't they public domain? Nate pictured the wooden structure. Nearly everyone in Finnegan Cove was connected to the lighthouse, some in a good way, some in a bad, and in the case of two families, connected tragically.
But for Nate, the building had been a refuge, one he'd eventually come to think of as his personal space. Almost as if the abandoned structure had needed him as much as he needed it.
Until that night in 1988.
Harley cleared his throat. "Aren't you going to say something?"
Nate tried to keep his voice calm. "The lighthouse is absolutely the worst place you could go. I can't believe you're even considering it."
Harley hesitated. "You have to trust me on this, Nate."
"But it doesn't make sense, Dad."
"I checked into it. The price is right. Eighty thousand dollars."
As if price was the only concern. But Nate followed this thread of thought. "That's all? There can't be much value to the building if that's what they're asking. Who's selling it, anyway?"
"The town council. They've owned it since the Coast Guard deeded it to them in the sixties."
All at once time stood still for Nate. He pictured the six-story beacon tower protruding from the roof of the small cottage flanked by oak trees. He and his father had guided their commercial fishing boat into the channel by its light many times. The closer they got to the lighthouse, the closer they were to home. Those, at least, were good memories, because that was when they'd had a home.
The wheels began to turn in Nate's head as he struggled to come up with a positive aspect to his father's decision. Harley was right about one thing. The Finnegan Cove Lighthouse was remote, sheltered, private. As long as he was set on going back there, maybe this was the perfect spot for him.
Nate sat forward, rested his arms on the steering wheel. "Do you know what condition the place is in?" he asked. He wondered when the light station had been built, and seemed to recall a date from the late eighteen hundreds. "It could be falling down."
"I suppose," Harley conceded. "But I saw a picture of it. Doesn't look too bad. And I could fix it up. I'd enjoy doing that."
"We should have somebody look at it, someone who knows about architectural structure," Nate said, hoping this logical step would put an end to his father's irrational plan. "Fine." He paused. "Maybe I should try to call" Sensing what his father was about to say, and knowing how his brother would react to a call from Harley, Nate stopped him. "Let me handle it," he said. He had been gone for two decades, only traveling to Michigan once or twice a year to visit his father at the Foggy Creek Correctional Facility. And he'd never been back to Finnegan Cove. But he did know that Mike, a contractor who lived in Sutter's Point about twenty miles away, was a stranger to both of them now. That was how Mike wanted it.
"Let me make the phone call," he said, and then realized, because of his current schedule, there was nothing to keep him in Los Angeles. "Maybe I'll fly out and take a look at the place myself."
"That'd be great, son," his father said, clearly pleased. "I might be seeing you soon, eh?"
"Maybe. I'll talk to you."
He disconnected, shook his head and got out of his car. This was a crazy idea. If that lighthouse hadn't washed into Lake Michigan, it had to be pretty damn close. But all at once the thought of buying that old place, fixing it up well, maybe his father had hit on an interesting idea. A project like that, both of them working with their hands, as they had in the old days, when they used to pull in nets loaded with the catch of the day, might be exactly what he and Harley needed.
Of course, the first step in evaluating the practicality of this plan wasn't going to be easy. Nate hadn't spoken to his brother in years.
He took the elevator to the fourteenth floor, went inside his condo and got his address book from the desk. He poured himself a gin and tonic and sat at the bar. Then he punched in the phone number of Mike Shelton. Maybe his brother wouldn't be too busy on a Friday evening to talk to him. If he'd talk to him at all.
A kid answered the phone. Nate's nephew. He'd be ten now. "Is Mike there?" Nate asked.
"Yes. Who's calling?"
The boy didn't react to hearing Nate's name, just said he'd get his dad. A few seconds later, his brother came on the line. "Nate?" He didn't even try to hide his surprise. Or the mistrust.
"Yeah, it's me."
"What do you want?"
He pictured his older brother, brawny, muscles bulging from hard work, eyes tired from reading blueprints. The perpetual scowl on his face that Nate hadn't seen in years, but figured was still there. "I have news." Nate waited for a reaction, received none. "Dad's being paroled."
He heard Mike grunt. "They're letting him out?"
"It's been twenty years, Mike. He was due to have a parole hearing."
"Whoopee. And this affects me how?"