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No one had ever promised Natalie Kimball that moving home to be a lawyer in a small town with people who still thought of her as a hopelessly shy nerd was going to be easy.
"I can do this," Natalie muttered for about the tenth time that morning, her hands clenched on the steering wheel of her secondhand Toyota as she drove out of town and north up the coast.
To her right, the waves crashed toward her in a spectacular show of whitecaps; the Atlantic tide was coming in. The narrow strip of beach beside it, usually so crowded with tourists in the summer, was deserted, and most of the seaside shops and arcades were still closed for the winter. She opened the window a crack and let the fresh, cold smell of ocean air wash over her.
For once, Natalie was exactly where she wanted to be. She loved this place; it was in her DNA. Even though her father, Asa Kimball, didn't want her at home working in his law firm, Natalie knew she could be happy here and do a great job, if he gave her the chance. More than anybody else he could possibly turn the firm over to, she understood the people of this town: their connections, their histories, their families and their secrets.
Especially the family secret of the woman she was set to meet. I wonder what became of Bruce Cole? Natalie thought.
Bruce was her longtime high school crush, though Natalie hadn't seen him since the summer he left town. It was only wishful thinking to expect his sister would mention him today.
Shaking her head, Natalie watched for the familiar gazebo perched on an outcropping of rock. When she came to it, she parked in a vacant lot where the meters weren't set up for the season yet.
Grabbing the packet on the seat beside her, she slammed the car door against the wind. It was an unseasonably cold day in late April even by New England sea-coast standardsblustery, with freezing rain that made her teeth clench. She shivered, wishing she'd brought a warmer coat.
But this was where Maureen Cole's receptionist at the real estate office had asked Natalie to meet her. And to shore up her position with her father as a lawyer able to "bring in business," Natalie needed to convince Maureen that she should work with them on future projects. To secure her place, Natalie would do whatever it took, even drive ten miles out of town to the Rosewood Non-denominational Chapel in order to bring Maureen her forgotten notebook.
Natalie glanced down the beach to the picturesque chapel on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Strange how this place affected her. Long before all Natalie's surgeries, this little church had figured prominently in her romantic fantasies. She hoped the quaint property wasn't for sale. But why else would Maureen be here? Natalie had hinted for information from Maureen's receptionist, but the young woman had only smiled mysteriously. "I'm sure Maureen will fill you in when you see her."
Sighing, Natalie picked her way over the sidewalk, still littered with sand and pebbles after a late winter storm. Outside the chapel, a winter-deadened lawn was ringed by a garden beginning to come alive. For now, yellow forsythia sparked open and lilac bushes budded with purple shoots. Later, the roses of June and the tall, spiked perennial flowers of July would join them.
When she entered through the side door, Natalie recognized Maureen Cole immediately. A year older than Natalie, she looked every bit the prom queen and student council president she'd been in high school.
Maureen was curvy, blonde and authoritativein a good way Natalie admired but would never be at heart. Her booming voice carried across the church to a volume that even Natalie, hearing-impaired as she was, could clearly process.
"Over there! You stand over there and I'll walk around you." Maureen tugged on a measuring tape, directing her mother. Nearby was a baby carriage with netting thrown over it, though there couldn't be many flying insects inside the chilly church.
Rubbing her arms, Natalie stood back and watched the women chatter away, their voices lower now as they worked. To pick out the words, Natalie concentrated on Maureen's lips. Maureen wore bright coral lipstick. Her teeth were straight and perfect; she'd gotten dental work done in the years since Natalie had seen her.
" red would look nice," Maureen was saying, "but white is more traditional, and that's what I prefer."
But then Maureen turned to the side, and Natalie couldn't read her lips anymore. She caught only the muted words wedding flowers.
Was Maureen getting married? Natalie glanced from the measuring tape Maureen wielded to the pad of paper she wrote on. Maybe they were planning the placement of floral arrangements for the ceremony.
A pang went through Natalie. Ever since she was a child, she had gazed up at this chapel as her family drove past on a Sunday, looking at the brides and wedding parties, and wondering what it would feel like to marry a man she loved in this fairy-tale place.
But dreams like that didn't happen for people like her. She needed to be practical. Use her brain, use her legal training, use her knowledge of the town's past connections and histories and secrets, and maybe she could find a way to be of service to people. Even if she wasn't the world's best communicator, like her father said.
"May I help you?" Maureen was standing directly in front of her.
Natalie jumped, snapping out of her reverie. "I'm sorry." She cleared her throat, then remembered the binder cradled against her arm. She held it forward, smiling sheepishly at Maureen. "This is for you."
"Right." Maureen nodded, sizing her up. "You're the lawyer Lyndsey sent over with my wedding organizer. Thank you." With a grudging look, Maureen took the notebook she had left behind at her office and turned away from Natalie, immediately flipping to a page and scribbling furiously.
No one had said this would be easy.
Natalie walked around Maureen, to where she could see her face. "Ah.. forgive me for prying. But are you getting married, Maureen?"
Maureen looked up, staring at her. "Do you need to buy a house or something?"
"No not right now. I'm settled, thanks." From the corner of her eye, Natalie noticed Maureen's mom picking the baby up and sniffing at his diaper. The exaggerated grimace on her face told the story. Quickly, Mrs. Cole wheeled the carriage toward the restroom at the rear of the church, leaving Natalie and Maureen alone.
She might as well face the issue head-on.
Smiling, Natalie held out her hand. "Hi, I don't know if you remember me, but I was a year behind you in high school. I'm Natalie Kimball."
The real estate agent gave a sarcastic, unfriendly smile and pointedly neglected to shake her hand.
Natalie wiped her palms against her already damp raincoat. She knew what this treatment was about: her father's involvement with Maureen's brother Bruce, and what had happened that last summer he was in town. Part of Natalie was dying to ask about him. She would never do that, though. As far as she knew, Bruce Cole had never come home, not once, and was never likely to again. She remembered how much it had hurt Maureen when he left.
Maureen's gaze traveled up and down Natalie's body. She had the curl to her lips of a former "in girl" judging and dismissing an "out girl." Natalie felt deflated, well aware of every physical flaw she had.
"Nope," Maureen drawled. "Your name doesn't ring a bell. I didn't go to school with any of Asa Kimball's kids."
She said "Asa Kimball" as if the words tasted bitter. And then she turned away.
Natalie nodded. She understood why Maureen was acting this way. Indirectly, her father had made Maureen's life hell. Lawyers in general had made Maureen's life hell.
Bruce's life, too.
But Natalie wasn't that kind of lawyer and never would be. She saw herself as a helper, not an adversary. Her father, and his father before him, and for all she knew, his father before that, had run the family firm in the traditional way, which had, in her opinion, often caused problems. Years of standing on the sidelines, watching and observing, had convinced her she could make a place for herself, that she had a unique talent to contribute.
Natalie may not have been one to speak to people much, but she noticed things about people, and that was important, too. Maybe it was time to take a chance on the new style she envisioned. She had always thought that if given the opportunity, she could make a difference.
Natalie cleared her throat and approached Maureen again. "I know it was a long time ago, but you and I were friends, actuallyat least I thought soyour senior year in high school."
Maureen's lips pressed together, as if she was reliving the hell of being a popular girl who was suddenly ostracized by her peers. Natalie had seen it happen firsthand.
Hopefully Maureen would understand that her intentions weren't harsh. "We had study hall together on Fridays, final period," Natalie said. "I always looked forward to it. I drove you to the bus station once in the fall." Remember?
For a split second, she looked bludgeoned and she abruptly sat on the nearest pew. And Natalie felt guilty. She hadn't wanted to use that particular memory, but it was the incident Maureen was most likely to recall. Maureen had planned to run away to visit Bruce, who was in his first year as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Natalie had never forgotten that day for many reasons, the most important of which was that it was the second most daring thing she had ever done.
"You were nice to me," Maureen finally said, albeit grudgingly. "Not too many people were nice to me that year."
"At least they talked to you," Natalie said with a joking tone. "I was always so shy."
Maureen cocked her head and studied her. "You look pretty." Her voice was softer, as if she was starting to warm up. "You cut your hair. It flatters you."
By reflex, Natalie touched her head. "Thanks. I found a really great stylist when I lived in Boston."
"Fou lived in Boston?" Maureen actually seemed interested.
"I went to law school there. And then afterward, I had a clerkship." Maureen squinted.
"It's a job I had, at the Federal courthouse on the waterfront. I clerked for a judge there."
Maureen smirked. "And now you're back to work with your father on small-time wills and real estate closings." Her laughter was unkind, all trace of the former softness now gone.
Natalie smiled gently, refusing to take the bait. "It's always been my dream to go solo."
Maureen's eyebrows rose. "So the old man is retiring?"
"Not yet anyway." Therein was the crux of her dilemma. Natalie fiddled with the button on her coat. Her father wanted to sell the law firm and retire to Florida by the end of summer. She wanted him to pass control to her and take a cut of her future earnings, but he didn't believe she had the ability to make future earnings.
This mission with Maureen was part of Natalie's plan to establish a bottom line for the summer, to prove to him she could.
And if she couldn't, well
There was no couldn't. The law firm had been in her family for five generations, and she wanted to be part of that link, too. If she didn't stay and fight for her connection to that legacy, then it would be lost forever.
She would make a go of it here. And Maureen could help her, at the same time that she helped Maureen.
Natalie smiled and looked Maureen in the eyes. "If I can't convince my dad to keep the law office in the family, then he'll sell to a big firm from Portsmouth or Concord. If that happens, then they'll make his place into a satellite location to theirs."
With lawyers who wouldn't know anybody in town. Not personally, anyway. Outside attorneys wouldn't be likely to float a loan for legal work for a small business starting out, or to spring a local's miscreant son from the drunk tank at the beach on a Saturday night. Her father's firm did, often without charge. As a local businesswoman, Maureen would understand the implications.
Maureen leaned against the pew and chewed her bottom lip, thinking. Then she rubbed her hands over her face, and Natalie couldn't hear what she said.
" such a big problem the wedding " was all Natalie caught.
And then Maureen moved her hands away from her mouth, and stared at her, waiting for Natalie to reply.
The familiar panic crept over Natalie that she'd missed something essential, that she'd be found out. And she'd been careful to stand face-to-face with Maureen so she could lip-read what she couldn't hear.
You communicate so poorly, her parents had always told her.
No one wanted a hard-of-hearing lawyer. Natalie knew it made them uncomfortable. It made them think she was either a snob or incompetent when she missed something important.
"I'm sorry," Natalie said carefully. "Could you please repeat what you just said?"
Maureen's scowl deepened. Natalie got a bad feeling, as if Maureen was holding her response against her.
"Do you still have any ill-feelings toward my brother Bruce?" Maureen demanded bluntly.
"What? No! I never blamed him." On the contrary, Natalie had always thought she understood him better than most people did. "I knew your brother onceI talked to him, and I."
She felt her face flushing. She could never tell Maureen about that night. She had never discussed it with anyone, even when she should have.
She was fiddling with her buttons again, and Maureen was staring in curiosity.
Oh, why not admit she'd had a crush on him? It was so long ago, surely it couldn't hurt. Most likely Bruce was married anyway, making beautiful babies and saving the world somewhere as a navy pilot or intelligence officer, something heroic and swashbuckling and passionately emotional, like he was.
"I had a huge crush on him, truth be told." Natalie laughed, but knew it came out strangled. "Me and about a hundred other girls in town."
"A hundred other girls in town turned their backs on him after what happened," Maureen said flatly.
Yes. Yes, they had. "But I didn't," Natalie said softly. "I was loyal to you, remember?" Maybe because Natalie was the only person in town who knew the truth about how Bruce had felt and what he'd done after the accident that had killed his best friend. "I saw what this town did to you, and I stayed by your side. I talked to you after all your cheerleader and student council friends turned their backs."
"You must really want my business." Maureen's voice was hard and bitter.
It's not her fault. Maureen had been a sheltered kid who'd gone through a tough year that had changed her life. But the most important thing was that Maureen had overcome the trauma. She was a functioning member of the community. From her father, Natalie knew Maureen had built herself up from a single mom with few prospects into a successful real estate agent specializing in the million-dollar beach homes along the waterfront. It must not have been easy to compete at that level, and was certainly not a job for the fainthearted. Natalie, especially, could respect that.