|"The dress is adorable, Grace! I knew that shade of yellow would look perfect on you."|
Grace Eversea summoned a smile, trying to match Kate Nichols's enthusiasm while she maneuvered her ankle-length skirtand six inches of petticoatthrough the narrow gap between the sofa and the coffee table.
Add a bonnet and a pair of button-up shoes, and people just might think she'd stepped down from one of the sepia-toned portraits hanging on the wall of the historical museum.
But then again, Grace acknowledged ruefully, that was kind of the point.
It had been Kate's idea that everyone who volunteered to help with Mirror Lake's 125th birthday celebration should dress for the part in clothing authentic to that time period.
Something Grace hadn't found out until after she'd agreed to act as the official tour guide for the event, transporting people to unique historical landmarks and other points of interest scattered throughout the area. In a horse-drawn wagon.
Which posed a problem that apparently only Grace could see.
"I'm still not sure how I'm supposed to sit down while I'm wearing this bustle" And breathe in this corset. "I think every article of clothing they wore in 1887 was designed to pinch, itch or constrict." At the same time.
"That could explain why none of the women in those old photographs we found were smiling." Kate chuckled as she reached for the garment bag draped over the back of a rocking chair. "I better get back to the cafe. Mayor Dodd wants to go over some last-minute details before the opening ceremony tomorrow. You're welcome to join us."
"Thanks, but I think I'll" change clothes!"take B.C. for a dry run. I'm not sure how long it will take to complete the whole circle. We have to make five stops"
"Six," her friend interrupted cheerfully.
Grace blinked. "Six?"
"That's the other reason I stopped by." Kate's clover-green eyes sparkled with excitement. "I sent the letter over a month ago but didn't mention it because I didn't want to get your hopes up. But then he called yesterday, out of the blue, and gave us permission to add the property to the tour "
"You lost me." Grace jumped in when her friend paused to take a breath. "Who called? What are we adding to the tour?"
"Sloan Merrick's place."
Grace's breath snagged in her lungs, and this time she couldn't blame it on the corset. "I didn't think that property was still in the family."
"I wasn't sure, either. That's why I went to the courthouse and did a little investigating." Kate grinned. "Apparently Sloan left the house and land to his oldest grandson when he died."
An image rose in Grace's mind, swift and clear, almost as if it had been lingering just below the surface of her memories, waiting for permission to appear.
Shaggy hair the color of a midnight sky. Crooked smile. Eyes the rich, deep green of a fresh cedar bough.
"Right." Kate's eyes widened and Grace realized she'd said the name out loud. "Anyway, he apologized for not getting back to me sooner. His only stipulation for letting people tour the property is that we check the cabin first to make sure it's safe. Isn't that great?"
"Great," Grace echoed.
"I'm surprised you remember Cole," Kate went on. "I don't think he lived in Mirror Lake very long."
"A summer," Grace murmured. And yes, she remembered.
A girl didn't forget the first time she'd fallen in love. Or the first time her heart had been broken. But she didn't tell Kate that Cole Merrick had been responsible for both.
"One hour and twenty-six minutes, B.C."
The old draft horse stomped a platter-size hoof and tossed an aggravated look at Grace.
Okay, so maybe she hadn't added in the ten minutes the wagon had been parked in front of the gravel road leading up to Sloan Merrick's house.
Grace closed her eyes.
What was wrong with her?
Her yard bordered the Merrick property. She'd driven past this exact spot hundredsno, thousandsof times on her way to work and hadn't thought about Cole.
But over the past few hours, memories had begun to pop up like dandelions. Grace no sooner yanked one out than another one immediately took its place.
She couldn't blame Kate. No one, not her parents or even her closest friends, knew that she and Cole had formed an unexpected bond when his family had moved in with Sloan the summer before her senior year of high school. At seventeen, Grace had been shy and bookish; Cole grieving his father's death and angry at the world in general.
They'd come face-to-face one afternoon in Grace's favorite spota boulder roughly the size and shape of a hammock that jutted out over the lake. Anxious to finish the book tucked under her arm, Grace had stumbled upon a boy trying to light one on fire. An English text, which made it even worse because that happened to be Grace's favorite subject.
She'd rescued the book and ordered him to leave. Not only had Cole refused, but he'd also returned the next day. And the next. After several days of ignoring each other, a tentative friendship had begun to take root. And as the weeks went by, it had blossomed into something more.
They'd talked about their families. Their fears.
That's why Cole's abrupt departure had come as such a shock. In the days and weeks that followed, Grace waited for the phone to ring. Checked the mailbox every day. Twice. In time, she'd come to the realization that he hadn't felt the same way about her.
By the time her senior year of high school ended, Grace had stopped waiting for him. Not thinking about Cole had been a little more challenging, but she had managed it.
Most of the time.
"Come on, B.C. Let's get this over with and go home." Grace clicked her tongue and the mare obediently plodded forward, right between two rusty No Trespassing signs hammered to the oak trees that flanked the gravel driveway.
The two-story brick house wasn't visible from the road, so she hadn't realized how neglected the property had become since Sloan's death four and a half years ago. The man had been meticulous in maintaining the spacious grounds, but weeds had taken over the raised vegetable gardens and branches from a recent storm littered the yard.
The original homestead, a rustic cabin with a crumbling layer of white chinking between the logs, sat at the edge of a small pond garnished with cattails. Lilac bushes scented the air with a heady, soul-stirring fragrance that rivaled the perfume counter of an exclusive boutique.
No wonder Kate had wanted to add the Merrick place to the tour. Even in its neglected state, there was something appealing about the structure. A simplicity that reflected a time when life had been the same way.
Grace hopped down from the wide plank seat and looped B.C.'s reins around the weathered pole of an old clothesline. She waded through the tall grass and circled the cabin, on the lookout for potential hazards to curious children and petticoats.
As she rounded the corner, her gaze drifted to a narrow opening between two poplar trees. And even though it wasn't part of her scheduled tour, Grace was drawn down a path that only existed in her memory.
As the wooded area opened to a small clearing along the shoreline, she stopped dead in her tracks.
A man stood on the rock, hands in his pockets, facing the lake.
Apparently she wasn't the only one who ignored the No Trespassing signs.
Mayor Dodd had warned everyone to prepare for an influx of visitors. Not only had people in the community invited their family and friends to attend the celebration, but Grace's friend, Jenna, had also mentioned it in the weekly column she wrote for the online edition of Twin City Trends magazine.
As if he sensed Grace's presence, the stranger turned around to face her, his face shadowed under the brim of a ball cap.
"Sorry." She took a step back. "I didn't realize anyone was here"
Her breath stuck in her throat.
Either her mind was playing tricks on her or Cole Mer-rick was back in Mirror Lake.
Twelve years disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Cole was seventeen years old again, about to torch a textbook and sprinkle the ashes over the water, when a girl had stumbled into view. Eyes the color of dark chocolate had widened with astonishment when she'd spotted him.
Almost identical to the expression Cole saw on her face now.
Well, he was feeling a little shell-shocked, too, by this unexpected blast from the past.
Grace Eversea. The last person Cole had expected to see. He automatically took a step toward her. Grace took another step back.
Cole frowned. He hadn't changed that much over the years. A few crow's feet fanning out from his eyesones he held Bettina and Travis and Sean, his twin brothers, directly responsible forbut other than that no tattoos. No piercings. The reflection in the mirror remained pretty much the same.
"It's me." He yanked off his cap. "Cole."
Those two words might have made Cole feel a little better. If Grace hadn't tossed a quick look over her shoulder like she was searching for an escape route.
"It's been a long time." Because there's nothing like stating the obvious, is there, buddy?
"Yes, it has." Grace finally smiled, but it wasn't the one Cole remembered. The one that had made him feel like he could conquer the world. This one was distant. Polite. "I didn't expect to see you here."
It sounded almost like an accusation.
"Kate wrote to me," Cole explained. "About Mirror Lake's birthday celebration."
And if everything went the way he hoped, in twenty-four hours he would be celebrating something else. Phase two of the expansion project for Painted Skies, his private air charter service.
"She mentioned that. Today." Grace sighed. And glanced over her shoulder again.
Cole took advantage of the momentary silence to study her. At seventeen, Grace had cared more about books than shoes. Other girls their age knew how to flirt; Grace knew how to listen. She'd taught him how to skip rocks and hunt for literary symbolism buried in obscure passages of Shakespeare. A failing grade following his father's death had sentenced Cole to six weeks of summer school, and Grace had saved him from a D in English Lit.
Who was he kidding?
She'd saved him from a lot of things.
Cole had never known anyone quite like her.
But if the wary expression on Grace's face was anything to go by, she didn't feel the same way. The conversation was beginning to feel like an awkward blind date instead of an unexpected reunion between two people who had once been friends.
In fact Grace happened to be standing in the exact spot where Cole had kissed her for the first time. Right underneath that silver birch.
He heard her quick intake of breath and yanked his wayward thoughts back in line.
Grace pivoted away from him. "It was nice to see you again, but I have to get back."
"Hold on." The words slipped out before Cole could stop them. "I'll walk with you."
He hopped down from the rock and caught up to Grace as she reached the clearing. Her figure was still as slender as the reeds that hemmed the shoreline, but faded Levi's hugged curves that hadn't been there in high school.
They fell into step together, but Grace kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. The mane of glossy, sable brown hair was pulled back into a low ponytail at the nape of Grace's neck, giving Cole an unobstructed view of her delicate profile.
Her steps quickened as the house came into view, as if she couldn't wait to be on her way.
Cole, on the other hand, suddenly wanted to know more about her.
"Would you like to come inside for a few minutes?"
Grace looked shocked by the impulsive invitation, and Cole mentally smacked himself upside the head. Grace wasn't the teenaged girl who'd turned his world upside downand his heart inside out.
Not to mention there was probably someone who would be tempted to punch his lights out for asking.
"I can't. I have to get B.C. home," she murmured. "She gets cranky if she doesn't get her oats at a certain time."
For the first time, Cole noticed the enormous draft horse hitched to an old-fashioned buckboard.
The mare's head swung around, and she whinnied a greeting.
At least someone looked happy to see him.
Grace had no choice but to follow as Cole strode over to the wagon.
"Hey, Buttercup," he crooned, knuckling the mare's wide velvety nose.
B.C.'s ears twitched in response to the husky rumble of Cole's voice and Grace's heart responded with a traitorous twitch of its own.
"I can't believe you remember her name," she muttered.
"It's pretty hard to forget a two-thousand-pound horse named Buttercup."
But apparently, Grace thought, it wasn't hard to forget other things. Like plans. And promises.
She fumbled with a strap on the mare's harness in an attempt to avoid eye contact with the man whose presence had tipped her world off its axis.
For the first time, she noticed a black midsize SUV parked on the other side of the house. If she hadn't been so distracted by her thoughts, she would have realized someone else was on the property.
But what was Cole doing in Mirror Lake?
Grace had never considered the possibility that Kate's letter would not only gain permission for her to lead tours of the Merrick property, but also result in a visit from the owner of the property himself.
But here he was, standing less than three feet away from her. It felt almost surreal.
After Cole had left town without a word, Grace had played dozens of different scenarios in her mind, rehearsing what she would say if their paths ever crossed again.
She hadn't realized that she would find it difficult to say anything at all. Or that Cole would be more attractive at twenty-nine than he'd been at seventeen.
His lanky teenaged frame had shot up another inch or two and filled out. He was still lean in the hips, but his shoulders were broader, his arms more muscular. The unruly strands of ink-black hair that had once brushed the top of his collar had been cropped short. Taken one by one, Cole's features could almost have been described as ordinary. Deep-set green eyes. Strong cheekbones. Angular jaw. But added together, they packed quite a punch.
The fact that she could hardly breathe was proof.
"How many miles does she get to the gallon?" he asked.
Grace refused to respond to Cole's teasing smile. "We thought the historical tour would be more fun if we used an authentic mode of transportation."
"I'm on the planning committee."
"I didn't realize you were one of the people who'd volunteered to help with the celebration this weekend," Cole said slowly.
"I'm the only one with a horse and wagon." Grace untied the reins, a not-so-subtle hint she was ready to leave. "B.C. only comes out of retirement for special occasions now, though, like the Fourth of July parade and Reflection Days in September. The kids love her."