Welcome to Paradise.
The sky-blue sign welcoming Charlotte to the town of Paradise, Colorado, brought both a jolt of anger and a bittersweet lump to her throat.
She was home.
Leaning forward in the backseat of the taxi, she peered out the window and absorbed her familiar surroundings. Georgia would probably scold her for vetoing the stretch limo idea and taking a cab instead, but a limo was way too pretentious for Charlotte's liking. She'd also decided against bringing her usual crew of bodyguards, much to her manager's irritation. But no way was she coming home with an entourage. Growing up, she'd hated drawing any attention to herself, and old habits died hard.
"Pretty town," the cab driver spoke up. "My granddaughter just moved here."
Yes, she couldn't deny Paradise was pretty. With the mountains looming in the distance, Paradise was home to lush forests, big lakes and secret creeks, an outdoorsman's dream. As they ventured into the heart of the town, she noticed that not much had changed. Aside from the outlet mall they'd passed half a mile ago, Paradise had stayed immune to big city interference. Main Street still featured a variety of little shops and family-owned restaurants, and as the taxi stopped to let a few pedestrians pass, she noticed a construction crew working hard in the town square, evidently getting ready for tonight's big event.
They drove past the beautiful historical buildings that housed the Paradise Post, the courthouse, and the offices of Lockhart and Lockhart Attorneys, all of which made Charlotte smile ruefully. The Price and Lockhart families owned nearly everything in town, even co-owned some, which was ironic since the two families despised each other. Charlotte wasn't much of a history buff, but everyone in Paradise knew of the Price-Lockhart feud. The two town founders, Jeremiah Price and Edward Lockhart, had once been friends according to the legends, but a falling out between them had led to a rivalry that still existed today.
It had been fun, watching Lexie Price and Bree Lockhart claw each other's eyes out during high school. Charlotte always found it funny how prejudice was passed down from generation to generation.
"Here we are," the driver announced, coming to a stop in front of the quaint Victorian that housed the Anderson B&B.
As Charlotte got out of the cab, the driver hopped out to get her suitcase from the trunk. She'd packed light--she only planned on being here for a few days--and she carried her own suitcase down the flower-lined pathway toward the wooden wraparound porch.
The front door flew open before she could even knock and a pair of chubby arms engulfed Charlotte in a big hug.
"My Lord!" Sue Anderson exclaimed. "Look at you, all grown up! Why, Charlotte Hill, you are stunning!"
The first smile of the day sprung to Charlotte's lips. Unlike everyone else, Sue Anderson had been good to her back then, and she knew there was nothing false about Sue's excitement or compliments.
"It's good to see you, Mrs. A," she said, genuinely pleased by the sight of Sue's familiar cornflower-blue eyes and short curly hair, which was now more silver than blonde.
Sue ushered her inside, barraging her with questions about her music, her career and life in general. When Charlotte assured her that everything was going well, Sue gave a beaming smile and led her upstairs to the suite she'd prepared for her.
"Everyone is so excited that you're back," Sue gushed.
I doubt it.
She kept the thought to herself and admired the pretty bedroom, complete with a canopy bed, thick cherry-red curtains and antique mahogany furniture.
"I am so proud of what you've accomplished, Charlotte," Sue said as she lingered in the doorway. "I'm sure your mama would be too."
Bitterness seeped into her mouth, making her swallow down the sour taste. Her mother, proud? Not likely. Tiffany Hill--Tiff, as she'd liked to be called--had only cared about one person when she'd been alive: herself. And maybe her vodka. And the parade of men she brought into their home.
Her daughter, on the other hand, never even made a blip on Tiff's radar.
"It's a shame you had the old house torn down," Sue added, referring to the childhood home Charlotte had ordered to be demolished less than a week after her mother's death.
"Mayor Price wanted the land," Charlotte replied with a shrug. "And since I didn't plan on using it, I figured it would be of better use to the mayor."
"Well, he did make use of it. Little Lexie lives there now. Mayor built her a gorgeous house up there."
Charlotte almost tripped over her own feet. Lexie Price lived on her former land? Wasn't that something. She suddenly felt like laughing as she wondered if Lexie had performed an exorcism prior to moving in, so she could eradicate the spirit of Tiff the town whore.
"Oh, there's so much more I have to tell you," Sue chirped. "Lots of gossip since you left."
"I'd love to hear it," Charlotte lied. "But first, I was thinking of taking a nap. I barely slept last night."
"Excited to be home, huh?"
Uh, more like terrified. She'd been plagued with thoughts of Nate Bishop since the second she'd asked Georgia to book her the flight to Colorado.
Are you actually going to go through with it?
She ignored the disapproving voice in her head. Seemed like her conscience had been making unwelcome appearances ever since she'd decided to go ahead with this little seduction plan. It had sounded so much more appealing when she'd been drunk. Once the alcohol had worn off, though, common sense had settled in, but by then it had been too late--Georgia had already booked the room and flight. Canceling hadn't been an option. Knowing Sue Anderson, the word of Charlotte's impending arrival had spread within seconds of the booking, and Charlotte could only imagine the nasty things everyone would say about her if she didn't show up.
"I'll let you rest, then," Sue said.
As the older woman left the room, Charlotte moved to the bed and sat down on the edge. Was she actually going to do this? Seduce Nate? She hadn't seen him in years. What if she wasn't even attracted to him anymore?
What if he wasn't attracted to her?
She pictured Nate at eighteen. His thick hair, the color of dark, liquid chocolate. Those smoky gray eyes, a sparkling silver when he laughed, an overcast evening when he brooded. As a teenager he'd been tall and lanky but muscular, thanks to his position as tailback of the Paradise Panthers. He'd been the only bright spot in her miserable life. And when he kissed her...
Her toes curled involuntarily. She missed those kisses.
God, what was she doing? Just being back made her feel insecure and miserable, and it would only get worse once she was reunited with her former classmates.
Right, closure. She had to hold on to that. Nate Bishop had ruined her love life, and she wouldn't be able to move on until she faced him again.
Lifting her chin, Charlotte stood up and went to her suitcase. She unzipped it, rummaged around for her makeup case, then marched toward the bathroom.
No backing out now. She'd come here to make Nate rue every word he'd hurled her way fifteen years ago. She was desirable. She could turn him on.
And he had better watch out.