The only thing worse than going back to a town where one's father shot himself ... was trying to start a new life there.
Charlie Aldrich Thornton's hand wobbled a little as she applied her makeup. It was her first day on the job--a job her brother had talked her into. After seven years apart, he felt they should build a relationship. That wasn't so easy considering the twenty-seven before that, they were virtual strangers.
Charlie lowered the mascara wand and glanced at her cousin Dana in the mirror. "Come in."
"How's it going?"
"I'm so damned nervous, my stomach is in knots."
Dana flopped down on the bed, shoving her wine red hair out of her face. "You'll kick ass."
"I haven't ever had a real job in my life," Charlie muttered, putting the mascara away and dragging a brush through her strawberry colored hair. She and Dana had inherited the Van Diver genes from their mothers, but Dana's eyes were golden brown and she had freckles.
Charlie's creamy smooth skin was flushed with tension. "Catalogue modeling was a breeze compared to facing this town. I'm supposed to do writes-ups and advertisements for the businesses mix with the locals. I'll be lucky if they don't lock their doors on me."
"That old scandal with Uncle James has to have died down, Charlie. If Mason has lived here two years without being run out of town, then they'll give you a chance, too."
Yeah, right. Charlie wiped her hands on a tissue and scraped her makeup back into her purse. Her brother wasn't considered a snob. The little princess, that's how they saw her, and not in a good way.
It wasn't like she'd known her privileged life was paid for with dirty money. She hadn't known anything until James committed suicide. Daddy's little girl had been as devastated as anyone else, but people weren't going to believe that.
She turned and smoothed her blouse and picked up the jacket that matched her cream slacks. "I wish he hadn't done this." She looked up at Dana. "I want a relationship with him, too, I honestly do. But getting us back here and springing this on us." Mason had always mingled with people in the town. He'd run all over on that motorcycle, sleeping wherever anyone would put him up for the night.
"All he's done is offer a way for us to start over." Dana shrugged. "Let's face it, after your divorce from Harry the asshole, we weren't exactly living the high life."
Charlie laughed both at the description of her ex and the bald truth. They had shared a tiny apartment while Dana took bartending jobs and Charlie tried to find enough work to pay the rent. They'd been floundering. Of course, her ex from hell hadn't made things any easier.
"Yeah, well this is the last place I'd have chosen to start over." Charlie sat down on the vanity chair. "Mason was the rebel, it was easy for him to come back and open the youth center. He's doing something for the community. I wasn't allowed off these grounds unless it was to ride with Daddy in the parade." She did her little princess wave and rolled her eyes.
Dana chuckled, but insisted, "If I can go work at that center considering my screwed-up family life, then you can handle a job at the town paper. Mason has faith in us for some reason."
"He thinks we can give back what Daddy took away." Charlie stared at her soberly. "Trust and faith and lives that were screwed up because of his dirty dealings, how are we supposed to restore that? How am I? I'm more resented here than anyone."
"You don't know that."
"I do. I realized it when I drove through town and people turned to point and whisper. I knew it when I called Mr. Moffat to accept the job. He kept telling me to focus on business and not let people put me off. If that's not a sign of what's to come, I don't know what is."
"We've talked about this before, Charlie. You have to believe in yourself and not let the divorce or the scandal put you back in that state of denial."
"I was numb."
"No, you just left Uncle James' funeral and shut down. You married Harry before you'd even caught your breath. You're finally trying to deal with reality. You can't apologize for an upbringing. So what are your choices? Mason ran for years; hell, who knows where he's been? He doesn't apologize for anything; he's just doing what he has a right to, living his life."
Charlie stood and walked over to the dormer window. The one she'd looked out and down on the world from as a child. The old Van Diver mansion had been left to Dana and herself through their mothers. They'd given Mason a lifetime right to live there, because neither of them had wanted to.
To this day, she couldn't bring herself to unearth the extent of her father's corruption. She only knew that the bullet he'd put in his head had shattered her world, too--a pretend world of firm rules and rigid decorum that hid a much more sinister reality.
"I wasn't in denial, I was frightened," she admitted. "I'm scared now, too. I'm afraid I'll just prove everyone right. I don't want to fail at running my own life, not at twenty-seven years old."
She shifted her shoulders uneasily. "I don't want to face those old ghosts. It's not just the town. It's the fact I walked away from that funeral and ended up married to someone just like Daddy--someone who did everything for me and expected me to play the same role, the worshipping, well-bred, southern belle. And I did it. Me, a college educated woman, who should have had enough guts to just strike out on her own and face reality."
"Give yourself a break. Hell, I'm thirty and I'm screwed up, but I'm here."
Charlie laughed. "Dana, you're as street smart as Mason. And you're here because you're damned loyal. You should resent me, too."