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Rule's Property

By:Lynda Chance

Prologue


Six years before


Closing her eyes, Courtney leaned back in the bathtub and searched for a single hint of happiness. When she came up with nothing, she opened her eyes with a sigh of defeat. Picking up a handful of bubbles, she let them slowly sift through her fingers.

An eighteenth birthday was supposed to be fun, exciting, happy.

For her, the day held none of those things. Since she'd moved into the Rule household the year before, her only goal had been to keep breathing. It wasn't as if she was suicidal, because she wasn't. All she wanted was for time to pass so that the grief in her heart would begin to fade.

She didn't care if her life was boring. Her heart was so full of anguish that it didn't matter to her that she had no close friends nearby. Her sole purpose in life was to keep living, moving forward, day by miserable day. In her heart, she realized that she was doing little more than existing, not truly living her life. Still, the tiniest glimmer of hope remained that one day, she'd be able to finally want to live again, that she'd find love and happiness, that finally, she'd no longer be so alone.

She inhaled deeply and held the air in her lungs. Closing her eyes, she sank underneath the water and began to count. How long could she hold her breath? Did it even matter? When exactly would her life get better? When would the pain lessen and the shock begin to recede?

Losing one's parents at such an early age couldn't be anything less than devastating, but surely after almost a full year, things should have begun to look better? Of course, she knew it wasn't that simple. She hadn't only lost her parents; she'd been separated from her friends as well, because the Rules lived in St. Louis, far, far away from her home state of Florida. And she'd had no choice but to leave Florida; she had no one else and nowhere to go. Neither of her parents had had siblings, and Courtney had been born so late in their lives that her grandparents were gone as well. She'd been left with no relatives at all . . . no siblings, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins . . . nothing.

She surged to the top of the water and sat up, taking a deep breath, forcing oxygen into her starved lungs.

Everyone here had been so nice to her. Mrs. Rule had been her mother's best friend, as well as Courtney's godmother, and after the accident, she'd taken Courtney in without so much as a blink. "You mustn't ever call me Mrs. Rule, darling. This is your home now and it always will be. My family is your family now, I want you to know that."

"What should I call you?" Courtney remembered asking through a haze of pain.

A look of extreme sympathy had touched the older woman's features as she'd wrapped her arms around Courtney. "I'd offer to let you call me mother, but we both know Jenny was your mother and I can't ever take her place, nor would I want to. Do you want to call me Justine?"

"Okay."

"Even though she was a few years older than me, your mom was my best friend." The older woman had swallowed, as if trying to contain her own pain, looking as if it took everything she had not to cry. She'd cleared her throat and continued quietly, "I loved her like a sister. We'll mourn her and remember her together, shall we?"

Courtney knew it hadn't been as easy on her godmother as the woman had let on; her own husband had died suddenly of a heart attack, only six months before, and Courtney knew that he'd been the love of Justine's life. Courtney tried not to think of herself as a therapeutic pet project for her new guardian, because that wasn't fair to Justine, but sometimes, that's how she felt.

All of Justine's children had already been grown and out of the house when Courtney came to live with her. All three of her sons, as well as her youngest, Erin, who was only a little over a year older than Courtney, but who'd already left for college by the time Courtney came to St. Louis. She visited a lot on the weekends and was nice to Courtney when she saw her. It was as if the other girl was glad someone was at home with Justine, so she didn't have to feel guilty for leaving and going away to college when her mother was still mourning the loss of her husband so intensely.

Courtney admitted that Erin was sweet; every time she saw her, the other girl would try to put her at ease and make her feel as if she'd actually joined their family. Erin teasingly called her 'little sister', as if they shared a deeper connection than they really did.

Erin's brothers were older and Courtney rarely saw them. They ran the family business together, not that they'd had much choice in the matter, not from what she could tell. When their father had died so unexpectedly, they'd accepted responsibility for the corporation, and subsequently, they worked so hard that they were little more than strangers to Courtney. Especially Damian, the oldest. The brunt of the responsibility had landed on his shoulders, and Courtney could count on one hand how many times she'd met him. He either visited his mother when Courtney was at her new school, or he didn't come at all, she didn't know which. And she didn't know the youngest brother, Garrett, any better. He was out of state attending graduate school, evidently being groomed by his older brothers for a corporate position within the company.

And then there was Nick, the middle brother. Her nerves shifted restlessly when she thought of him. She supposed she knew him best because, like Damian, he lived here in St. Louis. But now, at only twenty-four, he was still young enough that his mother worried about his welfare. Justine had taken Courtney several times to his apartment to drop off hot meals or groceries; making sure he was well fed seemed to ease his mother's mind.

No, Courtney didn't know any of the Rule siblings very well. But they would all be here tonight for her birthday supper. Justine had invited so many people, but they were all older, all of them adults, mostly in their late thirties and forties.

Courtney thought it was a sad reflection on her life that she didn't have a solitary friend of her own to share the day with. It was sad, really sad, and unfortunately, it didn't seem to be getting any better.

She took a deep breath and slipped under the water again.











Courtney let herself cry for an hour that evening before washing away the tears and putting on her make-up. Missing her parents was always there, like an open wound in her heart that wouldn't heal. But on her eighteenth birthday, she felt their loss even more intensely.

Knowing she was early but tired of being cooped up in her bedroom, she walked downstairs in the new dress her godmother had insisted she buy. If there was one thing Courtney knew to be true about Justine, it was that the older woman had a sense of style. It was reflected everywhere: in the clothes both she and Courtney wore, and in the home she'd created for her family.

When Courtney saw herself in the mirror wearing the dress for the first time, there'd been little doubt in her mind that she'd left childhood behind. Whether she was ready for it or not, she'd attained her eighteenth birthday, and with it, her status as an adult.

Unfortunately, she found little joy in the transition.

She wandered around downstairs for a few minutes, but she was early for her birthday party, as she'd known she would be, and the only people she found were the caterers and the housekeeper. Forcing animation to her face and a smile to her lips, she thanked them as she looked at all the work they were doing. Leaving the kitchen, she strolled over to the French doors and looked out at the swimming pool, the lights glistening in the dark and sparkling off the water in a shimmery reflection. As she stood staring out, a new knot of anguish settled in her stomach as a familiar, lonely ache washed over her.

As a child growing up, her family hadn't had the same kind of lifestyle the Rules enjoyed. They'd never had a swimming pool in their backyard, but her parents had taken her to a water park every year in the summer; Florida was full of them. As the memories washed over her, a bittersweet smile crossed her features and a tear rolled down her cheek.

She brushed it away and took a sustaining breath and forced her grief to stay below the surface. She couldn't cry again. She only ever let herself cry upstairs in 'her' bedroom, where no one would know the true depths of her misery.

Why tell this wonderful family that she wasn't getting any better? It wasn't as if they could do anything about it. They had their own problems; they were dealing with their own sorrows with the death of Mr. Rule, not to mention the complexities of the business dealings he'd left behind. Courtney especially knew that she couldn't burden Justine. Some days, the poor woman looked as if she was barely holding it together. She took a shuddering breath as another tear escaped to trail down her cheek.

She stiffened her shoulders, refusing to give in to her remorse, and decided to go back up to her room to wait. She turned away from the doors but came to an immediately halt, what she saw making her gasp. Nick Rule stood not four feet away, contemplating her in brooding silence.

The oxygen stalled in her throat and she dashed her hands up, trying to wipe away the evidence of her sorrow.

He studied her silently, his brows coming together in a grimace as he undoubtedly saw the tears on her face that she hadn't been able to contain. Standing completely still, Courtney bit her lip and then tried for a smile. It came out rather shaky, and she knew she'd failed miserably. Embarrassed, her gaze left his, as she looked down at the floor, oblivious to his eyes sweeping down her body and then up again.

As she continued to stare at the carpet, his voice came out gruffly, "You all right?"

At the unexpected sympathy she heard in his voice, she closed her eyes in despair and was unable to keep her face from crumpling. As the tears rolled down her cheeks, she answered his question by shaking her head, but then appalled that she was being a burden, she changed direction, nodding her head instead.

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