***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Meg Tilly
Maggie Harris had her cell phone jammed against her right ear, a finger stuffed in her left, but still, Brett’s voice was an indistinct murmur. “Sorry, honey. Could you please speak a little louder? It’s kind of noisy in here.”
That was an understatement. The club was packed with writhing, sweaty bodies undulating to the pounding pulse of the music, not to mention the shrieking laughter of her eight bridesmaids and assorted female family members and friends.
Maggie felt a tug on her arm. It was Carol Endercott from the office, who had been knocking back shooters since they had arrived an hour ago. Maggie didn’t know her well, but the woman’s husband had walked out on her and their kid after ten years of wedded bliss. Probably not the best person to invite to one’s bachelorette party; however, Carol had overheard Maggie and Sarah making plans and Maggie hadn’t had the heart not to include her.
“Magsters,” Carol slurred, leaning close, stumbling slightly. “Come on, girl, off za phone. It’s pardy time!” She wore a big, sloppy smile, her mascara was smeared, and wisps of frizzy blond hair clung to her perspiring face. “Let’s have fuuun!” she bellowed like an elephant in heat.
Maggie held up a finger. One moment, Carol, she mouthed. It’s Brett.
“Ooooh,” Carol said, throwing up her hands and tiptoeing backward, eyes wide, like a cartoon character removing herself from a bomb site. “The luuuvebirds. I bettah give you some privacy, seeing as how yer talkin’ to za fabulous Mr. Nolan!”
“Yes, well . . .” Maggie smiled at Carol. “Thanks. I think I’ll just . . .” She tipped her head toward the bathrooms and started moving past Carol.
“Good idea!” Carol said, giving Maggie a crazy-hard nudge in the ribs and an attempt at a wink. “I’ll tell the gang you’re in za potski having phone sex, so they won’t barge in at an inopportune moment,” she bleated, and lurched off.
“Jeez,” Maggie said, watching her leave. “I am very grateful not to have a drinking problem.”
“Nothing, Brett. Hang on a second,” Maggie said. She started weaving her way through the crowd.
Once she was in the restroom, she heaved a sigh of relief. It was cooler in there, almost peaceful. She could still hear the thump and roar of the music, but it was muffled. “Thank goodness,” she said. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” Brett said, his voice mostly clear, just a little static.
“What time is it?”
“Uh . . . ten fifteen. Look, babe, I wanted to—”
“Ten fifteen! Oh my gosh, we’ve only been here an hour? I’m pooped already. How long do you think I need to stay? Don’t want to be rude or anything. Everyone’s come from so far away. But I gotta say, this going to clubs, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, the meat-market behavior typical of these places? It’s not really me.” Maggie laughed. “Well, you know that better than anyone, don’t you? Honey, I am so glad we met.”
“Yeah, well . . .”
“I can hardly wait until this is over. Maybe I can drop by after, if it’s not too late, and snuggle in bed with you. Oh my goodness, my feet are sore,” Maggie said, slipping off her heels, the polished concrete floor cool and soothing under her feet.
“That might be a problem.”
“I know, right? I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow! I don’t know why I let my sister talk me into those strappy, sparkly heels to finish off my wedding ensemble. I should have stuck with my original idea and bought those glittery Doc Martens. Nobody cares what you’re wearing underneath, and then I’d be comfort—”
“Margaret,” Brett cut in. “I need you to stop talking for a minute. Can you do that?”
“What?” Maggie’s breath caught in her chest. He’d used her formal name, and his voice sounded strange. “Are you all right? Is everything okay? You didn’t get in an accident, did you?”
“No, I’m fine. I just want to—”
“Oh, thank goodness!” A wave of relief rushed through her. “How horrible would that be—you having to hobble up the aisle in your handsome tux on a pair of crutches.”
“Can you shut up for a second? I’ve been trying to tell you something for the last five minutes, but you just keep jabbering on and on.”
Wait. Did Brett just tell me to shut up?
“I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching the last couple months,” Brett said. “And I just . . . I can’t do it.”
Maggie’s stomach lurched as her world, her happy-ever-after future, suddenly swerved off course. She felt both removed from her body and hyperaware of her surroundings, like she was an alien observing the events of her own life. The water dripping from the faucet, the beating of her heart, it all sounded loud, loud, loud. Her mouth tasted like chalk, throat constricted.
“Can’t . . . You can’t do what?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Rosemund Harris asked. There were violet shadows under Maggie’s mother’s eyes, as if she, too, hadn’t been able to sleep for the last three nights.
“I’m totally fine, Mom.” Maggie managed a smile. She glanced at the departure display board. Good. Their flight to Tampa was on time. Another couple minutes and her parents would have no choice but to go through security.
Her sister, Eve, had taken the red-eye back to New York last night, and the plane’s departure had been delayed twice. While they’d waited, Eve had managed to extract a promise that Maggie would go on vacation with her. Who knew what kind of concessions her parents would’ve wiggled out of her had their flight been delayed.
By some miracle Maggie had been able to maintain her composure through contacting the wedding guests, canceling what services she could and donating the rest. She still had to contact the store where she’d registered and arrange to return the enormous pile of gifts so credit cards could be refunded. However, first she needed to sort through the presents so she could personalize the thank-you notes that had to be written. There was too much to do. No way in hell was she going to allow herself to fall apart now and start bawling in the middle of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“I want to kill that son of a bitch,” her dad said. Her dad had always been even-tempered and slow to anger, but he was angry now. She could tell by his voice.
Maggie dragged her gaze from the departure board to where her dad stood beside her mom. Bill Harris’s large hands, hardened by years of construction work, were clenched, and worry had etched deeper grooves in the lines on his face.
“Dad,” Maggie said, reaching out and patting his arm, “really, it’s all right.” Her parents looked at least five years older than they had a week ago, and for that alone, she wanted to kill the bastard herself. “I’m just sorry you flew all this way for nothing—”
“Nonsense,” her dad said, his voice gruff.
“We’re grateful we were here,” Rosemund said, pulling Maggie in for a hug. Her mom was small, a tiny bird of a woman, but seriously strong for a woman of any age, let alone one in her sixties. All those years pitching in on sites, running wiring, lugging pipes, installing pot-lights, had kept not just her mom but the whole family fit.
Maggie felt her dad’s arms encircle the two of them. A part of her longed to give herself over to the comfort of her parents’ support, but she couldn’t. She didn’t want to shatter. “Not every occasion,” her mom continued as if Maggie weren’t standing stiffly in her arms, “is going to be a happy one. But it’s the spending of time, the sharing of experiences, that is the glue that bonds a family together.”
The boarding announcement for the flight to Tampa came over the loudspeaker just in time. Maggie blinked her eyes hard and pulled away. “You gotta go,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “You don’t want to miss your flight.”
There was a final hasty hug, and then her parents left, turning to wave a few times before disappearing from sight.
“Don’t you think you are being a little unreasonable?” Brett said, leaning forward and steepling his tanned, manicured fingers on the desk in front of him. Their desk. He was smiling that smile that used to make her melt. Funny how two weeks of hell can change one’s perceptions, she mused. She’d always thought he blow-dried his “sun-streaked” blond hair a little too poofy, but she had never noticed before just how practiced his smile was.
Her sister had. “He’s too slick,” Eve had said when she’d first met him. “Too smooth. I don’t trust him.”
Maggie had waved her worries aside. “Are you kidding? He’s perfect.”
“Yes, and that’s what worries me, because no one—Maggie, look at me—no one is perfect.”
And now, standing in the Camelback East Village office that she and Brett had shared, she saw what Eve had seen all those years ago. Five years and four months of her life Maggie had wasted on this narcissistic, insensitive creep. A frigging five-year engagement. Ha! That should have been a clue.
“Just because I decided I didn’t want to marry you doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue working with you. We’re a great team. I’m the ideas man and you implement all the details. Take that derelict church, for instance. Turning it into a high-end condo development was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. Presales are moving extremely well. Yes, I know you’re doing a lot of work, but we’re going to make a shitload of money on this one. Comfort Homes is just starting to hit the big leagues. Seriously, sweetie, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“First,” Maggie said, holding up her hand, palm thrust out like a traffic cop. “I am not your ‘sweetie.’ Second, even you, with your pin-sized brain, must know that calling off a wedding the night before it’s supposed to occur would not, under any circumstances, be classified as a molehill!”
Brett opened his mouth to speak, but Maggie steamrollered right over him. “If you were having all these doubts, why did you insist on making it such a big event? I wanted something small and intimate, but no! You felt it was necessary to invite three hundred and eighty-six friends, family members, and business colleagues to our wedding! Some of them could ill afford to fly themselves out here and put themselves up in a hotel, but they did it because they wanted to show us their love and support. My mom and dad rebooked their world cruise vacation because they wanted to be here for our special day. Did that even cross your mind, how you inconvenienced so many people? Then you get cold feet, and you don’t even have the balls to stand up like a man and let people know. What a jerk!”
“A guy’s entitled to—”
“You are entitled to nothing. Not after leaving me to make excuses and explanations and to settle the accounts. Oh, by the way, did you and Kristal enjoy our honeymoon holiday?”
“Yes, I know all about that. Carol enlightened me. Amazing how loose the lips of everyone at the office got once the shit hit the fan. I gather your little fling has been going on for some time. The silver lining, I suppose, is that I finally understand why you pushed so hard for her to get the VP sales position.” Maggie had been trying to keep her voice calm and modulated, to present herself as a woman in control, but it wasn’t working. She could feel the deep waves of anger rising. “Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy boy, but this?” she said, swirling her hands in the air. And it was as if the movement lit a match to the dynamite stockpiled in the pit of her stomach, because she heard herself bellow, “WAS NOT a frigging MOLEHILL!”
Brett shifted uncomfortably. “Toots, come on. You’re being unduly harsh—”
Eyes narrowed, Maggie snatched the John Fitzstien metal sculpture from the desk and brandished it. “Don’t you ‘toots’ me, you son of a bitch, or I’ll bash your brains out and enjoy every second of it.”
Brett shut up.
“Now,” Maggie continued, slamming the sculpture down on the desk with a satisfying thunk and enjoying the nervous expression on his face way more than she should. “This is the way it’s going to go down. Either you buy my half of the company, at fair market value—”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re the one who wants to walk away. So leave. No reason I should be penalized and give you half of my company—”
“—just because your feelings got hurt,” Brett continued, shrugging. “I understand. I’d be emotional, too, if I was going to be missing out on all of this,” Brett said, gesturing to himself.
“Why, you self-satisfied, pompous peacock,” Maggie said, shaking her head. She couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy. “Yes, I am feeling a little emotional, but not because I’m going to miss you. Was it painful? Yes, but I’m glad my blinders were ripped off. I am angry I had such terrible judgment and didn’t see through you. I am pissed off that I let you talk me into plowing my entire inheritance from Great-aunt Clare into the start-up costs for this company. Our company. It’s amazing to me that I never noticed the timing between her death and our engagement.” Maggie had thrown that last comment in, hoping that she was wrong. That there had been something genuine in their relationship and that it hadn’t been all about money. Maybe Brett had truly wanted to marry her, and the timing of her inheritance and his sudden desire to get engaged and start their own company was a coincidence. But she could see from the expression on his face that it wasn’t.
Maggie had thought she was fine. Now that the blinders had been ripped from her eyes, any kind of emotional tie would no longer have its talons sunk into her. But the knowledge that she had been played all those years was like a fist to the gut. “Did you ever love me?” she heard herself whisper.
Damn. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. That was a mistake. She knew it instantly. She could see Brett’s mind ticking over her question, figuring out how to use her vulnerability to his advantage. She’d seen him do it many times when they were negotiating contracts for the company.
“Won’t work, Brett,” she said before he could open his mouth. “Don’t even bother.”
He shrugged, giving her that boyish smile that used to make her go weak at the knees. “Maggie, come here. You look like you need a hug.”
“Over my dead body,” she said as she took a step back and crossed her arms. “Back to business. The seed money was mine. You didn’t put a red cent into the start-up.”
“I didn’t have—” Brett started to say.
“I don’t want to hear your sob story, and neither do the courts. I’ve put my money and my sweat, blood, and tears into this company. Count your blessings I’m only asking for what we wrote down in the original contract. And yes, I still have it.”
Brett’s fingers were tapping a staccato rhythm on his desk. He always did that when he was irritated.
Maggie didn’t care.
He leaned back in his chair, swiveled right and then left, eyes on her. “We have no idea what the current market value would be.”
“No worries.” Maggie reached into her purse and pulled out a file. “I had ten whole days to cost it out while you and Kristal were frolicking in the sun.” She slapped the file on the desk and slid it over to him.
“Forget it,” Brett said, crossing his arms, shaking his head. “Not going to happen.”
Maggie shrugged. “Either you buy me out, or I’ll talk to Pondstone Inc. They were sniffing around last year, and I’m sure they would love to own my controlling shares. Though I can’t promise they won’t decide you’re useless and toss you out on your highly toned ass. That would be their call.” She arranged her features into a polite, civilized veneer and then straightened up to her full height. “Are we clear?”
“Good.” Maggie dusted off her hands. “I’ll give you a couple days to mull it over. If you decide to move forward with the purchase of my shares, two weeks should be sufficient time to arrange a loan from the bank.”
“Two weeks,” Brett choked out.
“Yup,” Maggie said over her shoulder as she headed toward the door. “Better get cracking.” Her hand closed over the brass doorknob. It was odd to think that after all these years, she would never walk through these offices again. “Oh, wait.” She turned and went back to the desk. “I’m taking this,” she said, scooping up the sculpture and shoving it into her purse. “A souvenir.”
Then she left with her head high. Too bad Mom and Dad couldn’t have seen me in action, she thought. They would’ve been so proud.
Supporting her weight against the boat’s rail, Maggie tilted her head back and shut her eyes, enjoying the late-afternoon sun. She could feel the thrum of the ferry’s engine vibrating through the deck below her feet. The breeze off the Pacific Ocean was brisk, stinging her cheeks and making her snuggle deeper into her sweater. She was grateful for her hat. It was cold almost to the point of discomfort, but still she didn’t go in. Yes, the passenger lounge, with its thick, salt-splashed windows, was heated. But too many people were in there, families and couples laughing and living life, huddled next to the old radiators.
She took a deep breath, filling her body to the very brim, then exhaled and opened her eyes. It was better out here. The view from the top deck was glorious. The deep, green-gray water rushing past the bow of the boat, leaving a frill of white in its wake; the birds spiraling higher and higher, then swooping down again; the purple-blue, shadowy shapes of islands beyond islands; and the sun partway through its downward arch toward the horizon.
“I’m glad I left,” she said out loud, tossing the words onto the wind. Trying to rally the confidence with which she had stormed out of Brett’s office yesterday afternoon, but her throat suddenly felt constricted. “That spoiled trust-fund rich bitch Kristal can have him. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say, because I really don’t care.” And then, inexplicably, her eyes filled with tears and overflowed. It must have been the cold wind, or the sun sparkling too brightly off the water—whatever it was, it was too much to bear. And she had to sit down and give way to the overwhelming sensation, sobs coming hard and fast, ripping through her body.
Luke Benson slid the last batch of bread dough into the retarder-proofer to rise overnight. Some bakers swore that one should proof dough for one and a half to two hours, but Luke preferred the flavor and consistency that occurred with a long, slow rise.
He straightened and rolled his shoulders to release the slight tension that had accumulated there. He glanced out the window. The trail along the bay beckoned. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountainous peak of the neighboring island. Streaks of orange and gold with traces of purple slashed across the sky. He was grateful for the lengthening days that March had brought. It would be forty-five minutes to an hour before darkness descended on his Pacific Northwest paradise, and he felt restless. Years of intense physical training will do that, he thought. Like a damn gerbil in need of a wheel, my body’s desperately craving some kind of physical release.
Since he’d sworn off women after his last train wreck of a relationship detonated in his face a year and a half ago, a hard run would have to suffice.
He grabbed his sweater, slipped it over his head, and exited through the back door. His wolfhound, Samson, was close on his heels.
Rather than go down to the beach, Luke turned right out of the door and took the path that ran along the bluff. It would make for a smoother run. Especially given the dimming light.
He did a couple of stretches, then started at a slow jog, gradually building speed. The old injury in his leg complained violently, but as usual, he ignored it. He knew from experience that it was better to move than to not. For the first five minutes, there was always resistance. It would give way to the pleasure of the run, and he would enjoy the feeling of his lungs expanding. He picked up the pace, the sound of his sneakers making contact with the packed dirt of the trail accelerating, air rushing past him. He could feel his heart pounding, blood surging through his body, his arms and legs slicing through space. Samson galloped ahead, both on and off the trail, coming back to check in and then disappearing again, following some scent or another.
Sometimes they would arrive back at the cottage together. Other times they’d go their separate ways, and Samson would arrive at the door much later, muddy, happy, and uninterested in dinner.
Darkness was starting to settle around Luke, but his body had fallen into a familiar rhythm now, and he was reluctant to turn back. So he kept running. And as he did, his mind drifted past thoughts of the physical exertion to the ferry ride home that afternoon and the woman weeping on the outside upper deck. He didn’t know her. She must have been one of the multitudes of tourists that descended on the island.
It was odd that he’d had the urge to go to her, offer comfort.
He hadn’t. That would have been weird. Clearly, she had gone up there to be by herself.
He’d stayed in his truck. Trying to fix the world was not part of his job description anymore. It was a waste of time. Most things were unfixable. He had sat there on his worn leather seats, Samson beside him, the dog’s large body sprawled across the width of the front seat, his shoulders and shaggy gray head warm and heavy on Luke’s lap.
Luke stumbled over an exposed tree root and lurched forward, causing crippling pain to shoot through his left quadriceps. He managed to catch his balance.
He shook his head. Tripping was unlike him. Usually he was hyperaware of his surroundings. That was the problem with regrets and the past. If one dwelled on them, they could devour the present. A waste of time. Let it go. Be in the present.
Again, Luke was back in his body, aware of his breath and his limbs moving. Thankfully, the strain and burn from the old wound, where the bullet had entered his left thigh and exited again, was easing. This allowed him to focus again on the thump of his sneakers pounding on the path.
But within a few minutes, his mind had veered back to the same woman. I should have gone and offered help, he thought. Solace. No one should have to weep with that intensity alone.
By the time he reached the Point, it was difficult to see. Night had fallen. Fog was rolling in, turning the trees and the Olympic mountain range beyond the bay into blurry charcoal ghosts, silhouettes against the sky. Luke glanced up. Soon, even the moon and stars would be obliterated.
Although he was still heated from running, he could tell that the temperature had dropped considerably. His breath was turning into puffs of condensation as it left his mouth.
“Think we’d best take the road back,” he said to Samson. “No cliff to accidentally plummet off.”
It had seemed like a good idea to stop in the little town and pick up a few supplies. Then, once Maggie arrived at the rental cottage, Rosemary & Time, she could tuck in and wouldn’t have to venture out until after Eve arrived in the morning.
Eve loved vacationing along the Washington Coast. Adored Solace Island and had stayed at Rosemary & Time many times. “It’s magical, Maggs. Just what you need to soothe your aching heart and soul.”
Which Maggie had thought was overpoeticizing the situation. “I’m not sad, Eve,” she had said. “There is no aching going on. I’m angry. There is an enormous difference.”
“Ah . . .” Eve had said.
Like her big sister knew better. Which made Maggie angrier.
However, after her embarrassing meltdown on the ferry, she had to admit that perhaps her sister was right.
It was interesting, actually, because the minute Maggie had driven her car off the ferry and onto the road that led away from the small town of Westford and Westford Harbor, she’d felt something lighten in her chest. The lightness grew as she followed the winding road past craggy mountains, lush valleys, and thick wooded areas.
When she had arrived in the small, picturesque town of Comfort and purchased groceries, she found she was reluctant to leave. The idea of being in an empty, unfamiliar cottage, alone with her thoughts, was more than a little daunting.
One thing had led to another. She enjoyed a delicious organic latte at Solace Given, which was full of warmth and baked goods and chatter. She nursed her drink for as long as she could, savoring the warmth of the mug in her hand, the creamy, spicy goodness as it trickled down her throat, warming her inside and out. When she had drunk the last drop, she went out onto the street and wandered through cute little shops full of whimsy and handcrafted goods.
In hindsight, Maggie realized there’d been flaws in her hanging-out-in-town plan. Who knew it would get so dark while she ambled up and down the aisles, plopping groceries into her cart? Now she was careening down a bumpy dirt road, praying she wouldn’t get a flat tire or end up in a ditch.
She was out in the middle of nowhere alone.
She hadn’t thought to purchase a flashlight or matches and emergency candles. She wished she had. It was kind of spooky. She hadn’t realized just how dense, dark, and looming the forest was. Eve was nuts, vacationing out here. They could die or be carried off by a bear, and it would be years before anyone found their bleached bones.
If only she had located the cottage in daylight, then she wouldn’t have had to deal with not knowing where she was going. Her night vision had never been the best, but out here in the boondocks, it seemed to be practically nonexistent.
Apparently, the good folks of Solace Island didn’t believe in the modern magic of streetlights. Sure, the main town of Comfort had a couple scattered around, but out here? Zilch.
Maggie had also never realized quite how dark the night could get. It certainly never got this pitch black in Phoenix, and the stupid thick fog that had rolled in only exacerbated her vision challenges.
Thank heaven for GPS.
She glanced down at the dashboard of her rental car, and her heart sank.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered.
Yes, the GPS screen was still lit up, but between the last time she had glanced at it and now, it had stopped functioning. It showed a lazy blue arrow sailing in the middle of nothingness. There was the outline of where the land ended. Apparently, the ocean was somewhere to her left, but there were no roads showing up on the GPS. No markings. Nothing.
Really, it was ridiculous for her to feel so surprised. The way things had been unfolding for her in the last few weeks, of course her GPS would malfunction right when she needed it most.
“GPS . . . fiancé . . . what’s next?”
She blew out a puff of air. Tried to make her hands not grip...