“I would rather sit on a hill of fire ants in my underwear while eating ghost peppers.” I leaned against the counter and popped a cracker into my mouth. My nose wrinkled. It was one of those multigrain ones that tasted more like cardboard than actual food.
“Isabelle Marie Kipton, I have had just about enough of your snarkiness, young lady.”
But I wasn’t a young lady, at least not in my mother’s estimation. Young ladies were poised and put-together and never questioned the dictates their parents set for them. I questioned everything, never went along easily, and was far too disheveled to gain any sort of approval from my parents.
I stared unblinkingly at my mother, not giving an inch.
“You will sit at that dinner table, and you will be composed and polite to our company.”
I let out a snort. “Like their daughter is composed and polite to me?” Lacey was more like the Devil incarnate, but she wore her pretty, polite mask perfectly. So, my mother might as well have thought she was the Second Coming.
Violet looked up from where she was arranging a platter of hors d’oeuvres. “Lacey snaps back because you bait her. Maybe you two are just more similar than you’d like to admit, and you ruffle each other’s feathers.”
I glanced up at my older sister. The perfect image of the young lady my parents wished I would be, with her impeccably styled hair and future-doctor composure. She might as well have been a stranger. When had that happened? I searched my mind for the date the switch had been flipped, when Violet had gone from friend and confidante, the sister who’d always had my back, to someone I couldn’t even begin to understand most of the time.
“You can be friends with her all you want, Vi. I’ll take a pass on having vicious snakes in my circle.” I glanced at my mother. “Or sharing a dinner table with them.”
Red crept up my mother’s neck and seeped into her face. “What is wrong with you?” I stayed silent. The list of what my mother found wrong with me would take us all night to get through. “That’s it. Hand over your phone.”
My fingers tightened around the edge of the counter. “Are you seriously taking my cell because I don’t want to have dinner with someone who’s awful to me? Who bullies my friends, and is cruel to everyone who isn’t in her little gang of followers? I’ve tried to tell you time and again that she’s not who you think she is.”
My mother held out her hand. “Perhaps if you kept better company, these things wouldn’t be an issue. You are who you spend time with, Isabelle. And those girls you run around with are not what I want for your future.”
My back teeth ground together as I slipped my hand into my back pocket, pulling out the device she’d requested and placing it in her palm. No phone meant no emergency line to my best friends, to Ford, to the people who kept me sane amidst the insanity that my mother brought about. I kept my face carefully blank. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing that she’d impacted me in any way. She didn’t deserve to know she had that power.
“Since you insist on acting childish, you’ll be treated as one. Your curfew is now nine p.m.”
I gave her nothing. I was already a prisoner in this home full of people who’d rather judge me than try and understand where I was coming from. God forbid they actually listen to what I had to say.
My mother let out an exasperated sigh. “Why can’t you be more like Violet? She’s polite and helpful, yet you insist on creating trouble and strife.”
It cut more than it should have. If I’d had a dollar for every time she’d said something similar to me, I’d be able to go to college anywhere I dreamed. “But I’m not like her, am I? So, it’s probably safer that I’m gone when your friends are here. You wouldn’t want them to know just what a disappointment I am, now would you?”
“Iz…” Violet started towards me—to comfort or placate, I wasn’t sure—but I ducked out of her hold. I didn’t want her reassurance. I wanted out of this space that felt too tight, as if the walls were closing in on me.
My dad strode into the kitchen, drawn by the raised voices. “Just let her go, Heather. She’s sixteen, she can choose to skip out on one dinner.”
Mom’s glare cut to my dad, a clear threat of the price he’d pay later for defending me. But he was used to her vindictive streak by now and didn’t waver. She turned back to me. “Fine. Be selfish and immature. It’s not like I should expect anything different from you.”
I didn’t say a word, just snatched a granola bar from the pantry and ran out the back door, out of that suffocating house, and towards freedom.
I hunkered down, burrowing into the scattering of pillows I kept in the old tree house at the back of our property, and turned up the music pumping into my headphones. If the songs were loud enough, I could drown everything out: the frustration, the disappointment, the hurt. But some days, there wasn’t a decibel high enough or a playlist long enough. And nothing could erase my mother’s wrath that I’d be dealing with for weeks to come.
I gazed up at the ceiling of the tree house, to the wild mural I’d been slowly adding to over time. My own secret garden. I’d painstakingly doodled and painted hundreds of flowers, interwoven with gnarled vines, as if I could build my own little world here.
I turned the music up another couple of clicks, softly singing along. Music and art. I could lose myself there. I could feel free for a handful of moments before the world came crashing in again.
I felt a tug on one of my earbuds, and it popped free. I stifled a scream as I took in the dark blond head of hair that appeared in the opening of the floor. My hand flew to my chest as my heart rattled. “Geez, give me a heart attack, why don’t you?”
Ford hoisted himself into the tree house, tanned muscles bunching and flexing with his graceful movements. I swallowed against the dryness in my throat. “My ears are bleeding, Trouble. I thought a cat was being killed up here, but nope”—he shot me a grin—“it’s just you butchering Bob Dylan’s greatest hits.”
I threw one of the pillows beside me at Ford’s head. “Bite your tongue. I have the voice of an angel.”
He scoffed but scooted closer to me, leaning against the wall. “So…”
Ford gave a strand of my hair a quick tug. “You know, the football team started calling me that because of you.”
My eyes went wide. “Oh, man. That makes me ridiculously happy.”
“One of the guys from another team asked me out after a game, assuming they called me that because I was gay.”
Laughter rolled through me, taking over and causing tears to pool in my eyes. “What did you say?”
“I told him I was flattered, but I had a girlfriend.” I arched a brow at him. Ford grinned. “I was flattered, he’s a hell of a cornerback.”
I shook my head. “You’re my favorite.”
Ford tilted his head so that he could meet my gaze. “But you abandoned me to face the firing squad without you?”
I winced. “How bad?”
“Trouble, there is smoke coming out of your mom’s ears. And Lacey, she’s just…” He gave an exaggerated shiver. I covered my face with my hands, shaking my head. Ford knocked his foot against mine, and I peeked out between two fingers. His lips twitched as his blue eyes seemed to sparkle. “Making a stand, or just avoiding?”
Ford’s words made warmth spread through my chest. He understood me better than almost anyone. I let my hands fall away from my face. “I can’t handle Lacey for three solid hours. It’s bad enough I have to deal with her at school nine months out of the year.”
Ford chuckled. “So, you left me to deal with them alone.”
“I’m sure Violet protected you.”
He shook his head, a gentle smile on his face, the one he wore only for my sister. “Vi’s too nice to stand up to either of them.”
A pang of jealousy pierced low in my belly, followed quickly by a flood of guilt. These feelings that had built over the past couple of years made me feel like a horrible human being. I cleared my throat. “Probably better that way, wouldn’t want her to lose a hand. Lacey’s liable to bite it off.”
Instead of laughing like I thought he would, Ford studied me carefully. “Things getting worse?”
I pushed myself up against the pillows, letting out a sound of frustration. “Mom is making it worse by trying to force some weird friendship when she knows we don’t get along.” Not getting along was the understatement of the year. No, of a lifetime. Because that’s precisely how long Lacey Hotchkiss had seemed to despise my two best friends and me. And in typical mean-girl fashion, she had made sure that the rest of our classmates knew all the ways she found us lacking.
“But she’s never made you run before.” Of course, Ford knew there was more. “Talk to me, Trouble.”
I hated the tears that gathered at the corners of my eyes. I bit the inside of my cheek to fight them off until the metallic taste of blood filled my mouth. “She stole my clothes.”
Ford’s brows drew together. “What are you talking about?”
I toyed with a tassel on one of my pillows, braiding and unbraiding the strands, unable to meet his gaze. “At the beach last week. I was changing in one of the stalls. I hung my bathing suit over the door, and when I bent down to get my bag, she pulled it out from under the stall while one of her minions grabbed my suit.”
A muscle in Ford’s cheek seemed to flicker. “What did you do?”
I’d been freezing and terrified. All I could think about was if I’d have to walk out there stark-naked to try and find my friends. I stood there for thirty minutes before they found me. “Caelyn and Kenna finally came looking for me. Luckily, between the two of them, they had an extra shirt and shorts.” But I’d had to walk home with no bra or underwear. I’d felt oddly vulnerable. A memory of the tears I’d fought the whole way home had anger simmering in my belly.
“This isn’t okay. Why didn’t you tell me? Or your parents? Or Vi?”
I released my hold on the tassel. “I didn’t want to put you in the middle again. And my bag was sitting on the front steps when I got home. They’d never have believed me.” They never had before. And Violet had her head stuck in the sand about Lacey.
Ford knocked his knee against mine. “I’m sorry, Trouble. I hate that Vi and I are leaving you here to deal with this on your own.”
I forced a bit of brightness into my tone that I didn’t feel. “You guys have to go and get educated. I don’t want a bunch of idiots for a sister and brother-in-law.”
Ford chuckled and tousled my hair. He and my sister weren’t engaged yet, but it was a running joke that I called him my brother-in-law because it was only a matter of time. But that wasn’t the truth of it. I used the nickname to remind myself of how Ford saw me—as a little sister. To remind myself of what he would always be to me. A brother. The only problem was, he didn’t feel like any sort of brother. He felt like something else entirely. Stupid freaking hormones. I was blaming it all on puberty. It had ruined everything.
I glanced up at Ford, a lock of his hair sweeping over his forehead in that perfect way it did. “Are you getting excited?”
He gave a little shrug. “Mostly. Sometimes, I wish we were going farther than just Seattle.”
“Why don’t you? You guys can always transfer next year.”
“Vi doesn’t want to stray too far from home.”
I rolled my eyes. My sister always played it safe, did everything by the rules. And Seattle University was the closest college she could find to our tiny island off the coast of Washington. “Is it because my parents want her to stay close?” She almost always did what they asked of her. Ford was her one big rebellion. They had never been crazy about him, had thought she could do better, but he’d worn them down over time. How could he not? Even people as blind as my parents had to see how much he adored my sister.
Ford cleared his throat. “I think it’s partly that, partly that she doesn’t want to be so far away from everything she knows, everything that’s comfortable.”
I groaned. “I’m sorry, Cupcake. You deserve to have some adventures.” I’d give anything to get off this tiny island and experience more of the world, to feel…free.
“I bet I’ll be able to bring her around. Not in time for this semester, but maybe the next.”
“If anyone can, it’s you.”
Ford toyed with the edge of a pillow. “What about you? Any ideas where you’ll apply?”
I had two years left at Anchor High, but I’d started sending away for college brochures when I was a freshman. “Anywhere that’s not here.”
Ford chuckled as a blond head poked through the door in the floor. My sister eyed us both for a moment and then let out an exasperated sigh. “I should’ve known the duo of destruction would be in their secret hideout.”
I gave a shrug and did my best to curve my mouth into a smile. “Hey, I offered to make it the trio of terror, but you always refuse to go on our missions.”
Violet shook her head as she crawled into the tree house and settled on my other side. “I just didn’t want a rap sheet at the tender age of ten.”
I let out a laugh. “Toilet-papering Lacey’s bike with Ford was worth a month of grounding.”
Violet looked towards our house. “You’d think they’d have learned by now that it’s not smart to try and force you two together.”
“She stole my prized Polly Pocket and wouldn’t give it back. The toilet-papering was justified.”
Vi let out a light laugh, dainty and beautiful, just like she was. “Maybe it’s better to play along and let Mom and Dad think you’re toeing the line. Would that be so bad?”
I bit down on my bottom lip. “Yes, it would be.” I looked up to meet my sister’s gaze. She just didn’t get it. “They want me to have acceptable friends. To them, the daughter of a lawyer is appropriate, no matter how much of a raving bitch she is.” Because as awful as Lacey was to me, she was even worse to Kenna for some reason, and I would never let someone into my life who hurt my best friend, even if it was only for show.
A hint of annoyance flashed across Violet’s expression. “Please don’t call her that. I know you two don’t get along, but she’s my friend.”
Ford shifted in his seat. “Vi, I don’t know if you have the whole picture.”
Her gaze snapped to him. “I don’t think you do either. Iz eggs Lacey on, and Lacey isn’t as tough as she seems. It hurts her feelings.”
“Guys, stop. I can handle Lacey. And I can handle Mom and Dad.”
Violet looked back at me. “By hiding away and making Mom so mad, it looks like she’s going to explode?”
I let my head fall against the wall of the tree house. “Okay, that might not have been my best plan.”
Annoyance made pinpricks dance across my skin. “I can’t just go along with whatever they want like you do. I’m not built that way. They should be happy they have one perfect daughter and let me go my own way.”
Violet’s eyes widened as if I had struck her. She even fought perfectly. Never raised her voice, simply let her hurt shine through, making me feel as if I’d kicked a defenseless puppy. “I’m not perfect,” she whispered.
“Damn near. Close enough,” I grumbled.
Ford sat up, shifting towards Violet, and I immediately felt the loss of his presence. His warmth, his comfort, his strength. “All right, ladies, you’re both perfect in my eyes, but let’s focus on what’s truly important right now…food.”
His statement startled a laugh out of me. “Food?”
“Yup.” He patted his stomach. “I just had to sit through a meal of ridiculously fancy rabbit food that maybe filled an eighth of my stomach, and Trouble hasn’t had any dinner at all. What do you say I take my ladies to The Catch for some greasy goodness?”
“I don’t know, Ford, my parents—” Violet stopped speaking at Ford’s look and then started again. “I’ll talk to them.”
I bumped my sister’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
Vi shook her head but gave a small smile and then scooted towards the opening. “You guys meet me at the car. It’ll probably go over smoother if I talk to them alone.”
This was the sister I missed, the one who was always on my side even if she didn’t understand where I was coming from. “Hey, sissy?” She looked back at me. “I love you the mostest.”
“Love you the mosterest.” She winked as she disappeared down the ladder.
Ford stood, and I followed, carefully making our way down the side of the tree. When we reached the bottom, I saw that it was starting to rain, one of those perfect summer storms. We dashed to Ford’s SUV and jumped in. He glanced over at me. “She just wants the best for you. You know that, right?”
I dug my fingernails into my palms. “I know. It’s just exhausting sometimes.”
“Living in someone else’s shadow.”
Ford reached over and squeezed my knee. “It’s impossible for you to live in someone’s shadow, Iz. You shine way too damn bright. You’re both your own unique brand of perfect.”
That familiar warmth lit in me again. When the world made you feel dull, it was such a gift to have someone who thought you shined.
The back door opened, and the spell was broken. Ford released his hold on me and turned to face Violet, who slid into the backseat. “I face the parentals for you, and you steal shotgun?”
I let out a laugh. “Hey. You snooze, you lose.” I pressed my lips together. “They’re letting us go?”
“After some convincing. You’re on dish duty for a month.”
I sighed. “Could be worse.”
Ford turned the key in the ignition, flipping on the windshield wipers and then backing out of the driveway. “Hopefully, this rain means people will stay home, and we won’t have to wait long for a table.”
There weren’t a lot of restaurant options on an island of fifteen hundred people, and The Catch Bar & Restaurant was a local favorite. “Ford, your family owns the place, I really don’t think we’ll have to wait.”
He chuckled. “If my dad’s working, he’ll make sure every paying customer gets seated before us.”
“I think it’s nice how committed your dad is to giving everyone great service,” Violet said.
Ford snorted. “Nice, except when I’m starving. Remind me to eat before I come to one of your parents’ shindigs again.”
“I’ll make sure to pack you a snack next time.”
Ford grinned into the rearview mirror. “I love you, babe.”
Their banter and the pet names had my stomach churning. I tried to tune them out, to get lost in the rain streaking down my window and the forest zooming past as we skirted the island. A flash of something appeared in the corner of my vision. “Ford!”
The deer launched itself into the road as Ford slammed on the brakes. Everything slowed. Moments marked by heartbeats between breaths. The SUV spun towards the cliff. I lost all sense of direction. Another vehicle’s horn blared. Headlights flashed. Someone screamed. It might’ve been me, but I couldn’t be sure.
There was a deafening crunch, and then blinding pain. Fire seemed to lick my skin, but there were no flames, only shattered glass and twisted metal. I tried to keep my breaths shallow, it seemed to help the burning. “Sissy? Ford?” There was no answer.
I twisted in my seat, the panic fighting off the pain. “Ford?”
His head was slumped at an unnatural angle, and my heart seemed to ricochet around in my chest. “No, please no.” I reached out a shaky hand, pressing two fingers to his neck. The steady thump against the pads of my fingertips was the best feeling I’d ever experienced.
“Isabelle?” I turned at the hoarse sound of Violet’s voice. My breath caught in my throat as I took in the blood coating the side of her face.
“I’m here.” I reached back to grab her hand, the action causing fire to blaze along my ribs. I cried out.
“I feel funny.”
“It’s going to be okay.” Sirens sounded in the distance. That was good. That meant help. “Vi, what hurts?” There was no answer, and my gaze shot back to my sister. “Vi!” Her eyes fluttered. “You have to stay awake, Violet.” That’s what they always said in those medical dramas.
Her eyes opened, but her body seemed to go rigid, as if she were having a small seizure. And then…nothing. Silence but for the far-off sirens and the pounding of the rain. Silence as my sister stared back at me, eyes unnaturally wide and unblinking. Silence as I watched my sister slip from this Earth.
“Don’t you feel so much better starting your day like this?” Caelyn beamed as she rolled up her yoga mat.
Kenna scowled down at her own mat. “I’m not sure how twisting yourself into a pretzel is supposed to help you find inner peace.”
I stifled a laugh. “It makes her happy to give us these classes, so just roll with it.” I liked yoga just fine, but I loved how happy these mornings made Caelyn. It didn’t hurt that we held the sessions in a park overlooking one of Anchor Island’s most gorgeous beaches. The expanse of grass where we placed our mats dipped and rolled until it met up with a rocky shoreline, the coast ebbing and flowing from gray beaches to craggy cliffsides. The salty sea air that drifted in was a balm to any wound.
“I don’t even work up a sweat,” Kenna groused.
Caelyn wrapped an arm around Kenna, making her bristle. “Not everything is about pushing your body to its breaking point. But, trust me, your muscles are getting stronger because of this practice, and so is your spirit.”
“Sure, sure, oh Zen one.” Kenna shrugged off Caelyn’s arm and went back to rolling up her mat, making sure the edges were perfectly even before placing it in her bag.
I pinched her butt, and she squealed, whirling on me. I shrugged with a grin. “Serves you right for being so grumpy.”
“I’m not grumpy. I’m just stressed.”
I eased myself down onto the grass to roll up my own mat. “What’s going on?” I gave her hand a little tug when she didn’t answer.
Kenna sighed but sat, Caelyn doing the same. “One of the accountants from the Shelter Island office is out on medical leave, and I agreed to take on a handful of her clients. It’s more work than I thought it would be.”
Caelyn and I shared a look, but Kenna held up a hand before we could say anything. “I don’t want to hear it.”
I gave her my most angelic smile. “What? That you work too hard? That you’re going to give yourself an ulcer? That you have no life?”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Some friend you are.”
“Real friends speak the truth.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine. It’s only for another month or two.”
Caelyn reached over and squeezed Kenna’s knee. “Just let me know what I can do to help. I can do the grocery shopping for you and Harriet when I go for myself and the tiny terrors.”
Kenna’s expression gentled, and she shook her head. “You’ve got enough on your plate. I can handle this.”
Both my friends had more than their fair share on their respective plates because while they appeared as different as night and day—Kenna with her sleek brown hair and perfectly styled athleisure outfit, and Caelyn with her wrists full of mismatched bracelets and hair in a wild pile atop her head—they were more similar than anyone would’ve guessed. They gave and gave and gave some more. Kenna caring for the woman who’d raised her from the age of eleven when Kenna’s own mother couldn’t be bothered with the responsibility. And Caelyn giving up college and her dreams to come back to the island to raise her siblings when they had been removed from her parents’ custody.
I slapped my hands down on my knees. “Ladies, divide and conquer. I’ve got grocery shopping for both of you this month. Email me your lists on Tuesdays.” I turned to Kenna. “If Harriet has any doctors’ appointments, just make sure they’re in the morning, and I can take her.”
Caelyn ran her hands over the lush grass beneath us. “And I can cook dinner for you and Harriet. Just swing by my place on your way home from work, and I’ll have some containers ready to go for you.”
Kenna’s lips pressed into a thin line. “You guys are making me feel like a slacker.”
“Oh, please.” Caelyn waved a hand in front of her face. “Says the girl who’s done my taxes for free every year since you graduated.”
“It’s not nothing.” Caelyn cut her off. “It’s friends helping however they can.” She looked from Kenna to me, her eyes misting. “It’s what we do, right?”
“Damn straight.” I pushed to my feet and reached out a hand to each of the women who were more like sisters than friends. Women who had seen me through my darkest days and walked alongside me through it all. “Now that we’ve got everything settled, I need to get home so I can shower before I get started on inventory at the bar.” The scar tissue along my ribs pulled as I dragged the girls to their feet. I ignored it and the reminder the twinge brought.
I gave them both quick hugs and headed for my car. The ocean breeze caught my hair, the blond strands blowing in my face. I pulled them back, capturing them in a quick topknot before climbing behind the wheel.
Pulling out, I rolled my window down as I guided my car through the winding island roads, needing another hit of the sea air. Anchor Island was a small place, with less than two thousand people in the off-season. If you’d lived here for longer than a year, you knew just about everyone. It was both a blessing and a curse.
When I’d left for college with Caelyn and Kenna, I’d sworn never to return. Now, I knew never to make vows like that because the Universe was a fickle creature, and she liked to make you eat those kinds of promises. With three kids under her care, Caelyn had needed all the help she could get, so as soon as Kenna and I graduated, we’d headed straight back to Anchor.
The Hardys, looking out for me like always, had offered me a job at The Catch, as well as the apartment over the bar. I’d been there ever since. Having them made me feel like I hadn’t lost it all that summer night over a decade ago. And I liked helping them as much as I could, even if it meant setting aside my own dreams for the moment.
I’d been pulling double shifts since Frank’s stroke last year. Trying to cover as much ground as I could so that Hunter, the brother who hadn’t abandoned his family in their time of need, was still able to run his construction business, and Kara wasn’t worried to death about both her husband and the bar.
Hunter had told me that he was working on getting me some help, but I had no idea where he would find it. We simply didn’t have the budget to hire someone to work enough hours to make a real difference. I turned onto Main Street and grinned. Shopkeepers were out in full force today doing spring prep: filling planters, touching up paint, anything to attract those tourist dollars.
The mixture of craftsman, Victorian, and old-timey brick buildings was only one of the many things visiting folks loved about Anchor. However, the charm of downtown wasn’t lost on me either. The island might be a reminder of my most painful memories, but it also housed all my very best ones, too. And unlike other people in my life, I wasn’t willing to lose the good memories just to keep out reminders of the bad.
I pulled into a reserved parking place at the back of the two-story brick building with The Catch painted in a large, artful white font on the side that was a stone’s throw from the rocky beach. I grabbed my bag from the passenger’s seat and headed for the staircase that climbed the stone facade. I really needed some twinkle lights or something fun for the stairs. I’d decorated my balcony with lights and plants, but the steps had no personality. I put it on my mental list to remedy that soon.
I unlocked the door and pushed it open. Glancing at the large clock on the wall, I winced. I hurried through my shower but took time to blow-dry my hair, so I didn’t end up with pneumonia. That was the last thing I needed.
I switched off the hair dryer, running my fingers through the soft waves that fell just past my shoulders, dusting along my collarbone and meeting up with the blossom-filled vines that curved around one shoulder. I pressed my palm against one of the violet blossoms that arose from an especially vicious scar. I squeezed my eyes closed. “Miss you, sissy.”
I thought of her almost every day, but it was especially strong around birthdays and anniversaries. And tomorrow was the day we should’ve been celebrating with her favorite ice cream cake from Two Scoops.
I took a deep breath, opening my eyes, making myself take in my appearance, forcing myself to look at the scars. They were beautiful in their own way. I’d made them that way, designing tattoos that didn’t cover the scars but wove around them. Images that honored my sister and me. Magical vines that sprouted violets and bluebells.
The process had taken weeks. Painful hours on a bed in a tattoo shop in Seattle. But it had been worth it. Because when I looked at my body now, I didn’t just see pain. I remembered my sister and how much we had loved each other, even if we had been as different as night and day. I pressed my palm harder against the violet that lay just above my heart. I wished we would’ve had a chance to rediscover the closeness we’d had when we were younger.
I broke my stare with the mirror and headed for my bedroom. I pulled clothes from a dresser I’d picked up at a garage sale for ten bucks and refurbished. There was almost nothing in my space that didn’t hold meaning. I’d spent too many years in a house that held so little of it. I wanted my home to be an extension of me. That typically came from pouring sweat equity into each piece of furniture and decorating my space with photos, personal art, and plants.
I pulled on a pair of jeans and a worn tee that hugged my curves. Slipping on a pair of boots, I was ready to go. I reached for my phone to check the time, but it wasn’t in its usual spot on the dresser. Shit. I must’ve left it in the car.
I grabbed my keys and headed for the back door. As I pulled it open, my steps faltered, the sight in front of me a sucker punch in the same way it was every year. I bent down to pick up the bouquet of violets and the envelope. I inhaled deeply, the sweet scent of the blooms wrapping around me, both painful and a comfort.
I slipped a finger under the seal and carefully ripped it open, wondering what memory I’d get this year. There was never a note, only a bouquet of violets and a copy of an old photo of my sister. I had no idea who brought them, but I’d gotten them every year since Violet’s death, always sometime the week of her birthday. For a couple of years, I’d thought it was Ford, his way of comforting me from afar, but I’d given up on that silly hope and started to just appreciate the gesture for what it was. Marking a life that had meant so much to me. Honoring all the memories she’d left behind.
I pulled out the glossy paper and let out a strangled laugh. The photo was one of my favorites from the memorial website my parents had created for Vi. It had been taken after Violet and I had worked on an art project in the back yard. My mother had given us each an old shirt of my father’s to wear as a smock. Violet’s had two or three small smears of paint. Mine, on the other hand? It was covered in every color of the rainbow. There was even paint on my face and in my hair. It was so perfectly…us.
A pang hit my heart, a crack of energy that was both agony and gratitude. That potent mixture almost brought me to my knees. I clutched the photo to my chest and took a deep breath. I had to trust that Vi knew the truth, that I desperately missed her, even though we hadn’t been in the best place as sisters when she died. I needed to trust that wherever Violet was, she knew that I loved her.
“Hey, Ford!” The girl who called out over the pounding bass looked vaguely familiar. A model maybe? Or an up-and-coming actress?
“Hey, babe.” She batted her eyes, but I kept moving through the bar towards my office. I wound my way through the sea of bodies, careful to avoid tipsy partygoers with precariously balanced drinks.
I pushed open the door to my office, and when it shut behind me, I leaned against it, a whoosh of air expelling from my lungs. Silence. Blessed silence. The choice to soundproof this room had been so worth it.
I pushed off the door and cracked my neck. I was getting too old for this shit. It might be time to move from hands-on management of my bars and clubs to simply startup. Let someone else deal with the headaches of the day-to-day. Maybe I’d take off and travel for a bit. Go visit all my friends, who seemed to have fled Los Angeles over the past couple of years.
I crossed to my desk and eased into the chair. Papers littered the surface in front of me. I rubbed my temples. A vacation. I just needed a vacation. A breather from the everyday monotony of it all. Then I’d find the fun in all of this again. The thought sounded like a lie, even to me.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I stood to pull it out. My brother’s name flashed on the screen, and I winced. My finger hovered for a count of three before I hit accept. “Hey, Hunter. What’s up?”
“You need to come home.”
My blood turned to ice. “Dad?” My voice grew hoarse on the single word. Memories of the call I’d gotten from my hysterical mother, telling me that my father had suffered a stroke, flooded me.
“He’s okay. The same. But I need you to help out at the bar.”
I eased back in the chair, my gut souring. “I can float the bar some money to hire more permanent help.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Ford? This is your family’s legacy. The Catch has been run by a Hardy for generations. We don’t need your fancy Hollywood money, we need you. Or are you too good for your family now, too?”
I gripped the arm of my chair, the sleek metal frame biting into my palm. “You know that’s not why I left.”
Hunter blew out a long breath. “You were never going to be able to avoid this place forever. Mom and Dad miss you, and I can’t keep covering for your ass.”
“I see Mom and Dad plenty.” It was true. I regularly flew them out to LA or some other place they’d been dying to visit, but I hadn’t set foot on the island in years. Shit, it had been over a decade now, eleven years. At first, my parents hadn’t minded. They’d understood. And they’d gotten a kick out of seeing new and exciting places. But over the years, I’d seen the sadness, the disappointment.
“They need their sons. Both of us. I’ve been trying to run the bar and my construction business at the same time, and I just can’t do it anymore. They’re both suffering. It’s time for you to step up.”
A vise tightened around my rib cage. “I can’t.”
Hunter was silent for a few moments. “If you don’t come home, we’re going to have to sell.”
His words seemed to slice at my chest. I hadn’t seen the bar in what felt like forever, but somehow, the idea of losing it, letting go of something else that felt like it was a part of me, was more than I could take. “Okay.”
“Okay?” There was shock in my brother’s voice. Maybe he’d expected me to tell them to sell, but I couldn’t. Because he was right. The Catch was our family’s legacy. I wasn’t going to let them down because I couldn’t deal with the ghosts of my past.
“Yeah, okay. I need a couple of days to close up shop here and get a manager in place at my LA bars. But I’ll be there soon.”
Hunter cleared his throat. “Thanks, man.”
The words seemed to be dragged out of him. And didn’t that make me feel like an asshole? When had things gotten so strained with my brother that thanking me was akin to pulling teeth? “Thank you for all you’ve been doing. I’m sorry I haven’t been pulling my weight.”
“You covered all the medical bills, that helped a lot.”
I heard the unspoken words, “but you haven’t been here.” God, I was a selfish prick. Sure, I’d spent a month in Seattle with my parents when my dad was in the hospital and then a rehab clinic, but as soon as they’d returned to the island, I’d run straight back to LA like the coward I was. I couldn’t pull that this time. I’d just have to hope that I could get the bar back on its feet quickly.
“I won’t leave the hands-on stuff to you anymore, Hunt.” I’d get the pieces we needed in place before I came back to LA so there wasn’t such a heavy load on my brother’s shoulders.
“It’d be a nice change,” he grumbled.
Shit. I had a lot to make up for with my brother. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
“In a few days.”
Hunter hung up without a goodbye, and I let my phone clatter to my desk. A few days. Seventy-two hours to wrap up my life in LA. Four thousand, three hundred, and twenty minutes before I had to face a daily reminder of the cruelest truth. I’d killed the one person I should’ve protected above all others.
“Bell, you here?”
I glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Shit,” I mumbled to myself. It was already past eleven. I’d gotten lost in inventory hell and had made painfully little progress. Between running the orders, managing staff schedules, payroll, and working double shifts more often than I wanted to admit, I needed help. “Back here, Caelyn.” I made my way out of the stockroom and into the bar.
Caelyn grinned at me as she wound her hair into a topknot. “You have the angry-eyes thing going on. Inventory?”
I blew out a breath that sent my hair fluttering around my face. “Yes.”
“You know I would’ve come in early to help.”
I tossed her a rag and scooted a spray bottle across the counter. “I know, but we just can’t swing paying anyone for extra hours right now.”
Caelyn got to work wiping down tables in the central area of the restaurant while I started on the bar top. “Things still tight?”
I bit my bottom lip and nodded. “Hunter says he’s working on getting us some help. Hopefully, that’ll come sooner rather than later.”
“I hope so, too, but you know you don’t have to pay me. I’ll help off the clock. I’m worried about you, Bell. You’re going to run yourself ragged trying to keep this place afloat.”
The concern in her eyes had warmth spreading through me. “Thanks, but I’ve got it handled.”
“Those dark circles under your eyes say otherwise.”
“Says the girl working two jobs and taking her siblings to every extracurricular activity known to man.” Caelyn stuck out her tongue and tossed her rag at me, but I caught it before it could get any nasty cleaning goop on me. “You’re lucky I have catlike reflexes.”
Caelyn smirked. “Maybe I’ll start calling you kitty cat instead of Bell.”
“Only if you want to be on bathroom duty all summer.”
Her mouth fell open. “You wouldn’t.”
I arched a brow at her. “Try me.”
Caelyn shook her head. “You are vicious, woman.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
We worked in a choreographed routine that spoke of all the hours, days, and years we’d been at this. Soon, the lunch rush was upon us. Hank was cooking up orders in the back, and Darlene had joined Caelyn on the floor. There were few restaurants that stayed open year-round, and The Catch had been a staple on Anchor forever. But things had picked up even more since Frank’s stroke. It was the island folks’ way of supporting one of their own when they knew we were struggling to keep our heads above water. But the tourist rush was around the corner, and that should take the pressure off for a while—as long as we could keep up with the demand.
I turned at the familiar voice and grinned, rounding the bar and throwing my arms around the tall, muscled man. “Hunt, I missed your ugly mug. You’ve been working too hard lately.” If the man spent any more time on his construction sites, he was going to start breathing sawdust.
He leaned back. “You wound me. How will I ever go on when you insult me so?”
I let out a laugh and released him, slapping his chest. The action stung my palm, and I scowled at Hunter. “You’ve got too many muscles.” I swore he got more of them every time I saw him, and he was certainly never hurting for female company. But to me, he’d always be like the brother I’d never had. One who’d stepped in when the other male in my life had tucked tail and run.
He laughed. “Sorry?” The word was a question as he shook his head at me. “Do you have a minute? I need to talk to you about something.”
I assessed the bar situation. I had drinks that needed refilling, and at least two groups that looked ready to place their orders. “Give me a few to get this under control, and then I’ll find you. Are you grabbing lunch?”
Hunter nodded, his brown hair that was slightly shaggy on top, falling into his eyes with the motion. He inclined his head towards a booth along the wall. “The boys and I are all here.”
I glanced over to see his core construction crew flirting shamelessly with Caelyn as she took their drink orders. I grinned. “Okay, I’ll be over as soon as I’ve got this handled.”
Hunter headed off to his table, and I refilled beers and sodas as I memorized an order from a couple visiting from Seattle. Apparently, tourist season was starting early this year. Praise the vacation gods. I poured a Guinness with practiced ease as a shadow fell over me.
“What can I get ya?” I asked as I pulled down the tap for another beer and glanced up. The air vanished from my lungs as though one of those vacuum seals had sucked it right out. There was zero oxygen left for my organs, and I couldn’t seem to get my lungs to reinflate so I could take in more.
Blue eyes I could never seem to forget seared me, nailing me to the spot. That same rogue piece of hair fell over his forehead. But the hair itself was darker, no longer quite as blond. And the man was darker, too. I could see it in his eyes, in the way he held himself. The sympathy that flared to life in my chest had fury following close behind. Anger at myself. At him. At the world.
Cool liquid ran over my hand, and the boy I used to know scowled. “Watch what you’re doing.”
I flipped up the tap, and that rage in my chest lit up, spreading throughout my body. “Watch what I’m doing?”
His scowl deepened. “Yeah, you’re wasting beer. Jesus, who has my brother been hiring, idiots?”
I reacted before I could think better of it. I took the dark beer in my hand and upended it right over Ford Hardy’s head.
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