It burned. Everywhere and nowhere. Slices in my skin that made it feel as if hot lava had been poured into my flesh. I couldn’t count them, had lost track after the tenth. I tried to move, to somehow escape. Only my fingers twitched.
Sounds. Voices. Hovering above me. They were everywhere and yet nowhere. Pinpricks of light, like glimmering stars on the darkest night.
“Miss? Can you hear me?”
I managed a low moan. I only wanted the pain to stop. The agony tearing through my body. I craved a blanket of nothingness. An endless sea where I would cease to exist altogether.
“I’m an EMT. You’re safe. We’ve got you.”
“Hurts.” It was the only message I cared about getting across. This woman might have the power to lessen the burn.
A hand slipped into mine, blood sliding down my arm to bind us together, the liquid already growing tacky with the passage of time.
“I know. Just hold on.”
I didn’t want to hold on. I wanted to float away to a world where none of this was real. Where pain didn’t exist—only light and peace and relief.
“Can you tell us who did this to you?”
My eyes fluttered. My cracked lips parted. I could only manage two words.
I stepped over a tree root and avoided the rock that was a recipe for a twisted ankle. After three years, my feet knew this path by heart. From the meadow, through the thick forest, to the sea encircling this piece of land. Some people would feel claustrophobic, knowing that they were surrounded by water. It made me feel nothing but safe.
The constant sound of the sea lapping against the shore, the hint of salt in the air. All of it was a balm that soothed the worst of my frayed edges. Assured me I was protected. When I jerked awake from a nightmare, I had only to lean towards my window to strain for the sound of water, inhale deeply for the scent to know I was okay. Only the comfort of my mother’s arms would’ve been better.
I followed the path as it dipped down towards the water, the beach, and the dock. The majesty of the view never got old. The deep blue-green of the water. The other islands in the distance, popping up like forest green sea turtles. I could get lost in it. And if I were lucky, an orca might crest as the beauty held me captive.
I jogged down the steps built into the small cliffside, heading for the boat shed. I flipped the combination on the lock and pulled the doors open. Kayaks lined the walls, along with life jackets, floats, and toys. I grinned at the inflatable unicorn propped up against the corner. Lucy loved the thing. Last summer, she’d spent half her time here, tooling around our little cove, lying on its back.
I was ready for the Dowds to return. It had been months since they’d visited the island. As the kids got more involved in extracurricular activities, it became harder and harder for them to steal away from Seattle for a weekend or week at their vacation home. And as the caretaker for the island, that meant I was alone.
I usually soaked up that peace. It meant I could relax. I didn’t have to guard my words or make sure I wore long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t have to worry about letting something slip that might give me away. I was free.
But as the days dragged into months, the loneliness sometimes caught hold. And the more years that passed with me on this thirty-acre plot of land in the middle of the sea, with only occasional visits from my employer, the loneliness grew fiercer. I gripped the door just a bit harder as I glanced at my exercise mat and weights in the corner of the shed. I usually reserved mornings for my workouts, but maybe today I needed town. The bustle of people, even if I never said a word to any of them.
I snatched up the keys to the boat and made a silent promise to myself that I’d pull the weights out this afternoon. Heading for the Boston Whaler, I checked the waters around our little island. Not too many vessels out and about on this Tuesday morning. I usually avoided the high-traffic times—my nautical prowess was still on the beginner side. But at least I’d become comfortable navigating the massive speedboat to Anchor Island.
Our small chain off the coast of Washington had a number of populated landmasses. Shelter had more shopping options, but I always opted for Anchor whenever possible. Shelter had too many tourists, even in the winter months. I always feared I would run into someone who recognized me. Someone from my old life, or a random stranger that would put two and two together because they’d watched some of the relentless news coverage of my life—the near end of it anyway.
The boat cut through the water with ease, saltwater dancing up in an artful array. The ten-minute trip from Harbor Island to Anchor was over in a blink as I pulled up next to one of the town docks. I tied off the boat and grabbed the bit of cash I always kept in the cabin.
Anchor was still a bit sleepy this morning, but fishermen and a couple of charter tour companies made the dock feel busier than the rest of town. I sidestepped a man hauling a cooler onto his boat. “Morning,” he called.
“Good morning,” I echoed. It had taken me some time to get used to the innate friendliness of the people here. Having grown up in a city, it had made me wary when everyone I passed greeted me. Even worse when someone helped to load my groceries onto my boat. Even now, it was a careful dance. If I protested too much, people became curious. If I let them in too often, they could become overly familiar.
I’d stuck to warm greetings but refused offers of help. I imagined the guys on the dock had decided that I was just a hell of an independent woman. And it was true. I’d worked incredibly hard to build this life for myself, thinking of every possible pitfall and danger. Disappearing without changing one’s name or ID was a challenge, to say the least. But when you had no other options, you got creative.
I headed down the dock and towards The General Store. The island had one of those big grocery stores away from the quaint downtown area, but I preferred the heart of the little brown-shingled market and used it whenever I could. It helped that half my paycheck each month was deposited into my account there. No one could track my spending that way.
I pulled open the door, the warmth of the air soothing the chill that had settled into my skin on the ride over. “Shay!” a voice called from the back.
A smile stretched across my face as I made my way to the small kitchen at the back of the store. “I wasn’t sure you’d be in today.”
Caelyn made a face as she rounded the counter. She looked as if she might hug me but settled for a shoulder squeeze. I tried to let myself relax, but I still wasn’t used to people touching me. It felt awkward and unpracticed.
“I’m still here in the mornings, Monday through Friday.”
“Glad you’re not disappearing on me altogether.”
Caelyn had become my point of human contact—other than the Dowds. We’d formed a friendship of sorts over the past few years. I wasn’t sure that she thought of me as a friend exactly, but casual acquaintanceship for her, was a lifeline to me.
She grinned. “Never. How about a breakfast sandwich? I’ve got your order in the back, too.”
“A breakfast sandwich sounds great.” I slid onto the closest stool.
Caelyn poured an egg mixture into a pan on the stove. “How are things on Harbor?”
“Good. Weather’s taking a turn again, so my days are a little chillier.”
“You’re telling me. I had to force Mia into her coat this morning. The way she dresses, you’d think it was eighty degrees out there.”
I grinned at the image of Caelyn’s little sister refusing to cover one of her brightly colored ensembles with a jacket. “How are the rest of the tiny terrors?”
“They’re good. We all are. It’s taken some time, but things have finally settled down.”
I studied Caelyn’s face. Her expression held nothing but peace and happiness. You never would’ve known the hell she and the siblings she had custody of had been through just months ago. “You know, if you ever need to talk, I’m a good listener.”
Caelyn paused in her chopping and looked up. “Thank you. That means a lot. But I promise, I talked this out until I was blue in the face. Griffin made sure of it.”
“That’s a good man you snagged there.”
She winked at me. “Why do you think I put a ring on him?”
I choked on a laugh. “Because you’re not a stupid woman.”
“Dang straight.” She slid the egg and cheese goodness onto an English muffin and then proceeded to put all other sandwiches to shame by adding her secret blend of spices, some caramelized onions, and arugula. “Here you go.”
My stomach grumbled. “You know, I’ve tried to replicate this at home. I fail every time.”
Caelyn picked up her jar of the spice mixture. “This is the key. I’ll put some in a little jar for you to take home.”
“You’re a goddess.”
“Don’t I know it. But you’ll have to bring me some of your greenhouse tomatoes in exchange. I miss good tomatoes in the winter.”
I picked up my sandwich. “You’ve got yourself a deal. I’ve got a huge crop of them this year.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” The bell over the door jangled. “Let me make sure they don’t need any help. I’ll be right back.”
“Take your time.” I bit into the sandwich and had to hold back a moan. The concoctions Caelyn created were out of this world. She didn’t need the culinary classes she was currently enrolled in. Hell, she could be teaching them.
I forced myself to eat slowly, enjoying every bite. My culinary skills had vastly improved since I’d moved to Harbor, but I couldn’t compete with this. I’d learned how to use the ingredients I grew in the gardens and the greenhouse. I’d mastered creating sauces and stews to freeze for later. And I’d fallen in love with the process of it all. The slower pace of life that existed just a bit outside what the regular world demanded.
My work phone buzzed in my pocket. Pulling it out, I saw an email notification flashing across the screen. Opening the message, I scanned the first few lines and froze.
I hate doing this over email, but I know how spotty cell service is out there. We recently got an offer on Harbor that’s too good to refuse. It breaks our hearts, but the kids want to be on the mainland this summer, and it just doesn’t make sense to keep it if we’ll be spending all our time in Seattle. The good news is the buyer is interested in keeping you on if you can agree on terms for responsibilities and salary. He’s arriving next week. I’m including the number for his assistant below so you can arrange a phone call to discuss things further.
We’ll miss you terribly. Please do keep in touch.
Lots of love,
My hand trembled as I set my phone on the counter. Selling. A new owner. One week. The Dowds had talked about selling before, but they’d never actually gone through with putting the island on the market. I’d thought for sure that if they did move, I’d have time to prepare. To consider all of my options. To plan.
My ribs seemed to tighten, making it just a bit harder to breathe. A million thoughts flew through my head, what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. I reached into my pocket, searching for the small, smooth stone that always grounded me, reminded me that I was safe.
Everything would be fine. The new owner still needed a caretaker. It was rare for someone to live on one of these small private islands full time.
I took a deep, steadying breath. I wouldn’t lose my haven. The one place I’d felt safe since that night eleven years ago. I’d just have to prove how indispensable I could be.
Carson let out a puff of smoke as he leaned back on the chaise lounge, the stream filtering up from my terrace and melting into the New York skyline. “Stop making that face.”
I took a pull from my beer. “What face?”
“The one that says you’re judging me for polluting the air around you.”
I grinned. “You said it, not me.”
“You used to have a pack-a-day habit.”
I grimaced at the reminder. “I was twenty-two and stupid.”
Carson stubbed out his cigarette on the bottom of his combat boot and then laid the butt on the table between us. “Maybe you are made for clean air and country living.”
I played with a frayed thread on my jeans, twisting it around my finger until the digit lost blood supply. “Let’s hope I am.”
“You couldn’t do what a normal person would and take a vacation. No, you had to go off and buy a fucking island.”
The string around my finger snapped. “You know me, go big or go home.”
Carson stayed silent, studying me. My friend of over a decade peeled back layer after layer as he stared. “How can you leave New York? It’s like another limb. It’s seared into our marrow at this point.”
He wasn’t wrong. New York had become a part of me over the years. From the first time I escaped the suburbs of Connecticut and tore through the city with friends leaving our spray-painted tags in our wake, trying to become the next Banksy. Most had grown bored of the hobby the way most teenagers do. But I’d become obsessed. The burning desire to find a way to express everything inside me, the way I saw the world. It took over my life.
I’d left Connecticut for good the moment I could. Abandoning suburbia for the raw realism of the city. It had been everything I’d dreamed of for a long time. All-nighters with friends just as passionate about leaving their mark on the world through art as I was. Not art that was expected, either. Art that had no barriers and talked about real issues.
It was the highest high. Until it wasn’t.
I let the string in my hand fall to the ground. “It’s time for a change.”
“Running across the country won’t change what happened.”
My jaw worked as I struggled to form words. “I know it won’t. I just—I feel trapped. Claustrophobic.”
“Probably because you haven’t left your apartment in three months, other than to talk to the cops.” Carson swung his legs around so he sat up, facing me. “Listen. And really hear me. None of what happened was your fault. I get that it messed with your head. It couldn’t be any other way. But you’re not giving yourself a chance to get over it by locking yourself away, completely alone, thousands of miles away from your friends.”
“There’s a caretaker.”
“I won’t be alone. There’s a caretaker on the island.” We hadn’t actually spoken, but my manager had communicated briefly with the woman. Said that everything was in order for my arrival. But, honestly, I wasn’t sure I could handle having even a single soul in my business.
“Your island came with a person?”
I chuckled. “No, she worked for the previous owners. But she’s staying on with the house if we can come to terms.”
“Jesus. That’s some sort of Downton Abbey shit.”
“That makes you want to come with me, doesn’t it?”
Carson pointed his beer at me. “Don’t start. You know I’ll deck you if you insult Downton.”
I held up both hands. “I would never.”
“That’s better.” He sobered again. “It’s not enough. One random person. I’m worried you’re going to become one of those hoarder hermits. We’ll have to hire a team for an intervention.”
“I solemnly swear not to become a hoarder.”
Carson eyed the door to my apartment. “Not if Lara has anything to say about it. I’m pretty sure she’s planning to airdrop your entire studio onto that new little island of yours.”
I groaned, leaning back against the chaise. “I never should’ve let her handle packing it up.”
“You know she’s like a dog with a bone. Gets even a hint of a grip, and she’s not giving it up for anything.”
It was the perfect description for a woman who looked the opposite of what she was. Petite, delicate, and impeccably dressed, you never expected the colorful curses that escaped her mouth. Or the way she took anyone to task if it got her clients what they and she wanted.
We’d been friends since I arrived in New York at the age of eighteen. She’d run with my crazy crowd but had discovered that she had more talent for wheeling and dealing in the art world than putting paint to surface. Now, almost twenty years later, she handled practically everything for me.
“She’s hoping I’ll keep painting.”
“No shit, Sherlock. You’re the one who keeps her Chelsea penthouse full of Louboutins.”
I took another pull of my beer. “She’ll find another prize pony. It’ll be you if you’re not careful.”
Carson gave an exaggerated shiver. “Too worried she’ll stab me in my sleep.”
“Or maybe you guys will hate-fuck each other and finally stop making my life miserable whenever you’re in the same room together.”
Carson leaned back onto the lounge. “That idea has merit.”
I snorted. “You would solve every problem you could by sleeping with it, just as long as it was female.”
“I have wide and varied tastes in both women and art. So sue me.”
“I don’t know how discerning those tastes are…”
“I like the shit you make, so you’re really just insulting yourself.”
“Fair point.” I was quiet for a moment. “I’ll miss this.”
“You sound like you’re going off to war. No one’s making you leave. I’m sure you could get out of the purchase.”
“I need a change.” But it was more than that. I needed to figure out who I was again, what I truly wanted. And I had to do that away from the prying eyes of New York. I felt as if I couldn’t move here. Couldn’t breathe. And every step I took had the potential to detonate another bomb.
“Fine. Buy a spot upstate. One I can drive to in a couple of hours. You’ll be out of the fray of the city but not cut off from your entire life.”
But I needed that distance. A clean break was the only way to truly start over. “I’m going, Car.”
“Fucking hell. Fine. But when you’re bored as shit in two weeks, don’t come crying to me.”
“I promise, I won’t.”
“I’m gonna miss you too, you asshole.”
I grinned. “You’re going to come visit in a month when I’m settled. Hopefully, we’ll be well into building the studio by then.”
“I am jealous of the space you’ll have.”
Space in New York might as well be made of diamonds. And when you worked on large-scale art the way Carson and I did, it was a commodity you’d shed blood for. “I’m finalizing the designs with the architect now. It’s been a hell of a thing getting to choose every last placement.”
“Let’s hope the new space brings inspiration.”
Carson and I both started at the voice behind us. Carson muttered a curse. “Have you lost the ability to ring the bell?”
Lara held up a glinting piece of metal. “I don’t have to knock. I have a key.”
“Brody could’ve been banging a chick out here.”
Her face screwed up. “He’s not you. He has some decency.”
He gave her a wink. “Come on, Lara. You know you’d kill for a walk on this wild side.”
Her lip curled. “Not if it meant I’d have to be inoculated afterwards.”
I choked on my beer, and Carson speared me with a glare. “Don’t laugh at her jabs.”
Lara crossed to a chair, gracefully lowered herself onto it, and then set her handbag on the table. “He has good taste, what can I say?”
“More like you’ve trained him well,” Carson muttered.
I set my beer on the other side table. “All right, children. Can’t we all just get along?”
Carson gave me a mock pout. “She started it, Dad.”
“Gross,” Lara complained. “I will not be related to you. Not even in a make-believe scenario.”
I sighed, leaning my head against the chaise. “This, I will not miss.”
“I’ll put a hit out on Carson if you agree to stay in New York,” Lara offered.
“No hitman is going to take me out. I’ve got ninja skills.”
Lara rolled her eyes and then turned her focus back to me. “Seriously. We can call off the move.”
“I leave tomorrow.”
She made a pssh sound. “If I can put together a gallery show in forty-eight hours, I can reverse the sale of your condo and studio.”
This had been the refrain for the past month. The first time I’d floated the idea past Lara, she’d nearly lost her mind. She’d told me I would ruin my career. Burn all my bridges. But I didn’t have much of a career at the current juncture. It had all been blown to smithereens. Or the people who were interested in my art only wanted it for some perversely morbid reason.
I hadn’t drawn or painted or done anything in the art realm in months. And I missed it like a phantom limb. This part of me that had ceased to be in a violent tearing. But every time I tried to put even a pencil to paper, I seized up, images of how my art had been turned into something twisted filling my mind.
Lara’s voice brought me out of my spiral. “Sorry. What?”
She shared a look with Carson. This was one area where they were on the same page. “Stay. You need your family right now.”
I gave my head a shake. “I’m going.” I left it at that. I’d tried explaining myself time and again. It never did any good. With either of them. I’d miss Lara and Car. I’d miss the noise and the scents of the city. The chaotic rhythms that came from the life that flowed through this place. My favorite deli on the corner. The local bar my crew and I invaded every Thursday.
New York was massive. But it was also a small town. My town. And it would never stop being a part of me—as much as the skin that stretched across my bones. I would carry it with me always. It was just everything else I needed freedom from. The darkness that had crept into my life when a man had taken my creations and turned them into walking death.
I made my way down the stairs and towards the open living and dining space. One more walk-through. Just to make sure everything was perfect. The cleaning crew had come yesterday, and I’d hovered so much, they’d almost throttled me. I’d already boxed up and sent all of the Dowds’ personal belongings to Seattle. But the new owner was keeping the furniture in the house.
Brody James. The enigma who would hopefully be my new boss. I wiped my hands on my jeans, but my palms simply dampened again. He would like me. No, he would think I was the best caretaker he’d ever encountered.
I’d hounded his assistant, Lara, for a list of his favorite foods. The household brands he preferred. Was there anything she thought he’d need from the mainland that I should order now? The woman probably thought I was a head case.
I wasn’t crazy. I was determined. To stay. My fingers traced the raised scar on my stomach through the thin cotton of my t-shirt. Habit. A way of reminding myself that I could never be too careful. Too much was at stake.
With that in mind, my gaze traveled over the kitchen. I moved to the counter, adjusting the vase of flowers. I already had Mr. James’ favorite beer chilling in the refrigerator. Along with an artfully arranged charcuterie board that only needed to be unwrapped and set out.
Plenty of belongings had been sent ahead. I’d moved all of the boxes marked clothing to the closet. I’d wanted to open them to get a feel for the man by way of his garments but had thought better of it. I doubted he would be prepared for island weather coming from New York. I’d already begun a list of things he’d likely need me to order. A heavy-duty rain jacket, muck boots.
But maybe his lack of preparedness meant that he wouldn’t be spending much time at the estate. I glanced out the wall of windows at the back of the house and knew I was wrong. Four large crates marked studio had arrived, along with the rest of Mr. James’ belongings. No one brought that much stuff if they only planned on staying for the summers and an occasional long weekend or two.
My lips pressed into a firm line as I headed out of the main house and followed the path down the hill. I passed the vegetable garden and the greenhouse. The small chicken coop that provided more than enough fresh eggs. Finally, I arrived at the guest house. My home. My haven.
I pulled open the door, inhaling the soothing scent of lavender from the candle I’d burned earlier in the day. A touchstone. The therapist I’d seen after my attack had advised that I should build as many of them into my daily routine as possible. Things that reminded me I was safe. A scent. A sound. A feeling.
Years later, I’d kept up with the habit. Lavender. The sea. A smooth beach stone. Those things and my music always helped me fight the memories.
Over the past three years, I’d slowly made the small cottage my home. I’d come to it with virtually nothing. The quilt my mother and aunt had made me. My violin. The bare minimum clothing. Photos I couldn’t bear to look at. But bit by bit, I’d infused myself into the space. A painting by a local artist. An antique tray from Second Chances. Stacks of sheet music. It was mine now, and I wouldn’t leave it without a fight.
I crossed to the small desk in the living space and eased into the chair. I hit a few keys on my laptop and signed in. Thankfully, an internet connection was one thing the Dowds had insisted upon when they moved in. Everything else on Harbor was self-sufficient. Solar panels and a generator. A filtration system to remove the salt from our water source. The greenhouse and the chickens. But Paul Dowd had insisted on satellite internet for the estate.
I opened a separate window on my laptop and signed into my virtual private network. My brother had always had a thing for computers, and this was an extra layer of precaution. Because with Michael’s good behavior, he’d been granted more privileges. And one of those was computer access. I’d deleted all of the email addresses and social media accounts associated with my name after the first message I’d received from him. I miss you, sissy. Come visit. We haven’t finished our game.
I shuddered and pulled my fleece tighter around me, zipping it up. As if the warmth of the fabric could chase away the chill of the memories. I logged onto my messaging site and pulled up the latest from my thread with Evergreen13.
Evergreen13: Did you peek in the crates? I would have. What if they’re hiding dead bodies?
I snorted and typed out a reply.
Phoenix26: Things would be smelling a lot worse if there were dead bodies.
Evergreen13: True. You holding up okay? What time does Mr. Enigma get there?
The tension that had turned my shoulders to granite eased a bit. No matter how alone I felt at times, I always had E. I didn’t know her real name or where she was located, but she’d been my lifeline since we met on a messaging thread about how to live under the radar.
I’d been a lurker on the forum for months before finally commenting on a post. Ever since I’d come to terms with the fact that Michael would get out one day. I’d abandoned thoughts of college and conservatory programs. I’d focused on how to stay alive.
And E had been a godsend in that arena. She was far more knowledgeable than I was. Over four years ago, she’d begun giving me advice over a messaging app. Soon, a friendship was born. We didn’t know everything about each other, but with the things that did slip, I was sure we could’ve figured out each other’s identities. But the silent promise between us was that we wouldn’t try.
Phoenix26: I’m fine. A.k.a. slowly going out of my mind trying to make sure everything’s perfect for Enigma’s arrival. And he gets here in…shit…fifteen minutes. I need to go. I want to meet him at the dock when he arrives.
Evergreen13: You’re going to do great, and he’s going to beg you to stay on.
Phoenix26: I hope you’re right. I’ll message you tonight and let you know how it went. Later, gator.
Evergreen13: After a while, crocodile.
I pushed back from the desk and stood. Making a small detour to the closet, I surveyed my appearance. What the heck did you wear to meet your new boss when your job included pulling weeds and cleaning up chicken poop? I was currently going with my favorite pair of jeans—the kind worn so often they automatically molded to your body—a long-sleeved cotton tee, and a fleece jacket. My boots were worn but not falling apart. And my hair was currently swept back in a braid. Makeup had become a thing of the past long ago. Honestly, it would feel weird to put it on now.
I met my eyes in the mirror. The gold flecks in my hazel eyes seemed to stand out today, almost glowing against the green. “You can do this. Professional. Composed. Every detail handled.”
With one last silent promise to myself, I turned away from my reflection and headed out of my guest house and towards the dock. The scent of the salt in the air and the sound of the water did nothing to help calm my nerves. Anxiety took hold and refused to release.
An old mantra took root in my brain. Feel the fear and do it anyway. I’d seen it on one of those arty quote graphics. No idea who’d said it. But it had stayed with me throughout my recovery and after. I couldn’t change whether or not I was scared or anxious, but I could keep moving forward.
I hopped over a root in the path and kept going. Within a few minutes, I was walking across the dock. I ignored the bench in the middle and opted to pace. The movement was at least an outlet for the energy that my anxiety created.
As I walked back and forth, I kept my eyes trained on the water. It wasn’t long before a medium-sized speedboat peeled away from the main waterway and headed in my direction. I swallowed against the dryness in my throat.
The private water taxi pulled up to the dock, and I helped the driver quickly tie off and then took the single bag of luggage he hefted over the side of the boat. “That’s it.” He turned to the man who was currently pushing to his feet from where he’d been sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. “Enjoy your new home.”
“Thank you. I think I will.”
The voice froze me in my tracks. It was deep and younger than I’d expected. I’d pictured a man in his fifties or sixties, someone entering retirement and looking for a brand-new adventure. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I hadn’t even taken the time to run an internet search on my new boss. I’d been too focused on getting the estate in shape and running impeccably before his arrival.
Now, I stood gaping at the man who climbed over the side of the boat. As he moved towards me, I took in his height and broad shoulders, the stubble covering his angular jaw. But it was his eyes that held me captive. Dark and haunting as if they had secrets I desperately wanted to uncover.
His mouth moved into a frown. “You’re Shay?”
I gave myself a swift mental kick and straightened my spine. “Yes, sir. Welcome to Harbor Island.”
“How old are you?”
I could barely hear the question over the boat roaring to life and heading away from the dock. “How old am I?”
His frown deepened. “Yeah. You look like you might not even be old enough to buy beer.”
My cheeks heated. “I’m twenty-three. And I have your favorite ale in the refrigerator, along with a sampling of local brews.”
His gaze traveled over my face as if he thought I might be lying. Not a great start. I cleared my throat. “I assure you, I’m a complete professional. I’ve worked for the Dowds for over three years, and I’m good at my job. If you’ll give me a chance, Mr. James, I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
The lines that bracketed his mouth softened the barest amount. “Fuck. I’m not going to fire you. It just took me by surprise, is all. I was expecting someone in her fifties or something.”
I nodded, my death grip on his bag loosening a fraction. I certainly hadn’t expected a man who looked to be in his mid-thirties. “Thank you. Because I really do love my job.”
Mr. James made a move to take the bag from my hand. “What does a caretaker of an island do anyway?”
“I’ve got this, sir.”
He scowled. “Call me Brody. And I can carry my own bag.”
I reluctantly handed it over. “All right. Well, I arrange for the cleaning staff to come whenever they’re needed. Coordinate maintenance of the buildings. I keep up the grounds—mow the lawn, tend the vegetable garden and greenhouse. I take care of the chickens. I purchase groceries and any necessities and retrieve them from Anchor. I watched the Dowds’ children when the couple needed. I’m pretty much a Jack of all trades. If you need something, I’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”
His lips twitched as he motioned for me to lead the way off the dock. “That could come in handy. Sounds like you’re pretty busy.”
“I am, sir—I mean, Brody.” I bit back a curse. I couldn’t help the desire to use a more formal title. To create some distance between us somehow and make sure things remained completely professional.
“You like living on this island all by yourself? You don’t get lonely? From what I understand, the Dowds weren’t out here all that much.”
The loneliness set in more than I wanted to admit. But no amount of loneliness could make me give up my safety. I couldn’t tell him any of that, though. “I love it here. The peace. The quiet. It’s my favorite place in the world.”
“I hope I feel the same way about it.”
I could feel Brody’s gaze on my back as I climbed, almost hear his mind asking a million silent questions. “I hope you do, too.” Maybe if he’d actually visited Harbor before dropping close to ten million dollars on it, he would’ve been more certain.
“This path runs the entire exterior of the island and has several offshoots that lead up to the main dwelling. If you have any large items delivered, we have a pulley system that we can set up to bring it up to the house.”
“That’s good. Do you know how the solar power system works? I’ve never used one before.”
I kept my gaze focused on the path ahead of me, afraid if I glanced at Brody, I’d trip over my feet. “I do. I can make small repairs on that and the generator. The maintenance teams have been good about teaching me every time they come out.”
Brody made a humming sound in the back of his throat. As we crested the hill and the buildings came into view, he sucked in an audible breath. “It’s gorgeous.”
More of the tension left my muscles. Maybe everything would be fine. Brody would be happy here. I’d make sure he was. He wouldn’t fire me. And when Michael was released, I would be safe. Surrounded by the thing that terrified him more than any other: water.
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