The sound of a phone ringing pulled me out of a deep sleep. I groaned and blinked against the darkness. The only light in the room came from the glow-in-the-dark stars peppered all over my dorm room ceiling. I fumbled around on my nightstand, trying to find the ringing device.
“Turn off your freaking phone before I toss it out the window,” Bell called from across the room. Our other roommate, Kenna, let out a mumbled moan.
“I’m trying.” My fingers found the charger cord, and I tugged the phone onto my bed. Glancing at the screen, my chest squeezed. 1:13 a.m., and Will was calling. I hurried to hit accept. “Will? What’s wrong?”
I’d given my little brother a phone before I left for college. I kept the low-budget mobile topped up with minutes because I needed a way to get in touch with my siblings, and for them to be able to reach me. Our house phone hadn’t worked in years, and my parents weren’t exactly keen on us kids using their cells.
“I don’t know what to do—”
Will’s voice was cut off by a cry. Sobs that could only be coming from my one-year-old sister, Mia, sounded over the line, followed by someone pounding on a door. “You owe me a fucking score, asshole. I paid. Give me my shit!”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “What’s going on? Where are you guys?”
“I’m in the girls’ room. I put a dresser in front of the door, but there’s a guy in the house. He won’t leave.”
The light flicked on, and Bell and Kenna were by my side in a flash, hearing the distress in my voice. I motioned for Bell to grab her phone. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“They’re not here. They haven’t been in days.”
More pounding cut in. “Give me my fucking score or I’ll gut you when I get in there.”
My heart hammered against my ribs in a painful rhythm. “Bell, call the sheriff. Someone’s in the house. Will has himself barricaded with the girls in their room.”
Bell blanched but immediately began dialing. As soon as someone picked up, she started recounting the situation. Kenna eased down next to me on the bed and rubbed my back.
I turned my attention back to Will. “Stay calm, buddy. The police are on their way.” But how long would it take for them to get there? Our small island off the coast of Washington state didn’t have its own dedicated police force. We shared access to a sheriff’s department with the rest of the chain of islands. That meant in an emergency like this one, deputies had to take a boat before they got onto the island.
The tremble in Will’s voice broke something deep inside me. “It’s going to be okay. I’m with you.” More pounding rang out in the background, and Mia started crying harder. “Is Ava holding Mia?”
“Yeah, I put them in the closet.”
My hand fisted in my sheets. My ten-year-old little brother was savvy enough to know he needed to hide his little sisters away. What the hell had my parents been doing since I left for my junior year four months ago? “You’re so smart, Will. And so freaking brave. What’s in front of the door again?”
“I pushed the dresser and then a bed.”
“That’s great. That will keep him out.”
“I hope so.”
God, I did, too. If something happened to my tiny terrors…I tried to force out the horrendous images taking over my mind.
Bell waved a hand at me. “There are two deputies already on Anchor. They’re heading to your place now.”
I gave her a tight nod. I wanted to feel relief, but I couldn’t. Not until I knew, with one hundred percent certainty, that the kids were okay. “Did you hear that? There are deputies coming now. They’re already on Anchor.”
Will sniffed. “Okay.” There was more yelling and pounding, then a cracking sound. “I think the door’s breaking.”
I squeezed my eyes closed, sending up a thousand silent prayers. “Get in the closet with Ava and Mia.”
“I can’t. I have to fight him if he gets in. I have my bat.”
My sweet, brave boy. Tears leaked from my eyes. “He’s not going to get in. Just hold on.”
Shouts sounded across the line. I heard someone yelling that they were from the sheriff’s department and to get down on the floor. There was more screaming and then a shot. The crack of the bullet was so loud, Kenna jerked beside me. All of my muscles locked. “Will, are you okay? What’s happening now?”
“I’m okay. I don’t know.”
“Will, it’s Deputy Raines. Are you okay in there?”
My shoulders sagged in relief. Will answered the deputy in a shaky voice. “We’re okay.”
I heard a door opening, and Mia’s cries got louder, but it was Ava who spoke. “I want Cae Cae.” The sound of her pleading shattered the last piece of my heart still holding itself together.
“I’m gonna be there soon, Ava.”
“Did you hear that, Avs? Caelyn’s coming soon.”
The deputy began speaking again. “We need to take the bad guy out to the patrol car. Then we’ll come back for you.”
“Okay.” Will’s voice sounded stronger now. “I have to move the furniture, Caelyn.”
“Don’t hang up!” I was desperate. This was my one lifeline to my siblings, and I couldn’t let it go. “Put the phone on speaker and lay it on the bed.”
“All right.” Something rustled, and then Will spoke again. “Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you.”
The sounds of furniture being pushed across the carpet, and Will grunting, came over the line. I held my breath until I heard a knock.
“It’s Deputy Raines. Can I come in?”
A door creaked in the background.
“Are you guys okay?” Deputy Raines asked.
“Yeah, we’re okay,” Will answered.
The slight tremor in his voice had me fisting the sheets even tighter. I never should’ve left Anchor. I should’ve simply found the cheapest apartment possible and worked at a bar or a restaurant on the island. But instead, I’d been selfish, desperate to use the scholarship I’d worked so hard for.
Ava’s voice cut into my thoughts. “Can you take us to Cae Cae?”
“Who’s Cae Cae?” Raines asked.
“My sister. She’s on the phone,” Will said.
“Is it all right if I talk to her?”
The phone beeped as he took me off speakerphone. “Ms. O’Connor, we’ve got them. They look scared but are perfectly safe.”
I burst into tears. Through my sobs, I managed to get out, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Of course. We’re going to take them to the sheriff’s station on Shelter.”
“Okay. I’m in Seattle. I go to college here. But I’m going to get over there as fast as I can. Will you take this phone so that you can update me if anything changes?”
“I’ll keep the phone with me. Take a deep breath. They’re going to be fine.”
But that wasn’t completely true. Sure, physically, they were okay. But emotionally? The kids were traumatized. And I didn’t know the first thing about how to heal those wounds. But like with everything else, I’d simply have to find a way. I just had to get to my siblings first.
Ava hurled herself at me as soon as I crossed the threshold of the staff lounge at the sheriff’s station. I caught her, lifting her into my arms and rocking her back and forth. “I’m here now. You’re okay.”
She pressed her little face into my neck. “I was so scared.”
I held her tighter against me as I squeezed my eyes closed. “I’m so sorry, Avs.” As her small body trembled against me, I vowed that she would never feel scared like that again.
I scanned the room, my gaze catching on Harriet, Kenna’s adoptive guardian. She’d been the one to arrange a boat for us from Seattle to Shelter Island and had immediately headed to the sheriff’s station herself. She rose, little Mia fast asleep in her arms.
I blinked back tears. “Thank you so much, Harriet. I don’t know what I would’ve done…”
“Oh, hush now. You know I’d do anything for you girls.”
Kenna crossed to the older woman, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Thank you.”
“I’m happy to help however I can.”
“Where’s Will?” I asked.
Harriet inclined her head to the hallway. “Deputy Raines was getting him a soda and a snack. I think the adrenaline was wearing off. He was getting a little shaky.”
My eyes fell closed again as if I could will away the nightmare of the past few hours. I had so many questions, but I didn’t want to ask any of them in front of little ears. I pressed a kiss to Ava’s head. “Can you go to Bell? I want to find Will.”
Ava nodded and went easily into Bell’s arms. Bell snuggled her close. “I missed you like crazy.”
The small smile that Ava gave Bell had my shoulders easing a fraction. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I headed back into the hallway, looking for any sign of the vending machines. After a couple of wrong turns, I spotted a head of floppy brown hair. “Will.”
His head snapped up at my voice, and he shoved the soda at a deputy who looked vaguely familiar. Will charged, hitting me with a force that had me stumbling back a step. When had he gotten so big? I wrapped my arms around him as more tears filled my eyes. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” he whispered, a catch in his voice.
The deputy made his way over to us. “Hi, Ms. O’Connor. I’m Deputy Raines.”
“Please, call me Caelyn. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
“I’m happy to help.” A pained smile curved his lips. “The sheriff wants to chat with you whenever you’re ready.”
I wanted to chat with the sheriff, too. But first, I had a few questions for Will. I brushed the hair back from his eyes; he was in desperate need of a haircut. “When’s the last time you saw Mom and Dad?”
Will released me and winced. “On Friday.”
Blood roared in my ears. It was early Monday morning. “Why didn’t you call me?” I’d given Will the phone for a reason. Our parents had never been overly attentive. Why my mother hadn’t just gone on birth control, I’d never know, because she certainly wasn’t interested in raising her children. She did the bare minimum, which often consisted of a single bag of fast food for dinner and using the television as a babysitter. But they’d never left us alone for days on end before.
Will nibbled on his bottom lip. “I didn’t want you to come back from college.”
“Why not?” I couldn’t hide the hurt in my voice.
He squared his small shoulders. “You need to finish school and get a good job so you can get us out of there.”
“Oh, Will.” I pulled him into my arms, the tears I’d been trying so hard to hold back since I arrived at the station, sliding down my cheeks. I should’ve been embarrassed that this was all coming out in front of some deputy I barely knew, but I couldn’t find it in me to care. All I cared about was wrapping my tiny terrors up in hugs and taking them somewhere safe.
“What’s gonna happen to us?” Will whispered.
God, I wished I had an answer for that, but I knew I’d never let these kids go into foster care. “We’re going to figure it out together. But I’m not leaving you. You’re not alone.”
Will sagged against me. “I’m sorry I didn’t call. I should’ve when they started getting worse.”
I stiffened. “What do you mean getting worse?”
Will released me, looking from me to Raines and back again. “They’re doing drugs.”
My jaw tightened. My parents had always been heavy drinkers, and I knew my dad smoked pot, but I’d never seen any hints of anything harder. The fact that my ten-year-old little brother could see the signs of drug use and knew what it meant… It shattered what little naïve hope I had left that my parents would get their acts together. “You don’t have to go back there. Not ever again.” I turned to Deputy Raines. “Right?”
“Correct,” he agreed. “Child Protective Services has already been here. The children have been placed in Miss Harriet’s care until a more permanent decision can be made.”
The roaring in my ears quieted a fraction. Harriet was a godsend, a true angel. Not only had she taken in Kenna when she needed a place to live; now, she was giving us safe harbor, as well. “Thank you.”
I gave Will’s shoulder a squeeze. “Why don’t you go hang with the rest of the crew while I talk to the sheriff? I know Kenna and Bell want to see you.”
Will nodded stoically. “You’re not gonna leave, right?”
My heart clenched. “Not without you.”
“’Kay.” He headed down the hall towards the lounge.
I couldn’t bring myself to look away from his small form until he disappeared from sight. I inhaled deeply, steeling myself for what was to come. I turned back to Raines. “How bad was it?”
Raines grimaced. “House was a wreck. Everywhere but in the girls’ room. It looked like Will had been sleeping in there, too. He’d moved his mattress between Ava’s bed and the crib.” I was going to kill my parents. For what they’d put these kids through, the fires of hell would be too kind. “There wasn’t a lot of food left in the house either.”
I swallowed against the bile rising in my throat. “Please tell me that means they don’t have a chance in hell of getting these kids back.”
“It’s not gonna happen. The sheriff wants to fill you in on why exactly that’s the case.”
There was an ominous tone to Raines’ words that had my stomach twisting. “Lead the way.”
The deputy guided me down a maze of hallways before stopping in front of a door and knocking.
“Come in,” a gruff voice called.
Raines pushed the door open. “Sheriff, this is Caelyn O’Connor. Caelyn, this is Sheriff Spaulding.”
I stepped forward. “Nice to meet you, sir. Thank you for taking care of my brother and sisters.”
The man, who looked to be in his late fifties, inclined his head to a chair opposite his desk. “Have a seat.”
I did as instructed, and Deputy Raines took his leave. I couldn’t help twisting a loose thread on my jeans as Sheriff Spaulding took my measure, seeming to assess every weakness and flaw in a matter of seconds. “You’re in school at Seattle University.”
“You working? Taking out loans?”
He must’ve known my parents weren’t helping me in any way. They’d just been happy to have one less mouth to feed. “I have a full academic scholarship. I work part-time to cover my room and board.”
Spaulding nodded, seeming pleased with my answer. “Your parents…”
“Are total and complete wastes of space?” I offered.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that.”
I gripped the loose thread on my jeans tighter. “Will said he thought they were using drugs.”
“Your father has gotten mixed up with a bad crew. We had suspicions before, but tonight confirmed it. He’s dealing, and I’m not talking pot.”
The string popped off my jeans. “Dealing? He was bringing those people into the house? With the kids there?”
Sheriff Spaulding’s gaze hardened. “I’m afraid so. In and out of the house.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“You’d have to find him first. And we can’t seem to do that.”
I stiffened. “What do you mean?”
Spaulding leaned back in his chair. “We found your mom holed up in a motel room, high as a kite, needle by the bed. But no sign of your dad.”
Needles. We weren’t even talking prescription pills. “I was home this summer. They were neglectful, yes, but Mom was still caring for Mia. They drank too much, but I saw no sign of drugs.”
“A lot can change in four months, Caelyn.”
Apparently, a whole life could fall apart. “What about the guy who broke in?”
Sheriff Spaulding laced his fingers together and rested his hands on his desk. “Dave Herbert. Arrested on a slew of charges. He won’t be breathing free for a few years, at least.”
It wasn’t enough. He’d scared my siblings to death, probably would’ve hurt them or worse. My stomach roiled at the thought.
“That’s not all,” Spaulding continued. “Your brother gave us a cell phone. I think he thought it might help us find your folks because it belonged to your dad. What was on that phone…it’s going to lead to a lot more arrests.”
“That’s good, right?” I wanted all of these assholes off the streets and far away from my family.
“It is good. But while all this is shaking out, I want you to be cautious.”
All of my muscles seemed to seize at once. “You think they’ll come after the kids?”
Spaulding’s jaw went hard. “I’d like to think not. But desperate people do stupid things. They could think going after the kids might shake your dad loose. Or that the kids know where your dad is. Miss Harriet has assured me that she has a state-of-the-art security system. I think you’ll be safe on her estate, but I want you to be careful when you’re out around town. Maybe give the kids’ schools a heads-up.”
My mind swam with all of the possible risks. I hated that we might bring trouble to Harriet’s door. But what other option did we have? “Thank you. We’ll be careful. Will you keep me up-to-date on the arrests?”
“I’ll keep you in the loop as much as possible.”
“I don’t need to know the ins and outs of the cases. I’d just like to know when I can take a deep breath again.”
Spaulding’s expression gentled. “I understand. We’re going to put Harriet’s estate and the kids’ schools on the drive-by loop so there will be a police presence. That should discourage anyone from doing something stupid.”
“Thank you.” It should’ve made me feel more at ease, but the fact that the sheriff thought it was necessary just ramped my anxiety up another level.
Unease slid over the sheriff’s features. “We’ll need Will to testify about the phone and the people he saw coming and going from the house. Possibly Ava, as well.”
“What? No. That can’t be safe.”
Spaulding met my gaze dead-on. “If we want this Herbert clown and your mother to get the maximum sentences, we need that testimony.”
I closed my eyes, letting my head fall forward. For Will, Ava, and Mia to be truly safe, to heal, anyone involved needed to go away for as long as possible. “They’ll testify.”
I held up a hand, cutting the sheriff off. “But I need you to do something for me in return.”
His eyes grew shrewd. “And what would that be?”
“Help me get custody of my siblings.”
“Come and get it, tiny terrors,” I called from the kitchen.
Will appeared, shaking his head. “You know I’m not actually tiny anymore, right?”
I clutched at my chest in an overdramatic move. “Don’t remind me. You’re forever eight in my mind.” But it didn’t change the fact that my little man was now sixteen years old. He had a driver’s license. And was shaving. I didn’t even want to think about all of the girls who made googly eyes at him.
I shook myself out of the downward spiral I was rapidly descending into. “Where are the girls?”
“I just finished Mia’s braids and she was looking for the right bracelet to go with her outfit. Ava was packing her backpack. What do you need in here?”
God, my brother was the best kid on the planet. Too good. But no matter how much I tried to get him to cut loose, it never happened. “Can you pour some OJ for everyone?”
“You got it.”
While Will got everyone glasses of juice, I slid the rest of the scramble onto plates. The toaster dinged, shooting up the bread in a little hop. I quickly buttered the slices. “Girls, the countdown is on.”
“We’re here! We’re here!” Mia huffed. “Look at my braids. Will gave me ribbons.”
I turned to take in my little spitfire. “You look beautiful. And I love your outfit.”
Mia was into anything brightly colored or that had glitter of some sort. Today it was a white t-shirt with a sparkly rainbow, pink pants, and gold glitter slip-ons. The pink, polka dot ribbons and a wrist full of bracelets just completed the look. “Thank you.” Her face scrunched. “You can still see my string, right?”
The worry in Mia’s expression had me crouching so that I was eye-to-eye with her. “Let’s see.” She held up her arm for my inspection. There was an array of jelly bracelets, some beaded ones, but peeking out between the bangles was a rainbow-colored friendship bracelet.
Two years ago, these fancy bead kits had become all the rage with Mia’s and Ava’s classmates. They were ridiculously expensive, and we didn’t have a lot of extra money for that kind of thing. So, as an alternative, I’d taught the girls how to make simple friendship bracelets with string. They’d become obsessed, and Mia had made us all matching rainbow bracelets. Even Will wore one.
I held up my wrist, touching it to Mia’s. “Rainbow power in full effect.”
She beamed at me. “Good.”
Ava appeared in the doorway. “Morning.” Her voice was soft, just like the rest of her. My girl was the most sensitive of souls. The therapist I’d taken both Will and her to for the first year I’d had custody of them had told me that she might always be this way. Growing up in such an unstable home had made her constantly take the measure of those around her, always cautious to avoid any volatile situations. As much as it hurt my heart, I knew that Ava’s empathy and sense of others’ emotions could also be a superpower.
“Morning, Avs.” I wrapped an arm around her for a quick hug. “All right, get settled. It’s time for food.”
“Pancakes?” Mia asked hopefully.
Will chuckled. “You ask that every day.”
She turned hopeful eyes to me, and I couldn’t hold in my laugh. “It’s not a weekend.” I tried to reserve the super-sugary stuff for special occasions.
She slumped in her chair. “Vegetables?”
I tried to reel in my laughter at her dejected expression. “You’ll survive. I promise.”
“I like the veggie patch scrambles,” Ava offered.
“I’m glad.” I’d come up with the name because when we first moved into our small rental house, I’d planted a vegetable garden in the backyard. The kids loved helping tend to the plants, and I thought it would make them keener to the idea of eating the vegetables on their plates. It was hit or miss most of the time. But Ava was always a trooper.
“I like the veggie patch scrambles,” Mia parroted in a whiny voice.
My gaze cut to her as I took a seat. “Mia Renee, we don’t make fun in this house.”
She slumped lower in her seat. “Sorry, Ava.”
It wasn’t exactly heartfelt, but it wasn’t sassy either so I let it slide. Everyone dug into their breakfast, and my lips twitched when Mia was the first to finish hers. When she caught my smile, she shrugged like someone way older than her seven years. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“I’m happy to hear it.” I took a sip of orange juice, glancing around the table. “Okay, hit me with the good stuff. Three things.” I pointed to Ava.
“Um…” She thought for a moment. “I got a ninety-seven on my spelling test.”
I held out a hand for a high-five. “That’s awesome! Proud of how hard you studied.” I turned my attention to Will.
He only rolled his eyes a little bit. “Mr. Harmon was sick yesterday, and we got to watch a movie during history.”
I broke off a piece of my toast. “That definitely qualifies as a good thing. And what about you, Miss Mia?”
She beamed. “Coach Hughes wants me to practice with the big kids next week!”
I straightened in my chair, letting the piece of toast fall from my fingers. “She does? Why didn’t she talk to me?” I was going to kill that woman.
Mia shrugged. “She said she was going to talk to you today.”
I did everything I could to make sure my siblings got to do whatever activities their hearts’ desired. And pretty much from the time Mia could speak, she had been asking for gymnastics. I’d put her in a pre-K tumbling class when she was four, and Mia had taken to it like a fish to water. The coach of the program had told me that Mia had real potential. But elite gymnastics programs, even the one on our tiny chain of islands, were expensive.
It was nearly killing me to send her three times a week. If she started the elite program, that three would jump to five. I wasn’t sure I could swing it. All I could think about was the letter I’d received from our landlord the day before about our rent increase. That would be hard enough, but adding gymnastics on top of that? It would most likely be impossible. And there went any chance at the culinary class I’d had my eye on for the past few months.
“I can do it, right?” she asked.
I swallowed against my suddenly dry throat. “Let me talk to Coach, and we’ll see.”
“Okay.” Mia smiled in a way that said she had all the faith in the world in me. It was a smile that socked me right in the gut. And I knew I’d simply have to find a way. Maybe I could look into selling a kidney on the black market.
“Nope, nope, nope.” Kenna waved her hands in front of her face. “Don’t open that within a twenty-foot radius of me.”
I slowly put the packet of bacon back into the fridge under the counter. “I thought you were loving bacon lately.”
Kenna’s hand went to the small curve of her belly. “Something changed this week. It’s so bizarre. Now, I can’t stand the smell of it. It has me puking my guts up in seconds.”
Bell scrunched up her face as she slid onto a stool opposite us at my kitchen station. “Thanks for that mental picture right before we eat lunch.”
Kenna shrugged. “I figure you’d rather have the warning than me barfing in your purse.”
I bit back a chuckle. My job at The General Store had many perks, but one of the highlights was cooking for my best friends when they stopped by. “Okay, bacon’s off the table. What’ll it be, Barfy Magee?”
Kenna scowled at me for a moment before turning her gaze to the chalkboard above my head, taking in the array of salad and sandwich offerings. “How about the kale and apple salad with chicken?”
“Coming right up. Bells, you want the vegan BLT?” I glanced quickly at Kenna. “That’s not gonna make you upchuck, right?”
“No, your weird health nut fake meat should be fine.”
I shook my head as I started pulling out ingredients. “No weirder than your fake sugar, fake hazelnut, fake milk coffee concoctions. How is that decaf treating you these days?”
Kenna pointed her fork in my direction. “That is cruel and uncalled for.”
Bell let out a snorted laugh. “She knows how to hit you where it hurts.”
Kenna gave a pitiful moan. “I miss real coffee.”
“It’ll be worth it. You don’t want that baby popping out jonesing for its next hit of caffeine.” I poured some chopped kale into a bowl and reached for the dressing.
“You sound like Crosby. Do you know he’s read all of those baby books already? He’s even joined Mom forums. Every time I even look longingly at his coffee, he starts listing off all the potential side effects. He even tried to limit my chocolate intake.”
My chest gave a painful squeeze, but I kept my smile firmly in place. The last thing I wanted Kenna to know was that jealousy had made a home somewhere in the vicinity of my heart. It was a mixture of joy and pain. Over-the-moon happiness for my friend, who deserved a happy ending more than anyone else I knew. But also, a searing ache, because I so deeply wanted what she had—a true partner who would support me through all of life’s ups and downs. Someone who would be there for Will, Ava, and Mia. Who would see the kids as the treasures they were.
Bell waved a hand in front of my face. “Hello? Earth to Caelyn. Please don’t chop off a finger.”
I forced my smile wider. “Sorry. Lost in my own world.” I quickly focused on slicing the chicken once more before placing the vegan bacon strips in a skillet.
“You look tired. Is the new manager position a lot more hours?” Kenna asked.
I’d recently taken over as manager for The General Store. It meant that I not only ran the kitchen but the rest of the grocery, as well. It was a lot more responsibility and hours, but it also meant a bit of a pay raise. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough to cover both my increased rent and Mia’s gymnastics. Not even close. “The job’s good. You know me, I just lose myself in another world sometimes.”
Kenna and Bell shared a worried look that had me biting back a curse. “I swear, I’m fine.”
“Okay,” Bell started. “Ford and I wanted to know what night would be good to take the kids to Rocco’s.”
I knew both Bell and Kenna adored my siblings, but I also knew they tried to take them off my hands once a week so I had a night to breathe. They hoped I’d used the time to do something for myself, but I typically used it to catch up on whatever I’d fallen behind on during the week—laundry, meal prep, bills. It wasn’t exactly a glamorous life, but it was rewarding in many ways. “I think Thursday would be good.”
“That should work for us. I’ll make sure Ford has someone to cover at the bar.”
“Sounds good to me.” I plated the sandwich for Bell and then lifted both meals onto the counter. “Lunch is served. Can I get you guys drinks?”
“I’ll take an iced tea,” Bell answered.
“Just water,” Kenna grimaced.
Her pout had me grinning. “Coming right up.” I grabbed two bottles from the drinks fridge and passed them to my friends. “Here you go. I’ll be right back. I need to make sure no one’s ready to check out up front.”
Kenna waved me away. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll just be here stuffing our faces.”
I chuckled and wove my way through the aisles, greeting a couple who looked to be tourists and telling them to flag me down when they were ready to check out. I rounded another corner and almost collided with a hulking form. “Oh, schnitzel! I’m so sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going and—” My words cut off as my gaze met ice-blue eyes. “Griffin.” His name came out a bit breathy.
I cleared my throat. “Did you need to check out?” I glanced in his basket and frowned. A stack of frozen meals—like always. “You really should mix in some fresh produce with those.”
He grunted. “Been eating the same thing for years, haven’t died yet.”
The voice was exactly what you’d expect from a man with a six-foot-six frame and shoulders so broad, I was surprised he fit through most doorways. It was low and rough, and made me want to lean in a little closer, even though everything about Griffin screamed: “Go away!”
I gave my head a shake to clear it. “Want me to make you a sandwich or salad before you go?”
His expression gentled the slightest bit, or maybe I simply wished it did.
“Sure. Surprise me.” His eyes narrowed. “Sandwich. No weird vegetables.”
I rarely got more than twelve words out of Griffin at a time. But it had become a game of sorts for me to try and get as much out of him as I could. But the days where I made his lips twitch or eyes brighten were the ones I really felt on top of the world. “One surprise concoction, coming up.”
I turned on my heel and left Griffin to his shopping. I wasn’t sure why I got such ridiculous pleasure from providing the man one rounded meal a few times a week, but I did.
I froze at the end of the aisle as my gaze caught on Patti Jenkins. She stared at Griffin as he reached out to grab something from a shelf. I could practically see her gossip-hungry mind whirling. When he caught her stare fixated on him, she muttered something under her breath and tugged her toddler down the aisle and away from Griffin. He tensed but didn’t say a word, simply studied the chips in front of him with intense focus.
I fought the curse that wanted to surface and headed back towards my cooking station. That woman was a nosy and judgmental jerk-face. She had a daughter in Mia’s grade and was always condescendingly offering me advice and help. But seeing her cast that same judgment towards Griffin had me seeing red.
“Was that Griffin?” Bell asked as I rounded the counter.
I cut a sharp look in her direction. Too many folks on this island talked about the mysterious man behind his back, and I didn’t want my friends adding to it.
She held up both hands. “He helped drag my fiancé out of the ocean after someone tried to kill him. I’m team Griffin all the way.”
Kenna scooped up a forkful of salad. “He gave Grant a black eye, so you know I’m a fan.” Her expression sobered a fraction. “Just be careful.”
I growled in her direction. “He’s a good man.” I didn’t know with one hundred percent certainty, but everything pointed that way. He was polite if a little gruff. But that prickly exterior was understandable given everything he’d been through.
Bell grinned. “And it doesn’t hurt that you want to climb him like a tree.”
My face turned bright red. “Shhhh! He’ll hear you.” Yes, Griffin Lockwood was incredibly handsome. Gorgeous in a way that stole your breath and made you stupid. But he wasn’t for me. I simply felt a sort of kinship with the broody man. I knew what it was like to have the majority of our small island judge and whisper because of your familial history.
Griffin seemed to take it all in stride, though. He stuck to himself and his big, dilapidated farmhouse on the far side of the island. He only ventured into town with a purpose, never to sit and eat at a café or grab a beer with other locals. He was in and out, leaving only questions and whispers in his wake.
The rough voice made us all jump. I was sure my face was the shade of the tomato I was about to slice. “Um, I’m, uh, just deciding what I should put on it. We got some really nice Roma tomatoes in, and the spinach is super fresh. Maybe I’ll do a tomato mozzarella deal with some balsamic and prosciutto.” My mouth kept right on spewing nonsense while Kenna and Bell struggled to hold back their laughter.
“It’ll be up in just a second,” I hurried to put an end to my runaway mouth disease. Right after I locked myself in the walk-in fridge and never came out.
I heaved another pile of who knew what out the window and into the dumpster below. When I first returned to the farmhouse, I’d been a hell of a lot more meticulous as I went through each room. Now, if it looked like garbage, out it went.
The pile of detritus landed with a satisfying thunk. I turned back to survey the room, a muscle ticking in my jaw. The rose wallpaper my sister had loved so much was yellowed and peeling after years of age and the time it had been exposed to the elements. But that’s what happened when you left a home vacant for over a decade. Kids threw rocks at windows. People broke in and stole everything of value. They vandalized for the hell of it.
My stomach turned as I took in the graffiti on the wall—ugly words cutting across the roses my little sister had considered her private garden. I’d been back on the island for a few years now, but it was too late. The damage had already been done.
Sheriff Raines had been the one to finally get in touch to tell me that my family’s refuge was being destroyed. It was no easy task getting through to me. I’d made an art of running, and another of hiding. Raines had tracked me through lawyers and shell corporations until he finally found a cell phone number that only three people had.
I’d seen his call as a sign: time to return home and restore the home I’d once seen as a palace and had ruled as a prince. We’d called it the farmhouse, our family getaway from the hectic craziness of our normal lives. It sat on ten acres of pristine land on the far end of the island, away from curious eyes.
Beth and I had run wild in the forest and to the pond on the property. I remembered begging our parents to move to Anchor Island permanently, but they’d always forced us to return to our lives in Northern California. Ones that required uncomfortable school uniforms and society parties.
And when I lost them, the people I’d loved most in this world, I’d let the farmhouse fall away. I’d been so young. But even after I’d come to my senses, I hadn’t been able to face this place or the memories it held. And in doing so, I’d let my favorite sanctuary almost be destroyed. It was a miracle the house hadn’t been burned to the ground.
Sheriff Raines had met me here the first day I returned. I’d nearly lost my lunch in the bushes when I saw the place. He’d offered to recommend some quality contractors to help with the vast number of repairs, but I’d politely declined. Instead, I’d done something insane. I’d vowed to do all the work myself.
It was part atonement, part grieving process. And I’d grown to love the work. A small shop space sat a few hundred feet from the main house and had gone mostly untouched. After a thorough cleaning, I’d made the space my home for the first year I was back on Anchor. It had taken longer than I’d hoped for the permits and to make sure there were no structural issues.
Now, I was living in the main house. I’d gone room by room, starting with the master suite. I’d hauled garbage, repaired walls and windows, refinished floors, and painted so many things I’d lost track. But I now had the master, kitchen, office, and one other bedroom in livable condition.
The kitchen was my greatest feat. I wasn’t sure why I’d poured so much time and money into a space I only used for coffee and frozen meals. But it looked like a dream. Maybe it was because my mother had loved the space so much. When we were in Marin, our family had a chef. But here on the island, my mother had always done the cooking. She loved seeing the smiles on Beth’s and my faces when she would call us in for a slice of berry cobbler or to sample a fresh batch of cookies.
I gave my head a shake, trying to clear the onslaught of memories. I had known this room would be the hardest. I focused back on the trash strewn across the hardwood floors. Some of the boards would need to be replaced, having swollen from being exposed to the sea air for such a long time.
As much as I tried to focus on the tasks at hand, I couldn’t stop the visions from swamping me—the brown-haired little girl sitting on this very floor, begging me to play Barbies with her. I squeezed my eyes closed, willing the images away. It was too much.
I tore off my work gloves and strode out of the room. I needed to get out and away—anything to distract me from the ghosts that haunted me here.
I climbed out of my truck in the parking lot of The General Store. Why was it that I always ended up here? There was just something about the brown-haired beauty who worked at the kitchen inside. Normally, people who shined with that life-is-beautiful kind of positivity made me want to punch something. But with Caelyn, I was fascinated.
I started towards the store when a man called my name. I stiffened and turned, expecting to see a stranger, maybe one of the reporters still holding out hope that I’d share my story with the world. The set of my shoulders eased a bit when I saw that it was Ford Hardy, owner of The Catch Bar & Grill. I said nothing but waited for the man to make his approach. He wasn’t a stranger exactly, but I had no desire for idle chitchat.
“I’ve been hoping to run into you,” he greeted.
I stayed silent.
Ford chuckled. “Not too talkative, are you?”
“Not much to say, I guess.”
Ford’s expression grew serious. “I just wanted to thank you for your help a few months back.”
“I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t do.” Ford had been attacked by someone sick in the head. He’d been jumped from behind and knocked unconscious. I’d just come along at the right time.
“Either way, thank you.” He held out a hand, and I took it for a shake. “Come into the bar sometime. I’ll treat you to a beer and a meal. It’s the least I can do.”
I fought the wince that wanted to surface. The last thing I wanted was to sit around at the island watering hole. People whispered, thinking they were being discreet when they were anything but. Even worse, they sometimes thought it was completely acceptable to approach and ask me a million intrusive questions. “I’ll try and come by.”
Ford grinned. “I’m taking that as a fat chance in hell.”
My lips twitched. “You’re not a stupid man.”
“Thank God for that. Well, if I can ever do anything to repay you, just let me know. My brother’s a contractor. We could give you a couple of days on that house of yours if you’d like.”
My jaw tightened. “I’m good. But thanks for the offer.”
Ford nodded and gave me a wave before heading back towards The Catch. “There’s no expiration date on that.”
I wouldn’t take Ford up on his offer of help unless I got desperate. I needed to do this on my own. I started towards the store. Pulling the creaking screen door open, I walked inside. It was still a bit early, but when 4:00 a.m. was your usual wakeup call, 4:30 p.m. was just about perfect for dinner. Plus, I could avoid the after-work crowd.
I made my way towards the kitchen at the far end of the grocery but stopped in my tracks when I heard Caelyn’s voice.
“Is there any way you could give me more hours? Or more of the bookkeeping to do?”
Mr. Walters, the owner of the store, chuckled. “You’re doing it all already, deary. I barely show up here anymore.”
“Well, do you know of anyone else who might be looking for some help for things I could do from home?” she pressed.
“Are the two jobs you have not enough? You’re gonna work yourself to the bone. And you need to be home for those kids.”
“I know.” Caelyn’s voice seemed to deflate on the words. “But Mia got accepted into this gymnastics program, and it costs an arm and a leg.”
Walters’ voice gentled. “I’d be happy to loan you the fees—”
“No,” Caelyn cut Mr. Walters off. “You’ve done more than enough for us.”
A foreign feeling invaded my chest. A twisting sensation that burned. I’d heard the talk around the island that Caelyn had taken in her three younger siblings after their parents had been involved in some sort of drug bust. I couldn’t imagine taking all that on when she must’ve been barely more than a child herself.
I cleared my throat, stepping around the end of the aisle. Caelyn looked up, the frown marring her gorgeous face quickly turning into a bright smile. “Griffin. It’s good to see you. Have you finally given in to trying one of my salads?”
I gave my head a shake. “I think I’ll stick with the sandwich.”
Walters grinned. “I don’t know, Caelyn can make kale pretty tasty.”
I didn’t try to fight the twisting of my face. “No, thank you.”
Walters chuckled. “Maybe another day. All right, I’m off.” He turned to Caelyn. “You let me know if you change your mind.”
Caelyn reached up on her tiptoes, pressing her lips to the old man’s cheek. “Thank you.”
Walters headed out of the store, and just Caelyn and I were left. I slid onto a stool at the counter. It was rare that I waited here for my food, but I couldn’t seem to resist the temptation today. I had this undeniable urge to make sure she was okay.
“So, what’ll it be? Some version of meat and cheese?”
I almost chuckled. Almost. “Sounds good to me. But I know you’ll sneak some vegetables on there somehow.”
“Gotta keep you from getting scurvy.”
I almost choked. “I thought that was from not enough vitamin C. I drink my orange juice.”
Caelyn shook her head and started pulling things out of a fridge below the counter. “There’s vitamin C in vegetables, too. And lots of other nutritious things you need.”
“Good thing I come in here a few times a week then.”
An idea was forming in the back of my mind. One that just might be the answer to helping Caelyn out of her predicament and giving me some nice benefits, as well.
The screen door banged open. “Cae Cae!” a young girl’s voice called out. Soon, there was a flash of movement past me.
Caelyn stepped around the counter and lifted the little girl into her arms as she hurled herself at Caelyn. “How was your day?”
“So good. I taught cartwheels at recess, and you left me my favorite cookie in my lunch.”
Caelyn laughed. “Sounds like a good day to me. Where are the rest of the tiny terrors?”
The little girl beamed up at Caelyn. “They’re coming, but they were being too slow, so I ran when I got to the parking lot.” Her gaze caught on me. “Whoa. Are you a giant?”
I wanted to laugh but seeing the easy affection between the girl and Caelyn stole my ability to speak.
“Mia, this is Mr. Griffin. Griffin, this is my little sister, Mia.”
The girl looked so much like Beth had at that age, I struggled to find words. “It’s nice to meet you, Mia.” My voice came out rougher than before, and I tried to force my lips into a smile, but the action felt foreign.
“Hey, sis,” a male voice called.
I turned to see a boy who looked to be about sixteen or seventeen. As soon as he caught sight of me, wariness filled his features. He quickly crossed to his sisters, tugging another girl behind him. “Who’s this?”
Caelyn pressed her lips together as if holding back a laugh. “This is Mr. Griffin. Griffin, this is Will and Ava, my other two siblings. I hope you don’t mind, but they usually hang with me for thirty minutes before Molly takes over. Kids, you can go hang out in the office while I get Mr. Griffin’s sandwich ready.”
“I wanna stay with you and help,” Mia whined.
“I’ll go into the office,” Ava offered. She had taken a step behind her brother as if hiding from me.
“They can stay.” The words were out before I could stop them. Awkward and a little gruff, but Mia beamed.
“See, Mr. Griffin wants me to help make his sandwich.”
Caelyn shook her head. “Well, if that’s the case, we better wash our hands.”
Ava headed for the back office while Will took a seat next to me at the counter, eyeing me carefully. Caelyn helped Mia up onto a little stool by the sink, and they washed their hands, Mia singing some sort of song that counted off the seconds.
“All clean,” she called. “No germies can last to thirty.”
I couldn’t hold in my chuckle this time. “I guess they can’t.”
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Caelyn started, putting a hand over her heart. “I do believe you laughed, Griffin Lockwood. Who knew all it took was a seven-year-old singing about germs?”
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