Just like before, the front door was ajar, every light in the house was on, and a game show played on the television. Lauren Jamison put down her suitcase, feeling uneasy.
Thirteen years had passed since she’d been home, but the living room looked the same: the brown leather recliner by the fireplace where her dad read the paper every evening, the couch her sister, Abby, used to curl up on and write in her journal, the table by the window where her mother and little brother, David, played board games. The furniture remained, but all of the people were gone. All except one.
“Dad?” she called.
The answering silence tightened her nerves. She needed her father to appear, to remind her that this wasn’t like before. Because thirteen years ago she’d returned home late one night, an innocent seventeen-year-old, and found the front door open, lights blazing, and her mother sobbing hysterically. Nothing had been the same after that.
The whistle of a teakettle drew her toward the kitchen, but the room was empty. She turned off the stove and moved into the hall, checking each bedroom. Her father’s room was cluttered with clothes. Only the faded floral curtains betrayed her mother’s once important influence on the décor. David’s bedroom had been turned into an office that was covered in dust and papers. The room at the end of the hall had belonged to her and to Abby.
The door was closed, and Lauren’s steps slowed. Her father might have redone the room, boxed up Abby’s things and given them to charity—or the room might look exactly the same as it had the night Abby died. Her heart skipped a beat.
She tapped on the door. “Dad? Are you in there?”
When he didn’t reply, she opened the door, scanned the room quickly, and then pulled the door shut, her breath coming hard and fast. Abby’s side of the room was frozen in time, as if it were still waiting for her to return. Lauren let out a long, shaky breath, then turned away.
Where the hell was her father? She’d called him that morning and told him she was coming, and he’d seemed fine. But according to the neighbors, who had sent numerous letters to her mother over the past three months, her father’s Alzheimer’s was getting worse. It was time for someone in the family to come back and take care of him. Her mother had refused. She’d divorced Ned Jamison eleven years earlier, and she had no intention of reuniting with him now. David was back east at college. So Lauren had returned to Angel’s Bay to deal with a man who was little more than a stranger to her. But he was still her father, and she needed to find him—she just wasn’t sure where to look. She had only spent a half dozen weekends with her dad since she’d left home at seventeen, and all those visits had occurred in San Francisco. Where would he be on a Friday night? She didn’t know who his friends were anymore, what he did, where he went.
Or did she?
Her father had always been a creature of habit. During her childhood, he’d spent most of his time in three places: home, the bait and tackle shop he’d run until two years ago, and his fishing boat Leonora, named after his great-great-great-grandmother who’d been one of the founders of Angel’s Bay.
Lauren headed out the front door toward the marina, which was only a few blocks away. Buttoning up her sweater, she hurried down the street. It was seven o’clock and there was already a chill in the darkening September sky. Soon there’d be pumpkins and Halloween decorations on every porch, but for now the neighborhood was quiet.
While some of the homes had been remodeled, the streets were very familiar. She’d been born in Angel’s Bay, and this neighborhood was where she’d taken her first steps, learned to ride a bicycle, roller skated into the Johnsons’ rosebushes, gotten her first kiss in the moonlight, fallen in love . . . and fallen out of love.
She blinked away the sudden moisture in her eyes and picked up her pace. She had a great life in San Francisco now, an interesting job and good friends, and she had no regrets about leaving her hometown. She just wished that she hadn’t had to come back.
By the time she reached Ocean Avenue, she was breathless. She quickened her pace as she passed the Angel’s Heart Quilt Shop, where she and Abby and their mother had partaken in the town’s longstanding tradition of community quilting. Quilting was the way mothers and daughters, sisters and friends connected the past with the present. She’d once loved to quilt, but she hadn’t picked up a needle and thread since she’d left. She didn’t want those connections anymore. Nor did she particularly want to see anyone she knew now. She was hoping to make her visit short, with as little community contact as possible.
Crossing the street, she kept her head down as she passed Carl’s Crab Shack. The line was out to the sidewalk and the delicious smells of clam chowder and fish and chips made her stomach rumble. She’d done the four-hour drive from San Francisco without stopping for food but she couldn’t stop now.
As she reached the marina she saw a new sign on her father’s bait and tackle shop, now called Brady’s instead of Jamison’s. The store was closed. She moved down the ramp that led to the boat slips. Luckily the gate had been propped open by a slat of wood, so she didn’t need a key. Her father’s old trawler had been moored at the second to last slip in the third row since she was a little girl. She hoped it was still there.
The marina was quiet. Most of the action occurred in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sport and commercial fishermen were going out or coming back after a day of work or pleasure. Her pulse quickened as the lights on her father’s boat suddenly came on, followed by the sound of an engine. She could see his silhouette in the cabin. What on earth was he doing? He couldn’t go out to sea by himself.
“Dad!” she yelled, breaking into a run. She waved her arms as she screamed again, but either he couldn’t hear her or he was ignoring her. By the time she reached the slip, her father’s boat was chugging toward the middle of the bay. She had to stop him. She needed to call the Coast Guard or find someone to go after him. “Hello! Anyone here?” she called.
A man emerged from a nearby boat and Lauren hurried down the dock.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
The familiar voice stopped her dead in her tracks, and as he jumped onto the dock and into the light, her heart skipped a beat.
Shane. Shane Murray.
He moved toward her with the same purposeful, determined step she remembered. She wasn’t ready for this—ready for him.
She knew the split second that he recognized her. His step faltered, his shoulders stiffened, and his jaw set in a grim line. He didn’t say her name. He just stared at her, waiting. Shane had never been one for words, he’d always believed actions spoke louder than explanations. But sometimes the truth needed to be spoken—not just implied or assumed.
“Shane.” She wished her voice didn’t sound so husky, so filled with memories. She cleared her throat. “I—I need help. My father just took off in his boat. I don’t know if you know, but he has Alzheimer’s.” She waved her hand toward the Leonora, whose lights were fading in the distance. “I need to get him back. Will you help me? There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around.” When he didn’t answer right away, she added, “I guess I could call the Coast Guard.”
For a moment she thought he might say no. They weren’t friends anymore. If anything, they were enemies.
Finally Shane gave a crisp nod. “Let’s go.” He headed back to his boat.
The last thing she wanted to do was go with him, but she couldn’t stand by while her father sailed off to sea with probably no idea of who he was or where he was going.
Shane’s boat was a newer thirty-foot sport fishing boat with all the modern conveniences. There were rod holders in the gunwales, tackle drawers and ice coolers built into the hull. As she stepped on board, Shane released the lines and pulled in the bumpers, then headed toward the center console. He started the engine and pulled out of the slip.
She stood a few feet away, feeling awkward and uncomfortable. How long would it take before he’d actually speak to her? And if he did, what would he say? There was a lot of painful history between them, and while part of her wanted him to break the silence, the other part was afraid of where that might lead.
She’d fallen for Shane just after her seventeenth birthday. He’d been only a year older in age, but a half dozen in experience. She’d been a shy good girl who’d never done anything impulsive in her life, and he’d been the town bad boy, moody, rebellious, and reckless. He’d drawn her to him like a moth to a flame.
Shane definitely wasn’t a teenager anymore. In his faded blue jeans, gray T-shirt, and black jacket it was quite apparent that he was all man now. His six-foot frame had filled out with broad shoulders and long legs. His black hair was wavy and windblown, the ends brushing the collar of his jacket, and his skin bore the ruddy tan of a man who spent a lot of time outdoors.
The set of his jaw had always been his “no trespassing” sign, and that hadn’t changed a bit. Shane had never let people in easily. She’d had to fight to get past his barriers, but even as close as they’d been, she’d never figured out the mysterious shadows in his dark eyes, or the sudden, sharp flashes of pain there. Shane had always kept a big part of himself under lock and key.
Her gaze dropped to his hands, noting the sureness of his fingers on the wheel. His hands were strong and capable, and she couldn’t help but remember the way they’d once felt on her breasts—rough and hungry, the same way his mouth had felt against hers, as if he couldn’t wait to have her, couldn’t ever get enough.
Her heart thumped against her chest, and she forced herself to look away. She was not going back to that place. She’d barely survived the first time. He’d swept her off her feet, into a whirlwind of emotions, then broken her heart.
“It took you long enough to come home,” Shane said finally. He glanced at her, his expression unreadable.
“I just came to get my dad. I’m planning to take him back to San Francisco with me.”
“Does he know that?”
“He will when we catch him.”
Doubt filled Shane’s eyes. “Your father has lived in Angel’s Bay his entire life. I can’t see him moving anywhere else.”
“His illness will only get worse. It’s the best solution.”
“For you or for him?”
“For both of us.” Her father might not like the idea of leaving Angel’s Bay, but it was the most practical decision. If she moved him closer to her she could take care of him, and perhaps her mother would help. His family was in San Francisco, and that’s where he should be.
Her dad hadn’t cared to be with his family the past thirteen years, but she was trying to look beyond that fact. And if the neighbors were right, and her father was rapidly losing touch with the world—would it really matter where he was?
Shane opened a compartment and pulled out a jacket. “You might want to put this on. It will get colder outside the bay.”
She accepted with a grateful nod, relieved with both the change in subject and the warm jacket. She’d left San Francisco straight from work, wearing a navy blue skirt, silk blouse, thin sweater, and high-heeled pumps that were perfect for her job but offered no protection against the elements. Shane’s big coat enveloped her like a warm hug, reminding her of the way she’d once felt in his arms.
She quickly pushed the thought out of her mind. “So, this is a nice boat,” she said into the increasingly awkward silence. “Is it yours? Or is it part of the Murray charter fleet?” Shane’s father had run a charter fishing business for as long as Lauren could remember.
“It’s mine. I picked it up last year when I came back,” he said shortly.
“Came back from where?”
“Everywhere,” he said with a vague wave. “Wherever there was water and fish and a boat to run.”
“Sounds like you got the life you always wanted.”
He shot her a look that she couldn’t begin to decipher. “Is that what it sounds like, Lauren?”
Her name rolled off his tongue like a silky caress. She’d always loved the way he’d said her name, as if she were the most important person in the world. But that wasn’t the way he’d said her name now. Now there was anger in the word, and God knew what else.
She sighed. “I don’t know what to say to you, Shane. I guess I never did.”
His gaze hardened. “You knew what to say, Lauren. You just wouldn’t say it.”
Thirteen years ago he’d wanted her to say that she believed in him, that she trusted him, that she knew in her heart that he hadn’t killed her sister.
All she’d been able to say was good-bye.
“I don’t want to talk about the past.” The words had barely left her lips when she found herself compelled to speak again. “You lied to me, Shane. I trusted you more than I’d ever trusted anyone, and you lied to me.”
He gave a little nod, his eyes dark and unreadable. “Yeah, I did.”
“And you’re still not going to tell me why, are you?”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about the past.”
She debated that. There were so many things she wanted Shane to explain, but what was the point?
“You’re right; it won’t change anything. In the end, Abby—Abby will still be gone.” A chill ran through her, and she glanced at the coastline. It was too dark to see the Ramsay house, where her sister had been found murdered, but she could feel its presence even if she couldn’t see it.
“Someone set fire to the house about nine months ago,” Shane said, following her gaze. “One wing was destroyed.”
“It’s too bad the house didn’t burn to the ground.” She’d never understood how her father could stay in Angel’s Bay, could wake up every day and see the house where her sister had spent the last violent minutes of her life. But there were a lot of things she couldn’t understand about her dad.
Lauren grabbed hold of the back of the captain’s seat as Shane increased their speed. On the open sea, waves slapped against the boat and the wind increased, lifting her hair off the back of her neck. Her nerves began to tingle with fear. She could handle being on the water when the day was sunny and bright and she could see the shoreline, but she’d never liked going out at night, or being hours away from land, where she’d be vulnerable, at the mercy of the unpredictable sea.
“Where is my father?” Panic made her voice rise. “I don’t see any lights. How are we going to find him out here? Maybe we should go back.” She hated being a coward, especially in front of Shane, who had never felt a fear he didn’t want to meet head on.
“Your father didn’t disappear. He’s just around the bluff.” Shane pointed to the GPS on his console. “See that dot—that’s him. We’ll catch up in a couple of minutes.”
“Okay. Good.” She gulped in a deep breath of air and wrapped her arms around her waist.
“Are you scared of me?” Shane sent her a speculative look.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You seem nervous.”
“I just want to get this over with.”
A few minutes passed, then Shane said, “Your father loves this town. Do you really think you can drop in after all this time and sweep him away without an argument?”
“I have to do something. When I arrived at his house tonight, the stove was on. He could have burned the house down. And who knows where he’s headed now?” She shook her head in confusion. “This shouldn’t be happening. He’s only sixty-seven; he’s too young to be losing his mind.”
“Some days are worse than others,” Shane commented. “Other times, he’s the same as he always was.”
“You talk to my father?” she asked in surprise.
“He’s on his boat almost every day. Mort took his key away from him a while ago. I don’t know where he got another one.”
“My father doesn’t—” She broke off the question, realizing she was heading into dangerous territory.
“Blame me for Abby’s death?” Shane finished, a hard note in his voice. “Some days he does, some days he doesn’t. But he does blame me for your leaving and never coming back.”
“That wasn’t because of you.”
“Wasn’t it?” He tilted his head, giving her a considering look. “What’s making you so jumpy, Lauren? Don’t tell me it’s just the water. You don’t like being alone with me.”
“I got over you a long time ago. It was a teenage crush, that’s all. It’s not like I’m still attracted to you. I don’t think about you at all. I am way, way over you. I’ve moved on.”
“Are you done?” he asked when she finally ran out of steam.
He eased up on the throttle so abruptly, she stumbled right into his arms. Her lips had barely parted in protest when his mouth came down on hers, hot, insistent, demanding the truth.
She should break it off, pull away . . . but God, he tasted good. She felt seventeen again, hot, needy, reckless, on the verge of something incredible and exciting and . . .
She had to stop. Finally, she found the strength to push him away. She stared at him in shock, her heart pounding, her breathing ragged.
He gave her a long look in return. “Yeah, I’m over you, too.” He put his hands back on the wheel.
Okay, so her body still had a thing for him. That didn’t mean her head or her heart intended to go along. Loving Shane had only gotten her a heart full of pain.
“I’m glad we’ve settled that,” she said sharply.
A tense silence fell between them, and the air around them grew thicker, colder, and damp. Her hair started to curl and a fine sheen of moisture covered her face. As they rounded the point, a silvery mist surrounded them. Her father had often spoken of the angels that danced above the bay, that watched over and protected them. She’d believed him with the innocence of a child, but she’d lost her faith when Abby died. What kind of angel could let a fifteen-year-old girl be killed?
She felt a wave of panic as the mist enveloped them in a chilling hug, and had to fight a powerful desire to fling herself back into Shane’s arms.
Why are you fighting? He’s the man you’ve always wanted.
The voice wasn’t in her head; it was on the wind. She certainly hadn’t said the words, because they weren’t true. She didn’t want Shane—not anymore.
A melodic laugh seemed to bounce off the waves, as if the ocean found her amusing. She shook her head, forcing the fanciful thought away. She didn’t believe in angels, or much of anything. Believing in someone always led to disappointment.
She let out a breath of relief as the fog lifted, and a beam of light danced off the waves ahead of them—her father’s boat.
Shane’s boat was moving faster now. They’d reach the Leonora within minutes. But then what? “How will we stop him?” she asked.
“We’ll pull up next to him. If he doesn’t stop on his own, one of us will have to jump onto his boat and take over.”
“Excuse me? Did you say one of us is going to jump between the boats while they’re moving?”
“It’s not that difficult.”
“Well, it won’t be me,” she declared.
“Then you can drive.”
She didn’t like that scenario, either. “I haven’t driven a boat in a long time.”
“You can do it. Take the wheel now. Get comfortable with it. I’ll see if I can get your dad on the radio.”
She gripped the wheel with tight hands as Shane tried to raise her father on the radio.
When they neared the Leonora, she could see her father standing inside the cabin. The door was closed and he seemed oblivious to their presence. Shane switched frequencies, and the sound of music blasted through. Her father had always loved opera—a strange passion for a simple fisherman, but he found some affinity between the music and the sea.
“I don’t think he can hear us,” Shane said. “Bring the boat as close as you can.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to drive it?”
“Just hold her steady, Lauren. I’ll jump onto your dad’s boat and drive him back. You can follow us.”
“You’re going to leave me alone on this boat—on the ocean?” It had been a long time since she’d allowed herself to get into a situation she couldn’t control, and this was way out of her comfort zone. “I don’t think I can do this.”
He looked her straight in the eye. “You can.”
His words, his gaze, reminded her of a conversation from a lifetime ago when he’d handed her a helmet and taught her how to drive his motorcycle. He’d always pushed her beyond her limits, forced her to believe in herself.
“You want your father back or not?” he challenged.
She lifted her chin and drew in a deep breath. “You jump. I’ll drive.”
“Good. Don’t worry, I won’t let you out of my sight. It took me a long time to save enough cash to buy this boat. I don’t intend to lose it.”
“I’m touched by your sentiment.” While she was getting dreamy-eyed about their past, he was thinking only of his boat.
“Just stay close, Lauren. I don’t feel like going for a swim, even though I’m sure you’d enjoy tossing me into the sea.”
She bit down on her lip as Shane went to the side of the boat. She wasn’t worried about him, he could take care of himself. Fearlessness was part of his makeup. He wasn’t a man to sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to take charge, and right now she was grateful for that.
Shane stepped over the rail, paused for a second, and then jumped, landing on the fishing platform on her father’s boat. He stumbled slightly, then straightened and yanked open the door to the cabin.
Her father finally turned his head. He exchanged a few words with Shane, then Shane took over at the wheel. A moment later his voice came over the radio. “Let’s go home, Lauren.”
His words brought a bittersweet rush of emotion. Angel’s Bay wasn’t her home now, and it never would be again.
It took about twenty minutes to get back to the marina. Shane kept in constant contact on the radio and Lauren stayed as close to her father’s boat as possible. She breathed a sigh of relief when she drove the boat into the slip. Shane came on board to tie the lines down while she joined her father, who was waiting for her on the dock.
His khaki pants and black windbreaker hung loosely on his thin frame. He’d lost weight in the years since she’d last seen him, and he’d aged quite a bit. His dark hair was all gray now, including the stubble on his cheeks. He stood with his shoulders hunched, but he didn’t seem concerned about his jaunt out to sea. She didn’t know if that was good or bad.
When he saw her his eyes widened with surprise, followed by what appeared to be teary emotion. He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe she was there, and she felt a rush of guilt at all the years she’d let go by. This man was her father. He’d tucked her in at night, scared away the monsters under her bed, been there for her—well, some of the time.
Maybe they hadn’t shared a lot of common interests, but they were connected by blood, by love. How could she have let him go? How could she have forgotten what they were to each other?
“Hi, Dad,” she said softly.
“Abby.” He held out his arms. “My sweet, precious girl. You’ve come back to me at last. I’ve missed you so much.”
Lauren’s heart came to a crashing halt. “I’m Lauren, Dad. I’m not Abby. I’m Lauren,” she repeated, seeing disappointment and fear fill his eyes.
“What have you done with Abby?” he asked in confusion, his arms dropping to his sides. “What have you done with your sister?”
Suddenly it was easy to remember why she’d left, and why she’d stayed away so long.
© 2010 Barbara Freethy