Steeple Hill, 2012; ISBN 978-0-373-87715-5
Carol Award finalist
After surviving a devastating tragedy, combat reporter Nate Garrison returns to the only place that ever felt like home: Starfish Bay in the lush Pacific Northwest. But his reunion with childhood friend Lindsey Collier is nothing like he’d imagined. The sad-eyed widow who runs Starfish Bay Mercantile was once the girl who made young Nate dream—of a future, of family ties and of deep roots. Now Lindsey avoids love, loss…and Nate, wanting nothing more than to live a quiet existence. But a storm is brewing in peaceful Starfish Bay, one that could change the character of the town forever. As she and Nate join forces not only in the fight to preserve a place they both love but to help a grieving little boy, will they take a leap of faith and discover the healing power of love?
The bell over the front door of Starfish Bay Mercantile jingled, alerting Lindsey Collier to the arrival of a customer. Putting aside the town council meeting agenda she’d been perusing, she looked up with a smile. But her usual cheery greeting died in her throat.
The man who’d just stepped into the store was a stranger. A scruffy one.
And she didn’t trust strangers.
Especially scruffy ones.
She gave the tall, lean, mid-thirtyish man a rapid scan. His dark brown hair needed a trim, his cobalt eyes were bloodshot, and his worn jeans and faded black T-shirt looked as if they’d been slept in—for several nights.
Standing slowly, she kept her eye on him as she edged toward the silent panic button—and the drawer that held her compact Beretta. “Can I help you?”
The man looked her way. For a long moment he studied her, faint furrows etching his brow. As if he were assessing her—or the security in the store.
Both were formidable—but she hoped she wouldn’t have to prove that.
Swallowing past the fear congealing in her throat, she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the drawer and eased it open.
He cocked his head and squinted at her. “Lindsey Callahan?”
Her hand froze. She took another look at the stranger. Nothing about him was familiar, yet he knew her maiden name. “Have we met?”
The barest hint of a smile played at his lips. “A long time ago. Nate Garrison.”
He didn’t approach her, or extend his hand. That was good. She didn’t want to be rude if she did happen to know this stranger, but neither did she intend to let her fingers stray far from the panic button—or the gun.
“I’m sorry…the name isn’t ringing any bells.”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, a muted flash of disappointment echoing in the depths of his eyes. “You might remember me better as Nathaniel.”
The image of a pale little boy with light brown hair and thick, always-smudged glasses flickered across her mind. But he’d come and gone quickly in her life, and she’d only been…what? Eight? Nine? She hadn’t thought of him in years.
Her hand hovered over the gun. “You lived here once, right?”
“For a short time.” He shifted around to survey the store. “This place hasn’t changed much in twenty-five years.”
“It hasn’t changed much since 1936, when my grandfather opened it. We like it that way.”
At her defensive tone, he swung back toward her. “I wasn’t being critical. It’s nice to know some things stay the same.”
“Very few.” She withdrew her hand from her security cache. But she left the drawer open. “So are you passing through?”
“No.” He moved closer, hands still in pockets. “I’ll be around a while. I stopped here to pick up some food and see if I could get a recommendation for a place to stay.”
She narrowed her eyes. “If you’re looking for work, there isn’t much to be had except at the fishing camps, and as far as I know, neither of them are hiring. Tourism in northern California has been down all season.”
“I didn’t come here for a job.”
Then what did you come for?
The question hung between them, unasked and unanswered.
When the silence lengthened, she gave him another once-over. No pricey accommodations for this guy. “There’s a low-key bed and breakfast a couple of streets over. Or the Orchid Motel, on the north end of town. I expect there are some houses and apartments available by the month, too. Depends on how long you’re planning to stay.”
“I have no idea. But I don’t want to commit to a monthly rental. And I’m not a B&B kind of guy. Is the motel clean?”
“Eat-off-the-floor. Two older sisters from Georgia bought it about a dozen years ago, and they hate dirt. The attached café is excellent, too. They’re both great cooks.”
“Sold.” He smiled, and as the angular lines of his face softened an odd—and unwelcome—tingle zipped up her spine.
She broke eye contact on the pretext of checking her watch. “You might need a snack to tide you over. The café won’t be open again until five. And for future reference, breakfast is seven to nine. Lunch, eleven to one. Dinner, five to seven. Closed on Sundays. Like clockwork.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember.” He ambled over to the refrigerated case, inspected the display, and pulled out a can of soda and a pre-packaged deli sandwich. On his way back to the counter, he snagged a cellophane-wrapped brownie—but he held it back as she rang up his purchases. “Are those homemade?” He nodded to a plate of chocolate chip cookies under a clear plastic dome beside the register.
“Yes. This morning.”
“Did you make them?”
She shifted under his scrutiny. “Yes.”
“From your mother’s recipe?”
Jolted, she stared at him.
His lips lifted again, creating a fan of lines at the corners of his eyes. “One of my happiest memories of this town is eating your mother’s chocolate chip cookies while we watched for whales from The Point.”
Her mouth almost dropped open. She had sat with the junior version of this man eating cookies and watching for whales? A fuzzy, fleeting memory surfaced of a long-ago summer day at The Point. Ice cream had somehow been involved. But it was gone before she could catch hold of it.
Again, she thought she detected a flash of disappointment in his eyes. But before she could be certain, he motioned toward the cookies and riffled through his wallet. “I’ll take two.”
In silence, Lindsey rang them up and put them in a white deli bag. On impulse, she added a third one.
“Hey…that’s too many. I only paid for two.”
She crimped the top of the bag and handed it to him. “For old time’s sake.” Why she felt the need to make amends for forgetting him was beyond her. But the tiny glimmer of gratitude in his blue irises told her she’d done the right thing.
“Thanks.” He picked up his purchases. “I’ll see you around.”
With that he exited, the bell announcing his departure just as it had marked his arrival.
Lindsey shifted her position behind the counter, stepping into the late-afternoon shadows so she could see without being seen. She expected him to climb into some old jalopy or mount a motorcycle, but the only car in the lot besides her six-year-old Camry was a newer model Acura.
The man had some bucks, after all.
She watched as he slid into the driver’s seat, all six-foot-plus of him. Rather than start the engine, though, he dipped his head. His shoulders flexed. Then he lifted a chocolate chip cookie, took a big bite and closed his eyes as he chewed.
Was he relishing the taste—or the memories it stirred?
He ate the whole cookie that way, eyes closed, expression pensive. When he finished, he popped the top on the soda can, took a swig and started the engine.
Craning her neck, she watched until his car disappeared in the direction of the Orchid Motel.
Who was that guy?
And more important, why had he come back?