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Sam Cutter had driven almost twelve hours when an old joke suddenly came back to him. Something about a town not being the end of the world but you could see it from there.
Now he knew that place had a name. Cooper's Landing. And it was cold. No one had warned him that winter released its grip with excruciating slowness along Lake Superior's shore. The second week of June and the buds on the trees had barely unfurled in shy, pale shades of green.
He drove slowly down the main street and pulled over next to the building that sagged tiredly on the corner. The color of the original paint on the clapboard siding was only a memory, and the shingles had loosened from the roof, curling up at the ends like the sole of a worn-out shoe. A red neon sign winked garishly in the window. Bait.
He glanced at the girl slumped against the window in the passenger seat. Her lips were moving silently, showing signs that yes, there was brain activity. Since she hadn't talked to him for the past five hours, he'd been forced to watch for obvious signs of life. They'd been few and far between. Changing the song on her iPod. The occasional piece of candy being unwrapped. A twitch of her bare toes. Well, not completely bare. One of them had a toe ring.
He touched her elbow and she flinched. Sam tried not to flinch back. Once upon a time she'd been generous with her hugs.
"Faith? I'll be right back."
She frowned and yanked out a headphone. "What?"
"We're here. I'll be right back."
She straightened, and her gaze moved from window to window. She had a front-row seat to view Cooper's Landing, and Sam expected to see some expression on her face. Shock? Terror? Instead, she shrugged and pushed the headphone back in place.
He wished he could disengage from reality and disappear into another world so easily.
The warped door of the bait shop swung open when he pushed on it, releasing an avalanche of smells. The prominent ones were fish, sauerkraut and bratwurst. Sam's eyes began to water.
"Let me guess. Cutter. You look just like your old man."
Sam saw a movement in the corner of the room just after he heard the voice. Between the heavy canvas awning shading the street side of the building and the tiny row of windows, the sunlight couldn't infiltrate the inside of the bait store. Shadows had taken over, settling into the maze of shelves. The lightbulbs flickering over his head held all the power of a votive candle.
"Sam Cutter." Sam walked toward the voice.
He heard a faint scraping noise and a man shuffled toward him out of the gloom, wiping his hands on a faded handkerchief. By the time he reached Sam, he'd stuffed it in the pocket of his coveralls and stretched out his hand.
Sam shook his hand even as he silently acknowledged that a long, hot shower and half a bottle of the cologne he'd gotten for his birthday weren't going to completely strip away the bait store's unique blend of odors.
"I wasn't expecting to see you so soon. S'pose you're anxious to get a look at her." Rudy squinted up at him. "That's why I'm here."
Rudy started to laugh but quickly broke into a dry, hacking cough. "Come on, she's outside."
Sam followed him to the back of the store, and his boot slipped on something, almost sending him into a skid that would have taken out a shelf full of fishing reels. He didn't bother to look down, not wanting to know what was filling the tread of his hiking boot. In some cases, ignorance was bliss.
Rudy pushed the door open, and Sam found himself standing on a rickety platform that trembled above an outcropping of rocks. At the base of the rocks, a blackened, water-stained dock stretched over the water. With one boat tied to it. Sam stared at it in disbelief as it nodded in rhythm with the waves.
"There she is. The Natalie. She's a beauty, ain't she?" Rudy tucked his hands in his pockets and bowed his head in respect against the crisp breeze that swept in to greet them.
"That's the boat?"
Faith had materialized behind them, and Sam twisted around to look at her. She'd pushed her chin into the opening of her black hooded sweatshirt but the tip of her nose was pink, kissed by the wind.
"It can't be." Sam blinked, just to be sure the faded gray boat wasn't a hallucination due to the sleepless nights he'd been having. "When I talked to Dad, he said the boat was new."
"He's one of them positive thinkers." Rudy grinned and spit over the side of the railing. "It was new to him when he bought it. I can tell your first mate here knows quality when she sees it."
Faith's shy smile reminded Sam of his manners.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Dawes, this is my niece, Faith Cutter. Faith, this is Mr. Dawes."
"Aw, it's just plain Rudy." He smiled at Faith, revealing a gold-capped front tooth. "Jacob said you wouldn't be here until mid-July. And he shoulda warned you we don't pack away our winter coats until then."
Sam glanced at Faith and noticed she was shivering. Instinctively, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into the warmth of his flannel-lined denim jacket. Instead of pulling away, as he half expected her to, she tunneled in farther. For a split second, she was six years old again, snuggled up against him with a copy of Dr. Seuss's One Fish, Two Fish book in one hand and a raggedy stuffed rabbit named Mr. Carrots in the other.
"Dad said the boat was available whenever I wanted to use it," Sam said distractedly. "June worked out better for us."
"Doesn't matter to me none. I just keep an eye on it for him. Go on now. Get acquainted with her."
Faith skipped down the skeletal wooden staircase that spiraled to the water. Sam was tempted to yell at her to slow down and grab the railing, but one look at it made his back teeth snap together. It was probably safer not to use it.
By the time Sam hopped on board, Faith had already disappeared belowdeck. From his dad's description of the boat, Sam thought he'd be in a luxury cabin cruiser for the next few weeks. Now he simply hoped it was watertight.
"Sam!" Faith's muffled voice sounded more excited than it had in months. "You've got to see this!"
He ducked into the narrow stairwell and found her standing in the doorway of one of the cabins.
"Can I take this one?"
Sam peered in cautiously. A narrow bunk bed, a corner desk and a small table were the only furnishings in it, but even though they were old, everything was spotless. He exhaled slowly in relief.
"Sure. The desk will come in handy."
Faith rolled her eyes in typical twelve-year-old fashion. "You had to remind me."
"That was the deal. Your mom let you come with me if you kept up with your homework."
"Mom would have let me come anyway." Faith lifted her chin defiantly, but he could hear the tremor in her voice. "I heard her. She told you that I've been 'too much' for her lately."
Sam closed his eyes. He had no idea that Faith had overheard his last conversation with Rachel. "Faith, it's not you. Your mom Things have been hard for her the past few months."
"Well, here's a news flash." Faith's eyes narrowed and suddenly she looked years older. "Things haven't been easy for me, either "
Her voice choked on the word and Sam pulled her against him. He wasn't sure what he could say to comfort her. Not when he hadn't discovered anything to fill in the fissures in his own heart.
"I miss him." Faith clung to him.
The knot of sadness forming in Sam's throat strained for release, but he kept a tight rein on it.
"I miss him, too."
"I thought you were only staying two weeks, Evan-geline."
Evie saw the mischievous gleam in her dad's eyes and handed him another duffel bag from the trunk of her car. Patrick was the only person who called her by her full name, a gift from her parents to her paternal grandmother, the first Evangeline McBride, when she was born. "A person can't be too prepared."
"But what is it you're preparing for, sweetheart? A tidal wave? Or maybe an asteroid?" Patrick peered in the car window at the flats of tomato plants lined up across the backseat.
Evie was used to her dad's teasing. "Don't be silly." She handed him a large sewing basket embroidered with strawberries. And a stadium umbrella. "We'd have plenty of time to get ready if one of those things was going to occur. This stuff is just for every day."
Her dad frowned as she handed him a bag of groceries. "There is a grocery store in Cooper's Landing."
"Do I need to mention that the expiration date on the can of corn I bought last summer coincided with the Reagan administration?"
Patrick winked at her. "You love it here."
He was right, but Evie wasn't about to admit that to Caitlin and Meghan.
A week after school had officially closed for summer vacation she'd packed up her car, locked up the house and driven away with her traveling companionsthe box of books on the passenger seat beside her.
The closer she'd gotten to the adorable stone cottage her dad now called home, the more excited she'd been. When Patrick left on his fishing trip, Evie knew she'd be perfectly content just to stretch out on the wicker chaise longue in the backyard and admire the lake from a distance. She loved watching Lake Superior change from steel-gray to vivid blue, depending on its mood. And Superior was a moody lake. The proof was in the hundreds of ships that slept below her ice-cold surface.
Evie leaned close and kissed her dad's bristly cheek. "You forgot to shave again this morning."
"I didn't forget," Patrick grumbled. "I'm retired. A man shouldn't have to shave when he's retired."
Evie looped the strap of a canvas messenger bag over her shoulder and headed toward the house. "Did you and your friend finally decide when you're leaving?"
"Day after tomorrow. Jacob's picking me up at five in the morning. And" Patrick put up his hand to prevent her from saying what he knew was going to come next "you don't have to get up and make oatmeal for me. The reason we're leaving so early is because it's a long drive to the lodge, and then we have to get to our campsite."
"Why don't you just stay at the lodge?" They'd had this conversation several times already, but Evie thought it worth repeating. Until she got her way. Patrick was only fifty-nine, but she didn't understand why he'd turned down a soft bed in the main lodge for a tent on a secluded island several miles away.
"Jacob's been camping for years," Patrick said. "He'll take care of me."
Evie snorted. "From what you've told me about Jacob Cutter, he's a daredevil. I don't want him to talk you into anything stupid. Or dangerous."
"You've been teaching the peer-pressure curriculum again, haven't you?"
Evie gave a weak laugh. "I'm sorry, Dad, it's just that I want you to be careful."
"Careful is my middle name."
"Stubborn is your middle name," she muttered under her breath.
The sound of tires crunching over gravel drew their attention to the vehicle creeping up the long driveway.
"Looks like you've got some customers," Evie said, watching a black pickup truck rattle into view.
"Maybe they're lost." Patrick grinned. "But I'll still try to talk them into buying a pair of seagull salt-and-pepper shakers."
Evie laughed. Beach Glass didn't have a single kitschy item like the ones he'd just described. Her dad spent the winter months combing estate sales to find rare objectsthe ones that escorted his customers down memory lane. Patrick had told her more than once that everyone needed a connecting point to their past. Sometimes it was a book they remembered reading as a child or the exact twin of the pitcher their grandmother had used to pour maple syrup on their pancakes when they were growing up. Beach Glass was off the beaten path, but people still managed to find it. And when they left, it was usually as the owner of some small treasure.
"Just put that stuff by the door, Dad, and I'll take care of it in a few minutes." Evie couldn't help glancing over her shoulder at the truck idling in the tiny parking lot next to the antique shop. The tinted windows obscured the inside cab from view. She hesitated a moment but whoever was driving the pickup wasn't in a hurry to get out.
She went inside and finished unpacking her clothes, glad she'd tossed in a few sweaters. A person could never be too prepared and the breeze off the lake still had a bite.
When she peeked outside half an hour later, the truck was gone. She poured two iced coffees and headed across the yard to the shop. More than half the furnishings in her own home were compliments of Beach Glass, and she was eager to see the latest bounty her father had added since her last visit.
"What do you mean he's staying on the boat?"
Evie paused at the sound of Patrick's agitated voice through the screen door.
"Well, that's just one of our problems ." His voice lowered, ebbing away like the tide, and then strengthened again. "He stopped by a little while ago, insisting we bring him along. No, I don't trust him any more than you do, Jacob but Sophie"
Evie realized she was holding her breath. She'd never heard her dad sound so stressed.
"I suppose we can delay the trip but I'm afraid if we don't go as planned, Sophie is going to get No, go ahead. Evie might be on her way over. I'll talk to you later this evening."
It suddenly occurred to Evie that she was eavesdropping. She backed away from the door, replaying the part of the conversation she'd overheard.
The elusive Sophie Graham again.
Evie had never seen the woman, even during the reconnaissance mission Caitlin had tried to set up the previous summer. In the interest of maintaining sibling harmony, Evie had dropped a few subtle hints to her dad that she'd like to meet Sophie sometime, but all she could get out of him was that the mysterious Sophie wasn't in good health.
She froze midstep.
Her dad may have been a bit forgetful but apparently there was nothing wrong with his hearing.
Evie winced and caught her lower lip between her teeth. All the times she'd preached to her students that honesty was the best policy came rushing back. She pressed the glasses against her cheeks to put out the fire in them. The downside of having red hair and fair skin. She couldn't hide a blush to save her life.
"I brought you a reward for working so hard," she called through the screen door.
Patrick appeared on the other side and Evie could see the furrows in his forehead, as deep as stress cracks in a wall.