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Night shadows had already fallen when Ashley Davis's taxi reached the rugged coastline of Portland, Maine. Wisps of fog floated over choppy gray water, and a blanket of heavy, dark clouds heralded the approach of an Atlantic storm.
"You'll have to wait until morning for a ferry or hired boat," the driver briskly informed her as he opened the door and set down her single suitcase. "You won't be finding any transportation to Greystone Island this time of night."
"I have to," Ashley answered flatly as she handed him the fare.
As he drove off, Ashley slung the strap of her alligator purse over her shoulder and picked up her suitcase. Shivering in her lightweight beige knit jacket and slacks, she realized her San Francisco wardrobe wasn't going to be suitable for Maine weather, even in early September. She hadn't even considered something as mundane as the weather after she'd received the telephone call from Portland late that morning.
She had been stunned when a female police officer had informed her that her sister, Lorrie, had disappeared while working on an island off the coast of Maine.
"Some of her belongings were found at the top of a steep cliff about midday, and one of her shoes on the rocky beach below." The officer added that the authorities were speculating the young woman had fallen or jumped into the rough current, and that her body had been swept out to sea.
Ashley was stunned. "No, I don't believe it."
"I'm sorry. We'll let you know about any further developments."
Not Lorrie! She'd gone to Greystone Island to catalogue some vintage clothing being offered for auction by a wealthy family who owned an estate on the Atlantic side of the island. The Langdons' island property had belonged to the illustrious family since the late 1800s, and they had decided to release a collection of vintage clothing accumulated over several generations.
Lorrie had called from New York, all excited. "I've been hired by a prominent New York auction house to make an inventory and pack the collection for shipment." She'd sounded enthusiastic and confident about the assignment.
During the week she'd been on the island, Lorrie had called Ashley several times with glowing reports about how well the inventory was going.
She couldn't be dead. She couldn't!
They'd always been very close, raised by a widowed mother who provided for her two daughters by working as a seamstress in one of the fashionable New York designer houses. Both girls had grown up with a heightened sense of fashion and color, and both had attended a Manhattan design school. After their mother's death, Ashley had left New York and started a successful business, Hollywood Boutique, specializing in original beaded bags, coin purses, and accessories. Now at age thirty, she employed three women full-time and was kept busy creating intricate beaded designs that bore her trademark. Lorrie had stayed in the New York area, working freelance for museums and auction houses offering vintage apparel.
Now she's missing! Presumed dead!
Ashley had left her shop in the hands of a trusted employee, Kate Delawny, and secured a seat on the first available flight. She had endured several hours of layovers in connecting flights across the country. A sense of disbelief had traveled with her every minute of the journey as she tried to absorb the shock.
Now she stood shivering in the foggy night air. Her ears were filled with the sound of the pounding surf lashing the wharf. Anchored boats in a marina tugged at bowlines like captured animals struggling to get free from their chains. Lights in a nearby parking lot did little to illuminate the empty ferry station or the dark harbor-master's small building with its posted sign for the next day's public transportation. The bay was dotted with numerous crafts looking like ghostly specters on the black surf. There were signs advertising daily water trips—all daytime hours.
Bracing herself against the wind, Ashley walked slowly out on the long pier. She was prepared to pay the price for any kind of transportation. Small fishing boats and larger cruisers tugged their moorings, and pier boards creaked under her feet. She searched anxiously to find someone aboard one of the boats who would respond to her urgent need.
"Hello. Hello. Anybody?" Her voice was driven back down her throat by the wind. Shivering in the clinging moist fog circulating around her, she brushed her dark brown hair away from her eyes as she peered into the mist. She knew that Greystone Island was one of numerous islands lying out there somewhere in the darkness.
I have to get there somehow!
Turning around and bending her head against the wind, she made her way back to where the taxi had left her. A collection of low structures, all dark and deserted, stretched along the water's edge. A strong odor identified them as fish houses. A few neon lights blinked where several weathered buildings clustered together, set back from the waterfront. Bracing herself against the wind, she hurried in that direction.
A renovated warehouse with a swinging sign outside the door identified the place as the Dockside Bar and Grill. Signs in the nautical-shaped windows promised food, drink and music.
Without hesitation, Ashley hurried inside.
A huge, high-ceilinged room was crowded with people, and a pungent mix of smoke, liquor and sweat instantly assaulted her nostrils.
Loud voices and a couple of strumming guitars blasted her ears. A group of men in work clothes crowded around the bar, laughing and draining their mugs as if all the beer kegs were going to run out soon. A few women sat at tables, smiling and drinking as heartily as their companions.
When no hostess appeared to greet her, Ashley made her way to the first empty booth. She was grateful for the warmth as a bone-deep chill began to ease. Putting her small suitcase on the seat opposite her, she quickly took off her damp jacket and rubbed her arms to restore some circulation. She was thankful that her tailored blouse was still dry, and the pair of casual soft leather loafers had kept her feet from getting chilled.
A blond waitress wearing tight nautical pants and a brief halter suddenly appeared, her pencil poised above her pad. "What's your poison?"
"Coffee," Ashley responded readily.
"No. Just black."
"Okay, but you look as cold as a mackerel on ice." The waitress was middle-aged, overweight, and showed that her feet hurt by the way she stood. Glancing at the suitcase Ashley had placed on the vacant seat, she said,
"I'd have me a little warm-me-upper if I was you."
Ashley shook her head. "I don't think so." Even though she needed some help getting through this nightmare, liquor wasn't the answer. She had to keep focused. No telling what news awaited her on the island.
The waitress shrugged and disappeared into a crowd that was growing every minute. Waiters and waitresses darted about with trays of drinks held above their heads to avoid the crush of customers pressing in on them. Ashley was beginning to think she'd never see her waitress again when she finally brought the coffee.
Ashley thanked her and then asked, "I wonder if you could help me? I need to get to Greystone Island as soon as possible...tonight. It's—it's a family emergency. Do you know anyone who I might hire to take me over?"
"The weather report don't look good," she answered, frowning. "Something's blowing in."
"I know, but, surely, one of these men would like to make some easy money," Ashley insisted. "I'll gladly pay extra."
"I don't know. It's about a forty-five-minute run out to Greystone in good weather. On a night like this...?" She shrugged.
"Please, it's very important."
"It must be," she said as she studied Ashley's pained expression. Then she turned and looked over the men at the bar.
Ashley held her breath. "Jenkins might do it," she said after a long search. "He's always up for getting his hands on a little more beer money."
"Will you ask him, please?" Ashley's heartbeat quickened.
"Okay, but I still think you'd do better to wait 'til morning." She turned and Ashley watched her make her way across the crowded room to the long bar.
She tapped a burly-looking man on the shoulder. Ashley couldn't see his face clearly under the duck bill of his hat as he turned around and listened to what the waitress was saying. Then he looked across the room to where Ashley was sitting. When she saw him nod and the waitress smile, a wave of relief almost made Ashley giddy.
He's going to do it!
Without hesitation, she agreed to pay the amount he asked after the man had shuffled over. Jenkins had thick shoulders and a ruddy face. He led the way down the wharf to an old motorboat which was probably used to take men out to their fishing crafts.
A dank, fishy smell permeated the air as she stepped down into it. She took the bench seat near the stern, and placed her suitcase at her feet while Jenkins sat on a forward bench, his back to her as he hunched over the motor.
The wind and fog had increased during the few minutes she'd been in the café. Ashley's uneasiness intensified. She debated asking him about a life jacket, but was afraid anything she said to the man might stop him from taking her out to the island.
He threw off the bowline and started swearing when he had trouble starting the motor. The boat began to rock in the choppy water. She couldn't have climbed out if she'd wanted to because the boat was already floating away from the pier.
Maybe the boat isn't even seaworthy!
As the boat swayed in the rising waves and deepening troughs, its old timbers began to groan. When the motor finally caught and the boat lurched forward, Jenkins' slurred muttering and colorful swearing added to the sickening plunge of Ashley's stomach.
Too late, she realized the boatman was drunk! "Turn back!" she yelled, but her words were driven back in her throat and Jenkins didn't even turn around.
As the motorboat sped forward, dark clouds blanketed the moon and stars, and the mainland was quickly lost from view. Short, choppy waves and buffeting northwestern winds seemed strong enough to capsize the creaking boat.
The mournful tolling of a buoy came closer in the rolling fog. Could he see where they were going? Would they pass Greystone Island in the fog? Fleeting glimpses of scattered watery lights appeared from time to time. Then darkness again. Were they passing all the islands dotting the waters off the coast of Maine and blindly plunging out into the rough Atlantic Ocean?
The nightmare was never-ending. Ashley's stomach took a sickening dip every time the boat fell into a deep trough in the sucking water.
When the throbbing vibrations of the boat beneath her feet began to lessen, she clutched the side of the tossing boat, fearing the motor had given out and that they soon would be adrift in the darkness and fog.
Jenkins suddenly gave a jubilant shout, as though surprised by his own navigation. "There she be! Grey-stone Cove. Pretty as you please."
Thank God, she thought as watery lights ahead grew brighter and the movement of the boat slowed. Her relief was shattered an instant later.
Jenkins misjudged the landing completely. He hit the pier with a jolt that landed Ashley in the bottom of the drenched boat. Her suitcase and shoulder purse tumbled on top of her.
A man with a deep voice shouted, "You blasted fool, Jenkins. What in blazes are you thinking? Nobody with brains worth two cents would make a crossing in this weather."
Jenkins mumbled something.