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Northwind Island punctured the fog bank ahead. At the back of the motorboat, Peta Donald bounced on the slick wooden seat, gritting her teeth to ride out the short bumpy trip into the Bay of Fundy.
Coming home was going to kill her.
But she couldn't turn around now. Besides, Danny had called her, quite out of the blue, and asked her to come to his thirtieth birthday party. Not many ex-girlfriends got such an invitation.
And, well, after what she'd done to Danny, she had to come.
The open ferry hit another cold wave, and she cringed in anticipation of the hard bump. Salt water sprayed her, stinging her eyes and chilling her more than the early July day should.
"Sorry," the operator tossed over his shoulder. Peta swiped her face, knowing there was really nothing he could do. The choppy sea wouldn't calm just because she was on it.
By now, she could make out the wharf and some bold herring gulls searching for a free lunch. At five miles in length, Northwind Island was too small for anything but one village and one wharf. Sustained years ago by the dulse and herring industries, and now by its retirees, the island still looked the same. The trees had thickened, but the steeple of the island's only church still pierced the misty skyline.
Hopefully, she'd have time for Sunday service. Though it was Tuesday, Danny's birthday wasn't until Friday, and she'd be leaving Sunday afternoon. She should be able to manage it, and Danny wouldn't care one way or the other.
He hadn't talked to her in a year. Then, after all that silence, he'd called with his invitation. "I'm turning thirty. You've got to come and help me celebrate."
Reluctance had washed over her. "I'm hardly welcomeon Northwind."
"Don't sweat it, girl. They hate everything here."
"Then why are you still there?"
Peta had felt Danny's heavy silence all the way to her Toronto apartment. "It's my parents' house," he'd finally said. "I didn't want to leave it. Not to these people."
Leave it? Peta had wondered what he'd meant by that comment, but said nothing. Instead, she'd changed the subject.
"Did you quit working for Gary Marcano?" She'd really hoped so, even after all this time. Guilt had a long memory. She should never have introduced the two men. Marcano was dangerous and manipulative, but she hadn't realized that until after the introduction.
"Oh, yeah, sure."
No, he wasn't, she'd suspected, but she hadn't felt like pushing the issue over the phone.
"Come on, Peta, girl. It's only for a few days. And I've even started to learn about this island's history. You wouldn't believe what I've found out. I want you to come. I want to see you again."
Danny had a way of coaxing. There was something in his voice and she hated what she knew would follow.
"You owe me," he'd added.
She grimaced. If it weren't for the guilt still eating at her, she'd tell him, no, thanks. But he'd remind her of how she'd introduced him to Marcano, and of how badly that had turned out.
Not much of a man, a little voice within her whispered. Danny should stop blaming her. She'd warned him that Marcano was no good a long time ago.
So why am I still letting Danny blame me?
Lord, do you want me to go home? To minister to Danny?
She'd sighed into the phone, waiting for an answer to her questions. Only long-distance silence lingered.
"Hey, Peta, come down and visit me. Take a few days off work for once. You owe me, remember?"
"Danny, don't you think it's about time you took responsibility for yourself?"
He'd ignored her question. "This is my over-the-hill birthday. You gotta come. Besides, you're worried about me, right? Come and see how well I'm doing."
Danny was intuitive enough to know that deep down, because she was now a Christian, she wanted to set things right with the people she'd hurt long ago.
"Come to my birthday party, Peta," he'd coaxed. "You can ease that guilty conscience of yours."
That last comment had cemented it.
Another wave knocked her back to the present. A minute later, the boat reached the public wharf.
The driver sideswiped one of the tires that lined the wharf, the impact shoving her against the hull of the boat. Grateful the horrible ride was over, she thanked the old man as he helped her out. At least she now knew why he'd asked for his money in advance. Hefting her knapsack onto her shoulder, Peta climbed the road that led to the village. The strap dug through her light jacket and blouse.
The café and the hardware store had been given face-lifts, she noticed, but not the grocery store, or all the simple clapboard houses.
At the crossroads, she turned right. Two people on the cracked sidewalk halted their conversation as she passed. Old Doc Garvey and Jane Wood, the crusty grocery store owner, both glared in shock and disbelief as she stepped out onto the empty street to circumvent them.
They recognized her, and had long memories, too, it seemed. Lord, was I wrong to come here?
Above the noise of the constant wind, which helped to drive the tides into the bay, Peta heard the boat's engine rev up and then grow fainter again. It was clear that the ferry operator had no plans to stay on the island.
The next house on the bay side, set apart from the rest, was Danny's. Looking a bit neglected and lifeless, the two-story could have used new siding, windows and some extra-strength weed killer. Odd that Danny should want to stay here. He hadn't cared for the quiet life when they'd been young. And if he'd changed his mind since, then why not fix the house up?
Bushes rustled to her left and she snapped her head over. A branch shook in one small spot like an accusing finger wagging at her, and a shiver raced up her spine.
Abruptly, a cat jumped from the bush, and dashed away. Peta released a sigh. Coming back here was creeping her out.
Having climbed up the broken step onto the porch, she rapped on the front door. No answer. In typical small-town fashion, she pushed it open and called out Danny's name.
Still quiet. Peta fought the cold sensation crawling within her as she dumped her knapsack on the chair beside the door, and walked down the familiar hall to the kitchen.
Empty. "Hey! Anyone home?" It had been a decade since she was last here and yet the furniture was the same, the pictures the same, the same layer of dust everywhere, like some kind of unreal time warp.
Hastily, she returned to the front hall and yelled up the stairs. "Wake up, Danny. It's past noon! Get out of bed."
Never mind why he might be sleeping the day away, Peta told herself as she grabbed her knapsack and climbed wearily up the stairs. But Danny was never an early riser and she doubted he'd awaken early to greet her. He'd just expect her to be his alarm clock.
At the top of the stairs, she turned, pausing long enough to toss her knapsack onto the spare room's bed. Danny would have taken over the master bedroom now that his parents were gone. He was probably still sleeping off some prebirth-day celebration.
The master bedroom's door stood ajar.
"Danny? Wake up!"
She peeked in. With a grimace at the empty, unkempt room, she walked to the large window that overlooked the backyard and the bay. Steeling herself against the vast vertigo-inducing view, she spied the motorboat disappearing into the mist. Below, there stood the glass-enclosed gazebo, a battered relic from the sixties, now at the very end of the eroding backyard, and looking as if it might topple over the cliff at any moment.
She didn't like being this high up, seeing this much wide-openness, but she couldn't shut her eyes.
Because down below, Danny lay on the floor of the gazebo, his unnatural pose and glazed stare telling her a horrible truth.
Her ex-boyfriend was very dead.
The man in front of Peta handed her a disposable mug of steaming tea. Looking at him, she muttered out a short thank-you. He then sat down on the chipped concrete step beside her, obviously taking her manners as an invitation to join her. The police officer who had answered her 911 call had asked her to leave the house, so she'd deposited her shaking frame on the broken step that began the walkway up to the porch.
"Drink it. You're frozen."
She obeyed the man, then sipped the hot liquid before saying, "I live in Toronto. We're in the middle of a heat wave right now. I'd forgotten that Northwind never gets a decent summer. Honestly, it's July 1st already. It should be warmer than this."
The man beside her chuckled and Peta stared at him. Who was he? He'd appeared shortly after the police and yet had, at some time, walked down the street to buy a cup of hot tea from the café. And while the officer and Doc Garvey went into the house, this man had stayed with her. To keep an eye on her?
He was tall, towering over her even as they shared the step. His long, jeans-clad legs stretched out before him. The sun-streaked tips of his walnut hair danced in the wind. The little wave in his hair added a contrary merriness to his somber expression. He was clean-shaven, handsome even. But his gold and green eyes carried something older and sadder. Empathy for her?
"I'm sorry," she whispered, shaking her head. "I don't know who you are."
"Lawson Mills. I'm a deacon at the church here. The police called me just to help out. But I'm the one who should be offering apologies. I'm sorry your friend is dead."
Peta acknowledged the condolences with a short nod. And appreciated that the police officer hadn't decided to keep her in the back of his patrol car. She'd been in police cars enough times as a youth. Enough to last a lifetime.
"The officer told me you said you'd come for your friend's birthday?" Lawson asked.
"Yes." Though Peta couldn't remember what she'd said to the constable. All that lingered in her mind was the image of Danny. She shivered, trying to push that image from her head with no luck. She took another shaky sip of the hot drink.
The officer emerged from the backyard, talking on his phone. She spied him ringing off as he walked up the gravel driveway toward her. This must be quite an anomaly for the local police force. Surely Northwind had little crime now that she'd moved away. Regardless, hers had been petty kid stuff, nothing like murder.
The police would come from Saint Stephen or Saint John, two bigger urban centers. Though Northwind Island, stuck out in the Gulf of Maine, was closer to the U.S. shore, it was Canadian. The RCMP would come, as would the media.
And the islanders wouldn't like that. Not one bit.
The wind had no effect on the officer's short, gray hair as he looked down on them grimly. Lawson frowned, then stood. Peta found herself thankful that he towered over the officer. It was almost like having an ally.
And she needed an ally, especially here.
"Eventually, we'll have to go to the station so you can give a statement, Miss Donald," the policeman said. "And you'll have to stay on the island until we're done with the investigation. But you can't stay in the house like you've been doing."
Peta stood, then stepped up on the concrete tread to meet the officer at eye level. "I only just got here, Constable" she glanced at his name tag "Long. But sure, I guess I can find a room at the B & B."
That local inn had a name, the Wild Rose, but everyone just referred to it as the B & B. She was hoping it had a new owner who didn't know her.
The officer eyed her suspiciously. "My partner is on her way. But it'll be a while before I can leave this property, so why don't we start your statement now?"
So there was another police officer here. Given the islanders' quirky behavior, she was surprised they'd even have two officers. These people discouraged tourists, and, if she remembered correctly, had even opposed a new wharf fifteen years ago because it might bring "troublesome mainlanders."
Peta started her statement, disjointedly giving the details of where she'd spent last night and when she'd left the mainland, all her words tasting slightly bitter, even with the hot sweet tea on her tongue.
She shut her eyes. The image of Danny still lingered in her mind. He'd aged more than she'd expected. A hard life of partying?
Oh, Lord, take that image away. Why have You imprinted it in my mind?
She'd been living in Toronto, working at an indoor construction company. She'd seen injuries, even fatal ones.
Again, as she rattled off her address in Toronto, Peta wondered why Danny had invited her. Was it really to help him celebrate his big 3-0? Because he had so few friends here? Because he knew he might die?
With another warning not to leave the island, and a receipt for her knapsack, which she'd left in the house, Peta was ordered off the property. And the officer returned to his phone.
"No place to go?" Lawson asked as she found herself dismissed at the end of the short driveway.
Feeling foolish, she shrugged. "I guess I could go down to the B & B, but I don't even have my wallet. I'll have to pay later, if I'm allowed to." With that, she started walking toward the village center.
Lawson fell in step beside her. Having lifted the fog, the wind now blew hard in their faces. She could hear it hum the power lines above. "You said you're here to celebrate Danny Culmore's thirtieth birthday."
They passed the café before she answered, "We're old school friends, and he asked me to come back this one time, so I did."
He shook his head, his eyes unreadable in the bright, cool day. "You must have been special to him."
Was she? He hadn't spoken much to her these past few years. Peta stole a glance at the man beside her. She wanted to ask him what he was doing on the island, but held back. Ten years in Toronto had taught her not to even look people in the eye anymore. She lived in a community of strangers, all as foreign to her as she was to them. It was better to mind her own business. That way, everyone else did the same.
They'd reached the B & B. It was still the image of what it had been years ago, with huge, unruly wild rosebushes guarding its perimeter, and wind-bent trees shading one side of the large house. The wooden sign out front still rattled in the constant breeze, and, as in years before, Kathleen McPherson still sat in the front-room window, glaring out at the world from below her vacancy sign.
Peta shook her head. It was sad to see Auntie Kay hadn't changed her bitter outlook on life.