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"I'm sorry to bring you bad news," Mark Townson said, "but your father is dead."
"What?" The pen Eva Sinclair held slipped from her fingers and clattered onto her desk. When she'd answered the phone, the last person she'd expected to hear on the other end of the line was someone from her hometown. "No, no "
"I'm afraid so."
"Early this morning. When he didn't show up at the office or answer his home phone or his cell, I came over here to his house. I found him and called nine-one-one."
"Do you know what happened?"
"Not for sure. He was slumped over the kitchen table where he'd been eating breakfast. My guess would be a heart attack. I'm sure someone official will be in touch with you soon. I just thought you should know right away."
"Yes, but a heart attack I didn't know he had a bad heart."
"I suspect there's a lot you didn't know about him."
His reproachful tone stung. Yet, the statement was true. She hadn't spoken to her father more than three or four times in the past five years, and those occasions had been short and strained.
"He told me about your, uh, disagreement," Mark Townson said. "And that you chose moving to Seattle over staying in Willow Beach and working for him at the Herald.''"
The Willow Beach Herald. Why would she want to write for a small-town weekly newspaper when she could work for a prestigious magazine like Seattle's Best? But, of course, that wasn't the only reason she didn't want to stay in Willow Beach.
She wondered how much Mark Townson knew about the reason for her leaving. Not the entire story, she'd bet, because her father didn't like to talk about the past any more than she did.
What Mr. Townson knew or did not know was not important now. His shocking news took precedence. At the age of fifty-two, her father, Sebastian Sinclair, was dead.
"I'll drive to Willow Beach right away." She checked her wristwatch. "If I leave by noon, I should be there by six."
"Come to the Herald's office when you get into town. We can get started on plans for a memorial."
"Yes, I suppose there should be some kind of service, but you don't need "
"I want to be involved. Seb meant a lot to me and to the entire town. Everyone will want to say their last goodbyes."
"Well all right. We'll talk about it when I get there."
An hour and a half later, after informing her boss of her father's sudden death and then driving to her Queen Anne Hill condo to toss some clothes into a suitcase, Eva headed south along the I-5 Freeway to Willow Beach. The blazing June sun turned the downtown skyscrapers into silver towers and glittered off the pewter waters of Elliott Bay.
As she left the city behind, her father dominated her thoughts. The most vivid recollection was his voice, deep and resonant when he was in a good mood and sharp and biting when he was angry. All too often, especially after her older brother, Brett, died, he'd been angry-and he'd taken out his anger on her. He'd pin her with a laser gaze and make his demands. Finally, after the ultimate battle over whether or not she would stay in their small town and work for him, she'd walked out.
At the thought of Brett, she fingered the silver chain she wore around her neck. A silver medal attached to the chain was hidden under her blouse. She visualized the words embossed there: First Place. Brett won the medal in a footrace on the beach the summer he was fifteen. Three years later, he was dead. Now she wore it. Although the memories were painful, she didn't want to forget him, ever.
When she reached Olympia, Eva focused on taking the exit leading to the coast. A few miles later, a turn south swept her past logging operations where stacks of timber waited for transport to paper mills. The acrid smell of the mills filled the air. The towns grew farther and farther apart as the road wound through thick evergreen forests and flat stretches of undeveloped land.
The last leg of the journey took her directly west toward the ocean, where a string of towns dotted the coast like beads on a necklace. Soon the sign for Willow Beach, Population 3,521, greeted her. On Main Street, familiar establishments popped into view: Bon Ton Bakery, Barnett's Drugs, Cooper's Hardware. So far, nothing had changed in the five years she'd been gone. Had time really stood still for her hometown?
The question didn't concern her, though. Her stay here was only temporary. Soon she'd be back in Seattle, where she belonged. Her father had been her last tie to the town, and now that fragile, final connection was broken.
A lump formed in her throat and her eyes misted. She blinked back the tears before they fell. Now was not the time to get emotional. Save that for later.
At 6:00 p.m., in anticipation of Eva Sinclair's arrival, Mark Townson cleared his desktop and turned out the lights in his office at the Herald. He was the only one left in the building. The shock of Seb's sudden death had paralyzed the staff, and he'd sent them home early.
Instead of heading directly down the hallway to the reception area, on impulse he turned in the opposite direction, toward Seb's office. He opened the door and, with his hand still on the doorknob, let his gaze sweep the room. He could still see the man in his high-backed black leather chair, head bent over his work, or leaning back, gesturing expansively while he talked on the phone.
Mark wouldn't change anything about this room, not until after the funeral anyway. Maybe then Seb's death would seem more real. Right now, it was as though he'd stepped out for a moment and would soon be back.
His gaze landed on the two gold-framed photos on the desk. He walked over to see them better. One was a picture of Seb's son, Brett. Mark didn't know much about him, except that he had drowned in a boating accident eleven years ago, when he was eighteen. Seb never wanted to talk about the incident, and Mark had respected his wishes.
Judging by the photo, which showed the teenager standing with feet apart, hands resting easily on his hips, a gleam in his eye and a tilt to his chin, Brett had been confident, fun-loving and maybe just a bit arrogant.
The other photo was of Eva, who was two years younger than Brett. It had been taken, Seb had told him, on her graduation from the University of Washington. She was dressed in traditional cap and gown, with the university's buildings in the background. She smiled into the camera, her dark hair curling around her shoulders, her eyes sparkling with the enthusiasm of someone about to embark on a grand adventure. He guessed Seb had chosen this photo because he wanted to remember her as a happy person, rather than the angry daughter who'd left town five years ago.
Leaving the office, he walked to the reception area and stood looking out the front window. Traffic flowed smoothly along Main Street as shoppers and workers made their way home and tourists returned to their motels.
Mark checked his wristwatch. Almost six-thirty. Even with heavy freeway traffic, Eva should be here by now. He wanted to get their initial meeting over with so he could pick up Sasha and go home himself.
A late-model blue compact pulled into a parking space in front of the office. A young woman in a tan jacket, knee-length skirt and high heels got out. She had an oversize purse slung over one shoulder. Eva Sinclair. He'd bet on it.
Sure enough, she headed directly for the Herald's front door. He walked over and pulled it open. "You must be Eva. Come on in."
She nodded, and as she stepped inside, her perfume wafted past his nose.
"I'm looking for Mark Townson."
He extended his hand. "I'm Mark."
Her eyes widened as she slipped her hand into his. Her skin was soft, yet her grip was firm. At her continued stare, he asked, "Is something wrong?"
"No, it's just that you sounded older on the phone." She pulled her hand away.
He couldn't help smiling. "I was thirty-one my last birthday. Some days, that feels mighty old."
He took a moment to study her. Not surprisingly, she had changed since the day she'd posed for her graduation photo. Her dark hair was pulled back in a fancy twist. Her eyes were outlined with dark pencil and mascara, and the bright red lipstick she wore matched her fingernails.
He wasn't sure he liked this more sophisticated version of Eva Sinclair. He shrugged off the thought. Whether he liked her or not made no difference. Their association would last a week or two at the most, and then she'd return to her life in Seattle.
"I see you found the place okay," he said and then could've kicked himself for the lame remark.
She shrugged. "No problem there. Nothing's changed in Willow Beach."
Mark was immediately defensive. "Oh, I don't know about that. You stay here long enough, you'll see plenty of changes."
Eva adjusted the strap of her purse more firmly on her shoulder. "I'm here only for as long as it takes to bury Seb and settle his affairs. I'm hoping everything can be wrapped up in a week, tops."
Her businesslike tone grated. They weren't discussing a stranger; the dead man was her father. But then her shoulders sagged and she ran a hand over her forehead, and he pushed away his impatience. After her long drive to the coast, she must be tired. Not to mention still in shock over her father's sudden death.
"Why don't we talk over dinner?" he suggested. "Or did you eat on the way?"
She shook her head. "I threw some things in a suitcase and came straight here. I'm not really hungry, but I'd better eat something."
"Me, too. So, fancy? Casual? What's your preference?"
Judging by her outfit, he figured she'd want someplace upscale and was surprised when she said with a shrug, "Casual is fine."
"Charlie's Fish House is casual."
A smile touched her lips, the first he'd seen since she arrived. "Charlie's, my old teenage hangout. Sure, why not?"
"Okay, I'll drive. My car's out back."
He locked the front door and then led her down the hallway, past the staff's cubicles and his and Seb's offices to the back door. His SUV, still covered with dust from his last camping trip, sat in the unpaved parking lot that bordered an alley. He opened the passenger door for Eva, then went around to his side and climbed in. She settled in the seat, her purse on her lap, charging the air with her perfume.
One of Sasha's stuffed toys, a Pekingese with a faux-jeweled collar, lay on the console. He picked up the toy and tossed it into the backseat.
Noticing Eva's raised eyebrows, he said,
"You're married, then."
He started the engine and shifted into Reverse. "I was. Diane died three years ago. Sasha's our only child. She'll be six in a few weeks." He checked the rearview mirror as he backed out of his parking spot. "Single parenting can be a challenge, but Sasha has a great caretaker. And she's a good kid."
The mention of his daughter made him wish he were on his way to pick her up instead of spending time with Eva Sinclair. Gripping the steering wheel, he vowed to do his best, though-for Seb's sake.
Eva took a bite of the halibut she'd ordered at Charlie's Fish House. Even with little appetite, she had to admit the crisply fried seafood was as good as she remembered. Charlie's decor hadn't changed since her high-school days, either-the same plain wooden tables and chairs, the same counter with red vinylcovered stools, the same chalkboard menu on the wall. Outside, the surf sang as soft waves rolled onto shore, and the warm breeze carried the aromas of salt and seaweed and wet sand.
The one unfamiliar element was the man sitting across from her. Mark Townson. As she'd so tactlessly blurted out earlier, he wasn't what she'd expected. Over the phone, his deep voice had sounded as though it belonged to someone older than a man in his early thirties. But Mark was definitely young-and fit. His blue knit shirt stretched across a broad chest, the short sleeves showing off impressive muscles. His hair was a dark brown and his eyes a deep sea-blue. He could've been a model for one of the outdoor recreation companies that advertised in Seattle's Best.
He looked up and caught her staring. She scrambled for something to say. "So you've worked for the Herald for about five years now?"
Mark finished chewing a bite of his burger. "Right. Since shortly after you left town. I started out doing ads and column writing, some general stuff. You know how it is on a small newspaper-everyone does a little of everything. Then three years ago, Seb decided he wanted to back off a bit and suggested I take over as editor." He dipped a French fry into a pool of ketchup. "I take it you like your gig in Seattle?"
"Very much. I interned at Seattle's Best when I was at the University of Washington. Went to work there shortly after graduation. Started out as copy editor. Now I'm a staff writer but hope to be assistant editor soon. The current assistant is leaving, and I'm pretty sure I'll be taking her place."
"Good for you. What you write is different from newspaper writing."
"Vastly. Our aim is to discover the best Seattle has to offer in restaurants, fashion, housing and entertainment and get it out to our readers. I love what I'm doing."
"Like I said on the phone, Seb told me how you didn't want to stay here and work for him."
"There's no way I could be writing the kinds of articles here that I'm doing for Seattle's Best."
"Big disappointment to him, though."
She leveled Mark a gaze. "But after I left, he found you, didn't he?"
Mark frowned. "I guess you could put it that way. Or I found him. I was the one who came looking for a job."
Eva just stared at him. "Whatever. Maybe we'd better get down to business. You want a big memorial, you said."
"No question. If you don't want to be involved, my staff and I can pull it off."
"No, no, I'll go along with that. There are other things to take care of, too, though." She pulled her iPad from her purse and switched it on. "Forest Lawn can do the service and the reception. I'll call them." She tapped the keyboard.
"We'll need an obituary. You're the logical one to write that. We'll put it on the website, too."
She looked up and raised her eyebrows. "The Herald is online?"
"Yep. We're not as backwoods as you think."
"Good to know. Okay, how about flowers?"
Mark pulled a notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. "I'll get April on that. She's on our staff."
Details about the memorial carried them through dinner. When they finished, they both had to-do lists. "I do appreciate your help," she told him, slipping her iPad into her purse.
"You're welcome." Mark studied her a moment. "So, you'll be here about a week?"
She nodded. "I can't afford to be away any longer than that."
"No, I suppose not."
On the drive back to the Herald's office, Eva gazed out the window at the growing darkness. Here and there, lights blinked on, but unlike in Seattle, they barely penetrated the rapidly approaching night. She'd forgotten how dark Willow Beach became once the sun dipped below the horizon.