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What a quaint little island.
"This place is gorgeous."
"Look at all the flowers."
Hanging toward the back of the throng of tourists, Noah Bennett only half listened to their jabbering as they filed off the Mirabelle Island ferry and onto the pier. The idiots couldn't wait to get off the boat before snapping pictures left and right.
"Oh, get that storefront. And the lamppost."
A lamppost. That one's sure to win a Pulitzer.
"I already love this place."
"It's so charming."
Yeah. And boring. And quiet. With nosy neighbors and absolutely nothing to do. You should all love it.
Hell, man, chill.
Taking in a deep breath, Noah did his best to dispel the anger that seemed to be his constant companion these days and tried to be patient while the last of the tourists exited the boat deck. They were all in so much of a hurry, and with his bum leg he'd only slow everyone up. He'd put this off for a decade and a half, five more minutes weren't going to kill him. It's not as if there'd be a welcoming committee waiting.
As the ferry cleared out, he couldn't help noticing there weren't any families. The majority of people heading down the pier were couples, both young and old. That was strange. Although it was only the end of May, used to be, this place was crawling with kids. Still, they all were happy people, all on vacation, all ready for an idyllic few days. They'd find it. Mira-belle was that kind of place for most folks.
After asking one of the attendants to have his luggage delivered to Grandma Bennett's house, Noah adjusted his baseball cap and sunglasses, hoping to maintain his anonymity for a few days, and made his way off the ferry. By the timehe left the pier his temporary prosthetic felt like a lead weight at the end of what was left of his leg.
They'd said he'd be good as new. Right. On what planet? He forced himself to walk to the end of the block before dropping onto the bench at the curb, not far from where the ferry passengers were catching carriage rides to their respective accommodations.
A look down Main Street took his mind off the dull ache in his leg. Other than the oak trees, maples, lindens and spruce being noticeably larger, little had changed on this chunk of dirt since the day he'd left. Miller's Ice Creamery and Candy Shoppe was still painted fire-engine red with white shutters, though they now offered gourmet coffees. There was a sedate new art gallery and two new restaurant-bar combos, although Duffy's Pub looked as entrenched as before. The bank, post office, floral shop and village chapel all looked exactly the same, from the green-and-white striped awnings to the baskets of flowers hanging from the black iron lampposts.
That's the way they liked it here on Mirabelle. Newfangled was bad. Static was good. Retro was better. And historic, well, now you were cooking with gas.
What had he been thinking coming back here? With nothing but a village on one end of the long and narrow island, a couple of isolated private homes on the other, and undeveloped state land sandwiched in between, he'd hated Mirabelle. Every minute of every day after hitting adolescence had been torture for Noah. Sophie had been the only reason he'd remained on the island past his sixteenth birthday. How ironic that after he'd left, she'd been the reason he'd stayed away. Well, her and Isaac, anyway.
Noah dreaded seeing his brother again after all these years. Every few minutes, he wavered between wanting to punch Isaac for what he'd done or hug the daylights out of him for missing him. Maybe Noah should've gone to his beach house in Rhode Island. Though he hadn't spent enough time there through the years for it to truly feel like a home, it might've been peaceful enough for what the doctors had in mind.
The ferry horn tooted, catching him off guard, and the explosion burst front and center in his mind. The rumble, like a small earthquake. The smells. The sand stinging his face. The shrapnel hitting his back. Oh, my God. John. Mick.
A sudden jolt of pain sizzled through his left leg and onto a foot that wasn't there. Phantom pains, his doctors had called them. A royal pain in the ass threatening to ruin what was left of his life was the description Noah preferred.
As the current subsided, he snapped his eyes open, sucked in a shaky breath, and quickly glanced around. Instinctively, he reached under his jacket and touched the Beretta handgun he'd taken to carrying a few months after this last stint of being embedded with the U.S. military. Despite a cool spring breeze, sweat beaded on his upper lip. People walked by, laughing and chatting, oblivious to anything except the waffle cones in their hands.
You're safe now. Safe. There were no bombs on Mirabelle, he reminded himself. No insurgents. No terrorists. Here he could walk across the street without watching his back. He had a chance at holding down a full meal and sleeping at night. With any luck, the doctors would be right and the familiarity and comfort of his childhood home would help him climb out of this uncharacteristic hole.
He took another deep breath and released the gun. Several people walking toward him on the sidewalk nodded their greeting. Thankfully, they weren't locals. Best to get out of sight as quickly as possible.
Noah levered himself back up and continued slowly down the block. Although groups of people dotted the sidewalks and street, he remembered days when he hadn't been able to ride his bike due to the crowds. As he passed by the gift shop, he noticed paint chipping on the windowframe, and the carriage parked outside the medical clinic had seen better days. Apparently rough times had befallen a few residents.
An older woman, in her early sixties Noah guessed, walked briskly toward him. Immediately, he recognized her as Sally McGregor, the island's postmaster and one of the biggest grouches known to mankind. Rumor had it, at least while Noah had lived on Mirabelle, that she'd been known to trap and kill rabbits eating her gardens, kick dogs making messes on the sidewalk in front of her post office, and hand out poisoned apples to any kids ballsy enough to knock on her door at Halloween.
Her gaze settled on his leg for a moment and then flitted uncomfortably away. She didn't recognize him, but she knew. He was a cripple. He wasn't whole like her. Yeah, well, we've all got challenges, don't we?
On the cobblestone street, a bike rider headed toward him, her metal basket filled with cut flowers of every imaginable color. The sight was a little too charming, if you asked him.
As she came closer, she smiled and nodded.
"Morning." Noah tipped his head. He could be as cordial as the next guy, when he forced himself.
She braked to a stop at the curb. "Well, I'll be a son of a gun!" It was Mrs. Miller, owner of the ice cream shop, and, since he'd worked for her one summer, one of the few people on the island who'd been nice to him. "Noah Bennett? Is that you?"
"Yes, ma'am." Apparently all that time embedded with U.S. soldiers had rubbed off on Noah in more ways than one. He rested a hand on the black corner lamppost and stood a little straighter. Hopefully, she wouldn't notice his bad leg. "Hello, Mrs. Miller."
"Oh, my. How long's it been since you've been home?"
"Close to fifteen years."
"You haven't changed a bit."
"Still the spitting image of your mother." She shook her head. "Does your dad know you're here?"
Noah felt his smile wane. "No, ma'am."
She didn't know how to respond to that, and he couldn't blame her. The truth was that other than right after the explosion when Noah had been in the hospital, he couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken with his father.
Worry lines creased Mrs. Miller's already wrinkled brow. "How long will you be in town?"
He shrugged. "Not sure."
"Are you feeling all right? You look a little pale." That's when she seemed to make a connection. Her gaze shot to his tennis shoes and back up again.
Had his dad told everyone? Even Isaac and Sophie? Dammit. The last thing he wanted was pity. "I'm fine."
"Well, if there's anything I can do for you, let me know." She put her feet back on the pedals and sped away.
Wonderful. The first thing Mrs. Miller was going to do when she got back to her store was call all her cronies. So much for a couple days of anonymity.
He'd taken no more than two steps when a young couple came barreling out of the flower shop and bumped into him. He recognized the woman's bright pink jacket from the ferry. If memory served, these two had been the last to board over at the mainland and amongst the first off upon arrival at Mirabelle.
The guy turned around. "Sorry."
"No problem." Noah glanced into his face. Holy crap. Marty Rousseau. All grown-up. Of all the people
"Noah?" Marty said. "Is it really you? Geez, I can't believe it!"
Mrs. Miller was one thing, but Noah was not ready for this. He gave a moment's thought to turning around and walking away without a word, but Marty didn't deserve that. "Hey, Marty." He held out his hand.
Marty ignored it and, laughing, pulled Noah into a tight hug with his free arm. "How the hell have you been?" He slapped him a couple times on the back and stepped away.
"I can't believe you're actually here!" He presented the pretty young blonde by his side. "This is my fiancée, Brittany."
"Glad to meet you." She smiled and energetically shook his hand. "How do you two know each other?" she asked. "Did you grow up on Mirabelle, too? Does he know Soph"
Marty stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. "Noah is was the closest thing I've ever had to a brother." And that was about as much as either could offer at the moment by way of an explanation. "We're getting married in a couple weeks."
"I'll send you an invite so you have all the specifics." Marty's smile returned. "You have to come."
No effing way. "Maybe." They stood awkwardly for a few moments, Noah hoping for as normal a stance as possible.
"Marty?" the carriage driver yelled. "You got your flowers? Ready to head out?"
Noah glanced back. Arlo Duffy. His beard was grayer than Noah remembered, but who could forget that lean, iconic face. The man had had more pictures taken and published of him manning his carriages than any other islander doing anything.
"Be right there, Arlo!" Marty yelled back. "Brittany, why don't you get us a seat on the carriage? I'll be right there." He turned back to Noah. "How long will you be on the island?"
"I'm not sure. A few weeks, maybe more."
"You staying at the inn?" he asked.
Good God, no. "Grandma's place." Why he'd kept the cottage after she'd willed it to him was anyone's guess.
"Marty, honey?" his fiancée called from the carriage. "Let's go."
"Coming." Marty squeezed Noah's shoulder. "Listen. We'll be having wedding festivities all week at the inn for our guestshorseback riding, lawn games, sailing. Come on down sometime, okay? I'd love to catch up." He grinned as he jumped onto the carriage. "And beat you at a game of table tennis."
Noah nodded and forced a smile, although he had absolutely no intention of getting anywhere near the inn. "Good seeing you again, Marty." That, at least, was the truth.
The carriage pulled away from the curb and headed down Island Drive toward the Mirabelle Island Inn. Toward Sophie. It might take Marty a while to work up to it, but he'd eventually tell his sister that Noah was back on the island. Then what?
Noah had dealt okay with running into Marty. He could even fathom the possibility of seeing his dad after all these years, but Sophie? And Isaac? He looked down at his lifeless foot.
He thought he'd prepared himself. Over the past several weeks, since the doctors had convinced him that this was what he needed, he'd gone over it and over it. What he'd say, how he'd say it. What he'd do, wouldn't do. Now he got it. Preparing for his return to Mirabelle? There was no such thing.
Sophie Rousseau sat at her desk, a Louis XV dining table an ancestor had brought over from France, and contemplated the dismal occupancy reports for the Mirabelle Island Inn on her computer screen. Less than two weeks from the start of tourist season and she wasn't even close to full capacity. It'd been a nail-biting spring as the reservations had trickled in more slowly than normal, and if things didn' t pick up soon she'd have a hard time breaking even for the season.
"Sophie?" Jan Setterberg, the inn's general manager, breezed into the sun-filled room and dropped off the day's mail. "The three o'clock ferry passed by a few minutes ago."
Sophie glanced at her watch. "Is it that time already?" So engrossed in work, she'd forgotten her baby brother, Marty, and his fiancée, Brittany, were coming today to help prepare for the arrival next week of their wedding guests.
"You've got a couple minutes before the carriage makes its way here." Jan picked up Marty and Brittany's wedding invitation from the corner of Sophie's desk and studied the hand-painted watercolor design of wood violets and white lilacs. "Brittany's parents must have paid a small fortune for these."
"Nope." Sophie quickly shut down her computer. "Marty's not letting them pay for anything." After struggling financially for years, her brother's Internet brainchild had recently been bought out for a tidy sum. If he and Brittany had wanted, they could have treated the entire wedding party along with all their guests to a trip to Hawaii or Europe. "I hope Brittany's happy with Mirabelle."
"Rousseau weddings have been held on this island," Jan stated the historic detail with the cadence of a commercial sound bite, "since Jean Paul Rousseau took Marie Le Blanc to be his bride"
"Back in 1715." As if Sophie needed the reminder. "I know. I know."
All her life, Sophie had breathed and dreamed Rousseau family tradition. From the time she was little, she'd sit on her father's lap and beg him to recount how Jean Paul and Marie had built the first inn on Mirabelle, how the voyageurs had sometimes passed through trading furs and stories, or how her ancestors had been friends with the Chippewa.