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A simple, uncomplicated life. Was that too much to ask? Apparently.
A sense of dread churning in his stomach, Sean Griffin glanced out at the choppy waters of Lake Superior and waited impatiently as the ferry approached Mirabelle Island. How ironic that this should happen to him now. Right now. When he'd finally orchestrated for himself the perfect life.
Well, almost the perfect life.
For the first time ever, he had close, trusted friends. This past winter, he'd bought the business of his dreams while managing to keep his parttime medical practice. He now owned a significant chunk of land and horses, lots of horses. And although the old farmhouse that had come with the Mirabelle Island Stable and Livery operation had needed a lot of work, he'd spent the last several months refurbishing the place, getting every piece of furniture, every wall color and window treatment just right. The only thing he was missing was a woman to share it all with, a wife, and a wife was definitely not coming for him on that ferry.
The afternoon sun, brilliant and blinding, reflected off the wavy surface of the deep blue water, and as he flipped down his sunglasses the truth hit him like a blast of cold air. He wasn't ready, probably never would be. What had he been thinking in agreeing to do this?
That a man couldn't shirk his responsibility and still call himself a man. One way or another he was going to have to deal. It's only for three months, he reminded himself. You can put up with anything for one summer, right? "Hey, Sean!"
Sean spun around to find Garrett Taylor, the island's chief of police, walking across the pier with his brother, Jesse. "Hey, guys." The Taylors, Chicago transplants and two of Sean's friends, had come to Mirabelle separately, but had quickly become part of the fabric of the island.
"Want to join us for lunch? " Jesse asked.
"Can't today. Busy." He nodded toward the ferry.
The Taylors both glanced out over the water.
"Today's the day, huh?" Garrett said.
"Good luck, man." Jesse gave him a reassuring smile.
"Next happy hour at Duffy's," Garrett added. "I want to hear how it goes."
"I'm sure everything will be fine," Sean lied.
The brothers went on their way to the Bayside Cafe. Funny, they'd both found wives here on this little island. Maybe there was still hope for Sean.
He turned around in time to see the ferry dock with a surprisingly light touch against the pier. As the crew lowered the ramps and some of the first of this season's tourists filed onto the island, he glanced at the faces of the people coming ashore. After all these years, would he still remember what she looked like?
The thought had no sooner entered his mind than he saw her face, his exfiancée, although their engagement had been so long ago it seemed silly to still think of her that way. On either side of her were two adolescents, a boy and a girl, looking to be around ten to twelve years old. Walking behind the three was a tall, railthin teenage boy. Well, maybe walking wasn't the best description of how he was moving. Dragging his feet was more like it.
Sean tried for a clear look at the young man's face, hoping for some spark of recognition, a flicker of familiarity, but the boy's gaze remained firmly focused on the ground. "Denise," Sean called, waving his hand above his head. "Over here."
Pulling a suitcase behind her, she smiled. "Sean!"
Awkwardly, they stood before each other, and then she shook her head and hugged him. "It's good to see you again."
He wished he could say the same.
"This is my son, Jeffrey. My daughter, Erin." Both kids smiled tentatively, and Sean nodded at each one in turn. Then Denise stepped back. "And this is Austin."
The boy raised his head, looking directly into Sean's eyes, and Sean let go the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Denise had obviously jumped through the hoops of DNA testing for nothing. It was almost as if he was looking at his sixteenyearold self. Sean most definitely had a son.
He cleared his throat. "Hello, Austin."
Through shaggy bangs, the boy silently stared at Sean as if he, too, could see the resemblance and wasn't quite sure what to think, let alone do about it.
"Austin, the least you could do is say hello," Denise said softly.
"Why should I?"
"Because you're going to be here for the entire summer. I want you two to get along."
"Oh. Sure, Mom. In that case, whatever you say." He stared at Sean and bit out sarcastically, "Hi, Dad." Then he angrily brushed past Sean and headed toward town.
Nice kid. That attitude was going to make for a great summer.
"Goodbye, Austin," Denise called after him. "I'll call you every week."
The boy's steps never even slowed.
"Austin, wait!" With tears in her eyes, the young girl, Erin, took off after her half brother.
Clearly reluctant, Austin stopped and turned.
Denise touched her other son's arm. "Jeffrey, why don't you say goodbye to Austin, too, and give me a few minutes alone with Sean?"
"Do I have to?"
Apparently, there was no love lost between the two brothers.
"Yes." She gently pushed him forward. "Go." Slowly, the boy took off toward his siblings. The moment he was out of earshot, Denise turned to Sean. "I'm sorry for this."
"Not going to cut it, Denise. Not now. Not ever."
"It's all I've got. All the years we were engaged, you'd made it very clear that you never wanted to be a father. I wanted to start fresh with Glen. Not that it did any good in the end, but at the time, I felt justified." She held his gaze. "Now I know that all the justifications in the world can't make what I did right. I'm trying to fix that."
"So just because you're going through a nasty divorce, you decide to send your problem here? That was the word you used, wasn't it? You call that fixing things?"
"It's the best I can do. Besides, you said you were going to be working 24/7 this summer. Austin can help. He's a chip off the old block. Just go about your business and he'll go about his."
He wasn't entirely sure if that was a cut at him or not, and decided to let it pass. "If he's so selfsufficient, why don't you keep him? "
"I need to focus on Jeffrey and Erin. Their dad leaving is hitting them really hard. Austin's glad to see Glen go. He doesn't care about the divorce. And he's just a lot to handle right now. I don't know what to do with the kid anymore. You know?"
"No. I don't."
"What was I supposed to do, Sean? You're his father."
"I fathered him. Glen is his father. There's a big difference."
Fathers cared for their kids. They went to school conferences and sporting events. They rocked their babies to sleep, wrestled with their toddlers and disciplined and guided their teenagers. At least that's what Sean had always imagined good fathers were supposed to do. He'd done none of those things with Austin because until Denise's phone call last week he hadn't known the option had even been available. "You never gave me a chance to be his father."
"I said I was sorry, and I know this isn't fair to you. I just need a break. I'll be ready to take him home again before school starts. I promise."
Sean was a lot of things. A man, a friend, a doctor and, most recently, a horse stable and livery owner. One thing he'd never planned on being was a dad, and there was a damned good reason for that. He'd had a pisspoor role model. Maybe that explained why he had no clue what to do next.
He glanced behind him. Austin had hugged both of his half siblings and said a few words to each of them and was now continuing toward town. Should Sean go after the kid? Let him be? Shower him with kindness? Play taskmaster? Maybe, for now, he needed to give the kid a little space.
"Does he know where I live? " Sean asked.
"He has your address." She handed him a file folder. "Here are some things you might need. His cell number, insurance card, allergies, all of my contact information. Oh, and his things." She rolled a suitcase toward him.
"Do I need to worry about him running away? "
"I don't think so." Beside them, people started boarding the ferry for the return trip to the mainland. Denise signaled to her other two kids that it was time to leave. "I think he's curious about you. He'll stay."
"In that case" Sean picked up the suitcase and started toward his stables "see you at the end of summer."
The catch in her voice made him stop and turn. Her two younger kids were already boarding the ferry.
"Glen was hard on him," she said, her eyes pooling with tears. "But he's a good kid deep down inside. Give him a chance to prove it." Then she turned and ran to follow her other kids.
Three months. Then Sean's life would return to normal. Maybe he'd been worried over this for nothing. He was an intelligent, competent man who'd made life and death decisions for years in the blink of an eye as an E.R. doctor. How hard could playing dad be?
"Take my luggage to the master bedroom." Grace Kahill pointed up the stairs as she walked through the first floor of the spacious colonial she'd rented for the summer, cracking open windows as she went. Since when did Mirabelle Island get this hot and humid this early in June? More to the point, how could she have rented a place without central air?
But then only a few days ago, she reminded herself, she'd been thinking of buying a beach place in Malibu. Given the late notice, she was lucky to have found any rental at all available here for the entire summer.
"Set up the computer and printer in the study at the front of the house," she went on, shrugging out of her jean jacket. "The exercise bike goes right " She studied the layout of the living room and pointed to a spot near the large picture window. "Here. The treadmill goes next to it. The plasma screen replaces that piece of junk." She pointed at the old box of a TV in the corner, surprised the contraption didn't come complete with rabbit ears. "And I want cable and wireless capabilities installed by the end of the day. Got that? "
"Um ah " The mover glanced at her, then seemed to stare toward her neck.
An instantaneous sense of panic swept through her. Oh, God. Quickly, she found her reflection in the mirror hanging in the foyer and scanned her appearance. It's okay. It's all right. She hadn't repositioned her layered Tshirts when she'd taken off her jacket. Taking a long, slow breath, she put her jacket back on. Just to be safe. "Did you hear a word of what I just said?"
"Do I look like a ma'am to you?"
"Ah, not really.Mrs. Kahill."
No one ever called her Mrs. Kahill, either. "Grace. Just Grace will do fine."
Two more hulking men lumbered through the front door carrying suitcases, trunks and boxes, everything she owned that wasn't being held in storage. The men stopped and stared at her as if they'd never seen a woman before. No longer worried about her shirt having shifted, she impatiently crossed her arms and transferred her weight to one leg. The novelty of any man's obvious approval of her looks had worn off long before her twentyfifth cover shot, and these days, more than anything else, it aggravated her. Was it too much to ask to be treated like a regular human being?
"I'm not paying you gentlemen to stand here," she said. "Get this place set up."
"Will do, maah, Grace." The head mover directed the other two men and the three set off in various directions.
She opened a few more windows, hoping to catch a breeze, and glanced around the place. What had ever possessed her to come back to, of all places, Mirabelle Island? Hadn't she left this place, vowing never to return, before even graduating from high school?
If not here, though, where? There was nothing left for her in L.A., she reminded herself. Not anymore. You're here now. Might as well make the best of it. Besides, Dad needs you.
She'd already called her father to let him know she'd arrived, but since he was busy all afternoon she'd have the rest of the day to get settled. She'd be comfortable enough in this rental, she supposed, even if the house's blueandwhite seaside decor was a bit dated. At least it was private, located at the end of the road at the top of the hill overlooking Mirabelle's village center, the marina and the daunting expanse of Lake Superior.
Her cell phone rang, and she glanced at the number displayed on the small screen. Excited now, she quickly answered the call. "Are you ready? "
"Yep," the man said.
"You're still at the airport?"
"Yep. If that's what you could call these two short strips of cement. Been busy getting all Louie's things together. He's good to go."
Mirabelle's tiny airport didn't get used very often, but at least the island had one. It had made her move here as simple as could be by having the movers load all of her things on a chartered flight out of L.A. "How's Louie doing?"
"Better," the man said. "Considering he's never been on a plane before, he's doing great."
Their landing had been a bit rough, so while Louie was settling down she'd left with the movers to bring things to the house. "Good." Grace felt herself smile for the first time that day. "You know where you're going to meet me, then?"
"Yep. We'll be there."
She'd no sooner disconnected the call than her cell rang again. The moment she recognized her personal assistant's number, her spirits sank. This call felt like an intrusion, a piece of her old life butting in and dampening her attempt at a fresh start. But she had loose ends to tie up. Might as well face the camera lens. "Hello, Amanda."
"Good morning, Grace. How are you this fine Monday morning? "
"Could be better."
"Sorry to hear that." Amanda sounded sincere enough, but then Grace did cut her generous payroll checks. "Especially since you have such a busy day scheduled. A yoga session at ten and lunch with the fitness video folks at noon. Then a doctor's appointment at three."
"That's not a problem for lunch and yoga, but." The young woman hesitated. "You're supposed to stick to your doctor's checkup schedule and you missed your last appointment."
"I don't care. Cancel everything." After all the surgeries, physical therapy, and doctor, acupuncture and chiropractor appointments, stacked one on top of the other over the past year, Grace was wholeheartedly sick of every medical care professional on the face of this earth.