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"A toast to each of us for thirty great years."
Piper pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head, protection not only against the March sun's watery rays, but against the reflected glare of those highest peaks surrounding the bay where traces of winter snow still clung to the crags and dips.
She held her steaming mug of tea aloft, waiting to clink it against those of her two friends in a tradition they'd kept alive since ninth grade.
"Happy birthday, ladies. May we each find the dreams of our heart before the next thirty years pass."
Rowena Davis drank to the toast, but her patrician nose wiggled with distaste at the mint tea. Rowena was a coffee girl, the stronger the better. She quickly set down her mug before studying the other two.
"We'll hardly find any dreams here in the Bay," she complained with a motion toward the thick evergreen forest. Her dubious tone mirrored the sour look marring her lovely face.
"Don't be a grump, Row." After a grin at Piper, Ashley Adams sipped her tea, savoring the flavor thoughtfully. Ash always took her time.
"A grump? Wake up, woman." Rowena shook her head. "I can't imagine why on earth you've moved back here, Piper. Serenity Bay isn't exactly a hot spot for someone with your qualifications."
In unison they scanned the untouched forest beyond the deck, its verdant lushness broken only by jutting granite monoliths dotted here and there across the landscape. Beyond that, the bay rippled, intensely blue in the sunshine with white bands of uninhabited beach banding its coastline.
"Maybe Serenity Bay's not a hot spot, but it is calm and peaceful. And she can sail whenever she wants." Ash turned over to lie on her tummy on the lounger and peered between the deck rails, down and out across the water.
"True." Rowena laid back, closed her eyes.
"Peace and quiet are big pluses in my books these days. I may just come and visit you this summer, Pip."
The old nickname had never died despite years of protest. Strangely enough, Piper liked it now; it reminded her that they cared about her, that she wasn't all alone.
"You'd leave the big city, Ash?" Piper struggled to hide her smile. It was impossible for her to imagine her friend ignoring the lure of the galleries and new artists' showings she adored for more than a weekend.
"Yep. For a while, anyway." Ashley's golden hair swung about her shoulders as she absorbed the panoramic view. "I'd forgotten how lovely it is here. No haze of pollution, no traffic snarls. Just God's glorious creation. This invitation to join you and Row for our annual weekend birthday bash has reminded me of all the things I give up to live in my condo in Vancouver. Especially after soaking in your posh hot tub last night! The stars were spectacular."
"Total privacy is a change, too." Rowena sighed as the sun draped her with its warmth. "You know, Pip, Cathcart House could bring in millions if you turned it into a spa."
"It already is one," Ashley joked. "Welcome to Piper's own private chichi retreat. Which I'll happily share whenever she asks."
"Anytime." Piper chuckled. "I recall you were always partial to my grandparents' home, Ash."
"No kidding." Rowena snorted. "I think she spent more time on their dock than in her own backyard those summers on the Bay."
"My grandparents never minded. They loved to see you both." The pain of their deaths still squeezed Piper's heart, though time was easing the sting of loss. It helped to recall happier times. "Remember the year Papa bought the sailboat?"
"Yes. I also remember how many times we got dunked before we figured out how to sail it." Rowena's face puckered up. "The bay never gets warm."
"But didn't it feel good to whiz past the beach and know the summer kids were envying us? We wowed 'em that year." Ashley leaned over, laid a hand on Rowena's shoulder. "In retrospect, they weren't all bad times, Row."
"No, they weren't." After a long silence, Rowena managed to summon what, for her, passed as a smile. "I had you two to go with me to school. That meant a lot."
Rowena tossed back her auburn hair as if shaking off the bad memories, then took another tentative sip of tea.
"Now tell us, Pip. What exactly are you doing back here? Besides hosting our birthday bash, I mean."
Piper leaned back, her gaze on the bay below.
"I've accepted a position as economic development officer to organize Serenity Bay's tourism authority," she told them.
Stark silence greeted her announcement.
"Did she actually say that?"
Rowena looked at Ashley and both burst into giggles.
"What development? The place looks smaller now than when we used to live here. A few cottagers, some artists, a defunct lumber mill. What's to develop?"
Just as she had when she was fourteen and frustrated by their inability to see what was so clear to her, Piper clenched her jaw and grumbled, "You have no vision, Philistines."
"Oh, boy, that takes me back." Ashley laughed out loud. "Okay, David. Tell us how you're going to conquer your next Goliath."
Piper took her time, gathering her black hair into a knot and pinning it to the top of her head while making them wait. It was an old trick and it always worked. Their interest had been piqued.
"Spill it, Pip." Ashley wasn't kidding now.
She took a deep breath and began.
"It may interest you to know that Serenity Bay has a new, very forward-thinking mayor."
Now they were curious. Good.
"He has plans that include making our lovely bay into a tourist mecca. And why not? We're sitting smack-dab in the middle of the most gorgeous country God ever created. All we have to do is tell the rest of the world about it."
Utter shock greeted her words. Piper knew the silence wouldn't last long. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and waited.
"You're kidding. Aren't you?" Uncertainty laced Ashley's whisper.
"She's not." The unflappable Rowena was less surprised. "Our Pip has always had a soft spot for this place. Except"
Piper didn't like the sound of that. She opened her eyes. Sure enough, Rowena's intense scrutiny was centered on her. Faking a bland smile, Piper watched her hazel eyes change shades as quickly as her friend's thoughts. It wouldn't take Row long to home in on what she hadn't said.
"This new mayor you're going to be working for"
"Aha." Ash leaned forward like a cat waiting to pounce.
"Tell us, Pip. What exactly is he like?" Rowena tapped one perfectly manicured fingertip against her cheek, eyes narrowed, intense.
Piper couldn't stop her blush as a picture of Jason Franklin, tousled and exceedingly handsome, swam into her brain. A most intriguing man.
To hide her thoughts she slipped on her sunglasses.
"What's he like?"
"Don't repeat the question. Answer it."
"I'm trying." Piper swallowed. "I don't knowlike a mayor, I guess. He owns the marina."
"Short, fat, balding fellow, happily married with six kids?"
"Grease under his fingertips?" Ashley added. "N-no. Not exactly."
"How 'not exactly,' Pip?" The old Row was back in form, and she was enjoying herself. She held up her fingers and began ticking them off. "No grease?"
Piper shook her head. That definitely didn't apply. Jason was lean, muscular and more toned than the men she knew who regularly worked out in expensive gyms.
"Balding? Six kids? Married?"
Flustered by the incessant questions about a man she hadn't been able to get out of her thoughts, Piper decided to spare herself the onslaught of questions and explain.
"He'sI don't know! Our age, I suppose. A little older, maybe. Tall. Sandy blond hair. Blue eyes. Good-looking."
Ashley and Rowena exchanged a look.
"Ah. So he's a beach boy."
"Beach boy? No. He owns the marina." Piper decided to change tactics. "I didn't really notice that much about him. He's just the mayor."
"Didn't notice much. Uh-huh." Rowena sniffed, checked with Ashley. "Thoughts?"
"'The lady doth protest too much, methinks,'" the blonde quoted.
"Methinks that, too."
"Look," Piper sputtered, regretting her choice of words.
"Maybe he's why she came back." Ashley frowned. "Either that or" Her forehead pleated in a delicate frown. She focused on Piper. "Or there's another reason you're here."
They knew her too well.
"Is it your father? Is that why you left Calgary?" Might as well admit it.
Both women sighed, their glances conveying their sympathy before Rowena deliberately shut down all expression. She had good reason to remember the past and even more to forget it.
"I knew it wouldn't be a young, eligible male that brought you back here." Ashley's eyes flashed with anger. "It has to be your old man at the bottom of this sudden change. How typical."
"What has the great Baron D. Wainwright done now?"
Piper didn't blame Rowena for the spite in her tone. Row and Ash had been there for her ever since that first summer when her angry father had repeatedly ordered her back to the house where her mother had died. When she'd refused to return to a world she hated, a world where he'd become so demanding, so strict, so unlike the loving mother who'd shielded her, these two had consoled her.
Her father's angry denunciation of her still stung today, even after so many years. And then of course there was the other.
Piper pushed that away.
"Pip? Please tell us what's wrong."
They'd always listened. She could trust them.
"It's not what he's done, it's what I think he's going to do. The company's conducted some research on the Bay's waterfront. Past experience tells me he intends to build one of his mega hotels right on the shores of Serenity Bay."
"Oh, no." Ashley couldn't hide her dismay. "Pavement, parking lots, bars open all night? It'll ruin the place."
"Like Baron cares about the ambience of Serenity Bay." Rowena sniffed. "I'd guess he's well aware of your mayor's plans and is trying to one-up him before you can get this tourism thing organized."
Piper nodded. "My thoughts exactly."
"So your mayor isn't the only one who's seen the potential of the area." Rowena's brows drew together. "I wonder who else is involved?"
"Jason's not my anything," Piper insisted as heat, which had nothing to do with the sun's rays, scorched her cheeks. "I don't think either he or the other council members know about the hotel. Not yet. That's not the way Wainwright Inc. works." She paused, then copied her father's brusque tones. "First buy up the land, then dazzle the locals with lots of promises. If that doesn't get you what you want, initiate a lawsuit."
Piper pushed her chair back into the upright position, picked up the plate with her slice of birthday cake on it and took a bite. "But that's not the only reason I decided to move back."
Ash and Row stared at her.
"Dare we ask?"
"I needed to come home. The house, these cliffs, the meadowI spent some of my happiest times here."
They nodded, each transported back to carefree summer days when life's decisions were so much simpler. Ash, Row and Piper had walked every inch of this land many times, consoling each other through puppy love, acne and a host of other trials. No matter where they went, they always came back.
"I'm tired of the nonstop meetings, of cutthroat marketers trying to outdo each other to get another star on their A-list. I guess I'm tired of the rat race. None of it seems to matter much anymore."
"And this will?"
"I think so." Piper saw the concern in their eyes and knew they were only pushing because they cared. "I have such precious memories of this place, of my grandparents and you guys, of coming home at Christmas, watching fireworks displays from Lookout Point. I want other kids to have that."
"The past always looks rosy in hindsight," Rowena muttered. "Except for mine, that is."
Ashley patted her shoulder but kept her focus on Piper. "Serenity Bay may have changed," she warned.
"Trust me, it has." Piper turned her chair so she could look across the water toward the town. "I did a little research. There's barely anyone left that we know. After the lumber mill shut down I guess folks had to move away to find work. There are more than a hundred cottages for sale."
Both wore the same stunned expression she'd had the day she'd driven around the town.
"More than. I'm sure lots of people come back in the summer but the number of permanent residents is sinking fast. I'm guessing that's why the mayor thinks the town has to act now, before it's too late."
"Back to the mayor." Row and Ash exchanged looks, then watched her, waiting.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Are you sure this mayor didn't have anything to do with your decision to move back?"
"No." Piper sighed, recognizing the futility of trying to withhold anything. "I've actually been considering it for a while. After Vance died I poured myself into work. I didn't want to think about God taking my husbandor anything else."
"And work hasn't been enough?" Ashley asked softly.
"For a while I thought it was. But this birthday has me thinking, I'm not getting any younger."
"Neither are we. But we're not closing up shop and moving back here." Rowena's voice sounded harsh, but her eyes brimmed with pity. "Have you been so unhappy?"
"That's not the right word, Row. I've been rudderless, without any real goal. Serenity Bay is offering me a chance to stretch, to think outside the box. I need that challenge."
"Need. I want the Bay to prosper, to grow, to provide years of fun and joy for other kids, for other familiesjust as it did for us." She waved a hand. "This is where I want to spend my days, maybe someday raise my kids. I might even get back into Papa's gold studio during the long, frosty winter nights, see if I can create again."
"You always did have a flair for the unusual," Rowena said. "People still stop me to ask where I got this." She fingered the four-inch gold mask brooch she wore on her lapel.
"If it doesn't work out or I get tired of the solitude, I can always go back to the city. But moving here, this jobI have to try."
"Cathcart House is the perfect place to do it."
They sat together, each musing over the changes that had come into their lives.
"I keep expecting your grandmother to bring out a jug of hot chocolate and tell us to button up." Ashley sipped her tea, a half smile curving her lips.
"Last night I thought I heard your grandfather's snores." Rowena shrugged at their surprise. "What? Even I have normal dreams sometimes."
"They left Cathcart House entirely to you, Pip? You don't have to share it with your brother or anything?"
"They left Dylan cash. He never seemed to like the Bay, remember?" Piper shrugged. "I never understood that but he seemed happy enough with his share when I talked to him after their wills were read."
"Was your father at the funeral?"
"No." Piper swallowed hard. "At least, I didn't see him."
"It would be a bit much to expect him to show sorrow, wouldn't it? As I recall there was no love lost between your grandparents and him." Rowena tossed the rest of the tea over the side of the deck. "Though I must admit, I never heard them say a word against him."
"Gran always said God would handle him so she didn't have to worry."