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"Oh, heck, this ain't nothing," the driver said, his voice cutting through the twang of an old country-and-western song playing on the radio. "We're only gettin' six inches of snow today. I remember once we got eighteen in a coupla hours."
Six inches or eighteen didn't make a bit of difference to Jesse. It'd been a long time since he'd experienced a Midwestern blizzard. Frost built in the corners of the windows and wind twirled the snow, obscuring visibility and causing dangerous drifts. Black ice formed on the frozen road.
"Dang, it's cold out." Even for January. He flipped up the collar of what was proving to be a woefully inadequate jean jacket and hunkered down for the ride.
His skin prickled with more than goose bumps as a sense of uneasiness spread through him. Instinct screamed at him to head south and get as far away from the state of Wisconsin as his thumb would carry him. Nothing here for him except snow and cold. And the past. Reality was, though, he needed some traveling cash, and a job, he hoped, was waiting for him at the end of the line.
"Here." The driver grabbed a knit cap from his center console and tossed it toward Jesse. "Keep your head warm, anyway."
Jesse glanced at the hat and stiffened. in his world, at least the world he'd been living in for the past three years, ten months and sixteen days, there was no such thing as something for nothing.
Relax, man. He doesn't want anything from you. carefully taking the hat, Jesse pulled it down over his frozen ears. "Thanks."
"Thought you said you was from Chicago. Heck, you should be used to this kind of weather."
"I've been away for a few years."
Simple. Evasive. Good job, Jess.
Suddenly, it looked to Jesse as if the road was ending at the shoreline, but the driver wasn't slowing down. "You planning on going right across the lake? I didn't think Lake Superior froze over completely."
"It don't. Chequamegon Bay does most winters, though."
"Most winters?" The old truck bounced over an icy ridge and headed out onto the snow-covered ice. "Let's hope this is one of them."
"Don't worry." The man smiled. "I'll get you to Mirabelle Island in one piece."
It wasn't long before the SUV approached a dark blur getting larger by the minute. "That the island?"
It was bigger than Jesse had expected and more isolated. A cluster of homes and businesses occupied only one corner of the island. The rest of the land appeared undeveloped and thickly wooded with hardwoods and tall, stately pines heavily laded with snow. A winter wonderland kind of place.
"You got someone meeting you at the pier?"
"Yeah." Jesse sighed. "My brother."
Not necessarily. When their father died a long while back, Jesse's oldest brother had snubbed the family patriarch role, but now that he'd gotten married and settled down, he'd become damned near insufferable.
The driver reached Mirabelle's shore. He slowed, put the vehicle in low gear and then drove right up an embankment and into a parking lot. "There you be."
"Thanks." Jesse hesitated. The weather he'd find a way to tolerate, but his brother's cold disapproval would be another thing entirely. Not to mention that this town looked about as welcoming as the frigid temperature. Despite the fact that it wasn't even dinnertime yet, there was absolutely no sign of activity. Only the dim interior lights of a nearby restaurant, the Bayside Cafe, were any indication there was life on this island.
"You want to wait in my truck for a few minutes? At least until your brother shows up?"
"A little snow never hurt anyone." He'd arrived a bit earlier than he'd expected, but he had an address. He could hike up the hill, if necessary. Even so, he couldn't seem to make himself move.
"Well? You getting out or what?"
Jesse glanced through the falling snow. Quaint little town. Most likely nice people. A community, where everyone knew everyone else. He might've been better off in a city where he could be anonymous.
"Mister? You okay?"
The bottom line was he had no place else to go. "Yeah. Sorry. Thanks for the ride." He handed the guy a twenty, one of only two in his wallet. "Keep the change." Then he took a deep breath and opened the door.
As he stepped into several inches of light snow, wind whipped up the legs of his jeans and up the back of his jacket. He grabbed his bag and slammed the door. The truck pulled away and headed to the mainland, leaving him alone on this apparently deserted chunk of snow and ice. How his brother had ended up here in the north country was anyone's guess, but he sure sounded as if he was here to stay.
"Well, hell," Jesse muttered to himself. "Time to face the music."
He'd taken no more than a few steps when the drone of a small, noisy engine sounded from a short distance away. Seconds later, a snowmobile zipped around the corner and came straight for him. The driver, dressed in an insulated one-piece suit and stocking cap, wasn't wearing a helmet. Jesse took one look at the man and stopped in his tracks.
The machine pulled up next to him and the driver hopped off. "Hello, Jesse." There wasn't even a glimmer of a smile in the man's tough eyes or in the severe set to his lips, but then he was the chief of police. Having a guy like Jesse for a brother sure as hell wasn't a feather in his cap.
"Garrett," Jesse said, reaching out his hand. He realized belatedly that he would've liked a hug, some kind of more meaningful human contact after all these years, but it didn't look as if that was about to happen. "Good to see you."
Garrett stood there for a moment and then he reached out and shook Jesse's hand. "Good to see you, too, Jesse."
A knot formed in Jesse's throat, but he sucked the emotion back into his chest and grinned. "I hope you got a coat I can borrow, 'cause I'm freezing my ass off here."
"Come on." Garrett gave him a half smile. "We'll stop at the station and find you something."
Garrett hopped onto his snowmobile, and Jesse climbed on behind him and held on as they drove a couple blocks into town. Crossing what looked like the main avenue, given the shop fronts and ornate black lampposts. The first thing Jesse noticed were the three bars located within a two-block stretch.
Immediately, the skin on the back of his neck broke out into a cold sweat. Oh, for crying out loud. Lighten up, Jess. Just because you don't drink anymore doesn't mean you can't have a little fun while you're here.
Garrett turned down a side street and stopped in front of an historic-looking white clapboard building. The police station. This place was a laugh a minute.
He followed his brother through the front doors and suffered through introductions to Renee, the receptionist, a well-preserved middle-aged woman, and Herman, a lanky old deputy, all the while swallowing the knot of apprehension growing tighter in his chest. He couldn't believe his own brother had become a cop.
They went to the corner office, and Garrett opened up a closet. "Here." He tossed Jesse a winter coat. "Keep it. I got a couple others."
Jesse held out the heavy parka. There was no doubt he was going to need something warm and serviceable, but handouts didn't sit well. "You got anything in red? Or black?" he joked. "Military green has never been my color."
Garrett ignored Jesse's meager attempt at humor and glanced at his watch. "Before we head up to the house to get you settled, I need to make a stop at that job I told you about."
"Yep. Sarah will be waiting for us."
"Sarah, huh?" Jesse grinned. "Pretty? Single? Available?"
"All of the above." Garrett frowned. "And a good friend of mine. That's exactly why you'll be steering clear of her and all the rest of the single women on this island. And with the influx of new residents we've had over the last couple of years, there are quite a few."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Look," Garrett said. "I don't want any trouble."
"Trouble's my middle name, big bro. You know that," Jesse said, trying to make light. From the time he'd been a little boy, he'd been the comic relief. You could always count on Jesse to lighten any tense situation. Bad habit, he knew, but a tough one to break.
"I mean it, Jesse."
"Don't worry." Jesse spun around, wanting out of here as quickly as possible. "Your precious island's safe from me."
There is no wave without wind. Jesse repeated his mantra. Don't cause a wind, you won't have the waves. He turned and forced out a grin despite the fact his skin felt as if it might crack.
"Don't pull any stunts here on Mirabelle," Garrett whispered, his tone deathly serious. "Brother or not, you screw up and I will put you back in jail."
Jesse refused to let his smile dim. "Wouldn't expect anything less from you, Garrett."
"This is it, Brian." Sarah Marshik, her cheeks sore from smiling nonstop since she'd woken up that morning, glanced through the falling snow at the old Victorian cottage nestled at the edge of Mirabelle Island's forest.
"It's kinda small," Brian said, grimacing. "And old."
"I know, honey. But it's ours. All ours." She looked past the peeling paint and the porch's broken gingerbread trim and imagined the possibilities. "No more apartments. No more rent. You'll have your own yard. A bigger bedroom. And Garrett promised it'll be as good as new by the time he gets done with it. We'll be able to move in before school lets out."
And, she hoped, before this year's wedding season kicked into high gear the first weekend in June. She climbed the snow-covered steps, and pride at her accomplishment swelled in her heart, even as tears blurred her vision. It'd taken her years of scrimping to save for a down payment on a house and even more years of working her butt off building her wedding-planning and flower-shop businesses so that her income would be steady enough to qualify for a loan, but she'd finally managed to pull together all the parts of the equation that made for a good life.
A safe community. Check. A job that paid the bills.
Check. A house. Check. Finally. A little more than ten minutes ago, she'd signed the mortgage papers at Mirabelle's tiny bank. Now this was her house.
She put the key in the lock, tapped the snow off her boots and opened the weathered oak door. Then she stepped inside and glanced around. Make that her dilapidated and vermin-infested house.
The place looked even worse than when it had first come on the market two years ago. There were water stains on the ceiling from a leaky roof. The kitchen countertop and sink were discolored. The walls were pitted with nail holes and large dents as if they'd seen one too many parties, and it looked as if some kind of wild animal had set up camp in the fireplace. She didn't even want to look at the bathrooms or the carpets. On top of the grunge, everything appeared dated, including the countertops, the light fixtures and all the appliances.
The old couple who had owned the cottage had long since stopped spending summers on the island, and had, instead, been leasing the place. As the cottage had fallen into disrepair, the renters had stopped coming and the house had sat dormant for the past several years. No one had wanted to buy it. No one had been able to see what she could see.
Silently, she prayed that Garrett was right and the basic structure was solid and therefore worth remodeling. If he was wrong, she'd just signed her life away for nothing.
Brian followed her inside and took a step toward the kitchen.
"Ah, ah, ah," she said, closing the door. "Stomp that snow off your boots before you start traipsing around."
"Seriously? What difference does it make? This place is a dump."
"Dump or not, it's our dump." Gingerly, she picked up an old wadded-up towel from the corner and laid it in front of the door. "Step on that." The towel was dirty and smelled musty, but it would have to do for now.
"This place is disgusting, Mom. And it smells. You sure you want to live here?"
It was going to take some time, most of her savings and a lot of elbow grease, but this house was eventually going to look perfect, like the home of her dreams.
"Yes, I'm sure." She reached out and ruffled his hair.
"Moooom!" He ducked away. "I'm not a baby."
No, he was nine now. Almost a man, he'd been insisting lately. Well, he could insist all he wanted. Nothing could change the fact that he'd always be her little boy.
"I know the place needs a lot of work before we can move in," she said. "But Garrett's sure he can get everything done before the wedding season kicks into high gear. He'll put in new kitchen cabinets and coun-tertops. New bathrooms. New carpet. You can help me paint. By the time we're finished, it'll be beautiful."
"If you say so."
The sound of a snowmobile coming up the hill filled the quiet outside and Sarah pushed aside the moth-eaten curtain to see Garrett pulling into the yard. Excited to hear when he could start, she didn't give the fact that he had a stranger with him much of a thought. She opened the front door as Garrett came up the steps. "Right on time."
"I knew you'd be excited." Although there was a slight smile on Garrett's face, he looked preoccupied.
He stomped the snow off his boots and stepped inside. The other man followed suit and closed the door behind him. "Sarah, this is my youngest brother, Jesse."
As in the rolling-stone, smart-aleck, ladies' man youngest brother? "No kidding?" she said, warily eyeing the man.
Everyone knew Garrett had three brothers, but she'd never expected any of them to come to Mirabelle, at least not during the winter months. She'd gathered from the past comments Garrett had made that his siblings weren't much for islands, at least not the non-Caribbean variety. While many of the single women on Mirabelle had been after Garrett to talk his brothers into coming north, Sarah had never been one of them. At least not seriously.
"You didn't say anything about him coming. Or did I miss that?" she asked.
"Kind of spur-of-the-moment," Jesse said, holding her gaze.
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