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The bell over the front door of Starfish Bay Mercantile jingled, alerting Lindsey Collier to the arrival of a customer. Putting aside the town council meeting agenda she'd been perusing, she looked up with a smile. But her usual cheery greeting died in her throat.
The man who'd just stepped into the store was a stranger. A scruffy one.
And she didn't trust strangers.
Especially scruffy ones.
She gave the tall, lean, mid-thirtyish man a rapid scan. His dark brown hair needed a trim, his cobalt eyes were bloodshot, and his worn jeans and faded black T-shirt looked as if they'd been slept infor several nights.
Standing slowly, she kept her eye on him as she edged toward the silent panic buttonand the drawer that held her compact Beretta. "Can I help you?"
The man looked her way. For a long moment he studied her, faint furrows etching his brow. As if he were assessing heror the security in the store.
Both were formidablebut she hoped she wouldn't have to prove that.
Swallowing past the fear congealing in her throat, she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the drawer and eased it open.
He cocked his head and squinted at her. "Lindsey Callahan?"
Her hand froze. She took another look at the stranger. Nothing about him was familiar, yet he knew her maiden name. "Have we met?"
The barest hint of a smile played at his lips. "A long time ago. Nate Garrison."
He didn't approach her, or extend his hand. That was good. She didn't want to be rude if she did happen to know this stranger, but neither did she intend to let her fingers stray far from the panic buttonor the gun.
"I'm sorry the name isn't ringing any bells."
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, a muted flash of disappointment echoing in the depths of his eyes. "You might remember me better as Nathaniel."
The image of a pale little boy with light brown hair and thick, always-smudged glasses flickered across her mind. But he'd come and gone quickly in her life, and she'd only been what? Eight? Nine? She hadn't thought of him in years.
Her hand hovered over the gun. "You lived here once, right?"
"For a short time." He shifted around to survey the store. "This place hasn't changed much in twenty-five years."
"It hasn't changed much since 1936, when my grandfather opened it. We like it that way."
At her defensive tone, he swung back toward her. "I wasn't being critical. It's nice to know some things stay the same."
"Very few." She withdrew her hand from her security cache. But she left the drawer open. "So are you passing through?"
"No." He moved closer, hands still in pockets. "I'll be around a while. I stopped here to pick up some food and see if I could get a recommendation for a place to stay."
She narrowed her eyes. "If you're looking for work, there isn't much to be had except at the fishing camps, and as far as I know, neither of them are hiring. Tourism in northern California has been down all season."
"I didn't come here for a job."
Then what did you come for?
The question hung between them, unasked and unanswered.
When the silence lengthened, she gave him another once-over. No pricey accommodations for this guy. "There's a low-key bed and breakfast a couple of streets over. Or the Orchid Motel, on the north end of town. I expect there are some houses and apartments available by the month, too. Depends on how long you're planning to stay."
"I have no idea. But I don't want to commit to a monthly rental. And I'm not a B&B kind of guy. Is the motel clean?"
"Eat-off-the-floor. Two older sisters from Georgia bought it about a dozen years ago, and they hate dirt. The attached cafe is excellent, too. They're both great cooks."
"Sold." He smiled, and as the angular lines of his face softened, an oddand unwelcometingle zipped up her spine.
She broke eye contact on the pretext of checking her watch. "You might need a snack to tide you over. The cafe won't be open again until five. And for future reference, breakfast is seven to nine. Lunch, eleven to one. Dinner, five to seven. Closed on Sundays. Like clockwork."
"Thanks. I'll remember." He ambled over to the refrigerated case, inspected the display, and pulled out a can of soda and a prepackaged deli sandwich. On his way back to the counter, he snagged a cellophane-wrapped browniebut he held it back as she rang up his purchases. "Are those homemade?" He nodded to a plate of chocolate chip cookies under a clear plastic dome beside the register.
"Yes. This morning."
"Did you make them?"
She shifted under his scrutiny. "Yes."
"From your mother's recipe?"
Jolted, she stared at him.
His lips lifted again, creating a fan of lines at the corners of his eyes. "One of my happiest memories of this town is eating your mother's chocolate chip cookies while we watched for whales from The Point."
Her mouth almost dropped open. She had sat with the junior version of this man eating cookies and watching for whales? A fuzzy, fleeting memory surfaced of a long-ago summer day at The Point. Ice cream had somehow been involved. But it was gone before she could catch hold of it.
Again, she thought she detected a flash of disappointment in his eyes. But before she could be certain, he motioned toward the cookies and riffled through his wallet. "I'll take two."
In silence, Lindsey rang them up and put them in a white deli bag. On impulse, she added a third one.
"Hey that's too many. I only paid for two."
She crimped the top of the bag and handed it to him. "For old time's sake." Why she felt the need to make amends for forgetting him was beyond her. But the tiny glimmer of gratitude in his blue irises told her she'd done the right thing.
"Thanks." He picked up his purchases. "I'll see you around."
With that he exited, the bell announcing his departure just as it had marked his arrival.
Lindsey shifted her position behind the counter, stepping into the late-afternoon shadows so she could see without being seen. She expected him to climb into some old jalopy or mount a motorcycle, but the only car in the lot besides her six-year-old Camry was a newer model Acura.
The man had some bucks after all.
She watched as he slid into the driver's seat, all six-foot-plus of him. Rather than start the engine, though, he dipped his head. His shoulders flexed. Then he lifted a chocolate chip cookie, took a big bite and closed his eyes as he chewed.
Was he relishing the tasteor the memories it stirred?
He ate the whole cookie that way, eyes closed, expression pensive. When he finished, he popped the top on the soda can, took a swig and started the engine.
Craning her neck, she watched until his car disappeared in the direction of the Orchid Motel.
Who was that guy?
And more important, why had he come back?
* * *
Nate had no trouble finding the Orchid Motel. It was right on Highway 101, just past the five-block-long main street. A gaudy purple orchid decorated the hand-painted sign above the door of the cafe.
As he pulled into the small parking lot, he eyed the low, white building with eight numbered doors to the right. The paint was fresh, the windows clean and a planter overflowing with flowers in all their August splendor stood beside each door. If the inside was as well maintained, it would do nicely.
And it was a lot better than some of the rat holes he'd bunked in during his stint in Afghanistan.
Stifling those memories, he set the brake, finished off his soda in three long gulps, and slid out of the car. A trip to The Point was high on his priority list, but better to secure a room and exorcise some of the road grunge first. The Point had waited twenty-five years for his return. It could wait another hour or two.
A Closed sign in the door of the cafe directed motel guests to ring the adjacent bell, and he followed the instructions. A muffled musical peal sounded in the recesses of the dim building.
As he waited for someone to answer the summons, he took a deep breath of the clean, salt-tanged air. It felt good to be home. Or the only place he'd ever thought of as home, despite his brief sojourn here. Finding the Mercantile largely unchanged had been a balm to his soul, even if he'd been disappointed Lindsey had forgotten him. But what had he expected? She might have been a central figure in the best few months of his childhood, but he'd been nothing more than a blip in her life.
The friendly little girl with the golden-haired ponytail and animated brown eyes had grown into a beautiful woman, though. Tall and slender, she'd retained the innate kindness that had drawn him as a child. Her cookie gesture told him that. But there were changes, too. Her hair, while still touched with gold, had darkened a few shades. And the enthusiasm that had once sparked in her eyes had been tempered. By life, no doubt.
He could relate.
A blur of motion on the other side of the door caught his attention, and he summoned up a smile as a white-haired woman fiddled with the lock. Based on Lindsey's skeptical perusal, his disheveled state wasn't making the best impression. But a nonstop crosscountry drive could do that to a person. Until he had a chance to freshen up, all he could do to counter his off-putting appearance was be extra friendly. Even if that taxed his rusty social skills to the limit.
There hadn't been much time for niceties on the battlefield.
When the door was at last pulled open, the savory aroma of herbs and roasting meat wafted out, setting off a rumble in his stomach. The woman on the other side adjusted her glasses and gave him an apologetic eye roll. "Sorry for the delay, young man. You'd think I'd have mastered this lock by now. We had it installed six months ago. Come in, come in. Are you needing a room?"
Nate stepped past her. "Yes. If you have a vacancy."
"Plenty of space." She shut the door behind him and led the way to a stool-lined counter that doubled as the motel check-in desk. "Things have been slow this summer. The economy and all that. Not that we've ever been the most bustling place around." She grinned at him and pulled out a bulging registration book, with corners of envelopes, letters and brochures sticking out on three sides. "Mostly we get fishermen and redwood gawkers. Which camp do you fall into?"
She peered at him over the top of her glasses. "Not much else to do around here. You just passing through for the night?"
"No. I'll be here for a week, at least."
"Excellent. I can give you the weekly rate, then." She beamed at him and named a price that sounded more than fair. "So are you visiting family or friends?" She dug a pen out of a drawer beside a decades-old cash register.
"Small towns are all alike. Everyone always wants to know your business."
His father's complaint, long dormant in Nate's memory, abruptly resurfaced. That had been a constant refrain in Chuck Garrison's litany of grievancesand one of his standard excuses whenever they'd moved. Excuse being the operative word. He'd never been able to face the real reason they'd had to lead a nomadic life.
But Nate had learned that not all questions were prompted by nosiness. Sometimes people's interest was sincere.
"No. I lived here for a few months many years ago. This place has good memories for me."
The woman handed him the pen, angled the registration book toward him and tapped an empty line. "Visits to the past don't always turn out quite the way we expect. I hope yours does."
"Thanks." He signed on the line and gave the ancient cash register a doubtful look. "Do you take credit cards?"
She perused his signature, then wrinkled her nose. "Yes. From motel guests only. We finally caved a few years back. Nobody carries cash these days, and too many checks bounced." She rummaged around under the counter and pulled out a manual credit-card machine. The kind that required carbon paper. He hadn't seen one in years.
After paying for the full week, Nate slid the credit card back into his wallet.
"Room six. That's my personal favorite. And we just put in a new TV." She smiled at him as she held out the key.
"Any chance you have internet connections in the rooms?" He took the orchid-bedecked ring.
Her smile dimmed. "No. Sorry." She gestured to the cash register. "As you can see, we're a bit behind the times. My sister has a computer in the office, and she's quite the whiz at it. But she hasn't convinced me to get one in here yet. If you need to go online, though, the Mercantile added a little coffee nook a while back, and I've seen people in there using their laptops."
Funny he hadn't noticed that.
Then again, he'd been a little distracted by his encounter with Lindsey.
"I'll check it out. Thanks."
The woman extended her hand, cheery smile once more in place. "By the way, I'm Genevieve Durham. If you need anything at all during your stay, you let me or my sister, Lillian, know. We live upstairs."
Nate took her hand, and she gripped his fingers with surprising firmness. "Thank you. And I'll be back for dinner. Whatever's cooking smells great."
"Tonight's special. Homemade pot roast. It's been simmering all afternoon." Eyes twinkling, she gave him a wink. "If I do say so myself, I make the best pot roast in the county. Just be here by seven."
He smiled. "I'll be here at five."
Chuckling, she slid the registration book back under the counter. "Lillian baked blackberry pie for dessert, too. It goes quick."
"Save me a piece, okay?" He returned the wink.
Color spilled onto her cheeks. "I'll do that. And if no one's welcomed you back yet to Starfish Bay, let me be the first."
Lindsey had welcomed him backsort ofwith that extra cookie. After she'd gotten past her obvious suspicions. He didn't share that with this woman, though.
"Thanks." He started toward the door, but as he reached for the knob, she called after him.
"I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for, Mr. Garrison."
He turned toward her, impressed by her astuteness. "It's Nate. And I hope so, too."
But as he exited the cafe and returned to his car, he didn't have a lot of confidence that hope would be realized.