"The wind blew and the waves crashed as the mighty dragon sank into the sea to hide in the dark depths of the ocean until the next sailor came too close to the baby dragons. The end."
Kate McKenna smiled at the enraptured looks on the faces before her. Ranging in age from three to ten, the children sat on thick, plump cushions on the floor in a corner of her store, Fantasia. They came three times a week to hear her read stories or tell tales. At first they were chatty and restless, but once the story took hold, they were hers completely. Although it wasn't the most profitable part of her bookstore business, it was by far the most enjoyable.
"Tell us another one," the little girl sitting next to her pleaded.
"One more," the other children chorused.
Kate was tempted to give in, but the clock on the wall read five minutes to six, and she was eager to close on time this Friday night. It had been a long, busy week, and she had inventory to unpack before the weekend tourist crowds descended. "That's all for today," she said, getting to her feet. Although the children protested, the group gradually drifted from the store, a few mothers making purchases on their way out the door.
"Great story," Theresa Delantoni said. "Did you make that up as you went along, or did you read it somewhere?"
"A little of both," Kate told her assistant. "My dad used to tell us stories about dragons that lived under the sea. One time we were sailing just outside the Caribbean, and the sea suddenly seemed to catch fire. Dragons, I thought, just like my father said. It turned out to be phosphorus algae. But my sisters and I preferred the fire-breathing dragon story."
"A romantic at heart."
"It's a weakness, I admit."
"Speaking of romance..." Theresa's cheeks dimpled into an excited smile, "it's my anniversary, and I have to leave now. I promised I wouldn't be late, because our baby sitter can only give us two hours." Theresa took her purse out of the drawer behind the counter. "I hate to leave you with all those boxes to unpack."
"But you will." Kate followed her to the door. "Don't think twice. You deserve a night off with that darling husband of yours."
Theresa blushed. "Thanks. After eight years of marriage and two babies who need a lot of attention, sometimes I forget how lucky I am."
"You are lucky."
"And you are great with kids. You should think about having some of your own."
"It's easy to be great for an hour."
"Brrr," Theresa said as they walked out of the store together. She stopped to zip up her sweater. "The wind is picking up."
"Out of the southwest," Kate said automatically, her experienced nautical eye already gauging the knots to be between twelve and fifteen. "There's a storm coming. It should be here by six o'clock. Take an umbrella with you."
"You're better than the weather report," Theresa said with a laugh. "Don't stay too late, now. People will start to suspect you don't have a life."
Kate made a face at her friend. "I have a fine life." Theresa was halfway to her car and didn't bother to reply. "I have a great life," Kate repeated. After all, she lived in Castleton, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, a large island off the coast of Washington State, one of the several hundred islands that made up the archipelago known as the San Juans.
Her bookstore at the northern end of Pacific Avenue had an incredible view of the deep blue waters of Puget Sound. It was one of the interesting, quaint shops that ran down a two-mile cobblestone strip to Rose Harbor, a busy marina that filled every July with boats in town for the annual Castleton Invitational Sailboat Races.
Castleton was known for its rugged beauty, its fir and evergreen-covered hillsides and more than one hundred miles of driftwood-strewn beaches. Most of the island traffic came via the Washington State Ferry, although boaters were plentiful, and small private planes could land at the Castleton Airport.
The unpredictable southwesterly winds created swirling, dangerous currents along many of the beaches and had driven a few boats to ground on their way to shelter in the harbor. But the winds didn't stop the boats from coming or the sailors from congregating. Tales of sails and storms could be overheard in every restaurant, café, and business in town. There were more boat slips in the marina than there were parking spaces downtown. The lives of Castleton's residents weren't just by the sea, they were about the sea.
Kate loved her view of the waterfront: loved the one from her house in the hills even better but more than anything she appreciated the fact that the view didn't change every day. Maybe some would call that boring, but she found it comforting.
The wind lifted the hair off the back of her neck, changing that feeling of comfort to one of uneasiness. Wind in her life had meant change. Her father, Duncan McKenna, a sailing man from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, always relished the wind's arrival. Kate could remember many a time when he had jumped to his feet at the first hint of a breeze. A smile would spread across his weatherbeaten cheeks as he'd stand on the deck of their boat, pumping his fist triumphantly in the air, his eyes focused on the distant horizon. The wind's up, Katie girl, he'd say. It's time to go.
And they'd go wherever the wind took them. They'd sail with it, into it, against it. They'd lash out in anger when it blew too hard, then cry in frustration when it vanished completely. Her life had been formed, shaped, and controlled by the wind. She'd thought of it as a friend; she'd thought of it as a monster. Well, no more.
She had a home now, an address, a mailbox, a garden. She might live by the water, but she didn't live on it. The wind meant nothing more to her than an extra sweater and a bowl of soup for dinner. It didn't mean that her life was about to change. Why couldn't she believe that?
Because of the boats.
They'd been sailing into the harbor for the past week, every day a few more, each one bigger, brighter, and better than the last. There was an energy in the air, a sense of excitement, purpose, adventure. In just a few days the race would begin, and next Saturday the biggest and brightest would race around the island in the Castleton Invitational. Two days later, the boats would be off again, racing to San Francisco and then on to Hawaii for the Pacific Cup. The sailors would battle the elements and one another. In the end, only one would be victorious.
Kate didn't appreciate the direction of her thoughts. She didn't want to think about the boats or the damn race. Ten days. It would all be over in ten days, she reminded herself as she walked back into the store and shut the door firmly behind her. She could handle the pleasure cruisers, the fishermen, the tourists interested in whale watching; what she couldn't handle were the racers, the fanatical sailors who lived to battle the ocean, to conquer new seas. She knew those men and women too well. Once, she'd been one of them.
The door to her store opened, accompanied by a melodious jangle from the wind chimes that hung outside. A man entered, dressed in khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt. He had the look of a man on business. There was an energy in his movements, a gleam in his deep blue eyes, and an impression of power and purpose in his stance. As he ran an impatient hand through his dark brown hair, Kate felt her pulse quicken. Strangers came into her store all the time asking for books, directions, information about the island but none of those strangers had given her heart such a jump start. Maybe Theresa was right. She definitely needed to get out more.
"Hello." His voice had a bit of a drawl to it. The South? Texas? She wasn't sure where he'd come from, but she had a feeling it had been a long journey.
"Hello," she said. "Can I help you?"
"I certainly hope so."
"I'm betting you need directions, not a book."
He gave her a curious smile. "Now, why would you bet that?"
"You don't look like an armchair adventurer.”
"You can tell that just by looking?"
She shrugged. "What can I say? I'm good."
"Not that good. I don't need directions.”
"Oh. A book about sailing, then?"
Kate studied him thoughtfully. He hadn't stood still since he walked into the store, shifting his feet, tapping his fingers on the counter. He looked like a man who couldn't stop running even when he was tired.
Hardly one to settle into a recliner with a good book.
However, she couldn't refute the fact that he had come into the bookstore of his own free will so he must have had a reason.
"I know." She snapped her fingers. "Gift book. You need a book for Aunt Sally or Cousin Mary, or maybe the girlfriend whose birthday you forgot."
He laughed. "No Aunt Sally. No Cousin Mary. And, regretfully, no girlfriend."
Kate had to bite back the incredulous really that threatened to push past her lips. She settled for
"Interesting. So what do you want?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"Aren't we all?"
"You're very quick."
He was quick, too, and it had been awhile since she'd flirted with a man. Not that she was flirting she was just being friendly. "So, who are you looking for?'
He hesitated, and it was the small pause that made Kate tense. That and the way his gaze settled on her face. It had been eight years since someone had come looking for her. It wasn't likely this man was here for that reason, though. What were the odds? A million to one.
"A woman," he said slowly.
Kate licked her lips, trying not to turn away from the long, deep look he was giving her.
"I think I've found her," he added.
So much for odds.
"It's you, isn't it? Kate McKenna?" He smiled with satisfaction. "The oldest sister in the fearsome foursome that raced around the world in a sailboat. I recognize you from the photographs."
"Who wants to know?"
"Tyler Jamison." He stuck out his hand.
Kate gave his hand a brief shake. "What do you want?"
"You're a reporter?" She had to admit she was surprised. She'd once been able to spot a reporter from a block away. She'd gotten complacent. That would have to change right now. "I can't imagine why you'd be looking for me. That race was a long time ago."
"Eight years. That would make you twenty-eight, right?"
Kate walked over to the door and turned the sign to closed. If only she'd done it five minutes earlier, she would have missed this man. Not that he wouldn't have come back in the morning. He had a look of stubborn persistence about him. She suspected that he was a man who usually got what he wanted.
"I'd like to do a follow-up story on what's become of one of the most interesting sailing crews in ocean-racing history," Tyler continued. "It would tie in nicely with the upcoming sailboat races."
"I don't race anymore, but I'm sure I can find you some interesting racers to talk to. Take Morgan Hunt, for instance. He raced in the Sydney to Hobart last year and could tell you tales that would curl your toes."
"I'll keep that in mind. But I'd like to start with you and your sisters. Your father, too."
Duncan McKenna would love the publicity, adore being in the spotlight, but Lord only knew what he'd say once his tongue got going, especially if his tongue had been loosened by a few pints of beer, which would no doubt be the case.
“My father loves to talk about the past," Kate said, "but just like those fishermen whose stories of catches grow bigger by the year, so do my father's stories about that race. You can't believe a thing he says."
"What about you? You'd tell me the real story, wouldn't you?"
"Sure." She gave him what she hoped was a casual shrug. "Let's see. We sailed forever it seemed. Some days were windy; some were hot. The wind ran fast, then slow. One week turned into the next with more of the same.
The food was terrible. The seas were treacherous. The stars were always fantastic. That's about it."
"Short and succinct. Surely you can do better than that, Miss McKenna. A woman who appreciates books should be able to tell a better story."
"I sell books, I don't write them. Besides, there were a dozen news stories about the race in the weeks that followed our return. Everything that needed to be said was said. If you're interested, I'm sure you could find them on the Internet or in the library." She paused. "Do you write for a sailing magazine'?"
"I'm a freelancer. I go where the story takes me."
Kate frowned. This was great. Just great. Another man who went with the wind. Why did they always stir up trouble in her life? "Well, there's no story here. We're all very boring. I run this bookstore, not exactly a hotbed of commerce, as you can see." She swept her hand around the room, forcing him to look at the cozy chairs by the window, the neatly stacked shelves of mysteries, fiction, fantasy, romance, children's books, and, of course, the ever-popular books on seafaring.
Although she was trying to downplay the bookstore, she couldn't stop the sense of pride that ran through her as she looked around the room that she had decorated, remembering the care she'd taken with the children's corner now brightened by posters and stuffed animals. She'd turned the bookstore into a home away from home, a place of delicious escape. It hadn't been easy to build a business from nothing. But somehow she'd done it.
"It's nice," Tyler said. "From sailboat racer to bookstore owner. Sounds like an interesting journey. Tell me more."
She'd walked right into that one. "It's not interesting at all. Trust me."
"You're avoiding my questions. Why?"
"I'm not avoiding anything," she said with a laugh that even to her own ears sounded nervous. "It's like this I was barely out of my awkward teenage years during that trip. I'm an adult now. I don't particularly want to rehash that time in my life. It was no big deal."
"It was a huge deal. Most people who win ocean races are seasoned sailors, sponsored by big corporations, sailing million-dollar boats. But the McKenna family beat them all. I can't understand why you don't want to talk about it. It must have been the biggest and best thing that ever happened to you."
"We had fifteen minutes of fame a long time ago. And our race was different. It wasn't filled with racing syndicates but with amateur sailors who had a passion for sailing and a longing for adventure. The racing world has changed. No one cares what happened to us."
"Why?" Something about him didn't ring true. He seemed too confident, too purposeful to be after a fluff story. "Why do you care?"
"I like to write about adventurers, ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things. And I'm fascinated by the thought of three girls and their father alone on the ocean, battling not only the other racers but the wind, the icebergs, fifty-foot waves. I've read some accounts of the trip, especially the harrowing details of the terrible storm during the second-to-last leg of the race. I can't imagine what you must have gone through."
There was a passion in his voice that bespoke a genuine interest, but why now? Why after all these years? Why this man who had appeared out of nowhere and didn't seem to work for anyone? Why him?
"You look familiar," she said, studying the sharply drawn lines of his face. "Where have I seen you before?"
"I just have one of those faces. An average, everyday Joe." He paused. "So, what do you say? Will you talk to me? Or do I need to track down your sisters, Ashley and Caroline?"
Kate couldn't let him talk to Ashley or Caroline. She couldn't let this go any further. She had to get rid of him. But how?
"You're stalling," Tyler said. "I can see the wheels turning in your head."
"Don't be silly. I'm just busy. I have boxes to unpack before tomorrow, so I'm afraid we'll have to do this some other time."
The phone behind the counter rang, and she reached for it immediately, grateful for the interruption.
"Fantasia," she said cheerfully. Her heart sank as she heard a familiar voice on the other end of the line.
Will Jenkins ran the Oyster Bar on the waterfront, her father's favorite hangout. "How bad is he?" The answer put her heart into another nosedive. "I'll be right there. Yes, I know. Thanks, Will."
"Trouble?" Tyler inquired as she hung up the phone.
"No." She opened the drawer and pulled out her purse and keys. "I have to go. And so do you.”
"You look upset."
"I'm fine." She opened the door, the breeze once again sending goose bumps down her arms. There was change in the air. She could feel it all around her.
"You don't look fine. Is someone hurt?" Tyler waited while she locked the door behind him. "Can I help?"
Kate told herself not to be taken in by the concern in his eyes. He was a reporter. He just wanted a story.
"No one can help. You should go home. Back to wherever you came from."
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay a while. With all these sailors in town, I'm sure someone around here will talk to me."
Kate hurried to her car, which she kept parked in back of her store. Tyler Jamison was a problem she hadn't anticipated, but right now she had a more pressing matter to deal with. She turned on the ignition and let out the brake. Her small Volkswagen Jetta shook with another gust of wind. Her father always said if you can't own the wind, you have to ride it out. She had a feeling this was going to be one wild ride.
"Get me another beer," Duncan McKenna demanded as he put his fist down on top of the bar. He'd meant to slam it down hard, make the glasses jump, but he was too tired. "There was a time when a man could get a beer around here, Will."
The bartender finished drying off a glass at the other end of the bar. "You've had your limit, Duncan.
You'll get no more from me tonight. You need to go home and sleep it off."
Sleep it off? He couldn't sleep. Hadn't for years. Oh, he dropped off now and then once the liquor took hold of his mind and gave him a blessed few hours of peace. But that didn't happen often, especially lately...
"Dammit, Will, I need a drink. I need one bad." He could hear the desperation in his voice, but he couldn't stop it. The need had been building in him all day, growing fiercer with each boat that sailed into the harbor, each dream of a journey, of a race to be sailed and to be won. That had been his world.
God, how he missed it, missed the pitch of the waves, the power of the wind, the thrill of the race.
Missed the pounding of his heart, the spine-tingling, palm sweating moments when all would be won or all would be lost. What a rush his life had been.
"I need a drink," he repeated.
Will walked down the length of the bar and gave him a hard look. "It won't do you no good, Duncan. I called Kate, and she's on her way."
"Why the hell did you call her?"
"Because you need a ride. You've been in here all day."
"I can get myself home." Duncan tried to stand up, but the room spun around, so he sat back down and held on to the edge of the bar for dear life.
"Sure you can," Will said dryly. "Just sit there. Don't try to leave."
"I'll do what I want," Duncan snapped. "I'm been around the world upside down and backward. I won the goddamn Winston Around-the-World-Challenge. No one thought we could do it. But we did, me and my girls." He paused and let out a weary... "We were the best, Will. The very best. My girls got heart, just like their old man. They don't quit. I don't quit. McKennas don't quit."
"Yeah, yeah, I know."
And he did know because he'd heard it all before. Will was only a few years younger than Duncan, but he'd been tending bar for more than twenty years. Duncan couldn't understand how a man could be happy staying in one place for so long. Twenty years ago, Will had had hair on his head, a flat stomach, and girls lining up three-deep to flirt with him. Now he was bald, soft in the middle, and married to a librarian. Hell of a life he'd made for himself.
Will walked away to serve another customer at the end of the bar. Duncan turned his head and saw a woman sitting at a nearby table. As she moved, her hair caught the light, and he lost his breath at the glorious, fiery shade of red. Eleanor, he thought impossibly. His beloved Nora had hair the same color, and deep blue eyes that a man could drown in. He'd gone overboard the first time he'd seen her standing on the docks in a summer dress that showed off her long legs. His gut twisted in pain at the memory. Eleven years she'd been gone, but he still missed her. His heart felt as heavy as a stone. He wanted a drink. He wanted oblivion.
He wanted...so many things.
He tried to focus, but he couldn't see clearly. It's the alcohol, he told himself, but when he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, it came away wet.
"Are you all right?" Kate asked with concern on her face.
Kate had the look of Nora in her eyes, but her hair was blond, her skin a golden brown and free of the beautiful freckles that had kissed Nora's nose. Kate's face was stronger, too, her jaw as stubborn as his own. There were other differences as well. Nora's love had never wavered. But Kate's...
"The boats are coming, Katie girl. There's a wind brewing. You know what that means? You know where we should be?"
"Not today," Kate replied.
"You never want to sail anymore. I don't know why." He shook his head, trying to concentrate, but his head felt thick, his brain slow. "What happened to us, Katie?”
"Let's go home."
Home? Where was home? He'd had to sell the Moon Dancer. It had almost broken his heart, selling his beloved boat. Now he lived in a small old sailboat. He'd wanted to call the boat Nora, but he couldn't quite bring himself to paint his wife's name on the side. Nora wouldn't have been proud of this boat or of him. Kate wasn't proud of him, either.
"I'm sorry, Katie. You know how sorry I am?”
"You're always sorry when you drink." Kate put out her hand to him. "Let's go home."
"I can't go now. I'm telling Will here about our big race."
"He's heard it before. I'm sorry, Will," Kate said.
"It's no problem," Will replied.
"What are you apologizing for?" Duncan demanded. "I ain't done nothing. And I'm your father. You don't apologize for me." He got to his feet, wanting to remind her that he was bigger and stronger and older than her, but the sudden motion caused him to sway unsteadily. Before he knew it, Kate had a hand on his arm. He wanted to shrug her away. In fact, he would do just that as soon as he caught his breath, got his bearings.
"Need some help?" a man asked.
Before Duncan could answer, Kate said, "What are you doing here?"
"I was thirsty."
"Can't blame a man for being thirsty, Katie girl," Duncan said, feeling more weary by the second. "I gotta sit down."
The man grabbed Duncan's other arm as he started to slip out of Kate's grasp.
"Your car?" he asked.
"I don't want to go home," Duncan complained. "I want another drink."
"The alcohol is going to kill you, Dad," Kate told him as she and the man managed to walk him out of the bar and into the parking lot.
"Better the alcohol than the loneliness," Duncan murmured. Kate pushed him into the front seat of her car. His eyes closed and he drifted away. He was finally able to sleep.
Kate saw her father slump sideways in his seat. For a moment she felt a surge of panic that he wasn't just sleeping, that something was happening to him, that he was sick or no, she couldn't think the word, much less say it. Her father was strong as an ox. He wasn't even that old, barely sixty. He was just drunk.
A terrible, lousy drunk. A terrible, lousy father for that matter. Why was she worried about losing him when it was so apparent that she'd lost him a long time ago?
"You'll need help getting him out of the car," Tyler said, interrupting her thoughts.
She'd almost forgotten he was standing there. "You've gotten yourself quite a headline, haven't you?
'Victorious sailor turns into worthless drunk.'"
"Is that how you think of your father?"
"No, but it's probably what you'll say.”
"How do you know what I'll say?"
"I've been interviewed before, had my words twisted."
"Is that where your resistance comes from?" he asked with a thoughtful expression on his face. "I'm not interested in embarrassing you, Miss McKenna. I just want an interesting story. Fame, success, adventure those are things that change people's lives forever. Most people never experience even one of those, much less all three, the way you did."
Kate didn't know what to say. She needed time to think, to figure out the best way to handle this man
Maybe if she told him just enough, he would go away. But what would be enough? Would he start digging?
And if he did, what would he find?
"I need to take care of my father," she said. "Maybe tomorrow, if you want to stop by the bookstore, we can talk."
"Why the change of heart?" He sent her a skeptical look.
"You don't look like someone who gives up."
"That's true." Tyler tipped his head toward the car. "Will your father be all right? I could follow you home, help you get him into the house."
"No, thank you."
"Where is home, anyway? I don't think you said."
"I don't think I did." Kate got into her car and shut the door. "I don't know what to do about that man," she muttered, glancing over at her father. Duncan's response was a very unhelpful snort. She'd have to take care of Tyler Jamison herself.
Tyler stared down the road long after Kate's taillights had disappeared. What had seemed so simple had suddenly taken on new and disturbing dimensions. The first was Kate herself. She wasn't what he'd expected.
For some reason, he'd thought tomboy, tough girl, overachiever, but she hadn't looked all that tough in a pair of black capri pants and a clingy T-shirt that matched her light blue eyes. Her blond hair had fallen loosely around her shoulders, and she'd moved with a feminine grace, spoken with a soft voice. She had a great smile, too, he thought, the kind that invited you to come in and stay awhile, the same way her friendly little bookstore invited customers to stop in and browse. Not that she'd been all that friendly when she'd discovered he was a reporter. Despite her casual manner, he'd sensed a wall going up between them with every question that he asked.
Tyler reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was a magazine cover from eight years ago. Three blond, sunburned girls stood on the deck of a sailboat, holding an enormous silver trophy in their hands, their proud, beaming father in the background. The McKennas had conquered the world's toughest oceans. But were there secrets behind those smiles? Was there another story of their trip, one that hadn't been printed? Tyler suspected the answer to both questions was yes.
In fact, if one looked closely at the picture, only Duncan looked really happy. The girls appeared shell-shocked. It was the only word he could think of to describe their expressions. Maybe he was reading more than was there. He'd spent most of his life living by the facts and only the facts, but this story was different. This story was personal.
Kate McKenna hadn't wanted to talk to him. As she said, it was an old story, so why the resistance? She was hiding something. A drunken father not the biggest secret in the world. There had to be something more. Tyler had a hunch he knew what that something was.
He folded the magazine cover, slipped it into his pocket, and took out his cell phone. He punched in a familiar number, then waited.
"Jamison residence." Shelly Thompson, Mark's private nurse, answered the phone in her no-nonsense voice.
"Shelly. It's Tyler. How's Mark doing today?"
"Not good. He tried to stand, but his legs couldn't support his weight. He's very depressed."
Tyler let out a sigh filled with frustration, helplessness, and anger, emotions that swamped him every time he thought about his younger brother who had once been such an accomplished athlete. "Can I talk to him?"
"He's asleep. Do you want me to wake him?"
"No. But when he gets up, tell him I found the McKenna sisters." Tyler ended the call, slipping the phone back into his pocket. The McKenna sisters might be good at keeping secrets, but he was even better at uncovering them.