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Captain Sal steered the Helene east, at cross-angles with the waves that were higher here away from the protection of the islands. Abby felt the rhythmic slap, slap, slap as each wave smacked the twenty-foot craft, jarring her already nervous stomach. If she didn't fear Trevor Price so much, she would never be out on the deadly Gitche Gumee this late in the season.
She could see the autumn colors of Devil's Island in the distance, and though she'd never liked the island, she was glad to see it now. The sooner she got there, the sooner she'd be off the stomach-rocking boat and onto solid ground. And the sooner she'd be able to get the ring and Trevor out of her life for good.
Abby said a silent calming prayer and glanced over at the other passengers. She'd shared water taxi rides with tourists before, and was thankful to find this group less talkative than many. She wasn't in the mood to chat. To her relief, the three tourists were looking ahead to the island and appeared to have forgotten she was even with them. Abby squinted at the figure in the Northwoods College ball cap, the one closest to the boat's tiny cabin, the one with the broad shoulders and square set jaw.
She recognized him. It had been nine years since she'd last seen him, and though his face had grown firmer with age, the sight of him still set her insides quivering with awareness. Scott Frasier had been the star quarterback of the Northwoods College football team the year they'd almost won the championship, the only year they'd made it to the play-offs in college history. Everybody from Northwoods College knew Scott Frasier. According to the school's alumni magazine, he was a psychologist of some sort in the Twin Cities area now.
Scott wouldn't recognize her. She'd only been a freshman his senior year, and seniors never bothered with freshmen, even if they had been in the same poetry class fall semester, and often ended up in the same discussion group. In some ways, she was glad he wouldn't remember her, and equally grateful the noise of the boat and wind discouraged conversation. She didn't want to have to explain what she was doing on this trip.
The other two, a man and woman who looked to be in their early fifties, were probably Scott's parents. The woman looked like him, anyway, with the same statuesque height and aquiline nose. The man was certainly shorter, softer, rounder, but the way he clung on to the woman's side, he was bound to be her husband. Her fingers were covered with diamonds, and the particularly huge stone on the ring finger of her left hand matched the setting of the masculine ring he wore.
"Coming about," Captain Sal announced, his voice thick with a Wisconsin brogue. There had been a time when the accent would have sounded foreign to her ears, but after nearly a decade in northern Wisconsin, Abby would have probably pronounced it much the same way. She watched carefully as he steered the craft well wide of the southern tip of the island, knowing that even on the sandy side, boulders hid just below the surface, ready to scrape their underside and send the Helene sinking like the Titanic.
As soon as Sal had positioned the boat alongside the long wooden dock, Abby stood, ready to get on with her errand. Scott leaped agilely onto the faded wooden planks, then reached out toward her.
"Need a hand up?" he asked, his smile friendly.
Abby already had one hand on the high metal support that held the dock, and she'd never been one to lean on anybody. She gave a shrug and started to pull herself up, hoping he wouldn't think she was being rude. The idea of being in physical contact with him made her stomach flutter in a different sort of way than it had on the rough water of the lake.
Waves from the Helene's wake hit the pier, rocking the boat in a dipping, unsteady rhythm. With one foot on the boat and one on the dock, Abby felt her legs wobbling madly beneath her, and she braced herself for the impact of the wooden planks as her face keeled toward them, while she clung to the metal support. The last thing she wanted was to end up in the cold water of Lake Superior.
Scott's arms were around her in an instant, hoisting her upward effortlessly. They stumbled backward together down the long dock for three or four steps before Abby managed to gain control of her feet. Her face pressed against the soft cotton of Scott's T-shirt where it was exposed by the open buttons of his quilted flannel shirt. For a moment, she was aware of the strong beat of his heart and the thick muscles that told her he hadn't lost his college football-player physique.
Then she pushed away, instantly self-conscious, as Sal's voice carried behind her. "Just wait till I get her tied up, now," he chided in his thick brogue.
"Are you all right?" Scott asked, peering into her face.
"Yes, fine." She brushed at her clothes as though she could as easily brush away the feeling of being in his arms. Oh, how the Abby of nine years ago would have swooned at the thought of that moment! "Thanks to you." She smiled up at him, trying to appear grateful and confident and not the least bit affected by him, though she was. Now she needed to get on with her hike and get away from him before she made an even bigger fool of herself.
She cleared her throat, which had gone inexplicably dry, and started off down the pier. The island drew her attention, so wild and remote, and so deceptively beautiful in its fall colors. Then she glanced back at the other couple, still on the boat, who appeared to be arguing in low tones. The woman grasped her necklace and shook her head firmly. Abby wanted to thank them for letting her share the water taxi out to the island, but at the same time, she didn't want to interrupt.
Turning her attention back to Scott, she smiled. "Thanks for the ride. I'm going to take a quick hike. I should be back here well within an hour."
"Take your time. We've hired Captain Sal for two hours. Where are you off to?"
"There's a lighthouse on the north side of the island," Abby explained simply, "and a road leading up there."
Scott looked off in the direction she'd indicated. "I might like to see that," he said in a musing voice, then looked back to the older couple. "But my mother will want to look for driftwood. I'll have to check it out later."
Impatient to get on with her search, Abby figured Scott's plans weren't any of her business. "Right. Thanks again." She threw a wave his way and headed up the dock, breathing deeply of the crisp air as the scent of the lake gave way to forest smells, pine and birch and hemlock, and the earthy aroma of wet fallen leaves. She had a mission to accomplish, and the chilling memory of Trevor's tight grip hastened her steps.
Abby tried to stick to the middle of the path, where a tangle of weeds gave the moist clay-topped drive some measure of traction. The rest of the road was slick from a heavy rain that had drenched the Apostle Islands and most of Lake Superior the night before, so Abby was glad for her thick-soled hiking boots. Still, keeping a fast pace was nearly impossible. When she spotted a sturdy-looking fallen tree branch, she snapped off the narrow end over her knee and used the remainder as a hiking stick, which gave her a greater measure of balance and allowed her to move more quickly.
In six minutes' time she'd reached the old keeper's quarters, where Coast Guardsmen had lodged year-round in the decades before the lighthouse had been automated. She'd been a tenant there, too, one summer. But that was a time she preferred not to think about.
The road leveled off and became a narrow, grass-matted path. Glad for the added traction, Abby dropped her walking stick and picked up her pace to a jog. Two minutes later, the woods opened up to the wide sea before her. Had the sky been clear, she could have seen the lake's northern shore, with Minnesota on the left and Canada off to the right. Instead an uncertain haze blanketed the horizon.
With a glance at the lighthouse to her right, Abby turned off the trail to her left, surprised at how quickly she was able to locate the narrow rabbit run she'd followed only twice before.
Her nervous stomach rose like a lump in her throat, and she realized she'd clenched her hands into tight fists. The ring finger on her left hand still ached, a reminder of Trevor's threat. Forcing herself to relax, she prayed silently, Lord, please let the ring be there, and please help me find it.
The small clearing hadn't changed, its brownstone outcropping as solid as the island itself. Abby spied the distinctly shaped rock quickly and dropped to her knees, praying again as she lifted it, her eyes blind to the brassy coiled centipedes and moss-gray roly-polies that fled for cover when she exposed them to the light.
The ring had not tarnished. Its gold was still vibrant, its central diamond brilliant. She grabbed it up, dropped the rock and poked the ring deep into the tiny fifth pocket of her jeans. Then she inhaled a cleansing breath and exhaled a prayer of thanks before heading back toward the dock.
The downhill trek seemed easier now, and though she slowed her pace, the hike of just over a mile passed quickly. As she reached the southern end of the island and stepped free of the woods, she saw Scott heading toward the dock with driftwood in his arms. He smiled as she approached. "Back so soon? That wasn't nearly an hour."
Abby shrugged. She didn't bother trying to fight back the smile she felt at seeing him. He was such a handsome man, and with the ring now safely in her pocket, she could relax a little and enjoy being on the island with him. "How's the search for driftwood going?"
Scott looked down at the meager pile of wood he'd set on the concrete slab at the head of the dock, then turned his head toward where the older couple walked along the rocky shore, nearly out of sight around the curve of the island. "My stepfather," he began, his eyes stormy, but then apparently decided against voicing his opinion. His expression softened. "I don't suppose you'd want to show me the lighthouse?"
His request brought a smile to Abby's lips in spite of the fear she still felt. He wanted to spend time with her, too? "I thought you were spending this trip with your mother."
"I have, and I will." His voice sounded resigned. "But I need a break. You were up there and back so quickly, and they're busy enough with their bickering I'm sure they'll hardly notice if I slip away." He looked imploringly toward her.
Abby's eyes widened and she looked him full in the face for the first time. From close-up his face appeared more manly than boyish, with smile creases branching out from his eyes. She realized how much they'd both aged since college. "Sure. It's right this way." Suddenly self-conscious, she diverted her eyes from his face and focused instead on watching her feet as they made their way up the slick path.
They reached the road and began the steady uphill trek.
The woods quickly closed in behind them. Abby felt she ought to make conversation with her hiking partner to break the awkward silence, but the only thing she could think of was the need to confess their shared history, however long ago it had been.
"You probably don't remember me," she started hesitantly, "but I believe we were at Northwoods College around the same time."
"Abby Caldwell," Scott stated with assurance. "We had a poetry class together."
Abby's heart nearly stopped, and one foot took a wild slip on a patch of slimy clay.
Scott grabbed her arm, steadying her. "I'm Scott Frasier, by the way." His grin was broad, and he looked pleased.
"I remember," she said breathlessly, far too aware of the stable, comforting grip of his hand on her arm. "You were on the football team. Starting quarterback. I went to every game."
Scott grinned. "So what are you up to these days?"
"I live and work in Bayfield." Abby tried to keep both her voice and feet steady as she continued up the road, Scott's hand still on her arm. "Have you heard of the Eagle Foundation?"
"They're a conservation group, aren't they?"
"Yes, that's right. I represent the northern Wisconsin region."
"I seem to recall you being active in environmental causes in college," Scott noted.
Abby giggled. It was a foolish, schoolgirl kind of giggle, and she immediately felt embarrassed, though the fact that Scott Frasier remembered anything about her made her giddy on a level she'd thought she'd left behind years ago.
Before she could make a bigger fool of herself, Scott's head cocked to one side. He dropped her arm and took a step back in the direction they'd come.
Then Abby heard it—the distinct sound of a motor running, revving higher, much as the Helene had sounded when they'd first left the Bayfield pier. Concern immediately replaced embarrassment. "Is that our boat?"
"I believe so." Scott nodded and took a few more steps downhill.
Abby moved soundlessly toward him, listening carefully for some indication that would tell them what the boat, now hidden by thick trees, would be doing running its motor when Captain Sal had promised to wait for them.
"Perhaps he's just going around to the other side of the dock. Maybe it's a better spot there," Scott suggested.
Abby shook her head. "No chance of that. The west side of the dock is the only decent anchorage. On the east side the bottom is flat sandstone, which won't hold an anchor."
"You know the island pretty well." Scott sounded impressed as he picked up his pace and began to trot down the hill.