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SEA SPRAY cooled Vanessa Paris's cheeks as she gazed from the ferry across the froth-tipped waves of Puget Sound. Missing. The words gouged deep into her mind. How could Dad have disappeared from his small fishing boat without leaving a clue? The desperate call from Clinton Paris, her father's brother, had come only last night.
That morning she'd hastily arranged for a leave-of-absence at the university in Seattle where she taught as an assistant professor in the psychology department. The afternoon drive up the interstate to the ferry terminal had seemed to take forever. At last she was almost home.
Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, she watched the approaching craggy shore, edged with a sawtooth line of dark evergreens. Tawanya Island. The northernmost of the San Juans. Her childhood home.
Thoughts of her father resurfaced and a pang shot through her. What if he was never found? What if he'd fallen overboard, was knocked unconscious, and sank beneath the frigid waters?
Vanessa gave a quick shake of her head. No -- that just couldn't happen. Dad was an expert fisherman. He'd always believed in his abilities, just as he'd taught her to believe in hers. Everyone on the entire island agreed that Eldon Paris was a master of the sea. Nearly every day at the Kaloch Bay Lodge, owned and operated by her father and uncle, Dad would fire up the engine of the "Lady Luck" and welcome the hopeful tourists who'd signed on for his guided fishing expeditions.
Overhead, a seagull screeched, momentarily breaking into her anxious thoughts. The last rays of an early summer sun were quickly fading beyond the horizon. In the distance, whitesails billowed against the sky.
Vanessa lifted her chin. Yes, Dad would want her to be brave. She was not only homeward bound, but bound in her love for him. She had no choice but to unravel the mystery of his disappearance...
"ARE YOU sure Dad left alone?" Vanessa questioned her uncle after exchanging quick hugs. She followed Clinton through the hall foyer and into the rustic lobby of Kaloch Bay Lodge. "Why didn't he go with Matt Redding? They've fished together for at least fifteen years now."
"Matt couldn't go with him. Your pop left two days ago at the crack of dawn -- and I'm sure he was alone. Said he wanted some time for a day of trawling and he'd be back no later than seven."
She ran a trembling hand through her auburn hair and shook her head. "Dad should've never done it. He's got a heart condition."
"That's not the way Eldon sees it," he replied. "As long as his old ticker keeps on a tickin', your pop's gonna do exactly as he pleases. And you, my dear niece -- in all your 25 years of livin' -- you should know him as well as I do." Clinton stooped to stoke up the embers in the huge stone fireplace, then tossed on another log.
"I'm afraid you're right." As the flames sputtered and crackled, warmth wrapped around her, yet it failed to thaw the icy cold fear deep inside of her. She sank into her favorite leather armchair as her uncle seated himself across from her.
"It's not that he wouldn't have welcomed Matt's company," Clinton went on. "Lately Eldon's been complainin' that Matt's been too damned busy for his own good--"
A commotion in the foyer interrupted him and he rose wearily. "Probably another one of those Coast Guard investigators or maybe someone from the sheriff's department. They've been dropping in all day. Oh, it's not that I don't appreciate what they're trying to do, mind you. It's just that they keep asking the same questions over and over." He patted her shoulder. "Hold on, kiddo. I'll be back as soon as I can."
She sprang up. "Wait! I'm coming too."
By the time she arrived in the foyer, her uncle and two blue uniformed Coast Guard officers were engaged in intense conversation. The taller man appeared to be in his early twenties, the other closer to middle-age.
"We've found Mr. Paris's boat up near the North Spit and immediately mounted a search," the older officer was saying. "The engine was still idling, the autopilot switched on and the refrigerator fully stocked." He slanted a glance at Clinton. "Can you tell me about your brother's emotional state? Was he depressed? Acting strange?"
"Dad's no different than anyone else," Vanessa broke in. "Oh, by the way, I'm Vanessa Paris, his only daughter. What I'm trying to say is, he may have his ups and downs sometimes, but who doesn't?" If they were considering that Dad had purposefully drowned himself, they were wrong. Dad's robust love of life would never give way to suicide.
"What about his heart medication?" she continued. "Did you find it on board?"
"Yes," he answered. "The two half-empty bottles were uncapped, sitting on the galley table."
Vanessa brushed back a tear. The picture of her father's deserted boat was too much to bear. If he had left it, knowing he'd be gone for more than a day, why didn't he take his pills with him? she wondered.
"Did my brother radio in a Mayday?" Clinton asked.
"No sir. None at all."
Several lodge guests gathered around, yet as Vanessa's attention narrowed on the younger officer's next words, the guests' faces blurred into obscurity. "We've suspended the search for the night, but will continue sending out more helicopters and cutters tomorrow. In the meantime, we're holding Mr. Paris's boat at our operations center on Bradshaw Island. We'll let you know as soon as anything turns up."
"Is there anything we can do?" Vanessa pleaded. Though just being back on the island made her feel closer to her father, she knew that wasn't enough. She must get involved with the search. And if the authorities weren't about to suggest a way, she'd find her own.
"The best thing you can do is stand by for further questioning," the other officer answered. "We have a very competent search and rescue team. Rest assured we're doing everything possible." With that, the two men made a hasty exit out the door.
The telephone in the office jangled, and Clinton dashed to answer it as Vanessa wandered back into the lobby to escape the curious stares of the guests. Maybe tomorrow she could face them, but not yet. Fatigue weighted her feet.
A blast of cool air gusted from the back of the room. Turning on her heel, Vanessa stared at the tall, well-built masculine figure that filled the doorway leading onto the deck.
"Lowell Maxwell!" she exclaimed. Recognition rocked her. She reached quickly to clasp the back of a chair in an effort to steady herself. Eleven years ago, he and her older brother, Andrew, had been the best of friends. Lowell had spent many a weekend hanging out with Andy here at the lodge -- and Vanessa, completely smitten by Lowell's blond good looks, had invented every excuse imaginable to try to get his attention.
"Yep...it's been a long time, hasn't it? I was standing outside," he said huskily. His gaze locked with hers. "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. How're you doing, Vanessa? Are you holding up okay?"
"Yes...no." Her heart raced as she groped for a sane reply. Lowell had grown more handsome than she'd ever dreamed possible. He stood tall, broad-shouldered and powerfully masculine. But she mustn't let him get to her, she quickly cautioned herself.
No, she simply must not.
People you loved, people you trusted, only ended up dying.
"The news about Dad came as quite a shock, of course," she finally continued, taking a cautious step backward. "Somehow I keep telling myself there must be some mistake. That they mistook Dad's boat for someone else's. That any moment now he'll appear out of nowhere." She sighed, blinking rapidly to keep from crying. "And what about you, Lowell? Are you here on vacation?"
"I'm not a guest, Vanessa. I work here."
"I don't understand. Clinton never mentioned--"
"I suppose not," he interrupted, raking his hand through wheat-colored hair. "He's quite shaken now about your father too. So am I." He paused, then jerked his head toward the deck. "Let's go outside where we can talk more privately."
She hesitated. "All right." She wasn't sure why, but Lowell seemed steeled by his own brand of caution. The tension stretching between them was so palpable she could almost reach out and touch it.
They sat, she sinking into a webbed lawn chair, he hitching himself onto a stool alongside of her. For a long while, they stared out at the bay, neither speaking, neither daring to look at each other.
"When I first came back to the islands, I felt as if I'd been away forever," Lowell said, finally breaking the silence. He leaned forward, studying the back of his hand.
"Eleven years is a long time," she agreed softly.
"Uh-huh. Eleven years and three months since I left for Oregon State and Andy enlisted with the Navy."
"And so much has happened...." Her voice trailed. Unbidden, the memories washed over her.
Lowell. The rebel of Tawanya High with his devil-may-care grin and his tough kid airs. Lowell had been the only boy who'd managed to steal her heart -- though they'd never even once gone out on a date. Much to her bitter disappointment, her crush on him had remained totally one-sided.
Just as well, her mother had often said. Lowell was four years older, a senior, and far too worldly for Vanessa. What's more, he drove his car much too fast. Wore his jeans much too tight. It didn't matter that Andy did too, Mama had replied each time Vanessa pointed out the obvious. Vanessa needed to stick with boys closer to her own age...
Vanessa forced her attention back to the present. "So exactly when did you arrive?" she asked. "What kind of work are you doing here?"
"I came back a month ago. My brother Sam -- the only brother who still lives here on the island -- is letting me stay on his sailboat, which I'm keeping docked in your harbor. He and Miranda, his new wife, invited me to move in with them." He turned to look at her. His face remained closed and tight. "But I turned them down. I needed my own space...time alone. Time to sort things out."
"I see," she said. My own space. Time alone. No, she didn't see at all. Lowell had always run with the coolest crowd at school. He'd never been a loner. Questions tumbled inside her mind. Was he running away from something? A broken relationship perhaps?
"So what has Clinton hired you to do?" she asked, struggling to sound nonchalant. His physical nearness was threatening to rip her resolve into a thousand shreds.
"Your father and Clinton," he corrected her. "I'm freelancing as a handyman. I plan to take on as much work as I have time for, not only here, but for some of the other lodge owners in the islands too."
"So you're a teacher then?" she asked. Who else had summers free other than teachers and ski lift operators?
"No. I'm a cop." His gaze moved fleetingly over her, then came to rest again on her face. "I...I'm here on a temporary leave from my job in L.A. Four more weeks."
"A cop," she repeated, meeting his stunningly blue eyes, noting the breeze rippling through his hair. He certainly fit the stereotype. Broad shouldered and strong. Opened black leather jacket with the collar turned up. An incredible heart-stopper with his sophisticated good looks. But cops were the worst choice for a husband, she reminded herself -- even if she were looking for one, which she definitely was not. Cops lived in the fast track. With violence. And danger. Cops were gunned down every day.
"WHAT HAPPENED?" she asked him. "What happened in L.A. to make you need to get away?"
He averted his gaze. "It's too personal to talk about. Let's talk about you."
She felt her hands trembling, but couldn't seem to will them to stop. So far neither of them had mentioned Andy, though she sensed he wanted to.
"Tell me more about your work," he urged quickly. "Eldon said you're a shrink."
She chuckled in spite of herself. "Leave it to Dad to get things a little mixed up. Though that's my goal, right now I'm an assistant professor at the University of Washington. I teach psychology and head up a support group for troubled teens."
He quirked an eyebrow, the hint of a smile playing on his face. "I guess it fits."
"Meaning you're apparently still the crusader you were back during high school. Clean up the beaches. Save the whales. Only now you're rescuing people instead."
"And as I remember, you used to say you never had time for causes."
"I still don't. Some things never change." He shifted his weight. "Hard work. Sweat and tears. That's the nitty gritty of it all. Right, Vanessa?"
"Uh...of course." My, he certainly had a grim way of looking at things, she thought. And what about his evasiveness when he'd talked about his leave from his job? Was it too soon to expect him to confide in her? Would he ever?
As if reading her thoughts, he suddenly got to his feet. "It's been a long day -- for both of us. Too long. Time to go."
"Yes." She rose also -- though something deep inside of her yearned to prolong their conversation. For an immeasurable moment, they simply stood there, assessing each other, their gazes locked.
"It's great seeing you again," Lowell said at last, his voice gruff with emotion.
"Good seeing you too."
Smiling, he reached out and touched her shoulder, allowing his hand to linger just a little too long.
Her pulse raced. She felt breathless and light headed.
" 'Night, Vanessa."
"Good night, Lowell."
He turned to leave, then paused for a second, tossing a look over his shoulder.
"Sleep well," she called after him.
"I'll try to. You too."
As she watched him disappear down the flight of stairs leading from the deck to the lower yard, she exhaled slowly. At last. Now that he was safely out of sight, she could let her guard down. Her nerves were stretched as tight as a guitar string.
She couldn't help wondering whether Andrew had ever told Lowell about her crush on him. Hopefully he had not, because she certainly wasn't going to give him any encouragement now. Moreover, as far as her brother was concerned, she would never know the answer to that question. Andy, who'd later decided to make the Navy his career, had been killed in a car accident three years ago. Hugging her arms to her chest, she wandered back inside. She could still almost feel where Lowell had touched her shoulder, and for a foolish moment, wondered whether his lips against hers would feel every bit as exquisite.
"Yes, Ruby...Vanessa arrived safely." The sound of Clinton still talking on the phone sliced through her thoughts.
Vanessa smiled, knowing the elderly lady would probably keep her uncle on the line as long as possible. Ruby had not only been a close family friend for a long time, but also Vanessa's piano teacher. A widow for ten years now, she'd taken a special interest in Clinton, who'd claimed to be a confirmed bachelor.
As Vanessa waited for her uncle to hang up the phone, her gaze swept the lobby. The large room had always been the heart of the lodge where guests had gathered in the evening to read and visit, or in the early gray dawn, preparing to leave on a guided fishing trip.
Before Vanessa was old enough to attend the island grade school, her mother had sometimes allowed her to play in the lobby while she managed the front office. Ragtime, the pet calico cat, usually purred loudly from her favorite spot on the Navajo throw rug by the fireplace. The guests seemed to appreciate these homey touches -- and her mother had often said that Vanessa's constant exposure to a variety of people helped mold her into the loving, generous young lady she was quickly becoming.
Mama, Vanessa thought with bittersweet pain. Everywhere she looked, reminders of her mother seeped through. She wandered over to the pine-drop table, touching it reverently. Mama had refinished it with loving patience. On the far wall shelf stood her hand-woven baskets, her collection of Indian artifacts. Mama had preceded Andrew in death by only one year, a victim of cancer.
Stifling a yawn, she heard Clinton's footsteps growing louder as he crossed the hall to the lobby.
"Ruby sends her regards," he said, taking a long slow draw on his pipe. The sweet aroma of cherry tobacco wafted about them, mixing with the mouth-watering smells that drifted in from the restaurant dining room.
"Yes, I must talk to Ruby. I must start talking to all Dad's friends, especially Matt and the other fisherman on the island. Someone, somewhere must have a clue."
"I think Ruby was waitressing at the Northshore Bait shop when Eldon was last seen there," Clinton said, narrowing his eyes in contemplation. "If Ruby can't help us, I don't know who can. She doesn't miss a trick."
"When did Ruby start working at Northshore?"
" 'Bout five months ago after she sold off the Eagle Point tourist cabins and moved into town. When she heard about Eldon, though, she took the rest of the summer off at the bait shop so she could give us a hand. She said to tell you she'll be here tomorrow mornin' just as soon as she can spring free."
"That's just like Ruby. Always willing to pitch in. By the way, is she still giving piano lessons?" The memory of sitting down to the keyboard with the older woman every Wednesday after school brought a smile to Vanessa's face.
"Nope, she gave that up some time ago. But I swear, she'll never give up her love for all that long-haired music. You know, all that Wolfman Amadeus Mozart stuff. That bullheaded woman's been tryin' to make a convert out of me for ages...."
"You mean Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," she corrected him affectionately.
"Wolfman, Wolfgang -- what's the difference?" Clinton asked with a chuckle. "Anyway, I'm sure glad Lowell is here to help. The deck's rotting out, we need more barbecue pits, there's missing boards on the steps to the beach. I could go on and on. Eldon and I were going to tackle those chores together." He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and blew his nose loudly.
"I can help too," she offered quickly. "I'm not too bad with a hammer and nails."
Clinton's mouth twitched. "You mean all your book learnin' didn't change you? You're not afraid of getting your hands fishy-smelling or breaking a fingernail?"
"Of course not."
"Thanks, kiddo, but Lowell and I'll manage." He glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantel. "Ten-thirty already! How about you and I fixin' ourselves a little supper. I'm as hungry as a half-starved grizzly bear, and you must be too."
"I grabbed a bite to eat on the ferry," she answered. "Even then, I wasn't very hungry. As soon as you finish your supper, make sure you get some sleep. You look so tired."
"But the crab pots still need to be hauled in," he protested.
"I already told you. Go to bed. I'll haul in the crab pots."
He held up his hands and shook his head in a mock gesture of defeat. "Stubborn, the lady is. Just like her old man."
INSIDE THE sailboat, Lowell sat staring out a porthole. Misty beams of moonlight slanted through. The boat rocked gently, contrasting the turbulence raging within him. He knew it would be hopeless to even try to sleep.
Damn! It was bad enough that Eldon was missing...and now Vanessa was here, complicating the scene. He'd come here to heal, to sort through his life -- not wrestle with a new batch of problems.
Vanessa. He heaved a sigh, then squared his jaw. He hadn't doubted for a minute she'd come immediately after learning about her father. But he'd dreaded that first meeting. He'd dreaded facing her again. If she only knew he was partly to blame for Eldon's disappearance, she probably would've turned her back on him and asked him to leave. But what ever had happened to that freckle faced little tomboy with braces on her teeth? The one who loved to play tricks and pester him to death?
She's grown up, that's what, his more typical logical side told him. And now what a looker! Sexy from the word go. Did she have any idea how that mane of auburn hair and her snapping green eyes could drive a man insane?
He stood up, stretched, and started pacing. Obviously she'd been caught off guard also -- though most likely, he assumed, because she hadn't expected to find him there. Apparently Eldon and Clinton hadn't gotten around to telling her, those times she'd phoned, that they'd hired him to help out at the lodge. But then, why should they have? He and Vanessa had never been an item -- and sadly enough, Andy was no longer around. Even with the four years separating Andy's birthday from hers, the two of them had been remarkably close.
He stopped pacing and stared at some indiscernible spot on the wall. "Look man," he spoke aloud, his thoughts still riveted on Andy. "I didn't bargain for this. You know what's going on in my life. The last thing I need is a woman messing it up worse. But I won't let you down, man, like I've let down your father. No matter what it takes, I'll do my level best to look out for Vanessa. Make sure that no matter what happens, she somehow gets through this. Yep, that's the least I can do, old buddy."
"For you and especially for Eldon."
Copyright © 1999 by Sydell Voeller