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Captain Douglas Fitzgerald pulled up in front of his father's colonial-style house, eyeing the line of cars that stretched along the curb. The entire Fitzgerald clan had gathered for his grandfather's birthday celebration, and it looked like he was the last to arrive. Not a problem. He had a foolproof excuse. Duty first. That's the way his father had raised him. It was the only way he knew how to be. Seeing as how he was working his shift with the Fitzgerald Bay police department, he had no choice but to show up late and leave early. His father knew that. His grandfather knew it.
Yeah. He had an excuse, but he still wished he could spend a little more time visiting with Granddad and the rest of the clan and a little less time doing paperwork back at the office. He loved Fitzgerald Bay. Loved the people, the community, the easy predictability of small-town life, but predictability could be boring.
Or, maybe, it was just his life that could be boring.
He frowned as he stepped into the oversize foyer. Voices carried from the dining room, the sound of laughter and chatter ringing through his childhood home. Empty? His life had never been that. Could never be that. Not with his boisterous family around.
But there were moments when he felt that something was missing.
Someowe was missing.
He frowned again.
No one was missing. Nothing was missing. His life was exactly the way he wanted it to be.
"Douglas!" His sister Keira smiled as he walked into the foyer. Still dressed in her police uniform, straight dark hair pulled into a ponytail, her cheeks pink, she looked closer to sixteen than twenty-three.
"I can't stay long. Looks like everyone is having a good time." He glanced at the throng of family members.
"Did you expect anything less?"
"Not when it comes to our family. Where's Granddad?"
"Holding court in the living room. You'd better go see him. He's been asking when you were going to get here."
"He knew I had to work."
"He's still been asking." She shrugged.
"I'll go see what he wants." Douglas walked into the large, comfortable living room, waved to his grandfather.
"You finally made it." Ian Fitzgerald stood as Douglas approached. Tall and handsome, he'd only recently begun to slow down, the years finally starting to catch up with him.
"What did you need to see me about?"
"Not you. Everyone. I have an announcement to make, and I didn't want to make it before you got here. Can I have everyone's attention?" He raised his voice, the booming sound quieting the laughter and chatter. Several people stepped into the room and waited while Ian cleared his throat, looked around at his family.
Douglas's family. Cousins. Uncles. Aunts. His brothers Ryan, Owen and Charles. His sisters Fiona and Keira. His father, frowning as he waited for Ian to continue.
"What is it, Dad?" Aiden Fitzgerald asked. Chief of the Fitzgerald Bay police department, Douglas's father wore authority like a mantle, his shoulders straight, his carriage upright.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. Thirty years is a long time to be mayor, and it's time to step down, let someone else take my place."
"You're not going to run for mayor this term?" Douglas spoke over the shocked reaction of the entire Fitzgerald clan.
"I'm not. So, are we going to have cake?" Ian settled back into the chair, crossing his arms over his chest. He'd made up his mind. That much was obvious. Douglas was certain he wouldn't change it. Not Granddad.
"Cake? Dad, you can't just drop a bomb like that and expect us to move on," Aiden responded.
"Bomb? I'm eighty-two, Aiden. I can't keep going forever. I think we all know that. It's time to slow down. To enjoy the family God gave me while I still have the time and health to do it. Seems to me, you're about the age I was when I ran for mayor the first time. It's your turn to run this town."
"I'm the chief of police. I can't be mayor, too."
"You've got three sons you're training to take your place. Might as well let one of them have a go at being chief."
The two could debate the issue all day. Douglas had no doubt about that. He'd let them and check in later to see if his father had talked Granddad into backing down. For now, he needed to eat and get back to work.
"You two work things out. I'm going to" Before he could finish, Douglas's radio crackled, and Deborah Sandino's voice carried across the line.
"Captain? We have a situation on our hands." The hint of panic in her words made Douglas's heart jump. Deborah had been a dispatcher with the police department for over a decade, and Douglas had never known her to be anything but calm and efficient.
"What kind of situation?" He met his father's eyes, the sudden silence of the room making Deborah's words echo loudly.
"A body has been found near the lighthouse."
"At the base of the cliffs. The caller believes the deceased may be Olivia Henry."
"It can't be Olivia." Douglas's brother Charles spoke into the deafening silence that followed Deborah's announcement, his face drawn with concern. Divorced and the custodial parent to his twin toddlers, he'd hired Olivia to work as their nanny several months ago. Sweet and kindhearted, she'd poured out love on her charges, and that had been enough to win the respect and affection of the family.
Now she might be dead, her body lying broken at the base of the lighthouse cliffs.
"I'll be at the scene in ten minutes, Deborah. No one is to touch the body before I get there." He jogged through the living room and back out into the frigid afternoon. Steel gray clouds blocked the sun and the air held a hint of snow. A winter storm blowing in. They'd need to collect evidence and retrieve the body before it arrived.
The young woman.
The human being whose life had ended abruptly. An accident?
A suicide? Something worse?
"Hold up, son. I'm riding with you," Aiden called out, pulling on a thick coat as he ran to Douglas's SUV. Face pale, his hands trembling, he looked shaken and ill.
"You don't have to"
"I'm the chief of police. Of course I have to." He jumped into the SUV, and Douglas gunned the engine, sped through town, sirens blaring, lights flashing, adrenaline pumping through his blood. A quiet fishing community, Fitzgerald Bay didn't offer much in the way of excitement for its police force. Loitering, vandalism and robbery topped the list of crimes. Every once in a while, domestic violence or assault, but bodies didn't appear at the base of cliffs. People didn't just die without warning and without cause.
Someone had died, though.
Maybe someone very close to his family.
Douglas's hands tightened on the steering wheel, his heart thundering in time with his racing thoughts.
"Do you think it's Olivia?" Aiden asked, his voice shaky and weak.
"I don't know." Douglas glanced at his father, worried about him in a way he'd never been before. Aiden had served as chief of police for as many years as Douglas could remember. Stoic, serious and unflappable, he wasn't the kind of guy to let anything shake him. But he was shaken. Visibly so. "Are you okay, Dad?"
"Of course I am," Aiden muttered as Douglas flew down Main Street and out onto the rural road that led to the bluff and the lighthouse. Two police cars followed, lights flashing blue and red through the cloudy afternoon. His brothers. Douglas was sure of it. No way would Ryan or Owen stay away. No doubt, Keira was in one of the cars.
Together, they'd identify the body. They'd piece together what happened.
He just hoped they wouldn't find Olivia.
Hoped she was happily enjoying her day off.
The lighthouse loomed in the distance, growing closer with every passing mile. White and red, it stood stark and tall against the steely sky. A small, quaint cottage was a few dozen yards away from it. Once the lighthouse keeper's home, it now belonged to Charles. He'd built a small apartment at the back of the building and had offered it to Olivia.
Maybe, she was there.
Douglas prayed she was there.
Charles's blue Nissan, the one Olivia used to transport the twins, and a beat-up Chevy station wagon sat in the driveway. Dark green. Wood trim. Looked like it had lived a few decades too long.
Douglas knew the car, had seen it parked outside his sister Fiona's bookstore dozens of times in the past year. He knew exactly who it belonged to. Remembered the day he'd walked into the Reading Nook and seen Meredith O'Leary for the first time. Curvy, pretty, secretive Merry.
Had she found the body?
"That's Merry's car," Aiden said as Douglas got out of the SUV. Gulls screamed, their haunting cries mixing with crashing waves as Douglas made his way along the path to the cliff.
Large boulders and smaller rocks jutted from dark soil. The briny scent of the bay carried on the cold wind that blew across the bluff. All of it felt familiar and homey and right, but nothing was right about the day or Douglas's reason for being at the lighthouse.
Up ahead, a woman stood near the edge of the cliff, strawberry blond hair whipping in the wind, shoulders hunched against the cold. Definitely Merry.
There was no mistaking her hair, her ultra-feminine curves, or the way his stomach clenched, his senses springing to life when he saw her.
Two lunch dates. That's all it had taken to convince him that Merry was a woman worth knowing better. He'd looked into her eyes, listened to her laughter and imagined doing the same over and over again in the weeks and years to come.
And, then she'd broken things off.
It's just not working out.
That's what she'd said, but she'd refused to look in his eyes when she'd said it, refused to tell him what part of their time together hadn't worked for her.
Because it had all worked for him.
She stepped closer to the cliff's unstable edge, and his heart lurched.
"Merry!" he called out, but she didn't seem to hear over the crashing waves and screaming gulls. He ran forward and snagged her coat, yanking her away from the crumbling earth before it could give way.
She screamed, turning around, her fist aiming for his nose and coming a little too close for comfort.
"Hey, calm down!" He sidestepped another blow, grabbing her hands before she could swing again. They trembled in his grip, the fine tremors making Douglas ease his grip, smooth the skin of her knuckles.
"Douglas! Thank goodness you're here. Olivia is " Her voice trailed off as if she couldn't bear to speak the words, and he had no doubt she really believed Olivia was lying at the base of the cliffs. But it was a hundred feet down to the rocks and water. A hundred feet could make identifying someone difficult.
"Stay here. I'll take a look."
Please, God, don't let it be her.
The prayer whispered through his mind as he approached the cliff edge, looked below at the rocks and crashing waves.
A body sprawled facedown on slick rock. Arms and legs splayed. Blond hair soaked and trailing into foamy puddles. Even from a distance, Douglas recognized the small frame and delicate line of the neck.
His father stepped up beside him, tensing as he looked at Olivia's body. "It's her."
"Yeah. I'm afraid so."
"We need to be the first to examine the body. If she fell, fine. If she didn't, we need to know what happened. I'll get the climbing gear." Aiden hurried away, not giving Douglas time to respond.
If she fell.
The words seemed to hang in the air. The other possibilities hovering with them. If she hadn't fallen
"We were supposed to meet for lunch," Merry said, and Douglas wasn't sure if she was speaking to him or to herself.
He turned, studying her pale, pretty face, searching her dark, hollow eyes. Haunted. That's how she looked. How she always looked. Despite her smile, despite her easy laughter, there were always shadows in her eyes. He'd noticed them before he'd asked her to lunch, had wanted to find out what caused them, but Merry had shut him out. "Were you here looking for her?"
"Yes. She was late, and she didn't answer her phone. I got worried and came to make sure she was okay. I thought maybe she'd overslept or her car hadn't started. I never thought." She shook her head.
"You went to her apartment first?"
"Yes. The door was unlocked, and I walked inside. Checked her bedroom. She wasn't there. She loves the bluff and looking out over the bay. I thought maybe she'd come here and lost track of time, so I came to check. I don't know what made me look down. Maybe just a feeling that things weren't right. Do you think she fell?"
"I won't know until I get down there. For now, I'm going to assume that's what happened. Unless you know something that makes you think differently."
She hesitated, her dark gaze skittering away. "I don't."
Maybe. Or maybe she was still in shock, still trying to wrap her mind around Olivia's death. He couldn't blame her if she was. He couldn't wrap his mind around it. He'd seen Olivia the previous day, pushing Charles's twins in a double stroller, a smile on her face.
He shoved the image away.
He needed to focus on the job. There'd be time to mourn later.
He scanned the ground near the cliff, looking for signs of a struggle, some clue that would help put together a picture of what had happened. No footprints, but a few feet away, the earth seemed scuffed. Nearby, a black shoe lay near a clump of winter-brown foliage, and he crouched nearby. Woman's sneaker with green shoelaces.
"It's Olivia's." Merry crouched beside him, reached out.
He snagged her hand before she could grab the sneaker, felt the tension beneath smooth skin.
"We need to leave it for the evidence team."
"Evidence of what?" she asked, tugging her hand away and tucking it into the pocket of her coat. Her cheeks were red from cold, her breath coming out in quick puffs that hung in the icy air.
"Of whatever happened here."