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The Pearson Bay hardware store was bustling with activity as Rourke Quinn walked through the battered front door. The locals, worried about the approaching storm, were buying last-minute supplies before the wind and rain drove them indoors.
"Hey, Rourke! You hanging around for this? It's supposed to be the storm of the decade. At least that's what forecasters are callin' it.''
Rourke turned to smile at Betty Gillies, the store owner. "Nope. I'm heading out. I want to get to the mainland before it hits. I just needed some batteries for my camera. Thought I'd take a few last pictures of the coastline before I left the island.'
"We're going to miss you around here," she said. "Heck, I'm gonna miss you. You were good for the bottom line.'
Rourke chuckled. "I'm sure I was."
He'd arrived on the eastern shore of Cape Breton Island almost three months ago, coming to the Maritimes to settle his uncle's estate. His father's family had lived on the island for almost a hundred years, plying the waters of the Atlantic as fishermen. But Uncle Buddy was the last of the Quinns to make his home on Cape Breton and now that he was gone, his cottage would be sold.
Born in America of an American mother and a Canadian father, Rourke had always felt torn between the Cape Breton culture of his Canadian family and the big-city life of his hometown. His uncle had known this and Rourke suspected that was why the cottage had been left to himso that he might find his way "home" again.
Rourke had spent summer vacations working on his uncle's fishing boat, making the long trip up from New York City, where his parents lived. His father, Paul, had wanted Rourke to experience a working-class job, hoping that it would make him more interested in college and a business career. As he got older, Rourke found himself drawn to the business Paul had founded with two friends. During high school, he spent his summer vacations with his father, learning the ins and outs of civil engineering. Uncle Buddy was relegated to a couple weeks at the end of August.
Rourke felt a familiar twinge of guilt assail him, but he brushed it aside. He'd spent the past three months renovating Buddy's place, making it habitable for a modern family. Now it was ready. He'd talked to a few real estate agents and made plans to list it, but he hadn't made a final decision. Perhaps it might be better to rent it out.
"A single decision can change the course of your life," he murmured to himself. Buddy had always offered sage advice with pithy sayings or old proverbs. That was one of his favorites.
When Rourke was young he used to tease his uncle. Yeah, I'll make sure to embroider that on a pillow, he'd say. But now that he was older, he'd begun to realize the impact of that adviceand the truth of it as it applied to his own life.
After high school, he'd decided to join the firm. He worked nights and weekends as a draftsman at Paul's office and took engineering classes during the day. Though it was never said out loud, he knew that the company was in trouble and that his father needed his help. And with every year that passed, the stress took more of a toll on Paul's health.
He'd continued to work at the company, even after his father's sudden death of a heart attack, hoping to save his dad's legacy by getting the firm back on track. But without the support of the other two partners, Rourke knew it was a lost cause. He quit the day after he heard of Buddy's death.
Rourke stared at the selection of batteries. He wished he'd had one last chance to talk to Buddy, to ask him the questions that had been plaguing him for the past few years. Where is my life going? What do I really want? Am I ever going to be truly satisfied?
"So you're putting the place up for sale, are you?" Betty asked.
"I haven't decided yet," Rourke replied as he pulled a package of batteries off the rack and dropped it on the counter. "I don't want to make any hasty decisions."
"Is this it?" she said, pointing to the batteries.
Rourke nodded, then reached into his pocket for his wallet. But as he was pulling out the money to pay for the purchase, the patrons around him suddenly went silent. Betty's gaze fixed on a spot over his shoulder and Rourke slowly turned.
Annie Macintosh was a familiar figure to everyone in town. Her family had lived on the eastern shore as long as the Quinns had. Her greatgrandfather had built and kept the lighthouse on Freer's Point.
Annie's life had been more tragic than most. Her parents had died when she was young, both of them drowned under mysterious circumstances. She'd been brought up by her grandmother in the old light keeper's cottage, set on a beautiful piece of property overlooking the Atlantic.
As a shy child, she'd been the target of the local bullies, their taunts focused on her stammer, on her mismatched clothes, on her tangled auburn hair or her pale complexion. Recalling the torment as an adult, Rourke had to wonder why no one had stepped in to help her. He'd stood up for her once, only to get pummeled for it by a group of six townies.
He could see her now, surrounded by the six bullies, her stance defiant, struggling to express her anger even through her stutter, which invited more derision from the boys. It had been the most courageous thing he'd seen in his young life and it had been one of those moments that Buddy had talked about. That day, he'd realized that he wouldn't spend his life being led by others. He was a leader, not a follower.
Annie silently walked to the row of freezers and refrigerators on the far wall that held bait for the sport fishermen. When she returned to the counter, she was carrying two large boxes of frozen herring.
Rourke stepped aside, giving her a hesitant smile. "Go ahead. I can wait."
She smiled back at him and for a moment, Rourke forgot to breathe. The dirty, disheveled girl had grown into an incredible beauty. Her eyes had always been an odd shade of bluealmost tealringed with dark lashes, but they had an unexpected effect on him now. Her hair, thick and wavy, hung just to her shoulders, and though tousled by the wind, seemed to be well tended. She wore simple clothes, a pair of jeans that hugged her long legs, a faded shirt and a canvas jacket.
But it was that heart-shaped face, so unusual and so captivating. He couldn't seem to bring himself to look away. He took in as many details as he could before she finished her transaction. After she paid, she hefted the two boxes into her arms and turned for the door.
"Thank you," she murmured softly, her gaze meeting his and then lingering for a moment. The corners of her mouth curled up slightly in what he could only take as a hesitant smile.
Somehow, he sensed that her gratitude wasn't for the cut in line, but for what had happened all those years ago. "Can I help you carry those out?" he asked, reaching for the box under her left arm.
She shook her head and tried to walk by him, twisting her body away. The box slipped from her grasp and hit the floor with a thud, then slid across the hardwood like a giant hockey puck.
Rourke made a move to retrieve it, but so did she, and when they reached the frost-covered box, they bumped heads as they squatted at the same time. He grabbed the box, then helped her to her feet. "Where are you parked?" he asked.
Cursing beneath her breath, she took the box from him, struggling as she tried to tuck it under her arm. Then, without giving him another look, she turned and hurried out of the store. Rourke stared after her, speechless, wondering at her odd behavior. The rest of the patrons had watched her retreat in silence, as well.
Drawing a deep breath, he returned to the counter and laid out the money for the batteries. "That was odd," he murmured.
"You're tellin' me," Betty replied.
"What do you think she's going to do with all that herring?"
"The locals use it for crab pots," Betty said. "But that's not what's odd."
"What is, then?"
"I don't think I've ever heard her speak."
Rourke frowned. "Really? I know as a kid she didn't say much, but I hadn't realized that was still going on."
"She doesn't talk to anyone. Just goes about her business. Gotta wonder about that. She must get a little lonely out there, living all by herself." Betty made a little circle with her finger beside her temple. "Some of us think all that solitude has made her a bit crazy."
"I haven't been out to the Freer's Point light in years," Rourke said. "Not sure I could find it if I tried."
"You take the turn by the Banner Realty sign on the coast road," Betty said, frowning. "You planning a trip out there?"
Rourke shrugged as he tucked the bag of batteries into his jacket pocket, then said goodbye to everyone in the store. He'd been anxious to get out of town before the storm struck, but his mind was suddenly focused on Annie Macintosh. While neighbors were helping neighbors prepare for the high winds and rain, boarding up windows and fueling generators, who was there to look out for her? Did she have any friends on the island at all?
The least he could do before he left was check on her. He could afford to stick around for a few more hours, maybe help her batten things down. The storm wasn't supposed to hit the coast until midnight and it was just past three in the afternoon.
He made a few more quick stops, for gas and snacks, then headed out along the coast. He made the turn at the sign and as he drove the winding road, he caught sight of the lighthouse. Rourke pulled the SUV to a stop, reconsidering what he was about to do.
Was this another one of those moments? Rourke wondered. Was this really about being a good neighbor, or was this about the strange attraction he felt for Annie Macintosh? An uneasy feeling came over him and he thought about turning the car around and heading back to the coast road.
After all, he was no white knight ready to ride to her rescue. "Come on, Buddy, give me a sign," he murmured.
A few seconds later, a sparrow, buffeted by the winds, landed on the hood of Rourke's car. The bird stared at him through the windshield. Rourke held his breath and a moment later, it flew off.
He cursed softly, then continued his drive toward the water. So many years had passed since they'd last seen each other. Did she really remember him or had he only imagined the look of recognition in her eyes?
The road was rutted and hard to navigate, his Range Rover bumping along as he tried to make out two tire tracks in front of him. When the light keeper's house finally came into view, he stopped the truck and stared out at the landscape.
The cottage had seen better days. The porch was sagging at one end, the chimney looked as if it was listing and the shutters that used to protect the house from storms like the one rolling in were falling off their hinges.
When he reached the house, Rourke turned off the ignition and hopped out of the truck. "Hello!" he shouted.
A dog barked in the distance and he walked up to the front door, avoiding the rotten step just in time. Rourke rapped on the door and waited. "Hello! Miss Macintosh?" A few seconds later, a border collie came charging around the corner of the house and Rourke froze, wondering if he'd be able to make it back to the truck before being bitten.
But the dog stopped short, then spun around and ran in the opposite direction. It stopped again, as if waiting for Rourke to follow him. He charged again and this time, Rourke held out his hand. The dog gave him a wary look as he came closer, then nudged Rourke's palm with his nose.
"Do you know where she is?" he asked.
The dog took off and Rourke followed, heading down a narrow path toward the sea. The lighthouse and keeper's cottage were set on land that had been scrubbed almost bare by the wind. The trees had been cleared long ago, leaving nothing to serve as a shield between the buildings and the white-capped Atlantic.
The surf was already high, the water roiling ahead of the storm blowing in from offshore. As he stared out at the horizon, he caught sight of Annie, standing on a small spit of sand and rock, the waves crashing around her and sending up huge plumes of water.
She was already wet, yet she didn't seem to notice. She just stared out at the slate-gray water, her eyes fixed on some distant point. The wind whipped her hair around her face and the roar was so loud that he doubted she'd be able to hear him.
The dog stood on the shore, barking at her, but she didn't turn around.
Another wave broke against the rocks and he watched as she struggled to keep her balance on her precarious perch. "What the hell are you doing?" he muttered. Rourke ran toward the shore, cupping his hands over his mouth and shouting at her to come back in.
To his relief, she turned at the sound of his voice. But at that exact moment, a rogue wave hit the rocks, slamming against her back and knocking her down. From where he was, Rourke couldn't see if she'd slid into the surf. He said a silent prayer that the water hadn't washed her away.
He made it down to the water in a matter of seconds, then climbed through the rocks. Rourke kept his eye on a small patch of maroon, the color of her jacket. When he reached her, she was lying on her back, the water rushing around her. Her eyes were closed and he leaned close, listening for her breathing. Rourke saw her chest move, then picked her up in his arms.
When they reached the safety of the shore, he laid her down in the tall grass and examined her for injuries. To his dismay, he found a cut on the back of her head that was bleeding into her wet hair. The dog circled around them both, whining and pawing at his mistress.