Early Monday Morning

The cottage is a stone’s throw from Long Island Sound—and looks it. Years of standing beside that salt water have left the old beach house seaworn. The shingles are weathered. The cream trim paint, peeling. A narrow walkway made of boardwalk planks leads from the driveway, through scrubby dune grass alongside the cottage, to an open rear porch.

Jason Barlow briefly turns his architectural eye on that sparse porch, which is simple as can be. Seven painted steps lead to its entry. There, a sloped roof extends from the back of the cottage. And the porch floor? Its painted boards are the same dusty olive as the steps. The porch has no windows with screens and glass. Instead, open-air views fill that window space. At first, Jason thinks that if it were up to him, he’d redesign the porch to be the cottage’s focal point.

On second thought, he realizes it already is.

Because those expansive views look out onto the sweeping blue waters of the Sound. Standing on that unassuming porch, you’d no doubt feel like you boarded a ship, with nothing but the sea before you. Actually, that wide back porch might be architectural perfection. Its simplicity lets a coveted blue view take center stage. If anyone were to sit on the porch ledge and lean against one of the tall wooden posts, wouldn’t it make the perfect seaside seat, custom-made for daydreaming. Or relaxing. Or just breathing.

Which Jason needs to do—breathe. Slowly and deeply. He has to inhale that salt air just to lower his spiked blood pressure. Because as perfect as that cottage porch is, something’s also wrong. Horribly, undeniably wrong.

That would be the man apparently staying at this cottage. The man who stands on that sandy, planked walkway and just now hoisted his packed duffel up over his shoulder. Hoisted and heaved that duffel right through the air to land on the wooden porch floor—the same way his duffel must hit the deck on a lobster boat.

The man who, in his jeans and tee, returns to his salt-coated pickup and lifts a carton from the truck bed.

A man who Jason damn well knows—Shane Bradford.

And a man synonymous with trouble.

A man who Jason also doesn’t need seeing him drive slowly past while watching him unpack. So Jason gives the SUV a little gas and hurries by with only a glance in his rearview mirror. Enough of a glance, though, to see the For Rent sign propped in the cottage’s front window.

So that’s that. The cottage is obviously rented now. By Shane.

One more glance back confirms it. Jason sees Shane climb the porch steps, all seven of them, and drop his packed carton there. Yes, it’s painfully apparent Shane’s about to settle into that little beach bungalow by the sea.

What that does—the biting realization of it—is one thing and one thing only. It gets Jason to drive around the block to be absolutely sure. To leave not one stinking shred of doubt that trouble is about to park itself at this tranquil New England beach community.

It is, all right.

There’s no denying it after Jason rounds the cottage-lined block. When he sees that one little bungalow again, he also sees Shane carrying another box to the back porch. His arms support the large carton as he crosses that planked walkway.

The sight of it all leaves Jason no choice. He has to stop. Angry now, he pulls over to the side of the road, hits the steering wheel and again reminds himself to breathe.

Which he does. One long inhale, one slow exhale.

When he gets out and steps onto the street, Jason closes the SUV’s door and breathes again. Salt air in, pause, and out. Tactical breathing, like his father was trained to use fighting in ’Nam. Funny, because it feels like Jason’s headed off to battle now.

Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the early morning sunlight, he squints at the sight he still can’t believe. But also can’t ignore. So drawing one more breath, he walks around his vehicle and approaches Shane Bradford in the cottage driveway.

“What are you doing here?” Jason calls out.

Shane, standing at the rear of his pickup, looks back over his shoulder. After lifting a second duffel from the truck, he turns to Jason. “No hello, Jason? No friendly greeting for an old beach friend?” Shane sets his duffel on the ground and steps closer.

Jason steps closer, too. Because as much as he wants an answer to his question, he also wants to take that damn loaded duffel, throw it back into Shane’s truck and get him the hell out of Stony Point.

“How about this?” Shane asks. He stops and lifts dark sunglasses to the top of his head. “How about … Hey, Shane. Good to see you, man. Nice of you to come by for Kyle and Lauren.” He steps even closer, his head tipped. “How’s life treating you?”

“Cut the shit, Shane. If you’re staying on here to get a rise out of everyone, congratulations. You’ve done it.” Jason looks from the truck bed partially filled with more cartons and brown shopping bags, to the shingled bungalow beyond, to Shane again. His eyes look tired. His face needs a shave. His tee is ragged at the shoulders—from the sleeves being ripped off, actually. Giving clear view of his tattooed arms, which rival his brother’s in size. Lifting lobster traps from the sea will do that, Jason figures. He looks long at Shane before dropping his voice. “So what do I have to do to get you to leave?”

“You say that as though you’re making a deal with the devil.”

Jason raises an eyebrow. “It’s just best for everybody if you move on. Which doesn’t seem likely,” he says while motioning to the duffel at Shane’s feet. “How long you staying here now?” Jason asks, hitching his head to the rented cottage.

“One fishing trip.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means there’s a lobster boat that pulled out of a harbor in Maine a few hours ago this fine Monday morning.” Shane checks a heavy watch on his wrist. “Boat’s headed well out into deep waters right about now. And the crew’s got me covered for the excursion, so I’m good for this leave.”

“And exactly how long’s an excursion?”

Shane squints at him. “Hang on, my friend,” he says. “You’re all questions today. What are you doing here? How long are you staying?” Shane turns back and slams the pickup’s tailgate closed. “You know something, Barlow?” he calls over his shoulder. “I have a question for you, first.”

Jason throws up his hands. “Go ahead.”

So Shane turns, waits a second, then looks him straight on.

As Jason stands there in his short-sleeve button-down and cargo shorts, he sees it. Shane can’t seem to help it, the way his gaze travels from Jason’s face, to his prosthetic leg that must be startling to realize, then back to Jason’s face. What Jason never sees coming, though, is the one question thrown his way.

“What are you doing marrying my fiancée?” Shane asks.

“What?”

And there it is. That short laugh of someone who just caught you in his web, right before he goes in for the kill. “Maris never told you, did she?” Shane continues, squinting over at him. “We were engaged to be married, your wife and I. Maris was going to be Mrs. Shane Bradford.” After a moment’s pause, Shane picks up the duffel at his feet. Heading toward that open back porch, he calls over his shoulder, “Looks like you’ll have an interesting dinner conversation tonight.”

Little Beach Bungalow