Caden Wallis lost friends, his girlfriend, and even his leg to the ravages of war. He arrives on the Outer Banks broken and still reeling, struggling to make peace with his new life.
McKenna Dockery has been stuck in limbo since her fiancé died three years ago. Now, when the handsome yet heartbroken Caden arrives at her doorstep, she starts to wonder if there may be hope for her heart after all . . .
But no sooner do they meet than a man is found murdered on McKenna’s property — and Caden is the prime suspect. The two must learn to trust each other, or no one will be safe in the tangled web of conspiracy, greed, and deceit lurking in the tidal marshlands of the Outer Banks.
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THE OUTER BANKS OF NORTH CAROLINA
The explosive cawing of seagulls jolted her heart into overdrive. At the edge of the beach, she spun around on the deck of her boat. A gaggle of birds darted upward, their cries echoing on the wind, warning of danger.
McKenna Dockery clutched her camera, pressing it against her chest. She went still to identify the source of the misplaced noise that had almost sounded like gunfire. The island was narrow at this end, but on the other side of the dunes all was quiet, except for the relentless, pounding waves of the Atlantic rolling onto the shore.
Over the weekend, a tropical storm had battered the Outer Banks. Now the desolate yet wildly beautiful Yaupon was a treasure trove of sea glass. But no one except her ever ventured to Yaupon Island anymore, and it'd been a while since she visited.
She climbed out of the boat and reached for her plastic bucket. Ankle deep in the channel waters, she dug her toes into the sand, resisting the pull of the outgoing tide. Though late September, it was warmer than usual.
Curiosity overpowered her fear — and often her good sense, her father complained. Yet leaving her boat anchored in the sheltered cove, she traversed the beach and climbed the sandy trail winding over the dune. At the top, a stiff ocean breeze whipped tendrils of her hair into her eyes, obscuring her vision. She raked the strands out of her face and, lifting the camera hanging around her neck, peered through the telescopic lens. Her finger clicked the shutter button, the camera making faint whirring sounds as she scanned the deserted shoreline. Nothing she saw accounted for the boom she'd heard moments before.
Probably her imagination working overtime. Her dad had been ill last night. She'd awakened every time he struggled to make his way to the hall bathroom.
She tilted her head, listening, but heard only the soothing sound of churning waves and the skritching of the sand crabs on the beach below. Had she imagined the sound? Silence thrummed, underscoring the wind-swept abandonment of the isolated island off the coast of North Carolina.
Neither her dad nor Bryce liked her going off alone in the boat. She'd grown up on the Banks and knew how to handle herself on the water, but today ...
Her skin prickled.
Gripping the camera, she gazed across the turbulent inlet that separated the small barrier island from the larger island of Hatteras. The air hung thick with trepidation. An early-morning fog snaked above the dark waters of the wetlands.
Suddenly the ever-present wind that buffeted year-round residents died. And quiet descended like a smothering blanket. No bird calls. As if they, too, waited. But for what?
An eerie stillness reigned, broken only by the tide lapping against the seashore. She fingered the cell phone tucked into the pocket of her denim shorts. No signal this far from Hatteras. A village had thrived here once beside a life-saving station, until repeated storms forced the villagers to relocate to Hatteras. Now only wild creatures remained.
She shook herself. This was ridiculous. Probably high school kids playing hooky. Though there had been a recent rash of more violent crime farther north on the Banks. Her dad, Tuckahoe's police chief, blamed it on a new player in the drug market. Connected to a Central American cartel, an unknown dealer was peddling an even more powerful and deadly drug. And where there was money to be made, so also came ruthless criminals to the otherwise peaceful Outer Banks.
As the police chief's daughter, she should've known better than to come here. Her hand shook as she replaced the cap over the lens. From Blackbeard to the gin runners of Prohibition, the barrier islands had proven a haven for unsavory elements.
Feeling eyes on the back of her head, a shiver of uneasiness traveled the length of her spine. She backpedaled the way she'd come. Underneath her windbreaker, tentacles of cold fear crawled up and down her arms. On the back side of Yaupon again, she sloshed through the knee-deep water of the cove. But she never took her eyes off the rotting stumps of the dock, the long-abandoned husks of boats. She groped behind her for the familiar fiberglass bow of her boat and heaved it off the sand, putting her back into it. Only then did she clamber onto the deck. Breathing heavily, she padded over to the controls. Turning the ignition, she brought the engine to life. And above the humming of the motor ...
On a distant sandy rise behind the stark outline of stone foundations, a babble of voices. The words indistinguishable. Angry, loud voices.
Throwing open the throttle, she gunned the engine and headed for the safety of home.
* * *
TUCKAHOE, HATTERAS ISLAND, NC
Caden startled awake, not quite sure where he was. But at the rolling crash of the waves, he remembered. And immediately wished to return to the oblivion from which he'd awoken.
As impossible as returning to his life before. He'd come to the end of the world. The end of the road. Soon the end of everything.
He rubbed the sandy grit from his eyes. Leaning heavily upon the piling underneath the pier, he strong-armed his way to his feet. Or rather, what remained of his feet.
Caden grimaced, stiff from his overnight sojourn on the sand. The last island ferry had dropped him off at Hatteras Village at midnight. The long journey to North Carolina had depleted his small cash reserve. First the train, then a bus. A fellow vet offered him a ride to the ferry landing in Swan Quarter. Once on Ocracoke, he'd caught another ferry — the free ferry — to Hatteras Village. Then he'd walked north on Highway 12 until he could go no further.
But this was as far as he needed to go. To fulfill one last desire. To complete one final mission.
Joe ... Friday ... Red-hot memories sizzled his brain. His chest tightened. He fought the panic. The urge to run. Not that running was an option anymore.
A pinkish glow bathed the shoreline in striations of golden light, shining through the breaks in the dunes. Caden ran a shaky hand over the stubble on his face.
He'd dreamed last night of running the long, grassy field at his old high school, a football tucked underneath his arm, his feet pounding the turf, darting and dodging the defensive line.
Nine months ago he'd awoken at Reed to the sensation of a blowtorch on his feet. And the pain hadn't lessened. How could anything no longer there still hurt so much? The bomb — a pressure-sensitive homemade device — had shattered his leg. Shredded his tissue into shards of flesh. Severed his left leg below the knee.
He owed his life to Sanchez. But Sanchez had done him no favors.
"Keep breathing. Stay awake. Don't you rack out on me." Sanchez had refused to abandon him until the C-17 deposited him at the combat support hospital in Kandahar, where they stabilized him.
There had then been a blessedly unconscious flight to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. From there to Germany, where they'd removed the breathing tube in the Level One trauma center at Landstuhl. And ultimately to Walter Reed.
Seven days. Seven thousand miles. From Afghanistan to DC. From vibrant life to a living death. From wholeness to utter brokenness.
He'd endured multiple surgeries during his stay on Ward 57 to remove scraps of metal from his wounds. But as his calls and texts to Nikki went unanswered, the festering, gnawing fear inside him quadrupled.
"Take one day at a time," the doctor advised.
Many soldiers were wounded far worse than he had been, yet they'd overcome their disabilities. So he worked hard, harder than he'd ever worked in his life, to take back his life. To return to Nikki. To create a home with Nikki. To be the man Nikki deserved.
"You watch," he'd told the physical therapist in the amputee wing. "I'm going to climb those nine flights of stairs in record time. One month tops."
Caden glanced out from underneath the pier. Guys like him were trained to never quit. If one solution didn't work, they devised another plan. And if victory proved impossible, they died still trying. But this ... He didn't know how to move forward from what had happened.
Nikki's last words had slashed his insides sharper than shrapnel, confirming everything he'd ever suspected about himself. And when she walked out of Reed ... for the first time he heard oblivion call to him.
Stomach clenching, Caden scanned the blue-gray waters of the Atlantic. He'd always yearned to see the ocean — a desire fueled when the nurse deposited a brown parcel on his hospital bed. Inside the package he'd found ocean waves in the folds of fabric. A quilt. But it was the label on the reverse side he couldn't forget.
Always come home.
Foster homes didn't qualify as home — part of why he'd joined the army. And he'd found there for a time a family of sorts.
He pushed away thoughts of Joe and the brothers he'd left behind. There was no going back. Only forward.
"Your only limitations —" He could hear the prosthetist in his head. "— are the ones you make for yourself."
The quilt had gotten him through bad bouts of pain after intense PT. Wrapping around him like the arms of the mother he never had. The quilt kept him fighting.
Could he rebuild his life? Or was his life over? Eight months ago Nikki had answered that question for him.
He'd lost more than his leg in Afghanistan. He'd lost his pride, his chance for a life. And worst of all, hope.
That's when he made his decision. He had to end this — before the pain wore away at his resolve. No matter what, he'd not give into the temptation to numb the pain. He wouldn't — he'd rather die than become his parents.
A quick internet search revealed everything he needed to know to see the ocean for the first and last time. Everything he needed to find the quilter — M. Dockery, Tuckahoe, NC — named on the label.
Caden nudged the duffel in the sand beside him with his boot. Soon as he returned the blue-and-white quilt to its rightful owner, he'd return here. Stick to the plan. Go in deep until he could no longer see the beach. Waves would roll over him. He'd lose his footing. Saltwater would fill his lungs. Choking, gasping, he wouldn't be able to breathe. And then he —
He took a deep breath, the sea breeze bringing a briny aroma to his nostrils. Propping his hip against the wooden piling, he carefully — every movement minutely planned these days — hoisted the bag, ducked his head, and slung the strap over his shoulder. He fought to maintain his balance on the shifting sand. His knuckles whitened on the strap. He was hanging on by only a thread, and not just to his ruck.
Caden practiced the breathing techniques. Didn't help much, but the stabbing intensity of the pain abated somewhat.
He straightened. Refocused on his mission. He was tethered to this world by only the threads of a quilt. At least until eventide.
* * *
McKenna's heart continued to thump long after the island disappeared behind the boat's wake. She steered across the channel toward the sheltered bay. Slowing the boat, she pulled back on the throttle and chugged into the Tuckahoe marina, maneuvering past a recreational boater headed out, a man with stringy gray-blond hair and brawny arms at the wheel. His short-sleeved tropical shirt with a riotous display of flora belied the beer gut above his cargo shorts. One of those aging hippies on a never-ending quest for the magic elixir of eternal youth. A stereotype of island escapism.
Before she got a close look at his face, however, the boater slipped Maui Jim sunglasses over his eyes. But she'd seen him before at Skipjacks. Odd he was still hanging around. Unless he was one of those weird writer types renting a house for the winter to pen his version of the Great American Novel.
Still, it was within a Banker's best interests to be friendly. Tourists were their bread and butter. She raised her hand to wave, but as the adrenaline escaped down her arm and through her fingertips, her hand shook.
His teeth flashed, a contrast against his peeling, sunburned skin, and then their boats were past each other.
Once inside the Tuckahoe harbor, she eased the boat into the rented berth and cut the engine. In one leap, she bridged the gap between the boat and the dock. The silver-weathered planks felt solid beneath her. She reached for her bucket —
"Top of the mornin' to you."
Beside his charter boat, a grizzled waterman lifted his hand in greeting. Laddie Ferguson, longtime family friend.
She willed her heartbeat to subside. It wasn't like her to get spooked. But after her unsettling experience on Yaupon, her nerves were frayed.
"Out early, aren't you now?" Beneath the brim of a stained ball cap, Laddie's bushy gray brows lowered. "Where you been?"
"Hunting sea glass." She secured a mooring line to a cleat on the pier. "You're heading out late, aren't you, Laddie?"
"Business to take care of this morning." Coming alongside, Laddie tied off another line for her. "I'll be out and about soon enough."
She glanced at her watch. "Thanks for your help." Still time before her shift, if she hurried. "Next time you're in the diner, I'll owe you a danish."
Behind the bristly beard, the waterman's lips curved, and creases from a lifetime of gauging sea horizons fanned out from his faded blue eyes. "Tell that grandmother of yours I said hello."
After leaving the bucket of sea glass in the bed of her truck, she crossed the marina parking lot to the public access path. At the bottom of the dune, she took the wooden steps two at a time. Topping the incline, she took a cautious, exploratory breath. Her pulse quieted. The sound of the waves always made her better, and she cast aside the strange foreboding she'd experienced on Yaupon.
She plodded through the sand until she stood at the water's edge. But despite the healing power of the wind and the waves, the old ache she'd come to consider a part of herself resurfaced. Grief had proven as slippery as an eel. Just when she believed she had a solid grip on it, a tsunami of breath-stealing anguish rolled in, taking her completely by surprise.
"Will it always be like this, God?" she whispered toward the leftover streaks of pink in the morning sky.
Silence, except for the sighing of the waves.
Three years since Shawn had died. She'd almost begun to believe there'd never be an answer. The tide frothed at her feet, flowing in and ebbing out. Kind of like her hope.
Every day, she lost more of Shawn. And one day — soon? — she feared she'd lose the memory of his laugh completely. Already, she no longer recalled the exact shade of his eyes. Blue-green? Or more green than blue?
Was this it for her? And if so, why did something within her yearn to find herself again — find her heart again — in someone else's arms? Why couldn't the life she had now be enough? A life with her dad and her grandmother, Lovey. Keeping the business afloat was a full-time job. So many had so much less. Was she ungrateful?
God, forgive me if I am.
Her eyes flicked upward toward the gulls wheeling in acrobatic figure eights in the sky. Something — Someone — whispered for her to wait. To be patient. To not lose faith.
To hold on to her hope.
But she'd become mired in a kind of emotional paralysis. Stuck between her life Before and an After she was afraid to embrace. Not if the future meant letting go of Shawn. She couldn't betray him like that.
Her heart ached at a sudden, quick memory of how Shawn used to smile when he watched her dance on stage.
Kicking off her flip-flops, she lifted her face to the morning sun. Soaking in the blessing. Claiming the promise. Lulled by the waves. The gentle sea breeze fluttered across her skin, imparting peace and strength. She staked her life and her heart on the fulfillment of that which she had yet to see. Choosing, despite the empty void, to trust while her dreams remained unfulfilled. When the pain and loneliness were at their height.
When, perhaps, faith meant the most.
* * *
Rounding the curve of the shoreline, a flicker of movement at the water's edge caught Caden's attention. He noticed her legs first, homing in upon that which he no longer possessed. Encased in denim shorts, her legs went on forever.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Vast and Gracious Tide"
Copyright © 2018 Gillian Bronte Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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