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"I'm going off to war tomorrow. I might not make it back."
Michelle Sanderson slowly pulled her attention from the five-year-old truck she was thinking of buying and focused it on the guy standing next to her.
He was a kidmaybe eighteen or nineteen, with red hair and freckles. Cute enough but way too young. Still stuck with too-long arms and legs and a chest that had yet to fill out. More man than boy, she supposed, but not yet done with the transition.
"I'm sorry," she said, sure she must have misunderstood. "What did you say?"
He gave her a wide grin and a wink. "I may not have long in this life. After you buy the truck, we could go get a drink or something. Celebrate me going into the army."
"It's two in the afternoon."
"Then we could head back to my place."
Michelle didn't know whether she should start laughing or tell him he was an idiot in terms that would make him cry like a little girl. The latter would be easy enough. She'd served ten years in the army, nearly half of them in either Iraq or Afghanistan. She'd had to deal with more than her share of horny young guys who assumed they were irresistible. She'd gotten really good at showing them they were wrong.
Laughing would be a bit tougher. Mostly because every part of her hurt. Not just her hip, which had the excuse of a recent run-in with a couple of bullets from armed insurgents, followed by a partial joint replacement, but the rest of her. She'd spent more time than she even wanted to think about in the hospital. Healing happened in its own time, her physical therapist had told her. She'd tried to beat the odds, which had netted her nothing more than an extra three nights in the hospital before she'd finally been released.
"Aren't I a little old for you?" she asked.
He gave her a wink. "Experienced."
Despite the pain, she managed a chuckle. "Yeah, right. Looking to have your fantasies fulfilled?"
"You know it."
He was so eager, she thought, feeling more weary by the second. And obviously he hadn't passed the vision test yet. She knew she wasn't at her best. Her pale, too-thin body gave away the length of time she'd been in a hospital bed. Her eyes were hollow, her color too gray to be considered normal. She had a cane to help her walk. Which just went to show how powerful a young man's hormones could be.
Before she could figure out how to pass on his invitation, a yellow Lab came bounding around the side of the house. The animal raced up to her and jumped. Michelle took a quick step back to avoid being knocked over. The movement put pressure on her hip and fiery pain shot through her.
For a second, the world spun. She felt herself starting to black out. Nausea threatened. One or the other, she thought desperately, fighting to stay present. Not both. A surprisingly strong arm wrapped around her body, holding her in place. "Buster, get down."
She blinked and the cool, damp afternoon returned to focus. The fire in her hip banked enough to allow her to breathe. The kid stood so close she could see the freckles across his nose and a small scar on his right cheek.
"You okay?" he asked.
He stepped back and studied her. The dog stayed back, his eyes dark with worry, a low whine indicating his concern.
She held out her hand to the dog. "It's okay, Buster. I'm fine."
The dog stepped forward and sniffed her fingers before giving them a quick lick.
"Hey, I wanted to do that," the kid said, managing a shaky laugh.
Michelle smiled. "Sorry. He's more my type."
She raised the cane slightly. "Did you think this was a fashion accessory?"
"I didn't notice it, really."
Which proved her theory about his poor vision. "Just a flesh wound." Actually flesh, bone and a few tendons, but why get into the details?
He looked from her to the army-issue duffels on the sidewalk, to the cane and then back into her eyes. "Were you there?" he asked.
"There" could have been a hundred places, but she knew what he meant. She nodded.
"Sweet. What was it like? Were you scared? Do you think
?" He swallowed, then flushed. "Can I make it, you think?"
She wanted to tell him no. That staying home, being with his friends, going to college, would be so much easier. Safer. More comfortable. But the easy way often wasn't the best way, and for some, being a part of something meaningful was worth any price.
Her reasons for joining had been far less altruistic, but over time she'd been molded into a soldier. The trick was going to be figuring out how to find her way back.
"You'll be fine," she said, hoping she was telling the truth.
"A hero?" he asked with a grin, then slapped his hand against the truck. "Okay, you've done your best to confuse me by being sexy and a war vet. But I'm not going to be distracted. I want ten thousand. Not a penny less."
Sexy? That did make her laugh. At this stage in her life she would have trouble qualifying as a trophy girlfriend for a man pushing ninety. But hey, a compliment was always nice to hear.
She turned her attention to the truck. It was in decent shape, with relatively new tires and only a few dents. The mileage was low enough to allow her to get a few years out of the thing before she would have to start replacing parts.
"Ten's crazy high," she said. "I'm paying cash. I'm thinking closer to eight."
"Eight?" He clutched his hands to his chest. "You're killin' me. You really going to do that to a future hero?"
She chuckled. "Come on, kid. We'll take her for a drive and swing by a mechanic friend of mine. If he says the truck is good, I'll give you nine-five and you can call it a win."
"You've got a deal."
Two hours later, Michelle let the guyBrandonoff at his place. A mechanic she knew on the base had given her the thumbs-up on the truck and she'd handed over an ordered stack of crisp bills. In return she'd collected paperwork and keys.
Now, as she pulled away from Brandon's house, she eyed the gray sky. She was back in western Washington state, where rain was so prevalent that a day of sunshine was the lead story on the local news. Leaving luggage in the open was taking a risk and she'd dropped her two duffels in the back. She decided the clouds looked more lazy than ominous. Her duffels should be safe enough on the drive home.
Home. It was a long way from where she'd spent the past ten years. Blackberry Island, an actual island in Puget Sound, connected to the mainland by a long bridge, might technically be within commuting distance of Seattle, but it was a world away. The single town on the island billed itself as the "New England of the West Coast." A selling point she'd never understood.
Quiet, touristy, with quaint stores and a slower pace of life, the island celebrated all things blackberry. There were silly traditions and a rhythm to the seasons that had always seemed annoyingly out of step. At least before. But what she once hadn't appreciated now seemed appealing to her.
She shifted on her seat, the pain in her hip as constant as ever. The physical therapists had sworn it would get better, that she was healing quicker than they'd expected. She was already bored with the recovery processit took too damn long. But there was no rushing her body along.
She found her way to the main road, then onto the freeway. She headed north, merging with the traffic. The number of cars surprised her. Their orderly progress. She was used to Hummers and assault vehicles, not SUVs and sports cars. The damp, cool air was also something she'd forgotten. She switched on the heater and wished she'd thought to pull out a jacket. It didn't matter that it was May. Seasons were for sissies.
Summer came late to this part of the country. Fortunately, the tourists came early.
She knew what to expect over the next four months. Starting with Memorial Day and going through Labor Day, the island would be crawling with visitors. They came for the boating, the famous Puget Sound cranes and for the blackberries. Blackberry Island was the you-know-what capital of, well, the West Coast. Vacationers would crowd the restaurants, buying all sorts of knickknacks and handmade items. And they would eat blackberries.
They would put fresh blackberries on their pancakes, in salads, on or in nearly every type of food known to man. They would purchase blackberry ice cream from vendors and blackberry cookies from kiosks. They would buy tea towels and mugs with blackberry motifs and taste the dubious results of the annual blackberry-chili cook-off. Best of all, they would fill every room in a fifty-mile radius. Including the rooms at the Blackberry Island Inn.
Michelle could practically hear the happy hum of the inn's bank balance filling. Like most businesses on the island, the inn made most of its annual income during those precious four months. The days would be long, the hours endless, the work backbreaking, but after being gone for so long, she was eager to dive back in. To return to the one place she could count on never to change.
"Is she here yet?"
Damaris asked the question from the doorway to Carly Williams's office.
Carly looked up from the welcome card she'd been making. Part of what the Blackberry Island Inn offered guests was personalized service. She found out about her guests before they arrived, then put a handmade welcome card in their room.
The Banners, an older couple who had come to bird-watch and do some wine tasting, had mentioned how much they loved the water. Carly had made sure they were in a west-facing room and was creating a card that featured a photo of Blackberry Bay at sunset.
Bits of ribbon and lace were spread across her blotter. A glue stick sat upright, next to her battered tweezers. She absently rubbed at a tiny square of glitter on the back of her hand.
"She's not here," she told Damaris, then gave her a smile. "I said I'd let you know when she arrived."
Damaris sighed. Her glasses had drifted down her nose, giving her an absent air. More than one newly hired server had assumed her slightly scattered appearance meant that she wouldn't notice if an employee was late or didn't offer more coffee the second a sip was taken. All mistakes that were later regretted.
"I thought she'd be here by now," Damaris admitted. "I've missed her so much. It's been too long."
"It has," Carly murmured, not wanting to think about how her life would be altered when Michelle returned. Reminding herself that she'd been the injured party didn't stop her stomach from churning.
Everything was different now, she told herself. She was capable, and for the past three months she'd been the one running the inn. She was a valued asset to the inn. If only Michelle would see it that way.
Damaris moved into her office and took the chair on the other side of the desk.
"I still remember when she hired me," the fiftysomething cook said with a sigh. "She was what? Sixteen? I had children older than her. She sat right where you are. So scared. I could see she was shaking." Her lined mouth turned up in a smile.
"She'd checked a book on interviewing out of the library. She'd tried to hide it under some papers, but I saw it."
The smile faded as the dark eyes narrowed. "Her mother should have been the one taking care of things, but it was never like that. Michelle loved this place."
Carly drew in a breath. She and Damaris had argued plenty of times about mother and daughter. Carly was willing to admit Brenda had her flaws, but she'd been the one who had rescued Carly. Given her a job and purpose. Carly owed her. As for Michelle
"I hope she's happy with the changes," Carly said, by way of distraction. The band of tension around her chest was already tight enough that she had to consciously relax in order to draw in a full breath. She didn't need more stress in her life right now. "You've told her what we've done, haven't you?"
"I write her every month," Damaris said with a sniff. "Not that her mother ever did."
So much for diverting anyone, Carly thought. But she wasn't going to give up. "Your blackberry scones are so popular with the guests. I've been wondering about offering packages of them for sale on Sunday morning. So our guests could take some home with them. What do you think? Would it be too much work?"
Damaris relaxed in her chair. "I could bake more. It wouldn't be difficult."
"We could sell them in packages of four and eight. Use some of that decorative plastic wrap we bought."
Damaris already knew the cost of each scone, so calculating a price was easy enough. Carly wanted to include a recipe card with the scones, but knew better than to ask. Damaris protected her recipes the way tiger moms protected their cubswith teeth, claws and intimidation.
"I'm going to check to see if she's here," Damaris said as she rose.
Carly nodded, then reluctantly followed her out of the office. Little about the inn would stay the same nowthere was no way to deny it, although she'd give it her best effort. Brenda was gone and Michelle was back. That was enough to shift the dynamics, but there were also complications. Ten years away would change anyone, so Carly knew Michelle would be different. The question was, how different? People didn't always evolve in a positive way.