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The wings banked as the pilot began a steep descent into an amphitheater of shimmering glacial peaks at the head of Safe Harbor Inlet, a small and isolated community that clung to a rugged coastline hundreds of miles west of Anchorage.
When Muirinn O'Donnell fled this place eleven years ago, those granite mountains had been a barrier to the rest of the world, a rock and ice prison she'd sought desperately to escape. Now they were simply beautiful.
Pontoons slapped water, and the tiny yellow plane squatted down into a churning white froth as the engines slowed to a growl. The pilot taxied toward a bobbing float plane dock.
She was back, the prodigal daughter returned—almost seven months' pregnant, and feeling so incredibly alone.
Muirinn clasped the tiny whalebone compass on a small chain around her neck, drawing comfort from the way it warmed against her palm. Her grandfather, Gus O'Donnell, had left her the small compass, along with everything else he owned, including the house at Mermaid's Cove and Safe Harbor Publishing, his newspaper business.
His death had come as a terrible shock.
Muirinn had been on assignment in the remote jungles of West Papua for the magazine Wild Spaces when Gus's body had been found down a shaft at the abandoned Tolkin Mine, a full thirteen days after he'd first been reported missing. And no one had been able to reach her until two weeks ago.
She'd missed his cremation and the memorial service, and she was having trouble wrapping her head around the circumstances of his death.
Muirinn had called the medical examiner herself. He'd told her Gus had been treated for years for a heart condition, and that he'd suffered cardiac arrest while down the mine shaft, which had apparently caused him to tumble a short way from the ladder to the ground. Muirinn could not imagine why her eccentric old grandfather would have been alone in the shaft of an abandoned mine. Especially if he had heart trouble.
And she was unable to accept that the dank maw of Tolkin had swallowed the life of someone else she loved.
Gus had raised her solo from the age of nine, after the death of her parents, and while Muirinn had never come home to visit him, she'd loved her grandfather beyond words.
Just the knowledge that Gus was in this world had made her feel part of something larger, a family. In losing Gus, she'd somehow lost her roots.
All she had now was this little compass to guide her.
Muirinn peered out the small window as the floatplane approached the dock, thinking that nothing had changed, yet everything had. Then suddenly she saw him.
The one person she'd sought to avoid for the past eleven years. The reason she'd stayed away from her hometown.
He stood at the ferry dock on the opposite side of the harbor, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, his skin tanned summer dark, his body lean and strong. His thick blue-black hair glistened in the late-evening sun.
Muirinn's stomach turned to water.
She leaned forward, hand pressing up against the window as the plane swung around and bumped against the dock. And like a hungry voyeur she watched as the man she'd never stopped loving crouched down to talk to a boy—a boy with the same shock of blue-black hair. The same olive-toned complexion.
Muirinn's eyes brimmed with emotion.
He ruffled the child's hair, put a baseball cap on the boy's head and cocked the peak down over his eyes. Jett stood as his kid raced toward the ferry, little red backpack bobbing against his back.
The child hesitated at the base of the gangplank, drawn by some invisible tie to his father. He spun around suddenly, and even from this distance Muirinn could see the bright slash of a smile in the boy's sun-browned face as he waved fiercely to his dad one last time before boarding the boat.
At the same time a woman approached Jett, the ocean wind toying with strands of her long blond hair. Her stride was confident, happy. She placed her hand on Jett's arm, gave him a kiss, then followed the child up the passenger ramp.
That vignette—framed by the small float plane window— struck Muirinn hard.
Her eyes blurred with emotion and a lump formed in her throat. As the sound of the prop died down and the plane door was swung open, Muirinn heard the ferry horn and saw the boat pulling out into the choppy inlet.
Jett walked slowly to the edge of the dock, hands thrust deep in his jeans pockets as he watched the ferry drawing away in a steady white V of foam. He gave one last salute, hand held high in the air, a solitary yet powerful figure on the dock. A lighthouse, a rock to which his boy would return.
"You ready to deplane, ma'am?"
Shocked, she turned to face the pilot. He had a hand held out to her, a look of concern in his eyes. She got that a lot at this stage of her pregnancy.
"Thank you," she said, quickly donning her big, protective sunglasses as she took his hand. She stepped down onto the wooden dock, disoriented after her long series of flights from New York. Two cabs waited up on the road as the handful of passengers from Anchorage disembarked around her.
Muirinn climbed into the first taxi and gave directions to what was now her property on Mermaid's Cove, a small bay tucked into the ragged coastline a few miles north of town. But on second thought she leaned forward. "I'm sorry, but could you take the long way around town? Not along the harbor road."
Or the past the airstrip.
There was a risk of seeing Jett again if they went that way. She wasn't ready for that—even from a distance. Not now.
Not after seeing him with his son. And his wife.
Muirinn's lawyer in New York had told her that Jett Rutledge had led the search team that located Gus's body in the mine. This news had rattled her—the idea of Jett still here in Safe Harbor, still saving people when she hadn't allowed him to save her all those years ago. It was almost too painful to imagine.
Muirinn also knew from her grandfather that Jett had married in Las Vegas shortly after she'd left town eleven years ago, and that he'd had a child. The news had nearly killed her because Jett had refused to follow her to Los Angeles just a few months before. And when she'd learned that she was pregnant with Jett's baby, she'd been too proud—too afraid— to return home. And so she'd chosen to bear the child alone.
At nineteen, with no money and few prospects, Muirinn had ended up giving their baby up for adoption, a decision that still haunted her.
She'd never gotten over it.
Muirinn had also learned from Gus that Jett had joined the ranks of Alaska's bush pilots, a free-spirited breed unto themselves. And that's when she'd told her grandfather to stop.
She didn't want to hear one more word about Jett and his happy little family. It was driving her crazy with the pain of her own losses, so Muirinn had resorted to her tried-and-true coping mechanism—she just severed ties, cutting herself off from the source of her angst. And her grandfather had respected her request.
From that point on, Muirinn knew nothing more about Jett's life. She hadn't even wanted to know his wife's name. And sheer stubborn pride forbade her from ever asking about Jett again, or from coming home. Pride, and her dark secret.
All Muirinn knew for certain was that she'd lost the only man she'd ever loved through the biggest mistake of her life. One she'd never stopped regretting. Because after Jett she'd had one failed relationship after another, no man ever quite measuring up to him.
Which was why she was having a baby on her own now.
She sank back into the cab seat, wondering where Jett's son and wife were going on that ferry. It was late July. School was out. The kid might be going to a summer camp, or with his mother on a trip to Seattle. Anywhere.
It was none of her business.
Muirinn had given up any claim to Jett Rutledge a long, long time ago.
Yet a poignant sadness pressed through her, and she closed her eyes, placing her hand on her belly.
Do you still hate me so much, Jett?
What would she do if his parents still owned the neighboring property on Mermaid's Cove?
Muirinn had grown up on that cove. She and Jett had stolen their first-ever kiss down in the old boat shed, hidden from the houses by a dense grove of trees. She wondered if the shed still stood.
They'd made love for the first time in that shed, too, on a night the moon had shimmered like silver over the water. She'd just turned eighteen, and Jett twenty-one. The boat shed had become their special place, and there was a time Muirinn had thought it would all be there for her forever.
But the summer she turned nineteen, everything changed.
As the cab neared the Mermaid's Cove property, Muirinn asked the driver to drop her off at the ramshackle gate.
Bags in hand, she stood at the top of the overgrown driveway, staring down at her childhood home as the taxi pulled off in a cloud of soft glacial dust.
The scene in front of her seemed to shimmer up out of her memory to take literal shape in front of her—the garden and forest fighting for supremacy; brooding firs brushing eaves with heavy branches. Wild roses scrambled up the staircase banisters, and berry bushes bubbled up around the wooden deck that ran the length of the rustic log house.
On the deck terra-cotta pots overflowed with flowers, herbs, vegetables; all evidence of her grandfather's green thumb. And beyond the deck, the lawn rolled down to a grove of trees, below which Mermaid's Cove shimmered.
In a few short months this would all be gone and piled high with snow. Safe Harbor was known for the heaviest accumulation among Alaskan coastal towns.
Numbly, Muirinn walked down the driveway and set her bags at the base of the deck stairs, bending to crush a few rosemary leaves between her fingers as she did.
She drank in the scent of the herbs, listening to the hum of bees, the distant chink of wind chimes, the chuckle of waves against tiny stones in the bay below. It amazed her to think that her grandfather was actually gone; evidence of his life thrummed everywhere.
She looked up at the house, and suddenly felt his presence.
I'm so sorry for not coming home while you were still here. I'm sorry for leaving you alone.
A sudden breeze rippled through the branches, brushing through her hair. Muirinn swallowed, unnerved, as she picked up her bags.
She made her way up the stairs and dug the house key out of her purse.
Pushing open the heavy oak door with its little portal of stained glass, Muirinn stepped into the house, and back into time. She heard his gruff voice almost instantly.
'Tis the sea faeries that brought you here, Muirinn. The undines. They brought you up from the bay to your mother and father, to me. To care for you for all time.
Emotion burned sharply into her eyes as her gaze scanned the living room, full of books, paintings, photos of her and her parents. For years Muirinn hadn't thought of those fantastical tales Gus had spun in her youth. She'd managed to lock those magical myths away deep in the recesses of her memory, behind logic and reason and the practicalities of work and life in a big city. But now they swept over her—there was no holding them back. This homecoming was going to be rougher than she thought.
More than anything, though, it was Gus's artwork that grabbed her by the throat.
She slumped into a chair, staring at the paintings and sketches that graced the walls. She was in almost all of them—images of a wild imp, frozen in time, in charcoal, in soft ethereal watercolor. In some, her hair flowed out in corkscrew curls as she swam in the sea with the tail of a fish. In others, Gus had taken artistic license with her features, giving her green eyes even more of a mischievous upward slant, her ears a slight point, depicting her as one of the little woodland creatures he used to tell her lived up in the hills.
Eccentric to the core, Gus O'Donnell had been just like this place. Rough, yet spiritual. Wise, yet a dreamer. A big-game hunter, fisherman, writer, poet, artist. A lover of life and lore with a white shock of hair, a great bushy beard and the keen eyes of an eagle.
And he'd raised her just as wildly, eclectically, to be free.
Not that it had boded well for her. Because Muirinn hadn't felt free. All she'd wanted to do was escape, discover the real world beyond her granite prison.
Sitting there in a bent-willow rocker, staring at her grandfather's things, exhaustion finally claimed Muirinn, and she fell into a deep sleep.
She woke several hours later, stiff, confused. Muirinn checked the clock—it was almost 10:00 p.m. At this latitude, at this time of year, it barely got dark at night. However, clouds had started scudding across the inlet, lowering the dusky Arctic sky with the threat of a thunderstorm. A harsh wind was already swooshing firs against the roof.
Muirinn tried to flick on a light switch before realizing that she had yet to figure out how to reconnect the solar power. She lit an oil lamp instead and climbed the staircase to her grandfather's attic office. The lawyer had said all the keys she'd need for the house, along with instructions on how to connect the power, would be in the middle drawer of her grandfather's old oak desk.
She creaked open the attic door.
Shadows sprang at her from the far corners of the room. Muirinn's pulse quickened.
Her grandfather's carved desk hulked at the back of the room in front of heavy drapes used to block out the midnight sun during the summer months. A candle that had drowned in its own wick rested on the polished desk surface, along with Gus's usual whiskey tumbler. A pang of emotion stung Muirinn's chest.
It was as if the room were still holding its breath, just waiting for Gus to walk back in. And a strong and sudden sense gripped Muirinn that her grandfather had not been ready to quit living.
She shook the surreal notion, and stepped into the room. The attic air stirred softly around her, cobwebs lifting in currents caused by her movement. Muirinn halted suddenly. She could swear she felt a presence. Someone—or something—was in here.
Again Muirinn shook the sensation.