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By Irene Hannon
RevellCopyright © 2015 Irene Hannon
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Closed until June 13
Michael Hunter stared at the hand-lettered sign on the Gull Motel office, expelled a breath, and raked his fingers through his hair.
Not the welcome he'd been expecting after a mind-numbing thirty-six-hour cross-country drive to the Oregon coast.
And where was he supposed to stay for the next three weeks, until the place opened again?
Reining in the urge to kick the door, he leaned close to the glass and peered into the dim, deserted office. Rattled the rigid knob. Scanned the small, empty parking lot.
The sign hadn't lied. This place was out of commission.
He swiveled toward the marina down the hill, where boats bobbed in the gentle swells. The motel might be a bust, but at least Hope Harbor was as picturesque as promised. Planters overflowing with colorful flowers served as a buffer between the sidewalk and the sloping pile of boulders that led to the water. Across the wide street from the marina, quaint storefronts faced the sea. A white gazebo occupied a small park where the two-block-long, crescent-shaped frontage road dead-ended at a river. More shops lined the next street back, many adorned with bright awnings and flower boxes.
The town was exactly what he'd expected.
But with the only motel closed, it didn't appear he'd be calling it home during his stay in the area.
A prick of anger penetrated his fatigue. Why had the clerk let him book a room if the motel was going to shut down for several weeks? And why hadn't someone corrected the mistake in the thirty days since he'd put down his deposit?
If shoddy business practices like this were indicative of the much-touted laid-back Pacific Northwest lifestyle, the locals could have it — especially since such sloppiness meant he was now going to have to find another place to rest his very weary head.
He reached for the phone on his belt, frowning when his fingers met air. Oh, right. He'd taken it off as he'd rolled out of Chicago two days ago — a very deliberate strategy to make a clean break from work. Wasn't that the point of a leave of absence, after all?
But the cell was close at hand.
Back at his car, he opened the trunk, rooted around in the smaller of his two bags, and pulled it out.
Three messages popped up once he powered on, all from the Gull Motel.
He played the first one back, from a woman named Madeline who identified herself as the manager.
"Mr. Hunter, I'm afraid we've had an electrical fire and will be closing for about three weeks for repairs. Please call me at your earliest convenience so we can help you find other lodging." She recited her number.
The second and third messages were similar.
So the shutdown had been unexpected, and someone had tried to call him.
Slowly he inhaled a lungful of the fresh sea air, forcing the taut muscles in his shoulders to relax. Driving for fifteen hours two days in a row and getting up at the crack of dawn this morning to finish the trip must have done a number on his tolerance. Giving people the benefit of the doubt was much more his style. Besides, he was used to operating on the fly, finding creative solutions to problems. Glitches never phased him. His ability to roll with the punches was one of the things Julie had loved about him.
His view of the harbor blurred around the edges, and he clenched his teeth.
Let it go, Hunter. Self-pity won't change a thing. Move on. Get your life back.
It was the same advice he'd been giving himself for months — and he intended to follow it.
As soon as he figured out how.
Fighting off a wave of melancholy, he tapped in the number the woman had provided, his index finger less than steady on the keypad. For a moment he examined the tremors, then shoved his hand in his pocket. He was tired, that's all. He needed food and sleep, in that order. The sooner the better. Things would seem brighter tomorrow.
They had to.
If this trip didn't help him sort out his life, he was out of options.
While the phone rang, he looked toward the harbor again, past the long jetty on the left and the pair of rocky islands on the right that tamed the turbulent waves and protected the boats in the marina. His gaze skimmed across the placid surface of the sea, moving all the way to the horizon where cobalt water met deep blue sky. From his perch on the hill, the scene appeared to be picture perfect.
But it wasn't. Nothing was. Not up close. That was the illusion of distance. It softened edges, masked flaws, obscured messy detail.
It also changed perspective.
If he was lucky, this trip would do all those things for him — and more.
"Mr. Hunter? This is Madeline King. I've been trying to reach you."
He shifted away from the peaceful panorama and adjusted the phone against his ear. "I've been traveling cross-country and my cell was off. I'm at the motel now. What can you suggest as an alternative?"
"Unfortunately, there aren't many options in Hope Harbor. But there are a number of very nice places in Coos Bay or Bandon."
As she began to rattle off the names of hotels, he stifled a sigh. He hadn't driven all the way out here to stay in either of those towns. He'd come to spend time in Hope Harbor.
"Isn't there anything closer?"
At his abrupt interruption, the woman stopped speaking. "Um ... not anything I'd recommend. I could probably find you a B&B that's closer, but those are on the pricey side. Most people book them for a night or two at most, and I believe you intended to stay for several weeks. Plus, B&Bs tend to be geared to couples."
Good point. A cozy inn would only remind him how alone he was.
"Okay ... why don't you line me up with someplace for a few nights while I decide what I want to do. Bandon would be my preference, since it's closer."
"I'll get right on it."
"Don't rush." He inspected the two-block-long business district, such as it was. "I'm going to wander around town for a while and grab a bite to eat."
"Sounds like a plan. And again, I'm sorry for the inconvenience."
Once they said their good-byes, he grabbed a jacket from the backseat and locked the car. The midday sun was warm, but the breeze was cool — by his standards, anyway. Perhaps a slight nip in the air was normal for Oregon in the third week of May, though.
Stomach growling, he started down the hill. If he weren't famished, he'd head the opposite direction and check out the big, empty beach at the base of the bluffs on the outskirts of town that he'd spotted as he drove in. A walk on the sand past the sea stacks arrayed offshore would be far more enjoyable than wandering along — he glanced at the street sign as he arrived at the bottom of the hill — Dockside Drive.
The two-block waterfront street didn't take long to traverse, and by the time he was halfway down the second block it was clear his food options were limited to a bakery and a bait-and-tackle shop with a sign advertising takeout sandwiches for the fishing crowd.
All the real restaurants must be in the business district, one street removed from the marina.
Just as he was about to retrace his steps, a spicy, appetizing scent wafted his way. He squinted toward the end of the block, where a white truck with a serving window on one side was perched at the edge of the tiny waterside park with the gazebo. Charley's, according to the colorful lettering above the window where a couple of people were giving orders to a guy with a weathered face and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Another whiff of an enticing aroma set off a loud clamor in his stomach.
Sold. Whatever they were cooking, he was eating.
With a quick change of direction, he stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street.
"Hey! Watch it!"
At the frantic female voice, he swung around ... and jumped back just in time to avoid a collision with the bicycle heading directly toward him.
The cyclist, however, wasn't as fortunate.
She swerved away from him. Tottered a few more yards. Crashed to the pavement in a tangle of arms, legs, groceries, and wheel spokes.
It took him no more than a few seconds to recover enough to go to her aid, but by then she was already scrambling to her feet.
"Are you okay?"
She glared at him with vivid green eyes, rubbing her hip with one hand and shoving back the golden-brown hair that had escaped from her ponytail with the other.
"I'll live — but next time you might look before you charge into traffic."
"I'm sorry." Lame — but what else could he say? "Let me help you with your bike." He reached for it, but she beat him to it.
"I've got it." She set it on its wheels and gave it a quick once-over.
"If there's any damage, I'll be happy to pay for it."
She lowered the kickstand. "It's in better shape than my groceries." Expression peeved, she surveyed the broken eggs on the pavement, then began gathering up the canned goods that had rolled a few yards away.
While she corralled the wayward tins, he picked up a package of ground beef and a semi-mashed loaf of bread. He also retrieved a crinkled white bakery bag. Through the gap in the top he spied a crushed cinnamon roll.
An instant later the bag was snatched from his grasp. "I can take it from here." She held out her hand for the bread and meat too.
His stomach bottomed out at the blood oozing from a nasty scrape on the fleshy part of her palm, below her thumb. "You're hurt."
She gave the abrasion a quick inspection as she plucked the meat and bread from his grasp. "It's not bad. I'll deal with it after I get home." She turned her back and continued to repack her plastic grocery bags.
"Look ... let me replace the damaged food at least."
"Don't worry about it." She tucked the bags into the baskets on either side of her back fender and swung one long, jeans-clad leg over the bar on the bike. "Just look before you leap next time, okay?"
With that, she pushed off, did a U-turn, and pedaled back down the street.
Michael followed her progress until she disappeared around the corner, then shoved his hands into his pockets.
What else could go wrong today?
Appetite evaporating, he detoured to one of the benches spaced along the waterfront. Nice of the town to provide a spot for residents and visitors to chill out and let their cares melt away.
Except his didn't.
Instead, the familiar emptiness and dark despair that had been his steady companions for the past eighteen months crept over him, casting a pall nothing could overcome — not the bright sunlight, not the two thousand miles he'd put between himself and his memories, not the upbeat name of this town that had beckoned him, holding out the promise of a better tomorrow.
He rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his head in his hands, snuffing out the idyllic view.
As far as he was concerned, whoever named this place had goofed.
* * *
Anna Williams handed her money to Charley Lopez as he passed her order through the window of the food truck, then sniffed the to-go bag. "Smells delicious. What's the secret in- gredient today?"
Charley's smile revealed two rows of gleaming white teeth in his latte-colored face. "Nothing special. A fish taco is a fish taco."
"Not when you make them. What kind of fish did you use?"
"You planning to give me some competition?"
She snorted. "I'm sixty-nine. My professional cooking days are over."
He rested his elbows on the counter, looked left and right, and lowered his voice. "Halibut — with a touch of cilantro. The rest" — he winked and snapped his fingers — "is magic." Leaning sideways, he snagged another parchment-wrapped bundle and held it out to her. "Would you mind giving this to that guy on the bench as you pass? He seems like he could use a pick-me-up."
Anna shifted sideways. The man's back was to her, but it didn't take Oprah-level empathy to recognize his posture of defeat. "Any idea who he is or what's wrong?"
"Not a clue."
Nor would their local taco expert attempt to find out. The man didn't miss a thing that went on in town, yet he never asked questions. Never gossiped. Never passed judgment.
Maybe that's why they got along.
"I guess I could give it to him." She took the extra order. "You want me to pass along a message too?"
"Yeah." Charley grabbed a slip of paper, scribbled a few words, and folded it in half. Resting an elbow on the counter, he leaned across and tucked it in a fold of the parchment paper. "I'd take the tacos over myself, but I've got more customers on the way." He gestured behind her as several guys in hard hats crossed the street, heading their way. "That repaving on 101 might be annoying for drivers, but it's been a boon for my business."
"Will you be cooking tomorrow?" Anna eased away from the window as the road crew approached.
"Depends on the weather and the catch of the day and my mood." Flashing her one more grin, he turned to greet the new arrivals.
Juggling her bag and the extra order of fish tacos, Anna started toward the man on the bench. Only Charley could have persuaded her to approach a stranger. Why, she hardly talked to people she'd known most of her life. What was the point? No one cared about you except family, and once they were gone ... well, it was best to make your peace with being alone.
Her step faltered, and she pivoted back toward the food truck. There was a line now, and Charley was bustling around inside. If he wasn't so busy, she'd march back there and tell him to deliver his own freebie.
On the other hand, he'd never asked a favor of her before — and it was hard to fault a kind gesture.
Resigned, she continued toward the bench, giving the man a once-over. He was still sitting with his head in his hands, a few flecks of silver glinting in his dark brown hair. Not one of the vagrants who occasionally passed through town, though. His jeans might be worn enough to put him in that category, but his shoes were polished leather. She shook her head. The way people dressed these days. This guy could be a yuppie — or whatever they called those upwardly mobile younger folks who liked to defy convention and do things their way. For all she knew, he was some Silicon Valley start-up executive who'd taken a road trip up the coast to bemoan the loss of a million-dollar deal.
No reason to feel sorry for someone like that.
Straightening her shoulders, she cleared her throat to get his attention. "Excuse me."
The man didn't respond.
"Sir? Excuse me."
At her more forceful tone, he lowered his hands and twisted around to face her.
Instantly the air whooshed out of her lungs.
Was that ...?
She dropped the extra order of tacos on the seat of the bench and groped for the back to steady herself.
"Ma'am?" The man rose, concern creasing his brow. "Are you all right? Would you like to sit down?"
She focused on his eyes. Blue, not brown.
It wasn't John.
Of course it wasn't.
John hadn't set foot in this town for almost twenty years — nor was he likely to ever again.
But if, by chance, their paths ever did cross, she'd recognize him, thanks to today's wired world. And except for the eyes, this stranger could be his double. Same color hair, same build, same mid- to late-thirties age, same six-foot-twoish height.
What a bizarre coincidence.
She sucked in a shaky breath. "I'm fine. You just ... you remind me of someone I haven't seen in quite a while."
"Why don't you sit for a minute?" He picked up the order of tacos she'd dropped, making room on the bench.
Easing back, she started to shake her head. She'd be fine as soon as her heart stopped pounding. There was no reason to linger.
Yet looking at this man ... The resemblance was uncanny. It would be easy to pretend he was John.
A powerful yearning crashed over her, stalling her lungs again — but she quashed it at once. Wishing wouldn't change a thing. It was too late for such nonsense. What was done was done.
Still ... what harm could there be in indulging her little fantasy for a few minutes?
"I believe I will." She lowered herself to the bench, perching on the edge.
The man retook his seat and held out the order of tacos.
She waved it aside. "Those are for you. Compliments of the chef." She hooked a thumb toward the food truck.
Surprise flattened his features, and he turned toward Charley, who touched the brim of his Oregon Ducks baseball cap in salute.
"Why?" Her bench partner examined the package.
Excerpted from Hope Harbor by Irene Hannon. Copyright © 2015 Irene Hannon. Excerpted by permission of Revell.
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