Cattail Island in the Outer Banks is a popular destination for honeymooners and nature lovers alike. So it is a huge blow when the murder of a newlywed grinds the pre-summer season to a screeching halt. Bookseller Callie Padget launches her own investigation after mysterious customer Geri-Lynn Humfeld, caretaker of the island’s protected wild horses, brings in an irresistible piece of information.
Determined to restore order and safety to her beloved hometown, Callie searches for answers—even as those answers cast suspicion on her soon-to-be boyfriend, Toby Dodge, whose martial arts studio was the scene of the crime. As she digs deeper, Toby becomes the police’s prime suspect. The truth raises troubling questions and sends her scouring the bookshop’s shelves for guidance.
Meanwhile, a well-loved member of the mustang herd—a pregnant mare whose anticipated foal is a symbol of summery hope for locals and visitors alike—may be facing dire circumstances. With help from Geri-Lynn, Callie unearths startling secrets surrounding not only the compromised mare, but the murdered newlywed, too. And when another body shows up, this time on isolated Mustang Beach, she must race against time to stop a killer from claiming any more innocent lives.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Running the Mustang Beach footpath was the sweetest kind of torture.
To my right, through the trees, wild horses frolicked in the surf, kicking up sand and seawater. They tossed their manes against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, which twinkled emerald and sapphire.
To my left, Toby Dodge trotted alongside me. His breathing was hardly disturbed, and he had barely broken a sweat. His black shoulder-length hair was tied at the nape of his neck except for one uncooperative strand, which he kept tucking behind his ear. A head taller than me, he'd adjusted his stride to my slower pace, one of many chivalrous gestures that I'd grown to appreciate over the past eleven months, as we'd gotten to know each other.
What was so torturous about this run? I could look, but I couldn't touch. That rule went for both the wild horses and my running companion.
"Middle name?" he asked, continuing our back-and-forth quiz game, which we'd been playing on and off since we first met. "I'm sure I've asked you this already," he added, "but I can't think of the answer."
"That's because I don't have a middle name," I said. "I'm just Calista Padget. Short and sweet."
"You're short. I don't know about sweet."
"Ha ha. First job? Wait-I know this. Retail, right? Your mom's gift shop."
"I swept the floors and kept the shelves stocked. You?"
"Boring: babysitting. Best first date you've ever been on?"
"Hasn't happened yet. But it will in approximately"-he consulted the time on his phone-"eight hours."
My stomach fluttered, my head felt full of clouds, and a ridiculous smile, one I couldn't control, made my face feel lit from within. You see, Toby was just coming off a yearlong abstinence experiment. As playful as he could be, he also had a serious side, one that let him accomplish things like start his own business and last a whole year without dating anyone in order to heal from a previous relationship.
That year ended tonight. Which meant that we were going to have our first official date. I didn't know what he had in store, but I needed to be prepared for anything. That's what he kept telling me.
At the end of the two-mile path, we slowed to a walk. The wood chips under our feet transitioned to a ramp that sloped upward. Emerging from the maritime forest, we strolled to the observation platform, and the view stretched open before us. The horizon went on forever, ocean indistinguishable from sky. Dolphins surfed the breakers, their fins glinting as they arced out of the water. A strand of pelicans swept over the crashing waves. And on the beach, two jet-black mustangs stood head-to-tail, flicking flies from each other's faces.
Mustang Beach is the sole domain of Cattail Island's several dozen wild horses. A few hundred fenced-in acres of pristine oceanfront, plus the surrounding dunes and woods, are theirs alone to roam. They forage for sea oats and pampas grass, acorns and Tinnakeet grapes. They drink from puddles and seasonal pools. They survive thanks to the knowledge embedded in their DNA, passed down through five hundred years of adaptation.
Their survival is also thanks to the fence.
A generation ago, wise Cattailers realized that if they allowed the mustangs to continue comingling with humans, the herd, unique in all the world, would soon go extinct.
The fence isn't there to keep the mustangs in. It's there to keep the people out.
So, as much as I wanted to climb the wire-and-wood barrier and gallop for all that cool liquid turquoise and dive in; as much as I wanted to approach a mustang, tell her my name in a soothing voice, stroke the white blaze between her eyes, caress her velvet nose-I had to settle for simply admiring the postcard-worthy view. Aside from the platform holding us above the dunes, the scene of sea and sky, of sand and horses, probably looked exactly the same as it did three hundred years ago.
My breathing back to normal, I rested my forearms on the railing. My baseball cap kept my long hair in place and shielded my eyes, but the morning sunlight reflecting off the ocean was dazzling, and I couldn't keep from squinting. "The pregnant mare must be hiding out," I said. Any day now, one of the herd's adult females was going to give birth. We'd been hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Apparently, though, she was keeping a low profile. Sheltering in the scrub pines, maybe.
Toby and I shared a bottle of water, taking turns gulping until it was empty. "Check out that little house." He pointed northward, at a cedar-shake bungalow of traditional Outer Banks architecture nestled in the grass-topped dunes. Bottle-green hurricane shutters were propped open. Rocking chairs dotted the wraparound porch. Three second-story windows were dormered, and above them, three cupolas crested the apex of the green-shingled roof.
"That's Sanctuary Bungalow." I explained that the once home had been converted into a tiny museum and office for the herd caretaker of Mustang Beach. "She lives in an apartment on the second floor, as far as I know."
"I love those old Outer Banks bungalows. I'd like to live in one someday."
"Me too." A fantasy flickered in my mind. Me and Toby, cohabiting. We somehow acquire Sanctuary Bungalow and convert it back into a proper home. Our home. We plant petunias and snapdragons along the path leading to the porch. We pass summer nights in the rocking chairs, sipping ice-cold Cattail Island Blonde from bottles, gazing at the Milky Way, which looks like it's shooting straight up from the black ocean . . .
"What are you thinking?" His baritone voice had a mellow musical quality that I loved.
I tuned back in to reality. My gig at a small independent bookshop would never afford me an oceanfront home-or the means to renovate it, even if it was all of nine hundred square feet.
Moreover, while Toby and I had been flirting hard for the past eleven months, and spending time together almost every day-and while there was an ease between us that I'd never experienced with any other previous boyfriend-the truth was, it was bananas to be daydreaming about a committed, blissful future with the guy.
Just like with running, I needed to take things one step at a time. "I was thinking," I said, "about how excited I am for tonight."
"Tonight?" He scrunched his forehead. "What are you talking about?"
I play-punched him in the gut. Laughing, he caught my wrist and pulled me in for a sweaty hug. "Don't worry," he said. "There is nothing on this planet that could keep us from having the most epic first date ever."
Even on a Sunday morning in May, Queen Street was crammed. Out-of-state vehicles inched along, and Toby's seventies-era, fully restored Jeep Grand Wagoneer crawled among them. Our run concluded, we were scanning for a parking spot.
Cattail Island, part of North Carolina's Outer Banks, is named not only for its proliferous cattail plants but also for its shape as viewed from the air: a typical whip-thin barrier island, except for the three-mile-wide northern section. That fat part's where the islanders live, and where the vacationers vacation. And where we all shop.
The commercial district consists of a few quaint blocks of brick boutiques and bistros. Geraniums in clay pots hinted that summer was just around the corner. Bicycle racks were fit to burst, and benches needed a good rain to rinse away sticky handprints. Tourists of all ages strolled the sidewalks, some eating ice cream from waffle cones bigger than their faces, despite the early hour. The warmer-than-usual temperature might deter the out-of-towners from outdoor workouts, but it didn't stop them from shopping. There was nothing like stepping into an air-conditioned store that sold colorful treasures, tempting you to linger, to touch, and to support the local small businesses.
A just-big-enough parking spot opened in front of the MotherVine Bookshop, near the shadow of the sign that stuck out over the sidewalk. "Close enough," Toby said as he eased the Wagoneer along the curb.
The bookshop's front window sparkled, thanks to a few handfuls of glitter. The display was my creation. A beach scene, with swaths of green and blue satin forming the ocean, strips of sandpaper for sand, and, front and center, the spring's freshest, most anticipated reads. Books that promised seaside or poolside victories, along with sun, leisure, and a dash of romance. Origami fishes peeped from the waves, and cocktail umbrellas shaded origami people lounging on tiny beach blankets, which I'd fashioned from my uncle's old dish towels. Above it all, origami seagulls twisted from clear fishing line.
My most recent addition to the display: mustangs. I'd made them according to the directions in a children's book about basic paper art. Not on display-yet-was the teensy horse I'd created to represent the newborn foal. I wanted to wait until the real thing officially arrived. Superstitious, I guess.
"My mother sells authentic origami paper in her shop back home in Emerald," Toby said. "She would love that you're a budding origamist. Hey, the mustangs came out awesome. Those new?"
"Awesome is a strong word, but . . ." A bubble of pride floated up inside my chest. "Thanks."
We exited the Wagoneer and paused on the sidewalk. Inside the MotherVine, two customers occupied the lime-green papasan chairs. A forty-something woman read a hardcover book, while a man about the same age flipped through magazines. They wore goofy T-shirts custom-made to mark the occasion of a family reunion trip.
A silver tabby hopped onto the woman's lap, and though I couldn't hear her through the glass, her face let me know she was squealing with delight. She set aside her book as the tabby began kneading her legs. The man got out his phone and snapped some photos while the woman smiled, positioning her head close to the shop's mascot.
The cat's name was Tinnakeet Man, and he was sort of Instagram famous.
It being Sunday, I'd taken the day off. Even so, I longed to go inside, give Tin Man a scratch, and make sure my boss didn't need any extra help. During the run, though, I'd become something of a sweat ball, and now the sweat had evaporated, dotting my skin with salt.
As discreetly as possible, I sniffed my armpit.
It was just as well, seeing as I routinely kept a change of clothes at Toby's martial arts studio, where I could shower. After that, the plan was to go our separate ways for the rest of the day. Toby would take some time for quiet reflection to mark the end of his yearlong effort toward getting to know himself-and then he and I were going to meet for our epic first date.
Life felt good. Everything felt good.
It was as if Cattail as a whole had caught its breath and returned to its regular optimistic self, after the trauma that had heralded last summer. Long story short, the island had been rocked by a double homicide, culminating, for me, in a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a ferocious shark. In the wake-so to speak-of the drama, islanders had been stumbling around in a sort of collective shock. Until now. Life on Cattail was getting back to breezy normal. Like the rest of the island, I was committed to putting the scary incidents behind me. To moving on.
Holding hands, Toby and I navigated the busy sidewalk. We stepped aside for an elderly couple. "Have a great one, ma'am, sir," Toby said.
Cattail Family Martial Arts looked as inviting as any other storefront. Toby had installed window boxes and stuffed them with petunias and verbena. As we approached the door-painted red, like all the other doors of the Queen Street businesses-he leaned over and pecked me on the cheek. For a second or two, he held my gaze, and I melted into his hazel eyes, wondering what he thought of mine, a rusty brown. Like a giddy teenager, I put a hand where his lips had been. We gazed at each other as shivers rippled down my spine.
Grinning, he keyed into the dojo, the muscles of his back flexing against his damp shirt. He pushed open the door, activating bells that chimed a sweet song above my head.
Suddenly, though, a foreboding feeling came over me. Like icicles steeling my veins. A similar trepidation flooded Toby, I could tell by the tension that stilled his limbs.
He thrust out his arm, blocking me from entering. I peered around him into the dim lobby and beyond it, into the high-ceilinged workout space.
In the center of the mat, a man I'd never seen before was lying belly-up.
Sir?" Toby called. "Can I help you, sir?"
On his back on the springy flooring, the man was dressed for a workout-sweat-wicking top, swishy shorts, orange Reeboks. His fitness journey had just begun, judging by his soft belly.
Toby and I crept closer, through the lobby and into the main workout area.
The man's receding hair had been styled with gel. He appeared to be of average height and just shy of forty, the same age as me and Toby.
"Who is that?" I asked. "Is he okay? Oh-" My hands clamped my mouth.
The man definitely wasn't okay.
His eyes bulged, staring vacantly at the Japanese and American flags hanging from beams high above. His neck was crisscrossed with bruises. A hasty bandage had been applied to his hand and secured with medical tape. Blood had seeped through the gauze, spotting it with red.
I felt bile rise in the back of my throat. "Toby?"
"Don't look." Turning, he held me by the elbows. His touch conveyed unshakable composure. But on his face, I detected fear. "Call 911," he said, handing me his phone.
I rushed back to the lobby. Despite the tremors that had overtaken my whole body, I dialed and spoke as succinctly as I could. I'd barely gotten out the basics-that my friend and I were standing in an empty dojo with the body of a man who'd apparently been strangled-when the 911 dispatcher hit me with a flurry of questions. Were we alone in the building? Were we certain the man was dead? Then the dispatcher ordered us to immediately exit the dojo. "Don't hang up," he added-but the line went dead. I'd pressed the phone so hard to my cheek that it touched the red button, ending the call.
Toby, still near the body with his hands clasped behind his back, glanced my way. "Are they coming?" he called, his voice echoing from the high-ceilinged workout room.