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The little boy was watching her.
Startled, Jill Whelan froze. She had no idea how long her young visitor had been crouched in the shadows of the large boulders that separated her sunny meadow from the dark woods beyond, but she sensed that he'd been there quite a while. If he hadn't shifted position to keep her in sight as she moved across the field, she doubted whether his presence would ever have registered in her peripheral vision. Now that it had, however, the tense lines of his body warned her that he was poised to run at the slightest hint of detection.
Instead of making eye contact she resumed gathering wild-flowers, salvaging as many of the profuse July blooms as her large basket would hold before the angry clouds sweeping across the sea battered the island with a flattening torrent of rain and wind. So far, she'd gone about her task with the same singular focus and intensity she brought to her painting, which also helped explain why the solemn-eyed, brown-haired little boy hadn't caught her attention before. Now, she was acutely conscious of his scrutiny.
As she bent, reached and clipped, savoring the vivid colors of the perfect blossoms, he continued to stare. That didn't surprise her. She was used to people gawking. She was also used to people keeping their distance. Her appearance made adults uncomfortable and, on a couple of occasions, had even frightened small children.
This little boy, however, seemed more cautious than scared. As if he wanted to communicate with her. Yet something was holding him back. And for once she didn't think it was the disfiguring scars that covered most of the right side of her face.
But then, what did she know? After two years of self-imposed isolation on this outcrop of rock in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, her once-keen people skills were rusty, at best. Still, she knew all about loneliness. And she could feel it emanating from the little boy in an almost tangible way that tugged at her heart.
With slow, deliberate steps, she eased closer to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted the grimy, oversize T-shirt that hung on his thin frame. His unkempt hair didn't look as if it had seen a comb in weeks. And a large smudge of dirt on his face obscured the sprinkling of freckles that spilled across the bridge of his nose and onto his cheeks. He was about six, maybe seven, she estimated.
Odd that she'd never seen him before. The adjacent property, which abutted Moran State Park on the less-populated eastern wing of butterfly-shaped Orcas Island, had never shown any sign of habitation. Unless, of course, you counted the occasional black-tailed deer that wandered onto her property to see if she'd replaced any of her deer-resistant plants with something more suited to their tastes, or the raccoons that came to forage in her trash bin. But Mary Lynn, at the tiny grocery store a few miles down the road, had mentioned once that an old hermit lived there. If so, he'd earned that label, because Jill had never seen any evidence of his existence. So who was the little boy? Could he be lost? Hungry? Injured? Did he need help?
Her nurturing instincts kicked in, and she set the basket on the ground, then slid her clippers into the back pocket of her jeans. After dropping to one knee, she adjusted the brim of her hat to better shade her face, then turned toward the boy.
His eyes, blue as the summer sky, widened in alarm when they met hers. For a second he froze, much like the deer she often startled on her twilight walks to the shore, a quarter of a mile away. Then he half rose from his crouched stance, prepared to run. When Jill remained motionless, however, he held his position and stared back at her.
"Hello there. My name is Jill. What's yours?" Sometimes the husky quality of her once-soprano voice still surprised her—especially after she hadn't used it for a few days. It occurred to her as she spoke that she hadn't had any contact with another human being since her once-a-month shopping trip into Eastsound to stock up on essentials, and that had been...how long ago now? Five days, maybe?
Instead of responding, the boy stood and, with one more fearful glance in her direction, took off at a run into the deep woods behind him, where the shadows of the firs and cedars quickly swallowed him up.
Sighing, Jill reached for her basket and rose. It seemed the skittish little boy didn't need her, after all. Perhaps he'd just been shocked—and curious—about her appearance. It wouldn't be the first time she'd drawn that kind of unwelcome attention.
Nor, unfortunately, would it be the last. * * *
The lashing rain slammed against the windshield of Keith Michaels's older-model compact car with enough force to render the wipers almost useless despite their valiant effort to keep up. And the waves pounding the jagged shore just a few feet below the narrow, dark road did nothing to ease the tension in his shoulders. With each mile that passed, he was sorrier that he hadn't thought ahead and realized how difficult it would be to find a place to stay over the Fourth of July weekend. Except the imminent holiday hadn't even registered in his consciousness. For the past year, the days and weeks had blended together in one long, gray blur. Weary now after months on the road, he'd hoped the San Juan Islands would offer him a quiet, out-of-the-way spot in which to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Well, Orcas Island might be about as far away from Ohio as he could get in the contiguous—more or less—forty-eight states, but this remote speck of land was way more populous than he'd expected. When he'd seen the congestion in tiny Orcas Village as he'd driven off the ferry, he'd been tempted to turn around and get back on. Except his had been the last boat of the day. Meaning he was stuck here overnight.
And now he was driving the back roads on what could very well turn out to be a wild-goose chase. Still, it was his best hope of finding a place to sleep tonight. He wasn't about to try and set up his tent in this torrential downpour.And every single inn and bed-and-breakfast he'd passed had displayed No Vacancy signs. Considering the pricey tabs and the sad state of his finances, he supposed that was a blessing in disguise.
In any case, a garrulous checker at the grocery store in Eastsound, where he'd stopped to buy a deli sandwich, had picked up on his plight in no time. She'd suggested that a "widow lady" she knew of might be willing to give him the use of a small cottage on her property for one night.
"I live down her way, and I try to chat with her a bit when she comes in here every few weeks," the woman explained.
"She doesn't rent the cottage out as a rule, and mostly keeps to herself. But I expect she might give you shelter from this storm that's brewing. She's always taking in stray critters." The woman had laughed and planted her hands on her ample hips. "She's got an account here, so we have her number. Shall I give her a call?"
A widow lady who took in strays. She was probably one of those eccentric old women who had forty cats on the property and kept newspapers from ten years ago piled up in a spare room, Keith mused. But what choice did he have? "Sure. Why not?" he'd responded.
"Hey, Beth, cover for me a minute, will you? I need to call out to the Whelan place."
A perky young woman with long blond hair, wearing a cropped shirt that skimmed the waistband of her low-cut jeans, came up behind the woman. "Sure thing." She gave Keith a smile that could be just friendly...or inviting. He didn't trust himself to make that judgment anymore. But he figured it must be the former. After all, he hadn't shaved in several days, his own jeans were threadbare and faded, and his black leather jacket was scuffed and worn. He didn't see how any woman could find him attractive. Then again, considering the current Hollywood heartthrobs, maybe the dangerous, bad-boy image was a turn-on.
Best not to take chances. He stepped back and turned away to stare out of the store's plate glass window. Large drops of rain were already darkening the pavement, and lightning slashed across the sky, branding an angry streak onto the inky blackness and outlining the looming profile of a nearby mountain. The mood could only be described as ominous—and depressing. Which somehow seemed fitting for this last stop on his year-long journey.A journey he'd hoped would lead him to answers, to healing, to resolution—even back to God.
Instead, he felt just as lost, just as empty, just as broken as he had twelve months before when he'd set out on his quest. All he had to show for his travels was a bunch of photographs stuffed in a box in the back of his car. At first, he'd snapped dozens of images a week. But as the months had worn on, he'd taken fewer and fewer pictures. He'd stopped developing even those three months ago. The film from his recent efforts was still wound in tight coils, hidden inside a handful of dark spools he'd tossed into an empty fast-food bag.
Where did he go from here? he wondered. The answer was elusive, and despair swamped him, much as the sudden torrent of rain was flooding the streets. He'd reached the end of the line. Literally. There was nowhere else to run.
"Looks like the phone's out over at the Whelan place." The older woman's voice intruded on his thoughts and he turned, grateful for the interruption that gave him an excuse to delay the tough questions for another day. "But you could ride on out there. She'll be home."
"How far is it?"
"Twelve, fourteen miles."
His spirits took another dive. The last thing he wanted to do was drive more than a dozen miles in this storm. "You're sure there's nothing closer?"
"Sorry. Every place is full. A lot of mainlanders come for the Fourth. Make their reservations months ahead. There's not a camping site or room to be had anywhere this weekend on the San Juan Islands. You can trust me on that."
He didn't need to trust her. He'd seen the No Vacancy signs himself. He supposed he should be grateful the woman had come up with the "widow lady's" cottage. Except gratitude wasn't something that came easily to him anymore. Or at all.
"Okay. Thanks." He dredged up the words from somewhere. "Can you tell me how to get there?"
A few minutes later, his sandwich in one hand and scribbled directions in the other, he'd stepped into the rain and dashed for his car. Now, after thirty minutes of snail-paced, white-knuckle driving, he figured he must be getting close. Although his stomach was rumbling, his sandwich lay uneaten on the seat beside him. Navigating the pitch-dark road required his full attention. More so as he approached his destination, when the pavement narrowed and the center line disappeared.
The woman at the store had said to watch for a blue mailbox with a sign underneath that said Rainbow's End. Up to this point, he'd seen very few mailboxes—and none that matched the woman's description. Of course, he might have missed it. His headlights could barely illuminate the deserted road, let alone pick out the occasional side road that branched off. And he wasn't about to retrace his steps. Worst case, he'd ease onto the shoulder—if he could find one—recline his seat, and catch what sleep he could right there. In some ways, that might be preferable to staying in some hermit's cottage, anyway. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more appealing...
All at once, a small deer darted in front of the car, no more than a flash across his headlights. Shocked, Keith slammed on the brakes and yanked the wheel to the left, skidding to a stop at the edge of the pavement, mere inches above the flooded ravine that ran alongside the road. As he stared at the turbulent, dark water, waiting for the pounding of his heart to subside, he drew a shaky breath. Talk about close calls. He might not be all that excited about life anymore, but he sure didn't want his to end in a drainage ditch.
When at last his pulse slowed and he raised his head, his eyes widened in surprise. A few feet in front of him was a washed-out blue mailbox and a chipped, peeling sign. Though the letters were faded, the words were discernable: Rainbow's End. If his headlights hadn't been angled in this exact direction, he'd have missed it.
Once upon a time, Keith would have attributed such a coincidence to Providence. Now, he just considered it good luck. Or perhaps bad, depending on what he found at the end of the rutted gravel lane beside the mailbox, he amended. But he was bone-weary. And at least the steep, tiny byway that wound up into the woods held out the hope of shelter from the storm. At this point, he didn't even care about eccentric widows, stray cats or old newspapers. All he cared about was a protected place to wait out the storm.
He just hoped it was dry.