A Ship Without an Anchor: Free Excerpt

Prologue

Nicholas Andrews walked home under a foggy canopy of streetlights. Somewhere overhead, lost in the cold sodium glow, the stars turned. Most of the storefronts he passed were dark and inert – only the Chinese takeout and greasy pizza shops still buzzed with neon. Tonight their glow was haunting, their toxic pinks and reds amplified by the fog.

His footsteps were heavy on the sidewalk, his shoulders slumped with the weight of too many long days like this. He kept telling himself that in the end, when he was sitting on a white beach surrounded by sun-gold women and ambrosial blue water, it would all be worth it. When he was smoking Louixs and drinking Patron, it would all have been worth it.

He turned and climbed the steps to his stubby brick apartment building and stopped in the vestibule to check the mail. Like most other nights it did little to improve his mood. Utility bill. Rent bill. Grocery flier. Insurance bill. Nicholas scowled and fought the urge to tear up the whole damn stack.

He let himself into the dark apartment and flipped on a light. Clara must have gone to bed already, which suited him fine – he was in no mood to deal with her tonight. The only thing that interested him right now was a stiff drink. This too had become part of his nightly routine.

Nicholas shrugged out of his suit jacket and draped it over the back of a chair. He frowned. Clara’s mug, the one with the lighthouse and the stupid sailboats, sat on the table. It was right where she’d set it before dutifully getting up to kiss him goodbye that morning. As a matter of fact, there was still coffee in it, gone cold long hours ago. He felt a spark of the same anger he’d felt while sifting through the mail. Clara was always fastidious in her habits; Nicholas thought it was one of her better qualities. She wasn’t good for much else, but at least he always came home to a clean apartment.

Nicholas opened one of the cabinets and retrieved a bottle of Old Crow Reserve. He set it on the counter and opened the fridge. It looked exactly the same as it had that morning – damn near empty. There was a splash of milk, a couple of eggs, and the assorted condiments that always lurked near the back, but little else. He stood up and rubbed his temples. Had he lost track of the days somehow? Wasn’t it Clara’s day off from the bank, her day to go food shopping? The mug on the table…the empty fridge…what the hell had she been doing all day?

Probably lost in one of her goddamn stories again, he thought, fists clenching. He’d spent thirteen hours in the office and what had she done? Apparently damn little. He turned and focused his gaze on the coffee mug.

At least she’d stopped blathering on about it, but he knew she continued to entertain this harebrained idea that she could write. He would still catch her in front of her laptop, utterly detached from the world and typing God knew what kind of drivel. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He’d indulged this nonsense for a while, but if she thought it was an excuse to neglect her household duties…well, he’d just have to inform her otherwise. He’d be damned if she was going to sleep with the kitchen uncleaned and the fridge empty.

Forgetting the drink and the meager chances of sleep that accompanied it, Nicholas stormed down the short hallway to their bedroom. He threw open the door. “Hey, wake up!” he barked, groping for the light switch. “Get your ass–” He found the light and stopped short. Their bed was unmade and empty. He checked the bathroom but there was no sign of her there either. “Clara!” he bellowed and turned for their shared office. Maybe she was still writing, completely oblivious to the time of night or the wrath that was about to descend on her. He opened the door and found another dark room. She simply wasn’t in the apartment.

Where the hell could she have gone at this hour? It was almost one in the morning, certainly no time for quiet little Clara to be out on the town. Besides, she wouldn’t dare go anywhere without telling him first. He always knew where she was.

Except for now. He cursed and ran a hand through his dark hair.

Nicholas went back to the kitchen and retrieved his phone. It was time for some answers, and then Clara had better get her wayward ass home. With a few bags of groceries.

But when he tried her number it connected him straight to an apologetic recording: “We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. Please hang up….” Nicholas stared at the phone, dumbfounded, a chill tickling his spine. He tried again with the same results.

He walked back to their bedroom with a sinking feeling in his gut and opened the closet. All of his suits were there, hanging in neat, militant rows, but Clara’s half of the closet was empty. There were still depressions in the carpet where her shoes stood only that morning. He stepped back in disbelief. The dresser yielded the same results and, upon closer inspection of the bathroom, he realized her toothbrush and makeup were gone as well.

Nicholas caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and stopped. Dark circles rimmed his bloodshot eyes. His sable hair, usually glossy with gel, dangled limp and sweaty around his pale face. Splotches of red anger flared beneath his collar and across the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath.

Everything around him said she’d packed up and left, but his overworked and raging mind still protested. How could she walk out on him? How dare she?

“That bitch,” he hissed. He’d left just after seven that morning, giving her almost eighteen hours to disappear to…anywhere. How much time would she need to pack? Not much, even accounting for her careful nature – she only had her clothes, her shoes, some jewelry, a little makeup, and—

Nicholas stopped short and ran back to their office. “Shit!” he exclaimed. Of course she’d take that with her. He struck the wall and his fist punched through the plaster.

He gave himself a few minutes to regain his composure before dialing his phone again. This time it rang twice before picking up.

“Charlie, it’s Nicholas. We have a problem.”

 

 


 

Chapter One

Clara St. James stared at the unending cobalt sea and tried to lose herself in it. The sky above was a flawless blue, the ivory sand below speckled with time-worn pebbles. It was a quintessential Channessett Day – all that was missing was the salty wind and the mournful cry of a gull.

She sighed and looked away from the photo. It was one in a series of idyllic Island scenes on display in the lobby of the Channessett Tide. Although she kept trying, her anxious mind wouldn’t allow her to become lost in them. Instead it hopscotched from thought to thought, each more worrisome than the last. What if she botched the interview? How would she pay the rent? Where would she go? What else could she do? Everything seemed to hinge on this one impending conversation. If it went badly, her newly imagined future – fragile and translucent in its infancy – might shatter without regard for the woman inside. With so much hanging by mere gossamer it was little wonder she couldn’t focus.

Clara straightened the hem of her skirt and chastised herself. She’d been called back for a second interview, and that had to be a good thing. Right?

It was one thing to tell herself it would all work out in the end and another thing entirely to believe it. With her next rent payment due in two weeks and her cash reserves running low, she couldn’t shake this feeling of desperation. For the thousandth time she wished she’d socked away a little more money before leaving. She would have, had she realized her unconscious intentions, but her departure had been…spontaneous.

But that was the last thing she wanted to think about now. She turned her attention back to the photo and tried to focus again. The ocean had always captivated and soothed her – it was the reason she’d returned to Channessett Island, the much-loved vacation spot of her childhood. Coming here now had also been an unconscious decision, but she’d realized soon after arriving it was the ocean – wild and enigmatic, and full of possibilities – that had drawn her back. Nothing could have prepared her seven-year-old self for the vastness or the beauty of the sea. There had been an immediate connection, like meeting a lover from a past life.

She had nearly lost herself in this vein of thought when the receptionist’s phone rang, a harsh chirp that brought her back to the present. The receptionist, introduced to Clara on her first interview as Cindy Foster, plucked it from its cradle. She murmured a few words into the phone and hung up. “Ms. McCann will be with you in a minute,” she said.

“Thank you,” Clara said, hoping her tight smile wouldn’t betray her nerves. She took a slow, deep breath.

Just remember, it’s not the end if you don’t get the job. This is still the beginning. You already took the first step just by coming here. It had taken all her courage and strength to get away from Buffalo – and, more importantly, Nicholas – but she’d finally done it. She reached down to straighten the hem of her skirt again. Compared with that, this interview should be a breeze.

“Clara St. James?” She heard her name and straightened. A tall woman, thin as a whipcord, sized up Clara through no-nonsense black-frame glasses. She was dressed simply in a white blouse and trim dark jeans that accentuated her height. Her auburn hair was chopped into a severe bob.

“Yes?” Clara answered, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“I’m Sherry McCann, Editor in Chief,” she said, holding out her hand. Clara rose to shake it. “Would you join me in my office?”

This woman might ask a question, but she’s really giving a command, Clara thought. “Of course.” She braced her frazzled nerves with another deep breath and followed Sherry down the hall.

The editor in chief’s office was modern and minimalist, with silky white paint and thick jute carpet. The walls were adorned with numerous accolades and a few more photos from the series in the lobby. The desk was unnaturally neat and Clara noticed there were no pictures of family across its spartan landscape. Sherry took a seat behind it and motioned for Clara to pull up her own chair.

“June was impressed with you at your first interview,” Sherry began. “She’s been my layout editor since I took over this paper ten years ago and her opinion is invaluable to me. Of course, I always want to speak with any potential staff member myself before they join the Tide, so that’s why we’re here today.”

“Thank you for the opportunity,” Clara said, unsure how to respond to this bit of speech.

“You can thank June for that,” Sherry said matter-of-factly. “Let’s take a look at your resume, shall we?” She pulled a manila folder from a sizable stack and Clara’s heart sank to her toes. Were those all applications for the same position? “I have to admit, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar name in here. It’s my business to know just about everyone on the Island, although that’s not too hard, with our population.”

Clara wondered unhappily if a native Islander would be given preference over an outsider like herself. It wasn’t difficult to imagine, considering the nature of the job. “I just moved here from Buffalo,” she said.

“Yes, I see you worked for…First Niagara Bank as a…teller?” She looked up. “Why did you come to Channessett?”

“Well, my parents brought me here most summers when I was young and I always loved it,” Clara said carefully. She’d been wary of this question and rehearsed an answer ahead of time. It was the truth, but it wasn’t all of it. She didn’t feel the full version would be necessary or appropriate. “I decided it was time for a change and it brought me back to the Island.”

Sherry glanced back at her resume. “You earned an English degree some years ago.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And then went straight into banking?” Sherry raised her eyebrows.

“That was initially temporary,” Clara said uncomfortably. How could she explain this? She certainly couldn’t tell her about Nicholas and his attitude toward her desire to write, his insistence that she shelve her dreams in exchange for a ‘real job’. A woman like Sherry wasn’t likely to accept Clara’s role in the situation. “I was always writing, but it wasn’t necessarily paying the bills.”

Sherry leaned back and nodded. “I tended bar for a few years after graduation before a magazine picked up my first freelance piece. I hated every minute of it.”

Clara tried to imagine this austere woman behind a bar but couldn’t do it. “I’d be very happy never to work a drive-through teller window again.”

“Well, I was hoping for someone with a degree in journalism,” Sherry said, flipping through her writing samples. Clara again felt her heart grow heavy. “Some of these were written for your college newspaper.”

She nodded. “I was on the staff from my sophomore year until graduation.”

“How sharp are your interviewing skills? I see the rest of these are mainly essays and short stories.”

“I’d be dusting them off,” Clara admitted. “But I always enjoyed that part. It came pretty naturally.” This was true, but she was afraid it might sound desperate. Hell, it might even be desperate at this point. Knowing Sherry’s preference for a candidate with a proper degree had her mind chattering again. All the what ifs, each more unnerving than the last, flowed unchecked through her head. She tried to staunch the stream and focus on Sherry’s words.

“We’re only a weekly publication, but we still have some pretty tight deadlines at times. How do you work under pressure?”

Clara nearly laughed, her shrill emotions at a peak. Living with Nicholas had taught her a thing or two about pressure. “I can meet a deadline,” she said, “and I’m just fine under pressure.”

“Well, like I said – I wanted someone with more journalism experience, but June liked you and was very impressed by your samples.” Sherry paused. “As a matter of fact, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Clara said in surprise. She felt a thin possibility of hope, a glimmer on the horizon.

Sherry closed her file. “And since we’re more interested in talent here than we are in pedigree, I’d like to bring you on as a local news reporter. When can you start?”

Clara sat still for a moment, her brain startled into silence for the first time in days. She felt deep relief flood her body. This was still a new sensation for her, felt only once as she’d crossed out of New York and into New Hampshire, Buffalo truly behind her. It was just as overwhelming the second time and she became aware of Sherry watching her closely. “As soon as you need me,” Clara managed.

“Great. Let’s have you in here again on Monday. We’ll introduce you to your photographer and the rest of the staff, and June will have your first assignment.”

“Thank you so much,” Clara said as both women rose from their seats. “I’ll thank June, too, but thank you for giving me a chance.”

Sherry smiled mildly. “We’ll see you Monday.”

 


 

Clara stepped out into the sunny June day and breathed in deeply. The salty tang of the Island air was still a novelty to her, something to be savored. She looked around the town, her heart light for the first time in years. Today the Island finally felt like more than a temporary refuge. This was her new home.

After arriving on Channessett, Clara had been faced with the considerable task of reestablishing herself. She’d found a cheap apartment and scouted yard sales for furniture bargains, all while combing the internet and local publications for job openings. Channessett Island was renowned for its art and food scene, and there were quite a few small magazines looking for writers and editors, but the Tide was the only place to respond to her resume. Clara was glad – she would much rather delve into her new community than review it for tourists.

Clara paused on the sidewalk. This was her first opportunity to relax and acquaint herself with the town. So much had changed since her last visit as a young girl, just starting to sprout up, fill out and notice boys. Now that she was a reporter, she needed to learn it all – fast.

She dropped two more hours worth of change into her parking meter and set off down Abalone Street, Channessett’s main road. Tourist season was in full swing and the town was packed with people in tee shirts and flip-flops. Small tables and bright umbrellas cluttered the sidewalk as bars and cafes took advantage of the beautiful weather. Doors and windows on galleries and stores alike were open, inviting shoppers to admire and purchase everything from artwork and jewelry to lingerie and chocolates. Clara soaked in the rustic New England atmosphere as she strolled – cedar shake shingles gone gray with age and ocean storms, brash pots of flowers clustered on porches and stoops, flags rippling merrily in the ever-present wind.

She passed a bakery, the smell of fresh bread and pastries heavy on the air, making her mouth water. She’d been too nervous for more than a dry slice of toast that morning but now her appetite was back. A quick look around revealed a cafe not far down the street and Clara decided a real lunch would be as good a celebration as any.

The cafe was a snug building shoehorned between a liquor store and a gift shop. It had cedar shingles and tall windows that rose to its tidy gutters. Blue hydrangeas overflowed brick-edged garden beds along the front. Their nodding shaggy heads left petals scattered across the sidewalk like tiny footprints. A simple blue awning over the door read L’Embruns Cafe in flowing script, and a chalkboard sign out front announced a few lunch specials.

Clara stepped through the open door to the smell of fresh coffee. Inside was just as pretty as out, with glowing wood floors and sheer white curtains that ran from ceiling to floor. Cozy tables dotted the room, each with seashell and candle centerpieces, and a coffee bar ran along the back. Photos of the Channessett shore hung on the vintage pinstripe wallpaper.

“Welcome,” a young woman with fluffy brown hair and glittering studded ears greeted her. Clara could just make out the edge of a tattoo beneath her collar. “Seating inside or out?”

Clara hesitated, used to deferring to Nicholas’ preferences, only to remember Nicholas wasn’t there. She supposed this was just part of the process of moving on, of reclaiming her life for her own. “Outside would be fine,” she said to the waitress. People-watching was one of her favorite pastimes, and from there she could sit back and watch the Island amble by.

“Great. I’m Hazelle. I’ll be your waitress today.”

She led them outside and seated Clara at a table near the hydrangeas. “Here on vacation?” she asked.

“No, I just moved here a few weeks ago. My name’s Clara St. James.”

“Nice to meet you, Clara. Usually new faces around the Island means tourists,” Hazelle said.

“I still kind of feel like one.”

“Well, honestly, you probably will for awhile. What do you do?”

“I just got a job reporting for the Tide,” Clara said.

Hazelle grinned. “Seriously? That’s awesome. I’ll bet Alexis will want to meet you.”

“Who’s Alexis?”

She owns the cafe. Can I get you something to drink? We’ve got fresh iced tea with beech plum, if you want my first choice.”

After walking for awhile in the sun, iced tea was suddenly all Clara wanted. “That sounds amazing.”

“It is. I’ll be right back,” Hazelle grinned and turned away. Clara leafed through the menu. Everything looked delicious, especially after weeks of eating little but canned soup and frozen meals. Eventually she settled on New England potato salad and a grilled chicken panini.

It wasn’t long before Hazelle returned with the iced tea and another woman in tow. Her eyes were icy blue, her hair mahogany dark, and Clara guessed she was quite tall, even without her towering red pumps. She held out her hand and shook Clara’s firmly.

“Alexis Larson. You’re a writer for the Tide?

Clara smiled and introduced herself. “Yes. Word travels fast around here.”

Alexis grinned. “Consider yourself warned. Channessett has one of the most efficient rumor mills in Massachusetts.”

“And most of it comes right through here,” Hazelle said wryly.

“People love to discuss each other over a good cup of coffee. I don’t suppose you’re writing a piece on the cafe?” Alexis asked.

“I’m afraid not. I’ll be covering news stories.”

“Damn,” Alexis said amiably. “You can never get enough publicity. But welcome to the Island.”

“Thanks. I’m glad to call it home.”

“So have you had the pleasure of meeting my brother, Brook, yet?” Alexis asked, her voice a touch sardonic. “Same eyes, blond hair? He works for the Tide, too.”

“No, I’m afraid I haven’t met most of the staff yet,” Clara said, trying to imagine a man with Alexis’ beautiful eyes. “Is he a reporter too?”

“No, he’s a photographer.”

“He took all the photos we have inside,” Hazelle said.

“I noticed those earlier. His work is beautiful.”

Alexis smiled. “Isn’t it? He’s very talented. He could do a lot with himself if he’d get out of his own way.”

Hazelle pursed her lips. “That’s not entirely fair….”

“Neither is the way he treats himself. He’s my little brother and you know I love him to death, but he’s had a chip on his shoulder for too long,” Alexis said. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ll meet him soon. I’ll let you get to your lunch.”

“It was very nice to meet you,” Clara said.

“Likewise. I hope we’ll see more of you here,” Alexis said. “And good luck with the job.”

“Don’t mind Alexis,” Hazelle said after she left. “Brook is a little bit of a sore spot for her.”

Clara smiled. “Sometimes I wish I had a sibling to be my sore spot. Or maybe I’d be theirs.”

“Well, there are more than enough Larsons for everyone to get under someone else’s skin from time to time,” Hazelle said and smirked. “Did you decide what you’d like?”

Clara ordered her lunch and settled in with her iced tea, which was in fact amazing. She knew she’d have no trouble coming back here often. Having a place to go with a few familiar faces was a good feeling.

She leaned back and thought about what Alexis had said. Hadn’t Sherry mentioned something about a photographer? She wondered how many the Tide had on staff – probably not too many. Suddenly she was nervous all over again.

 


 

Brook Larson leaned back in his chair and checked the clock. It was ten to five – almost time to head home. It wasn’t something he looked forward to, just part of the routine. Most evenings he spent by himself unless one of his siblings decided to drop in. He’d stopped going to the bars two years ago and instead drank his beer at home. Tonight he was planning to enjoy a couple of cold ones, heat up some leftover lasagna, and watch the Red Sox blow another game against the Yankees. He grabbed his bag and refreshed his email a final time. One new message. From Sherry. Damn.

He read the brief email and swore. Why couldn’t people let things be? He sighed. If he didn’t address this now he’d brood about it all weekend. Hell, he probably still would, but he might as well get it over with. Damn, I need a cigarette.

Brook locked his door and walked down the hall to Sherry’s office. He rapped on her door and opened it. “Sherry, we need to—”

Sherry looked up sharply. “What have I told you about barging in here, Brook?”

Brook stopped short and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Sorry. Look, I just read your email…”

Sherry leaned back. “And?”

“I don’t need a partner. I work fine on my own.”

“You work fine with a partner, too.”

“I work better without one.”

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Sherry said mildly

“Come on. I’ve been going solo for two years. Haven’t my photos been satisfactory?”

“You know they have. Half the awards the paper won last year were for your photography. You’re still getting a partner.”

Brook ran a hand through his thick blond hair. Arguing with Sherry was like trying to climb a smooth cliff. No matter where he tried to find a crack, just a toehold, there was none to be had. Stubborn idiot that he was, he kept looking though. “Goddammit, Sherry. Couldn’t Audrey—”

“No, she couldn’t. Her work is good, but she’s not the right person to cover the news. You did it for years.”

Brook shook his head. “Then let me do it by myself, I don’t need a partner to do that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Would you at least consider my position in all this?” Brook growled.

Sherry took off her glasses and stared him down. “I’m only considering your position in this, Brook. For two years now I’ve watched you waste away the hours—”

“Hold on, you know how hard I work for this paper,” Brook broke in.

Sherry shook her head. “Not your job, Brook, your life.

“You think assigning me a partner will fix my life?” Brook asked flatly.

“Of course not,” Sherry said. “But it’s time to move on.”

“I’m not ready to do that.”

“Yes, you are. You’re too busy feeling guilty to realize it, but you’re ready,” Sherry said firmly.

Brook gritted his teeth. Sherry’s abrasive, no-nonsense approach applied to everything across the spectrum, from running the newspaper to Brook’s personal history. “I think the decision should be mine to make.”

Sherry nodded. “I agree. But if it involves you continuing to work at the Tide, you’re going to have a partner. If you’d rather keep working alone, you have my blessing. I’m sure there are plenty of freelance opportunities for a photographer with your skills. I mean that sincerely.”

“That’s low, you know,” Brook scowled. Although he knew he could find work elsewhere, Sherry had remained loyal to him when so many others had turned, and she knew he would never leave. She merely looked at him and he sighed. “You know I’m not going anywhere,” he growled.

“Wonderful. Then on Monday you can start working with Miss St. James. June will have your assignment.”

“Great,” Brook said and turned to leave. Miss. A woman. This was the last thing he needed.

“Everything will work out fine, Brook. You’ll see,” Sherry called behind him.

Brook shook his head again and kept walking. At least he’d been right about one thing – he was never going to win an argument with Sherry.


 

At home, Brook took the last of a lasagna out of the microwave. His younger sister, Linnea, had stopped by with a pan of it earlier in the week. His own cooking skills were in keeping with his bachelorhood and usually involved the microwave. Growing up, Linnea had spent a lot of time with their mother in the kitchen of Silverhome, his family’s bed and breakfast. She’d learned well – in fact, Brook thought Linnea’s skills had surpassed their mother’s. Not that he would ever say as much.

He was searching the drawers for a bottle opener – he’d picked up a six pack from Cherim’s Market on the way home – when his cell phone rang. Alexis’ name appeared on the caller ID. Of course. Why wouldn’t she call just as he was about to eat? He considered sending it to voicemail before picking up instead. “Yeah?”

“Well hi, how are you too?” Alexis chirped. “Got a minute?”

Brook looked ruefully at his lasagna. “What’s up?”

“I hear you have a new reporter on staff.”

Brook winced. He was trying to forget that fact, at least until Monday rolled around. “Yeah. Why?”

“Oh, she stopped by the cafe earlier and we chatted for a few minutes.”

Despite himself, Brook’s curiosity was piqued. “Oh?”

“She’s new on the Island. Very nice. Very pretty, too. Brown eyes, honey hair…she looks like the kind you date.” Alexis paused. “I’m sorry, used to date.”

“Did you call to tell me this or just to take shots?” Brook growled.

“Aww, can’t it be both?” Alexis said. “I just thought you’d like to know.”

“What, that you think she’s my type? Hell, I didn’t even know I have a type.”

“Had,” Alexis corrected and Brook growled again. “She said she’s covering news, so I thought you two might end up working together from time to time.”

“You could say that,” Brook sighed. “Sherry decided to put me on news today too.”

There was a pause on the other end. “Did she partner you two up?”

“Yeah.” Alexis was going to find out soon enough from all the damn gossip at L’Embruns. He might as well head it off. Brook rubbed at his temple. He could feel the pale ridge of the scar there.

“Are you okay with that?” Alexis asked.

“Not really.”

“Do you want me to come over?”

“No, it’s not—”

“I can be there in a few minutes.”

No. It’s fine, Lexi. I’m going to eat my lasagna and drink my beer and watch some baseball. That’s all I want to do right now.”

“Lasagna? Where did you get lasagna?” she asked suspiciously.

Brook rolled his eyes. “From Linnea.”

“Why doesn’t she ever make me lasagna?” Alexis said.

“Probably because you meddle too much. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?”

“Yes. I love you, little brother. Enjoy your lasagna.”

“Thanks.” He hung up and looked around the kitchen. When had he stopped dating? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone out with a woman. His last serious girlfriend had left not long after the accident. To tell the truth, he’d pushed her away, and he’d been glad when she went. After everything that had happened he’d felt guilty having her by his side.

Brook settled down in front of the TV with his dinner and tried to put it out of his mind. For two years he’d been trying and tonight was no easier. He found his hand creeping back to the scar on his temple and snatched it away. “Dammit,” he muttered, putting aside his plate. He got up and found his jacket. In the pocket was a pack of cigarettes, only a quarter smoked, and his lighter.

He walked out through the sliding glass kitchen doors onto a small deck. The wind was up again, whipping in from the distant ocean, a golden strip visible beyond the rounded dunes and coarse meadows. The sun was setting, its last light rosy on the horizon. Red at night, sailor’s delight, he thought and popped out a cigarette. It took some maneuvering to get it lit in the wind, but finally the tip glowed red as the sky. Brook dragged on it and leaned against the railing. The view was littered with the lights of other houses, whole communities of them clustered across the landscape like constellations.

Adrianne used to live out there. For a few months after the accident her house was dark, a star extinguished in the blackness of space. Brook would stand out here and smoke and stare at that empty space as night fell and the land became indistinguishable from the sky. Then new tenants were found and it shone again, some poor substitute for the light that was Adrianne’s, and he would stand out here and smoke and stare at that. Sometimes he would play that night over and over again in his head. Sometimes he would think about his brother, Braeden.

As time wore on, he tried not to think at all.

Tonight he was thinking, though. His life was about to change again and he didn’t like change. He didn’t like the surprises it brought, or the things it took. Last time it had taken two of the most important people in his life.

And he just couldn’t shake the feeling this was going to be another big change.

Clara St. James. A newcomer. Great.

He lit another cigarette.


 

“So you have no idea where she could have gone? Not with family? Friends?”

Nicholas shook his head. “I doubt it. Her parents are practically nomads. She had a couple of acquaintances from the bank but I’ve already called them without any luck. I don’t know if she stayed in touch with anyone from her hometown, but I don’t think so. You know her, she’s not exactly social.” Which was usually how Nicholas liked it. It made it easier to keep a handle on things when there weren’t other people around to interfere. There had been no sign of Clara for the past week and no trail he could discern. He’d stopped trying her phone three days ago, finally convinced she’d dumped the number. She’d just vanished.

“Anywhere she ever talked about going? Or maybe somewhere she’d want to return?”

“Hell, Charlie, I just don’t know. I’ve been wracking my mind for days and I keep coming up blank.” He thought she might have talked about someplace she’d gone as a kid, but damned if he’d been listening. Most of what Clara said had just been white noise.

Charlie McCarthy stretched and yawned in his chair. His eyes were bleary, his sandy hair unkempt after another long day at the office. Nicholas, looking no better, stared out the window at a dark sky perforated by the city lights.

“We need that laptop,” Charlie said.

Nicholas stood up and paced across the dingy carpet of their small office. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Monroe called today. He’s looking for his deposit back on the Fifth Street building.”

Nicholas rubbed at his brow. “All right, tell me something that won’t hurt my head.”

“I got nothing,” Charlie said.

Nicholas paced back and forth wearily, running through the situation again in his mind. It had been his idea to keep the files on her laptop in the first place, to keep them at a distance. All of the bogus identities Charlie had created for their equally bogus real estate investment business, the faceless entities and bank accounts scattered across the country – everything that kept their house of cards standing. Without that information they were effectively locked out of their entire business.

Charlie stood up and shrugged into his jacket. “Go home, Nicholas. Or better yet, go to the bar. Or a strip club. Take your mind off it for awhile. You’re not doing anything but wearing down the carpet.

Nicholas stopped pacing. It was true…he was exhausted from thinking about it, from turning it over and over in his head, trying to find an unconsidered angle. If he distracted himself for awhile and went back to it with a fresh mind tomorrow, maybe he would think of something new. “I might just do that.”

“Good. I’ll see you in the morning. I cancelled our first meeting, by the way. No point taking anything else on until we get this straightened out.”

“Right,” he said and Charlie left. Nicholas swore. That deal would have been worth five figures, something they could badly use right now. With all their funds inaccessible he had no idea how they’d even make rent on this crummy little office.

He gathered up his jacket and briefcase slowly, mulling through everything one last time before he let it go for the night. How long had she been planning to leave? Was there something he’d missed, some sign in the days or weeks or maybe even months prior? It was possible…hell, even likely. He’d been distracted lately, his attention diverted by the increasing demands of the business. Or maybe it’d been an impulsive decision. They’d had a fight the night before and things had…gotten out of hand. But even taking that into consideration, Clara was such a creature of habit. He couldn’t see her simply walking out the door on a whim, no matter how much he might have scared her. The uncertainty ahead surely would have frightened her more…right?

Nicholas stepped out onto the street and looked around him. Where to go? At least that didn’t require much thought. His favorite strip club, a seedy joint called Dangerous Curves, was only a few blocks from the office. Some drinks and some women should distract him just fine.

He walked quickly, the night air warm now that summer had come to Buffalo. He wondered if Clara was someplace warm as well, or if she’d gone so far she’d escaped the season. It was almost funny, he thought. Now that she was gone he found himself thinking of her more than when she’d been around. It wasn’t that he missed Clara – their relationship had become one of convenience and control rather than passion or caring – but she had something he needed and he was determined to get it back.

 


 

It was either very early or very late when Nicholas finally left Dangerous Curves, and by that time he was too drunk to care. He stumbled to the curb and flagged down a taxi, checking his pockets to make sure he hadn’t given away the last of his money. His favorite had been there tonight, a big-breasted blond named Prairie Rose, gyrating on stage in nothing but a cowboy hat and spurred boots. Quite a bit of Nicholas’ cash had gone home with her.

He slid into the taxi and slurred out his address. The cab started to move and Nicholas fought to hold onto all the tequila he’d consumed. It was a hell of a battle, but he managed to make it to the bathroom of his apartment before he finally lost.

Sitting on the cold tile floor with most of the poison gone from his gut, Nicholas began thinking more clearly. He got up slowly and walked to the kitchen with care. He was going to have a bitch of a headache tomorrow if he didn’t do something. He decided to start with some coffee.

He turned on the coffee maker and leaned against the counter. As the fog of the alcohol dissipated, his frustration returned. He’d been hoping for a drunken epiphany but all he’d gotten was an empty wallet and a lap dance. He watched the stream of dark coffee and thought again of Clara. Where would a little mouse like her run?

He wished he could call the cops and file a missing person report, but that wasn’t a viable option. He didn’t want to risk Clara telling the police about their last fight, the one that had ended with his hands wrapped around her delicate throat. He looked down at his fingers and flexed them slowly, remembering the way it had felt. Right now he’d give anything to have her in his grip again.

The coffee maker stopped burbling. Nicholas opened the cabinet overhead and groped around for a mug. He pulled one out and blinked at it in dumb recognition. It was the same one Clara had left on the table the morning she’d bolted, the one with the stupid sailboats. He’d finally washed it and put it away, tired of being reminded of her flight – her betrayal – every time he walked into the kitchen. Now he turned it in his hands and nearly dropped the damn thing.

There, on the other side, was the solution to his problem. The answer had been sitting in his cabinet the whole time and he laughed aloud, jagged and hoarse, when he saw it. It was a laugh that would have made Clara cringe had she still been there to hear it. Written in white script across the mug’s clear blue sky were two words: Channessett Island.

 


 

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