A Dare Island novel
Gabe shifted his sea bag on his shoulder, adjusting its weight against the March wind cutting off the ocean. He didn't mind a little wind. Where he'd been, there were no seasons and no privacy, only the stink of metal grease, piss, and violence like the inside of a ship.
Lying in his rack at night, he used to dream of spring. Spring and women and the sea.
When he got out, winter had still lingered in North Dakota in the dirty piles of snow, in the biting cold. But here, the Carolina sun was warm against his face. The long bridge ahead arched like a gull's wing, skimming between sea and sky.
His heart lifted. It had been eleven years since he first crossed this bridge from the marshy inlet over the flashing waters of the sound. Behind him, the highway was littered with fast food chains and beach shops, gas stations and marinas, but this view hadn't changed.
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
He'd read that somewhere, Afghanistan, maybe, or jail. His teachers used to complain he wasn't much of a reader, but that line had stuck with him. Maybe because he'd never had a home. There wasn't anybody who felt they had to take him in, no place he belonged.
Except the Marines.
He'd screwed that up. He had screwed up a lot of things.
But one lesson of the Corps stuck with him. When things didn't go as planned, you could either shut down or you could improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Gabe figured he'd been knocked down as low as he could go. All he needed was a chance to get on his feet again.
A tall white bird stood motionless in the reeds of a sandbar. The water shimmered to the horizon, reflecting back a wide blue sky painted with clouds.
Gabe breathed deep, smelling salt. Freedom.
A pickup rumbled by in a rush of grit and exhaust. He turned his face away, pressing closer to the guard rail. Somehow he'd missed the entrance to the walkway bordering the bridge, so he was trapped trudging the traffic lane with no hope for a lift. He guessed not many happy families headed to the beach in March. Not that happy family groups would be picking up hitchhikers anyway.
He smiled wryly. Especially not hitchhikers who looked like him.
Sunburn had replaced his months-old pallor, but he needed a shave and a better wash than he could manage at the sink of some truck stop restroom. He had zigged and zagged eighteen hundred miles cross-country from the North Dakota oil fields to the North Carolina coast in a jagged dotted line that left him hungry and footsore.
When the job went wrong, you went back to the beginning. Like that Inigo guy in Luke's favorite movie, The Princess Bride. Gabe and Luke had been boots together. That was Gabe's beginning. Luke would understand.
The bridge crested and rolled smoothly down to the inlet's northern side, a network of sandbars and saltwater channels protected by a man-made wall of rock. Gabe's eye traveled from the beds of rusty pine straw to the municipal sign by the side of the road, its blue and gold lettering standing out boldly against the weathered wood. WELCOME TO DARE ISLAND.
A black-and-white patrol vehicle parked in the shade of the pines.
Gabe's stomach tensed. Nothing to do with him, he told himself. He wasn't breaking any laws, wasn't doing anything wrong. But that didn't stop the sick acceleration of his heart.
A car rattled past on its way to somewhere else.
Gabe tramped along the sandy verge, eyes straight ahead, never glancing at the patrol vehicle's darkened windshield. He wasn't looking for trouble.
As he drew level with the hood, the door swung open. An officer got out, a rangy, rumpled man in his fifties who looked like every Southern lawman in every chain gang movie ever made: graying hair, mirrored glasses, face grooved like a tractor tire.
Gabe stopped, one hand clenching the strap of his duffle. Is there a problem, officer?
But he kept his mouth shut. He already knew the officer's answer. He was the problem. He'd heard the words on park benches and in public libraries, on street corners and in cafes. Move along. Your kind's not welcome here.
He stood and waited, his chest tight.
Southern Lawman jerked his chin toward the posted regulations. "No pedestrians on the bridge."
Gabe could have explained that by the time he figured out he'd missed the only ramp for the pedestrian walkway, he'd been a half mile across the bridge. Instead, since he had shit for brains, he said, "You don't look like a crossing guard."
The officer's expression never changed. "You don't look like an idiot. Why don't you save us both some trouble and turn around now?"
"Can't. Sorry," Gabe said with almost genuine regret. "I'm here to see somebody."
"Is that right." The officer's flat tone made the question into a statement of disbelief.
Gabe nodded, trying to keep his own tone easy despite the tension balling his gut. "Luke Fletcher. We served together." The officer's face could have been carved from stone. But something in his very stillness prompted Gabe to add, "You know him? His folks used to run an inn around here."
Still did, he hoped. He'd been to their place only once, when Luke had dragged him along after their graduation from boot camp. Gabe had never known a family like the Fletchers. Their easy welcome, their wholehearted acceptance of their son's friend, had sucked him in and left him floundering like a swimmer in unfamiliar waters.
For years after that, Mrs. Fletcher had sent Gabe care packages, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. The memory of her kindness made his throat constrict.
Over time, they'd lost touch. Just as well. He didn't like to think of Luke's mom addressing packages care of the Williams County sheriff's department.
The officer pulled a notebook from his pocket. "Name?"
The knot in Gabe's gut tightened. "You charging me?"
"I'm asking you. What's your name?"
"Where you from, Mr. Murphy?" The slight emphasis was worse than a sneer.
The Williams County Jail. "All over," Gabe said evenly.
Don't run. Don't lie. Don't make sudden moves. "In my pocket."
The officer nodded, giving him permission to reach for it. H. CLARK read the dull metal name tag below his badge.
Gabe handed over his commercial driver's license. Still valid.
Officer Clark studied it. Studied him. "Be right back," he said, and disappeared into the marked car.
Gabe fixed a bored, I-don't-give-a-shit look he had perfected by age ten on his face, an expression he had perfected by the age of ten. Being called on the carpet was pretty much the same whether you were being harangued by the school principal, some snot-nosed officer, or a jail guard.
Through the windshield, he could see the officer focused on his dashboard-tapping into a laptop, maybe. Gabe waited, sweat collecting in the small of his back, as the cop reached for his radio.
Not guilty. There was no reason for the cops to detain him.
Unless H. Clark was just looking to ruin somebody's day. Which in Gabe's experience, with Gabe's luck, happened all too often.
Returning, the officer handed Gabe his license. No comment. Gabe relaxed a fraction, tucking the card into his wallet.
"Get in back," Clark said.
Gabe knew better than to argue. But the word escaped him anyway. "Why?"
"You want to see Luke Fletcher. I can take you to him."
Gabe stuck his thumbs into his belt loops, not moving. Why? It was for damn sure the cop hadn't offered out of the goodness of his heart.
Clark scowled. "I don't want you bothering the Fletchers. You got business with Luke, you deal with him."
That made sense. Gabe trusted the man's suspicion more than any kindness. Warily, he climbed into the back of the cop car, stowing his seabag on the seat beside him.
When, ten minutes later, the cop pulled to a stop in front of the squat brick police station, Gabe didn't feel betrayed as much as resigned. An asshole on a power trip didn't give a shit whether you'd actually done whatever it was that was going to earn you a beating. Or detention. Or nine months in jail.
"I thought you were taking me to see Luke Fletcher."
"He in lockup?" Gabe asked, only half joking.
"Worse than that." Clark met his gaze in the rearview mirror. "He's a cop."
Luke had always been one of the Good Guys, but they'd raised a lot of hell together over the years. Gabe had trouble picturing his old buddy as a police officer.
He slid out of the vehicle, hauled out his duffle. His prison guard look-alike waved him ahead through the station house doors.
And there was Luke, in the flesh, in uniform, and Gabe didn't have to picture anything at all.
"Gabe." Grinning, the tall, blond former Staff Sergeant grabbed Gabe around the neck with one arm. Pounded his back with the other.
Gabe returned his hug. "Luke. You look . . ." Good, he decided. The uniform, the life, must suit him. "Very respectable," he said.
"You look like shit," Luke responded frankly. "What brings you to Dare Island?"
Gabe eased back, just a little. "Long story."
"Yeah, I heard some of it," Luke said.
The radio call, Gabe thought. He cleared his throat, aware of Clark and some lady behind a desk listening in. "When did you leave the Corps?"
Luke's blue eyes narrowed at the change of subject, but he answered readily enough. "Eight months ago. I'm married now. With a little girl."
"Congrats, bro. That's . . ." Weird. Luke, a cop. Luke, a dad. "That's great. I didn't know you had a baby."
"Neither did I."
Gabe frowned. "How old is she?"
"No shit." There had been a high school girlfriend, Gabe remembered. Luke had talked about her some, back in their boot camp days. She'd dumped Luke's ass when he joined up, but obviously things had changed. "So you and . . ." What was her name? Debbie? "Dana got married?"
"Dawn." Luke shook his head. "Long story. I'll fill you in over coffee, and you can tell me what you're doing here."
The middle-aged woman behind the desk-dark hair, dark eyes, bright coral lipstick-swiveled in her chair. "We have a call. An animal complaint on Shoreline Drive. Sounds like the Crowleys' dog got loose again."
Luke nodded. "I'll take care of it on my way back."
"You going to Jane's?" Clark asked.
"That's the plan," Luke said easily. "I'll tell her you said hi."
"Why? I'll see her myself tonight. But you . . ." His fierce gray gaze speared Gabe. "You stay away from her."
"Maybe I would if I knew who you were talking about."
"Jane," Clark said. "My daughter."
* * *
Jane Clark read over the builder's proposal for the expanded enclosed patio at Jane's Sweet Tea House, trying not to think of all the things that could go wrong.
"We don't have to do this now," said Sam Grady, the builder. "We can schedule the work for the fall, when times aren't so lean."
He meant to be kind.
But Jane shook her head. "I was hoping to get the work done before the tourist season starts. There's a new coffee shop opening up right on the harbor, did you hear? I can't afford to lose half my summer business to the competition."
"Yeah, I heard." His gaze met hers. "It's a Grady property."
The Grady family owned, managed, or developed half the island, including Jane's bakery. But the news still tripped her up, a short, sharp pain, like jamming her toe on the wheeled bakery rack. "Oh."
"You don't have anything to worry about." Sam flashed her the Grady grin, white teeth and charm. "It's a coffee shop, not a bakery. Beverages, smoothies, maybe ice cream. Nothing like what you can offer here."
"You don't know that," Jane said.
"Actually, I've seen the business plan."
Another quick, apologetic glance. "My company's doing the upfit on the building."
Jane sucked in her breath. O-kay. Sam had a business to run, a payroll to meet. She didn't expect him to turn down work on her account. But . . . he was her landlord. Engaged to marry her friend. His taking a job with her competition felt oddly like betrayal.
"Who signed the lease?"
"Ashley Ingram," Sam answered promptly. "Her parents cosigned."
"Ashley?" Another mental stumble. "Blond, sort of curly hair, twenty-ish?"
"Yeah. Have you met?"
Jane twisted her braid around her finger tightly enough to turn the tip of her finger blue. "I may have seen her around."
A blond, curly-haired twentysomething named Ashley had been sitting with her laptop in Jane's place for the better part of a week. Jane had figured the girl was just another customer taking advantage of the bakery's free Wi-Fi. But she could have been taking notes. On Jane's menu, on her hours, on her prices . . .
Swallowing, Jane looked again at the estimate. If her decrepit delivery van lasted another season . . . If the dishwasher didn't break . . . As long as seven-year-old Aidan didn't require anything outrageous like stitches or new shoes or regular appointments with a counselor . . .
She could afford to do this. She couldn't afford not to.
"How soon can you start?"
"I'll have to work you in. We were already slammed before the last storm hit, and now between repairs and this upfit . . ." Sam looked at her face and stopped. "Fortunately, it's not a big job. A small crew could knock it out in a week. Two, tops, depending on the weather. As long as you don't mind being flexible about the schedule, I can be flexible about costs."
"Thanks, Sam. But you're already giving me a break on the quote. I don't need charity."
"It's not charity. Let me work it out with the rental side. We can fix it so you're paying on an installment plan. Add a little to the rent every month."
The rush of relief left her almost light-headed. "That would be great. Here." She thrust a pink-and-white bakery box at him.
His brows rose in surprise. "What's this?"
"Cupcakes. To say thank you."
"You didn't need to do that."
She smiled, secure again. "Think of it as the first installment. Cappuccino cream for Meg and brown butter banana rum for you."
"Can't say no to that. Thanks, Jane."
She followed him to the bakery door, watching as he strolled down the steps and away, hard-working, handsome, successful Sam Grady. A genuinely nice guy, six years ahead of her in school and forever out of reach.
Not her type, she would have said back then, when she was young and stupid and her type meant pretty much any guy her father disapproved of who showed her a little attention.
As Sam reached the end of the walk, a police car pulled up behind his truck. Sam stopped as the driver's side door opened and Luke Fletcher got out. The two men greeted each other.
They made quite a picture, Jane admitted-Sam, lean and elegant, with his unruly dark hair and killer smile, Luke, blond and broad-shouldered in his police uniform.
Not that she was looking. Much. Luke was recently married to a lawyer from Beaufort. Jane had designed their wedding cake. Sam was engaged to Luke's sister, Meg. Even if Jane had had time for romance, she didn't poach.
Still, she wasn't immune to a little flutter of female appreciation.
But it was the third man, getting out of the back of the police vehicle, who made her catch her breath.
Her heart squeezed and then stopped.
She forced herself to breathe. Not Travis. Her ex wouldn't be out of prison for at least another month.
But the resemblance was strong enough to make her palms grow damp. Long, rangy build, torn jeans, sun-streaked hair hanging around a stubbled face. Both the hair and his shirt needed washing.
Luke introduced the stranger to Sam. She studied him through the glass door as the three men stood talking, noting subtle differences. The stranger was taller than Travis, or maybe he simply stood straighter. His skin was sunburned, his eyes darker.
But he was definitely the same type. Her type.
Jane shivered deep inside.
Her type left bruises.