Carolina Home

Virginia Kantra

A Dare Island novel
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Chapter One

Matt Fletcher didn't go looking for trouble. Most times, it just found him.

His life was changing around him, slipping away like the sand of the Carolina coastline, and there wasn't a damn thing he or God or the Army Corps of Engineers could do about it. But a day working on the water gave him something to hold on to. Sweat and salt cured everything in time.

The smell of fish and fuel, mud and marsh grass thickened the air as he turned the Sea Lady II toward home. The September heat pressed down, flattening the inlet like glass. The twin engines chugged. Water churned, attracting a flock of greedy gulls that cried and hovered in his wake.

He navigated the fifty-three-foot Lady past bobbing boats and narrow slips, heading for the wharf and weathered shack that served as office for his tiny charter fleet. With Joshua back in school and unable to crew, Matt had been forced to leave the original Sea Lady in dock and bring his father, Tom, along as mate. It hurt leaving a boat behind, losing business this late in the season.

But his passengers, doctors from Raleigh, wanted the kind of amenities the Lady II could provide. They hadn't balked at the full-day offshore rate, and they'd pay to have their catch cleaned, too, three big yellowfin, two dozen dorado, a cooler full of steely-faced wahoo.

A good day all around.

Satisfied, Matt revved the diesels, swinging the Lady II around in a tight arc. Fishermen learned to accept what the sea gave and the sea took away. A captain pitted his boat and equipment, his experience and skill, against the whims of the ocean, the season, the weather. Sometimes you did everything you could do and still came home empty-handed.

Which was why Matt was grateful for good days. Like today.

He backed into the slip. Fezzik, his rough-coated shepherd-Lab mix, lurched from the shadow of the cabin and barked. A pelican launched from the wharf, settling expectantly in the water.

Matt's father secured the lines. At six-two and sixty-four, Tom Fletcher resembled one of the pilings that lined the wharf, gray, tall and spare. He wore a United States Marine Corps baseball cap, the red bill faded with sun and age.

"I was a Navy corpsman," one of the doctors offered as he jumped onto the dock.

"Nothing against the Navy." Tom grinned as he handed up the man's backpack, jacket, cooler. "The Marines need bus drivers."

A brief pause before the offended doctor decided to laugh.

Matt rubbed his jaw, feeling the scrape of a day's stubble, hiding his own smile. It was customary to tip the mate on a charter fishing boat. But twenty-five years as a career sergeant major hadn't taught the old man the value of keeping his mouth shut. Dad wouldn't get a tip from that ex-Navy man.

Along the waterfront, gawkers had gathered to compare the day's take from the different boats, couples strolling hand in hand, excited family groups with sunburns and ice cream. Tourists. Matt didn't mind them. Okay, they crowded the roads and the stores until it seemed a man couldn't talk with his neighbors until after Labor Day. But the tourist tide in summer kept the island economy afloat the rest of the year.

He scanned the small crowd, trying to pick the potential customers from the merely curious.

His gaze snagged. Caught.

A young woman stood at the end of his dock, her long blond hair bundled into some kind of ponytail, a V of pink skin at her throat, a flutter of skirt at her knee. Nice legs. Too young. And as tall, cool, and appealing as an ice-cold longneck.

For a moment his mouth went dry.

Matt shook his head, amused by his reaction. He wasn't about to break his long dry spell with a pretty young thing dressed like a model in a J. Crew catalogue.

No harm in looking, though. He studied her from the bridge. She wasn't a native. He'd have recognized her. Or the average tourist on vacation. She looked more put together somehow, like a real estate agent or his ex-wife's lawyer or somebody attached to one of the doctors. A daughter, maybe, or a trophy wife, although Matt didn't spot any big chunks of jewelry on her. No ring.

His father opened the fish box in the stern and began tossing up the catch. Fish flew in a rainbow arc, blue, gold, glittering silver, all their angry energy transformed by death to pale, stiff beauty.

But the girl wasn't watching the show. Her deep brown eyes fixed on his father. Her chin lifted. Her soft mouth firmed.

Matt recognized the determination in her gaze and felt a tightening in his gut, tension gathering at the back of his neck like a storm blowing in.

Trouble.

* * *

Allison Carter didn't believe in hanging around waiting for her ship to come in. She was more likely to rush out and book passage to . . . well, anywhere. She had a trust fund. More importantly, and recently, she had a job. But here she was, standing under the weathered FLETCHER'S QUAY sign, watching as a big white boat slid through a thicket of masts and fishing rods to tie up at the dock.

It backed without a bump into the slip. A large black dog of indeterminate breed-she really didn't know much about dogs-stood in the stern. Sea Lady II, Allison read. At least she was in the right place.

In more ways than one, she hoped.

She'd fallen in love with the island at first sight, rising like a whale's back from the sea as she approached on the ferry. She loved its jumbled mix of old and new, weathered cottages side by side with bright tourist shops, gnarled oaks adjoining sunny summer gardens. She liked the mix of people, too, sturdy native islanders and enthusiastic transplants.

She wanted to be one of them, to put down roots here.

Of course her parents had other ideas.

This wasn't the first time, as her mother frequently pointed out, that she'd changed direction or location in hope of finding herself. Surely she could do her soul-searching closer to home? Especially as she was all they had left.

"I've lost one child already," Marilyn Carter had said with practiced pathos after Allison had been there a week. "I can't bear to lose you, too."

"You haven't lost me, Mom." Allison had kept her tone determinedly cheerful. "You know where I am. You have my phone number on speed dial."

"Not that you ever answer."

Familiar guilt pounded in Allison's temples. "I told you I can't take calls during class."

"You can't take time to talk to your mother? I didn't complain when you spent all summer away from me building houses for the poor. Or when you turned down spring break in Paris to teach English on some reservation. But I thought when you finished that Peace Corps nonsense-"

"Teach for America," Allison corrected for the hundredth time.

Marilyn was too well-bred to sniff, but her tiny pause spoke volumes. "Whatever. You're not in college anymore, Allison. You had two years to get all that out of your system. I thought when you left Mississippi you'd come home where you belong. To Philadelphia. It's not like you need to work."

"I like to teach." She'd learned that much about herself. "I need to keep busy."

"You could keep busy here."

Running her mother's errands, serving on her mother's committees, a dull satellite in her mother's glittering social orbit.

No more.

"I'm lucky to have been offered a job at all," Allison had said. "With the recent budget cuts-"

"But you're so far away!"

Allison didn't tell her mother that the distance had been part of the offer's appeal. "Actually, Dare Island is ten hours closer," she had pointed out patiently. "Half the distance. In a better school district. Higher pay. Smaller class sizes."

Same damn heat.

Water slapped the pier. A bead of sweat ran between Allison's breasts to soak into her bra.

She shifted her weight in her ballet flats, wishing she could peel off her tissue-thin sweater and shove it into her purse. But she didn't. It was too easy for her to be mistaken for one of her students, dismissed because of her age. If she wanted to be taken seriously, she had to present a professional appearance.

Especially when she was meeting with a parent.

Not, she thought, one of the four men standing on the dock arguing over who took home the tuna. Men like her father, with gym-toned waists and salon-cut hair and a subtle air of entitlement.

She squinted into the sun sinking toward Pamlico Sound. Maybe the one on the bridge?

Her gaze skated over him. From a purely female, personal perspective, he was certainly worth looking at. Hard muscle packed into a faded T-shirt and jeans. Sweat-dampened hair jammed under a baseball cap. A lean, watchful face with a hint of pirate stubble.

Her breath escaped. Instant melt. Instant tingle. This one definitely didn't look like any high school father she'd ever seen.

She dragged her gaze away. She would not let a momentary appreciation for the, ah, scenery get in the way of doing her job. She had other fish-ha ha-to fry.

An older man was tossing fish into a large plastic garbage can. Now he looked the way she imagined a boat captain should look. Like Ahab in Moby Dick, all "compacted aged robustness." Minus the scar and the peg leg, of course.

She lifted her chin. "Mr. Fletcher?"

He spared her a quick glance from faded blue eyes before hauling the garbage can over to a long metal table under the shade of a wooden roof. "Yep."

She followed him. So did a dozen gulls, hopping, hovering, swooping, lighting on the roof and in the water.

"I'm Miss Carter." She had to raise her voice to be heard over the squawking birds. "Joshua's Language Arts teacher. I have to tell you how much I'm looking forward to working with your son."

Captain Ahab Fletcher flipped the dead fish out on the table, smooth as a blackjack dealer in Vegas. Out came a knife. Cut, cut, cut, down the row of heads. Cut, cut, cut, along the spines and bellies. "No, you don't."

Allison straightened to her full five feet, ten inches. She'd shoveled mud from flood-ravaged homes in Louisiana, provided child care in a domestic violence shelter in South Dakota. She had motivated, coaxed, and bullied 127 underachieving students in the Mississippi Delta into scoring at a Basic or Proficient level on the English II graduation exit exam. She could not be deterred by a little thing like dead fish or a bad attitude.

"Actually, I make it a point to talk to all my students' parents at the beginning of the school year."

"Then you want his dad." He winked at her before calling over her shoulder. "Matt! Josh's teacher is here to see you."

Her stomach sank at her mistake. She fixed a smile on her face and turned, determined to remain pleasant. Professional.

And came face-to-face with the solid chest and melt-inducing shoulders of the man from the boat. Of course. Because nothing beat getting off on the wrong foot with a parent like embarrassing yourself in front of a really hot guy.

She cleared her throat. "Mr. Fletcher?"

"Call him 'Captain,'" the older man suggested.

"Dad." The quiet tone held warning. Blue eyes, dark and level, met hers from under the brim of his cap. "I'm Matt Fletcher. What can I do for you?"

"I . . . Oh."

Another jolt, right between her thighs. She looked down. The dog.

Her face flamed as she pushed its head from her crotch.

"Fezz. Quit." The same warning tone, laced with amusement.

The dog panted amiably and dropped its weight on her foot, its thick tail sweeping the dock.

"Allison Carter. Joshua is in my Language Arts class." She edged her foot from under the dog, aware of the crowded wharf around them. "Is there someplace we can talk privately?"

The senior Mr. Fletcher snorted.

She felt her flush deepen. As if she were her students' age and had invited him into the closet for Seven Minutes in Heaven.

"We're kind of busy right now," Matt Fletcher said politely enough. "Is Josh all right?"

She got a grip on herself and her teacher persona. At least the man cared about his son. That put them on the same side as far as she was concerned. "He's fine," she said. "Have you spoken with him today?"

Matt tugged off his cap, wiping his forehead with the back of his arm. His hair was the color of oiled oak, streaks of brown and gold darkened by sweat. He smelled, rather pleasantly, of salt and the sea. "We've been out on the water since five this morning. What did he do?"

"Nothing." And that, of course, was the problem. "I was actually hoping to talk to you about Joshua's progress. We've been in class now for almost three weeks and he has yet to open his mouth. Or, as far as I can tell, a book."

He regarded her without expression. "He's not giving you any trouble, is he?"

"He's very respectful," she assured him. If a total lack of interest in her subject matter could be called respect. "But I am troubled because he's a bright boy who's obviously not living up to his potential."

The older Fletcher chuckled. "We've heard that one before."

Matt sighed. "Look, I appreciate you coming by, but I can't do this now. I've got customers to deal with and a boat to hose down. I need a shower and I want a beer."

"Of course," she said stiffly. She tried really hard not to get personally involved. If you cared too much for your students, you could burn out. You could break your heart. But Matt Fletcher was Joshua's father. It was his job to care. "I'm sorry to have bothered you at work. But when I called the number on file, your wife said I should come down to the harbor to talk to you."

"I'm not married."

Oh. Good.

She pulled herself together. Not good.

Things were awkward enough already. She had no business prying. And no interest in Joshua Fletcher's hunky dad, married or not.

"Josh's mother is out of the picture," Fletcher Senior said. "That was my Tess you talked to. Josh's grandmother. You want that boy straightened out, you should let her know."

"Josh is my son," Matt said. "I'll talk to him."

Allison had met parents struggling simply to survive, so overwhelmed by the effort of feeding their families they couldn't focus on their children's education. And parents like her own, who wanted perfect trophy children on display in the background of their own well-ordered lives, parents for whom a child's degree from Harvard or Princeton or MIT was simply another way of keeping score.

Too soon to tell which category Matt Fletcher fell into.

"It's important to begin the school year on the right foot," she said earnestly. "That's why I have all my students and their parents sign a contract. As I emphasized in the syllabus, communication is key to Joshua's future success."

Matt Fletcher looked at her as if she were speaking a foreign language or maybe had sprouted an extra head. "I said I'll talk to him. Tonight."

"After your beer?"

She'd meant it-hadn't she?-as a sort of a joke. An acknowledgment of his long day, an attempt to smooth things over.

He gave her a long, unreadable look. "That's right," he said. "Now, unless you're buying, you'll have to excuse me."

* * *

"That was a good-looking girl," Tom remarked, turning the key in the ignition. Fezzik jumped into the back of the pickup as the engine rumbled to life.

Matt glanced warily at his dad. Something about riding shotgun made him feel fourteen again. Maybe because while he and his dad had always been close, they'd never been chatty. Every major conversation when Matt was growing up had taken place right here in this truck, where they'd been trapped side by side, unable to make eye contact.

Matt massaged the back of his neck with one hand. Maybe he should take Josh for a drive.

"That girl is Josh's teacher," he said.

Tom winked. "You used to have an eye for teachers."

Matt grunted noncommittally.

Josh's mother was a teacher. A psychology professor at Chapel Hill. Of course, back when Matt first met her, she was just another student. They'd both been students.

"Long time ago," he said. "I'm older now."

And wiser. He wasn't like his poor dumb dog, sticking his nose where it wasn't wanted.

"You're not dead yet," Tom said. "You need to get out. Live a little. Christ, boy, when I was your age . . ."

"You were married with three kids. And don't spin me some yarn about liberty in the Marines," Matt added with a smile. "Because I won't believe you. Mom would have killed you if you'd cheated."

"Yeah, she would." Tom grinned with pride. "Besides, I knew what I had waiting at home. Hell of a woman, your mother."

Matt managed not to squirm. Bad enough his aging parents were getting more action than he was this summer. He could admire the rock solid nature of their thirty-eight-year marriage without needing to hear the details. Unless, of course, the change of subject got his dad off the topic of Matt's own love life.

"So you gave up your time ashore for love," Matt said dryly. "Touching, Dad."

"Hell, no, I'd go on liberty with everybody else. Somebody had to keep their dumb asses out of trouble."

"Then how did you . . ." Matt said and shut up. He didn't want to know.

"I'd go into a bar," his father said. "And pick out the homeliest-looking working woman there. And I'd buy her a drink."

Okay, he really didn't need to hear this. "Look, it's none of my business."

"Nice women, mostly," Tom continued. "They were glad for the attention and the booze. And they kept the other women away."

Matt grinned. "Sneaky."

"There was never anybody for me after your mother," Tom said. "That doesn't mean I'm blind."

"I'm not blind," Matt said.

Or celibate.

There had been women after Kimberly. Nice women, passing through on their way to someplace else. Temporary women, looking for comfort or diversion, to scratch an itch or enjoy a fling. Women who didn't want more than Matt had left to give.

Nobody like Allison Carter, with her big, brown, earnest eyes and long, smooth legs the color of honey.

A prickle of sweat, a rush of heat, washed over Matt. He needed that beer.

But first he had to talk to Josh.

Josh was a good kid. No drama, no trauma, no simmering resentment at being abandoned by his mother or any crap like that. Thank God.

But Matt could see how his son's it's-all-good attitude might not work so well in school. He couldn't force the boy to open his mouth in class, but he could make damn sure he was doing his homework.

"I just don't need that kind of distraction," Matt said. "Josh comes first."

Always had, from the moment the nurse first handed him to Matt in the hospital. Young and panicked and punchy from lack of sleep, Matt had cradled the baby's slight weight, dumbfounded by a sudden rush of love for the damp, squashy bundle in his arms.

His son.

His joy.

It had always saddened him that Kimberly never felt the same. Or maybe it was Matt she'd never loved.

She was gone from their lives before Joshua's first birthday, a casualty of what Matt now figured was postpartum depression. He didn't blame her anymore for listening to her parents and abandoning their hasty marriage. But he didn't understand how she could abandon their son.

He stared out the truck window at scrub oak and salt pine. His own parents had never questioned his decision to raise Joshua. In their eyes, in their lives, a man did what a man had to do.

Matt figured he was lucky to have Josh. Luckier to have had his parents' support.

But now Tom said, "You can't live for the boy forever. Or through him. He'll be off to school in another year."

"Not if he flunks English," Matt said, only half joking.

Another faded blue glance. "Maybe you should set up a, what do you call it, parent-teacher conference."

There was an idea. Hello, Miss Carter, I'm here to discuss my son's classroom performance. Why don't you take off your clothes while we talk?

Matt shook his head. He didn't mess with women on the island. There was too much talk that could get back to Josh. Too much awkwardness when Saturday night's date turned into Monday's encounter at the checkout line in the grocery store.

Reluctantly, he let go of the image of a naked Allison Carter lying back against her desk. "I was thinking more along the lines of knocking Josh's head in."

Tom chuckled. "Worked for you. Not so much for your brother."

Matt rubbed his stubble with one hand, remembering the battles that had raged at home before his brother's abrupt departure for the Marines. Josh wasn't a hothead like Luke. He was kind and even-tempered, easy to get along with. He kept up with his chores, at least with his grandmother's eye on him. But the boy had developed a tendency to let things slide, a plate on the floor, the lock on the door, the volume on the TV. His homework.

His curfew.

Generally Matt let it go, trusting Josh would learn responsibility in time. He was a good kid. A smart boy.

Allison Carter's accusing brown eyes stabbed him. A bright boy who's not living up to his potential.

Matt set his jaw, a headache still throbbing at the back of his neck. So, fine. This time they'd talk. Dammit.

The low-hipped roof of the Pirates' Rest rose from the shelter of the surrounding trees, the generous eaves accented by white and green trim. As a teenager, Matt and his buddy Sam Grady had scraped and repainted every one of those windows. Matt's parents had restored and added to the two-and-a-half story Craftsman, transforming it into a successful bed-and-breakfast. But to Matt the century-old house, with its views of the sound and the sea, had always felt like home.

Oyster shells crunched under their tires. Tom parked the truck in back. At this hour, most of the inn's guests were out to dinner, but there were still a few vehicles pulled up to the white picket fence.

Fezzik sniffed the tires of a late model Toyota that hadn't been there this morning.

"New guests?" Matt asked.

Tom hefted the cooler from the back of the pickup. "Must be."

"That's good midweek this late in the season."

Tom shrugged. "You want some of this fish?"

Matt appreciated the implicit invitation, the promise of dinner, the offer of support. He was almost tempted into asking his dad's advice about Josh. But that had never been their way. Tess was the one they all confided in, the one who prodded and pried and talked things out.

He shook his head. "We're good. Josh and I will grab a pizza or something." Nothing to be gained by yelling on an empty stomach. And maybe the pizza would help the conversation go down easier.

Tom nodded, accepting the limits Matt set. "Right. We'll see you tomorrow, then."

Matt could never repay his parents for everything they'd done. It couldn't be easy, having your twenty-year-old son and his baby show up on your doorstep. He was determined not to burden them anymore, financially or otherwise. Which was why, as soon as Josh could be trusted not to set himself or the house on fire, Matt had insisted on renting one of the guest cottages behind the inn.

He opened the door to the bachelor quarters he shared with his son. "Josh, I'm home."

Fezzik's toenails clicked across the hardwood floors.

No answer.

Tess must have put Josh to work at the inn, turning rooms for the new guests. Which meant the kid was safe from Matt and out of trouble for at least another half hour.

Matt snagged a cold beer on his way to the shower.

By the time he strode up the path to the inn's back entrance, his mood had improved considerably.

Chocolate chip.

The smell-and the memories-reached out to envelop him at the kitchen door. Some things didn't change. Like his mother baking cookies to set out for the inn's guests at bedtime.

As Matt swung open the screen door, she turned from the oven, baking sheet in hand, a slim woman with short, gray-streaked dark hair, her eyes creased by smiles and the sun.

Matt grinned, reaching. "Those for me?"

She swatted at him with a spatula. "Wash your hands first."

"I'll arm wrestle you for them," another voice offered.

Stunned, Matt turned toward the kitchen table, where his father sat cradling a cup of coffee. And beyond him . . .

"Luke!"

His baby brother. The Marine.

Luke's chair scraped back as he stood.

Matt grabbed him hard in a one-armed hug as they pounded on each other's backs. They were almost the same height, eight years apart in age.

His brother had lost weight, Matt thought as he drew back to search his clear blue eyes. His frame was as tense as coiled steel.

"I thought you were in Afghanistan," Matt said.

"I should be." Luke's usually cocky grin was strained.

Matt gripped his brother's shoulder. "You all right?" he asked, as if he'd just hauled him out of another childhood scrape.

"Fine. I'm on leave."

"He goes back day after tomorrow," Tom said.

Matt's brow knotted. Flying to Kandahar on military transport could take days. Why would his brother come home only to turn around again?

He glanced toward their father, seeking an explanation, and for the first time noticed the kid hunched in the chair beside him. A skinny boy-girl?-maybe nine or ten years old, wearing an oversized T-shirt and a Kinston Indians cap. A guest's kid, maybe. Matt had never seen him-her-before in his life.

She raised her head. Familiar blue eyes stared at him from a sulky face.

Matt sucked in his breath. "Who's that?"

But he knew. In his gut, in the back of his neck.

Trouble.

"This is Taylor," their mother said brightly.

Matt switched his gaze back to his brother. "What's she doing here?"

"She's come to stay with us awhile," Tess said.

"Why?"

"Luke was just telling us." Tess set a plate of cookies in front of the girl, who ignored them. "Her mother died a month ago. She named Luke as Taylor's guardian."

"Her guardian," Matt repeated slowly. No shit. No way. "You mean . . . her father."

Luke's gaze collided with his. A corner of his mouth lifted in a humorless smile. "Spare me the sermon, bro. I'm just following in your footsteps."

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