Emily Cole’s entire life, when tightly folded and crammed, fit inside two suitcases and one overburdened carry-on bag.
A buzz of activity swirled around Cherry Capital Airport’s Baggage Claim B, where Emily waited to retrieve her luggage. The four-hour flight from Tucson to Traverse City, Michigan, had been blessedly uneventful, but Emily was eager to collect her belongings and make the hour-long drive in time to catch the last ferry out to Thief Island.
She pulled her cell phone from her purse and scrolled through her e-mail, searching for her car rental reservation.
Lost in her task, Emily was only dimly aware of the ripple of unease that ran through the small cluster of travelers until, over the whine of the baggage carousel, a smattering of nervous laughter pierced her concentration.
Her head came up, and a sympathetic groan eased from her. Heaps of clothing littered the baggage conveyor belt. The shredded remains of a black suitcase lay among the carnage, looking as though it’d been mauled by a grizzly bear. An array of dark cotton loungewear and crumpled T-shirts inched along. A pair of dingy socks. A lone sneaker—
The air sucked from Emily’s lungs.
That was her canvas sneaker lolling amidst the black yoga pants and gray, shapeless sweatshirts. The cotton T-shirts and durable footwear. A caretaker’s wardrobe.
Her wardrobe. She spotted her plastic-handled hairbrush, teeming with the bright strands of her strawberry-blonde hair, and the red plastic case that held her bite splint.
Emily’s legs turned to pillars of cement and her feet affixed to the hard concrete floor. A pair of shabby panties she should’ve replaced months ago paraded along before the watchful gazes of her fellow travelers.
It was all there. Her entire life. For anyone—for everyone—to see.
With a horrified moan, she squeezed her eyes shut.
Among the wreckage, she spotted her seven-and-a-half inch, twenty-speed, hot pink vibrator.
A woman detached from the crowd and crept forward. She plucked a brown leather bag off the carousel and melted away again into the crush of bodies. Bolstered by her act of courage, a white-haired man in neatly pressed slacks and a crisp dress shirt stepped up to the turnstile. He lifted a black suitcase and, giving the luggage a little jiggle, shook loose one of Emily’s serviceable white bras, which had snagged on the bag’s zipper.
Emily bit back a whimper. She stayed rooted to the spot while her life rolled along the winding carousel, watching helplessly as, one by one, suitcases disappeared along with their people.
When finally, only a few pieces of luggage remained on the conveyor belt, Emily snuck a glance left and right. The baggage claim area absent of prying eyes, she slunk toward the massacre on wobbly legs. Her heart thrashed against her ribs as she scooped up an armful of clothing. With no other option, she dumped the load on the ground at her feet and turned back for another armload.
Her course set, she snatched up clothing and household objects with frantic urgency. When a hum of noise pierced the fog of panic surrounding her, she craned her neck to look over her shoulder as a fresh horde of people poured through the gates and spilled into the baggage claim area.
Swallowing a sob, she wrenched back around and grasped blindly at the scattered remains of her pathetic little life.
Her fingers brushed over the silky silicone vibrator, but the moving belt pulled BOB out of her reach before she could grab him. She pitched forward, stretching to snag the device before it slipped behind the black rubber flaps and back into the bowels of the airport.
She watched helplessly as BOB slipped away.
Then a large, tanned hand clamped around the hot pink shaft.
For a split second, she stared at that hand, too shocked and horrified to move. Finally, she lifted her gaze.
The man’s heavily lashed bright green eyes ensnared her.
She reared back. Oh, shit.
His full, pouty mouth pushed up at one corner.
She recognized Luke Nolan immediately. Hard to forget the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in real life. Words log-jammed somewhere in the circuits between her brain and mouth while she gaped at the perfection of his beautiful face.
The sharp, sculpted lines of his nose and jaw stood in defiance to the plump softness of his lips and the smooth, rounded planes of his high cheekbones. His richly dark hair and bronzed skin acted like a canvas that only intensified the brightness of his deep-set emerald eyes and pink lips.
He pointed at something over her shoulder. “You might want to grab those.”
Emily whirled. A gasp tore from her as she lunged to snatch a bra and trio of panties off the belt before they disappeared behind the rubber curtain flaps.
With a broad sweep of his arms, Luke scooped her shredded suitcase with the last of her belongings from the carousel. Stooping low, he rescued the heap off the cement floor and hauled it, along with her mangled luggage, to an isolated corner of the terminal.
She wrestled her still-intact suitcase off the belt and scurried after him just as the throng of travelers descended on the baggage claim.
He straightened. “Is that everything?”
“I th-th-th-think so.” She winced at the stammer and sagged against the wall.
She’d worked hard to overcome the embarrassing speech impediment, but sometimes when she was flustered or frustrated it reappeared, leaving her to turn over words and clauses like an engine that wouldn’t start.
If Luke noticed, he pretended not to. “Is someone picking you up?”
She pushed a puff of air through her lips, lifting a strand of hair off her forehead that’d escaped her ponytail. “I r-rented a car.”
She felt his eyes on her like a caress. The corner of his puffy mouth lifted and his bright eyes danced with interest.
Her breath caught in her throat and she prepared words in her mind to acknowledge his suspicion that they’d met before now.
“Do you take cream?”
Emily blinked at him. “Wh-what?”
“With your coffee?” His smile turned mischievous. “We’re doing this all out of order, I admit, but now that I’ve fondled your panties, I think it’s expected that I at least buy you a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll take that as a no.” He appeared unfazed by her rejection. “How about your name then?”
Her frown twisted into a scowl. He didn’t recognize her? With her bright hair and stutter, she found that a little hard to believe. Was it that he didn’t remember her at all?
For someone who’d spent her life trying to stay invisible, that should make her happy.
It should, but it didn’t.
She dropped to her knees and began tidying the upheaval of her life.
He cleared his throat. “Let me help you get all this to your car.”
Emily shook her head. “I c-can m-m-m-manage—” She stopped when the spasm hit, and swallowed painfully. Her hand shot to the necklace around her neck.
She’d worn the silver chain with the small amethyst pendant for as long as she could remember, using it as a sort of talisman to calm herself when the stutter took over.
He crouched beside her. “Why don’t you go get the car? I’ll watch your things.”
His gentle tone stabbed a pang of longing into her heart, but she pushed to her feet and set off in search of the car rental counter. She wanted to leave the airport more than she didn’t want to accept his help.
In the tiny five-gate airport, she quickly located the desk and secured her reservation. When she steered the royal-blue sedan up to the terminal, she spotted Luke waiting at the curb, her suitcases perched at his feet, and rolled to a stop in front of him.
She pulled the trunk release latch the car rental clerk had pointed out to her and climbed from the car. Luke met her at the back, and when she propped open the trunk, he plunked her undamaged suitcase inside. He returned to the curb to attack the wrecked piece of luggage.
As he struggled to cram the unruly bulk into the compact trunk space, she grew a little lost in watching him. His soft green T-shirt hugged the muscles of his back and biceps and the sunlight picked out threads of rich auburn hiding amidst the strands of his dark hair.
With a grunt and one last hard shove, the bundle dropped into the vehicle. He slammed the trunk shut and patted the roof. “All set.”
“Th-th-thank you.” The tips of her fingers brushed across the solid pendant.
His gaze tracked her hand. “You’re welcome,” he said softly.
Her heart jumped into her throat as she scurried round to the driver-side door.
On the curb, he leaned a shoulder against a large structural column and pulled a cell phone from his hip pocket. He bent his head over the device.
She wavered. “Do you, uh, need a ride?”
Over the roof of the car, his green gaze landed on her face and the force of it knocked her back a step.
“I’m sure I’m out of your way, but thanks for the offer.”
She tilted her head. “Aren’t y-you h-h-headed to the island?”
Confusion clouded his well-formed features. The lines between his brows deepened and she imagined he struggled to place her among the multitude of women whose panties he’d no doubt fondled.
Struggling to recall her, or worried he might?
Suddenly, his features cleared as recognition struck. Followed by naked relief.
A practiced smile teased up the corners of his mouth. “I didn’t recognize you without the pub lighting.”
“Do you w-want a ride or not?”
“Are you here visiting your cousin?” He pushed the cell phone into the front pocket of his worn jeans and straightened away from the column. “’Cause I’m pretty sure she’s still out of the country with my brother.”
“I’m not visiting Mina. I’m m-moving to the island.” Saying the words out loud, a jumble of emotions whipped through Emily. Excitement and fear.
Okay, mostly fear.
No, not fear. Anticipation?
Whatever. It didn’t matter. It was a change, and more than anything, Emily needed something in her life to change. Any change would do, as long as it amounted to a life different from the one she’d been living the past nine years.
The playfulness on Luke’s face had vanished as swiftly as the morning sun burned away the dew.
All the softness had disappeared and been replaced by a hard glare. “I didn’t know you enjoyed our little oasis so much. Not many people find island life to their tastes.”
She’d only visited Thief Island twice before deciding to make the permanent move. Sweeping views of sand and sea, rolling hills, and a quaint downtown were all she recalled.
It was vastly different from the desert of Tucson. Nearly the exact opposite, in fact, which was fine by her. Preferred even. Maybe the foreign environment would distract her from the painful memories she’d hoped to leave behind in the desert.
She lifted her shoulders. “What’s not to like?”
His eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. “Have you spent any time here in winter?”
“I have.” It’d been unseasonably warm when she’d visited last December, but she didn’t share that tidbit with him.
He folded his arms over the wide expanse of his chest. “When the lake ices over, the ferry can’t run. We might go days, even weeks, where no one can come or go.”
“It’s too late to talk me out of it.” She yanked open the car door. “I bought Mina’s house.”
His expression turned incredulous. “Why did you do that?”
Her scowl deepened, and not only because she didn’t have a ready answer.
She had a lot of almost answers, though none she wished to voice for Luke Nolan’s examination. Answers such as because her cousin, Mina, one of the few family members Emily had left in the world, had lived in that house and lived on the island still. Or because last year, the most excruciatingly difficult year of Emily’s life, she’d buried her mom on that island and wanted to be near her.
No, she didn’t wish to share those answers with him, especially considering her most compelling answer amounted to “why not?” She didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Her throat constricted around a rush of unspoken words. She settled on the facts instead. “I’m opening a bed-and-breakfast.”
He studied her for one heartbeat, two. “We don’t get a lot of tourists.”
“I’m h-hoping to ch-change that.”
His inscrutable expression suffered a crack and she glimpsed some fleeting emotion. It appeared suspiciously like panic, but her further scrutiny was thwarted when a sleek black Chrysler rolled to a stop behind the sedan and Luke bent to retrieve his backpack.
The woman behind the steering wheel wiggled her fingers at him, jostling the gold bangles stacked on her wrist, and pushed her oversized sunglasses on top of her head. She stepped from the luxury car with the ease of a long-legged gazelle, her honey-blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight.
The fire engine red dress she wore barely gained mid-thigh, and as she bounded onto the curb, its stretchy fabric clung to her shapely figure in all the places men seemed to find most interesting. Luke’s hand slipped to her waist when she kissed his cheek with her red-painted lips.
Together, they were perfection made manifest.
Emily shoved her hands into the pocket of her drab gray sweatshirt while Luke guided the woman to the passenger side and pulled open the car door. She slid into the vehicle and he closed the door behind her before rounding the car.
At the driver-side door, he paused with his hand on the handle and turned to her. “You okay? Do you want to follow us?”
Emily shook her head. “I’m okay.” She pointed at the sedan’s interior. “GPS.”
With a fluid motion, he slid behind the wheel of the gorgeous woman’s car.
Emily ducked into the shelter of the rental car and hauled the door shut. She slunk down in her seat. Not until the Chrysler eased past her side window and disappeared among the congested traffic did she release the breath she’d been holding.
For the first time since she decided to move across the country, unease prickled. She’d made the move, in part, because she envisioned living out her life in relative peace and quiet in the isolated small town. Now she wondered if that’d be possible with Luke Nolan prowling the streets.
Just then, a thought struck. Dread swept through her and she vaulted from the vehicle, leaving the car door wide open in her haste.
In the trunk, she plunged through the mound of her clothing and toiletries, searching with desperate urgency. Frantic, frustration rose to the back of her throat as a whine of dismay.
BOB was missing.
Waves crashed over his head. He thrashed and kicked his legs, but the torrent pulled him under. Water burned through his nose and lungs. His body grew weak and the dread of what was to come filled him.
Luke jolted awake.
Disoriented in the darkness, he reached out for… something, but there was nothing to grab on to and he collapsed back on the bed. He sucked in large gulps of air. Fresh air.
Turning his head, he looked out through the patio door, which he’d left open to allow the warm summer air inside his loft apartment. Stars dotted the blackened sky and the rhythmic churn of Lake Michigan endured.
The bedsheets, drenched in sweat, tangled around his legs and he kicked free of them. He stumbled from the bed and trudged to the kitchen on legs made weak from a grueling workout earlier in the day. The clock on the stove screamed the hour in neon-green digits as he retrieved a tumbler from the cupboard.
It was 3:13 a.m. He’d slept almost an hour that time. Unable to recall the last time he’d slept longer than a couple hours at once, he no longer felt the exhaustion that plagued him. He snatched up the bottle of whiskey on the counter and his hand brushed against something unexpected.
In the dim room, he could make out the unmistakable shape of the shocking pink vibrator lying on the counter where he’d tossed it.
He hadn’t meant to steal it from the woman at the airport, but with the crowd rushing in to swarm them and her eyes filling with panic, he’d shoved the phallic object into his hip pocket so he could scoop up her far-flung belongings and haul them away to safety. He hadn’t recalled the vibrator until he’d climbed behind the wheel of Kate’s car and the fleshy device had poked him in the thigh.
The shadow of a smile whispered over his lips as he filled the glass past halfway. Luke drank the contents in a long, deep swallow. As the liquid burned a path down his throat to his gut, he refilled the glass. He drank it, too, until he gasped for breath, his roughened breathing loud in the calm quiet of the night.
It’d be some time before he settled down enough for sleep. Without the whiskey, he wouldn’t be able to do it at all. Gripping the bottle by the neck, he crossed the darkened apartment to the patio doors.
With his elbow, he slid open the screen door and stepped out onto the balcony.
An old factory that had been converted into studio lofts, the building sat overlooking the harbor on the island’s sunrise coast and sparse, tiny lights winked at him from the mainland across the lake. In a darkened corner of the balcony, he dropped into the old recliner, its leather cracked and duct taped in several places.
So he sat, taking nips of whiskey, the way one might chat with an old friend. When the first fingers of dawn peeked over the horizon, he stared into the blazing ball of light. His eyes began to burn, but he didn’t look away. He liked the pain. It felt good to hurt. The pain was all he felt these days. It was all he had to remind himself he still lived.
He threw back the last sliver of Jack in his tumbler and poured the remaining trickle of liquid from the bottle, both frightened and relieved to see the bottle run dry.
Because only then would he sleep.