Izzy Rivera didn’t notice the marshes. She didn’t notice the tall reedy grasses that swayed into the beams of her headlights with every gust of wind. She didn’t notice the wildflowers that lined the narrow strip of road through her rain-streaked windshield, or the way her whole car shook with each thunderclap from a storm that only seemed to grow worse the closer she came to this place at the end of the earth.
What she noticed were the pine trees. Or what was left of them. Hollow, broken stumps of pine trees glowing ghostly white in the strobes of lightning that splintered the sky.
That was how she felt now.
Dead. Broken. Empty inside.
She reached for her worn, Army-issue handkerchief and pressed the cloth to the back of her neck. It was already damp. Cold from the sweat she’d soaked up a few minutes ago.
She’d had to pull over three times since crossing the drawbridge to Heron Island. She’d passed through the tiny village about a mile ago, spied a blurry outline of an ice cream shop, a bookstore, a café, a school…and then nothing. There was nothing at all out here.
Nothing but her and those trees.
The memories crept in, threatening to swallow her whole. She forced them back as another flash of lightning lit up the sky and she spotted a lone structure in the distance, an old yellow farmhouse rising up from the end of this soggy, sinking spit of land.
She nearly stopped the car again, nearly turned around. But she wasn’t a coward.
A coward? No.
She willed her foot to stay on the gas pedal, to keep pushing the car forward. The wiper blades scraped sheets of rain from the glass, providing intermittent glimpses of a circular driveway filled with cars, a wide front porch covered in potted plants, and a waterlogged garden edging the base of the house.
There were lights on in the downstairs windows. She could see people moving around in the rooms. She eased her car into the last empty spot in the driveway and sat with her foot on the brake, watching them.
She wasn’t good with people anymore. She didn’t like the way they looked at her, the questions they asked. The smallest exchange of pleasantries—How’s it going? How are you today?—could set her off now.
She wanted to scream, to throw things, to break things.
I’m fine, was all she ever said, but she wasn’t fine. She was as far from fine as she’d ever been in her life.
Shifting the car into park, she cut the headlights and felt a moment of panic when the darkness closed in around her. It was the kind of darkness that could seep through your skin, sink into your bones, spread through your mind until there was nothing left but madness.
Her hand shook as she reached for her water bottle. Somehow, she managed to unscrew the cap. She drank until the dryness in her throat gave way to the familiar pulsing knot of rage that lived inside her.
It was the only thing that kept her going now.
Tossing the empty bottle onto the floor, she lifted her gaze to the yellow house. The colors dripped and melted, the image distorted through the wet glass, until the corners warped and the roof tilted. She was supposed to spend the next three months here. Three months with people like her—people who needed to heal.
As if there were any hope.
She’d read the mission statement on the website. She understood the purpose of this program. Will Dozier and Colin Foley weren’t the first Navy SEALs to start rehab programs for down-and-out veterans. It seemed like a perfectly noble goal from the outside. But she’d encountered her share of SEALs overseas. Most of them were arrogant pricks who thought they were better than everyone and knew everything.
They probably thought fixing her would be a breeze.
Sliding the key out of the ignition, she grabbed her pack, flipped the hood of her raincoat up to cover her tangled mass of black curls, and opened the door. An unfamiliar scent rushed toward her. It was muddy, tangy, and smelled faintly of saltwater.
The Chesapeake Bay, she mused. She’d read about that on the website, too. The big body of water that surrounded this island was supposed to help with the healing process. Their fearless leaders were probably going to take them out kayaking and bird watching. Maybe they could hold hands and skip afterwards.
Stepping out of the car, she slammed the door and made her way to the porch. If they even mentioned the words ‘group therapy’ later, she was going to lose it. Mentally preparing herself for one of those big, cocky SEALs to answer, she knocked on the door. She was pretty sure she’d read somewhere that one of them was the son of the Governor of Maryland.
She could only imagine how big his head must be.
The door swung open, she took one look at the person on the other side, and the speech she’d rehearsed in the car froze on her lips.
He wasn’t military.
A dog barked, slipping out of the gap in the open door and launching itself at her. She sucked in a breath as seventy pounds of wet dog wrapped around her legs in a sniffing, wiggling mass of brown fur.
“Sorry.” The man grabbed the dog’s collar, pulling the animal back to his side. “She’s usually more polite than that.” He glanced down at the dog, gave her a scolding look. “Sit.”
The dog sat immediately, her tail thumping on the floorboards, her whole body quivering with excitement.
The man looked up at Izzy and offered her a sheepish smile. “This is Zoey. She’s part of the welcoming committee.”
No, Izzy thought as her heart rate struggled to return to normal. He was definitely not military. His stance was far too casual, far too relaxed. His build was tall and lanky, more like a long distance runner’s, and he wore a faded T-shirt and jeans, both of which were streaked with mud.
“You must be Isabella.” He smiled and held out his hand. “You’re the last to arrive.”
“It’s Izzy,” she corrected, glancing up at his face again. There was a small smudge of something that looked like white paint along his left cheekbone. His hair was a thick, tousled mess of sun-streaked blond. And his eyes were the palest shade of gray she’d ever seen.
Not the gray of storm clouds; they were lighter than that. Like the calm after the storm, the calm leftover as the last of the clouds blew away.
She took his hand. A warm, pulsing sensation spread up her arm. Not sparks of electricity, not wild currents of sexual energy, just warmth and peace and complete and utter calm.
“I’m Ryan,” he said, releasing her hand. “Can I help you with the rest of your bags?”
“No,” she said, mentally shaking herself. What was wrong with her? She held up her backpack. “This is everything.”
His gaze lingered on her small pack and an unspoken question swam into his eyes. But he kept his thoughts to himself. “Come on in,” he said, nodding for her to follow him into the house. “Everyone else is in the kitchen.”
The moment Izzy stepped inside, the feeling of home wrapped around her like a hug. She tried to fight it, but it was impossible not to feel the love and attention that had gone into every detail of the renovation of this centuries-old farmhouse. She took in the collection of black and white photographs that lined the hallway leading into the next room—family portraits, children at various ages, people from all walks of life.
To the left of the entranceway, a cozy sitting room was filled with overstuffed armchairs and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. To the right, a polished oak stairwell led up to the second story. The floors were wood as well, thick planks that felt strong and sturdy under her feet.
Ryan took her wet coat, hung it on one of the hooks by the door, and snagged a towel off one of the tables, handing it to her to dry off with. It was big and plush and cozy and made her want to weep.
Stop, she told herself. She didn’t need comfort. She didn’t want comfort. Comfort would make her soft, would make her face things she’d locked up deep inside. The fact that those things were starting to leak out through the cracks didn’t matter. She could patch herself together. At least for the next three months. At least until she could return to Baltimore. She could fall apart there. Where no one could see her.
She handed the towel back.
Ryan dropped it into a hamper. “How was the drive?”
“You didn’t run into too much water on the roads?”
There had been a few bends in the road where the water had reached the underside of her car, but she’d powered through them, as she did with everything in life now. “I managed.”
“Summer storms can be rough out here. We had one a few years ago that washed out the road completely.”
Izzy didn’t doubt it, and wondered why anyone would choose to live here, in this place that looked like the next high tide could wash it away. A jingle of dog tags drew her gaze down to the chocolate lab, who had unearthed a tennis ball from beneath one of the tables in the hallway and was looking terribly pleased with herself.
“Ready?” Ryan asked, gesturing for her to follow him into the kitchen.
Izzy nodded, but her throat tightened when she spotted the crowd gathered in the next room. There had to be at least fifteen to twenty people in there. She forced her shoulders back and her spine straight as the first few curious eyes swung her way. Don’t let them see any weakness. Don’t ever let anyone know that you’re afraid.
She stepped into the room and her own gaze automatically gravitated to the stove, where steam rose from the top of a large cast-iron pot filled with something that smelled amazing—earthy and spicy with a rich tomato and beef broth. Her fingers curled around the straps of her pack as she struggled against the urge to walk over and see what was inside.
“Are you hungry?” Ryan asked.
“I’ll let Colin and Will know you’re here,” he said, slipping into the crowd.
Izzy took in the gleaming stainless steel appliances, wide chopping block counter, oversized farmhouse sink, and impressive collection of copper pots hanging from an iron rack mounted to the ceiling. It was the kind of kitchen that was made for cooking big meals that took all day to prepare and inviting everyone you knew over to enjoy them.
There was a time when she would have dreamed of having a kitchen like this in her own home.
She looked past the bar, where a few burly guys in their late-twenties were wolfing down big bowls of soup, and took a quick inventory of the rest of the people in the room. Besides the middle-aged woman tending to the soup on the stove, there were only two other women. One was in a wheelchair. The other was missing the lower half of her right arm.
She was the only female veteran still in one piece.
That should make her feel better, right? She didn’t look broken, so she must be fine. That’s what everyone else thought. Most of the time, it was easier to let them.
One of the women offered her a tentative smile, a small offer of friendship. Izzy looked away. She didn’t want friends. She didn’t need friends.
They wouldn’t want to be friends with her anyway once they found out the truth—that she wasn’t a real soldier.
She was just a cook. A woman who’d worked in the kitchen.
And now she couldn’t even do that.
“Hey,” Ryan Callahan said, putting his hand on Will Dozier’s shoulder. His best friend from childhood turned. “Izzy’s here.” He nodded across the room to where the woman stood, looking like she was ready to bolt.
“Thanks,” Will said, extracting himself from a conversation with an ex-Marine. “I know Colin’s been anxious to get started. He was hoping to be halfway through the introductions by now.” He walked away, heading toward Izzy.
Ryan’s gaze followed his friend’s path across the room. He couldn’t help it. It was impossible not to look at the woman again. Izzy Rivera was captivating in a rough-around-the-edges, mistrustful-like-a-cat kind of way. Her thick black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but a few wet curls had slipped loose, framing an exotic, golden-skinned face of either Spanish or Latina descent. Her body was all female, with soft round curves that had drawn the attention of more than one man when she’d walked into the room.
But it was those eyes—big and amber and filled with emotion—that made him unable to look away.
Jesus. Those eyes. He’d never seen a pair of eyes like that.
A sudden hand on his arm startled him and he flinched.
“Somebody’s jumpy tonight,” Della Dozier commented.
Reluctantly dragging his gaze away from Izzy’s face, Ryan looked down at Will’s aunt.
“That’s not like you,” Della said, her blue eyes concerned. “Is everything all right?”
That was a good question, Ryan thought. He hadn’t expected to be attracted to any of the women who’d enrolled in this program, especially not one who would be working for him. Obviously, it went without saying that any woman on his payroll was strictly off limits. She had come here to heal, not get hit on.
Ryan’s gaze swept over the rest of the faces in the room. When he’d offered to provide temporary employment to some of the veterans in this program, he’d been so focused on the mutual benefits—he needed the workforce to help his new business succeed, and they needed something to do with their hands to get their confidence back—that he hadn’t really considered the full impact of what he was taking on.
Every person in this room had something in common that he didn’t—they’d served in the military. He didn’t have a clue what it felt like to be shot at, to put on a uniform, to be shipped overseas and spend years away from your friends and family. He had no idea what it felt like to come home after multiple tours and try to fit in with the people you’d left behind.
What if he couldn’t relate? What if he couldn’t offer them what they needed?
He looked at Della. “I guess it just hit me—what’s at stake. I don’t want to mess up.”
“You’re not going to mess up,” Della said, giving his arm a squeeze. “I have faith in you, in all of you. And I know that you haven’t eaten anything tonight, so I fixed up a container of soup for you to take home afterwards. It’s in the fridge, on the top shelf.”
“Thank you,” Ryan said, and felt some of the tension dissolve. Della had never had any children of her own, but she’d been like a mother to a lot of people on this island. People on Heron Island took care of each other. They looked out for each other. Now that these eleven veterans were staying here for the next twelve weeks, they would look out for them, too.
“Welcome, everyone,” Colin’s deep voice cut through the room, silencing all conversation. “I think I’ve gotten to meet most of you by now. We’ll go around the room in a minute and let you all introduce yourselves, but I’d like to point out a few key people first. Most of you have probably met Will Dozier. He and his wife, Annie, and their daughter, Taylor, live in the private wing on the north side of the house.”
From their spot by the fireplace, Annie and Taylor smiled and waved to everyone.
“Della?” Colin asked.
“Over here.” Della waved an arm, her short frame dwarfed by a wall of taller men who parted to let her through.
Colin smiled warmly at the gray-haired woman wearing an apron with the words Kiss the Cook embroidered across it. “Everyone, this is Della Dozier, Will’s aunt and the best cook on Heron Island. Let’s give her a round of applause for making this incredible batch of Maryland crab soup for us tonight.”
Everyone applauded and Della beamed.
“Della wanted to be here tonight to personally welcome you all to the inn,” Colin continued, “but she works at the Wind Chime Café in town, which Annie owns. From now on, you’ll be responsible for preparing the meals we eat together.” He motioned to a large chalkboard hanging on the wall. “Every week, we’ll assign new jobs to each of you. You can see the first week’s breakdown here. We’ll go into this in more detail after the introductions, but as you can see it’s all the basic housekeeping chores: cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping.”
Colin looked out at the crowd. “For those of you still recovering from injuries, we have a physical therapist who will be meeting with you at her office in St. Michaels. We’ll arrange the transportation, so let us know when you’ve worked out a schedule with your employer and we’ll make sure you get there on time. We also have a social worker on call twenty-four seven. She’ll be reaching out to each of you individually to set up your first appointment. These sessions will be private and completely confidential between the two of you, but we expect you to attend a minimum of at least one a week.”
Ryan saw a few guys wince and figured most of them weren’t too excited about the prospect of talking about their feelings. He understood why it was a mandatory part of the program, but he didn’t blame them.
“For those of you who are interested—and we expect everyone who is physically capable to participate—Will has put together a rigorous exercise program that he’ll be leading twice a day.” Colin glanced up, catching Will’s eye across the room. “And I can tell you from personal experience that it won’t be a walk in the park.” The two former SEAL teammates smiled, sharing an inside joke.
“Lastly, over the next few weeks, we’ll both be meeting with each of you individually to go over your résumés, skillsets, and employment interests so we can find you a permanent position closer to your families and hometowns. As for your jobs on the island, we’ve secured temporary employment for each of you at a local business, which you’ll be starting first thing tomorrow.”
Colin glanced down at his notes, reviewing the list of assignments. “Troy,” he said, looking back up and meeting the eyes of a short, stocky veteran near the front of the room, “you’ll be working with Don Fluharty at The Tackle Box.”
Troy nodded, as if he remembered seeing the small general store at the foot of the drawbridge when he’d driven by it earlier that night.
“Zach.” Colin’s gaze swept through the crowd, landing on a tall, brown-haired man near the middle of the room. “You’ll be working on Bob Hargrove’s charter boat as his first mate.”
Zach lit up. “I get to work on a fishing boat?”
Colin nodded and glanced down at his notes again. “Megan, you’ll be working with Lou Ann Sadler at Clipper Books.”
Megan’s face broke into a smile. The pretty brunette in the wheelchair was pleased with her assignment as well.
“Kade,” Colin continued, “you’ll be working with Gladys Schaefer at The Flower Shoppe.”
A few people snorted as they tried to stifle their laughter, but most failed, and even Ryan’s brows lifted at that one.
Kade McCafferty was the second tallest person in the room after Colin, which put him somewhere around six-foot-three. He was built like a linebacker, probably weighing close to three hundred pounds, and he was completely bald, like one day he’d just woken up and said ‘screw it’ to his hair and shaved it all off. Dark tattoos covered both arms and another huge tattoo on his left calf spelled out the word, ‘MARINES.’ He’d been one of the first to arrive at the inn that night and Ryan had spent some time talking to him earlier. He’d served five tours overseas as an infantryman. Front lines.
The Flower Shoppe?
That just seemed wrong.
But Colin was already forging ahead. “I know some of you have already met Ryan Callahan.” Colin nodded to where Ryan stood and everyone turned to look at him. “Ryan is a marine biologist whose research has transformed the field of coastal ecology. He has a Ph.D. from MIT’s joint program with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and he’s spent the past ten years fighting to mitigate the effects of climate change and pollution on our most endangered waterways. Last year, he moved back to this island to open a nonprofit to educate the public on how to become better stewards of the Chesapeake Bay and help his father, a fourth-generation waterman, expand his oyster farm. They’ve recently combined the two operations into a single company with a big vision and they’re going to need a lot of help to get where they want to go.”
“What’s an oyster farm?” one of the women asked.
Colin looked at Ryan. “Go ahead.”
“It’s an environmentally sustainable process of growing and harvesting oysters,” Ryan explained. “They start out as seeds, which we purchase from a hatchery, and then we plant them in the water like a regular farmer would plant seeds in the ground. It takes about a year-and-a-half for a farmed oyster to grow to market size, which is when we pull them out and sell them to restaurants, seafood markets, and wholesalers.”
“Don’t oysters grow in the wild?” one of the guys asked. “Why do you need to farm them?”
“The wild oyster population in the Bay was almost completely wiped out twenty years ago,” Ryan said. “Right now, it’s at about one percent of historic levels. There have been efforts to reestablish it, and it’s starting to make a very small comeback, but it still has a long way to go. Oyster farming is a way of continuing a centuries-old tradition of harvesting seafood from these waters without affecting one of our most important natural resources. We don’t take anything out that we don’t put there ourselves.”
“Which brings us to our last two groups of people,” Colin said, segueing easily back to the point. “Hailey and Ethan, you’ll be working on the nonprofit side of Ryan’s operation. Paul, Jeff, Wesley, Matt, and Izzy, you’ll be working on the farm.”
“No,” Izzy said.
Seventeen heads turned to face her, and Izzy’s eyes widened, as if she hadn’t realized she’d said it out loud.
Colin glanced over at her, surprised. “Is there a problem?”
She looked like she wanted to shrink into the wall, to disappear completely, but knew it was too late. “I’d rather not work…on a farm.”
She straightened her spine, visibly mustering her courage. “I would like to request to switch with someone.”
“I’ll switch with her,” Kade said.
A few people laughed.
“I appreciate the team spirit,” Colin said dryly, “but we put everyone in each position for a reason. If something changes over the next few weeks, we can make adjustments. Right now, we’re confident that everyone is where he or she is supposed to be. Let’s move on with the rest of the introductions and the tour so that those of you who are working with Ryan can make it an early night. You’ll be leaving here before sunrise tomorrow to get to the farm by 0500.” Colin looked over at Ryan, making it clear that the discussion was closed. “Is there anything else your staff should know?”
Ryan watched Izzy squeeze the straps of her pack. He caught the flash of fear in her eyes, and then something else, something that looked like anger, as if she were somehow offended by the assignment.
What could she possibly have against working on an oyster farm?
Suppressing the urge to speak up, to tell Colin that they should give her another job, he reminded himself that he wasn’t in charge of this program. He was just one of the employers. He had to trust that Will and Colin knew what they were doing.
They were the ones who had served. They were the ones who could relate.
A wet nose brushed against his fingertips and he looked down as Zoey, his chocolate lab, nuzzled his hand. “Wear gym clothes,” he said, “because you’re going to get dirty.”