FOR THE PAST decade, Gage Lowell had lived on risk the way other people sucked down caffeine. It had been his morning fix, his noonday pick-me-up, his after-dinner beverage with dessert. So the anticipation building in his belly as he approached beautiful but tranquil Crescent Cove didn’t make much sense.
It was no Durand Line, that porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where he’d braved danger that ran the gamut from Taliban bullets to half-wild bulls. The natives were certain to be less suspicious than the Syrian rebels he’d photographed the spring before. And though the house he’d rented was situated on the sand, just steps away from the Pacific Ocean, not for a second did he suppose this vacation would end like the one he’d taken some years ago—with Gage running for his life and high ground, holding his cameras overhead.
Of course, that tsunami had come out of the blue.
But he really couldn’t see how this holiday would hold any such surprise.
Still, expectation continued to hum through his veins. “Stop here,” he said to his twin as the car turned onto the narrow road that led off the coastal highway. They’d come straight from the airport. “I’ll hoof it to the property management office for the keys. You drive my stuff to Beach House No. 9 and I’ll meet you there.”
Griffin frowned over at him. “What, I’m your bellboy now?” Though the sarcasm was typical brother bullshit, there was something in his expression that tickled Gage’s spine.
“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked.
His twin braked the car but didn’t answer. Up ahead were the first of the fifty or so eclectic cottages that made up the beachside community where the Lowell family had spent every summer until he’d turned fifteen. The dwellings’ designs were a little bit funky and a lot colorful, nestled in lush vegetation—palm trees, hibiscus bushes and various other flowering plants—that had originally been planted so that the two-mile-long curve of sand could serve as a variety of backdrops during the silent movie era: deserted island, cannibal-infested jungle, ancient Egypt.
It had been paradise for Gage, Griffin and the rest of their posse of kids who’d run wild every June through September.
Rolling down his window, Gage breathed deeply of the salt-and-sun-laden air and dismissed his disquiet. He had a few weeks to rest and recharge before his next assignment overseas, and Crescent Cove was the best place in the world for that. “It’s still got that ol’ magic, doesn’t it?” he murmured, reaching for the door handle.
“Wait,” Griffin said. “Maybe I should go with you to collect the keys.”
Uh-oh. Uneasiness kicked up again. “What’s going on?”
“Look. About Skye—”
“Don’t say any more,” Gage said, already irritated. The older by eleven minutes, Griffin often acted as if he were the much-wiser sibling. “I know her as well as you. Better than you.”
“You haven’t seen her since we were kids. You might be, uh, I don’t know, surprised by how she looks.”
“I don’t care how she looks,” Gage said, aware he sounded a little angry. What? His brother thought he had some shallow set of standards when it came to female companions? Okay, he supposed it could be true when it came to a certain kind of female companion, but that didn’t apply here.
“I’m not interested in her appearance.” Gage pressed his shoulder against the passenger door and pushed it open. “She’s not a woman to me.”
His brother might have mumbled, “Oh, hell,” but Gage was already on his way toward the footpath that would lead him straight to Skye Alexander.
He knew exactly where the property management office was, just as he knew all the cove’s other landmarks from his childhood explorations. Then, Skye’s father had been in charge, always dressed in his trademark khakis, wilted denim shirt and bush hat. Skye and her sister could often be found in his office, playing with paper dolls or with their shell collections, leaving Mrs. Alexander free to stay engrossed in her easel and paints.
Skye held her dad’s job now. Gage knew this, because they’d fallen into an accidental correspondence nearly a year ago. When planning his R & R a few months back, he’d thought of her and the cove and made a snap decision to rent the beach house where he’d spent those idyllic summers. To surprise his pen pal, he’d reserved it under a fictitious name.
He couldn’t wait for her reaction when she saw him.
His palms itched, and for a moment he regretted leaving his cameras packed in the car. His hands seemed too empty without them, though he hadn’t felt much like taking photos lately, which worried him a little.
Maybe Beach House No. 9 would be the antidote to that, too.
Ahead was the simple clapboard structure that was the one-room management office. He slowed his approach, taking in the small yard enclosed by a white picket fence that was brightened by bougainvillea vines of varied colors: fuchsia, white, coral and red. The front door stood open, and a woman’s voice floated over the threshold, the notes snatched away by the cool breeze before he could make out the words.
He stepped over the low gate instead of chancing squeaky hinges that might give him away. Then he strolled up the path until he came to a stop on the small, stamp-sized doorstep. The midmorning sun was bright, the interior of the office dark in comparison. Feet planted on the concrete, Gage peered into the dim interior.
A woman was half-turned away from him, a phone pressed to her ear. “Sure, I can email you a scanned copy of Edith’s letter to Max. Yes, they are my great-great-grandparents. Sure. Fine.” She paused to listen.
For the life of him, Gage couldn’t figure out what Griffin’s warning was all about. Yeah, his recollection of Skye stalled on her at about eleven years old, but this grown-up version didn’t clash with his memory. She’d had that long, coffee-dark hair as a little girl. The woman before him was average height, he’d say, and looked slender, though she was wearing a pair of baggy jeans and a long-sleeved sweatshirt that could have been her father’s.
The phone conversation seemed to be winding down, and Gage felt another surge of eagerness. He couldn’t remember the color of her eyes or the shape of her nose, but any moment now she’d turn his way and he’d have a face to put with those letters that had become so vital to him during his hellish two-week ordeal in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m thrilled you’ll be featuring the cove in an upcoming edition of the paper. Thank you. If I can answer any more questions, Ali, don’t hesitate to call.” She clicked off the phone, but still didn’t glance toward the door.
Gage felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He didn’t move or say anything for another long moment, while the ocean breeze played with the hem of his jeans and the tail of his thin white shirt. It was stupid, maybe, but he felt as if he was poised on the brink of something and he wondered, weirdly, if he should have brought flowers.
Then, rejecting the odd thought, he lifted his foot to enter Skye’s domain. The movement must have alerted her to his presence. She whirled to face him.
And screamed bloody murder.
Salutations from a childhood friend! Your missive to your twin reached me at Crescent Cove’s property management office. Thought you should know Griffin’s not expected at Beach House No. 9 until April. Loved the picture on the front of the postcard—one of yours? Over the years, I’ve noticed your photo credit lines in magazines and newspapers and remember the camera you carried every summer, strapped to your chest like a second heart.
Hope this finds you in good health, Skye Alexander
Thanks for the info re: Griff. Are you still playing tea party at your dad’s desk in the Crescent Cove office? Because I can see you there in my memory. What summers we had! When it’s blistering hot here, I take off to the cove in my imagination and lie on the wet sand, letting the cool Pacific wash over my skin. When the temperature turns freezing, I remember our tribe of Cove kids playing beach soccer under a burning sun. Do shore crabs still make you squeal?
Skye Alexander’s friend and neighbor Polly Weber leaned close and whispered in her ear, “You didn’t tell me Gage Lowell was gorgeous.”
“You’ve become friends with Griffin. Since they’re twins, it should come as no surprise.” Skye didn’t even glance at the man seated at the head of their table on the open-air deck. Besides Gage, Polly and Skye, there were five more people attending the welcome dinner at Captain Crow’s, the restaurant/bar located at the northern end of the cove. Griffin and his fiancée, the twins’ sister, Tess, and her husband, and an elderly family friend were gathered close to the man of honor. Skye had chosen a seat as far from him as possible.
She was counting on distance to calm her heart—it had been beating with an erratic wildness since she’d looked up that morning and found a dark figure looming in her office doorway.
He was telling the story now, speaking up so that Rex Monroe, the nearly deaf nonagenarian who lived full-time at the cove, could hear him. “My ears are still ringing from her scream,” Gage said. “I meant to surprise her, not send her into a full-blown panic.”
“She’s been jumpy for months,” Rex said, shaking his head. “Nervous like a rabbit since March.”
“Really?” There was a new alertness in the younger man’s voice, and Skye sensed he was studying her over the plates and glasses.
She pretended an avid interest in the surface of her white wine and ignored the embarrassed heat crawling toward her cheeks. Good thing she was wearing a cotton turtleneck with her boy-styled black trousers.
“Since the spring, you say?” Gage spoke again to Rex.
Before the elderly man could reveal anything more, Skye felt compelled to offer a rationale. “It’s the off-season quiet that gets to me, what with the tiny number of full-time residents.” And if she didn’t find a way to control her persistent anxiety, she doubted she’d survive this year’s transition from summer’s bustle to autumn hush. “That’s all.”
She glanced up to judge how Gage took the explanation.
Mistake. Their eyes met. His turquoise-blue gaze shot another electric jolt to her heart. Its beat went crazy again, thudding heavy and uneven against her ribs.
“Fenton Hardy,” she heard herself say, her mouth so dry her tongue clicked against its roof.
“Yes, what was that about?” Jane Pearson, Griffin’s fiancée, asked. “When Skye told us that was the name of No. 9’s upcoming tenant, I recognized the literary allusion, but your brother knew right away that meant it was you.”
Skye tore her eyes from Gage and pinned Griffin with a stare. “You did?”
The man shrugged. “It was our secret identity name when we were kids. Fenton is the father in the Hardy Boys books. I figured Gage had a reason to be mysterious.”
“I told you, I wanted to surprise Skye…I was planning on surprising everyone, actually, but I didn’t realize she’d talk to you about who’d rented the place.”
“We were going over wedding details when it came out,” Jane said, and she grinned, clearly thrilled about her upcoming marriage to Griffin. “How handy that you’ll be the one we inconvenience when we say ‘I do’ on No. 9’s deck at the end of the month.”
Gage shook his head. “I’ve only known you a few hours, Jane, but it’s clear you can do better than ol’ Griff. I’d suggest myself—”
“I’m sticking with the twin whose globe-trotting days are over,” Jane said, emphatic.
“Gage would make a terrible husband,” a new voice put in. It was Tess Quincy, the older sister of Griffin and Gage. “He’s restless and selfish and likely doesn’t wash his clothes often enough.”
“Gee, thanks, Tessie,” Gage replied, and lifted his arm, pretending to sniff at the sleeve of his shirt. “Love you, too.”
“I’m just saying.” His sister’s eyes went suspiciously bright. “Think about it. Think about if you made some poor woman fall in love with you and then you fell off the face of the earth for over two weeks.”
An awkward silence descended, as Gage had been MIA for just that amount of time, troubling family and friends until he’d resurfaced a few days ago.
“You know communication is spotty where I was, Tessie,” he said, a new tension in his voice.
“Well, Griffin was very concerned. His twin sense was tingling.”
“He’s always been a worrywart.” Gage’s smile looked forced. “I’m here, aren’t I? Safe and sound.”
Skye couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She’d had the same sense that something was wrong when she’d gone too long between letters from him. Her apprehension hadn’t eased until Griffin let her know that Gage had checked in by phone—though she’d never in a million years expected him to show up at the cove. “But you’re late. Fenton Hardy was scheduled to arrive at the first of the month.”
This time it was Gage who didn’t seem to want to look at her. “Travel plans changed. Now, can someone tell me more about this upcoming wedding? I’m still having a hard time buying that anyone wants a lifetime with my brother.”
The atmosphere lightened considerably after that. Food was consumed. Liquor flowed.
At Skye’s side, Polly released a pensive sigh.
She glanced over at the other woman. “Okay, Pol?”
“Oh, I’m good,” she said, straightening in her seat. A burst of laughter from the head of the table drew their attention in that direction. “Like I said,” Polly reiterated, her gaze resting on Gage, “really, really gorgeous.”
Skye allowed herself a moment to study him. “Yeah.” She took in his rumpled black hair and tanned complexion. His cheekbones were chiseled, his jaw firm and beneath two dark slashes of brow were his incredible eyes. His beard was heavy enough that he had noticeable after-five stubble that only served to draw attention to his mobile mouth and white grin.
“No wonder you broke up with Dalton,” Polly said.
Startled, Skye jerked her head toward her friend. “I didn’t break up with Dalton because of Gage.” She didn’t want to think about why she’d broken up with Dalton. Crossing one leg tightly over the other, she rubbed at her upper arms with her palms.
A husky male laugh drew her attention back to the head of the table where Gage was now engaged in flirtatious banter with their waitress, Tina. As Skye watched, the server toyed with the name tag pinned to her blouse, drawing attention to cleavage she could swear hadn’t been on display when she’d ordered her swordfish and steamed vegetables. Clearly Tina had made a wardrobe adjustment for the man of honor’s benefit.
“See?” she told Polly. “That’s the kind of woman Gage finds appealing.”
Her friend glanced over. “What kind of woman is that?”
Skye made a vague gesture with her hand. The kind who can bear to show some skin.
“You’re twelve times more beautiful than that hussy.”
“I wasn’t fishing for compliments,” Skye said, grimacing.
“I’m not giving any,” Polly said. “Just the facts, ma’am. But if you want an opinion, I suggest you ditch the boy-wear and play with makeup again. I know you have pretty clothes in your closet. I remember when lipstick and mascara still mattered to you.”
Skye did, too, but now peace of mind mattered more. Though it was true that baggy sweatshirts and medicated lip balm hadn’t exactly brought that about. Head down, she ran her fingertip around and around the edge of her water glass.
“Want to dance?” came a voice, close to her ear.
Skye’s head popped up, her eyes widening at Gage’s hovering form. He wanted to dance? He wanted to dance with her? It was then she noticed that the sun had set, leaving the sky a fading orange. The tiki torches plunged in the sand at the corners of the deck were flaming now, and the atmosphere at Captain Crow’s was starting to pump. Customers were two-deep at the bar. People were moving about the small parquet dance area to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Griffin and Jane were out there, wrapped in each other’s arms. Tess was dragging her husband, David, in their direction, though he was laughing and protesting at the same time.
“Dance?” Gage said again.
He’d probably been sitting too long, Skye thought. He’d always been on the go as a kid and there was good reason his sister labeled him “restless.” She knew for a fact that he only slept six hours a night—one of the personal details he’d shared in his letters.
An amused glint entered Gage’s blue eyes as she continued to hesitate. “Am I speaking the wrong language?”
“You’re asking the wrong girl,” Skye said. “Polly will do it.”
“What?” Polly looked up from the phone cradled in her palms, her thumbs poised over the touch screen. “He didn’t ask me.”
“You like to dance.”
“I’m texting with Teague.” She shook her head. “He’s having an emotional emergency.”
Skye glanced up at Gage again. “Teague White. Remember him? He spent summers here, too.”
He blinked. “Tea— No! Tee-Wee White?”
“Not so tee-wee anymore,” Polly muttered, her thumbs tapping away. “More like big fat idiot.”
Not fat, Skye mouthed to Gage.
He laughed, then bent to grip her elbow and tug her to her feet in one quick move. “Let’s dance, Skye.”
Freezing, she stared at the large, masculine hand circling her cotton-knit-covered arm. Her common sense warred with her fight-or-flight response. Don’t bolt, she told herself. Or punch him. Either option would only bring up embarrassing questions.
“S-sure.” As sure as someone could be who’d broken up with her boyfriend because she’d developed an aversion to being touched.
Before she could think of how to get away from the situation without sacrificing dignity or courtesy, he was towing her toward the other couples moving to the music. One song ended and another began, ukulele notes and the sweet voice of IZ Kamakawiwo’ole singing “White Sandy Beach of Hawai’i” floating through the air like feathers.
Gage released her arm, and, sensing this was her moment, Skye took a big step back. But he grabbed for her hand, reeling her close.
Scattering her thoughts. Honing her senses.
They focused on him, his large, lean frame, and on the nuances of his skin against hers. His fingers were long, his palm hard and calloused, the rough skin scratching the tender hollow at the center of her hand. She didn’t think she was breathing as his other palm settled at her waist, just the lightest of touches over the material.
It wasn’t a close hold, it was almost impersonal, she knew that, but her blood was shooting through her veins like a comet. Anxiety, she thought, as the heat sizzled her nerve endings. It stole her oxygen along with the words that would get her off the dance floor. Mute, she looked up at him.
Gage returned her gaze, his expression enigmatic but his amazing eyes bright with… Skye didn’t know what. He gave her hand a small squeeze. It felt…reassuring.
Maybe. She was so messed up, she’d been so messed up for months that her brain was unable to interpret normal signals. Behind her eyes came the hot prick of tears. Another flush rose up her neck as she imagined the humiliation of bursting into sobs. Keep it together, she thought, desperate not to look the fool in front of this beautiful man.
He blew out a little sigh as he moved them to the slow beat of the song. His body didn’t brush hers, yet she couldn’t help being aware of the breadth of his chest and the lean strength of his arms and legs. “Dinner was excellent,” he said. “Nothing better than a heaping serving of beach fries along with sixteen ounces of aged beef.”
Skye redirected her gaze to the safer vicinity of his heavy shoulder and told herself to try to relax. “You missed American food.”
“I’ve been dreaming of rare steak for months.”
“No.” She shook her head. “You don’t like your meat bloody.”
“Oh, God, did I confess that to you?” he said, his tone aghast.
“You did.” She felt a little smile break through her tension.
“What’ll it take for you to keep that to yourself?” he demanded. “In most circles it’s considered unmanly to like meat well-done.”
She smiled again. “You’re plenty manly.” Without thinking, she glanced up.
He was grinning, his expression amused, but as their gazes held, his smile died away.
Skye felt another surge of that breathless, uncomfortable anxiety, and a rush of goose bumps shivered across her skin.
The song ended. Gage dropped his hands. The loss of contact didn’t calm her jangling nerves and they continued to stand on the dance floor, staring at each other.
A long moment passed, and then Gage shook his head with a wry laugh. “I suppose it’s past time to regret that you know so many of my secrets.”
Skye didn’t answer either way, though she understood his concern. To her mind, it was imperative he stay ignorant of hers.