Authors: Lily Everett
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
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Thank you for helping me find this book’s happy ending. And, of course, for your son—my own, personal happily ever after.
The Sanctuary Island series wouldn’t exist without my editor, Rose Hilliard. From helping me come up with the original idea to pushing me to dig deep in revisions, you inspired, encouraged, and supported me. I can’t imagine a better editor.
I’m also blessed to have the amazing, savvy Deidre Knight on my team! D, your faith in my work and your steadfast friendship have meant the world to me. I love you.
I also love my friends and sisters-in-writing, Roxanne St. Claire and Kristen Painter, without whose advice, laughter, sympathy, and butt-kicking, I would be nothing. Thanks, girls! In fact, a big thank you to the entire Blonde Mafia, especially Lara Santiago and Kresley Cole, for always telling it straight and never holding back. You rock!
Another pair of women to whom I owe my sanity are Ana Farrish and Tracie Stewart. My daily writing buddies, you keep me on track, help unstick me, and enable my perfume habit. You’re the biggest reason I love our local Austin RWA chapter. Also in the sanity-saving category are the ladies of WriteChat—too many of you to name, but you know who you are! Y’all are the best.
My beta reader, Bria Quinlan, went above and beyond on this book. I feel so lucky to have found you, and that you share your time and experiences with me. My characters wouldn’t be who they are without you.
I would be remiss not to personally thank the brilliant bestselling authors Debbie Macomber, Susan Wiggs, Lori Wilde, and Bella Andre for taking the time out of their incredibly busy lives to read this book by an unknown author, and give a quote. I’m honored to have your names on my cover. And a big, special thanks for the ever-gorgeous and witty Sarah MacLean, for all your help!
Last but certainly not least, I must thank my parents for instilling a love of reading and writing in me, and always encouraging me to stretch my imagination and reach for the stars. Thanks to my sister, Baby Horse, and the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Center for helping keep it real.
And of course, my darling husband, Nick. You always tell me the truth, even when you think I’m making a mistake—and then you throw your full support behind me, no matter what. I believe because you believe in me. There is no one on earth I’d rather share my life with. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
If one more thing messed with Ella Preston’s schedule, she was going to scream.
Tightening her fist around her cell phone—the cell phone which was currently an expensive, high-tech hunk of useless plastic, due to the lack of signal out here in the boonies of southeastern Virginia—Ella put on her best negotiator smile for the white-haired lady behind the counter.
late is the Sanctuary Island ferryboat?” Ella asked sweetly.
“Aren’t you cute?” the lady said, putting another placid stitch in the square of embroidery she’d spread out over the ticket counter. “Don’t worry yourself. The ferry’ll get here when it gets here.”
That’s not an answer
. She smiled again and thanked the lady for her help before turning to stare out at the dark green-gray of the water splashing against the concrete pier. If she squinted, she could see a long, narrow smudge against the horizon.
For the hundredth time since embarking on this trip, Ella wondered who the hell would choose to move to a remote island so tiny it didn’t even have a causeway connecting it to the mainland.
The only way on or off Sanctuary Island was by ferry. And when said ferry finally chugged up to the dock at the edge of Winter Harbor, Virginia, more than twenty minutes later than the printed schedule indicated, the sight of its peeling paint and barnacle-covered hull didn’t exactly fill Ella with joy.
Neither did the grizzled, salty-looking older gentleman in the shiny bowling shirt with
stitched across the left breast, who sucked on an unlit pipe as he opened the gate into the ferry’s lower level.
Ella gripped the wheel of her rented sedan and inched it over the rusty, pitted ramp leading into the cavelike bowels of the boat, suddenly glad she’d told her sister to get out and walk up the passenger ramp.
She honestly wasn’t sure the vehicle ramp could take the combined weight of herself, the beige four-door, and one seriously pregnant Merry Preston.
She followed the pickup truck ahead of her and wedged into the last space on the lower level, right beside the wall. Before she’d even managed to turn the car off, the ferryboat engine came to life with a shuddering roar.
Ella cracked her door, careful not to scratch the rental car’s paint on the metal hull of the boat. Sucking in her stomach, she squeezed out of the car just as the ferry lurched into motion. She fought down a swirl of nausea, nerves, and dread by repeating her mantra.
You are in control of your reactions. No one and nothing can hurt you unless you allow it.
The mantra was slightly less reassuring than usual, but then Ella usually took care not to put herself in situations this stressful. She was only here now because of her sister.
This is all for Merry,
she reminded herself. Maybe it was the pregnancy, maybe it was the messy end of yet another relationship Ella had warned her from the get-go was doomed to failure, but Merry was determined to visit Sanctuary Island and reconnect with the mother they hadn’t seen since their parents’ long-overdue divorce fifteen years ago.
Personally, Ella could think of plenty of things she’d rather do than plan a trip to some godforsaken island completely cut off from civilization, to visit a woman who’d cared more about her next drink than fighting to keep custody of her young daughters—but if Merry was going, then so was Ella.
The past was the past, and Ella was completely over it. She’d make sure Merry got over this when it inevitably imploded, too.
Protecting her reckless, impulsive baby sister while Merry barreled forward with one of her harebrained ideas was an ingrained, lifelong habit.
The past was the past—but some things never changed.
Clutching the scarred, pitted wooden railing, Ella climbed the stairs to the upper deck. After the stale, gasoline-drenched air of the parking deck, the first breath of fresh, salt-sparkling ocean breeze buoyed her spirits.
Ella paused at the top of the staircase and inhaled deeply, lifting her face to catch a thin ray of chill spring sunlight.
“Ella! Over here!”
Ella opened her eyes to see her sister waving at her with both arms, her roundly pregnant bulk propped against the rail on the far side of the boat.
“Hold on,” Ella instructed as the ferry jounced over the choppy waters of the Atlantic. “I don’t know where the life preservers are if you go pitching over the side.”
Merry flapped one dismissive hand, but obediently gripped the railing by her hip. “Pssh. There’s no flotation device in the world big enough to fit me these days. Besides, you know you’d jump in after me and tow me to safety.”
Ella had to acknowledge that this was probably true, even though she wasn’t a strong swimmer. But if Merry went overboard, Ella would, too. That was the way it had always been.
“Let’s skip it, huh?” Ella reached her sister and curled an arm around Merry’s shoulders, bracing them both. “A near-death-by-drowning incident would really throw off my schedule.”
“It’s a vacation, Ella.” Merry sighed in the long-suffering way she’d perfected as a teenager. “You’re not supposed to have a schedule.”
“The unscheduled life is not worth living,” Ella quipped, but she kind of meant it. In her experience, surprises were vastly overrated. Let other people expect the unexpected—Ella would take boring predictability any day of the week.
They stared out over the water at the strip of tree-lined shore in the distance.
Their mother had moved to Sanctuary Island after her husband walked out and took their daughters with him. Ella and Merry had never seen the island in person, only in the pictures Jo Ellen included in the letters she’d sent them every week since she got out of rehab.
Ella shivered, a chill racing over her skin.
Just the wind,
she told herself, and discreetly spat out one of Merry’s loose curls. Ella’s hair was pulled back into a sensible knot, which the wind was doing its best to unravel.
Beneath Ella’s sheltering arm, Merry felt small, almost fragile. Delicate, in spite of the pumpkin-sized bulge of her belly stretching out her lipstick-red T-shirt.
The need to be strong for her sister stiffened Ella’s spine. There, that was much better than contemplating the uncertainty ahead. Whatever happened with Jo Ellen, the number-one priority for this particular plan was that Ella would be there for Merry.
Sweet, sunny, all-too-trusting Merry, who squirmed in a familiar, restless dance, faux-leather leggings squeaking.
“Again?” Ella pitched her voice to be heard over the breeze and the incessant clanking of the engine. “Really?”
“You try standing around with a watermelon constantly pressing down on your bladder, then come talk to me.”
“No, thanks.” Ella tried, but she couldn’t completely erase the fervor from her voice. Not that she never wanted to have kids, but to be in Merry’s situation? Low-level job, no savings, abandoned by the baby’s father—who’d been as big a loser as Merry had ever dated, so no real loss there.
With an effort, Ella downgraded from a ferocious frown to a subtle tightening of her lips, but when she glanced over at her sister, Ella realized she could’ve saved herself the trouble.
Plucking absently at the zipper of the jacket that wouldn’t quite close over her pregnant belly, Merry had zero attention for anything but the hazy outline of the island town on the horizon.
“I thought it would be warm here,” Merry said, a little wistfully, as she wrapped green-glitter-polished fingers around the deck railing and strained up onto her toes to peer over it into the white-foamed water below.
Subtly maneuvering both of them a few cautious inches back from the edge, Ella said, “It’s only April—spring is just getting started. According to my research, the weather’s supposedly fairly variable until June or so. Some warm days, highs up in the seventies, but lots of storms, too.”
Storms like the one that had kept this old bucket of a ferry from running last night, and forced Ella and Merry to spend an unscheduled night at the airport Hilton.
Merry wandered over to the bench seat in the center of the deck and lowered herself down carefully.
The ferry hit a swell that made it pitch alarmingly, and Ella staggered a few steps before managing to grab onto the bench and get herself seated.
Okay, seriously. Is this thing even seaworthy?
She’d been annoyed at the extra expense of the hotel room last night—her nest egg was only going to take them so far, and considering how things were going at work, she might soon need to stretch her savings even further—but now that the single thing between Merry and the frigid water of the Atlantic Ocean was this ancient, rusted-out tin can, Ella was glad whoever ran it had the sense to shut it down in bad weather.
If the ride was this bumpy on a clear morning, she’d hate to see it during a storm.
“It’s got to be warmer here than in D.C., at least.” Merry sighed, petting unconsciously at her abdomen.
Ella resisted the urge to point out that they’d had record-breaking high temperatures in Washington this winter.
She knew Merry wasn’t talking about the temperature.