Excerpt from The One I Love
Book #4 of the Halo Island Series
The windshield wipers barely kept up with the steady downpour. Emmy Logan slowed to a crawl and gripped the wheel of her aging sedan, which was harder to steer with the U-Haul trailer behind it. Two-lane Treeline Road was all but deserted, and if not for the houses peeking through the woods on either side, a person could easily think she was alone here. Dark and gloomy as it was, today, January third, was the start of a new year and a new life.
“Isn’t Halo Island beautiful?” she asked, casting an anxious glance at her eleven-year-old son.
Jesse shrugged his narrow shoulders. “It’s raining and it’s cold and there aren’t any stores.”
“We’re in the Pacific Northwest. It’s supposed to rain in January. Remember, this is a small town of less than two thousand people—nothing like Oakland. Most of the shops are downtown, which isn’t far from here. Once we’re settled in, I’ll take you.”
The rural setting was one reason Emmy had chosen Halo Island. She’d first visited in November to interview for a librarian position and had instantly fallen in love with the place and its friendly people.
More important, the town was worlds away from Tyrell Barker, leader of the Street Kings, the neighborhood gang that had courted her young fatherless son. Since Tyrell and his teenage thug buddies had befriended Jesse, her son had grown hostile and difficult to control. His grades suffered, and he was frequently called to the principal’s office. Emmy tried cajoling, threats, and even bribery to get him to behave, but nothing worked.
The final frightening straw was the gun Tyrell had loaned Jesse. Emmy had had no idea until after Jesse gave it back, and she’d only found out because she’d eavesdropped on one of her son’s phone conversations. After that, the only choice was to move. Here on Halo Island, she hoped her son would quickly forget the gang, make friends with decent kids, and get back on track.
Jesse yawned, and small wonder. Driving almost nine hundred miles from Oakland to Anacortes, then waiting for and catching the ferry to Halo Island—a forty-five-minute trip—made for a long two days. They hadn’t even celebrated the new year.
“Are we there yet?” he asked.
“According to Google Maps, we are. Beach Cove Way—our street—should be somewhere along here on the left side of the road.” No sooner had she replied than the voice of Google Maps indicated the turn a quarter mile ahead.
Jesse squinted through the windshield, then nodded at a green road sign several yards away. “That must be it.”
Emmy tapped the brakes. A moment later she could read the sign, which had a painted white gull hanging beneath it. Beach Cove Way. “You’re so good at finding things. I don’t know what I’d do without your help.”
“That’s what Map Quest is for,” he mumbled, but he brightened up.
Signaling, Emmy turned down the narrow, winding road. Among the fir trees were several charming cottages. According to their landlords, the Rutherfords, most of the houses on the street were vacant until the summer tourist season. The Rutherfords and now Emmy and Jesse were the only people living here.
As they rounded a bend seconds later they glimpsed the ocean between the trees. Finally, near the end of the cul-de-sac, they found their cottage.
“There it is, our new home.” Emmy pulled into the short gravel driveway and cut the engine. With the rain falling fast and furious, they were sure to get drenched. “Let’s sit here a minute and see if the storm lets up,” she said.
As the downpour thundered on the car roof, her son silently took in the neat white cottage, the small yard, and the beach and ocean beyond.
“What do you think?” she prodded.
“It’s okay, I guess, but I’d rather be in Oakland with my homies.”
Gang members hardly counted as friends, but Emmy refrained from saying so. She’d only upset Jesse, and she was determined to do everything possible to make this transition pleasant. “I miss my friends too,” she said. “But I’m going to make new ones. So will you.”
“Not if I don’t want to.” Jess crossed his arms and compressed his lips. “The only people I need are back in Oakland. I want to go home.”
“That life is behind us,” she said firmly. “Halo Island is our home. We’re practically on the beach. I think that’s pretty special.”
“For a vacation, maybe. I don’t want to live here.”
“But I have a wonderful job with the Halo Island Library. Things aren’t as expensive here as they are in Oakland, so we won’t have to worry so much about money. That means when you need something, I’ll probably be able to get it for you.” She’d still be careful, though. The move had drained most of her savings.
“That’s good,” Jesse said, but Emmy could tell something was bothering him.
“What is it?”
“What if my dad wants to find me?”
The yearning look on his face about broke her heart. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, Jesse. He’s been gone six whole years now, and we haven’t heard from him once.”
“But what if he changes his mind?”
“He knows how to get hold of Grandma or Grandpa. They both have our address. But don’t get your hopes up.”
“I hate him anyway.”
Emmy didn’t like Chas much, either. She wondered what she’d ever seen in her former husband. He’d married her because she was pregnant—a big mistake. From the start, he’d cheated on her. Determined to make the home she’d always dreamed of with a loving husband at her side, she’d doggedly stuck with him.
Couple’s counseling had helped for a few years. But Chas was a restless soul who believed he was meant to roam the world without cares or concerns. Certainly he’d never wanted marriage or children.
In a single afternoon he filed for divorce, cleaned out their bank account and disappeared. Leaving her basically penniless, with a five-year-old son to support. An attorney had handled all correspondence, and Emmy hadn’t heard from Chas since. The child support he owed was staggering, and his refusal to contact Jess even more devastating. But she’d already wasted too much time cursing her ex-husband.
For a brief period after the divorce, battered but still clinging to her dreams of a loving spouse, she’d dated a few men, never bringing anyone home. That way if nothing came of the date, Jesse wouldn’t get attached. Nothing ever did, and after a year of dead-end dinners and movies, she’d stopped trying. She no longer believed in happily ever after. Now her focus centered on her son and his well-being. Jesse and work filled her life, and that was enough.
As the storm relentlessly pounded the car, she buttoned her coat. “Doesn’t sound as if the rain will stop anytime soon, and I’m dying to see our house.” She pulled up her hood and opened her door. “Zip your jacket, and let’s make a run for the Rutherfords’ and pick up our key.” Emmy had never met the couple, only spoken with them on the phone, but she knew they lived just across the street.
As she and Jesse sprinted through the wet brown grass, he actually giggled. A bubbling sound that had Emmy smiling despite the weather.
The Rutherfords’ house was about twice the size of the cottage, and beautiful. Standing on their huge covered porch, Emmy wiped her feet on the mat. Jesse did the same.
She brushed at her wet face, pulled off her hood and took a deep breath. “Just smell the ocean!”
Jess sniffed. She rang the doorbell. Moments later the door opened. A plump sixty-something woman in a sweater and flowered skirt greeted them with a warm smile.
“You must be Emmy and Jesse. I’m Melinda Rutherford. Welcome to Halo Island and the hardest rain I’ve seen in months. Come in. You’ll have to excuse the mess—we’re about to have our kitchen remodeled.”
As they stepped into a large cluttered living room, a graying Burl Ives of a man in a flannel shirt, suspenders, and an expression that matched his wife’s, saluted. “I’m Tom Rutherford. Glad you finally made it. Looks as if you got a little wet. Don’t worry, by late April the rain will stop till October or so. Until then, prepare to grow webbed feet.” He winked at Jesse. “How old are you, son?”
“That’s what? Fifth grade?”
Jesse nodded. Monday he started at Halo Island School, which went from kindergarten through high school.
“You’ll be in Mrs. Hatcher’s class. She’s real nice. A good teacher—and pretty too. You’ll like her.”
“She impressed me when we spoke on the phone,” Emmy said. She’d know more when she met the woman in person Tuesday afternoon. She tipped her chin Jesse’s way. “It’s great to hear all those positive things about your teacher, huh?”
Her son nodded, his eyes wide as he took in the kitchen table and stacked chairs. Dishes, cookbooks, small appliances, and other cookware were piled on every available surface.
“I’m afraid it’ll be like this for the next six weeks,” Melinda said. “That’s how long this renovation should take.”
“Unless there are unexpected problems.” Tom hooked his thumbs around his suspenders. “I’m guessing more like two or three months.”
“Mac’s leaving town. He already bought his plane ticket, remember? He’ll be done on time.”
“Mac’s our contractor,” Tom explained. “Once he finishes with us he’ll travel Europe for a few months. Come summer, he’s off to college in Seattle.”
Mac sounded young to be tackling such a huge project, Emmy thought.
“We’re enlarging the room by several feet, which will cut into the backyard,” Melinda said. “Since our kids are grown and living off the island, we don’t need all that grass anyway. I love to cook—we’re getting top-of-the-line appliances and a roomy breakfast nook.” She rubbed her hands together. “When the place is finished, we’ll have you over for dinner.”
“That’d be lovely.” The friendly couple were the answer to Emmy’s prayers. She envisioned growing close, the Rutherfords becoming surrogate grandparents to Jesse. Emmy’s parents, long divorced, rarely visited, and Chas’s were both dead. “In the meantime, once I’m settled, I’ll have you over.”
Tom nodded. “We’d appreciate that.” At the sound of an engine, audible despite the closed windows, he glanced at his watch. “There’s Mac now. He starts work Monday and wants to review the final plans.”
“We’ll be on our way then,” Emmy said. “If you’ll just give us the key…”
“Got that right here.” Tom extracted the key from his pocket and handed it to her. “I’ll be over later to help you move your things into the house.”
As the cottage came mostly furnished, there wasn’t that much to unload—suitcases, boxes, framed pictures, Jesse’s posters, and a few small pieces of furniture. Used to doing things for herself, Emmy shook her head. “We don’t have anything especially heavy. We’ll manage.”
“Independent sort, aren’t you? If you change your mind, let me know.”
“You may as well stay and meet Mac,” Melinda said. “He’ll be in and out every day for the next six weeks, and you’re sure to run into each other.”
Seconds later a firm rap sounded on the door.
The man who stepped through it was no teenage boy. He looked about Emmy’s age—thirty. He was tall and solid with a broad forehead, straight nose, and strong jaw, and dark, curly hair in need of a trim. He wore loose, faded jeans, a black T-shirt, and a denim jacket that hugged his broad shoulders.
In a word, gorgeous.
“Mac Struthers, meet our new tenant, Emmy Logan, and her son, Jesse.”
Jesse nodded, and though he said nothing, Emmy could tell he was impressed. Small wonder. It wasn’t every day a person met a man with such presence.
Holding a black leather portfolio, the contractor turned to Emmy, his gaze flicking over her. “Pleasure.”
She managed a cool smile, at odds with her fluttery nerves. “Hello.”
He towered over her. His grip was firm and warm. And his vividly blue eyes… Cheeks heating, Emmy glanced away.
Next, Mac extended his arm to her son. “Nice to meet you, Jesse.”
Looking as if he very much wanted to be a man, Jesse solemnly shook hands. “You too, Mr. Struthers.”
“Mr. Struthers was my father.” The contractor’s mouth quirked. “Everyone calls me Mac.
Utterly charmed, and confused at this man’s effect on her, Emmy placed her hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Time for us to start moving in. It was nice meeting you all. Goodbye.”
By the time Mac left the Rutherfords’ place an hour later, the rain had stopped. Pausing on the porch with only the sound of water dripping from the trees filling the crisp, silent air, he jotted down a few final notes on things to do between now and Monday morning. Pick up supplies and load the van with—
A woman’s laugh, as pretty and light as butterfly wings, interrupted his thoughts. Followed by a boy’s chuckle. The sounds were contagious and Mac smiled. The porch faced the water, and fir trees blocked any direct view of the woman and boy, but if he angled his head and peered through the branches he could see them without being spotted.
He watched Emmy heft a box from the U-Haul, hand it to Jesse, then grab another for herself.
She was a looker, and Mac looked his fill. Her light brown straight hair hung an inch or so shy of her shoulders and suited her pretty features. Her short winter jacket and snug jeans showed off long, slender legs and a round backside. Mac imagined her in tight skimpy shorts. Better yet, a lacy thong… His body stirred. Then he caught himself and frowned.
A single mom with a young son? Count him out. He’d already raised kids—his twin brothers. They’d been ten, almost the same age as Jesse was now, when their parents had died in a car crash. Mac had been all of eighteen, about to graduate from high school, with big plans to travel through Europe, then head for college and a degree in architecture. But after the accident, everything changed.
While his friends lazed away their post-high-school-graduation summer, then started college, pledged fraternities, and dated cute coeds, Mac had looked after his brothers, worked on a construction crew, and kept house. Not easy, but he’d seen Ian and Brian through eight years of school.
By the time they finished high school, he’d started his own home-remodeling business. Money earned from that, plus proceeds from the sale of their parents’ house, had covered the twins’ college education. Summers they worked for him, earning a paycheck and learning the business. This past December they’d both graduated. Mac was proud as hell of them.
And ready to realize his own ambitions. Finally, at the ripe old age of thirty, it was his turn. As soon as he finished the Rutherford kitchen, he planned to travel around Europe for a few months. With no set agenda and no responsibilities, he could go wherever he wanted, as carefree as he’d always dreamed of being.
He’d fly back in time for summer quarter at the University of Washington. He wanted the degree, which his parents had urged him to earn, and the kind of interaction you could only get in a classroom. He meant to get a bachelor degree in construction management. By doubling up on credits and taking classes year-round, he figured he’d finish in just under three years. While he was gone, his brothers would run the company and finance his education, just as he’d done for them.
This time, nothing short of death would stop him. Nothing.
“I’m tired,” he heard Jesse say.
“I know,” his mother replied. “Let’s hurry and bring in the rest of the boxes before the rain starts again. Then we’ll return the U-Haul—if we get it back before five, we save money—pick up something for dinner, and relax.”
“I gonna relax now.”
“There isn’t that much left to do. If we work together, we’ll finish in no time. Then you can goof off.”
The boy crossed his arms and shook his head.
“Please? Just a little more?”
“Uh-uh. I’m quitting now.”
“Come on, Jess, I really need your help.”
“No. N. O.”
Mac eyed the defiant boy, who clearly needed a firm hand. Which, judging by his mother’s pleading voice and expression, was something she didn’t understand.
“What’ll it take to change your mind?” she asked in a soft voice. “Ice cream? A new T-shirt?”
The kid snorted and shook his head. “You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do. You can’t make me do anything.” His chin jutted out in challenge. “I hate it here. I want to move back home to Oakland, and my friends.”
A loud breath huffed from Emmy’s lips, as if she was trying to hold on to her temper. “We’ve already discussed this numerous times. We’re not going back. This is our home now.”
“Not mine. I never wanted to move, and I’ll never like it here. I. Want. To. Go. Back,” Jesse repeated, emphasizing every word.
“If you just give Halo Island a chance, I know—”
“You don’t know. This place is lame and so are you. I hate you!” He spit out the words. “You can just… go to hell.”
Looking shocked and hurt, Emmy recoiled. “What did you say?”
“I said, I hate you and go to hell.”
The kid had just stepped over the line. Without stopping to think, Mac stalked toward him and his mother.