Cover of the new book "Love Me Tender"

Fly Away With Me

 

 

Excerpt from Fly Away With Me

Chapter 1

When Eden Blaine tugged her wheeled carry-on bag off the sloped ramp from the seaplane terminal onto the wooden dock, she almost lost her balance. The surface beneath her feet looked flat, but it moved gently, disconcertingly.

Thank heavens I left my lawyer suit and heels in Ottawa. Her jeans and loafers were much better suited to this venue, even though Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre nestled along the shore of a huge, cosmopolitan city.

For a moment, she forgot all about being rushed and frazzled. The view compelled her to stop and stare. On this sunny, early June afternoon, the harbor spread out before her in a spectacular panorama. Boats bustling along, green swaths of parkland, a cruise ship terminal, the white sails of Canada Place, commercial docks, and a whole other city on the far shore, sheltering under dramatic mountains: There was too much to take in. She breathed deeply, expecting to fill her lungs with the fresh tang of ocean air, but a nose-wrinkling underlay of fuel odor reminded her why she was here, standing on this narrow, unstable dock in the middle of all this amazing scenery. The scent, the motion, and the anticipation of the upcoming flight combined to make her jittery with nerves.

Eden hadn’t done much flying but had occasionally taken a smallish jet from Ottawa to Toronto or Montreal. Compared to what she’d thought of as smallish, the seaplanes tied up to the dock were minuscule. Add to that the fact that she’d never taken off from or landed on water…

Her hand rose to her mouth and her teeth closed on a fingernail. Before she could gnaw on it, she forced her hand down and curled her fingers around the handle of the briefcase that hung over one shoulder along with her purse. Nana had broken her of the nail-biting habit when she was in fourth grade, saying that not only was it unattractive and unhygienic but it was a sure giveaway of anxiety, insecurity, and lack of control. None of which were qualities Eden wanted to reveal to the outside world.

This was going to be an adventure, and adventure was definitely not her middle name. Still, she’d face any peril if she could restore her mom’s once-bright spirit. The seaplane flight would get her to Destiny Island a day earlier than the ferry would have, and with only a week off work to find her mother’s long-lost sister, every hour was important. Her mom, fragile after a double mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, was counting on her. Eden’s parents were wonderful and she never, ever let them down.

Eden refused to let herself think for one moment that her quest might end in learning that her aunt, Lucy, was dead.

Squaring her shoulders, she tugged her wheelie along the dock toward the plane with the Blue Moon Air logo. She had to admit it looked perky with its blue-and-white paint shining in the sunlight, the wings mounted from the top of the cabin, and the pontoons holding it atop the deep, bluish-green ocean. The logo was appealing too: a blue moon with a white plane flying across it.

Half a dozen people clustered beside the plane: three sixtyish men in outdoorsy clothes, two women a decade or two younger in jeans and hoodies, and a lean but broad-shouldered guy in jeans and a blue T-shirt. His back was to her as he hoisted luggage onto the plane. One of the women spotted Eden, raised a hand in a tentative wave, and said something to the others.

The broad-shouldered guy turned, straightening, and she felt a physical sensation akin to the one she’d experienced when she first saw the horrendous taxi lineup at Vancouver International Airport. After her flight from Ottawa had been late arriving.

Well, not exactly akin. At the airport, the legs-stopping-moving-of-their-own-accord, air-leaving-her-lungs-in-a-whoosh sensation had been nasty, whereas this one was quite pleasant.

As she forced her legs onward, she took a visual inventory. Lean and nicely muscled; narrow hips and long legs to complement those broad shoulders. Hair so dark a brown it was almost black, longish and shaggy rather than styled. Medium brown skin. Aviator sunglasses hiding his eyes, making it difficult to assess his age, though she guessed it was close to her own twenty-nine. Ruggedly handsome features lit by a smile as he strode to meet her.

That smile warmed her in a way that made her feel special. And that was silly, because of course he merely was relieved that she’d finally shown up and the flight could depart.

“I’m Aaron Gabriel, Blue Moon Air pilot. And you’d be Eden Blaine.” He reached for the long handle of her wheelie.

As he shoved the handle down and hefted the bag, she confirmed, “Yes, I would be. I’m so sorry for the delay.” She hated being late, hated inconveniencing people. When she’d phoned Blue Moon Air from the airport taxi lineup, she’d said she wouldn’t make the flight on time and asked if she could reschedule for the next morning. To her astonishment and delight, the man who’d answered had said they’d hold the flight for her.

“Ah, well, airlines,” the pilot now said in a joking tone. “Never can rely on them being on time.”

What could she possibly say to that? She firmly believed in adhering to schedules, yet the airline’s flexibility had worked to her benefit today. Rather than respond, she kept quiet as she followed him to the plane.

As he loaded her carry-on into the cargo hold, she apologized to the other passengers, who all murmured variations of “No problem.”

Aaron took her briefcase from her and stowed it, too, but let her keep her purse. “Climb aboard,” he told her.

“But what about everyone else?” No one else had boarded.

“We have a boarding order. Your seat’s first. Hop in.” He offered her his hand.

Eyeing the dock, which heaved rhythmically up and down, the plane, which also bobbed up and down but to a different beat, and the insubstantial three-step metal ladder that connected the two, she gratefully put her hand into his.

Warm, firm, secure. Touching him reminded her of just how wonderful male-female contact could be. She’d missed that since she and Ray had ended their four-year relationship. In fact, she didn’t remember Ray’s hands ever feeling this good. He had city hands, well-groomed but not supermasculine. Hands that were efficient in operating a computer, handling legal files, and bringing her to orgasm. Competent, yet not exactly virile.

And what was she doing, thinking about sex? Embarrassed, she clambered up the ladder and then let go of Aaron’s hand. “Where do I sit?”

“Up front, right-hand seat.”

“But that’s the copilot’s seat.”

“Don’t need a copilot on a plane this size. That’s a passenger seat.”

No copilot? Aaron Gabriel looked entirely healthy, but anyone could have a stroke, a heart attack, or an aneurysm.

He shoved his sunglasses atop his head and winked. “Don’t worry. I’m one hundred percent fit.” His gaze rested on her for a long moment, and there was a spark in his long-lashed, bluish-gray eyes that hinted at flirtation.

That spark sent a corresponding tingle rippling through her blood, almost strong enough to combat her jittery nerves. She’d never been a highly sensual woman, so it was unsettling to feel this purely female awareness of a sexy man. She cleared her throat. “I’m glad to hear that.” Her voice came out in lawyer mode, too formal for the situation. Giving herself an internal headshake, she scrambled into the right front seat and fumbled for the seat belt as the other passengers piled in behind her.

Eden liked order and predictability, situations she could control, and this one was anything but that. Taking deep breaths, she thought ruefully that up until a year ago, her life had been happy and uncomplicated. She’d had her family, her terrific job, and Ray, her life mate. Then Nana died, Mom was diagnosed, and, two months ago, Eden and Ray broke up. Now her mom was finally finished with chemo and radiation but still feeling sick and depressed—at least until a week ago, when she’d found an out-of-the-blue clue to her sister Lucy’s disappearance, and nothing would do but for Eden to follow it. Immediately. And so here she was, about to put her life in the hands of the handsome pilot and his perky miniature plane.

Aaron stowed the ladder and shut the boarding hatch from the outside, then stepped onto a float and entered through the door by the pilot’s seat. He gave the passengers a safety briefing that included seat belts, turning off electronic devices, emergency procedures, life preservers, exits, and so on. He advised them to read the safety card in the seat pocket, asked if there were any questions, and then said, “Let’s fly, folks.”

Buckled in, with a headset on, he started the plane’s engine and talked to air traffic control.

Eden concentrated on memorizing the safety card, trying not to imagine crash landings or pilot heart attacks.

Aaron signalled a man on the dock, who untied the ropes. As they motored out into the harbor, the plane bounced over gentle waves. The motion was rather like driving over a heavily rutted road in her little Smart car. Except that the fragile plane was soon going to fling itself into the great blue yonder. She clasped her hands and squeezed them together, another defense against nail-biting.

“We’ll be making three stops this afternoon,” Aaron told the passengers, speaking loudly to make himself heard over the engine noise. “First, we’ll fly up the Sunshine Coast to Texada Island for our Sylvan Retreat couple. Then west to Campbell River to drop off the three fishers. Then south again to Blue Moon Harbor on Destiny Island.”

Eden’s dad had booked the flight and she had assumed it was a direct one from Vancouver to Blue Moon Harbor. Her logical brain suggested that flying north, west, and then south wasn’t the most efficient way to reach Destiny Island, but it didn’t really matter. Her goals for today were to get settled at the Once in a Blue Moon B and B, confirm the rental car she’d reserved for tomorrow morning, and make inquiries of the owners of the B and B.

Normally, Eden planned everything in exquisite detail, but the past week had been crazy. She’d had to organize files and appointments at work so she could leave her assistant in charge and make copious notes for her younger sister Kelsey, who was home from university for the summer and would help Dad care for Mom. There’d been only a moment here and there to prepare for the trip. Her dad had helped, making travel arrangements and using his Internet skills to search for information on the island, but most of what he’d found was tourism-focused. He’d located only two mentions of the old commune, nothing that would help Eden track down a hippie girl named Lucy Nelson who’d come to Destiny Island in 1969. Eden hoped her hosts at the B and B could identify some of the island’s longtime residents, whom she could interview.

The plane increased speed and its nose came up, the floats skimmed the tops of the waves, and then the small craft lifted into the air. Rather than the white-noise drone Eden was used to when flying, she heard a whiny engine roar and a rattling sound. The dashboard—or whatever they called it in a plane—sported a collection of confusing dials and gauges. The huge window in front of her made it impossible to ignore the scarily vast expanse of sky outside. To her right was another window, in a flimsy door. If that door snapped open, the only thing holding her in the plane would be the seat belt. The aircraft seemed so insubstantial and she felt vulnerable, which she hated. She gulped, took more deep breaths, clenched her hands more firmly, and glanced over at Aaron’s comforting solidness and his strong brown hands on the steering yoke.

The man’s been thoroughly trained, he knows what he’s doing, and he must have regular medical exams. The plane’s a commercial craft, owned by a reputable airline, and is inspected regularly. There’s not a single thing to worry about.

“Nervous?” Aaron asked, shooting a pointed look at her tightly clasped hands.

Since her body’d already given her away, she admitted, “Trying not to be,” speaking up to be heard over the noise.

“Relax and enjoy it.” He gave her a smile full of warmth and enthusiasm. “It’s the best thing in the world.”

You must be kidding. But he wasn’t. The sincerity of his tone and body language confirmed that he meant it. As he returned his attention to the plane’s controls, she mulled over his words. To this man, the best thing in the world was flying. He had a job where he experienced joy every day, just as she did. Her work as program counsel for the Butterworth Foundation involved administrative and legal details, which she excelled at and took satisfaction in, but what she truly loved was helping provide funds for worthwhile charities and nonprofits.

Still, as much as she enjoyed her job, the best thing in her world was her family. She loved her mom, her dad, and her younger sister with all her heart. They were the center of her world, her top priority at all times. Idly, she wondered about the handsome pilot beside her. What people were special to him? A wife or girlfriend? Parents? Maybe a son or daughter? Had he considered them when he made that blithe statement about flying being the best thing in the world?

She was overanalyzing. That attribute was useful for a lawyer, but family and friends kept reminding her it wasn’t the most comfortable trait to bring to bear in a personal relationship. Yet her musings had distracted her from her anxiety and she felt more relaxed.

“Lions Gate Bridge,” Aaron announced to the passengers. “Also known as First Narrows. It connects Vancouver’s Stanley Park to West Vancouver and the North Shore.”

The view was a dramatic one of contrasts: the forest green of the park versus the high-rises of the city; the impressive and beautiful man-made span of the bridge versus the untamed ocean below; the industrial loading docks versus the rugged mountains behind. “Ottawa seems awfully”—she searched for the right description—“sedate and old-world in comparison.”

“You’re from Ottawa?” Aaron said. “How about the rest of you?”

“Vancouver,” one of the other women answered. “Even so, the scenery never gets old.”

“We’re from Edmonton,” one of the men said.

Another added, “We came out here for the fishing a few years ago and now it’s an annual thing. There’s something about fishing for salmon on the open ocean that gets into a man’s blood. Not to mention being able to take home fish you caught yourself and lord it over all the Alberta beef-eaters.”

Fishing held no appeal to Eden and she’d had no experience with the ocean. But gazing down at tankers and sailboats gave her some small notion of what an important role the sea played in some people’s lives.

Ever since she’d agreed to undertake this mission for her mother, she’d been focused on practicalities, but now a tingle of excitement quickened her pulse. She was in a new place, a ruggedly scenic setting, and something about the vista of ocean and mountains invigorated her. Adventure might not be her middle name, but it seemed she was on one, and right now it didn’t feel half bad.

Something had drawn Lucy, the aunt Eden had never even known about until a week before, to Destiny Island. What had Lucy experienced there—and what lay in store for Eden?

Chapter 2

Aaron was multitasking. Every sense was alert to the sky and attuned to the de Havilland Beaver, the plane’s nonverbal language more familiar to him than that of any human being in his life, even his complicated, frustrating, and much-loved half sister.

That didn’t stop him from giving his standard tourist spiel, providing his passengers with information about Lighthouse Park, Bowen Island, and the Sunshine Coast. He was also, inevitably, very aware of the slim, brown-haired woman in the seat beside him.

His first impression of Eden Blaine had been twofold: beautiful in a sneaks-up-on-you way and stressed-out. Feeling upset and guilty over arriving late and more than a little terrified about flying in a seaplane. He’d been afraid she’d be a white-knuckle flyer or, even worse, a puker, but instead the magic had captured her. Her body had relaxed and she’d lost that strained expression, gazing bright-eyed at the scenery and joining the other passengers in asking him questions.

It made him happy when passengers related to the allure of flying in this beautiful part of the world. He especially liked it when the passenger was a woman he was attracted to. Eden’s enthusiasm made her even prettier. When she glanced at him, those bright eyes were the amber of dark maple syrup. They went perfectly with the glossy walnut-brown hair that was trying to escape the clasp that held it in a low ponytail. Her complexion was pale and creamy, the opposite of his own skin, darkened by his biological father’s First Nations blood and by many hours spent outdoors. Either Eden had a heavy hand with the sunscreen or she hadn’t been outside much recently.

Her ring finger was bare.

At twenty-eight, Aaron was a sworn bachelor and didn’t figure his views on the subject of commitment would ever change. So he was careful about who he got involved with. He didn’t want to disappoint or hurt a woman who was looking for something more than he’d ever be able to give.

Why was Eden traveling to Destiny Island? As the owner of Blue Moon Air, he reviewed the bookings regularly and knew she was scheduled to fly back in a week’s time. An Ottawa woman wouldn’t likely come to Destiny on holiday by herself, and her blazer, briefcase, and initial stress level conveyed a business-trip aura. What kind of business could occupy her for a week? Destiny was small and relatively undeveloped, which was a big part of its charm. Oh well; he had time to learn more about Eden before the flight ended because she was the final passenger.

“We’re five minutes out from Texada,” he announced. He glanced over his shoulder at the two women who were traveling together. “Have you been to Sylvan Retreat before?”

“Yes,” the older one responded, leaning forward so her voice would carry over the engine noise. “We go two or three times a year. Marg’s a painter and I’m an author, and it’s a wonderful place for recharging our creativity.”

 

 

 

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“Creativity?” one of the fishers said, his tone making it clear he didn’t relate.

“Yes,” the younger of the two women, Marg, said firmly. “In the morning, we do yoga, meditation, and creativity exercises. In the afternoon, we each work on our own projects. In the evening, everyone gathers to share what we’ve done and, more importantly, what we’ve learned.”

“Meditation?” the same fisherman said. “Well, if that’s what turns your crank.”

Not liking the guy’s disparaging tone, Aaron said, “I’ve heard some fishers say that fishing can be kind of a Zen thing. There’s just you, the ocean, the fish.”

The older woman took up his theme. “Really, it’s the possibility of fish. You know they exist in that ocean around you, but will they take your hook? You wait, you’re in the moment but part of something bigger, something timeless. And then it changes in an instant when a fish bites. Nothing else exists but that primal battle. Isn’t that what it’s like?”

“It is,” one of the other fishers responded, sounding surprised. “That’s exactly what it’s like. It can be the most peaceful thing in the world, or the most exciting.”

“It’s not meditation,” the first guy said stubbornly.

“Because real men don’t meditate?” Eden asked in a pseudoinnocent tone.

Everyone but the stubborn fisher chuckled. The guy’s friend said, “She’s got you there, Fred.”

“Real men,” said Marg, “have the self-esteem to not feel threatened by terms like meditation and Zen.”

Aaron agreed, but he didn’t want ill will in his plane. “There’s Sylvan Retreat,” he announced, squinting behind his dark glasses as he flew over the small V-shaped harbor, checking the glittering ocean surface. He noted a powerboat heading out and a pair of kayakers hugging the shore, as well as a tall figure on the dock, waving. “Harold Janks is waiting for us.” The white-haired man and his wife owned the retreat. Aaron had been flying in this region since he was a teen and knew many of the locals.

Choosing his approach, he set the Beaver down to skim the waves, then the plane settled into them with a gentle bump and swish. At the dock, Harold helped him tie up. Aaron assisted his two passengers down the steps to the wharf, where they hugged Harold.

“Thank you for a lovely flight,” the older woman said as Aaron set their bags on the wharf. “We appreciated the information you gave and your willingness to answer questions.”

“Usually,” her friend Marg said, “we feel as if we’re just more baggage in the back of the plane, for all the attention the pilot pays us. Are all Blue Moon Air pilots as personable as you?”

“There’s only me and Jillian flying for Blue Moon.” He raised his sunglasses to wink at the women. “Hate to admit it, but she’s even more personable than me.”

As they laughed and turned away, he untied the mooring lines. Being personable was something he’d had to learn. When Lionel Williams had taught him to fly—an antiestablishment, middle-aged man and a teenaged rebel doing it by themselves without giving a damn for legalities—Aaron had loved flying immediately. Sitting in that cockpit up in the sky, he’d felt like he belonged for the first time in his life. Flying was what he was born to do. Besides, it was daring, a challenge, and it let him escape from real life. Once he’d become comfortable as a pilot, it had become a Zenlike experience, and he had no problem admitting that. He was always alert, yet he and the plane felt like a single being, as much a part of the sky as the soaring gulls.

Years later, after he’d done his formal training and started Blue Moon Air, he’d realized that passengers disturbed that Zenlike feeling. So be it. If they paid him good money and enabled him to make a living doing what he loved, he would be grateful and give them as much as he could in return. Fortunately, as he’d grown up and made a good life for himself, he’d become a happier man. One who didn’t carry resentment, hurt, and anger. It didn’t take all that much effort for a contented guy to be friendly to folks. Especially to folks who had chosen, even if only for a visit, to be in this special corner of the world.

Back in the Beaver, he steered out of the harbor and took off, the light breeze serving as a tail wind. As they gained altitude, he set a course northwest to Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Painter’s Lodge was renowned for salmon fishing; people came from all over the world. “How long are you guys staying at Painter’s?” he asked.

“We booked ten days,” Fred said. “We’ll see how the fishing is. If they’re not biting, we’ll go somewhere else.”

The Zen one said, “We haven’t arranged our flight back because we’re not sure where we’ll be. Okay if we give you a call when we know?”

“You bet. You can tell me about the ones you caught and the ones that got away.”

“Deal,” the man said.

“Last time we were here,” Fred said, “it was in the fall and we fished the Tyee Pool. You know about that? Where there’s no engines and you have to use a rowboat?”

Aaron did know, but Fred was already telling him how he’d caught a forty-five pounder, making it sound like an epic battle. Aaron glanced at Eden, who gave him a hint of an eye roll, and he grinned. Fishers and their tall tales were an everyday experience in these parts.

He was looking forward to dropping the three men and having Eden alone in the cockpit. In the meantime, as he flew across the Strait of Georgia, he saw her gaze out intently, seeming intrigued by the ocean traffic: a couple of white BC Ferries, a tug towing a log boom, tankers and container ships moving from port to port, sailboats with colorful spinnakers unfurled, and powerboats of all shapes and sizes. He guessed this was a new world for the city girl.

When he finally unloaded the men and their luggage, Fred took off along the dock, the Zen one thanked Aaron, and the man who’d never spoken gave a nod of acknowledgment.

When Aaron climbed back into the Beaver, the cockpit felt smaller. Alone with Eden, he was even more aware of her, her presence almost like a soft touch arousing his senses. “First visit to this part of the world?”

She turned to him with a smile. “Yes. I’ve actually never traveled outside southern Ontario and Quebec before, which is embarrassing to admit for a woman who’s almost thirty.”

“I’ve never been outside British Columbia and Washington State, so we can be embarrassed together. So, what brings you all the way over to the West Coast?”

“I’m trying to track a long-lost relative.”

“Wow. Haven’t heard that story before.”

“Do you know much about Destiny Island?”

“I’ve lived there since I was sixteen.”

“Really? I assumed you lived in Vancouver.”

“Nope. Blue Moon Air is based on Destiny. Tell me about this relative. Maybe I can help.”

“Thank you. I really hope you can. It’s very important to me and my family to find her.”

When he glanced her way, he saw she was dead serious. He wanted to bring a smile back to those soft lips. “Tell me about her.”

“She’s my mother’s sister, Lucy Nelson. She came to Destiny Island in 1969 and joined a commune. She was with a boy named Barry. I don’t know his last name.”

“I know there used to be a commune back in hippie days. That was so long ago, no one talks much about it.” He reflected. “The only Nelsons on the island are a married couple in their eighties, and her name’s Jane.”

“No, that wouldn’t be her.” She sighed. “Lucy and Barry may well have split up. She could have married and changed her surname.”

“The only Lucy I can think of is Lucy Smolenski. She’d be, oh, midforties? She probably wasn’t even born in ’69. And I don’t know any guy named Barry on the island.”

“Could Ms. Smolenski be older than that? Mom’s sixty and her sister was—is—five years older. She was seventeen when she ran away from home with her boyfriend and came to Destiny Island.”

Aaron had been two years younger than that when he and his half sister came to Destiny, after their mom overdosed and her parents grudgingly took them in. Forcing away the bad memories, he told Eden, “I’m almost sure Lucy Smolenski isn’t that old. She has a son in elementary school and I don’t think he’s adopted. But we can ask.”

“We?” She cocked her head and studied him.

“I’d like to help.” That was the truth. He’d also like to see more of her, find out if the attraction was mutual.

“That’s nice of you.” Eden’s voice had gone formal. “But I can handle it. I’m a lawyer. I’m used to tracking people down and interviewing them.”

He thought about that and then said, “In Ottawa?”

“Yes, and the surrounding area.”

“What kind of people?”

“I’m program counsel with a foundation that funds charities and nonprofits. Mostly, I work with the boards and the staff of the organizations we fund, and with applicants for funding. Why?”

“Do you know anything about Destiny Island?”

“Not much. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“People who live on Destiny tend to be, shall we say, a touch eccentric. They’re characters. Independent, often bloody-minded. They’ll bicker fiercely among themselves, then close ranks against outsiders. Tourists are tolerated more than appreciated. Even though they’re responsible for a sizable chunk of the island’s economy.”

“What are you saying? The residents won’t talk to me?”

Glancing over, he saw her forehead was scrunched up. “Some will but others likely won’t.” People like Lionel, an American who’d come to the island as a Vietnam War draft dodger. “It’d help if a local person smooths the way.”

“You’d do that?”

“Sure.”

The scrunchy knot was still there. “That’s very generous, but why would you help me?”

“Why wouldn’t I? We’d have to work it around my flight schedule, but I’m generally only flying five or six hours a day.”

“I do appreciate the offer, but I’m on a tight schedule. I took a week off work and I can’t stay longer. My assistant is good, but he’s quite new. I don’t want to dump too much on his shoulders. Even more important, I hate leaving my mom.” She cleared her throat. “She’s a breast cancer survivor. She had surgery and chemotherapy and just finished six weeks of daily radiation.”

“Oh man, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks. It’s taken a lot out of her and she depends on Dad and me. My younger sister’s home from university for the summer, but she’s not, well, the most reliable person.”

The more Eden spoke, the more she revealed about herself. “You have a strong sense of duty.” Plus, she didn’t think her assistant or her sister would do as good a job as she. “Duty?” She sounded offended. “I love my job, I’m paid to do it, and of course I feel responsible. As for my mom, it’s not duty to care for her, to help her find her sister. It’s what I want to do. Why can’t people understand that?”

That sure wasn’t how things had gone in his family. Not with his cocaine-addicted mother. Not with the grandparents who’d taken in him and Miranda after their mom overdosed—and never let a day go by without making it clear how hard done by they felt. Even with Miranda and her two-year-old, Ariana, the only people in the world he loved, the relationship was more stressful than rewarding. But those were subjects he didn’t talk about. “People?” he asked.

“My boyfriend didn’t get it. He said he supported my close relationship with my family, but that’s not how he acted. Can you believe he almost seemed jealous of my mom? He resented that I spent so much of my free time helping her rather than hanging out with him. But what could I do? Dad and I had to handle everything: getting her to medical appointments and support group meetings, doing the housework and grocery shopping. And, most important of all, giving her emotional support, encouraging her to fight, trying to help her recover her optimism.”

“That sounds hard.”

“On top of that, Dad and I had to sort out my grandmother’s estate. She died just before Mom was diagnosed.”

“Sorry to hear that.” This woman had had one hell of a year. Destiny, with its lovely natural setting and laid-back vibe, would be good for her.

“And yes, all those things meant that I couldn’t give as much to my job or to Ray, and I really, really hated that, but it’s not like I had a choice. He should’ve been more understanding, and he could’ve helped out more himself.”

It wasn’t fair to judge a relationship from the outside, but all the same, Aaron said, “He sounds kind of needy.”

“I know, right? When we met in law school, I thought we were a perfect match. Everything came so easily. But over this past winter, I realized I didn’t really know him.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m glad I found out when I did.” Gazing out the windshield, she said, “There are a lot of islands here. Is one of those Destiny?”

“It’s farther south. And yeah, there are lots of islands. Salt Spring’s the biggest, with a population of nine or ten thousand. That’s the north end of Salt Spring over there.” He pointed to the forested shore. “The other islands range in size from a quarter or a third the size of Salt Spring down to specks that are uninhabited.”

“There’s a tiny island down there with a single house on it. Do those people actually own their own island?”

“Yeah. It happens.”

“I can’t imagine. You’d be so cut off from the world.”

“Some folks like it that way.” At one time, Aaron might have chosen that life himself, before Lionel and others showed him the benefits of community.

“Not me. I need to be close to my family. And I like having colleagues to talk to.”

“I gather you broke up with the needy boyfriend?” In other words, was she available and maybe interested in blowing off some rebound steam with him?

“We certainly did. It was mutual, after a big fight brought everything to a head. He said I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to be in a relationship, and I said he didn’t have the commitment and generosity of spirit to be in one.”

Aaron winced. “Sounds nasty. How long were you together?”

“We dated for two years and then lived together for another two.” Her voice lowered so he could barely hear. “I thought we’d end up getting married and having children.”

Whoa. That was major. “That’s a long time.” And a significant commitment. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.” If that was the kind of relationship she was looking for, so much for any hookup potential. She wouldn’t be interested in a week of casual, and he didn’t have anything more than that to offer.

His experience with family had left him convinced that concepts like love, marriage, and a happy home weren’t in the cards for him. He wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to go about creating them. He was perfectly happy as he was, going through life with a hey-how’s-it-going? relationship with most of the islanders and no one expecting him to be anything more than he was. The only strings in his life were to Miranda and little Ariana. And those strings were complicated ones, with his two-years-younger half sister making stupid choices and being pigheaded about accepting help, letting her misguided notion of independence come between them.

He needed to call her again. Recently, she’d responded to his texts with brief ones saying things were fine, but she’d ignored his last voice mails. She lived in Vancouver and he flew there once or twice a day, yet it had been ages since he’d seen her and Ariana. He sure hoped everything really was okay. Refocusing on Eden, he asked, “Is that what you want? Marriage and kids?”

She glanced over, her eyebrows raised. “Eventually. I did learn something from Ray, though. Right now, I only have time for two priorities, and those are my family and my job. It’s hard enough juggling them and trying to do them well. And if you commit to doing something, you need to take responsibility and do it to the best of your ability.”

Eden sure had high standards. It also seemed to him that she was confirming what Ray had said: She didn’t have the time or emotional energy to be in a relationship. He wasn’t about to point that out to her. “How about this week? You’re away from your family and your job.”

“My priority is finding out what happened to Lucy. My mom…well, it’s really important to her. She’s been feeling, uh, intimations of mortality, I guess you’d call it.” Her voice firmed. “Not that she’s going to die. She’ll be just fine. But she gets worried and depressed, and it’s been nagging away at her that she hasn’t seen her sister for half a century. She needs to know Lucy’s okay, to reconnect their lives. She wants my aunt to know my dad and my sister and me and she wants to know Lucy’s family, if she has one.”

He respected that Eden wanted to help her mother. “I get it. But is there any reason you can’t have some fun while you’re trying to track down your aunt?”

“Fun?”

He glanced over, saw her scrunched-up forehead, and figured she was well on her way to getting a frown line. “You sound as if you don’t know the meaning of the word.”