Summer Secrets

By: Barbara Freethy

Chapter One

Eight years later ...

"The wind blew and the waves crashed as the mighty dragon sank into the sea to hide in the dark depths of the ocean until the next sailor came too close to the baby dragons. The end."

Kate McKenna smiled at the enraptured looks on the faces before her. Ranging in age from three to ten, the children sat on thick, plump cushions on the floor in a corner of her store, Fantasia. They came three times a week to hear her read stories or tell tales. At first they were chatty and restless, but once the story took hold, they were hers completely. Although it wasn't the most profitable part of her bookstore business, it was by far the most enjoyable.

"Tell us another one," the little girl sitting next to her pleaded.

"One more," the other children chorused.

Kate was tempted to give in, but the clock on the wall read five minutes to six, and she was eager to close on time this Friday night. It had been a long, busy week, and she had inventory to unpack before the weekend tourist crowds descended. "That's all for today," she said, getting to her feet. Although the children protested, the group gradually drifted from the store, a few mothers making purchases on their way out the door.

"Great story," Theresa Delantoni said. "Did you make that up as you went along, or did you read it somewhere?"

"A little of both," Kate told her assistant. "My dad used to tell us stories about dragons that lived under the sea. One time we were sailing just outside the Caribbean, and the sea suddenly seemed to catch fire. Dragons, I thought, just like my father said. It turned out to be phosphorus algae. But my sisters and I preferred the fire-breathing dragon story."

"A romantic at heart."

"It's a weakness, I admit."

"Speaking of romance ..." Theresa's cheeks dimpled into an excited smile, "it's my anniversary, and I have to leave now. I promised I wouldn't be late, because our baby sitter can only give us two hours." Theresa took her purse out of the drawer behind the counter. "I hate to leave you with all those boxes to unpack."

"But you will." Kate followed her to the door. "Don't think twice. You deserve a night off with that darling husband of yours."

Theresa blushed. "Thanks. After eight years of marriage and two babies who need a lot of attention, sometimes I forget how lucky I am."

"You are lucky."

"And you are great with kids. You should think about having some of your own."

"It's easy to be great for an hour."

"Brrr," Theresa said as they walked out of the store together. She stopped to zip up her sweater. "The wind is picking up."

"Out of the southwest," Kate said automatically, her experienced nautical eye already gauging the knots to be between twelve and fifteen. "There's a storm coming. It should be here by six o'clock. Take an umbrella with you."

"You're better than the weather report," Theresa said with a laugh. "Don't stay too late, now. People will start to suspect you don't have a life."

Kate made a face at her friend. "I have a fine life." Theresa was halfway to her car and didn't bother to reply. "I have a great life," Kate repeated. After all, she lived in Castleton, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, a large island off the coast of Washington State, one of the several hundred islands that made up the archipelago known as the San Juans.

Her bookstore at the northern end of Pacific Avenue had an incredible view of the deep blue waters of Puget Sound. It was one of the interesting, quaint shops that ran down a two-mile cobblestone strip to Rose Harbor, a busy marina that filled every July with boats in town for the annual Castleton Invitational Sailboat Races.

Castleton was known for its rugged beauty, its fir and evergreen-covered hillsides and more than one hundred miles of driftwood-strewn beaches. Most of the island traffic came via the Washington State Ferry, although boaters were plentiful, and small private planes could land at the Castleton Airport.

The unpredictable southwesterly winds created swirling, dangerous currents along many of the beaches and had driven a few boats to ground on their way to shelter in the harbor. But the winds didn't stop the boats from coming or the sailors from congregating. Tales of sails and storms could be overheard in every restaurant, café, and business in town. There were more boat slips in the marina than there were parking spaces downtown. The lives of Castleton's residents weren't just by the sea, they were about the sea.

Kate loved her view of the waterfront: loved the one from her house in the hills even better -- but more than anything she appreciated the fact that the view didn't change every day. Maybe some would call that boring, but she found it comforting.

The wind lifted the hair off the back of her neck, changing that feeling of comfort to one of uneasiness. Wind in her life had meant change. Her father, Duncan McKenna, a sailing man from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, always relished the wind's arrival. Kate could remember many a time when he had jumped to his feet at the first hint of a breeze. A smile would spread across his weatherbeaten cheeks as he'd stand on the deck of their boat, pumping his fist triumphantly in the air, his eyes focused on the distant horizon. The wind's up, Katie girl, he'd say. It's time to go.

And they'd go -- wherever the wind took them. They'd sail with it, into it, against it. They'd lash out in anger when it blew too hard, then cry in frustration when it vanished completely. Her life had been formed, shaped, and controlled by the wind. She'd thought of it as a friend; she'd thought of it as a monster. Well, no more.

She had a home now, an address, a mailbox, a garden. She might live by the water, but she didn't live on it. The wind meant nothing more to her than an extra sweater and a bowl of soup for dinner. It didn't mean that her life was about to change. Why couldn't she believe that?

Because of the boats.

They'd been sailing into the harbor for the past week, every day a few more, each one bigger, brighter, and better than the last. There was an energy in the air, a sense of excitement, purpose, adventure. In just a few days the race would begin, and next Saturday the biggest and brightest would race around the island in the Castleton Invitational. Two days later, the boats would be off again, racing to San Francisco and then on to Hawaii for the Pacific Cup. The sailors would battle the elements and one another. In the end, only one would be victorious.

Kate didn't appreciate the direction of her thoughts. She didn't want to think about the boats or the damn race. Ten days. It would all be over in ten days, she reminded herself as she walked back into the store and shut the door firmly behind her. She could handle the pleasure cruisers, the fishermen, the tourists interested in whale watching; what she couldn't handle were the racers, the fanatical sailors who lived to battle the ocean, to conquer new seas. She knew those men and women too well. Once, she'd been one of them.

The door to her store opened, accompanied by a melodious jangle from the wind chimes that hung outside. A man entered, dressed in khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt. He had the look of a man on business. There was an energy in his movements, a gleam in his deep blue eyes, and an impression of power and purpose in his stance. As he ran an impatient hand through his dark brown hair, Kate felt her pulse quicken. Strangers came into her store all the time -- asking for books, directions, information about the island -- but none of those strangers had given her heart such a jump start. Maybe Theresa was right. She definitely needed to get out more.

"Hello." His voice had a bit of a drawl to it. The South? Texas? She wasn't sure where he'd come from, but she had a feeling it had been a long journey.

"Hello," she said. "Can I help you?"

"I certainly hope so."

"I'm betting you need directions, not a book."

He gave her a curious smile. "Now, why would you bet that?"

"You don't look like an armchair adventurer."

"You can tell that just by looking?"

She shrugged. "What can I say? I'm good."

"Not that good. I don't need directions."

"Oh. A book about sailing, then?"

"Wrong again."

Kate studied him thoughtfully. He hadn't stood still since he walked into the store, shifting his feet, tapping his fingers on the counter. He looked like a man who couldn't stop running even when he was tired. Hardly one to settle into a recliner with a good book.

However, she couldn't refute the fact that he had come into the bookstore of his own free will so he must have had a reason.

"I know." She snapped her fingers. "Gift book. You need a book for Aunt Sally or Cousin Mary, or maybe the girlfriend whose birthday you forgot."

He laughed. "No Aunt Sally. No Cousin Mary. And, regretfully, no girlfriend."

Kate had to bite back the incredulous really that threatened to push past her lips. She settled for "Interesting. So what do you want?"

"I'm looking for someone."

"Aren't we all?"

"You're very quick."

He was quick, too, and it had been awhile since she'd flirted with a man. Not that she was flirting -- she was just being friendly. "So, who are you looking for?'

He hesitated, and it was the small pause that made Kate tense. That and the way his gaze settled on her face. It had been eight years since someone had come looking for her. It wasn't likely this man was here for that reason, though. What were the odds? A million to one.