Kat Daniels leaned back in the oak barstool and crossed one booted leg over the other. She frowned into the tumbler of amber liquid and ice in her right hand, considering again how she had ruined everything. God, what am I doing here? She had let go of the love of her life, and coming back to town to work at his family’s resort was not working out as she had hoped. And the solution was certainly not to be found in a shot of whiskey.
The seaside pub in Crane’s Cove was surprisingly empty for a Sunday night in June. She was hoping she wouldn’t run into anyone she knew, but she expected a crowd of tourists at least. People she could talk to and then never see again, people to help distract her from her own regrets and the events of the last few weeks.
You know that’s not what you need, her inner voice scolded. She pushed the thought away and brought the whiskey to her lips. She took a sip and waited for her throat to recover from the burn. Picking up an extra shift at the resort hadn’t distracted her, so she’d skipped dinner and Uber’d to the pub with a plan to drink herself numb.
“Hey, Kev,” she said to her old friend. He’d been working for his father’s construction business since high school, and it was evident by the way his shirt hugged his chest he was still very hands-on. Kat tossed back the whiskey and placed the glass on the bar.
He nodded to it. “Can I buy you another one?”
Kat sighed. If she’d wanted to be social, she would’ve hung out at the bar in the resort dining room. Saturday night’s events always drew a crowd on Sunday nights, and this week’s beachside potluck hadn’t disappointed. The guests were an especially lively bunch. Too bad most of them had departed earlier that morning to avoid the storm.
She shrugged. “If you want. On the rocks, please.” Kat absently twirled a long chestnut lock of hair as Kevin settled in the stool next to her.
He ordered another round and gestured to the half a dozen or so patrons in the pub. “Pretty slow tonight. Guess people are prepping for the storm. Good to see you here.”
“Same.” Kat averted her gaze and watched the bartender place two new tumblers on the bar. “Thanks, Paddy.”
Paddy leaned toward her. “Don’t drink that one too fast now, Kat.” The owner of the pub had been a friend of her parents. She hadn’t known he still worked the bar or she’d have gone somewhere else. His kids had taken over when he’d retired a few years ago. Seemed like even they had better things to do on a Sunday night.
Paddy shot Kevin a warning look and headed for the other end of the bar, where a trio wearing University of Maine ball caps had just settled in.
His back now turned to her, she chugged the whiskey in one swig as an act of defiance.
Kevin raised a brow. “Well, then.”
She shrugged. “Tough weekend.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” He sipped at his drink. “So how long have you been back in town?”
Kat sighed. She uncrossed her legs, shifted in her worn jeans, and rested her forearms on the edge of the bar. Kevin mimicked her actions and waited for her answer. She spoke straight ahead. “A month or so.”
He nodded. “Well, welcome home. You want another one?”
He finished the drink he was holding and waved Paddy over. The disapproving bartender set down another round and glared at him.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Kevin joked.
Kat swallowed the drink in one gulp. “He’s just grumpy tonight.” The whiskey was achieving the desired effect. The muscles in her thighs began to feel tender and tingly, relaxing her and at the same time making her more restless. “Paddy!”
He returned to their end of the bar, crossed his arms, and narrowed his eyes sternly.
She giggled. “You look so mad.”
“You’re drinking too fast, Kat. Wouldn’t want to see you find any trouble,” he said, looking directly at the man occupying the bar stool next to her.
“Oh, he’s fine.” Kat waved her hand absently. “Me and Kev go waaaaaay back.”
“Huh,” Paddy grunted.
She laughed. “Another round, please. This one’s on me.” She grinned at Kevin. “This night may not be a total bust after all.”
Paddy brought the next round. Kat picked up a drink and handed the other to Kevin. “To lonely Sunday nights,” she toasted.
They clinked glasses, downed the whiskey, and set the glasses on the counter. Kat felt the now-familiar cloudy sensation in her head take over. Over the past several months, she’d learned to find moments of solace from more than a few ounces of strong whiskey. She pulled on a different strand of her long hair and wrapped it around her finger. She twirled it as she studied Kevin’s face. She tried to focus on what he was saying.
“So what brings you back to town? Last I heard you were on the barrel-racing circuit. How’d that go?”
She darted a glance to her empty glass. “I got tired of it.”
“Really? All those wins get you down?”
Kat looked up at him. “Stupid people got me down.” And their persistent text messages.
He smirked. “On the tour, or here in town?”
Kat noticed him looking at her left hand, currently half-wrapped with hair. She quickly put her hand in her lap and covered it with the right one, sitting up and squaring her shoulders. “Both.”
He leaned toward her. “I see.”
“What do you see?” She blinked, straining to keep him in focus. Concentrate, Kat.
He tilted his head. “You don’t have a ring on your finger anymore. How long has it been gone?”
Kat was starting to feel agitated. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She slid off her seat. “I’m gonna go play a song.”
She felt his eyes on her as she walked over to the jukebox. She fed the vintage machine two quarters and selected a song from the eclectic variety. Good. Someone appreciates my attention. Too bad it was the wrong guy. She liked Kevin, but she’d never date him again. They were meant to be friends, that’s all. Her heart had long ago taken up residence elsewhere, and wouldn’t be moved.
She jumped as Kevin appeared at her side. “Hey!” She smiled. “Didn’t see you coming.”
“Sorry to startle you. Wanna dance?” he asked as the beginning verse of “Home Alone Tonight” began to play.
Kat tilted an ear toward the speakers and frowned. That wasn’t the song she selected.
“I don’t know how to dance to this song. It’s more of a my-life-sucks kind of sing-along song.”
He snorted. “That’s funny.” He held out his hand. “Try?”
“I’ll try anything once.” She offered her hand.
Kevin raised a brow. “Really?” He took her right hand in his left and placed his right hand on her slim waist.
Kat rested her left hand on his shoulder and they shuffled to the music. A thought came to her as she listened to the lyrics. “Hey, we should take a selfie!”
Kevin smiled. “Whatever you want.”
Kat pulled her phone out of her pocket and held it out to snap a picture. “Smile!” She grinned stupidly as Kevin squinted his eyes and held up his fingers in a sideways peace sign. She punched in a brief message, hit send, and replaced the phone in her pocket. “Ready for another shot?”
“I’m game if you are.”
“Great! It’s nice not to drink alone,” she added softly.
“Yeah,” he agreed. Kat tugged him back over to the bar. “Two more, please, Paddy.”
The older gentlemen looked her over. “How you getting home, Kat?”
She shrugged. “Uber?”
“I can bring her home,” Kevin offered. “You still live in that big house on the cliff?”
“Yep, big empty creepy house on the cliff.” She shuddered.
“You’re all by yourself?”
The barman shot daggers at Kevin. “She’s got her uncle over there looking after her,” he said firmly to Kevin. “I’m sure Old Man Wetherby wouldn’t mind coming to get you, Kat.”
“Nah. He’s prolly fast asleep. Kev’s an old friend. He can bring me home. Where’s my next round?”
Paddy placed the drinks and a bowl of the bar’s version of Chex Mix on the counter without a word. Kat giggled after he disappeared through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.
“I don’t think he likes you.”
Kevin shrugged. “Never has. Another dance?”
“Sure. Gonna bring my drink, though. Think I should sip this one. Liiiiittle tipsy!” She grinned up at him. “Your eyes are very blue, Kevin. And kind. I like that. Better than green eyes that are mean.” She knew she was talking nonsense. She didn’t care. The man with the green eyes certainly didn’t seem to care anymore.
He led her to the dance floor. Someone from the UMAINE group had added several songs to the queue. Kat sipped at her drink and swayed with Kevin to the Y2K playlist. She’d have to talk to Paddy about the music selection.
Easton Crane checked the latches on the horses’ stalls one last time and headed for the fridge in the break area at the back of the barn. He pulled out a local craft beer and popped the top, ignoring the vibration in his pocket from an incoming text message. He dropped heavily onto a nearby bale of hay and scanned the two lines of stalls that faced each other. All seemed well, another weekend of trail rides and riding lessons in the books. He took a long, slow sip from the bottle before he reached into his pocket.
Looky who found me at the pub! A long-forgotten, familiar anger burned in his belly at Kat’s silly grin and his old rival’s snarky pose. Easton put the phone back in his pocket without replying. He couldn’t figure out what Kat’s game was. He’d been ready to spend his life with her and then she took off barrel racing. At Christmas, he’d given her an ultimatum. The tour or him. She’d called his bluff and given back his ring. She’d left again and reappeared about a month ago. His parents had rehired her to help around the resort, of all things. Talk about salt in his wounds.
His phone rang. He groaned and pulled it out again. Paddy’s Pub and Grill. Nope, he wasn’t doing this. He stared at the phone as it rang and went to voicemail. His caller ID app was worth every penny as far as he was concerned.
It rang again. Paddy O’Hara cell. He sighed and swiped to receive the call.
“Easton Crane. Cliff Walk Stables,” he recited.
“Hey there now, Easton. Paddy O’Hara here. Thought you might want to know Kat is in here tearin’ it up. Lookin’ like she’s plannin’ to leave with that Kevin Conroy fella you played ball with. I don’t know that that’s a good idea since she’s barely standin’ up, and he’s had a few, too. Thought you might come get her.”
Easton sighed. He pulled off his ball cap and used it to wipe his brow. “Yeah, I don’t think she’d appreciate that, Paddy.” Since she’d returned, he’d been struggling to figure out why she was back and what she wanted from him. Some days, she acted as if she wanted to pick up where they’d left off. Other days, she was colder than a frozen harbor, snapping at him for no apparent reason or brushing him off when he tried to help her.
A few weeks ago, they’d been caught off guard outside the dining room during an event at the resort. When their song started playing, a magnetic force had drawn them to each other. They’d danced, suspended in time, hearts beating as one, and a flood of emotion passed between them as they clung to each other. When the song ended, she’d bolted. Kat was hot or cold; there was no in between. All last week, she’d barely said a word to him at the barn.
“Welp, I called Old Man Wetherby and he didn’t pick up. She told me not to call Shelby; she’s babysitting her nephew tonight. Couldn’t reach your sister, Molly, either. Kat’s got no one else. I guess I could call up to the police station and see if one of the guys can bring her home. But you know, they’ve been understaffed since the Donovan kid decided to go to Virginia and join the FBI like his ma.”
“Won’t she take an Uber?”
“Suggested that. She shot it down after Kevin offered. She’s a stubborn one.”
“Don’t I know it.” Easton inhaled deeply through his nose and let out a long breath. He looked longingly at his half-full beer. “All right. I’ll head out there. Don’t let her leave with him.”
“No way in hell. I’ll deck him myself if I have to.”
Kat sang as Kevin twirled her around the dance floor. “Whoa!” She stumbled as he attempted to dip her. He twisted to avoid landing on her and she fell onto him in a fit of giggles. “Whoops!” She rolled off him, still laughing.
A shadow loomed above them. Arms crossed and frowning, Easton Crane, her former fiancé, stood before them, his emerald eyes cold. Her face fell and she swallowed hard. Kevin stood up and offered his hand. She took it and stumbled to her feet.
“Time to go home, Kat,” Easton said, glowering at her.
She put her fists on her hips in defiance. “No, it’s not.”
“I got her, Crane.”
Easton shifted his fiery gaze to Kevin. “Not tonight.”
“What do you care?” Kat muttered. “You just want to ruin my fun.”
Kevin set his shoulders back. “She doesn’t want to go with you. She’s made that clear.”
“She doesn’t know what she wants,” Easton growled.
The men glared at each other. Kat didn’t dare look at him. She could sense he was tired and weary under his anger. Paddy approached the trio.
“Everything all right, fellas?”
“I’m here to bring Kat home,” Easton said, still focused on Kevin.
“And I’m telling you that I’m going to bring her home,” Kevin challenged. He stepped forward.
Easton held his ground.
“Oh, please don’t fight.” Kat sighed. She looked at Easton, her eyes searching his for a sign of warmth. He continued to glare at her. She took another step back, overcome with the maelstrom of emotions she saw in their depths. She shouldn’t have looked into his eyes. Another step back. Right into a barstool.
“Whoa!” Easton reached out to steady her. He was quick. It was like he knew she was falling before she actually fell. He used to be able to anticipate her every move. He’d always caught her before she fell when she was in therapy. Push that thought away, Kat. That was a different time and a different Easton.
“Easy there, Kat,” Paddy soothed. He turned to Easton. “You take her home. This guy”—he gestured to Kevin—“is gonna sit at the bar and have some coffee and snacks till I decide he’s not a danger to himself or anyone else.”
Kevin grumbled, but conceded. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Kat.” He followed Paddy to the bar.
Kat flicked her gaze back to Easton. “Why did you come?”
“Paddy called me.”
“Oh.” She’d hoped he’d gotten her text and felt something. Jealously, anger, anything really. Guess that ship really wasn’t coming back to port.
Kat followed him out the door and into the cool summer night. She hugged herself as she trudged across the gravel to his truck. He opened the passenger door for her and she climbed in.
Easton drove in silence down Main Street. Kat leaned her head on the door frame and stared out the window. Her buzz had worn off.
“You know you shouldn’t be drinking whiskey with your meds, Kat.” Easton watched her out of the corner of his eye as he drove. She turned her body in the seat so that her back was facing him. His heart was still moved at the sight of her, even when she was a mess. He recalled the words he’d spoken that had prompted their breakup. He wished he could take them back.
“What do you care?” she mumbled a second time that night.
He tensed, squeezing the steering wheel. She was becoming more and more reckless, leaving a string of bad choices in her wake. Picking up the pieces was getting old.
“You know I care. Don’t undo all your progress with bad decisions. You’re so close to complete recovery. Why do you continue to take risks?” Easton slowed for a red light and relaxed back into his seat. He turned his eyes to her curled-up body facing out the window and softened his voice. She didn’t need a lecture. She needed grace. “I was with you every day, Kat. Every day after your riding accident, through your therapy. I took college classes from the barn so I wouldn’t have to leave you.” His voice broke. “I never stopped caring.” He fought to control the wave of emotions that descended and missed her stiffening at his words.
“Then why won’t you forgive me?” she pleaded, her anguished whisper barely audible.
The light turned green and Easton pressed his lips together as he released the brake. Up and down Main Street, several businesses had already boarded up. It’d still be a day or so before they knew if the storm would hit with hurricane-force winds, but some weren’t taking any chances. The boards reminded him of how much work he still had to do at the stables to prep for the storm. He didn’t have time for Kat’s drama or impulsivity.
Ignoring her question, he made the turn onto Crane’s Cove Road and wondered if Old Man Wetherby would be able to prep her historic Queen Anne-style home sufficiently. He should take a look around after he saw her inside.
Crane’s Cove Road wound itself over a granite cliff that declined in elevation as it passed the town’s premier resort, the Cliff Walk. Owned by Easton’s father’s family for generations, the expansive acreage accounted for half of the town, from the high Acadian peak above the resort to the beach in the cove below. Beyond the family land, a scattering of town buildings and mom-and-pop businesses lined the road before it turned, hugging the peninsula that jutted out a half mile into the cove, ending at the Point, and then back again to the town landing and marina. Large residential homes dotted this section of town, most built by those who had profited from the whaling, fishing, and shipping industries over a century ago.
Kat’s house was one of these homes. It was left to her by her great-aunt Katherine, affectionately known as Auntie Katie, upon her death last summer. The house was expansive, its rose-painted shingles towering three stories above the rocky base, visible from all points in the cove. A windowed turret extended upward and peaked beside a widow’s walk. An attached walkway led to a gazebo overlooking the cliff.
Below the house by the road, the original carriage house had been restored and converted into a groundskeeper’s cottage by her great-uncle Charley, who had returned to his childhood home two decades ago to live with his sister after the tragic boating accident that had claimed Kat’s parents and maternal grandparents. Devastated by the loss of his youngest sister, his niece, and their husbands, he’d surprised everyone in town when he’d shown up after swearing he’d never come back. Charles Wetherby was the older half-brother of Katherine and Charlotte, Kat’s grandmother. He’d never gotten along with his stepfather and had joined the marines on his eighteenth birthday. He’d come back, compelled to help his sister raise their grandniece, and had been devoted to Kat ever since. In his eighties now, he was slowing down, but the inner Marine inside still pushed his physical limits.
Refusing to live in his stepfather’s house, the retired sailor had gutted the smaller building, added a loft apartment, and used the space below to store his Boston Whaler and a pool table. Before her accident, Easton, Kat, and their friends had spent many a night in their teens shooting pool with the old man and listening to his stories. He was getting older now, moving slower, sleeping more. Easton knew it was only a matter of time until Kat was truly on her own.
He turned off the road and onto the long driveway that led to the house. The cottage was dark, but the old man’s ancient Ford Ranger was parked in front of one of the large garage doors. Easton pulled in next to it and hopped out before Kat could ask any questions.
He jogged to the door and knocked. The blinds were drawn. Probably the old guy just went to bed early. He knocked again.
“Easton, what are you doing?” Kat hissed through the open truck window. “Let the man rest.”
“Just checking on him. Paddy said he didn’t pick up when he called.” He frowned at the lack of response.
“He goes to bed at seven now so he can be up at dawn,” she huffed. “I’m sure he’s fine.” “Thanks for the ride. See ya.” She opened the door and stepped out.
“Wha—” He watched her, arms crossed, purse hanging from the crook in her elbow, march up the hill toward the main house. “Kat, wait—” He glanced at the cottage door, shrugged, and hurried to catch up with her.
“You don’t need to follow me home.”
“I just want to—” He paused as he reached her side. What did he want? They reached the steps that led to the wraparound porch. She dug her key out and jammed it into the lock.
“Please,” she pleaded. Her eyes welled with tears. He reached up to wipe them, as he had done so many times. She left the key in the slot and swatted his hand away. “Don’t.”
Easton stepped back, emotionally struck with a pain that was far greater than the swat of her hand. He knew what he wanted. He wanted the old Kat back, regardless of her traumatic brain injury. He didn’t care if she couldn’t find the right word to say, or sometimes forget words or what she was doing. He wanted the Kat that fought hard every day to walk again, talk again. The Kat that loved helping him in the barn, caring for the horses and teaching little kids all about them and how to ride them. The Kat that sparkled with a love of life and found fun in everything, despite sustaining more loss than most people could handle. Where was she hiding inside this risk-taking, angry, impulsive woman who stood in front of him? And had she run away to cope with mourning Auntie Katie, or was there more to it? Was it because of him?
She went in and slammed the door. He stared at it for a moment before shuffling to the corner of the porch that offered the view of the sea. Straight out and down below, Crane’s Light, the floating lighthouse his family had purchased from the Coast Guard back in the ’60s, signaled to him. When Kat had left him at Christmas, he’d emptied his savings into the lighthouse with the goal of fixing it up into an exclusive guest suite for the resort. He went out there every chance he could, and he was set to have it ready as a honeymoon suite for Matt Saunders and Lanie Owens when they tied the knot in July. The Coast Guard still operated and maintained the light, so it had been in decent shape to begin with. After the storm, he’d finish painting the trim work and bring in the smaller appliances and pieces of furniture. With Kat now teaching the children’s riding lessons on the weekends, he’d have plenty of time to spend at the lighthouse—as long as the hurricane didn’t destroy it.
Easton trudged back down the hill to his truck. He opened the door and sat for a few moments, staring up at the lit windows on the second floor he used to climb into a decade ago. So they hadn’t boarded up. He hoped they’d follow the evacuation orders. A shadow appeared in the bumped-out base of the turret. The outline of the broken woman he had loved for so long sat in her window seat, head on her knees.
Before he could entertain the idea of scaling her porch as he’d done countless times in his youth, he started the truck and drove back to the resort.