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.
“Exactly how 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 BUDDY 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.
Putting aside her own misgivings, Ella made her voice as gentle as she could. “I’m sure it will be. And hey, I think I saw a ladies’ room sign on the lower deck when we first got on the ferry. Want to go check it out? I’ll help you down the stairs.”
Merry sat up straight, giving Ella the same bright, plucky grin that had wrapped her around her baby sister’s little finger since they were kids.
“No, thanks. I want to stay on the top deck where I can get a good look at the island. I can’t believe we’re the only ones up here! I guess this must be the off season. I can’t wait to see it in a couple of months—I bet it’s packed!”
Ella felt as if her body had frozen to the metal bench. “A couple of months?”
Merry’s shoulders hunched up slightly and the grin dropped off her face, but Ella couldn’t back down.
“Merry. You can’t seriously be planning to stay that long.”
“Can’t we play it by ear?” Merry pleaded. “I mean, she’s our mother. And we haven’t seen her in fifteen years. You really think two weeks is going to be enough time to get to know each other?”
“I’ve only got two weeks of vacation,” Ella hedged. Two weeks of forced leave thrust on her by her worried, frustrated boss was more like it, but Ella didn’t say that. “Come on, we need to stick to the plan.”
“Oh, the almighty plan. Screw your plan! I’m perfectly happy to throw myself open to destiny and see where it takes me.”
Sure, because that always turns out so great for you.
The words stung the tip of Ella’s tongue, sharp and bitter, but she swallowed them back.
“Besides, it’s not like you’re happy at that stupid job, anyway,” Merry said, defiance trembling through her low voice.
The unconscious echo of the speech Ella’s boss gave her only days ago jolted Ella like a slap to the face. Merry couldn’t know what Paul Bishop had said that afternoon when he’d called her into his elegant, wood-paneled office and closed the door. When he’d shaken her carefully constructed world down to its foundations.
Ella gave her sister the same reply she’d given Bishop. “I’m good at what I do. Yes, commercial real estate is slumping, but it’s a cyclical business. I’ll be back on top before you know it.”
Underneath the firm answer, though, Ella was aware of the same puzzling sense she’d had in the meeting with Bishop—the sense that there was something she wasn’t understanding, some concept just outside her grasp.
Because all she could honestly think was, What the hell does my happiness have to do with anything?
Her job at Bishop Properties paid well, offered benefits, and until recently, had provided the kind of security Ella had been looking for her whole life.
Silence was a weird thing, Ella reflected as the next couple of minutes brought nothing but the rush of the wind and the low thrum of the engine vibrating through the deck.
She knew Merry better than anyone in the world. They had the same blue eyes, the same slight dimple in their chins, the same brown hair—although Merry had dyed hers a deep, purplish magenta this week, and next week it could easily be platinum blond—but that’s where the similarities ended.
Still, at only three years apart, they were closer than any sisters Ella knew. As close as twins, with their own shorthand language, mannerisms, and expressions, and the ability to communicate volumes with just the quirk of a brow. They could talk for hours or sit in a completely companionable quiet together, and just be.
But even as close as they were, Ella couldn’t bring herself to admit exactly how near she was to freaking out about seeing Jo Ellen Hollister again.
Merry squirmed in her seat, mouth turned down in an unhappy curve, and Ella blew out a breath. “Just hold on, sweetie. If you don’t want to use the bathroom on the ferry, that’s okay. I think we’re almost there, and the ferry bathroom is probably a health inspector’s nightmare, anyway.”
“No, that’s not what … Look. Ella. I know I’m kind of a mess, but you’re not the only sister who gets to worry. For the last year or so, I’ve wanted to say something about that job. When you told me you were taking a vacation, I was so relieved, because you were, like, this close to burning out. All you do is work. You don’t go out, you don’t have friends, you don’t date.” Real concern laced Merry’s husky voice, and one of her slim hands fluttered almost unconsciously to rest on the hard roundness of her stomach.
“Hey! I have friends,” Ella protested, ignoring the comment about her dating life. Who had time to date? She couldn’t imagine devoting precious hours to the awkward, messy, pointless process of dating. Someday, maybe, but now? When the job she’d fought and studied and lived for was in jeopardy, and her baby sister was about to have a baby of her own?
No. Ella had more important things to worry about than dating.
Merry gave her the patented Little Sister Eye-roll of Doom. “Please. We live together. I know everyone you know. Your best friend is your therapist. And when you’re not at work, you’re at the apartment on your laptop, researching properties.”
“Adrienne hasn’t been my therapist for years and you know it, so it’s completely fine that we meet up for lunch every now and then as friends. As for the rest of it, you’ve got enough hobbies for both of us,” Ella said fondly. “Maybe I’m a workaholic. But I’m trying to do better! An island vacation ought to get me off the hook for a year, at least.”
She was trying to make a joke out of it, mostly to avoid having Merry press any harder on the reasons behind Ella’s abrupt willingness to use vacation days to visit the mother she’d long ago written off, but Merry didn’t smile.
Ducking her head, Merry said, “I know this isn’t exactly the vacation of your dreams—I know you’re only here because of me, and I want you to know I appreciate it. I can’t imagine going through this alone.”
Ella swallowed around the lump thickening her throat and leaned in for a hug. “Don’t worry about me—I graduated from therapy, remember? I worked through all my issues about this. And sure, maybe for me that means being fine with the status quo of turning down all of Jo’s attempts at reconciliation. But I understand why you don’t feel the same way. And, sweetie, you’ll never have to be alone,” she said into the soft hair at her sister’s temple. “Not as long as you have me.”
The ferry blared its low, bleating horn. Merry pulled back, her eyes filled with excitement and nerves.
Craning her neck, Ella saw that they were pulling up to a wide wooden dock that ended in a gravel parking lot. A small, whitewashed building squatted at the top of the gravel hill stretching a barrier arm across the narrow road that led to the interior of the island. The words “Summer Harbor” were painted across the side of the building in flowy script, the letters scoured to a faded blue by the salty breeze.
The dock had been built up from the beach where a tumble of large, red-brown rocks formed a sloping wall between the flat circle of gravel and the surprisingly long stretch of untouched sand. Squinting, Ella made out a rickety set of steps connecting the two.
After the incessant ebb and flow of the crowds thronging the streets of Washington, it was almost surreal to stare down at what seemed like miles of pristine beach, empty of everything except a couple of sandpipers hopping comically through the foam of receding waves.
The wind was so briny Ella could taste it on the tip of her tongue. Gulls swooped and shrieked, their white wings glowing in the morning light, and Ella stood up to latch on to the railing.
Even though her feet were firmly planted on the rumbling deck, she somehow felt pitched forward, poised on the brink of something she couldn’t name.
Ella didn’t believe in fate or destiny. She didn’t believe in much of anything beyond the need to work for independence, the security of having a good plan, and the unbreakable bonds of loyalty and love that tied her to Merry. Believing in things was more in Merry’s line.
But as a shiver of surprising anticipation traced down Ella’s spine, she couldn’t escape the feeling that Sanctuary Island was exactly where she was supposed to be.
Copyright © 2013 by Lily Everett