The word normally conjured all sorts of good feelings like Mom, apple pie, and “The Star Spangled Banner.” But not to Aiden Flynn. To him, home meant a slug to the jaw from his drunken father and ugly memories of long days on a lobster boat, covered in slime as he hauled and set lobster traps in freezing cold water. It meant a mother’s tears when Aiden told her he was leaving forever and a brother’s disappointment that he’d eventually be left to carry on the family business by himself. It meant struggling every minute of every day to escape the life that fate and heritage had tried to map out for him.
But Aiden couldn’t dodge the tortured walk down memory lane any longer, which accounted for his lousy mood despite the warm sunshine reflecting off the sparkling waters that surrounded him on the ferry. In just a few minutes, the boat would dock at Seashell Bay Island, where he grew up. Like so many other islands in Maine, it was accessible only by ferry or private boat.
A tangy ocean breeze tempered the hot, clear day in August. It was the kind of day that made a man happy to be alive. It was also a perfect day for baseball, a game Aiden would have still have been playing if not for his screwed-up knees.
As if on cue, his agent’s ringtone, “For the Love of Money,” blared out from the pocket of his Phillies windbreaker. Turning his back on the view of Great Diamond Island, with its shoreline homes perched high on the rocky cliffs, he answered his phone just as the captain blasted the horn at a sister ferry.
“What the hell was that?” Paul Johnson yelped over the phone. “Are you trying to make me go deaf?”
“Sounds of the bay, man. Out here it’s boats, lobster, booze, and not much else.”
“Well, I like booze, and I love lobster, but I’ll give the boats a pass, if you don’t mind.”
Aiden felt the same way. “Please tell me you have some good news.”
“Hey, you just left Philly yesterday. I’m good, pal, but I’m not that good. I just wanted to let you know I put out some more feelers this morning—this time to the Orioles and the Royals.”
Aiden nodded when a middle-aged woman leading an enormously fat black Labrador gave him a friendly smile before taking the stairs to the lower deck. He thought she might be from Seashell Bay, but since he’d been home only once in the last fourteen years, it would have been a miracle if he recognized anybody but his father and brother and maybe a few others.
“That’s good,” Aiden said as he headed toward the bow, searching for some privacy. “Keep working the phones, Paul. Someone’s got to need a DH.” Realistically, the designated hitter position was all his knees were up to anymore.
When Paul remained silent for several seconds, Aiden had to clamp down hard on the stab of dismay knifing through his chest. Dammit, he was only thirty-two. He refused to believe his career in major-league baseball had already flamed out.
“I’m still hopeful,” Paul responded cautiously, “but you need to be thinking about a backup plan.”
Aiden stalked to the front of the boat, ignoring the screech of seagulls wheeling overhead. “Screw that. This is my backup plan. Latch on to another team, take a salary cut if necessary. I can still hit, Paul. You know that.”
“Yeah, you can. I’ll keep working and keep you posted. But try to enjoy the time off, will ya? You should be relaxing and having some fun, not just waiting for the phone to ring.”
“Easy for you to say,” Aiden said. It had been more than two weeks since the Phillies released him, and he still felt mired in disbelief.
“I know,” his agent said in a sympathetic voice. “Hang in there, buddy.”
Aiden stowed the phone and grabbed the rail, automatically bracing himself as the ferry rocked through the swell of a passing boat. Sucking in a breath of the cleansing sea air, he told himself an opportunity would come up. Aiden had never been a superstar, but he’d had a solid career and could still get on base and drive in runs. This had to be just a temporary hiatus, because any other outcome was unthinkable. Any other life than the one he’d fought so hard to create was unthinkable.
The ferry made the turn past Diamond Cove and headed directly toward Seashell Bay, dodging the colorful lobster buoys dotting the blue water. Happy-looking vacationers and island residents, most loaded down with various shopping bags and coolers, gathered up their gear as the boat steamed toward the public dock. The downward spiral of Aiden’s mood didn’t fit the cheerful scene, but who the hell could blame him? Not only was he returning to the one place in the world he truly hated, his career was hanging on by a frigging thread. It would take more than a sunny day and an ice-cold bottle of Corona to dispel his emotional nor’easter.
As he turned his gaze away from the dock, he caught a flash of color out in the bay, a fiery red that reflected the sunlight. Aiden lifted the brim of his ball cap, narrowing his eyes against the shimmering light off the water. Less than a hundred yards away, a green-and-white lobster boat bobbed on the waves. A slender woman dressed in jeans, rubber boots, and a tight white T-shirt, her bright auburn hair gleaming in the sunshine, leaned over the gunwale of the boat as the pot hauler brought a lobster trap to the surface. When she tilted her head briefly to smile and wave at the passing ferry, recognition seared through Aiden with a jolt that lit up every synapse in his brain.
The most beautiful girl on Seashell Bay Island and the only one who’d ever stopped him dead in his tracks. He’d spent his last two years in high school lusting after her, but she’d been off-limits thanks to the insane, multigenerational feud that had smoldered between their families for decades. Off-limits except for one memorable night near the end of his senior year, when he and Lily finally gave in to mutual temptation after a school dance in Portland. They crossed some boundaries that night and broke more than a few family taboos. But sanity had prevailed with the coming of dawn, and they’d both had the smarts to go their separate ways. Aiden had always wondered how Lily had fared over the years. Now, he guessed he had his answer.
She was as gorgeous as ever, even in clunky rubber boots and a dirty T-shirt that couldn’t hide the gentle swell of her breasts.
As he stared at her, Lily froze, one gloved hand on her trap line. Then she whipped her other hand up, shoving her sunglasses onto her forehead to peer straight at him. When their gazes caught and locked, Aiden could feel the impact of her eyes with all the force of a baseball screaming at him at ninety miles an hour.
Sweet Mother of God.
A moment later, another swell hit her boat, and Lily snapped back to life, dragging her trap onto the rail. The ferry sailed past, making its final turn to line up with the dock. Aiden leaned out, but all he could see was the lobster boat’s dark green stern, its name blazoned in big white letters.
He couldn’t hold back a smile. Hard-working Lily had always wanted her own boat and had obviously made it happen. She’d even named it after her beloved granny, Annie Letellier. For some reason, the fact that Lily was still on the island and following her dream boosted his mood. She’d been one of the few things he’d cared about in Seashell Bay, and he’d like to think she got everything she truly deserved.
The ferry’s horn blasted out a final note as it nudged up against the dock. Aiden headed down the stairs to the lower deck, retrieving his computer case and small sports bag from the corner where he’d stashed them. He didn’t worry about anyone lifting his stuff, because no one ever stole anything around the islands. Well, except for Daisy Whipple, Seashell Bay’s kleptomaniac. If an item went missing from someone’s porch or deck, you headed to Daisy’s house. Since she usually just smiled when you retrieved whatever it was she’d pilfered, islanders chose not to make a fuss about the old gal’s bizarre habit.
When it came to their own, the people of Seashell Bay were remarkably tolerant. Outsiders…that was another story.
He joined the crowd of families, young couples, and dogs—there were always a lot of dogs on the ferry—waiting patiently for the deckhands to tie off the anchoring lines and secure the metal gangway. When the exit cleared, Aiden joined the throng surging onto the dock to the sounds of barking dogs and children’s voices pitched high with excitement. Most locals headed directly to the parking lot at the end of the long pier, but other passengers milled around in the bright sunshine, greeting loved ones or waiting for their luggage or supplies to be rolled out in metal carts from the bow of the boat.
It was all as weirdly familiar as Aiden expected. Seashell Bay actively resisted change. Depending on your point of view, it was either the island’s greatest asset or its biggest flaw, and he knew exactly which camp he belonged to.
As he waited for his luggage, a set of brawny arms clamped him from behind, lifting him in a bear hug. There were very few people who could lift Aiden straight off the ground, so that meant his little brother—who topped him by two inches—was indulging in one of his outsized displays of emotion.
“Yo, man, put me down,” Aiden said in a mock growl, giving his brother an elbow to the ribs.
“Oof.” Bram dropped him to his feet.
Aiden turned to greet his grinning brother.
“Man, it’s great to see you, bro,” Bram enthused. “I’ve missed you.”
“But I saw you six weeks ago, remember? At Fenway? Ring a bell?”
Bram waved a dismissive hand. “Doesn’t mean I can’t still miss you.” He grabbed Aiden’s sports bag. “It’s good to have you home. You look fucking great.”
A family of tourists marched by and the mother, wearing a floppy bright-red beach hat, glowered at Bram with disapproval. Aiden gave her an apologetic smile. Bram had a deep and abiding love for profanity, laying the f-bomb down with dependable regularity, regardless of his surroundings.
“I wish I could say the same for you,” Aiden replied, giving him a once-over.
Bram looked like crap. His pathetic excuse of a beard was scruffy, his dark hair long and unkempt, and his shorts and sleeveless tee rumpled and none too clean. And he’d added yet another tattoo to his impressive display of ink—a character from the video game Halo in lurid colors on the inside of his forearm. Not that Aiden had any problems with ink—he had a few nice examples of body art himself—but he’d figured out over the years that Bram added a tattoo whenever he was in a deep funk.
His brother shrugged. “Sorry I don’t meet your exacting standards, Mr. Baseball, but I had a long night. Some of us have to work for a living, you know.”
“Since when did you start working again?”
Bram had been more or less out of work these last two years after a pot hauler miscue on their father’s boat had trashed the nerves in his left hand. Aiden had paid for two operations by the best hand surgeon in Boston, but Bram would never regain full use, and that meant his lobstering days were over. And unlike Aiden, Bram had always loved lobster fishing. Ever since the accident, he’d struggled with a toxic mixture of partial disability, depression, and alcohol.
“I get by,” Bram said, his gaze sliding away.
Aiden didn’t press him, instead hauling his large duffel out of one of the carts that had come off the boat. With his computer case over one shoulder and the duffel over the other, he started down the dock as the ferry, with its cheery combination of yellow and red paint glinting in the sun, started to load cargo for the return trip to Portland.
“So I guess the old man couldn’t be bothered to come meet me,” Aiden said, confronting the emotional elephant lumbering along beside them.
Bram shot him a startled glance. “You didn’t really think he would, did you?”
Why the hell Aiden would expect—or want—his father to meet him was a complete mystery. He and Sean Flynn hadn’t spoken in the two years since Aiden’s mom’s funeral. That was the only time that Aiden had returned to the island. It had been a grim, tragic exercise in every way, and he and his father had barely exchanged a handful of words.
But at least his dad hadn’t gotten drunk and tried to belt him. He’d given up that habit when Aiden turned sixteen, finally big enough and strong enough to hit back. That day had been one of the best of Aiden’s life. Knowing that his oldest son could and would stand up to him, his father had stopped pounding on Bram, too.
“Look, I know you didn’t want to come,” Bram said, “but we really need you, man. I really need you. If we don’t pull off this land deal, the old man and me are going to be in deep shit.”
Aiden and Bram crossed the parking lot in front of the gray clapboard building that served as Seashell Bay’s Town Hall. His brother’s rusted-out old pickup, which had once been Aiden’s, was parked toward the back of the lot in one of two spaces unofficially reserved for the Flynns.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Aiden pitched his duffel into the back of the truck. Bram dumped the sports bag beside it, and they climbed into the cab.
“So, what’s the latest on the deal with this development company anyway?” Aiden asked as he put his computer between his feet and reached for his seat belt. It took him a moment to remember that most of the old beaters on Seashell Bay Island didn’t even have seat belts, or other necessities like air bags or mufflers. “They want to go full steam ahead with building a big-ass resort on our property, right?”
The Flynn family owned 270 acres of prime coastal land, a considerable piece of it bordered by bluffs overlooking the ocean. It had passed down to his mother through her family, and on her death Rebecca Flynn had divided it between her husband and two sons. Sean now owned 70 percent of the parcel, while Aiden and Bram had the remaining 30 percent roughly split between them. The previous year, a high-end real estate developer from Portland had expressed quiet interest in buying them out. The offer had eventually led to this—Aiden’s reluctant return to Seashell Bay.
“Not just a resort, but over a hundred luxury houses, too,” Bram said as they drove up the incline to the main road that circled the island. “They’re getting serious about putting an offer on the table, but they say they need all our land. Since your piece is right in the middle of mine and Dad’s, that means you gotta buy into the deal, bro.”
Before Aiden could respond, Bram yanked the wheel to the right, swerving to the side of the road. A four-person golf cart blasted past them in the opposite direction, an old guy at the wheel.
Aiden cursed as he slid across the cracked vinyl seat into the door, banging his elbow hard. “Jesus, who the hell was that?”
Bram wrestled the ancient truck back in a straight line. “That was Roy Mayo. You remember him, don’t you? Miss Annie’s Roy?”
“I thought he’d be dead by now,” Aiden said drily. “The guy has to be ninety, if he’s a day.”
“He turned ninety last March. Miss Annie threw a big party for him down at the Rec Center. It was a really good time.”
“No doubt. And I take it old Roy still likes fixing up golf carts.”
Fixing up was a nice way of putting it. Roy’s specialty was adding extras to the small engines that made them run way faster than they were ever designed for—or safe for.
“Yep. Down at Josh Bryson’s motor shop. Makes a few bucks at it, too.”
As far as Aiden was concerned, one of the most irritating traits of some of the older islanders was their preference for driving golf carts instead of cars. There was nothing more frustrating than getting stuck behind one of the geezers as they tootled down the middle of the island’s narrow, winding roads, often refusing to pull over to let other vehicles pass. Not that Roy fell into that category. No, Roy was more likely to blast by, pretty much running your vehicle into the ditch while doing it.
“Well, enough about the local color,” Aiden said. “Tell me more about the development deal.”
Bram shrugged. “Not much more to tell. They made it clear they won’t make a binding offer until it’s for all three parcels of Flynn land.”
Aiden could practically hear his mother spinning in her coffin. That land was her legacy, one she’d wanted to remain in the family for many generations of future Flynns to cherish and enjoy.
“Any other conditions?” he asked.
“Yeah, they want a dock for a car ferry, built and paid for by the town. Mr. Dunnagan, the company’s liaison, said the island has to get into the twenty-first century if it’s going to attract new homeowners and resort guests. We need a car ferry to bring new people and business to the island.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Aiden said.
Seashell Bay residents had beaten back more than one proposal for a car ferry service, believing it would draw too many tourists and day-trippers and ruin the island’s sleepy, old-fashioned way of life. Only one neighboring island had a car ferry, and it had a much bigger year-round population and residents who commuted to work on the mainland. For Seashell Bay folk, the only way to get a car or any other vehicle larger than a golf cart over to the island was to hire a company to transport it by barge.
“Things are changing,” Bram said. “Lobster prices have sucked for a while, and the cost of fuel and bait is always going up. Some folks are thinking it’s time to get some development onto the island to bring some more bucks into town.” His brother cut him a sideways glance. “We sure as hell could use more money around here, man.”
Aiden frowned, hoping his brother wasn’t talking about him. Ever since he signed his first pro ball contract, he’d been sending money home to his family. And it wasn’t like he was some superstar with a fat salary. Sure, he made a good living, but he’d been careful to save and invest as much as he could. He knew his days of making real money were limited, and Bram knew it, too.
He chewed his thoughts in silence for a few minutes as his brother drove them to his cottage—mostly built with Aiden’s money—on the south shore of the island. Bram took the longer route that wound up and down the rocky coast, affording spectacular views of the Atlantic whenever the dense woods opened up. At this time of year, the island’s roses were in full bloom, both in the wild and in the garden plots that surrounded so many homes. Their heavy scent wafted through the open windows of the truck, carried on the soft breeze of the fading summer afternoon.
“A decision on a new dock has to go to a town referendum, right?” Aiden said. “And the land deal can’t happen unless people vote yes?”
Bram turned into the narrow lane that led to his cottage overlooking the bluffs. “Right. That’s all in the works, but Dad says we need to hammer things out among the three of us beforehand. And since you had some free time anyway…”
Aiden waved an impatient hand. “Yeah, I got it. And I’ll think about it.”
“Okay, but Dad—”
“I said I’d think about it,” Aiden repeated firmly. He’d be damned if his father or anyone else was going to force his hand.
Bram cast him a wary look before returning his attention to the rocky lane.
Aiden was glad for the silence. Truthfully, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with the land his mother had left him. He’d never thought it would be worth much, but now it looked like it was. It should be easy to make the decision. He should say yes and hope that the car ferry vote went through so he could walk away from Seashell Bay once and for all, knowing that his brother and father were set for life.
But it wasn’t easy. Aiden had loved his mother more than anyone. He’d respected her strength and decency, and he’d watched in sorrow and anger as his father gradually bled the joy out of her. At the end, all Rebecca Flynn had to love was her boys and the island and the land that had been in her family for generations. She’d never given up on the dream that someday her sons would build their own homes in Seashell Bay and raise their families there, loving it as much as she did.
Aiden would never do that, but he wasn’t yet ready to turn his back on his mother’s dream. The fact that the sale was something his father wanted, in defiance of his wife’s last wishes, added to his reluctance.
The truck bottomed out through a final series of brutal ruts, and then the lane opened into a grassy clearing dotted with wildflowers. Massive evergreens rimmed the perimeter, reaching feathered branches to the sky. At the far end of the clearing, Bram’s cottage perched on a cliff with the beach fifty feet below. It was built in the style of a log cabin, rustic and appealing despite its owner’s obvious neglect.
Bram killed the engine at the side of the cottage. Aiden got out and trudged in his brother’s wake, climbing the few steps onto the narrow deck that ringed the cottage on three sides. Rounding the corner, he stopped in his tracks at the sight of the gray-haired, grim-looking man in one of the old rocking chairs by the front door.
“Hey, Dad,” he said. “Nice of you to come over to say hello.”
Sean Flynn hauled himself out of the chair, narrowing his gaze on his eldest son. Then he flicked his attention to Bram.
“So?” He barked the word out in a voice roughened by years of cigarettes and cheap whiskey.
Glancing uneasily between the two of them, Bram shifted his feet like the scrawny kid he’d been so many years ago. “Aiden wants a little more time to think about it, Dad.”
Their father let out a foul curse and stomped into the cottage, slamming the screen door behind him. Bram gave Aiden an apologetic grimace then trailed in after their father. A moment later, Aiden could hear ice cubes rattle and a drink being poured.
Sighing, he took a long look at the serene ocean view before going inside.
Yeah, dude. Welcome home.