Holly Tyler always looked forward to the ferry ride from Portland to the small island in Maine where she’d grown up. She loved stepping onto one of the gaily painted red-and-yellow boats, the stresses of her demanding job fading under the magical influences of sunshine, wind, and water. The boat ride was only forty-five minutes to Seashell Bay Island, the one place on Earth that served as a haven from her pressure-cooker existence in Boston. Even the simple ride over was way more relaxing than any high-end spa treatment or fancy massage that money could buy.
But on this unplanned and very unexpected trip, she suspected her hometown might turn out to be more of a minefield than a sanctuary.
Aunt Florence had suffered another panic attack last night—a bad one. It had landed her in the hospital in Portland, where Holly’s other aunt, Beatrice, had spent the night with her. After racing up from Boston this morning and spending several hours with her two aunts, Holly had finally managed to catch a late-afternoon ferry to the island.
Now, as she stood on the upper deck, she inhaled deep breaths of the crisp sea breeze that swept across Portland Harbor. The crowded boat, full of shoppers and commuters, scythed through the deep blue water of Casco Bay, heading straight for the narrow channel between Peaks and Little Diamond Islands. Everything she saw was so familiar—every cove and inlet, every dock and marina, every cliff and beach. Since college, she’d returned to Seashell Bay for a vacation every August, and it was always a welcome retreat. Sixteen years after a semitrailer slammed into the rear of her parents’ car in a sudden winter storm on I-95, instantly killing them both, the island still remained the only place where Holly felt completely safe and loved.
This year though, she’d told her aunts and her friends that she wouldn’t be able to make it up to the island. She was in the middle of the biggest move of her professional life, leaving a successful firm of marketing consultants in Boston and moving to New York to partner with two hotshots in a new company with huge potential.
But life had thrown her a curveball, and here she was heading to Seashell Bay anyway. She absolutely had to be there for Florence. And Beatrice—the younger of her two aunts—was going to need Holly’s help in running the Jenkins General Store until her sister was able to return to work.
Leaning against the ferry’s starboard rail, Holly scanned the hundreds of lobster buoys that bobbed in the swells near an underwater shelf just offshore. Sure enough, she spotted her best friend Lily’s orange-and-green colors a couple of hundred feet away. Nothing said home to her more than spotting those buoys. The Doyle family had been lobster fishing the waters around Seashell Bay for a couple of centuries, and Lily was one of a long line determined to keep that tradition unbroken for years to come.
As the boat approached the island, she could see thirty or forty people waiting on the big concrete dock, including a few construction workers from the new ecoresort, identifiable by their work boots and hardhats. Lily was there, along with Morgan Merrifield. And as soon as her friends spotted Holly, they started to wave like she was visiting royalty. Seeing their welcoming smiles made her heavy heart lighten.
Holly had grown up with Lily and Morgan, her two closest friends in the world. They’d bonded as little girls even before they attended the island’s elementary school and were inseparable right through their years at Portland’s Peninsula High. But after graduation, Holly and Morgan had headed off to different colleges on the mainland, while Lily began her lobster-fishing career on her father’s boat.
She blew kisses to her pals and then let her gaze wander down the length of the concrete pier. When she spotted the distinctive black-and-gold SUV of the sheriff’s office parked at the end, her heart took a funny little skip.
The unsettling sensations she got whenever she saw Micah tugged at her stomach, this time intensified by a magnitude of about ten. Micah was one of her oldest friends, but something between them had changed last summer, and she’d been thinking for months about what it would be like the next time she came home.
Thinking about him so much over the past year seemed wrong, given that she was already in a relationship—sort of.
Micah emerged from his cruiser, his eyes hidden as usual by aviator sunglasses. He started strolling down the dock, shaking hands with some of the men and ruffling kids’ hair as he passed. He towered over almost everyone, an awesomely brawny man with the demeanor of a friendly giant to his friends and neighbors, and that of an intimidating, take-no-prisoners cop to anybody who dared threaten the peace and security of the island.
And Holly couldn’t take her damn eyes off him. Yes, she’d always known on some level that he was a truly hot guy, but it had never affected her before. Not since last summer, and surely not like it did now.
She was one of the first passengers to disembark once the deckhands had secured the gangway to the pier. Lily and Morgan politely hung back to stay out of the way of the throng. As soon as Holly reached them, they pulled her into a tight, three-way hug that went on for what must have been a full minute.
“Hey, sweetie, we sure missed you,” Lily murmured in her ear. “But you’re home now, and we’re going to take care of you.”
“I missed you guys too,” Holly choked out through a tight throat. She knew how true it was that they would rally around her, and Florence and Beatrice too. Island people looked after their own.
Though Holly hadn’t seen Lily in months, her friend looked exactly the same—lean but incredibly fit and sporting a gorgeous tan from working long days on her boat. She wore soft, faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and flip-flops. As usual, Morgan looked way girlier, her blond beauty showcased by her pretty white-and-green polka-dot sundress. Holly had last seen her beautiful, blue-eyed friend in January when Morgan and her hunky fiancé, Ryan Butler, spent a weekend in Boston doing a little sightseeing and taking in a hockey game. Morgan, a substitute teacher in Portland, also ran the island’s B&B with her younger sister, Sabrina.
“How’s Florence doing?” Morgan asked. “We’re so worried.”
“She’s resting comfortably, thanks to the medication,” Holly said. “It looks like they’ll keep her in the hospital awhile because of her age and medical history. It was a pretty bad panic attack. It did a bit of a number on her heart.”
Micah suddenly loomed up behind Lily, his tall, muscular body casting her friend’s slender form in shadow. He was a bit like the granite cliffs that lined the island’s southern coast—formidable, rugged, and potentially dangerous, at least to Holly.
“The law has arrived,” Morgan commented drily. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Stow it, you two,” Micah drawled in his deep voice, “or you’ll be spending the night in a cell.” He took off his hat and pushed his shades on top of his head. His short black hair was suffering from what Holly thought was a cute case of hat head.
“Hi, Holly. Welcome home.” His warm smile softened the edges of his oh-so-masculine mouth. His dark gaze as he scanned her was even warmer. “Morgan told me you’d be on this boat.”
“Hi, Micah,” Holly said.
Okay, she sounded totally lame, but these days he made her feel like a tongue-tied teenager. Not surprising, given how hot he was. Micah had looked like a grown man since he was about fourteen or fifteen, way ahead of every other boy his age at school. Now he was almost thirty-three, two years older than she was, and maturity certainly sat well on him. An avid boater and outdoorsman, good at sports, good with tools, and always ready to lend a hand, Micah Lancaster was truly the walking definition of a man’s man.
She fixed her eyes on his gold badge, a seven-point star that he wore just above his heart. Holly remembered all too well what was underneath his brown uniform shirt. She’d seen a lot of him last summer as she recuperated on the island from foot surgery. Micah had volunteered on more than one occasion to push her wheelchair around the quiet island roads to give her some much-needed fresh air. One sunny and very hot day, Micah had stripped off his shirt and draped it over Gracie Poole’s mailbox, saying he’d pick it up on the way back. Naked from the waist up and with his khaki pants riding low, he’d looked nothing like the image he was careful to maintain when he was in uniform. And while he looked fantastic in his deputy duds, he was utterly, mind-numbingly sexy without a shirt. Holly had come way too close to saying to hell with the danger and giving in to the insane desire to lick every salty drop of sweat from his sculpted chest and washboard abs, and then going on from there.
Micah remained rooted in place, staring down at her and apparently forgoing the usual hug he gave her whenever she came home. That seemed to make her feel even more awkward. Besides—and she would die before admitting this—she’d been secretly waiting for his bear-hug greeting.
“What, no hug for your old pal?” she finally prompted in a teasing voice.
A flush seemed to glaze his tanned cheekbones, but his lips curved into a smile. “You bet there is.”
His relieved look told her he hadn’t been sure of his welcome. He probably thought she’d stay in touch after he’d been so considerate and helpful last summer. While Holly felt about two inches tall for practically ignoring the man all these months, the obvious crush he’d developed on her over the past couple of years made her worry about giving any sign that she’d be up for something more than friendship.
Because she wasn’t, and if she told herself so enough times, she’d surely believe it, right?
Lily stepped out of the way, and Micah drew Holly into his brawny embrace. On her tiptoes, Holly air-kissed his cheek, her lips barely grazing his deeply tanned skin. Though he was always clean-shaven, his stubble was getting a little heavy by this late in the day. She breathed in the familiar, faint scent of aftershave and leather and told herself to dial it back. It would be so easy to get lost in the comfort of his protective embrace.
She forced herself to give his broad back a couple of awkward pats, hopefully sending a signal that she was ready to break the clench. Micah relaxed his grip and took a slow step back.
“Holly, I’m really sorry about Florence.” He flipped his sunglasses back down, hiding the emotion she thought she glimpsed in his dark gaze.
“Hey, guys, it’s broiling out here. Let’s walk as we talk,” Morgan intervened. She made a grab for the wheeled suitcase.
Micah had other ideas, taking the suitcase before Morgan’s hand reached it. “I’ve got this. And I’ll take your computer case too, Holly.”
“The sheriff’s office lives to serve,” Morgan said wryly.
“I was pretty worried about Florence,” Micah said as he matched his normally long stride to Holly’s. “I got there right after the EMTs. Poor old gal was looking grim.”
Holly fought back a surge of guilt. “I just wish I could have been here—for Beatrice’s sake as much as Florence’s. It was really hard on her too.”
Micah nodded. “I thought about going in the rescue boat but figured I could be of more use by sticking close to Beatrice until we knew what was going on.”
She gave him a grateful smile. “She told me you took her over to Portland in your boat and saw her safely to Maine Med. That was so kind of you, Micah. She was really touched that you’d do that, and so was I.”
He gave an embarrassed little shrug. “That’s my job.”
Holly knew better. She doubted there were many cops that would go to the lengths Micah did for the people of Seashell Bay.
The four of them halted beside Morgan’s red pickup truck, a Toyota of indeterminate but advanced age. “Beatrice told me she was sure it was the news of Night Owl applying for a building permit that sent Florence over the edge. Do you really think it’s going to finally happen?” she asked Lily.
Lily would have more news, if anybody did, since her maternal grandmother, Miss Annie Letellier, scooped up information like a gigantic NSA satellite dish.
“If the town grants the permit, then yes,” Lily said with a sigh. “The good news is that the company said they’re only interested in the vacant lot beside the post office. I can see why since there’s no other property big enough and close enough to the landing for their standard-sized store. If the town selectmen say no to that location, I think that’ll be the end of it.”
That gave Holly a glimmer of hope.
Micah stowed Holly’s suitcase in the truck bed and then leaned against the frame. “I guess you didn’t expect to be back at all this summer, did you?”
Guilt twisted her gut into a tangle. “Well, I’d hoped for a couple of days in September, maybe. My New York partners and I have a business to set up, with some tight deadlines. I want to be there for my aunts, but it’s going to be really hard for me to stay any length of time.”
Micah’s eyebrows rose for a long moment, as if something had surprised him. But then his expression went carefully blank. “Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help out with your aunts,” he said. “See you at dinner tonight.”
Holly cast a quick glance at Lily as Micah turned and strode off. Lily had invited her and Morgan to dinner—it was something of a tradition whenever Holly made it back to Seashell Bay. And this time, of course, Lily’s husband and Morgan’s fiancé would be there too. But Micah?
“You don’t mind that I invited the deputy tonight, do you?” Lily asked sweetly. “Aiden and Ryan practically insisted.”
“Of course not,” she said, forcing a smile. “Why would I?”
She’d avoided Micah for almost a whole year, but her reprieve was coming to an end.