Sarah Rawlings gripped the cool railing of the ferryboat and sucked in a deep breath.
Salty air that she could almost taste coated her throat. Somehow it managed to be both warm and crisp. Invigorating. Alive. It was early summer in the Pacific Northwest, and God she’d forgotten how much she loved the season here.
Opening her eyes, she slid her gaze out over the blue skies that had a few fluffy white clouds strewn about almost as an afterthought.
The slight rise and fall of the ferry gliding over the waves of Puget Sound matched the churning in her stomach.
She glanced out toward the island they approached. There were more houses now scattered along the cliffs. They seemed bigger, fancier, but the south end of the island still looked familiar. Beautiful and rich with its abundance of evergreen trees.
Had it really been eleven years since she’d lived on Whidbey? It didn’t seem like that much time had passed. That she’d only had the privilege of calling this island home for eight years of her life.
But that was the life of a navy brat. Don’t get attached to any place, to anyone, because the rug only stayed under your feet for so long.
Leaving Whidbey, though, had been the hardest move she’d ever made over the years by far. And now, for the first time since she’d left, she was coming back.
It wasn’t the light wind that sent chills through her body and lifted the hairs on her arms, but the knowledge of what she was returning to. Or more so, who.
Her heart quickened and she tightened her fingers on the railing until her knuckles went white.
No. If all goes right, you’ll be on and off this island quickly enough without ever having to see him.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Grateful for the distraction from her thoughts, Sarah plucked it free and read the message from Kenzie.
I see the ferry you’re on! You should be here any minute. Just walk off the boat and I’ll be in the parking lot waiting. Holy shitballs, I am SO excited to see you!!!
Laughing softly, she typed a quick reply in acknowledgment, not having to feign excitement.
She was excited—really she was. She hadn’t seen Kenzie in over a decade and they’d been best friends while Sarah lived on the island. Even after she’d left, they’d kept in touch through email and social media.
It was the possibility of seeing other people that worried her. The fear of ripping scabs off wounds that had never healed. It was that latter possibility that made the breakfast sandwich she’d eaten ten minutes ago threaten to come right back up.
Knowing that soon they’d land at the small ferry dock, Sarah grabbed her suitcase that rested next to her and made her way downstairs.
Once she was standing at the front of the boat, securely tucked behind the safety rope, she again drank in the sight of the island they were almost upon.
As they grew closer, her pulse seemed to get a little more erratic. Her palms damp.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. But no. She’d already made too many mistakes in her life—this wouldn’t be another one.
She turned her gaze to the dark churning waters of Puget Sound. White foam sprayed frantically into the air as the boat cut through the water.
Next to her was another group of walk-on passengers. There were a couple of bicyclists, and a family with a little girl who looked preschool age. The little girl squealed with excitement as she pointed at the waves and the flurry of bubbles around the moving boat.
A lump settled in Sarah’s throat as she watched the girl, and tears pricked at the backs of her eyes. Guilt stabbed briefly in her heart but she pushed it aside.
Emily’s fine. You know she is. Skip the guilt and focus on the task ahead, missy.
She kept that mantra in her head until the ferry had docked and she was striding off it to find Kenzie.
It didn’t take long to spot the braided strawberry blonde in the Aerosmith T-shirt, waving her arms above her head like a fool.
“Holy shit,” Kenzie squealed, launching away from her car and running to hug her. “I can’t believe you’re really here.”
Sarah embraced her friend, laughing with ease now as the tension slipped away.
Oh God, she hadn’t even realized how much she missed this girl. It had been a decade, but some friendships didn’t feel time. This was one of them.
Kenzie pulled back, her eyes shiny with tears. “How are we just a couple years from thirty? You have so few pictures on Facebook, but you look exactly the same as you did back then. Wait, no, you’re even hotter than you were in high school.”
“Am I?” Sarah laughed and shrugged. “I’m a single mom now, so I suppose I need to try harder to impress the opposite sex if I ever want to meet someone.”
“Oh hell, I hear you on that.” Kenzie scowled. “Not the single mom bit, but the trying to impress guys bit.”
“Seriously? How are you still single?” Sarah pulled away and ran a glance over her friend.
“Well, it’s like my family says: I must have high standards.”
And Kenzie always had. Her friend hadn’t changed much over the years either. Still skinny enough to make other women envious, and with the same set of boobs that had never failed to trip up the football players when the girls had been cheerleading at a game.
Add to that, she was a McLaughlin. The entire family was legend on the island and had been hugely popular since they’d moved to the States from Scotland fifteen or so years ago.
Kenzie, the youngest and only girl out of the four kids, had been in America so long she’d lost most of her accent. But any guy she met had always seemed to seek her attention. Just like the females on the island had all been starry-eyed for her three brothers.
Just thinking back to those days when she and Kenzie had been a little wild—and a lot naïve—had Sarah’s heart squeezing so hard she could barely draw in a breath.
“Okay, let’s put your suitcase in the trunk and we’ll head out.” Kenzie grabbed Sarah’s suitcase, ignoring her protests that she could put it in the trunk herself.
Minutes later they were settled into the Ford Escort and driving up the hill that led them into the heart of the island.
Sarah drank in every sight, noting the changes in businesses since the last time she’d been here. Some shops had been replaced. Some were out of business. And there were now some more commercial restaurants and various shops.
It was different, but it was still familiar. It was the island she’d spent eight years of her life on.
“So where is Emily? You didn’t want to bring her?” Kenzie cast her an accusing glance. “I still have no idea what she looks like. You’ve never posted pics of her on Facebook.”
“I’m not a fan of putting her picture online,” Sarah admitted, keeping her gaze focused out the passenger window. “I’m all right being online, but I don’t want my kid to be. I’ll show you a picture of her later.”
“Deal. Damn, I’m so glad you’re back.” Kenzie sighed. “Though the circumstances that brought you here aren’t all that great. I was sorry to hear about your grandmother’s passing.”
“Thank you.” Again she was stabbed by guilt, but this time she knew she deserved it.
Her grandma, who’d been recently widowed, had moved to Whidbey to be closer to Sarah’s mom when the family had been stationed in Oak Harbor.
Only Grandma had stayed when Sarah’s dad had gotten stationed in Japan and moved the entire family. Gran had fallen in love with the island and had decided it would be a nice place to retire.
And you never tried to visit her until it was too late. The devastating stroke that had taken her grandmother’s life had been a shock to everyone. Sarah had kept telling herself she had time to visit some day when she was ready. But now that day had come, and unfortunately Gran was gone.
“You’ll have to give me directions on where to turn. She lived in Coupeville, right?”
“Right.” Sarah stared at the blur of green from all the trees whizzing by.
“Cool, that’s just over a half hour or so.”
“I forgot how long this island is.”
It was pretty big—something like the fourth longest island in the contiguous United States, if she remembered correctly.
She and her parents hadn’t lived in Coupeville, though, but on the north end of the island up in Oak Harbor near the navy base.
“It’s pretty big,” Kenzie agreed. “Which makes it a bitch when you need to drive from Oak Harbor to catch the ferry. But then—what the…crap.”
“What?” But even as Sarah asked, she realized what had happened.
The car began to slow in jerky spurts, and the thud, thud, thud came from what sounded like a flat tire.
Kenzie maneuvered the car to the side of the road and put it in park. She glanced over at Sarah and winced.
“Flat tire? I’ve got this.” Sarah reached for her seat belt. “My dad made sure I knew how to change one before I even got my license.”
“That’s not it. I know how to change a tire too.” Kenzie tugged on a braid and grimaced. “It’s just I was going on a camping trip a few weeks ago and wanted a little extra space—”
“You took out the spare?” Sarah guessed.
“I took out the spare.”
Some things never changed. Fighting the urge to laugh or groan in frustration, Sarah just shrugged.
“Do you have AAA? We can get them out here—”
“No need. I’ve got brothers.” Kenzie waved her hand, already dialing a number on her cell phone.
She was calling her brother? Gripping the seat belt now, Sarah’s stomach went into full-on butter churn mode.
She couldn’t face him. Couldn’t see him.
“Kenzie…” Her plea was almost inaudible, but her friend must’ve heard it—and the sudden anxiety in her voice—because she glanced over quickly.
Sympathy flashed in her eyes. “Hey, don’t sweat it. I’m calling Aleck.”
Aleck. The oldest McLaughlin brother. Relief came immediately and filtered through her taut muscles. She managed a weak nod before resting her head back against the seat.
She couldn’t focus on the conversation Kenzie was having. Couldn’t do anything but try and get her heart rate back to normal.
What a stupid, ridiculous overreaction. What the hell was wrong with her?
“Help is on the way.” Kenzie set her phone down in her lap and sighed. After a moment, she glanced at Sarah. “You know I wouldn’t do that to you. I wouldn’t throw you into an awkward situation with Ian. It’s not my business, and you need to face those demons when you’re ready.”
She’d be ready about a quarter after never. Wasn’t going to happen. Couldn’t happen. But, dammit, she’d known that just being on the island was gambling with the fact it might happen.
“I’m only here for a short while.” Sarah hesitated, trying to figure out how to put it delicately. “No offense, but you’re the only McLaughlin I intended to spend time with.”
A flicker of sadness passed over her friend’s face, but she nodded. “Understandable. Sorry I threw a wrench in those plans by making Aleck bring me a spare.”
“It’s fine. Really.” She could handle Aleck. He’d always been sweet and funny. Very much like the big brother she’d never had but wouldn’t have minded having.
Kenzie nodded. “Okay. So tell me about Virginia. How do you like living there?”
Appreciating the change of subject, Sarah told her about what had brought her there and how living across the country was. She’d begun to relax again, to enjoy the conversation with her old friend, when Kenzie whipped around and stared out the rear window.
“Son of a bitch.”
“What is it?” Sarah turned to follow her gaze.
The red Camaro that roared up behind Kenzie’s car stopped maybe a foot from them, close enough to make her think he’d nudge their bumper.
That car. She knew that car.
Her heart, which she’d managed to slow, picked right back up again.
“Can’t anybody follow instructions?” Kenzie growled, and opened her door. “Stay in here, Sarah. I’ll handle this.”
This wasn’t happening. Sarah shook her head as the Camaro door opened and six feet of tall, hard male slid out.
Everything inside her head started to spin as he strode toward Kenzie, a big, shit-eating grin on his face.
Sarah gripped the edge of her seat, her nails digging into the fabric. Her neck started to protest the awkward, twisted position, but she couldn’t look away.
Shock cocooned her body, but through it, almost clinically, she drank him in. He looked so much like he had eleven years ago. Beneath the tinted sunglasses she knew she’d find those rare, piercing green eyes all the McLaughlins had.
His brown hair held a hint red in the sunlight, and it was just a little too long. The body, still tall and solid, was maybe even bigger now. It looked as if he’d taken up lifting weights.
His shoulders were wide and she couldn’t help but remember how she used to cling to them when his mouth was on hers. How those shoulders, and his hands on her waist, had been the only things that kept her standing.
Just like all the McLaughlin boys, he was entirely too sexy. But more than sexy, he seemed dangerous. Especially now. He was the ultimate bad boy, seemed happy to claim the title and revel in it.
Instinct demanded she run. That she jump out of the car and run like a startled deer into the woods, no matter how illogical and ridiculous it seemed.
Whatever Kenzie was yelling at her brother couldn’t reach her ears through the car, but the tone did. Kenzie was livid.
Her brother shook his head, and then his big grin vanished. He yanked off his sunglasses and whipped his gaze to the car to where Sarah sat in frozen disbelief.
Their gazes locked and her world bottomed out.
It was unavoidable. She would have to face him. The realization that she had no choice became evident when Ian ignored his sister’s protests and strode toward the car.
No, no, no.
Despite the childish instinct to hit the lock and keep him out, she made no effort to stop him when he reached her door and pulled it open.
“As I live and breathe. Sarah Thornton.” His Scottish accent was faint, but stronger than his sister’s. The voice was so familiar and had the power to make her knees weaken.
But even though he smiled, his eyes were frigid emerald stones that pierced deep. They were potent enough to shatter her heart all over again.
He tilted his head and murmured, “Welcome back to Whidbey Island.”
End of Excerpt