To Kathy Allbritton Bennett, a reader and friend who has done so much to support me and others. Not only has Kathy traveled to meet me in person, but she’s very active in the book group I started several years ago on Facebook, attends the monthly meetings, posts to uplift and befriend other members of the group, subscribes to the Brenda Novak Book Boxes (which we put so much hard work into!) and fulfills the annual Brenda Novak Reading Challenge each year. And she doesn’t stop there! She goes above and beyond by offering—completely her idea—fun giveaways to the many other readers in the group. Kathy, thank you for making everyone’s day just a little brighter!
July 8, 2013
“They think I did it!”
The panic in Cam Stafford’s voice caused Ariana Prince to tense and hold the phone closer to her ear. What he’d said couldn’t be true, could it? Like her and Ivy Hawthorne—the three of them were best friends and did everything together—he was still in high school. Teenagers didn’t usually kidnap people. What would he want with a twelve-year-old girl, anyway?
Even if he were a full-grown adult, he’d never be the reason for someone going missing. He was a good person, a totally decent guy. Besides, Mariners was a popular resort destination. During the summer, the local population swelled to six times its usual number. It made a lot more sense that Emily Hutchins had drowned in the ocean or something. “Who thinks you did it?”
“What is it?” Hearing her side of the conversation and the alarm in her voice, Ivy, who’d been listening from where she was studying at Ariana’s desk, had swiveled around.
“It’s Cam,” Ariana told her.
She got up and came over to the bed, where Ariana was sitting with the driver’s manual and several practice tests spread out around her. “I know it’s Cam. What’s going on?”
Ariana lifted one hand to indicate she couldn’t focus on two conversations at once—not right now. “Cam?” she said into the phone since he hadn’t answered yet.
“The police,” he replied. “They just left here.”
This was even scarier. “The police” made it sound so much more official than his parents, who were always blaming him for one thing or another. Ariana believed they took out all their frustrations and disappointments on him, whether he was responsible for them or not. “What makes them think you had anything to do with it?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “None of it’s making any sense.”
“Something must make them suspect you…” she insisted.
Ivy signaled she should put Cam on speakerphone, and she did—to stop the distraction Ivy was causing more than anything else. This sounded serious. But surely it wouldn’t amount to much. Cam had been in trouble with the law before, but it’d always been for minor stuff—stuff he did just to piss off his parents. One time he broke into the school over the weekend and wrote funny but disrespectful things about his teachers on their own blackboards. Another time he stole a bike he said he planned to give back, and Ariana believed him since he already had a much better one. Ariana’s grandmother insisted he was crying out for help because his parents neglected him, and Ariana believed that was true. Mr. and Mrs. Stafford were so busy fighting with each other they rarely seemed to remember they had a kid.
“Ivy’s on the phone with us,” she told him. He already knew they were together. He was supposed to come over any minute so he could study with them. She and Ivy had turned sixteen in the past several months. Cam was seventeen and could’ve gotten his driver’s license already, but his parents had withheld that privilege because of his behavior. He’d soon be off restriction, though, so the three of them were hoping to do it all at once this summer, before school started again.
“They think I was the last one to see her.”
“Why would they think that?” Ariana asked.
“Because she came over and asked me to help her get inside the house her family was renting when she got locked out,” he said.
He’d never mentioned meeting Emily. Had he realized the girl he’d helped had been the one who’d gone missing? He had to, didn’t he? Emily Hutchins was all anyone had been able to talk about since her sister woke up to find her gone Saturday morning. People had been handing out flyers and posting her picture around the island, especially in town, for the past three days—ever since it happened. “Wait…you spoke to her?” Ariana said.
“Only for a few minutes,” he replied.
Ariana knew that the rental house Emily and her family were staying in was just down the street from Cam’s. So did Ivy. They’d talked about how creepy it was that she’d been so close when it happened, and Cam had been there when they’d had that conversation. Yet he’d said nothing. “Was her sister with her?”
“No. From what she said, Jewel was still at the beach. Emily came back early on her own.”
“Why didn’t you say something about that before now?” Ivy asked.
“Because it didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “The bathroom window was cracked open, so I pushed it wider and lifted her through. Then she saw the key on the counter and came running after me, asking me to help her hide it so she couldn’t get locked out again.”
Ariana’s heart sank. “So you knew where the key was hidden…”
“Yes, and her sister came back while we were putting it in the front planter area, so she told the police I knew where the key was. But like I told them, I only knew because she asked me to help her hide it. I had no interest in her or her sister.”
“What I can’t figure out is why you didn’t mention this before,” Ariana said.
“Why would I? It had no meaning to me.”
“Even after she went missing?” Ivy said. “That didn’t freak you out?”
He sighed audibly. “Of course it freaked me out. I felt like I couldn’t say anything then. I’ve been in trouble enough to know that I didn’t want to draw any attention my way, especially because kids who go missing and aren’t found within forty-eight hours usually don’t survive.”
“How do you know?” Ivy asked.
“Everyone knows that,” he said. “There are TV shows about it.”
Ariana pushed the handbook and papers off to one side. That was what everyone in town was saying, too. That the girl was probably dead. The past few days had been horrible for the whole community, but especially Emily’s heartbroken family, who were waiting on the island, hoping against hope for some word.
“When did she come over?” Ivy asked. “What time was it?”
“I don’t know exactly. Around dinnertime, before we went to the beach. The whole thing lasted only a few minutes. It was nothing.”
“Then what did the police have to say?” Ariana asked.
“They asked me where I was that night, what I was doing, who I was with—and on and on.”
Friday had been the day after the Fourth of July, and for most people the Independence Day celebrations continued into the weekend. Ariana loved the festive spirit that existed on Mariners during tourist season, and she, Cam and Ivy had been right there on the beach partying along with everyone else—until it’d gotten too chilly. Then, because she and Ivy didn’t have jackets, they’d decided to go home, and Cam had walked them to Ariana’s grandmother’s house, where they were going to stay that night, and he went home. “Did you tell the police we were drinking?” she asked, cringing at the possibility. They were well under the drinking age of twenty-one, and her mother had been reluctant to allow her to live with her grandmother in the first place. It’d taken running away to get Bridget to change her mind and let her stay until she could graduate when Bridget, Ariana’s stepfather and siblings moved off the island a little over a year ago. If Bridget learned she was drinking, she might take Ariana away from Mariners, after all, right before her senior year.
“Yes,” he said. “I had to.”
Ariana got off the bed. “Why? You know how hard we had to fight to get my mom to let me stay on Mariners. If word of this gets back to her—”
“Ariana, there were too many people who saw us that night,” he broke in. “It would’ve been easy as shit to call me out on that dumb a lie. This is about something that’s a lot worse than drinking, anyway. The questions they were asking me… I could tell I’m in real trouble this time. Her sister, who was supposed to be babysitting, claims Emily was home with her when she went to bed. The police said Emily wouldn’t run away—not when she was on vacation and in such an unfamiliar place. They think someone took her, and that whoever did it grabbed her right around that time. So even though I spent most of the evening with you two, they said I could’ve gone to her house after I walked you home.”
“Did you?” Ivy asked.
“Of course not!” he cried.
“You went straight home and stayed there,” Ariana clarified.
Ariana wanted to believe him. But he didn’t like being alone. And his parents were always gone. On Friday, they’d been in Vegas or somewhere. He’d wanted to spend the night with her and Ivy—he sometimes snuck into Ivy’s room when they were staying at her place—but Ariana knew Alice would never allow a boy to sleep over. She wouldn’t want to have to answer to Ivy’s parents. Or to Ariana’s, either.
Besides, Cam’s parents were supposed to be getting home that night. And even though he claimed he didn’t care if staying with her and Ivy got him in trouble, they cared. They hated seeing him be constantly punished.
Ivy began to fidget with the frayed hem of her cut-offs. “Sounds to me like the problem is we came back too early. If we’d stayed at the beach until later—past ten-thirty, when Jewel said she heard that bump—you wouldn’t have been able to return to the Hutchins’ vacation rental at that time.”
“Exactly,” Cam said. “Which is why—” he stopped and started again “—which is why I told them we didn’t leave the beach until later.”
“You lied?” Ivy said, dropping her voice to a whisper.
“I could go to prison,” Cam said. “Even though I didn’t do anything to this…this Emily girl. So, yes, I said what I had to say, but I see it as helping the police find the guy who really did kidnap her, because they’re wasting their time on me.”
Ivy began to pace. “I get that, but…” She pressed her hands to her cheeks before dropping them. “Oh, my God. That means they’re probably going to ask us about it.”
Ariana covered her mouth. Of course they would. And if their story didn’t match Cam’s…
“We just…we all have to say the same thing,” Cam said. “Then this nightmare will go away. They’ll find the real culprit and…and hopefully she’ll be found safe. Even if she’s not, at least her family will know what happened to her.”
“But we won’t be telling the truth!” Ivy whispered as if she couldn’t get past that.
Ariana lowered her voice, too. The last thing she needed was for her grandmother to overhear this. “Cam’s right. If we don’t say the same thing, it’ll make him look even more guilty because he lied.”
“I’m sorry for dragging you both into this,” he said. “My mind was racing. I was in a panic. I had to say something, and…”
Ivy sank onto the bed. “And you said you were still with us.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
“What are we going to do now?” Ivy asked Ariana. “We can’t let him go to prison.”
“I’m seventeen,” he said. “If they try me, they said they’d try me as an adult.”
Ariana felt sick to her stomach. She didn’t want to mislead anyone. She’d never been in trouble before in her life, certainly not this kind of trouble. But what else could she do? Although she’d always insisted she felt nothing more for Cam than friendship—because he’d never acted as though he wanted anything more from her—that wasn’t true. She’d loved him almost from the first moment they met. There was no way she would let this happen to him if she could stop it. She knew he hadn’t hurt anyone. Wasn’t that what really mattered? “I say we tell everyone that we didn’t leave the beach until ten-thirty—after Jewel heard that thump. It only changes the timing by half an hour.”
“That half hour makes all the difference,” Ivy said.
Ariana nodded. “I know. So who would question it? But the three of us have to stick together. And we can’t change our minds or our stories later, no matter what. Otherwise, if the truth comes out, we’ll all be in trouble.
“Are you sure we should really do this?” Ivy wore a pained expression, but Ariana didn’t get the chance to answer before Alice’s voice interrupted, calling them from downstairs.
“Ariana? Ivy? Could you come here, please?”
The adrenaline coursing through Ariana made her legs feel like rubber as she rushed over and put a hand on the door so Ivy couldn’t open it. “We’re trying to study for our driver’s test. Can we have fifteen more minutes?” she called down and closed her eyes, hoping Alice would agree. They needed more time, couldn’t make such a big decision in an instant.
But Alice’s voice came up to them again. “I’m afraid you’ll have to set that aside. The police would like to have a word with you.”
Mariners Island seemed like an empty movie set—cheerful and pristine but merely a facade—until the season hit. Then it was as if a director had screamed “Action!” and a flood of tourists rushed in with the tide.
After a long, dreary winter, Ivy Hawthorne couldn’t wait for the warm days of summer. She loved the sun and the sand and the happy vacationers who flocked to the island’s expensive summer houses, pristine beaches and exclusive shops and restaurants. The influx made for a nice change of pace, especially this year, when fog and bad weather had cut off the island from the mainland more often than usual, curtailing the activity of the supply boats and planes that would otherwise have come in and out on a more regular basis.
After such a hard winter, summer was literally a breath of fresh air. But this year it promised even more than the usual excitement. Ivy was looking forward to seeing Ariana Prince, a lifelong friend who’d grown up with her on Mariners. Ariana lived in New York City these days, and although there were plenty of direct flights, only an hour long, she’d stopped visiting the island regularly a decade ago—about the time she’d graduated from Yale.
She didn’t stay in touch very often anymore, either. Until a few weeks ago, she’d worked as an editor for one of the bigger publishers in the city and insisted she couldn’t get away. But Ivy ran the only library on the island. She understood how the book industry worked. August was slow because it fell between the big sales periods, so it was the month most editors took vacation. Ariana could’ve come back for a few days or a week every August—if she’d wanted to.
At least she was coming now. And not only for a week. She’d be on Mariners all summer. Ivy hoped it would seem like old times. But she couldn’t avoid a certain amount of trepidation. Ariana had quit her job, but she’d been elusive as to the reason, what she planned to do next and if she’d be going back to New York when the summer was over. Why? And why was she returning this summer when she’d missed so many others?
Given the recent headlines, Ivy had a sinking feeling she knew what was drawing her friend. But she was loath to even think of the decision they’d made so many years ago. What was done was done. She didn’t want to second-guess herself. She and Ariana had acted according to what they felt was right at the time.
Shoving the memory she’d suppressed for two decades back into the farthest recesses of her brain, she tried to shake off the attendant anxiety. Hopefully, they wouldn’t even have to talk about the past.
But when her phone went off as she glanced at the clock hanging on the wall over the popular fiction section—because she was expecting Ariana to walk in any second—it seemed rather portentous that it was the only other person who’d been involved in what’d happened their junior year.
“There you are.”
Cam Stafford sounded as casual as he always did. But the timing of his call made the anxiety she’d been fighting worse. “What’s up?” she asked.
“Melanie said she ran into Ariana’s grandmother at Anchors Away when she went to pick up my lunch. Did you know that Ariana’s coming to the island?”
Ivy froze. Melanie was Cam’s wife of four years. He was the only one out of the three of them who was married, and it was seeing Melanie with their child around the island so often that had convinced Ivy to leave everything as it was, despite what was being reported on the news. “Um…yeah. I’ve been meaning to tell you. Ariana called me a few days ago and said she’d be here for the summer.”
“Why didn’t she call me?”
Deep down, he had to at least suspect the reason, didn’t he? They’d tried to move on after what’d happened, and for a while everything had seemed fine. As teenagers, the secret the three of them shared might even have brought them closer. They’d both admired Cam and were so certain, so defiant of any doubt.
But after graduation everything began to change, and with change came an increase in tension. It was almost as if that night had put an invisible rubber band around the three of them. As they moved on with their lives and grew apart, it stretched and stretched until…what? Would it finally snap, allowing them to live their lives unencumbered by the friendship and loyalty that’d bound them so far? Or would that rubber band suddenly contract and pull the three of them back together?
Was that what Ariana’s return meant? Was it the past that’d finally brought her back to Mariners?
“She probably expected me to tell you,” Ivy said, implying it was an oversight. “I’ve just been so darn busy that…you know…I kept putting it off, thinking I’d talk to you soon and…”
She let her words dwindle away because she couldn’t come up with a strong finish. She could’ve texted him, at least. And yet…something had stopped her. Lately, even before the news broke, she’d found herself avoiding him in general.
“How can she stay all summer?” he asked as if she hadn’t given him the most unbelievable and stilted response ever. “What about her job?”
“Apparently, she no longer has one. She told me she quit.”
“Why? I thought she loved her work.”
“She loves books. Maybe she’d rather write one.”
“She’s coming here to write?”
“Who knows? But if anyone could come up with the next Great American Novel, she could.” Ariana was both talented and clever. But she was also a sensitive person and tended to worry more about morally gray areas than most people. That was what had Ivy on edge. Maybe that night twenty years ago had been weighing on Ariana the whole time, or she’d changed her mind about the morality of what they’d done.
That wouldn’t be good news for Cam. Especially now.
After maintaining the lie they’d told for so long, it wouldn’t be good news for Ivy, either.
“Her grandmother’s getting pretty frail,” Ivy continued. “Ariana could be coming to spend time with her.”
“Or she could be looking for a place to regroup while she decides what to do with the rest of her life,” he said.
“True. She didn’t tell me. She’d barely said she was coming to the island when she got another call and had to hang up.”
“When will she be here?”
Ivy hesitated but ultimately didn’t feel she had any reason to act like she didn’t know. Ostensibly, nothing had changed among the three of them. She could simply be creating problems. “Today.”
“Today?” he echoed in surprise.
“Yeah. She should be stopping by the library any minute.”
“Are you two going out tonight? If so, can I join you?”
“Of course,” Ivy heard herself say. She couldn’t hurt him. He’d been their best friend since his family moved to the island during middle school. The three of them had done almost everything together. There weren’t a lot of kids who remained on the island year-round, especially kids who hit it off as well as they did. They’d always been thankful to have each other.
“Great. Perfect. Call me as soon as she gets in.”
He sounded relieved that they’d still include him—or, possibly, that was her imagination. “I will. What about Melanie and little Camilla? Will they be joining us, too?”
This time he was the one who paused before answering. “No. Melanie left for Boston after bringing me lunch. She went to see her family and took Camilla with her.”
“How long will she be gone?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
That seemed like a strange answer. Shouldn’t he be able to say when his wife and daughter would be back?
Ivy resisted the urge to press him. They’d drifted far enough apart since he got married that such a personal question might seem invasive. “Okay. It’ll be just the three of us, then.”
“Yeah, like old times.”
“Sounds good. I’ll text you when we’ve decided on a restaurant,” she said and disconnected as the library door swung open and Ariana walked in.
* * *
The library hadn’t changed. Established by the oldest son of Richard Taylor, the whale oil merchant who’d founded Mariners in the early nineteenth century and Ivy’s great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side, it maintained its old-world charm, with original mahogany bookshelves and a circular staircase leading to the second floor. Brass lamps, replicas of a bygone era, and leather wingback chairs were arranged around various tables to give it a warm, homey feel.
Ariana had always loved coming here. Not only did the library offer peace and tranquility during the frenetic tourist season, it also helped satisfy her thirst for knowledge—and it figured prominently in how she’d met Ivy. Before Ivy’s grandmother Hazel had passed away, she’d been determined that the efforts of her ancestors would not be wasted, that the collections they’d started would be available and properly maintained. So whenever Hazel babysat Ivy, she’d bring her here. And since Ariana’s grandmother Alice had raised Ariana during her preschool years and lived just around the corner from Hazel, Hazel would invite Alice and Ariana to come along. The two grandmothers would take their granddaughters to Story Time before having a picnic lunch at the beach, if the weather was warm enough, or getting hot cocoa and one of Joy Denizen’s delicious breakfast rolls at Baked With Love—the most famous of the island’s bakeries—if it was rainy or cold.
Those excursions had created some of Ariana’s earliest memories. Just walking in and smelling the familiar scent of the printed paper and the furniture polish took her back to those idyllic days. The nostalgia was almost enough to make her forget the reason she’d returned to the island.
Almost. But not quite. As tormented as she’d been, especially lately, she wasn’t sure anything would have the power to do that.
“Oh my gosh! It’s been so long!” Ivy exclaimed as she came around the circulation desk and pulled Ariana in for a hug.
Ariana allowed the embrace but stepped away as soon as possible. While eager to see her old friend, she was reluctant to be thrust back into the net of love, obligation and loyalty that’d captured her when she was only sixteen. “How are you?”
“The library looks amazing,” she said, turning in a circle as she took it all in.
“The goal has always been to keep it as close to the original as possible. And I’m definitely doing that,” Ivy said with a laugh.
Thanks to the money and property she’d inherited from her grandmother—a portion equal to her mother’s since Ivy had been so close to Hazel—she didn’t need a high-paying job. Instead of leaving the island for the sake of a career somewhere else, she’d made the library her life’s work, protecting it from the devastating budget cuts and other funding challenges that’d closed public facilities across the country. She felt it was her duty not only to protect the library but also to preserve what she could of the history of Mariners, since her family was such a big part of it.
“Are you sure it hasn’t become a millstone?” Ariana asked skeptically.
“Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve finished college instead of coming back when my grandmother died. But when I imagine letting this place go and leaving the island for any length of time, I realize I don’t want to do that. I belong here.” She gestured at the building around them. “This is my family’s legacy.”
A picture of Ivy’s great-great-grandfather hung over the circulation desk in a thick, ornate frame. “Your family’s legacy extends to far more than the library,” Ariana pointed out. The tourists who came to Mariners learned about Ivy’s progenitors while visiting the whaling museum, which wasn’t nearly as elaborate as the one on Nantucket but was a popular tourist spot all the same. And during the summer, there were people who took pictures of the house where she lived. Part of the historic district on Elm Street, it was a beautiful example of the Greek Revival architecture that’d been so popular during the island’s whaling heyday.
“I’m happy here,” she added simply.
Ivy’s older brother, Tim, and her parents had left the island. Tim was a dentist who lived in Philadelphia with his wife and three kids. From what Ivy said, he came back almost every summer. Ivy’s parents owned a summer home on Mariners that he used when he stayed, but none of the rest of her family seemed to feel the same connection and obligation to the library. Maybe it was because Ivy had spent so much time with her grandmother. She seemed to identify more with Hazel than her mother, who claimed she couldn’t stay on Mariners year-round. She said it gave her island fever, especially once the fog rolled in.
“I’m glad,” Ariana told her. “Are you ready to eat? I haven’t had anything since breakfast. I’m starving.”
Ivy grabbed her purse and dug out her keys, presumably to lock up. Since most of the restaurants were on this side of the island, near the wharf, the airport and the central shopping district, there was no need to drive. “I’m ready, but…”
Ariana felt her eyebrows go up when Ivy didn’t finish that statement. “But…what?”
“Cam called just before you came in. His wife ran into your grandmother earlier today, and Alice mentioned that you were coming for the summer.”
Ariana suppressed a groan. “She did?”
“Yeah.” Ivy peered at her more closely. “Is that okay?”
Ariana tried to put her friend at ease by shrugging it off. She didn’t want the angst and doubt that’d plagued her for the past twenty years to bleed into Ivy’s life. Ariana still wasn’t convinced there was anything she should or could do to change the way things were. “Of course. Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“You didn’t let him know you were coming. I thought—”
“I was just…busy,” she broke in.
Ariana’s behavior toward Cam was so uncharacteristic, given how close the three of them had been, that Ivy had to know there was more to her reaction than she was letting on. Fortunately, however, she didn’t question Ariana’s response. “Right,” she said. “Well, that’s good because he asked when you were getting in.”
A knot began to grow in Ariana’s stomach, but she tried to keep the sudden tension she was feeling out of her voice. “And? What’d you tell him?”
“The truth. I didn’t have any reason not to…did I?” she asked uncertainly.
Ariana curved her lips into a reassuring smile. “No. Of course not. What’d he say?”
“He asked if he could join us for dinner tonight.”
Shit. Ariana wasn’t ready to see Cam. There was a reason she’d avoided him more and more as time went by. But she’d known when she decided to return to Mariners that seeing him would be part of it. He was the main reason she’d quit her job to come back and, hopefully, make right anything she’d done wrong. She’d just hoped she’d have a day or two to acclimate and prepare herself before facing him. “What about Melanie and Camilla? Are they coming, too?”
“They left a few hours ago for the mainland—to visit her family.”
“Then he’ll be coming alone?”
“Yeah. Is that better or worse?”
Ariana upped the wattage of her smile. “It’s no problem either way. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“You two still talk, though, right?”
“Not as often as you and I do, but…occasionally. I haven’t wanted to intrude now that he’s married. The guy-girl friend thing doesn’t go over well with every spouse, you know?”
“I do know. At the wedding I got the distinct feeling that Melanie would not appreciate my involvement in his life, so I’ve been careful about that, too.” Although Ivy also smiled, the doubt never left her eyes. “Where should we eat?”
“How about The Jumbo Gumbo? I’m in the mood for fresh fish.”
“I’d be happy with that,” Ivy said. “Do you want to text Cam? Or should I?”
Ariana cleared her throat. “I’ll do it,” she said and pulled out her phone.
Cam was as handsome as ever. With big blue eyes and long golden eyelashes, he looked like a blond Jake Gyllenhaal, especially because the chiseled contours of his face had only grown more dramatic as he matured. Ariana believed he could easily have modeled had he chosen that profession. He’d become an architect instead and was quite famous for his work. But with his spare, six-foot-five-inch frame, he could make a dirty old T-shirt look appealing.
Tonight he was wearing a salmon-colored Ralph Lauren golf shirt with a pair of chinos and loafers, perfectly matching the stereotype of a gorgeous, wealthy frat boy—similar to so many of the privileged young college students who visited the island.
The toothy smile he flashed the second he laid eyes on her sent a sizzle of awareness down Ariana’s spine. Although she’d been careful to hide it, he’d always had that effect on her. She couldn’t help but believe her attraction to him was part of the reason she’d made the decision she’d made when they were in high school.
She’d often wondered if he’d used the way she felt about him to his advantage. He had to be able to sense, on some level, that her feelings weren’t quite as platonic as she’d always pretended, didn’t he?
Regardless, he held a certain power over her she wished he didn’t.
“Hey,” she said as he unfolded from the chair where he’d been waiting at the entrance.
“There you are, stranger.” He embraced her, and she briefly closed her eyes as she breathed in the clean scent of him. She could already tell that her stay on Mariners this summer was going to be even harder than she’d thought. After all the time they’d had to grow apart—after countless hours of self-talk and years of avoidance—she’d expected to have more emotional distance when she saw him again.
But that distance melted instantly away, putting her right back where she’d been twenty years ago. She’d always loved Cam, and that hadn’t changed.
“You could’ve come to the city,” she said to combat the accusation in his voice.
“You were too busy climbing the corporate ladder to be bothered with a visit from me,” he joked, sobering as he added, “And then I met Melanie, she got pregnant and you know the rest of the story.” Although he shrugged to mitigate some of the heft of those words, there was a hollowness in his eyes that had never been there before. “Life happens, I guess.” He turned to embrace Ivy. “You’ve made yourself a stranger lately, too, and we live on an island that’s only ten miles long and five miles wide. Where’ve you been?”
“I haven’t wanted to intrude. It’s important for us to be respectful of Melanie.”
“I can see why you’d feel that way,” he said as he released her. “She’s been none too friendly to you. But I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about her for much longer.”
The hostess interrupted. “Are you Cam? I have your table ready.”
Cam gestured for Ariana and Ivy to precede him into the main dining area.
It wasn’t until they were comfortably seated in a corner booth that Ivy circled back to the statement he’d made at the entrance. “What did you mean when you said we won’t have to worry about Melanie for much longer?” she asked.
He sighed as he raked his fingers through his thick hair, which was cropped close on the sides but remained longer on top. He didn’t seem to care that he was causing it to stand up in front, but Ariana supposed there wasn’t any reason for him to care. The unruliness only made him sexier. “I don’t think we’re going to make it,” he said.
Ariana felt her eyes go wide. “You’re talking about your marriage?”
He carefully rearranged his silverware. “What’s left of it, yeah.”
Too shocked to speak, Ariana gaped at him. It was Ivy who filled the sudden silence. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“She’s so damn paranoid and possessive,” he complained. “I’ve never strayed. Not once. And yet she constantly goes through my phone, searching for illicit calls or texts. She gets mad if I talk to either of you, refuses to even let me have friends. She appears at my office at random times, using one excuse or another to check up on me. And when I get home at night, she accuses me of preferring to be with the girl I hired at the office just because I have to spend so much time there.”
“There’s no truth to it…” Ariana said, leaving the ending open.
“No!” he cried. “Courtney’s only in her twenties! It’s insulting and upsetting and exhausting trying to reassure Melanie all the time. And now that the remains of Emily Hutchins have been found…”
Ariana felt herself tense. The possibility that Cam might’ve had something to do with the twelve-year-old who’d gone missing when they were in high school still gave her nightmares. She was surprised he’d be the one to bring her up, especially so casually. Was that a good sign? Or the sign of a complete psychopath? “Melanie thinks you might be responsible for what happened? Even though Ivy and I…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish that sentence, but he jumped in at that point, saving her from trying to force the recalcitrant words from her throat.
“Why?” Ariana asked.
“Because of the rumors. Because I was a person of interest in the past. She’ll bludgeon me with any weapon she can.”
“But you’re not a person of interest now…” Ivy said.
“Not that I know of.”
Ariana shifted in her seat. “You haven’t heard from the police?”
“They’ve stopped by once or twice,” he replied. “But I think they’re just poking around, asking questions. They’re under pressure to solve the case. I get that. But seeing them at the house freaks Melanie out.” He sighed. “I don’t like it, either. Believe me, the last thing I want is for the investigation to focus on me again. It was bad enough the first time. But she’s only making it worse by saying weird shit.”
“Like…” Ariana prompted.
“Like I’m so aloof she doesn’t really know me. Or I only married her because of Camilla and would leave her if we didn’t have a child together.” He waved a hand. “It goes on and on. I’m dealing with enough doubt and suspicion. I’d like to be able to rely on my wife to trust me.”
“It must be hard to feel she doesn’t,” Ariana agreed.
“Exactly,” he said. “There are other people on the island, people I’ve known most of my life, who are watching me closely, too—like I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Being one of his doubters made Ariana feel slightly guilty. How could she? He’d been a good friend to her.
She’d allowed the “what-ifs” that’d cropped up since leaving the island to overshadow all her reasons for believing in him. But maybe that would change now that she’d returned. To feel absolutely secure in standing by him would lift a huge weight from her shoulders. He sounded sincere—truly tortured over what’d happened to Emily Hutchins—and she felt terrible for what he was going through as a result.
What if they’d been correct when they were in high school? What if he was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, and they’d stopped circumstances from making him a victim, too?
Instinctively, Ariana reached out and felt the old longing and admiration return when he took her hand. Ivy did the same thing, and a moment later they were clasping hands in a circle. “We’re here for you,” Ariana said. “Just like we’ve always been.”
“It would be terrible if this cost you your marriage,” Ivy added, wearing a pained expression. “Especially since little Camilla would be the one to suffer most.”
“She’s the reason I’ve hung on as long as I have,” he said. “If we split up, Melanie would take her and leave the island, and it would be difficult for me to spend time with her. But if I were to become a suspect in this investigation… That would be the death of our marriage. I can’t continue to placate her the way I have if I’m fighting for my own safety, reputation and future. I’m struggling too much as it is.”
“She doesn’t offer you any of the love and support you need?” Ariana asked.
He gave her a wan smile as the waitress approached to take their drink order and they let go of each other. “Our marriage started out difficult and has only gotten harder,” he admitted.
* * *
What Cam was going through was taking a toll on him. Ivy could tell. His words were one thing. But it went beyond that. He’d lost weight. His skin wasn’t the same robust golden color it normally was. And his smile seemed forced and unnatural. Her good friend had been struggling, and yet she’d been keeping her distance from him, telling herself he had his wife to support him while she tried to figure out how to react to the news that Emily Hutchins’s remains had been found.
Maybe if the body had been discovered elsewhere, she would’ve reacted differently. That a girl had been killed upset her, but it especially freaked her out that the body had been found so close to the lighthouse. That made her rethink everything she’d believed before.
In the bathroom she stared at herself in the mirror above the sink, taking advantage of a moment alone to collect her thoughts before returning to her friends at the table. She was enjoying dinner, enjoying seeing Cam and Ariana again. But the past hung over them like a dark cloud. Was the location of Emily’s remains merely a coincidence?
It could be. The island wasn’t that big, and the lighthouse was the most remote place on it. If someone wanted to hide a body, that would be a great spot to do it, what with the sand and grasses to obscure any digging or footprints.
Whoever had buried Emily had dug a deep grave, or the body would’ve surfaced long before now. Without the terrible erosion problem the island was suffering, Emily might never have been uncovered.
So much digging in one night would require a strong man.
Cam had always been strong.
But he wasn’t the only person capable of digging such a deep hole. She had to remember that.
When Ariana poked her head into the bathroom, Ivy quickly turned on the tap to wash her hands. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
Instead of leaving, Ariana came inside. “It’s good to see you again, Ivy. I—I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed you.”
“I’m so glad you’re back,” Ivy told her. She felt that way for many reasons. She missed the closeness and the camaraderie they’d shared. But it was also true that Ariana was the only other person who knew what happened that night. She was as caught up in the nightmare as Ivy was, which meant Ivy wouldn’t be alone this summer as she wrestled with the terrible conflict recent developments had once again dropped in her lap.
That provided some relief. But it also created greater worry. What if the two of them came to different conclusions on whether what they’d done was right and how to proceed from here?
Ariana met her gaze in the mirror. “I’m sorry that…” She seemed to have difficulty finishing her sentence. She ended by simply repeating the apology. “I’m sorry.”
Was she contrite for trying to escape the memory that haunted them both by avoiding everyone and everything related to it? That was how Ivy interpreted her words. “Did you come back because of what the police found?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
A pained expression registered on Ariana’s face. “That has to be part of it, because if I could have, I would’ve turned my back on you, Cam, the island, everything, so I could embrace a future with no more guilt or uncertainty.”
Being included on the list of people she was willing to sacrifice stung. “I hope you don’t really mean that,” Ivy said.
Ariana dropped her head in her hand and began to rub her temples. “I need a respite, the chance to forget the past—and what we did.”
“Do you think you’re the only one who’s been struggling because of it?”
“I don’t know. You make it look easier than it’s been for me.”
“From a distance, maybe. You’ve been careful to stay away. But I still live here. I can’t avoid Cam, or the gossip about Emily Hutchins, even if I want to.”
Ariana dropped her hand. “Point taken. Again, I’m sorry. I’m at such a loss, Ivy. I really don’t know what to do. When I think about the way we took matters into our own hands—at sixteen!—and how easily we could’ve been wrong, I worry that we’re denying Emily’s loved ones the justice and closure they deserve.”
Ivy shut off the water. “Then why haven’t you come forward?”
“I almost have—a thousand times. But as soon as I decide it has to be done, I think about Cam and how easy it would be for what I say to send him to prison for the rest of his life, whether he’s guilty or not. The police don’t always get it right. Do you know how many innocent men DNA evidence has been responsible for exonerating in the past ten years?”
“No,” she replied, using a paper towel. “But I would guess too many.”
“And you’d be right. I’ve looked it up. According to the internet, there have been almost four hundred people released from prison thanks to DNA evidence. Twenty-one were on death row! And the police here… I don’t think there’s ever been another homicide on the island, not one that wasn’t related to a domestic dispute or drunken brawl that made the answers clear, quick and easy.”
“But if we don’t trust the justice system, what do we do? Do we keep our mouths shut and hope we got it right? Or tell the police everything we know and hope they’ll do their jobs?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
Ivy tossed the paper towel into the wastebasket. So much for not talking about the past. It was only Ariana’s first night back and already they’d addressed the problem they’d both rather avoid. “Do you think he did it, Ariana?”
Suddenly, inexplicably, tears welled up. “No. If I thought that, I would’ve come forward already.” She started to go, but Ivy reached out to catch her arm.
“Even though they found her body at the lighthouse?” Where the three of them had been partying earlier that night? That was quite a coincidence. When Cam had walked them both to Alice’s house, where they’d stayed the night, he’d claimed he would make his way home from there. But he could’ve gone back. It seemed his parents were off the island more than they were on it. Or they were fighting and out trying to get revenge by hooking up with someone else for the night. They’d left him with minimal supervision for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, he’d needed security and love so badly he used to crawl through Ivy’s window and spend the night on her bedroom floor just so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
“The lighthouse is where almost anyone hoping to hide a body would go,” Ariana replied. “This is an island, Ivy. There aren’t any national parks with acres upon acres of wilderness.”
“Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself, too.”
They continued to stare at each other in the mirror, as if looking long enough might peel back the layers of false hope and denial and finally lay naked their true thoughts and intents.
A second later Ariana shook her head. “I was hoping, now that I’m older, I’d be able to figure this out. I believed that looking at it with fresh eyes and a less partial heart would make all the difference. But…”
“But?” Ivy echoed.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said, and Ivy followed her out of the bathroom and back to their table.