I found it difficult to keep my footing in the slippery, dark tunnel and eventually slid past Wyeth. He watched me skate by, barked, then followed.
Eventually, my eyes adjusted to the gloom. The tunnel appeared to be about six feet high and endless. Tree roots and rocks jutted out of the walls and ground. I tried grabbing at a few dangling roots to slow my speed but I only succeeded in snagging my shirt, ripping off a few buttons and pulling my hair. A sandal broke free and dirt jammed between my toes.
The smell of the Sound grew stronger. The dark turned a mossy green and I stumbled toward a curtain of bright foliage. The smugglers that used this tunnel must have been small, acrobatic, and sure footed. The ground beneath my feet disappeared and I landed with a thud on my hands and knees in a small pool of water on the beach.
Moments later, Wyeth jumped out, barely clearing my head. Standing a few feet from me he shook violently, spraying me with mud. Looking around, I didn’t recognize where I was mostly because I couldn’t see.
I’d lost my glasses.
Wyeth whined and rubbed himself against my side. I floundered in the water, attempting to feel my way to my glasses. I found something hard and round—Wyeth’s ball. I knelt in the water and picked it up and threw it has hard and as far as I could. It sailed over the headland and Wyeth gave chase.
From somewhere above me I heard someone say, “This is a new look for you.”
Before I clutched my shirt closed I had a brief, foggy look at the white lace of Cleo’s Closet bra and a smear of mud across my chest. I turned toward the voice. High on a bank above me stood a man. I couldn’t see his features, but I recognized his voice.
“Why is it that I always seem to find myself at your feet?” I hoped my voice didn’t shake. Slowly, mindful of my foot, I stood.
Ryan didn’t reply for a moment, but climbed the bank three large strides without once slipping. Within seconds he stood beside me and I could feel more than see his careful observation. “Are you hurt?” he asked. His white shirt was so clean it almost glowed in the sun. He seemed to be everything I was not—shoed, dressed, and neatly combed.
I waded out of the water, my mid-calf pants skimming the top of the pond.
“What happened to you?” Ryan leaned forward to pick a twig out of my hair. I smelled his cologne and wondered about my own smell. Sandy water ran down my dirty legs creating small streaks. I fought the urge to brush off my pants and kept a tight grip on my torn blouse.
“I fell,” I stated the obvious. I cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Where are the others?”
“Otters or others?” Although I couldn’t see him clearly, I heard the smile in his voice.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” I said. “If they put a ship yard here the otters will leave.”
“They’ll find another island. There are plenty to choose from.” He picked another twig from my hair.
I moved away, deeper into my small pool of water so that he couldn’t touch me. “But this is their home.” I thought of not only the otters, but the islanders too.
“Does Hailey have an otter opinion?” he asked, reaching out a hand to pull me out of the pool.
“She has an opinion on everything,” I muttered, not taking his hand, but stepping out on my own. I winced when my cut foot landed on a small shell.
“What would she say about being lost on a beach without glasses?” he asked, following me.
I hobbled over to large piece of driftwood and sat down on it. I tried to inspect my cut foot but without my glasses I couldn’t see anything. “Hailey is never lost. She always knows precisely where she is and what to do.”
“Sounds boring.” He stood above me, his shadow blocking out the sun.
“Sometimes,” I said, then I caught myself and added, “I would imagine. You didn’t say where the others are.”
He jerked his head to the right. “They’re back at the house drawing up the contract.”
I held my foot in my hand. It wasn’t bleeding and to my blurry eyes, the cut was indiscernible. “Isn’t that your job?”
“It’s also my job to inspect the property.” He sat down beside me on the driftwood. “And apparently it’s my job to pick you up when you fall.”
“I’m fine,” I said stiffly.
“Really?” he asked. “Then how will you get back? I bet you can’t even see your feet. You could at least let me help you find your glasses.”
I didn’t want to revisit the tunnel. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want to share it with him and I especially didn’t want him to find the playhouse or the letters. “I have another pair at the cottage.”
“The where?” He sat too close. The driftwood curved up so that he sat six inches higher, making me feel insignificant beside him.
“I’m staying at the groundskeeper’s cottage,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to find it without help. I needed him and that bothered me.
Wyeth charged toward us, ball in mouth and tail wagging. He took the bank with minimal sliding, and after only a cursory glance, decided Ryan was ball throwing worthy. He dropped his ball at Ryan’s feet, sat on his haunches and gave Ryan a pleading look.
“What is that?” Ryan asked. Wyeth leaned toward Ryan and put his big nose in Ryan’s pants pocket. Ryan fondled Wyeth’s ears.
“That is Wyeth, and he has brought you his ball. For some reason he likes you.”
Ryan tickled Wyeth’s neck. Wyeth closed his eyes in pleasure, arching his head back, I expected to him howl in ecstasy.
“Is that so remarkable?” Ryan asked.
“Yes. He’s usually protective.”
“Ah then, he recognizes a colleague. I can also be protective.” He stripped off his shirt. Even without my glasses I knew he was large, muscular, and tan.
“What are you doing?” my voice sounded unnaturally high. “I don’t want your protection, or your shirt.”
“You’re cold,” he said simply as he draped the shirt over my shoulders. It felt warm and smelled of him. “Come on, Wyeth and I will walk you back to the cottage.”
“I’ll get your shirt dirty,” I said, but I didn’t take it off.
“It can be washed.” He stood, looking indecisive. “Which way?”
The shirt hung to my thighs and the sleeves covered my hands. I rolled them up as I stood to follow.
“You’re bleeding.” Ryan pointed at a spot of blood I’d left on the sand. “What happened?”
“I told you, I fell.”
Ryan scowled and then sat down on the large piece of drift wood and pulled off a leather loafer and an argyle sock. “Here,” he tugged me down beside him and tied his sock around my bleeding foot. Then he slipped back on the leather loafer, reminding me of the nursery rhyme of My Brother John with one sock off and one sock on. Ryan stood, took hold of my hand, and pulled me up. “If you walk on my sock it’ll be ruined.” He turned his back to me. “Hop on.”
“I’d rather not.” I hobbled away from him, unhappy with the way I’d let him tug me down and then pull me up. I didn’t want to be led around by him or anyone else.
He caught up to me in one long stride and placed his hand on my arm. “Get on, or else I’ll charge you for my sock.”
“Socks are cheap.” I held my head high, refusing to look at his blurry face, valiantly pressing forward. I slipped on a piece of seaweed and went down on my knees.
He laughed and pulled me onto his back. I thought about struggling but gave up and leaned against him. I hadn’t been given a piggy back ride since I was a little girl and it felt odd to be straddling Ryan’s bare back, my arms wrapped around his shoulders. We bounced down the trail. My wet pants made a dark ring on his khaki’s waist band and his white shirt billowed around me.
“So, what’ll you do now?” Ryan asked.
His stride made my head bobble and my teeth jar. I thought back to my childhood horseback riding lessons on old Charlie, a Tennessee Walker who liked to trot more than gallop. I tried to relax. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t have reins. “Now?”
“And after the summer?”
“Same thing. Teach, paint. Why?”
It occurred to me that he knew something I didn’t. I craned my neck to see his face and came too close to his blurry ear.
“Why?” I repeated.
Ryan climbed the small bank that led to the brick path of the cottage. We rounded the corner and even without my glasses I saw the front door was ajar.
Ryan stopped. “Did you leave the door open?”
I shook my head.
Phil Henderson, dressed in tight jeans and a blue loose weave sweater, stepped out onto the porch. He ran a hand through his hair and then leaned against the door jam. “Where’ve you been?” he asked in a lazy drawl.
“Who are you?” Ryan asked, still standing, as if hesitant about approaching the cottage.
“I should ask you the same question,” Phil answered, pulling away from the door jam and standing with folded arms on the porch, guarding the door. “I happen to live here.”
I tried to climb off Ryan’s back. He tightened his grip then almost immediately let me go. I stumbled on my bad foot when I landed, jumped over to a wicker rocker and sat down heavily. Ryan looked at me and then at Phil.
Wyeth, the fur on his neck bristling in outrage began barking. “Quiet, Wyeth,” Ryan said in a deep voice. Wyeth’s barking turned to a low growl and he sat down at Ryan’s feet.
Phil moved toward me and Wyeth growled again. Wyeth gave Ryan a questioning look. Ryan rested his fingertips on Wyeth’s head.
“Are you hurt?” Phil knelt by me and took the sock wrapped foot in his hand. “What happened?” He untied the sock and glared at Ryan.
“That’s mine,” Ryan said, holding out his hand for the twisted, bloody sock. He stood in the sunlight, his khakis water ringed and settled around his hips from my piggy back ride, his chest bare and tan. He took a step forward, his hand extended and waiting for the sock.
Phil, crouched beside my knees, looked momentarily apprehensive, and then tossed the dirty sock at Ryan’s naked chest. “I’ll get a real Band-Aid.”
Ryan looked at me steadily. “I better go,” he said, but he didn’t turn away. Wyeth didn’t budge from his side.
I whispered. “Please don’t.”
He motioned toward the cottage and Phil. “Obviously—”
I shook my head and whispered, “Please stay. He doesn’t own this cottage. His parents lived here years ago. I certainly didn’t know them or him. I don’t want him here.”
I broke off when Phil returned with a tube of antibiotic ointment and a box of Band-Aids. He sat down beside my foot, soaked the cotton ball and began to dab at my foot. I inhaled sharply from the sting.
“Nasty cut,” Phil muttered. “What happened?”
“Something sharp on the beach,” I muttered through clench teeth. “Phil Henderson, this is Ryan Everett.” Ryan stood over me with a deepening frown as he watched Phil.
“You didn’t see what it was?” Phil turned my foot over in his hands. “It doesn’t look like a puncture wound.”
Acutely aware of Ryan hovering over my shoulder, I wondered how I had ended up with two men and what I would do with them. One, maybe both, of them had to go. “Phil,” I began, “it’s really nice of you to doctor my foot, but I’m going to have to ask you for your key. This cottage belongs to the Dunsmuir’s.”
Phil ignored my request, tightened his grip, and began to dab at my foot rather harshly. “Helen Dunsmuir promised me the cottage. I have it in writing.”
“In a will?” Ryan asked.
“It’s in the will.” Phil squinted at Ryan and looked him up and down. “But it’s missing. I bet you knew that. Are you the lawyer?”
Ryan shook his head. “Real estate broker.”
“Well, this cottage isn’t for sale,” Phil turned and gave me a hard look, “or lease.” Phil dropped my foot and stood. “I don’t mean to be unfriendly or a bad host, but this is my house and I’m tired of staying on the boat.”
I started to rise and Ryan put his hand on my shoulder, holding me in the chair. “There must be some sort of confusion, because James Dunsmuir believes he owns this property.”
“Jimmy Dunsmuir is a confused little bonehead,” Phil said bluntly. “Always has been. Cried like a baby whenever his grandfather took us hunting, whining and sniveling, trying to shoo away the animals before I could even take aim.”
“A hunting buddy is different than a beneficiary,” Ryan said. “Do you have proof that the Dunsmuirs left you this house?”
“I was more than a hunting buddy,” Phil assured us. “Henry always favored me. He paid me to shoot the birds eating from the fruit trees—a job that Jimmy couldn’t stomach.”
“I’m ready to go home anyway,” I interrupted.
“You aren’t the one who needs to leave,” Ryan said. “Without a will, Phil here—”
“It doesn’t matter. I came to paint,” I said. “And that isn’t happening.”
“You shouldn’t give up so easily,” Ryan said, his hand tightening on my shoulder.
I shrugged. “I’m not giving up, I’m just going home.”
Phil dropped my foot and stood. “I’ll be happy to ferry you back to Edmonds. I’m going tonight.”
“Tonight?” Ryan’s voice almost cracked. He looked down into my face. “Look, before you decide anything, you really should talk to James.”
Phil furtively looked around. “James? I heard he was in Africa.”
Did he really not recognize James from the night of the storm? It was at that moment I began to suspect Phil’s mental stability. “In the Sudan, maybe?” I asked.
Phil flushed a deep red and I immediately regretted making him angry. All of my experience with the mentally unbalanced had been through correspondence. Every so often a particularly deranged letter made it into Hailey’s in box. When I was young the threatening letters had frightened me, but as I grew older I found the chummy, adoring letters just as disturbing. For a while Gram had a stalker, a short, balding man with glasses that cried whenever he saw her. She said Harold had taken care of him. I didn’t know what Harold did to the balding man, but he stopped appearing on the street corner or in the grocery store. I hoped he had stopped crying too.
“I’ll get my things,” I said. I tested my bandaged foot.
“You can ride back with me,” Ryan said, obviously unwilling to relinquish his guardianship. He followed my slow limp up the stairs. I felt Phil watching our backs.
“Are you sure you’re ready to go home?” Ryan asked in a low voice when we reached the top of the stairs.
I peeked around him. I couldn’t see Phil, only Wyeth on the stairs right behind us. His tail wagged happily and beat a steady thump on the wall. I frowned, shivered and dropped my voice to a whisper. “I can’t share the cottage with Phil, so unless I know that he’s gone, or has relinquished the key, I won’t stay here.” I told him about the night of the storm, my two intruders and what I’d learned about Phil on the Internet. “He makes me nervous, James too. They seem to have an adolescent rivalry that they haven’t shaken.” I told him about James staying in his tent to spy on the house to make sure Phil wasn’t stealing. “I feel like I’ve fallen into the middle of a Hatfield and McCoy turf war.”
At home, I had a structured and orderly life. I ran in the mornings along Lake Sammamish’s shore. Every day I read the previous day’s column over a bowl of oatmeal then mulled over new letters, thinking of appropriate witticisms and quips until lunch. I taught at the academy in the afternoon and painted, or tried to, in the evenings. Most evenings. Well, some evenings. I sighed.
“You could probably stay with Artie,” Ryan said.
“No. I want to go home.” I went into the tiny bedroom I’d shared with Wyeth and closed the door on Ryan. The world became clearer once I found my extra pair of glasses on the nightstand.
I would go home and put this all behind me. Wyeth and I would run along Lake Sammamish in the morning and I’d paint in the afternoon. By the end of the month I could be ready for the Crystal Hawthorne Memorial Contest. I would wear my favorite black dress and emerald earrings to the opening night.
I slipped off Ryan’s shirt and immediately felt cold. Removing my torn blouse, I rooted in my bag for a clean T-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. I rolled my dirty, wet clothes into my bag, content with my plans. I attempted to detangle my hair, but finally gave up and shoved it into a messy ponytail. I slipped my feet into a pair of sneakers and tucked the pair I’d borrowed from Dina under my arm.
I found Ryan in the next room staring at my painting with traitorous Wyeth sitting at his feet. They had their backs turned, facing the large dormer windows. Beyond the windows the gentle Sound lapped a quiet rhythm. Soft, pale light poured in catching sparkling dancing dust. Momentarily I forgot the menace of Phil Henderson, his twitching eye and lying lips, and imagined staying in this time and place, capturing it on canvas. The sparse wooden floors, the straight iron bed with tight bleached sheets, white plaster walls that reflected the late afternoon sun, and Ryan and Wyeth silhouetted against window.
“It’s not the art I’m used to…no flying dogs or queens of reincarnation,” Ryan said, not turning to me, but breaking the spell, never the less.
I came to stand by him and he smiled sheepishly. “I’m afraid I don’t know anything about art, but I do like this. You’re very good…I think.”
“Thanks.” I handed him his shirt and watched him put it on.