At 6:02 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, Vanessa Keaton turned the key in the back door lock of her sweet little boutique on Charles Street and flicked off the lights. Foot traffic had been scarce, and would be, she knew, for another two weeks, at least until the St. Dennis Secret Garden Tour brought the first of the serious tourists to town. And that was just fine with her. Once the tourist season began in earnest, there would be fewer opportunities for dinners with friends or for closing early to enjoy slow walks through the town she had come to call her own.
She turned the deadbolt on the door leading down into the basement, then let herself out through the front and locked that door behind her as well. She paused to take a deep breath of the spring fragrance which she found unique to St. Dennis: salt from the bay mixed with the scent of the hyacinths, daffodils, and early tulips planted in the wooden barrels — complements of the garden club — that stood outside each of the shops along Charles Street. The very colors of the flowers said spring to her: purples and pinks, yellows and whites. Just to see them made her smile.
She stepped back to take a good long look at the window she’d spent most of the day designing. Was it too early to display the tennis whites and the pastels that many of the local ladies liked to sport while golfing at the new country club outside of town? Maybe she should move those items to the smaller windows on the side of the shop, and dress her mannequins in something other than sportswear. Maybe those pretty cocktail dresses she got in from New York last week, and maybe a few of those darling evening bags from that designer she found in Cape May over the winter.
The promise of warm weather put a bounce in her step, and as she crossed the street, visions of all the new items she’d recently ordered for Bling danced in her head.
“Step lively there, miss,” the driver of the car that had stopped to let her cross called out. “Or I’ll have to arrest you for jaywalking.”
“Oh, you...” Vanessa laughed. “Why aren’t you out chasing bank robbers or car thieves?”
“There hasn’t been a bank robbed in St. Dennis for as long as I’ve lived here.” Gabriel Beck — chief of police and Vanessa’s half-brother — pulled his car to the side of the road and activated his flashing lights. “And the last report of a stolen car we received turned out to be Wes Taylor’s fifteen year old son sneaking out in the middle of the night to see his girlfriend.”
“Slow day, eh, Beck?” She walked over to the car and leaned into the open passenger side window.
“Just another day in paradise.” He hastened to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“Well, wait another few weeks. Once the tourists start pouring into town, you’ll be wishing for a day like this, when you can cruise around town in your spiffy new official police chief car and stop to chat with the locals.”
“Only way to stay in touch, kiddo.”
“Well, I admit I like the calm before the storm. I like to be able to close up shop at six and have the evenings to myself. I know it won’t last — and I’m grateful that my shop does so well. But it’s nice to have some quiet days to enjoy this glorious weather before the crowds arrive.” She stood to wave to the driver of a passing car. “So where’s the fiancé?”
“I dropped her off at BMI this morning. She’s on her way to Montana to see her brother.” He glanced at his watch. “Actually, she should be arriving at his place any time now.”
“Is this her brother the hermit?” The one I like to think of as Mountain Man?
Beck nodded. “She’s hoping to talk him into walking her down the aisle.”
“Your wedding’s in a few weeks.” Vanessa frowned. “Isn’t she cutting it a bit close?”
“She already asked her other brother, Andy, and he’s on board. But she wants them both to give her away, since their dad died last year.”
“Well, I wish her luck with that.”
“Yeah, me too. I offered to go with her, but she thought she’d have a better chance on her own. Mia doesn’t think he’s left his place for any length of time since their dad’s funeral. We’ll see.” He didn’t appear optimistic. “So where are you off to now?”
“I’m meeting Steffie for dinner.”
“I don’t think she’s closed up yet. There was a group in town this afternoon for a lecture over at the Historical Society. From the crowd gathered outside Steffie’s, I’d say they all stopped at her place for ice cream before getting back on their bus.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll walk on down and see if I can give her a hand.”
“You just want ice cream.” He teased and put the car in drive.
“You know what I always say.” She stepped back on the curb. “Eat dessert first.”
She waved goodbye as he pulled away, and glanced back at Bling, the front window dressing still on her mind. She mentally slapped herself on the forehead. Duh. The display should reflect the upcoming wedding. Pretty dresses and shoes to wear to the event. Flowers — maybe some terra cotta pots planted with something colorful across the front of the window. Pansies, maybe. Vases of budding flowering cherry in the corners. Lots of white tulle, puffed like clouds...
It was less than a ten minute walk from Bling to Steffie Wyler’s ice cream shop. Her arms swinging, Vanessa strolled along, marveling, as she always did, at the twists and turns her life had taken since she first arrived in St. Dennis. It was hard to believe that just three short years ago, she’d been destitute and exhausted mentally and physically from the stress of removing herself from a marriage that had started to go bad even before the petals had begun to drop from the yellow roses she’d carried on her wedding day. Even now, the mere sight of yellow roses could make her knees go weak.
That was then, she reminded herself sternly. This is now. No need to go back to that place and time. Keep the focus on all the good things that have happened since I came to St. Dennis.
Finding that she had a half-brother — finding Beck — was probably the best thing that had ever happened to her. That he and his father, Hal Garrity, had welcomed her so warmly, had urged her to stay, and had offered to help her start up a business in a storefront that Hal owned just when St. Dennis was emerging as a tourist attraction...well, who could have foreseen all that happening?
Timing is everything, she reminded herself. Everyone knows that.
She waved through the window of Lola’s Café at Jimmy, one of Lola’s geriatric waiters, and passed Petals & Posies, the flower shop next door, where tall galvanized steel containers outside held long branches of blooming forsythia and pussy willow, and the windows held the eye with a rainbow display of cut tulips and daffodils.
Next to Petals & Posies, at the corner, was Cuppachino, where many of the townies gathered first thing in the morning for coffee, the latest gossip, and to watch the news on the big screen TV that hung on the side wall before heading off to their respective mornings. Through the screened door, propped open to encourage the morning breeze to enter, Vanessa noticed Grace Sinclair, the owner and editor of the local weekly paper, the St. Dennis Gazette, at one of the front tables. She was deep in conversation with Amelia Vandergrift, the president of the garden club. Gathering tidbits for a piece on the upcoming tour, no doubt, to remind everyone to buy tickets to the event. Vanessa considered Grace, a white-haired septuagenarian with unlimited energy who knew everyone and everything, the town’s number one cheerleader. Secretly, Vanessa attributed half of what she’d learned about St. Dennis to Hal, and the other half to Grace Sinclair’s weekly editorials about the community.
She rounded the corner of Charles and Kelly’s Point Road, and moments later, passed the municipal building, with its new wing that housed the police department. She noted that Beck’s car had not yet returned to its designated parking space.
Probably out doing what he does best, she mused. Reassuring the locals that all was just skippy in St. Dennis.
At the end of the road, right where it T’d into the wooden boardwalk that ran next to the bay, stood One Scoop or Two, the one-time crabbers shanty Steffie Wyler had turned into a charming ice cream parlor. Seeing the crowd gathered around the tables out front of the small structure, Vanessa quickened her step. She excused herself to those patrons waiting patiently in line, smiled as she walked around them and between the two freezer cases to grab an apron off the pegs that hung behind the cash register.
“I can help the next person in line,” Vanessa announced. She slipped on a pair of thin, clear plastic gloves as a pleasant white-haired gentleman stepped up to place his order.
“I owe you big time, babe,” Steffie whispered in Vanessa’s ear on her way to the cash register.
“Yes, you do. And you’ll pay up.” Vanessa smiled and turned to the customer. “Sir, did you want the blackberry or the chocolate on the bottom?”
Thirty minutes and four dozen customers later, the crowd had been served and the last cone dipped. When the buses departed, Steffie sank into a chair at one of the small tables that stood along the outside wall.
“Got caught short-handed, eh?” Vanessa scooped a small ball of rum raisin into a paper cup and took the seat opposite Steffie.
“Did I ever,” Steffie groaned. “Who knew that the lectures at the Historic Society would be so popular, or that they’d start so early in the season?”
“Maybe you should get a copy of their schedule.”
Steffie rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner.”
“Well, it’s the first year that they’ve invited groups from other communities to come,” Vanessa reminded her. “Who could have guessed they’d have such a turnout? What was the topic, do you know?”
“No. And at this point, I don’t care.” Steffie pulled a near-by chair closer and rested her feet on the seat. “Any other day of the week and I’d have had Taffy Ellis with me but she had a meeting with her prom committee after school and wouldn’t have gotten here until after five. I didn’t bother calling anyone else in because I figured I could handle things for an hour on my own.”
“You probably should always have someone else here with you,” Vanessa pointed out. “I don’t think you should be here alone.”
“This from someone whose only employee doesn’t start until Memorial Day? And that one part-time?”
“I’m up on Charles Street and have shops on both sides and a busy restaurant directly across the street. You’re down here with a very, dark large parking lot on one side and the bay on the other. Who knows who could be lurking around here after dark?”
“Well, thanks a heap for putting that in my head.”
“Seriously, haven’t you ever stopped to think about how isolated you are down here?”
“Not until now.” Steffie glared at her pointedly. “But you’re forgetting that our fine police department is just a stone’s throw down the lane there, right across from the parking lot.”
“Not close enough to hear you scream.”
“Au contraire, mon amie. I have had occasion to scream, and none other than the chief himself showed up.”
“I don’t remember that.” Vanessa frowned. “When was that? What happened?”
“Before you moved here, while I was first renovating this place. I came in one morning and there were bats flying around.”
“That would freak me out, too.” Vanessa shuddered at the thought. “So did Beck chase them out?”
“Yeah. He opened the windows and they all took off.” Steffie fell silent for a moment. “So I guess he’s really getting married.”
Steffie placed both hands over her heart. “Heavy sigh.”
Vanessa laughed. “Stef, you would not have been happy with Beck. If that was going to work out, it would have while you were dating him. As I recall, neither of you really seemed to look back once you stopped seeing each other.”
“True enough. But still...” Steffie got up and went behind the counter. “Want something else while I’m back here?”
Vanessa held up her empty ice cream bowl. “I’ll take a dabble of cherry vanilla since you’re offering.”
“You really are an ice cream hound, aren’t you?” Steffie opened the display case and scooped ice cream into another paper cup and handed it to her friend when she returned to the table.
“Thank you.” Vanessa smiled and dug in. “You’re not having any?”
Steffie held up a bottle of water. “Bathing suit season is six weeks away. Less, if we get a hot spell near the end of May. I don’t walk as much as you do. You’re lucky that you live closer to the center of town. I’m out near the point, and that’s too far a walk since I run late just about every day. Plus, let us not forget that I make my own ice cream every day, which means I have to taste test it as I go along. Believe it or not — and this goes against everything I’ve ever been told, calories you ingest as part of your job do count.”
Steffie dropped into her chair. “So, Mia asked you to be in the wedding?”
Vanessa nodded. “Bridesmaid.”
“Any chance I’m on the invitation list?”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
Steffie made a face. “Hello? Old girlfriend?”
Vanessa waved her hand to dismiss the thought. “You’re an old friend. Your brother went to high school with Beck and your dad grew up with Hal. That trumps whatever came after.”
“Just thought I’d check. I hadn’t seen an invitation.”
“They’re just going out. Since they decided to move the date from June, they’re just a few weeks off the normal schedule.”
“So who else is in the wedding party?”
“Mia’s brother Andy’s wife, Dorsey is the other bridesmaid, and the matron of honor is a friend of Mia’s from when she was in the FBI. She wants both of her brothers to walk her down the aisle, since their dad died last year. Andy’s on board, but she had to fly to Montana to try to talk the other one into coming. Beck took her to the airport this morning.”
“I heard the one in Montana is like, a recluse or something. Barbara and Nina were talking about it in the coffee shop. And they said that there was another brother who had been in the FBI, too, but he was like, a really creepy guy, into all kinds of really bad stuff.”
Vanessa shrugged. “I don’t really know. Mia doesn’t talk about him, and I don’t ask.”
“Nice family your brother’s marrying into.” Steffie tilted her head back and took a long drink of water.
Steffie shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
“I’ve met most of the others, and they’re all really nice.”
“What happened to the other brother? The creepy one?”
“Oh. Brendan.” Vanessa nodded. “All I know is that he’s dead, and everyone’s okay with that.”
“Maybe the one from Montana’s hot.” Steffie wiggled her eyebrows. “It could make for an interesting day.”
“I’ve met Andy, and I have to say, he is really cute. Mia said once that all the guys in her family look alike, so Mountain Man probably is pretty cute, too. But I’m thinking he’s gotta be strange, living by himself all this time. So thanks, but no thanks.”
“So what? You’ve done strange before.”
“That’s exactly my point. I’ve met so many guys with issues that I’m starting to believe there’s no other kind. I don’t care how hot the hermit is. I’m done with all that.” She shook her head. “Uh-uh. Give me boring and normal, if you give me anything at all. No baggage, no issues, no drama.”
“Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.”
“I’ve had fun enough to last a lifetime. If there is a next guy — and I’m not sure I will ever want another one for any length of time and for anything other than occasional sex — he’s going to be excruciatingly bland.” She held up her empty ice cream cup. “Vanilla, not rum raisen. Someone who washes the car in the driveway on Saturday morning and who rakes the leaves in the back yard in the fall and reads the newspaper at the breakfast table. He’s going to be one of those guys whose idea of a good time is watching a movie at home with a bowl of popcorn in one hand and me in the other.”
Steffie rolled her eyes.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You’ve just described my sister’s excruciatingly dull life, and it terrifies me to think that someday I could end up like that. It’s my worst nightmare.”
“Which nicely explains your commitment phobia.”
“Don’t knock it, since you obviously haven’t tried it.”
“That was a low blow, Stef.”
“Sorry. Really. Damn. I am sorry.” Steffie looked contrite. “Give me a minute to remove my feet from my mouth.”
“It’s okay. It’s true. At least, it was true, once upon a time. But two really bad marriages have cured me of all that.” She finished the last of the ice cream and licked the spoon clean. “Anyway, like I said, Mountain Man is probably as weird as they come after living like a hermit for a couple of years, so it doesn’t matter how hot he is. I’ll be my usual sweet and pleasant self at the wedding, because he’s Mia’s brother, but if what she’s said about him being anti-social is true, he’ll be on a plane back to Montana before his sister even tosses her bouquet. And that’s just skippy with me.”
“Well, if he gets bored and lonely while he’s in St. Dennis, you can send him my way.” Steffie lowered her feet to the floor and wearily pushed herself up from the chair. “Do you mind if we do dinner at Captain Walt’s tonight? I’m not really dressed for Lola’s and I’m too tired to go home to change.”
“Walt’s is fine. I love their broiled seafood platter.” Vanessa stood and gathered the paper cups, napkins and plastic spoons and tossed them in the trash near the front door, any thoughts of the potentially hot guy already replaced by visions of a few broiled scallops, a piece of rockfish, and one of Walt’s famous jumbo lump crab cakes.