Release Date: July 6, 2015
When Lea’s father dies in a tragic fishing accident, she's crushed under the weight of her grief and catches a glimpse of another type of future, one she knows she's not strong enough to face.
Austin is angry. For the past fifteen years, he's believed the woman he loved with every ounce of his soul left him without so much as a backwards glance.
When Lea unexpectedly returns to their hometown, all the years of heartache inside Austin bubbles to the surface and presents itself as blinding rage.
Faced with the truth about the past, a newly discovered secret, these former lovers will learn that if they want to have any chance at the future they’d given up on all those years ago, they will have to rescue one another from drowning in pain so debilitating it will leave them both fighting to breathe.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whisper, cuddling deeper into Austin’s side as I look up at the night sky. I swear you can see every single star there is when the nights are clear like this.
“Yeah,” he grunts, making me smile as his fingers on my arm move in soothing strokes.
“We graduate in two weeks,” I say while butterflies erupt in my stomach. Austin has been my boyfriend since I was sixteen, and since the very beginning, we have talked about getting married as soon as we graduate high school. I know a lot of people would say we’re too young, but ever since the day I laid eyes on him, I knew he would be my husband.
“Lea Wolf,” he says, and those butterflies begin to fly faster. I scoot up, place my hands on his chest, and rest my chin on top of them while searching his face. Austin has always appeared older than he is. His dark dirty blonde hair is shaggy, his jaw covered in an ever-present layer of scruff, and his lips that I love so much are full and soft, but as my gaze locks on his, I know his eyes will forever be my favorite thing about him. The crystal blue reminds me of the glaciers near my house, one of the most beautiful places on earth. “You’re going to be my wife, Lea. Are you ready for that?” He runs his finger down the center of my face and brings them to rest under my chin while his thumb sweeps across my lower lip.
“So ready,” I say, watching anxiousness form on his handsome face. I know he thinks I’ll want more than the life of a fisherman’s wife, a small town life, but deep down I know this is all I will ever need. As long as I have Austin, I don’t need anything else.
“Graduation, then Vegas,” he rumbles, pulling me up to rest completely on top of him.
“Graduation, then Vegas,” I agree then smile as his hand on the back of my head pulls me closer until we’re sharing the same breath.
“I need to get you home,” he breathes against my lips then rolls me to my back, looming over me before dropping his mouth down to mine.
“I wish we could stay out here all night,” I sigh when his mouth leaves mine.
“Me too, baby, but I promise you—when summer starts, we’ll sleep outside, under the stars, on the boat, in the middle of the ocean. Out there, you can see everything.”
“I would like that,” I say, wrapping my arms tighter around him and giving him a squeeze. He pushes back and stands before holding out his hand for me to take, helping me out of the back of his truck, where we had been lying and looking at the dark, starry night.
“I wonder what’s going on?” I question as we pull up in front of my parents’ house, where the sheriff’s car is parked.
“Don’t know,” Austin mutters, sounding concerned as he shuts down his truck, gets out, walks around the hood, and opens my door, lifting me out and setting me gently on my feet. As soon as we make it up the front steps and into the house, my confusion turns to worry as I see my mom sitting on the couch, rocking back and forth while sobbing hysterically.
“What happened?” All eyes turn my way, and my mom lifts her head and begins shaking her hand frantically while tears stream down her cheeks.
“Have a seat?” Sheriff Jefferson says in a tone that I have never heard from him before as he holds his hand out to me.
“Mom?” I whisper. My stomach begins to knot, and I feel Austin’s arm slide around me, pulling me closer into his side.
“I—” my mom starts then covers her face with her hands and sobs harder, the noises coming from her ripping into me, making it hard for me to even breath.
“What’s going on?” Austin asks, pulling me around and tucking my face into his chest. Even though I know deep down what the sheriff is going to say, nothing can prepare me for hearing the words out loud. Every single one of them strangles me until I’m fighting to breathe.
“Sorry, Lea, but your dad’s boat disappeared this afternoon after he called in a mayday. The coastguard found his boat, which caught fire; they also, found his skiff, which was empty. They are still searching the water for him, but with the temperature, it’s not looking good.”
“There’s still a chance, right? He could still be alive?” I practically beg.
“There’s always a chance,” Austin says, holding me closer.
But there wasn’t a chance. My dad’s body was never found. They believed the fire spread so quickly on his boat that he didn’t even have a chance to put his survival suit on before he tried to get into his skiff, ending up in the water and either drowning or freezing to death.
15 years later
“Lea, you need to breathe,” I tell myself as I drive my car onto the ferry that will take me from Anchorage to Cordova. I never thought I would be going home again, not after so many years away, but when my mom called to tell me she had cancer and wanted to be in the home she and my father shared, I could only tell her of course. Even if that meant I’d be going back to a place I left behind, to people I left behind. The only thing I can hope for is never running into Austin, that somehow the town I grew up in had sprawled out and the population became similar to Manhattan, lessening the chances of me ever seeing him again.
Fifteen years ago, I was crushed under the weight of the loss of my father. I realized then how easily life could change, how quickly someone you loved could be taken from you, and I knew then that I couldn’t stay in Alaska with Austin, not when there was a risk of something happening to him. I also knew after mentioning leaving to him that he never would; his family had been fishing in Alaska for generations.
He grew up loving the sea, grew up knowing he would spend his life doing something he loved and that one day he would pass his love for fishing down to his son. I couldn’t ask him to choose me, so I left him behind, even though in leaving him, I left a piece of myself. My only hope is the parts of me I was able to salvage would be enough to get me through the rest of my life.
Leaning over the side of the ferry, I look down at the water then hold out my left hand. Five years ago, I got married. I thought Ken could heal me. I thought the parts of me that were left after losing my father and leaving Austin would finally be full. I knew my father would want me to be happy, and I knew from talks with my mom that Austin had moved on, so it was time for me to do the same, to stop believing he would come after me, that our love was more than just a young girl’s fantasy.
I tried to give Ken all of me. I tried to make things work, but in the end, I failed and he found what he was looking for in someone else. I won’t say it didn’t hurt, but I wasn’t devastated by the loss of us. I was more upset that the idea of us had been ruined, but if I was honest, I brought it upon myself when I gave him our vows but didn’t follow through on my end.
Slipping my wedding ring off my finger, I feel tears pool in my eyes as I drop the metal band into the ocean, watching it disappear before squeezing my eyes closed. There was no going back, and now wasn’t the time to feel sorry for myself. I needed to pull myself together enough to take care of my mother. My mother, who had flown out to Montana to see me every few months since I left home. My mother, who was never the same after the loss of my father. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with her illness, or eventually the loss of her, but I know I will need to find a way, especially if I’m going to survive myself.
“Lea?” My eyes open and I turn my head. “Lea Lamb?” I feel my eyebrows pull downward in confusion as I take in the woman in front of me.
“Rhonda.” She points at herself and smiles. “We went to school together.”
“Rhonda?” I repeat in shock. The once chubby girl who didn’t have many friends had become a stunning woman. With red hair that fit her fair skin, her face was round, but her cheekbones were pronounced, showing off her button nose and full lips. “How are you?” I ask, stepping back from the edge of the boat.
“Good…great, really.” She smiles bigger and places a hand on her stomach, which I realize is large and round, but the stylish coat she’s wearing minimizes it.
“You look beautiful.”
“You do too, but then you were always beautiful.” She smiles then waves at someone over my shoulder. Turning my head, I watch a handsome man wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a vest, walking towards us. His long hair is pushed back away from his face and his skin is tan. His sunglasses hide his eyes, but there is something familiar about him.
“Ben, look who’s here,” Rhonda says, and it takes everything in me to not run away when Ben looks at me, pushes his sunglasses up to the top of his head, and frowns. Ben was Austin’s best friend in high school, and judging by the look in his eyes he’s giving me, he’s not happy to see me.
“What are you doing here?”
“Ben,” Rhonda hisses, coming to hold onto my arm.
“No, you know the way she left Wolf,” he says, looking at Rhonda. Then looks at me and snarls, “Why are you here?”
I know I deserve this, but I won’t lie and say it doesn’t burn just a little that someone I had once considered a friend was looking at me like I was the scum of the earth. I was hurt, too. Yes, I left, but he never came after me; he never even asked my mom where I was, if I was okay…nothing.
“You know why she’s here, Ben,” Rhonda says softly, moving to stand at his side, resting her hands on his chest. His eyes leave me and go to her. His face goes soft as he wraps his hand around the back of her neck, dropping his forehead to hers and speaking gently. I take two steps back then pull in a deep breath.
“Stay away from him,” Ben says, standing upright and turning his head my way.
“He won’t even know I’m in town,” I tell him, taking a step back then turning on my heels and heading to my car, where I sit for the rest of the ferry ride.
“Mom,” I call as I walk into the house. The smell hits me, and it’s exactly the same as when I was little. It’s so familiar that I almost choke on it as it saturates my lungs.
“Honey,” Mom whispers from the couch, where she is lying covered by one of the many blankets she knitted.
“Are you okay?” I ask, going to her side, getting down on my knees.
She still looks the same as the last time I saw her a month ago. Her hair is long and grey, her face tan from hours in the sun, planting flowers, and her eyes are a brown similar to mine. It’s hard to believe she is so sick, that she only has months to live. The doctors caught the cancer too late, and it has already spread from her uterus to her stomach. They said she could try chemo, but she refused, saying that if she was going to die, she would do it on her terms, and not while having poisons pumped into her body.
I can’t say I agree with her. The idea of her leaving me behind kills me every time I think about it. I want her to fight, but it’s not my battle.
“I’m fine; I just wanted to lie down. Now tell me, how was your trip?”
“Mom, I spoke to you every few hours,” I remind her while helping her sit up.
“I know, but this is a small town. You never know who you may run into.”
She was right about that. “I saw Rhonda. You never mentioned her being pregnant,” I mutter, leaving out Austin’s best friend, thinking that maybe if I ignore anyone having anything to do with him, I can ignore the fact this is Cordova and chances are I will see him at some point.
“Was Ben with her?” So much for that plane
“Yes, they seem…happy,” I whisper out the last word. Happiness seems like such a foreign concept to me. I don’t even remember the last time I was really happy.
“What’s wrong?” my mom asks, touching the side of my face.
“Your room is all set up, so why don’t you go take a nap? Then we will go to The Picnic Basket for dinner.”
“That place is still here?” I ask in disbelief. The Picnic Basket is a small metal trailer that was turned into a restaurant that serves mainly hamburgers and fries, and it’s only open during the summer months. To the kids in Cordova, it’s like McDonald’s. Normally, I would have immediately agreed to eat there, because the burgers are amazing, but the idea of running into anyone else I used to know doesn’t sound appealing.
“Of course it is. Go lie down and we will leave in two hours.”
“Mom, I really don’t think I’m up to going out,” I tell her, watching as she folds up the blanket that was covering her laying it over the back of the couch.
“You loved eating there before you left home,” she says, turning to face me.
“Sorry, you’re right. It sounds great,” I say, putting a smile on my face that doesn’t reach my eyes. I don’t want my last memories with her to be tainted by my fears or my past; she deserves so much more.
“Perfect, now go lie down.” She pushes me towards my old bedroom, which thankfully isn’t the way I left it years ago. The pictures that used to be on my walls are now gone, and the walls are painted a beige color that goes well with the dark blue bedspread and the painting of the ocean at night that is hung above the bed.
The only thing in the room that remained the same is a picture of my dad and me. We had gone four-wheeling right after a rainstorm. The ground was muddy, and my dad had driven through every puddle on the trail. I was sitting in front of him, so I was covered in mud from head to toe, but we were both smiling. I remember that moment and thinking that my stomach hurt from laughing so much.
How am I going to make it through this, Daddy? I think, running a finger over the top of the frame, then I go over to the bed and lie down, pulling the quilt from the footboard up over me and closing my eyes.
“Can we stop by the liquor store on the way to dinner?” Mom asks from the passenger seat of my car.
“Should you be drinking?” I frown then turn onto the main road—well, really the only road in town.
“What’s it going to do, kill me?” she jokes, making me inhale a sharp breath. “Honey,” she says quietly, and I look at her briefly, wondering how the hell she can be so casual about this. “I’m dying. When it will happen, only the good Lord knows, but it is happening, and there is nothing you or I can do about it. I have made my peace with it, and I want you to do the same.” She reaches over to pat my thigh.
“Make peace with it?” I repeat, shaking my head.
“Yes, make peace with it. If you think about it, I’m lucky. I know I’m going to die. I know that sooner rather than later God is going to come take me home, and when he does, I will be ready. I will have had a chance to say goodbye to the people I care about and right any wrongs I’ve caused. I’m lucky, honey.”
“What about me?” I wring my hands on the steering wheel, feeling my chest get tight as I fight back tears.
“I love you, honey. I loved you before you were even a sparkle in my eye, and I will always be with you. I know this isn’t easy for you. I know there are going to be a lot of tears shed, but we’re lucky, honey.”
I press my lips together to keep from saying something I might regret. I’m not lucky; in fact, I’m unlucky to the tenth power.
“Oh look! Sheryl!” She yells, pulling me from my thoughts then reaches over, pressing the horn on my steering wheel while reaching across me and waving franticly out my window. Looking to where she’s waving and feel my heart begin to beat wildly against my ribcage when I see not Sheryl, but Austin walking into one of the many bars that litter Main Street, only it’s not just Austin—it’s him and a woman with her arm wrapped around the back of his waist as he holds the door open for her.
Even from the distance separating us, my lungs compress at the beauty that is him. The years have been good to him. His hair is still shaggy, only now a little lighter, and his face is tan and covered in a beard that makes his crystal blue eyes stand out even more. My eyes travel from his face to his torso, which is covered in a dark green thermal that shows off the muscles of his arms, chest, and tapered waist, then down to his denim-covered thighs. When my gaze sweeps back up, his eyes are on me, and I see them crinkle in confusion then realization that soon turns into anger.
“You missed the liquor store,” my mom complains as I speed up.
“We can stop on the way back through town,” I assure her, willing my heartbeat to calm down.
“Or we can go to the bar on the way home.”
I know I said I would do anything to make my mom happy until I have to let her go, but there is no way in hell I’m going to a bar, not in this town. “I promise I’ll get you alcohol before we go home,” I mutter, pulling up in front of the small, metal trailer with four large picnic tables out front, all painted a checkered red and white. As soon as I put the car in park, I get out and inhale a deep breath. This town is too small, and I was fooling myself thinking I wouldn’t see Austin while I was here. I’m sure the rumor mill has already started. That’s the thing about small towns: everyone knows everyone’s business, and me coming home after so many years is sure to be big news.
“Are you okay, honey?”
I look across the roof of my car at my mom and plaster a fake smile on my face, one I’m hoping I’ve somehow perfected over the last few hours and say, “Just hungry,” before slamming my door and walking around the hood taking her arm and leading her up to the window, where we order hamburgers then sit outside at one of the picnic tables to eat, and just like I remembered, it’s the best hamburger I’ve ever had.