Island Healing

Book Cover: Island Healing

Two-time finalist in Golden Heart Contest sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA).
The Write Touch Readers' Award, Finalist (Wisconsin Romance Writers)
The Winter Rose Contest, Finalist (Desert Rose Romance Authors)
The Heart of Excellence, Finalist (Ancient City Romance Authors) 

He can’t stay.
She can’t leave.

Luke Rawley lives aboard Midnight, a classic wooden sailboat, in St. Anne’s Island, Georgia. Secretly preparing to sail around the world, he’ll let nothing stop him from fulfilling this dream with Kevin, his 18-year-old son. With years of sobriety bringing hope and stability to Luke’s life, he’s ready to set sail. Until he meets Geneva…

Having spent years avoiding emotional entanglements, he hires Geneva on the spot to cater Midnight’s sunset cruises—and be his hostess, too. She’s a big threat to his heart, and even knows her way around sailboats, but he’s determined not to allow her to jeopardize the goal that has given meaning to his life.

Geneva Saint returns to her beloved St. Anne’s Island, leaving her unfaithful husband behind. Back home to stay, she’s determined to heal old wounds. Geneva vows to help her brother’s troubled family, including her teenage nieces, Malory and Lila, and her sister-in-law whose health is deteriorating fast. Establishing her one-woman catering company on St. Anne’s is all Geneva needs to complete her St. Anne’s life.

Until she encounters Luke…

Geneva recognizes a restless spirit when she sees one and sensing Luke has bigger plans than running lunch and sunset cruises, she fights falling for her tall, lanky boss, who also makes her laugh. Sooner or later, she knows she’ll end up watching Luke sail away without her. Where will that leave her? Abandoned once more. Alone. Especially since her efforts to help her family have hurt more than helped.

Kevin and Malory, both magnets for trouble, trigger family entanglements and expose a few secrets, too. But it’s 13-year-old Lila, committed to doing whatever it takes to heal her mother who has secret plans of her own and shows the adults in her life and her older sister what a dose of courage can do.

With the future on the line, Luke is jolted into facing the truth about his dreams while Geneva asks herself if she can ever trust anyone again who claims her heart.

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Excerpt:

Flat on his back in his double bunk in the forward cabin of his boat, Luke Rawley imagined a stiff belt of bourbon, knowing second by second he edged closer to convincing himself he needed it.

Even at four o’clock in the morning, it would be a snap to get his hands on it. Maybe the bars on St. Anne’s Island were buttoned up tight for the night, but nothing prevented him from climbing into his truck and driving across the bridge to the mainland town of Hanover, Georgia. Within minutes, he could walk out of the twenty-four-hour Open Pantry clutching a half-pint bottle.

But he wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

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Luke forced his mind to shift away from that drink. Instead, he’d focused on his long list of desires, especially item one, a brand new set of sails for Midnight. And he always hoped for clear skies and a fresh breeze for his afternoon cruises, not that he counted on that wish coming true every day. Luke didn’t like being too far away from a hot mug of coffee, preferably brewed from freshly ground, dark-roasted beans, a small but important item and easy to get. His desires weren’t entirely selfish, though. Didn’t he yearn for world peace as much as the next person?

With that thought, he barked out a cynical laugh in the small cabin. Right. And good homes for abandoned puppies would be nice, too.

Who the hell was he kidding? All he really wanted was a drink.

He groaned and rolled onto his side. It made not a lick of sense to hang on to the hope that he’d sleep tonight. Or any other night for as long as he could remember. Why did he bother trying?

He slid out of his bunk and stepped into the main cabin where he sat on the bench at the navigation table, the one place he felt most at home.

Bent forward over the table, Luke smoothed the creases of the chart of the British Virgin Islands he’d left spread flat on top. Using his index finger, he slowly traced the course he’d laid from Road Harbor to Soper’s Hole and through Thatch Island Cut and on up to Cane Garden Bay. He planned to anchor off the crescent beach, and while he listened to the palm fronds rustling in the breeze, he’d wonder how a guy like him got so lucky.

Poring over charts usually captured Luke’s attention and gave his brain something to chew on. But not now.

At this point he’d have tried anything to quit thinking about a swig of bourbon sliding down the back of his throat and sending a warm shiver through his body. One long pull on that bottle and he’d dump the rest in the bay. That was the bargain he made with himself.

The Sousa march coming from his cell phone jolted him back to reality. Damn it, he had to change that music, his kid’s idea of a joke on his old man.

Luke’s mood didn’t improve when he read the number on the screen. Calls from his ex-wife invariably triggered equal parts of guilt and resentment over things he tried hard not to think about. Not that he suffered under any illusion Claudia welcomed his calls either. He’d long suspected his voice sent a surge of red, raw anger through every cell of her body. But he took the call and said a quick hello.

“I didn’t wake you, did I?” Claudia’s words came out fast and flat.

“Ha! Not likely.” He straightened his back, bracing for bad news. “What is it?” It had to be about Kevin. Nothing else would make her call before dawn.

“Prepare yourself,” she said with a long frustrated sigh. “I’ve just picked up our wayward son. He went out with three other guys—he calls them his friends. One of these good friends wrapped a car around a tree.”

Luke closed his eyes, but then immediately popped them open to wipe away the vision of his eighteen-year-old son trapped within a twisted car frame. “But Kevin’s okay?”

“He’s fine—physically that is.” She sounded more exasperated than worried. “But he was arrested before they took him to the ER to check out a bump on the side of his head. At least Kevin had the sense to use a seatbelt. The guys in the front seat were pretty banged up.”

“Then he wasn’t driving. Right?” Luke asked, his hoarse voice coming out in barely a whisper.

“No, but he was as lousy drunk as the others. Plus, the stupid kids had open beer bottles in the car.”

Claudia stopped talking long enough to drag deeply on a cigarette, giving Luke a break from the weary sadness he heard in her voice. Then she exhaled with such force it sounded like a gust of wind blowing into the phone.

“Anyway, the officer said that since Kevin doesn’t have a record he’ll probably get off with community service—hours and hours of it.”

“That’s good, Claudia, that’s good.” Someone had to inject some hope into the conversation. “This might help in the long run...I mean, make him think twice before getting into a car again when—”

When he’s drunk? Not to mention wasting his life with losers, those guys who think a good time is guzzling beer and driving around town with the radio blasting. This wasn’t the first time he’s done this, you know. It’s just the first time he got caught.”

She might as well have landed a blow on his jaw. More than once Claudia had called him a loser in that same contemptuous tone she’d just used for Kevin’s friends. He winced from the guilt stabbing him. Wouldn’t a good dad know something about those other boys his ex-wife so casually wrote off? But during Kevin’s weekends with him in St. Anne’s he seldom offered any details about his life up in South Carolina with his mother. Why hadn’t he pushed the kid beyond grunts and one-word answers?

“I can’t have this kind of upheaval in my life,” Claudia said, “I just can’t have it.”

“I know, I know.” He rubbed his thumb and index finger hard across his forehead, but didn’t make a dent in the tension there.

“I’ve worked hard, and people pay good money to stay in my B & B. Did Kevin tell you I was featured in Coastal Living? A four-page spread. Fantastic photos.”

A white lie was in order. “He did mention something about that. Congratulations.” He’d pump Kevin for details later.

“Yeah, whatever. Kevin will be down on Friday. I’m glad it’s your weekend with him.” She paused to take another drag. “Much as I love our kid, I need a break.”

They finished the conversation with Luke’s promise to lay down the law about drinking and hanging out with kids headed for trouble.

As he ended the call, he searched for a distraction. Anything would do. He shuffled through his shelf of boating magazines, finally settling on one with an article about mending old canvas sails. He made it through the first paragraph before picking up the magazine and tossing it across the table to the settee on the opposite side of the boat.

Inhaling deeply, he plunked his elbows on the table and ran his hands through his hair. What insanity. Even after horrible news about Kevin, he couldn’t shake off fantasies about that belt of bourbon.

The dock squeaked and groaned, breaking the silence and stopping his train of thought. Who’d be wandering around the marina before dawn?

He got to his feet and stood on Midnight’s companionway ladder and pushed the cabin doors open. He poked his head outside, but no one was in sight and the sounds had stopped, too. Nothing appeared different on the marina docks, not even the stale, fishy scent that hung heavy in the channel on windless nights.

He stretched his long upper body forward and craned his neck to get a better view of the dock. That’s when he saw a woman standing in a circle of light created by the torch lamp mounted on the fuel dock about fifty feet away. With shoulders hunched, she’d wrapped her arms around herself as if warding off the mid-March chill. A thick braid fell halfway down her back, and the heavy sweater she wore didn’t hide the curve of her hips in snug jeans. He’d been a hip man once, back in the days when he allowed himself to think about women.

Feeling like a creepy voyeur lurking in the shadows, he weighed his choices. He could either go back to minding his own dreary business, or he could call out to the woman and maybe find out what she was up to. But then he ran his hand down his rough cheek and across the stubble on his chin. He badly needed a shave. One glimpse of him in his old baggy sweats might send the lady racing down the dock in fear for her life.

Luke squelched his curiosity and was about to lower himself into the cabin when he saw the woman take a small notebook out of the front pocket of her jeans. She held the pad under the light and wrote for a minute or two. He frowned, his curiosity newly aroused. Then she lowered her head and covered her eyes with her free hand. When her shoulders rose and fell quickly, he immediately knew she’d started to cry.

A rolling wave of sympathy rushed through him, or maybe empathy was more like it. He’d spent more than a few nights wandering around docks alone, and he’d never welcomed a stranger’s eyes witnessing his misery either. So why couldn’t he turn away?

Still peering under the cockpit canopy, he watched the woman abruptly straighten her spine and square her shoulders as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She hurried down the main dock toward the tour boats and soon disappeared from his line of vision.

She moved so quickly she might have been a phantom.

He stepped off the ladder into the cabin, but her image stayed with him as he filled the kettle with water for coffee. What—or more likely, who—had made her cry? Probably some guy. Wasn’t that usually what triggered a woman’s tears?

He grabbed a pair of jeans and a clean shirt from his clothes locker and tossed them into his duffel. With his routine underway, he focused on the morning ahead. He lived his days much better than his nights.

It hurt like hell to admit it, but until he’d heard the footsteps on the dock and spotted the mysterious woman, he’d stayed fixated on how much he wanted that drink. But he hadn’t given in.

Luke hung on to that thought while he poured coffee into a travel mug, grabbed his duffel, and left the boat.

***

A hot shower at the marina and a short drive later, Luke felt like a new man. He pulled his truck into an empty parking space at Our Redeemer Methodist Church and followed a dozen or so men

and women down the stairs into the basement. After slipping into one of the folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle, he took a few deep breaths and felt the tension in his back and forehead finally ease.

Gradually, his thoughts slowed down and lined up, one behind the other, finally falling into the logical order that eluded him during the hours when sleep wouldn’t come. He listened to each voice in the room, most of which were familiar and comforting. Then it was his turn.

“I’m Luke, and I’m an alcoholic.”

The voices responded in perfect unison. “Hi, Luke.”

He’d hated speaking up when he’d first dragged his sorry body to AA meetings, but he didn’t mind it anymore. “My ex-wife called in the middle of the night to let me know our eighteen-year-old son was arrested for drinking.”

Resting his elbows on his knees, he filled in the details. “But then I went right back to wanting a drink. Damn it, minutes before the call, I’d come close to fooling myself into believing a drink would be good for me, maybe help me sleep.”

He let out a long, slow sigh. “After three years, and 140, no, 141 days now, I’m still so crazy that even when I hear my own kid is arrested for drinking, I keep right on obsessing about a slug of bourbon myself.” Done with his share, he shook his head in disgust as he sloshed the coffee around in the cup.

A familiar voice boomed from the far side of the room and broke the silence.

“I’m Dale, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Along with everyone else in the room, Luke greeted Dale, his closest friend, not to mention his AA sponsor, the guy he should have called in the middle of his bad—and risky—night. He couldn’t see into Dale’s eyes from across the room, but he knew his friend was concerned about Luke’s chronic sleepless nights.

“I’m thinking our friend Luke stayed put and didn’t go out and get that booze,” Dale said. “He didn’t take that first drink.”

Luke nodded. He clung to that fact.

“So all in all,” Dale said, “I’d say Luke had a fine twenty-four hours.”

Along with everyone else in the room, Luke laughed at Dale’s stock answer to nearly every situation. It almost worked, too, except he knew the problem wasn’t only about him anymore. It had spilled over onto Kevin. No matter how Luke shuffled the facts, long fingers of blame pointed back at him.

***

Geneva smiled at the receptionist and glanced at the woman’s name badge. Linda, no last name. “I’m here to visit Alexa Saint,” Geneva said.

The receptionist giggled nervously as she pushed the visitors’ sign-in book across the counter. “You must be Geneva, the daughter she can’t stop talking about. She’s been looking forward to seeing you. Oh, the stories your mother tells.”

Geneva scribbled her name, but her mind fixed on the hodge-podge of half-truths and fabrications her mother no doubt force-fed the staff at Blue Heron Gardens. She’d tried to deny how much she dreaded this visit, but the truth showed up as tiny ripples of nausea, despite managing another cheery smile for the giddy receptionist.

Laid out like a wheel, Blue Heron Gardens had a reception desk and common areas that formed a hub, with each of the four spokes a hallway for the residents’ rooms. For almost a year, her mother had lived in a kitchenette suite at the end of the spoke designed to house seniors who

needed attention more than physical care. And that, Geneva mused as she headed down the hall, described Alexa Saint with uncanny accuracy.

The door to the room was open, but Geneva stopped before going in. Her mother sat at a small table next to patio doors that looked out to a dense stand of ancient live oaks elegantly dressed in their lacy Spanish moss. As Geneva had expected, Alexa looked chic and crisp in a beige linen pantsuit and matching suede flats.

“Hello, Mother. I see you’re all dressed up.” Geneva extended one arm as she approached, ready to deliver an obligatory shoulder hug, but held back when her mother waved frantically to the chair on the other side of the table.

“And I see you’re not.”

Having promised herself that she’d ignore her mother’s trivial provocations, Geneva swallowed back defensive words about her comfortable jeans and fisherman’s knit sweater.

“Now that you’re finally here,” Alexa said, “we have so much to talk about.”

“Hey, I only got to the island yesterday.” Keeping her voice light, Geneva added, “I’ve barely had time to pull the sheets off the furniture at Pelican’s Perch.”

She didn’t bother mentioning her early morning walk on the docks where she’d jotted some notes about the excursion boats, each one a potential customer for her catering business. Yet what started out as determined focus had soon dissolved into tears. She’d cried with relief to be back on the island she loved so much, but her tears mingled with the fresh shock of coming home alone.

Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve been so anxious to see you. You are the one person who can talk some sense into your father and—”

“Oh, Mother.”

“Do...not...interrupt...me.” Alexa punctuated each word with a light slap on the table. “It’s time to put an end to your father’s nonsense.”

“Is that what you’ve been waiting to talk to me about? That same old story?”

Feeling trapped in the invisible bubble of her mother’s sweet, floral cologne, Geneva gripped the arms of the chair and fought an urge to run away.

“If your father isn’t careful, he will sully the Saint name permanently.”

Before she figured out a new response to her mother’s old demand, Geneva detoured long enough to grudgingly admire how easily her mother wore all the trappings of the fine lady she so desperately wanted to be. Along with the diamond engagement ring and gold wedding band Alexa still insisted on wearing, a strand of pearls rested smartly on a green silk blouse.

But when Geneva looked more closely, she wanted to smooth away the powder that clumped in the wrinkles circling her mother’s mouth. Her lipstick was a flattering cranberry shade, but she’d created a full upper lip that no longer existed, another sign of her sad, ungraceful slide into old age.

“C’mon, Mother, Dad left, what, nearly fifteen years ago?” Geneva kept her voice soft and low. “He’s married to Mona now. You can’t go on thinking that you—or anyone else, for that matter—can make him come back. Please...”

Her mother flicked her hand in the air as if swatting away an annoying fly. “That odious Mona is a nobody. Herbert will get rid of her if the right person talks some sense into him. As I’ve said time and time again, you are that person, with Norman by your side, of course.” A deep crease appeared between her brows.

“Speaking of Norman, where is that handsome husband of yours? I expected him to be with you.”

“He’s back in Asheville,” Geneva said quickly. “Mother, I need you to listen—”

“I will not listen, not if all of your talk is so negative. Your father stood before God and pledged to love me until death parted us, and Herbert was never a man to break his promises.” With eyes narrowed, she added, “Today, Geneva, talk to him today.”

Geneva clamped her mouth closed to suppress a groan. The situation truly was as bad as her brother described. No wonder Steve couldn’t keep catering to their mother’s demands. Besides, he already had his hands full.

Geneva had come home prepared to do more than survive the end of her marriage. No wallowing in self-pity allowed. She’d create a new and wonderful life, one that involved more than making money, which, as it turned out, she’d been quite good at. She wanted her life to matter, and that started with playing a useful role in her family. Unfortunately, a meaningful life wouldn’t always look pretty.

She leaned forward and peered into her mother’s face, making sure she had her attention. “Norm was never one to break promises either, or so I thought. But he did, and now I’m filing for divorce.”

Alexa’s hands flew to her mouth as if stifling a scream. “That can’t be...it must not be.” She pointed toward the door. “Go home. Fix your marriage, make it work.”

Geneva touched her mother’s forearm. “That’s not possible.”

She’d practiced the words in her head, but this would be the first time she’d say them out loud. “Norm has been having an affair with his assistant, a woman named Phoebe. She’s pregnant, so I’m getting a quick divorce. And that’s that.”

Geneva weaved forward in a rush of dizziness. How odd that she could string words together at all. A part of her wanted to toss every nasty detail on the table, like the money she’d loaned Norm to start his sinkhole of a dot.com business and hire little twenty-something Phoebe. Her mother would have blocked out her words, though, simply chosen not to understand them.

She lifted her chin in a show of defiant pride. “So, like I said, that’s that. I’m back to stay. This island is my real home anyway. Besides, Steve and Mary—and the girls—need my help.”

“But we Saints don’t believe in divorce.” Alexa nearly spit the words out.

All appearances to the contrary. Geneva struggled to hang on to whatever kindness she possessed as she formed her words. “Maybe so, but I can’t make Norm stay married to me, even if I wanted to, and I sure as hell don’t. And you can’t make Dad come back to you.”

Her mother tightened her jaw and turned away.

Geneva grabbed the chance to change the subject. “Have you seen Mary lately? How does she seem to you?”

Alexa stared vacantly out the patio doors. “I saw her around Christmas, I guess. She was fine.” She rolled her eyes. “To be perfectly honest, Mary has become a terrible hostess. Between you and me, the way your brother worries about Mary and dotes on those two girls is ridiculous.”

Geneva jerked her head back. “Oh, for God’s sake, Mother. Of course, Steve worries about Mary every day, every hour of his life! Have you forgotten she’s sick?” Geneva didn’t bother adding the obvious fact that no one with multiple sclerosis is ever completely fine.

“Oh, I’m sure she’ll be well soon.” Again, Alexa swatted at the air. “Why do you care, anyway? Mary never thought much of you.” She squinted as if puzzled and stared into space. “Tell me again. What did you do that upset Mary so much?”

“It’s not important,” Geneva blurted, “at least not twenty years later.”

Not precisely true, but dragging out family history and petty fights would get them nowhere fast.

Her mother cast an icy look her way, but then went back to staring into space. Geneva flopped back in the chair. It would have been easier to accept Alexa’s nonsense if the doctors could have linked her behavior to some dreaded illness, even Alzheimer’s.

The best neurologists and psychiatrists she and Steve could find had probed Alexa Saint’s psyche, took expensive images of her brain, and tested vial after vial of her blood in their quest to spot something—anything—to help explain the weak link in her grasp on reality. “Must be a blip in the wiring,” one brutally honest doctor reported.

Geneva sighed as she recalled the day that a guy everyone called a cutting edge neuroscientist bluntly dished out his take on her mother. Alexa Saint chose her life of spinning fantasies, he’d explained, the way some people swallowed pills or threw money away at roulette tables. She was addicted, he’d said, to her own soap opera dramas, including her rewritten and deluded version of the past. Her thoughts were like well-worn paths in her brain, and a fork in the road that offered a trip into reality held no allure for Alexa. Her own deluded world felt firm under her feet and in that world she preferred to stay, thank you very much.

Alexa folded her hands and rested them in her lap before raising her head. “Tell me, what did you do to drive Norman away?”

Geneva peered into her mother’s clear, light brown eyes, so much like her own it frightened her. She rose and moved to the patio door and leaned against the frame, wanting to escape the contempt darting from those eyes.

“Nothing, Mother, I did nothing. Besides, it doesn’t matter now anyway.” She’d say anything to shut her mother up on the subject of Norm.

“Maybe he grew tired of the way you’ve let yourself go.” Her mother’s voice dripped with disapproval. “A woman over forty shouldn’t run around in jeans with her hair in a braid. After you married Norman, you got yourself some style, Geneva, but I’ll bet you’ve put on ten pounds since I saw you last year. No wonder Norman let his eye wander. And he was a catch, too. A real prince.”

Geneva squeezed both hands tightly against her hips, bunching her wool sweater in her fists in frustration. “Stop it, please stop this talk.”

She glanced at her mother, who sat motionless and staring into space. “Oh Geneva, you’ve disappointed me—again.”

That was it. She’d had enough of her mother for one day.

Besides, she had more to do than listen to insults. After mumbling a few words about coming back soon, Geneva sped down the hall and waved at the receptionist before letting the front door of Blue Heron Gardens slam behind her.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Lynda McDaniel wrote:

The characters stir all the emotions—pleasure, fear, compassion, love, hate…McCullough knows just how to pull it all together with a whiz-bang finish.

Bluejadeite808, Amazon wrote:

Be sure to curl up in a comfy spot, because you'll want to keep reading.

Maria Connor wrote:

The emotional depth of Geneva and Luke draw you into their story until you feel like you're one of the cast in this truly touching story.