Brick Callan had no idea that he was one grocery aisle away from his worst nightmare.
Had he bothered straightening to his full six feet four inches and looked up from the canned goods, he would have caught that telltale flash of red. The color of forest fires and the temptations of hell.
Instead, he weighed the options between diced tomatoes with or without green peppers while shopkeeper Bill House complained to him.
“I’m telling you, Brick. That Rathbun kid spent half the afternoon gunning his snowmobile down Market Street like a maniac,” Bill hissed, crossing his skinny arms over his chest.
Brick tucked the tomatoes with peppers into the cart next to a bag of yellow onions, two cartons of beef broth, and the pack of batteries.
“Kid scared the hell out of the horses on delivery yesterday,” Bill continued. “And he came this close to side-swiping Mulvaney’s new Arctic Cat last week. You know we’d never hear the end of that.”
Brick bit back a sigh. Just once it would be nice to do his shopping without small talk. “I’ll talk to him,” he promised. He happened to know a thing or two about the dumb shit boys did to impress teenage girls.
Bill blew out a sigh and adjusted the Doud’s Market ski cap he used to keep his bald head warm from November through April. “Appreciate it, Brick.”
There was a delicate balance to their little island community, and Brick’s job was to help maintain that balance even in the dead of the Michigan winter when only the most hardy of residents remained on Mackinac. It was the same reason he’d promised Mrs. Sopp he’d change the batteries in the smoke detectors of her rental when she’d called from the back nine of a golf course in Florida.
The door to Doud’s opened with a jangle of the bell.
Mira Rathbun—mother of said “Rathbun kid”—blew into the little store with a bone-chilling lake wind. Bill clammed up, looking as if he’d swallowed his tongue. The man didn’t mind tattling to the off-duty cops on his neighbors, but he was more comfortable doing so behind their backs.
“Shut the damn door!” The order came from the cashier and two customers closest to the entrance.
When the last full ferry of tourists left Mackinac Island back in October, it also took the polite courtesy required for a summer resort with it. The town’s 500-ish year-round residents hunkered down for another bone-chilling offseason in the middle of Lake Huron with a charming surliness.
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry,” Mira said, impatiently brushing a layer of powder off her bright orange snow suit. The woman was a mile-a-minute whirlwind, which stressed Brick out. It was unfortunate for the community that she’d been the one to teach Travis to drive his third-hand snowmobile.
This was Brick’s fourteenth winter on the island. He perversely looked forward to the frigid temperatures and the seasonal closures of most of the businesses. Winter was quiet. Low-key. Predictable.
Bill peered into Brick’s cart, eyebrows disappearing under the edge of his hat. “Beef stew again? Don’t you know any other recipes? I bet there’s a single gal or two on the island who wouldn’t mind cooking up a nice pastry for ya.”
“I like beef stew.” He also liked not being forced to be social while eating it.
Brick made a batch of beef stew every week and ate it for four or five days straight because it was easy and familiar. As for the social aspect, he’d earned his solitary winters and wasn’t inclined to set a second place at the table.
“Didja hear the news?” Mira demanded, bustling over and crowbarring herself into the conversation.
Brick was skeptical. News didn’t happen on Mackinac in the winter. Which meant this was gossip. Something he preferred to avoid despite the fact that both his jobs constantly put him on the receiving end of it.
“This have to do with the plane that came in late last night?” Bill asked, temporarily forgetting his problem with Mira’s kid’s accelerator hand.
Her eyes sparkled with the rare nugget of novelty in the middle of a season when every day looked a hell of a lot like the day before. Brick had a sudden desire to walk right out into the cold and avoid whatever bomb Mira was about to drop. Instinct told him something bad was about to happen, and he’d left his gun at home.
“Now, keep this under your hats because rumor has it her family doesn’t know yet,” she said, leaning in and dropping her voice to a whisper.
Brick had a very bad feeling about this.
“Whose family?” Bill asked, looking bewildered. “I’m not following.”
“I’m drawing it out for effect. Jeez. This is the longest conversation I’ve had with someone I didn’t marry or give birth to in three months. Let me have this,” she insisted.
Brick nudged his cart forward, hoping to escape the news. But Mira grabbed on tight, stalling his progress. “Remi Ford!” she announced.
His knuckles went white on the handle.
Remington Honeysuckle Ford.
Remi Honey to family. Trouble to him. Hell.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Bill crowed. “What’s she doing back here in the dead of winter without telling her folks?”
Their hushed voices melded beneath the steady hum in his ears. Brick did his best to keep his face expressionless while his insides detonated. The exit was only twenty feet away, but his feet rooted to the floor, knees locked. Over the deafening thump of his heart, he stared at Mira’s mouth while she spilled the dirt.
She couldn’t be here. Not without a heads-up.
It took him weeks to prepare mentally, to gird himself before being forced to exchange casual greetings across the dinner table.
“Psst!” The cashier, Bill’s nephew, waved his arms from behind the register and silently pointed to the next aisle. Brick’s stomach dropped into his boots.
No. This was definitely not happening.
Mira and Bill made a mad dash for the cereal aisle. Brick charged in the opposite direction toward the cashier, deciding now was as good a time as any to escape before—
His cart T-boned another just as it peeked around the corner. The momentum took both carts into a tower of oatmeal boxes, sending them toppling.
Fuck. He knew it before he looked up from the vanilla almond and maple bacon massacre on the floor.
And there she was. All five feet two inches of mischievous pixie. She wore her red hair in a long, loose braid over one shoulder of her magenta parka. Ear buds peeked out from the yellow wool cap crammed on her head. Her eyes were the color of the green antique glass his grandmother had once collected. Her mouth was full and wide, and when she turned that smile on a man, he couldn’t help but feel just a little dazzled…at least until he got to know her. The smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks stood out against the ivory of her skin.
She looked different. Pale, tired, almost fragile. The energy that usually crackled off her, raining down like sparks on her unsuspecting victims, was only a dull buzz. As someone who’d spent half a lifetime cataloging everything there was to know about Remi, Brick knew something was wrong.
Their gazes held for one long beat. He couldn’t decide if he should say hello or if he could get away with running for his life. Before he could choose, she abandoned her cart and walked straight into him.
Instinct had him wrapping his arms around her even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. She slid her hands under his coat and melted into him. Her scent was still agitating. It always reminded him of a meadow…right after a lightning strike. Without thinking, he rested his chin on the top of her head, his beard scraping over the soft knit of her hat. Something dug into his side, but before he could figure it out, she distracted him by letting out a long, slow breath, and some tension left her. This was not the Remi he knew. That girl would have teased him with a loud, smacking kiss on the mouth just to piss him off before whirling away again to wreak havoc.
He pushed her back, holding on to her upper arms. “What’s wrong?” he demanded, keeping his voice low.
“Well, if it isn’t little Remi Ford!” Bill declared as he skidded to a stop, Mira on his heels.
“What are you doing home in February?” Mira asked.
Remi slipped out of his grasp and plucked the ear buds from her ears. The smile she sent them wasn’t up to her usual wattage, but he was the only one who noticed. “What can I say? I missed the winters here,” she said brightly.
That raspy voice was so familiar even after all this time it almost hurt.
Bill hooted. “Now, that’s a dirty lie!”
Mira rushed in to give the prodigal a hug. “Are you surprising your parents?” she asked. “I know they missed you at Christmas this year.”
Remi avoided looking directly at Brick when she answered. “I felt bad about missing the holidays with them and thought I’d make up for it now with a nice, long visit.”
She was lying. He was sure of it. Whatever had put those shadows under her eyes wasn’t guilt over a missed holiday.
“You’re such a good daughter. How’s big city living?” Mira pressed. The woman would drain Remi of every detail if she let her. Then it would be served up to other islanders over school pick-ups and to-go orders.
“It’s…good,” Remi said.
Brick’s eyes narrowed on the hesitation.
“Quick! What’s my aura color?” Bill asked.
Remi’s cheeks pinked up. “You’re looking a nice bright green today just like always,” she told him.
There were a lot of things that made Remi different from the average girl. Synesthesia was one of them.
The story went that little Remi Ford caused a fuss in kindergarten when she demanded a pink crayon to write her Es because everyone knew Es were pink. It took a few years, but her parents finally got an answer from a specialist. Their daughter’s brain created extra connections, tying colors to things like letters, words, people.
But the thing he found most fascinating was the fact that she could see music. Back in the day, before things got complicated, he used to quiz her about the colors she saw for songs.
“Are you still at the museum?” Mira asked.
“Actually, I’m painting full time now,” she said.
That was news. He was surprised her parents hadn’t mentioned it.
Brick glanced into her cart and spotted three boxes of Marshmallow Munchies cereal, coffee, sugary creamer, and a package of honey buns. Not a protein or a vegetable in sight. The woman was stress eating.
“Houses or paintings?” Bill teased.
“Mostly just paintings,” Remi said with a wink. “But I’d paint a house for you, Bill.”
The man turned a shade of scarlet Brick had never seen. Such was the power of Remi’s charm.
She tucked a stray hair behind her ear, an old nervous habit, and that’s when he caught a glimpse of pale orange plaster between her thumb and index finger. Her right arm was in a cast.
Brick’s gut clenched as questions revolved through his mind.
It wasn’t any of his business. And he knew what would happen if he let himself get curious. Remi Ford was no longer his concern.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Mira asked. “Did you bring a boyfriend for Valentine’s Day?”
Brick clenched his jaw. “Excuse me,” he said, gripping the handle of his cart. “I’ve got to get going. Welcome home, Remi.”
“Thanks. It was nice to see you, Brick,” she said with a sad little smile.
He gave her a tight nod. With heroic effort, he walked instead of ran to the checkout, leaving her, the rest of the items on his grocery list, and his unanswered questions behind.