Elizabeth Draper sat on the edge of the pier with her light brown hair up in a ponytail and her plaid shirt tied around her waist by its sleeves. With her jeans rolled up to mid-calf, she kicked at the water with her big toe as she scanned the memories of the past eighteen years like a wistful montage. So much had happened in just this small five-mile stretch.
Dreamer’s Bay was what you would call a blip of a town along the coastline of South Carolina that not a lot of people knew about. With Hilton Head to the north and Wilmington Island to the south, a lot of folks skipped right over the Bay should their foot rest too heavy on the gas pedal. Elizabeth liked that about her hometown. She preferred it small and elusive, like a hidden treasure you had to uncover, all their own. Once you found it, however, why would you ever want to leave? It was the kind of place where good things happened and people were there for their friends and neighbors. Beyond the beach itself, the lightning bugs in the summer were just one of the many beautiful spectacles you encountered in Dreamer’s Bay. The breathtaking Fourth of July fireworks display was another. She smiled imagining last year’s awe-inspiring design, not to mention the best damn funnel cake you could find for hundreds of miles.
Not only that, but Elizabeth had been blessed with a batch of fantastic memories all her own in this place. There were the Easter egg hunts in Bountiful Park. Nights spent playing flashlight tag with the neighborhood kids until her dad finally called her inside at her nine p.m. curfew. She shook her head and grinned when remembering her stint as Twin #2 in Peter Pan, which they’d performed in the school’s underequipped cafetorium when she was twelve. The entire population of the town had been in the audience. Only her mother had been missing. She didn’t think about that part too much. On purpose. Instead, she’d fondly reflected on the time she’d scored second place in the annual bake-off with her grandmother’s recipe for chocolate mint pie with homemade whipped cream. The win had come with a pretty significant trophy she’d displayed on the shelf in the living room.
In just a few hours, she would carve out another memory as she graduated from high school, leaving her youth firmly behind her. The next day she’d be on her way out of Dreamer’s Bay for the first time in her life, headed to the University of North Carolina, where she’d start summer classes right away. Her stomach hummed uncomfortably at the thought of leaving everything she loved. Elizabeth had never really known life anywhere else, and the idea that she was about to explore the wider world left her excited and terrified. There was nowhere like Dreamer’s Bay. What was she going to do these next few years without it?
That night, as she clutched the portfolio that contained her high school diploma, the emotion of the monumental event overcame Elizabeth. With a lump in her throat and tears welling in her eyes, she surveyed her classmates as they gathered outside the auditorium following the ceremony, wearing their matching blue and white gowns. Hugging, cheering, and well-wishing abounded, but also the understanding that they would part ways now, bound for different places in life, their futures uncertain, their hopes and dreams still to be realized. Some would stay. Some would go. But they would never be the same group again, who’d grown up together and experienced so many of the same things. She hugged her English teacher, Mr. Webb, then turned and hugged her best friend KC and kissed her buddy Dexter’s cheek. She turned around, looking for the next hug, and came face-to-face with Devyn Winters, another classmate. They’d not spent a lot of time together in high school, running with different crowds. Devyn was co-captain of the cheerleading squad and Elizabeth was, well, just Elizabeth. She’d heard Devyn was bound for Penn State, having always been the good student. Extra popular, too. Elizabeth wasn’t.
“Hey, congratulations,” Devyn said, with a polite smile. She was gorgeous, with blond hair and hazel eyes, and in that moment, she was haloed perfectly by the outdoor lights overhead.
Elizabeth beamed back. “Congratulations to you, too.” They stared at each other a moment, and for some reason it mattered more than it should have. They reached for each other and shared a tight embrace, only it didn’t feel obligatory. It was probably the gravity of the day, bonding two acquaintances who would then drift their separate ways again, back on their rightful trajectories that had never included the other. That’s what it was, right? Yet it felt like so much more.
When Devyn released her, Elizabeth placed a hand over her heart, wondering about the intensity of the pang that struck her chest.
“Elizabeth. Over here.”
She raised her gaze and there was her father, rushing toward her with his arms open and eyes misty. That was her rock, right there, the person who always had her back. The pride in his gaze meant everything tonight. “Congratulations, little girl, you did it.”
With her cap clutched in her hand, she fell into his arms, happy to share this moment with the one person she could always count on. “Thanks, Dad.” She laughed in wonder. “I can’t believe it. I’m a high school graduate.”
“I can. You worked hard and it paid off. I’ve never been prouder of you.”
In the midst of that crowd and the continued well-wishing, Elizabeth couldn’t help but glance around for Devyn and wonder about the moment that still tingled. She scanned the faces around her, but to no avail. Devyn Winters was gone.
“Happy birthday, dear Donna. Happy birthday to you.” Devyn Winters stared at her happily singing coworkers as they held that final note of the song for several moments longer than necessary. She raised her eyebrows and smiled as she did her best to look as happily engaged in this whole feel-good moment as the rest of the office did. Did she have to read their lips to remember the birthday woman’s name? Why, yes, yes she did. She was awful when it came to remembering the admins because there were so many of them. She’d like to be better, but honestly, who had the time? She’d done her job, appeared for the requisite singing, snagged some vanilla cake with bright purple icing, and now worked on crowd-surfing her way out of the overrun break room while balancing her cake over her head.
“Devyn? Hey, Devyn?”
“Yep?” she tossed over her shoulder as she continued to dodge and weave like a pro. Time was money.
“Can I grab you to talk about the McMahon property at 803 Financial? If you have a spare sec, I mean.” She glanced back at Redheaded Ricky, who meant well, always smelled pleasantly of soap, but rarely ironed his work shirts. He was a decent enough broker at the firm but was known for being a softie and often late to the negotiating table, missing out on the really high-end listings because he’d decided to have a life on the side of his job. She didn’t blame him. Everyone’s priorities were different, but there wasn’t a lot she could do for a guy like him who wasn’t available when the big deals went down over drinks after hours.
“Sure. Can we walk and talk?” she asked reluctantly. With an afternoon stacked to the brim with listing appointments and two additional meetings with developers, she didn’t have a lot of downtime to talk shop. Plus, she’d just given away three minutes of it to Donna-somebody and her confetti-vanilla birthday cake, which she decided mid-bite was not bad at all. The three minutes might have proven beneficial in the end.
“Definitely,” he said, matching her stride. “Walkin’ and talkin’.”
She glanced over at him, waiting for him to speak. “So…803 Financial? The McMahon building?”
“Right.” He nodded. “Three units on the fourteenth floor are about to hit the market. I want that listing, and I was hoping you could offer me some insight. Advice, if you will, on how I might land it. Everyone knows you’re a pro when it comes to working with the top developers.”
She whistled low because that property was out of Ricky’s league. In fact, countless brokers had been vying for a meeting with the developer, Randy Thibedeux, for weeks. “Have you ever worked with a developer?”
She high-fived her assistant Karen as they passed her desk. “Messages?”
“Twelve. And check your email. Two offers came in on Eighteen Lexington. One is an international buyer.”
“One at full ask. The international offer is slightly under but all cash. I think you can get them up.”
“I love it. My client will love it even more. Thanks, Karen.” Then she remembered Ricky, who was still on her heels.
“So, what can I help you with exactly?”
He had a hungry look about him. “How do I move from private listings to developments?”
Well, wasn’t that the million-dollar question, literally. She tossed him a glance. “You want to work with developers?” It didn’t shock her. There was nothing in the world like being handed a fifteen-million-dollar building and selling out the entire thing single-handedly. The dollar signs from the commission alone sent her a thrilling chill. That didn’t even begin to cover the street cred.
Ricky came farther into her office and sat in the oversized leather chair across from her desk. There were times she slept in that chair when it made more sense than going all the way home. “Yes, very much, and you seem to have it all figured out.”
“I do okay.” She flashed a smile, knowing it was an understatement. She played hardball in the big leagues with her name on the tip of everyone’s tongue and loved every minute of it. It came at a price, though. She couldn’t slow down for so much as a millisecond or she’d lose it all to someone who was willing to schmooze harder or stay up an hour longer. Good thing she loved the grind.
“How did you get started?” Rick asked.
“With high-rises? You start with a single listing in one building, prove yourself by knocking it out of the park by bringing in a killer offer, and hope the developer is so stoked that they give you another shot, then another, followed by an entire building of high-end inventory.”
He nodded along enthusiastically.
“Then their developer buddy sees that their multimillion-dollar building sold out in three months and wants to know who they used. It’s all about your track record and forming strong relationships. Prove yourself, and there’s always more.”
Ricky stared at her like she’d just invented electricity. “That’s amazing.”
“It can be.” She grabbed a Red Bull from her bottom drawer for herself and slid one to Ricky, who happily scooped it up. “New construction in Philadelphia is up twenty percent. It’s a good time to get your feet wet if you’re serious.”
He blinked hard as she spoke as if committing her wise words to memory. “I am. Very serious, in fact.”
Despite her schedule, Ricky’s obvious sincerity snagged her attention, prompting her to make an uncharacteristic decision. “Listen, I have a four o’clock this afternoon with a known wheeler-dealer. The guy never stops. In fact, I don’t think he sleeps with all the buildings he’s got going up. Do you want to sit in on the meeting? He’s three-quarters of the way into construction on a building on Walker Avenue, and I’m angling for it.”
“The whole building?”
“Of course the whole building.”
His face lit up in admiration. Bless his heart. “Yeah. Yes. I would love that. If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“I don’t. We’ll likely do drinks after a tour of the property. There’s a bar around the corner he likes.”
Ricky paused. “Just so I’m clear, this might be a late workday?”
Devyn understood that Ricky would likely need to let his wife know that he wouldn’t be home for dinner. She couldn’t imagine being tied down like that. To her, every day was a late workday, but that was the kind of pace that got her fur up and made her excited to get up in the morning, to get out there and sell. She didn’t live by the clock, and that had paid off in spades. Financially, she was set. She lived in an upscale condo in the heart of downtown Philadelphia and reaped the rewards of her hard work, as evidenced by her round-the-clock concierge and large staff of various assistants both at work and in her personal life. “Yeah, Ricky. We might go past six. You still up for it?”
He grinned and rolled with the punch. “Definitely.”
“Great. Meet me downstairs at three fifteen. I have a slice of cake to finish now while I present these new offers to my client.”
“Best of luck,” Ricky said, shooting her two enthusiastic thumbs-up.
She smiled and leaned back in her leather desk chair. “I won’t need it.”
Elizabeth Draper and Hank the hound dog were getting along splendidly that morning. In fact, as far as Elizabeth was concerned, Hank was always a pleasure to walk, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth like a calling card. They rounded the corner onto the last tree-lined street of their weekly Wednesday-morning walk. With winter melting into spring, the green was reemerging in the grass, trees, and bushes after months of dormancy. The brighter colors inspired a bouncy spring in her step that she swore translated to Hank, who she’d decided months ago was an incredibly intuitive doggo.
She paused the walk to let Hank and his nose investigate the suspicious crevice in the sidewalk, while she took a deep inhale of fresh air. Someone nearby was brewing coffee with the windows open, and it only added to Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the morning and the happy reminder that she still had the whole day stretched out ahead of her.
“Almost home, big guy,” she said to Hank as they neared the red brick one-story where he lived with his owner, Pam. The reminder was unnecessary, however, because Hank was already pulling on the leash and whining softly. He knew exactly where he was and was anxious to lap up some water before falling onto his side on the cool kitchen floor for his late-morning snooze. Dutifully, she let them into the house with the key Pam had provided, made sure Hank had plenty of water, and retrieved the weekly payment left for her on the kitchen counter. “You have a good day, Hank,” she said with a final pat and kiss to the side of his big, sloppy cheek. “Be nice to your mom when she gets home from the office, and I will see you on Friday morning.”
With a thud, he fell onto his side to absorb the cool from the tile. She smiled as he let out a long and contented sigh. They’d had a good walk that day, and for the first time in quite a while, she’d been able to leave her jacket and car at home where she worked from her converted garage that she’d turned into a functioning office for On the Spot, the errand and odd job company she owned and operated. True, there was only one full-time employee: herself, but she did employ a wide variety of part-time workers all categorized by their dependability and particular skill set. The community college kids had been a great resource for the kind of work she did, and as she grew, so did her Rolodex. And they did continue to grow. The town of Dreamer’s Bay had truly embraced the business, and Elizabeth was beyond grateful.
In fact, in checking her phone after Hank’s walk, she learned she already had three new requests for tasks that very day. Mrs. Belmont was under the weather and looking for help picking up her dry cleaning and ingredients for fresh tomato sauce. The Hubbard family wanted to hire either her or one of her vetted childcare workers to take the younger two Hubbards to the park for some exercise once school let out for the day, and that grumpy Mr. Ivers wanted McDonald’s for lunch again, even though his doctor had told him countless times that his cholesterol was too high and salty foods should be avoided. She sighed and shook her head at that one. It wasn’t her job to evaluate the requests of her clientele. Though, when she delivered the Big Mac and large fries, she would certainly have trouble holding her tongue entirely about his continued high sodium consumption. She happened to care about him, grumpy or not.
She did a quick calculation. She could easily handle those requests herself, as they were staggered, but as more requests came in, and they likely would, she’d call KC, her best friend and favorite outsourcer, to step in and handle a few. As the mother of a young child, KC appreciated the part-time work that got her out of the house but never overwhelmed her schedule. The fact that she brought Grayson, her two-year-old, along with her on tasks had turned out to be a bonus. Her clients loved little Gray, the company’s new ambassador, which only added to KC’s tips.
“Busy afternoon,” Elizabeth said, as KC answered. “I’m pretty much full on my end, so can I put you on standby should we receive any more bookings?”
“Consider me standing by. We’re currently eating Cheerios with banana and discussing the need for more cookies at breakfast and maybe why that’s not a good idea. Done with Hank?”
“He’s exercised and snoozing in a sunspot.”
“That’s my favorite dog.”
“I’m in agreement with Gray, though, in case you’re counting,” Elizabeth said. “There can never be too many cookies, and the morning hours seem like a great time to sneak a few more in. He’s seizing the opportunity and there’s a lot to be admired there.”
“No, no, no. Don’t encourage his junk food fixation. He’s obsessed with food as it is.”
“While you two battle it out, I’m headed over to Jill Winters’s place. She wants me to see if I can fix that stubborn hinge on her back door. Got my tool belt all ready to go.” She sighed wistfully. “I wish Thalia could see me with it on.” Thalia Perkins had been Elizabeth’s crush ever since she’d moved to town and set up her own massage and facial spa just outside the square. Dark hair, gorgeous lips, and a body she had to fan herself over. While Elizabeth had made it clear in every way she could that she was every bit as gay as Thalia—in case she didn’t pick up on that readily—she hadn’t exactly had the courage to make a move. She’d never really been the forward type. Okay, that was a lie. She was actually lame as hell when it came to moves. She had no game and owned it.
“One day you’re going to be over this whole Thalia thing and I’m going to fall to my knees in relief for both of us. That woman may be beautiful, but she’s trouble, and I don’t like the way she treats you, like you’re some flavor of gum that she likes some of the time.”
“I think it’s the some of the time that keeps me on the Thalia hamster wheel.”
“Exactly, which is why she needs to stop leading you on.”
“Unless she’s not, and one day we might live happily ever after.” She was only half kidding.
A pause on the other end of the line. “So, you’ve seen Jill?”
“What do you mean seen her?” Elizabeth asked. “I’ve seen her a lot. Medium-length brown hair, brown eyes. Cheerful disposition. Hangs out with eight-year-olds a lot.”
“I mean recently, weirdo.”
“I passed her at the grocery store on Saturday when she asked me about the hinge job. Then a few days before that at Morning Glory.” She really did love the breakfast specials there.
“Not at all today?” KC asked. “Because when I stopped in for coffee and a dozen jelly-filled, Lulu at Amazin’ Glazin’ said folks were looking for Jill because she didn’t show up at the elementary school this morning.” News, even the most mundane, always traveled at incredible speed in the Bay.
Elizabeth shifted her phone to the other ear as she walked, nearing her one-story house on Whippoorwill Way, the shady little cul-de-sac she called home. She frowned into the phone. That was weird. Jill was a fourth-grade teacher and incredibly reliable. Everyone knew that. It wasn’t like her to not show up…for anything. “I haven’t seen her today, no. I bet she just overslept. It happens to the best of us. But you know what? Just to be proactive, and because I’m a little worried, I’ll head over to her place and see what I can find out. Maybe she’ll answer the door, bleary eyed and embarrassed, and we can all exhale.”
“I’m all for that.”
“She’d do it for any one of us.” Jill Winters, only slightly older than Elizabeth’s thirty-two years and a couple grades ahead of her in high school, was someone she considered a friend, a bright spot in the community. Elizabeth sincerely hoped all was okay, yet she felt an uncomfortable gnawing in her midsection. Jill wasn’t a wild child. This could be bad.
“So would you,” KC said. “You’re a good egg, Liz.”
She shrugged. “Just doing what I can to help. With the divorce from Ed, Jill’s on her own now. We all have to look out for each other, right?”
“She doesn’t have any family nearby?” KC asked. “I’m trying to remember her story.”
“Her mother died several years ago.”
“Right, right. I remember.”
Elizabeth pulled a leaf off a low-hanging branch as she walked. “And then of course there’s her sister, Devyn.”
“Who’s dropped off the face of the planet. I don’t even think she has an Instagram.”
Elizabeth grinned ruefully. “She’s probably too cool for social media, KC. I mean, c’mon.”
KC laughed. “My bad. Can’t expect the sought after to mix with the commoners in a public space.”
“Can you imagine?”
Devyn Winters had been their classmate back in the day, but Elizabeth hadn’t seen her at all since. Last she heard, Devyn was some kind of hotshot real estate broker in Philadelphia and hadn’t looked back. She’d swooped into town for their mother’s funeral four years prior and swooped back out again without much in the way of a hello to anyone other than her circle, which included Jill and likely Devyn’s fellow cheerleaders, who unfortunately still lived in town, clinging to their glory days and too much Botox. Apparently, the two went hand in hand. She hadn’t seen a frown line on Cricket Johansson’s face since the eighth grade, and it frightened her.
“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Dan is on call at the hospital, but Gray says he’s game for On the Spot gigs as long as there is music in the car,” KC said over Gray’s singsongy voice in the background. He’d been on a Justin Timberlake kick recently, soaking up whatever he could from the radio. KC was going to have to keep an eye on that one and his burgeoning two-year dance moves.
“I will, and stand by for the afternoon rush. Dreamer’s Bay is just waking up and I have a feeling there’s a lot these people need.”
“We already have our sneakers on,” KC said. “Hit us up and we’ll be on our way. I wouldn’t mind if someone needed a liquor delivery. We’re low on fun juice and I haven’t danced in a while.”
“Any liquor requests are prioritized for you. Don’t forget to check their IDs. And don’t drink with them while on the job. Get your groove going later.”
KC sighed. “Fine, Killer of Joy.”
“That’s me. Always. Owning it. Purchasing stock.”
She didn’t say goodbye as she clicked off the call. She didn’t have to with KC. They had an impressive shorthand that went all the way back to kindergarten, when KC Makowski—now KC Collette—and her family first put down roots in Dreamer’s Bay. Elizabeth had been born there. She liked to tell herself that the place was in her blood for that reason. While it was true that not too many people had heard of their town, they’d snagged a decent enough tourist uptick after American Leisurelisted them as one of the small towns you should visit before you die. The handful of bed-and-breakfasts couldn’t accommodate the influx, and several more had sprung up to sustain the visitors, who still came in clusters during the warm weather months for time on the beach. The Bay had a group of pretty darn good restaurants, a couple of supermarkets—one big, one small—a movie theater with three screens, and a recently renovated bowling alley where Elizabeth participated in the Tuesday-night league in the winter months. Go Ball Busters! The stretch of water along the coast and the quaint little boardwalk were their claim to fame, however. You could buy ice cream and watch the tide come in.
With concerns about Jill still on her mind, Elizabeth let herself into her modest but, in her opinion, very charming home on Whippoorwill Way. She was the third house on the bend of the cul-de-sac and knew each of her neighbors quite well. What she loved most about her home was that it felt entirely hers. She’d decorated in a decidedly rustic Southern motif, embracing sunflowers and overturned tin pails and faded wooden signs that hung on the beige walls. She’d used a variety of lavender accents because, well, she adored lavender and all its purple relatives. She smiled at the pair of wooden ducks on her mantel and nodded as she passed. In her refrigerator, she found the fresh-squeezed orange juice she’d made just the night before and poured herself a luxurious glass, which really did hit the spot after her long walk with Hank.
She checked her appearance in the mirror and found that her longer-than-she-was-used-to brown hair sported even more natural highlights than it had just a few weeks prior when the sun had been less present. Now she could spot hints of blond, red, and light chestnut mixed in with the everyday brown, culminating in a hodgepodge of color. She’d been told the natural highlights brought out the green in her eyes. Whether that was true or not, she embraced the compliment, enjoying her hair’s jumble of shades. What else could she do? Elizabeth had never considered herself a beauty, but she was attractive enough and, for the most part, comfortable in her own skin. Of course, she secretly wished Thalia Perkins noticed her more, but then she couldn’t have everything she wanted in life. She ran her fingers through her hair, giving it an informal fluff. Good enough, she thought, and set out in her car for McDonald’s and Mr. Iver’s overly salted lunch, just as a new flood of requests hit the app on her phone. She checked her watch and did a quick calculation on time. Her phone buzzed again with a request for a grocery delivery. And another for a ride home from the auto shop. It was going to be a busy day for On the Spot, and Elizabeth was up for it. But first, a stop at Jill Winters’s place. She wasn’t religious but rattled off a quick yet sincere prayer that all would be okay. This was Dreamer’s Bay. It had to be, didn’t it?
By 8 p.m., Ricky was glancing furtively at his watch, probably wondering how much longer they were going to go. Devyn ignored him and focused her attention on Wyatt Lowe, the shrewd developer at the helm of Twenty-Four Walker Place, an art deco tower going up in Streeterville on the north side of Philadelphia. The sixty-seven-story high-rise was one of the most expensive construction projects in the city’s history, and any broker worth their salt was angling for a piece of the pie. Devyn wanted the whole damn thing. First, she had to convince Wyatt, who was known for his perfectly coiffed dark hair, high-end wardrobe that bordered on perfection, and risk-taking business sense. He’d raked in millions like Monopoly money and had a lot to show for his forty-five years on the planet.
Wyatt studied Devyn over his bourbon neat. “We’re thinking twenty-two hundred a square foot.”
Devyn wanted to spit her drink across the table. Instead she swallowed carefully, then regarded him. “That’s insane.”
“That’s not what your competition is saying. In fact, Tom Morelli thinks it’s doable.”
Devyn leaned forward. “Morelli will tell you whatever he has to in order to snag the listing. If you listen to him, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot.”
Wyatt glanced at the ceiling, then took a drink.
“I’m a straight shooter, Wyatt, and you know it. Two thousand a square foot, and I’ll sell the thing out with my team.”
“Can’t do it,” Wyatt said. Ricky looked on as if engrossed in a complicated tennis match. “Twenty-one.”
She hesitated, took a hit of her drink, and placed the glass on the table. “Fine. Twenty-one hundred a foot.”
He raised an eyebrow. “In three months.”
“Nope.” She shook her head. “The building is still under construction and won’t show the way it needs to. People can’t fill in the blanks. All they see are hard hats and unfinished kitchens.”
“What do you need from me to make it happen?” Wyatt asked.
“A high-end showroom at the very least, a model, technology, or get me more time.”
“No showroom. Do you know how much that will cost?”
“Do you know how much you’re asking me to accomplish in a short time period? People need to see what they’re laying down money for in order to cough it up. You’re investing over two hundred million dollars in this building. Surely you can take one final step to be sure you get a high return on your investment.” She stared at him good and hard. “Come on. Let’s set a Philly record with this one.”
His eyes lit up at the prospect, and he ran a finger around the rim of his glass as if weighing his many millionaire options. Ricky, who sat to her right clutching his Blue Moon like a handful of pearls, held his breath in anticipation.
Devyn stared at Wyatt, and Wyatt stared back. She waited.
“Fine,” he said, once it felt like all of the air had been sucked from the room. “We’ll get you your showroom and you sell the building out in fourmonths at twenty-one hundred a square foot or I’m pulling the listing.” That would kill not only her ego but her reputation among other developers. She couldn’t fail. She wouldn’t.
Devyn sat back in her chair with a satisfied smile, riding the kind of high only an opportunity like this one could inspire. It felt like sitting at the top of the roller coaster, waiting in anticipation for that rush that would blow your hair back and release the endorphins, only to have it hit so much harder than you had even anticipated. So fucking satisfying. “You’re on.”
And that was that.
“You’re amazing. I can’t even believe that happened,” Ricky said, running a hand through his red hair as the two of them waited on the curb for her car service. He was practically leaping out of his skin next to her. “That high-rise is ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s definitely a head turner,” Devyn said, more conservatively.
“They have a movie theater for the tenants. And an amazing gym that is certainly better than the one I pay for monthly.”
Devyn grinned. “Yeah, well, there’s more where this one came from. When I sell out this one, there’ll be another waiting.” She passed him a glance. “You think you’re up for it? The McMahon listing is going to take a lot of finesse, especially if you’re used to smaller, more intimate listings. These guys want a lot of high-profile marketing and a lot of attention. Phone calls at three a.m. if they feel like it.”
“I understand and I’m up for it. Yes.” A pause as he gathered his gusto. “I mean hell, yes.”
She clapped him on the arm, just as the car arrived at the curb. “That’s the spirit.”
“Beyond just McMahon, though, how do I get that first listing with a developer like Wyatt? Someone huge,” he asked as they rode back to his car, the lights of downtown Philly glimmering.
Devyn whistled low. “That’s on you. You gotta be ready to scrap. Make a hundred calls. Arrange a few hard-to-get meetings, and follow rule number one: schmooze your ass off.”
“Schmooze my ass off. Got it. Do you think that if you had pushed, that you could have gotten another month? I mean—”
Devyn held up one finger and gestured to her phone. Oddly enough, the incoming call came from the area code she grew up with in South Carolina, but it wasn’t a number her phone recognized. She clicked onto the call anyway.
“This is Devyn.”
“Hello, am I speaking with Devyn Winters?” a female voice asked.
“Yes.” She rubbed the back of her neck, which ached from the long day. “What can I do for you?”
“This is Marlene DuBois. I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m the assistant principal at Bay Elementary. We met at your mother’s funeral.”
Devyn blinked several times, trying to keep up. Her sister, Jill, was a fourth-grade teacher at Bay Elementary in the their hometown. What the hell? She sat up a little straighter, her attention crisp and focused. “Yes. How are you, Marlene? Is everything okay?”
“We’re hoping so, but I’m cautiously concerned.” A pause, while Devyn’s heart hammered away. Her sister was her best friend and pretty much the only family she had.
“Jill didn’t come into work today, and didn’t call in either. It’s unlike her.”
Oh, God. She blinked and tried to make her brain work. “No. Um, I completely agree. Jill wouldn’t do that.” She checked her watch. It was getting close to nine at night. Why were they just now calling her? What if Jill needed her? What if she’d been taken? There was a depth of stillness present in the car. They were stopped at a traffic light. The world had slowed down around her, yet her mind raced out of control, bolstered by adrenaline.
“We sent an officer to her home for a wellness check, but we weren’t able to locate her there either. Her car is gone, however.”
“Doesn’t matter. Something’s wrong,” Devyn said automatically. Her voice didn’t sound like her own, strangled and desperate. “Trust me on this. Tell the police she wouldn’t just take off and not show up for school.” She felt Ricky’s eyes on her and noted that the car was still stopped at the traffic light. She fought the urge to exit the vehicle, knowing that there would still be nothing she could do from the side of the road. Yet that nonsensical pull to do something, anythingoverrode all other instincts. She couldn’t stand being this far away.
“We think so, too, and since she has you listed as her emergency contact, I thought it might be time to give you a call.”
“I appreciate that.” Devyn’s take-charge side emerged. She willed it forward, along with a command to speak slowly, directly. “What do we need to do?”
“We’re making some calls, and some friends of hers have started a search,” Marlene explained. “Is there anyone else in the family she might have gone to visit?”
That was the thing. There was no family. Just the two of them since they’d lost their mother to a short bout with cancer four and a half years back. “No. There’s just me, and I’m in Philadelphia, but I’ll hop on a plane as soon as possible. Tonight.” After Jill’s divorce from that idiot Ed, she was all Jill had, and vice versa. If something had happened to her sister, she was damn sure going to show up.
Her mind flooded with all the things she had on her schedule that week. Of all the times for something like this to happen, this was definitely one of the least opportune. She pinched the bridge of her nose as the details swirled in a jumble. She’d make this work with help from her assistants and then make sure Jill was okay. She just had to be. There was no other option.
“Let me give you my cell number so we can keep in touch,” Marlene said. “Elizabeth Draper, who’s a friend of Jill’s, is actually the one who suggested I go ahead and give you a call. She’s been a great help.” The name rang a bell, but Devyn’s brain wasn’t functioning properly. All she wanted was to hear Jill was found, safe and sound.
“Great. Thank you so much for calling, and let me know of any updates. I’ll keep my phone on.”
They said goodbye and she clicked off the call, then pressed the phone to her chin as she mentally rearranged what she thought the next twenty-four hours of her life would look like. That was hard to do in the midst of swelling fear. She placed a hand on her chest as if that would somehow assuage the exponential worry. Focus. She would need to distribute appointments among her staff and reschedule the ones she’d need to be there for in person. Karen could help with those. Then there was her personal assistant outside the office, Sheldon, who would keep things in her condo and personal life afloat. This was really going to decelerate her momentum on a variety of projects, but that took a strong second place to her need to fix this, to find her sister and make the world turn again. God. This was Jilly she was talking about. The girl who’d given Devyn the good chocolate chip cookies and kept the burnt ones for herself and who’d attended every football game, a sport she loathed, just to watch Devyn cheer with the rest of the squad. Jill was only two years older, but her maternal side exaggerated their age difference to the point that Devyn really had looked to her as a second parent, next to their single mother, in many ways.
“Everything all right?” Ricky asked, after a long stretch of silence.
She shook her head. “No, it’s not. I think my sister needs me right now. I’m headed home to South Carolina.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope she’s okay.” And then, “What part?”
“Tiny little place called Dreamer’s Bay. Right there on the water.”
He squinted at her and tilted his head. “Can’t say I’ve heard of it.”
She nodded. “Most people haven’t.”
Devyn blinked as she stood in line for her rental car at the Charleston airport. Holding a subpar cup of airport coffee that tasted a lot more like burnt popcorn, she stared out the large windows that showed her it was not yet daylight in South Carolina. She didn’t understand why time moved so slowly, why the attendant did. She tapped her foot. Adjusted her bag. Looked at her watch. All of it a helpless little dance to keep her from coming out of her skin. In a little over two hours, she’d arrive in Dreamer’s Bay for the first time in just over four years. In addition to the panic she waded through regarding her sister, the idea of being back home had her nervous and uncomfortable. Nothing but Jill could have brought her back. It wasn’t an awful town, quaint enough and easy to navigate, but she didn’t have too many fond memories, having hidden who she was the entire time she’d lived in the Bay. Worst of all now, the person she associated most with the town, her mother, wouldn’t be there. It made her resent the place even more.
“We’re out of luxury cars,” the gum-chewing rental agent told her as she tick-tacked away on her keyboard, glancing at her phone between hitting the Enter key.
“Midsize is fine.”
“No go.” More tick-tacking and phone checking.
Devyn sighed. “Compact, economy, whatever you have. Something with wheels would be fine. I’m in a hurry.”
“I have a Chevy Spark.”
It turned out that the Chevy Spark was the smallest car Devyn had ever laid eyes on, and getting her Louis Vuitton suitcase into its microscopic back seat—forget about trunk space—was an ordeal requiring two hands and a well-placed foot. She gave the thing a last kick for good measure, blew the wayward strand of blond hair from her eyes, and swore. Why were little things getting in the way right now? She glanced at her phone for the million and ninth time for any message from Jill, willing one to be there. Nothing. She’d left countless voicemails for her and sent just as many texts. She blinked back her tears and slid into the driver’s seat for the short journey to her hometown. The drive left her alone with her thoughts, and that meant a million terrifying images. Jill bruised, battered, or tied up in the back of some guy’s car, hoping someone would find her. She punched the steering wheel in frustration and blared the radio to drown out her cruel brain.
With traffic nonexistent on the highway that early, she and her Spark made it just in time to see the sunrise over the water as she drove along the coast into Dreamer’s Bay. If her heart hadn’t ached, she might have been able to enjoy it. She pulled in a steadying breath as the familiar sights sprang into view, inspiring a nostalgic pang laced with dread. She took in the two-pump gas station on the outskirts of town where Mr. Henry could be seen doing his morning sweep with the newspaper rolled up in the back pocket of his baggy pants. She passed the rust-colored library, still wondering why they chose that shade but happy to see someone had purchased the building and marquee. According to the scrolling message, there would be a children’s book fair that week. Farther down Center Street, the main drag, she came to the heart of the town. The Circle, as they called the town’s roundabout, was outlined by a variety of businesses including an Arby’s and a McDonald’s that must have moved in since she’d last been home. Even Dreamer’s Bay was susceptible to big business invasion. The center of the Circle was made up of benches surrounded by large potted plants, offering a nice spot for folks to take their lunch hour and greet their friends and neighbors. She stared at the very bench where she remembered sitting with her mother, who had purchased both her and Jill a warm chocolate croissant. They’d eaten them there together, the three of them. Devyn felt the sharp rising of sadness almost immediately, like a chemical reaction. She gave her head a shake and pushed past it, sliding a strand of hair behind her ear—her own special game-time gesture. It always bolstered her confidence. This time it didn’t work. The town made her think acutely of her mother, who she missed desperately, but also of her youth, when she’d played the part of someone she barely recognized now. Both pulled at her chest, as if opening a long-put-to-bed wound. None of it was relevant. It didn’t matter whether she wanted to be in this town or not, she was here for Jill and should stay tuned into her. She’d be back home in Philly and living her life in no time, once she knew her sister was okay. And she would be. Devyn hated that she was even considering the alternative. Yet how could she not? Bile rose in the back of her throat as she banished another series of graphic images from her mind.
She arrived at the nondescript one-story brown police station and opened her mouth to speak to the young woman seated behind the first desk she came to. The woman beat her to it.
“Devyn Winters?” The small station looked empty behind her. Where were all of the people who were supposed to fight crime? The grim realization that she was in a tiny town with very few resources settled uncomfortably.
“Yes. I’m Devyn Winters, and I’m here about my sister.”
“Right this way.”
She followed the short brunette, dressed in business attire rather than a uniform, down the hallway to a large conference room with a long table in the center. The smell of stale coffee hit her hard. Someone around here liked it strong. She scanned the faces of the small group gathered. She knew most of them.
“Ms. Winters, I’m—”
“Officer Bertaw.” She remembered him from those high school safety presentations in the gym. He’d arrived each year with stickers, bookmarks, and stern reminders about the dangers of drinking and driving. She’d mostly daydreamed.
He smiled conservatively. “DetectiveBertaw these day.”
“Congratulations,” she said, as sincerely as possible, given the occasion. Honestly, who the hell cared about his promotion right now? “Do we know anything more?” She glanced around the room. The redheaded woman with the bun and brightly colored skirt was likely the vice principal she’d spoken with. She nodded a hello. Next to her sat that Elizabeth Somebody from high school. No clue why she’d be there. Small towns were weird. Hadn’t Elizabeth been in charge of the high school food drive? And why was her mind supplying unnecessary details in this moment? She blinked and focused.
Detective Bertaw gestured to a dry erase board. “We know Jill went to karaoke in Halper’s Glen last night. Mike’s Sports Bar does a thing every Tuesday evening. What we don’t know is if she made it back. We do know she’s not home at this point and did not report for work yesterday or today.”
Devyn closed her eyes momentarily at the rudimentary information. “And that she’s not answering texts or calls, which is nothing like my sister. That means something has happened to her. Trust me. Someone has her or she’s hurt somewhere.” She gestured to the space around her. “So, can we get out there and find her? Now?” Her throat tightened with anguish.
“We have patrol on it.”
“Pardon me.” She held up a pleading hand to Bertaw. “I say this with nothing but respect, but in the city limits, doesn’t that amount to approximately two people and one patrol car?” She glanced around for some kind of lifeline. Someone she could shake and make them understand. They all just blinked back at her, making her feel both powerless and determined to change that. She knocked on the table to wake everyone the hell up. “Let’s make some phone calls. Call in some police friends. I’ll pay for whatever you need. Money is not a problem.”
“It doesn’t exactly work that way,” Bertaw explained. He was losing his hair. On top and in the front. Little brown wisps clung as if using one another for comfort. Another unnecessary detail her stupid brain thought mattered. Now she wanted to shake herself. Her neck ached, her mouth was dry, and she felt shaky all over. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the call came in about Jill, not that she could have. Her stomach roiled.
The redheaded woman met her gaze. “I talked with the two women who went with Jill to karaoke night. They’re both teachers at the elementary school. I’m Marlene Dubois,” she said, her hand to her chest. “We spoke on the phone.”
Devyn nodded, waiting for her to continue.
“They said Jill took her own car and left the sports bar before they did, somewhere just after ten p.m. They recalled her being happy but a little tired.”
“That’s because she doesn’t stay out late. She’s a homebody,” Devyn supplied, and looked to Bertaw to be sure he’d heard.
“I don’t mean to interrupt.” Elizabeth stood and came around the table. She had big green eyes that, in this moment, carried warmth.
Devyn latched onto her, because she needed that warmth.
“I’ve made some calls around town, and folks are meeting in the Circle in half an hour. We’re going to fan out and see if we can’t help aid the search.”
“I appreciate that,” Devyn said. Those food-drive organizational skills were working in Devyn’s favor today, and she was grateful for Elizabeth, someone who was doingsomething. “How can I help?” she asked the room. “I have a key to the house. Jill and I share ownership.”
“Great.” Bertaw said. “We did a wellness check, and nothing seemed overturned or disheveled. No sign of any kind of struggle, but you might see something substantial that we wouldn’t know to look for.”
Devyn felt a surge of purpose. The idea of proactivity quelled the dread that crawled all over everything like the vines of an untended garden. “I’ll head over there.”
Elizabeth turned to her. “How about I pick you up at the house in an hour, after the volunteers have been organized? We can drive some of the back roads, see if we spot any sign of her car.”
Devyn’s hands shook as the reality of the situation came into focus. They were assembling volunteers. This was really bad. If she wound up alone in this world, what was she going to do? Jill had always been there for her. She felt more than saw ten-year-old Jill’s hand brushing the hair from her eyes that time she skinned her knee while roller-skating in the driveway. How had Jill only been ten then? She’d seemed old and wise to Devyn at the time. “Yes. I’ll be ready.”
“See you soon.” As she passed, Elizabeth gave Devyn’s wrist a supportive squeeze. She wasn’t naturally a tactile person and her instinct would normally have been to bristle against a stranger’s touch. She didn’t. She needed reassurance in that bleak moment and drew strength from it, in fact, fleeting as it was. Devyn would take back every dismissive thought she’d ever had about Elizabeth in high school if she and her volunteer squad could make all of this stop. She fought the urge to fall to her knees and beg for that. She was already bartering with a God she hadn’t spoken to since adolescence, desperate to trade what she had, promising to be a better person. Anything.
On the drive to Jill’s, her mind shifted to how in the hell they’d gotten here. Twenty-four hours ago, she was in a startlingly different reality, going about her fast-paced morning, landing a big deal, and heading home for the night. How could someone be so content in one moment, celebrating a career victory, and so terrified the next with just the push of a button on a cell phone? Everything felt raw and ruined, and it just might stay that way forever. All Devyn wanted was to fast-forward to a moment when it would all be okay again.
Her breath caught when she pulled into the lazy S-shaped driveway that led to the well-cared-for one-story home she’d grown up in. Yep. Right there was the spot in the grass where she’d accidentally started a fire with a magnifying glass when she was eight. She’d been feeling bold and scientific that day after watching Bill Nye do something similar on TV. Her mother, instead of chastising her, had agreed that learning about science could be fun, just maybe not the kind that involved actual flames. Jill had laughed but eventually consoled her with a piece broken off her candy bar. The once burned patch of grass now grew green and vibrant again, the incident just a sepia-tinted blip in Devyn’s memory. She blinked through her windshield up at the house. Pretty blue shutters now adorned the window. The color reminded her of Jill. In fact, all of the new little touches were straight out of Jill’s stylebook. A cheerful gnome with a gray beard on the front step. An arrangement of potted plants with spring flowers already blooming in a cascade of colors. The pair of wooden rocking chairs on the porch. All new. All Jill.
Her hands were a jumble as she attempted to put the key in the door, shaking and causing her to miss the keyhole. She closed her eyes and bit the inside of her lip as she pressed her forehead against the wooden door, gathering her sense of purpose once more. She had a job to do here, a goal, and that meant shoving her own emotions to the side and drawing on the finely honed set of skills that she used in her everyday life. Calm, collected, and in charge. That seemed to work. She exhaled and let herself into the house. Jolted back fifteen years, she could still see the younger version of herself and Jill streaking through the entryway into the living room after school, waiting at the kitchen table with their afterschool snack—prepared by Jill—for their mother to get home from the insurance firm at which she’d been the office manager. Burying her face in her mother’s shoulder, Devyn would inhale her scent when she arrived home, Oil of Olay moisturizer and a little bit of peppermint from the sugarfree gum she often chewed. Devyn could smell the wonderful combination now just by closing her eyes.
She picked up one of the many knickknacks that now decorated most every surface, a mixture of new and old, and smiled at Jill’s homey approach. Devyn, on the other hand, had fallen far from the tree with her own decorating style: open floor plans, hard lines and planes, and clean surfaces. A lump made its way to her throat as she thought about her sister and how much like their mother she’d turned out to be. A surge of love hit. She didn’t get sentimental about much, but her sister was different.
Shifting back to project mode, she shook free of the all-consuming sentimentality and moved about the space, which consisted of a living room, breakfast nook, dining room, and two bedrooms down one small hallway, separated by a bathroom. The master suite was located directly off the living room.
First impression: Jill kept the place neat and well organized. There was a calendar on her refrigerator with the Tuesday she’d gone missing marked with only a K, which she imagined stood for karaoke. In her bathroom, her medicine organizer still held Wednesday’s thyroid medication, which meant Jill hadn’t been there Wednesday morning to take it. Devyn’s stomach dropped and her palms went clammy. She flexed them uncomfortably. Jill’s bed was neatly made. Her car was gone. Her school bag was discarded next to the door, along with a pair of heels she’d likely stepped out of the second she’d arrived home from work. She pictured it happening.
At a loss, Devyn curled up on Jill’s bed, running her hand across the blue and white quilt she used as a bedspread. There was a photo of the two of them, from the weekend Jill had stayed with her in Philadelphia, framed on Jill’s nightstand. Jill smiled at the camera while Devyn smiled at Jill as they stood in front of the Rocky statue, arm in arm. “Where are you?” she mumbled, and touched Jill’s face in the photo.
Tears rolled sideways from her face to the quilt. She didn’t try to stop them.
No, Jill hadn’t made it home Tuesday night. As she cried on her sister’s bed, letting the sobs overtake her, Devyn had never felt more alone. The edges of hope began to fade until she had nothing left.