My alarm woke me, as it did every day. The blaring sound of the radio made my eyes spring open, the sun barely breaking over the horizon on a new day.
“Jesus,” Sierra cursed beside me. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s called an alarm,” I said, throwing the covers off me.
The cool air hit my bare skin at once, and I immediately missed the warmth of
my bed. “It’s what responsible people use to wake up in the morning.”
I heard her groan into the pillow. The sight of her naked
body moving underneath those sheets did all sorts of things to me as I dragged
myself out of bed.
“I’m responsible,” she argued.
I listened as she rustled out of my bed, and by the time I managed
to pick up a shirt and shorts for my morning run, she had found her own set of
“You’re a fifth-year college student, taking a semester off
to spend time with your grandparents on a nearly deserted island.”
She finished pulling her shirt over her head, just in time
to give me a hard stare. “I am a double major. That takes longer, and I happen
to like my grandparents and this island, even in the low season.”
My brow lifted. I didn’t believe her for a second.
The truth was, she’d broken up with her boyfriend last
semester and taken it hard, and she was using Ocracoke—this little blip of a
island town where her grandparents had chosen to retire—as a place to hide out
while she tried to get over her heartbreak.
I was just someone she used to pass the time, and I was more
than okay with our arrangement because, as a guy who didn’t do more than casual
dating, low season, as she’d called
it, was also a dry season for me—at least in the ladies department.
“Now, what does a girl need to do to get breakfast around
here?” she asked, giving me a pouty look that made me all sorts of
And not in the there’s
a naked girl in my bed sort of way.
“Creep back to your Grandpop’s place and make some there?” I
suggested. I watched as her pout only deepened. “Come on, Sierra. You know I
don’t do breakfast. Hell, I’m already a dead man if Jimmy finds out you’ve been
sleeping over at my place. You know he flew me and my mom to the hospital when
my brother was nearly killed on that ferry? He’s a good guy, your grandpop.”
“Yeah”—she nodded, her hands going to the pockets of her
“Look, if this is getting to be too much for you, maybe we
should just call it quits before anyone gets—”
“No,” she said a bit too quickly. “I’m fine. Really.” A fake
smile pulled at her cheeks. “Just hungry. I’ll grab something when I get home,
and you’re right. We wouldn’t want Grandpoppy finding out about this. God knows
he doesn’t need the spike in his blood pressure. Go ahead and grab your run, I’ll
let myself out.”
“Okay,” I replied, knowing full well this wouldn’t be the
last time we saw each other—the town was too small for that—but it would
definitely be the last time we saw each other like this.
Because, if there was one thing I didn’t do, it was
My morning jog did nothing to help clear my head, and after
I came home to an empty house, I noticed how Sierra had tidied up after herself.
The twinge of guilt I felt for even allowing this thing between us to move past
drunken flirting only grew as I drove into work.
“Dude, you look like shit, little brother,” Dean said the
moment I stepped into the office.
“Thanks,” I replied. “That’s real kind of you. I’d say the
same, but…well, you always look like shit.”
He chuckled, shaking his head, as I took a seat at my desk. I
looked out over the marina. The sun beat down onto the water which scattered
tiny, glistening diamond lights across the bay.
I shook my head.
Damn, it was early.
Too damn early.
“Did you make coffee?” I asked, stretching my back against
the old leather chair.
I’d managed to pull this business out of the brink of
bankruptcy twice—most recently when my brother’s medical bills from the ferry
explosion had nearly crippled us—yet, somehow, we still had these piece-of-shit
office chairs that probably predated both of us.
No one could argue that the Sutherlands were excessive with
money; that was for sure.
“Of course,” he said. “I have a child who refuses to sleep
at night because it’s precious hours she could be learning. How do you think I
survive? I’m already two cups in.”
I chuckled, loving that my brother had laid such a fierce
claim on his stepdaughter. Honestly, I had too. Lizzie was a keeper for sure.
“Good,” I said.
Wasting no time, I made a beeline toward the counter in the
back we had set up for break times. There was a mini fridge and one of those
fancy new coffeepots with the individual pods for customers during the slow,
winter months when they waited indoors for scenic tours. But, for the two of
us, we still relied on the regular drip machine.
“Is there a particular reason you look like shit today, or
is it a new look you’re going for?”
Only my big brother could hassle me like this without
getting a beat-down.
I let out a sigh, pouring my coffee as he waited for an
“Sierra,” I finally said.
“Jimmy’s granddaughter? That Sierra?”
I nodded, having just added an ample amount of flavored
creamer to my giant cup of coffee.
“Man, I thought you were done with that?”
I merely shrugged.
“You know he’ll kill you if he finds out. Like drag your ass onto that puddle jumper of a
plane of his and drop you in the middle of the ocean kill you.”
I took a long sip of coffee. It was like liquid fuel to my
brain cells, and I instantly felt better.
God, I loved coffee.
“It’s not a big deal.”
“Really?” he said, his brow rising in disbelief as both arms
folded in front of him.
I had to force myself not to glance in the direction of his
Even to this day, I couldn’t help but look.
Up until the night Dean had lost his arm in that ferry
accident, I’d always told myself that staying here in Ocracoke was temporary.
That one day, I’d finally get out of here and fulfill all those dreams I’d had
in high school. I’d go to college, do something other than this. But, the
moment I had seen him in that hospital bed—so lost and helpless, my superhero
of a big brother—I’d known.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
“If it’s no big deal, then why are you chugging down
caffeine like it’s whiskey?”
I looked down at my mostly empty coffee cup, realizing he
was right. I was already in need of a refill.
“She wanted breakfast this morning.”
A smug smirk tugged at the corner of my brother’s stupid
face before it quickly disappeared. He knew breakfast was the kiss of death in
“Have you ever thought about maybe, one of these times,
saying yes to breakfast? Obviously not with Sierra because of the whole her Grandpops will kill you thing, but
maybe someone else? It is just a meal after all.”
“No,” I answered immediately, finishing off my coffee.
“Jesus, Taylor. At least think it through.”
I shrugged and headed back to the coffeepot for a refill. “I
don’t need to think it through. I’m perfectly happy with my current
He waited as I did my usual routine of copious amounts of
creamer to coffee before speaking again, “You mean, you’re perfectly happy with
banging every single tourist you meet and the occasional grandchild of a family
friend even if it means possible dismemberment on your part.”
“Jimmy won’t hurt me,” I scoffed. “He’s the most lovable—”
“That guy was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. I’m pretty sure he
got a medal for how many enemy planes he shot down. He’s a beast.”
“Really? Well, that’s…unsettling.”
“So, stop fucking his granddaughter then!”
“I am! I did, I mean. Remember, breakfast?”
He let out a huff. “Don’t you want to have something real
“Like you and Cora?”
His smile softened at the mere mention of his wife. They’d
been married less than a year, and they still had that glow about them. It was
“Yeah,” he said.
Running my hands through my light-brown hair, I let his
question sink in, giving it a few seconds of my time; he was my big brother
“Not really,” I finally answered. “Honestly, I’m good, Dean.
Stop trying to save me. I know, now that you’re all in love or whatever, you
feel it’s your mission to make sure everyone else around you is just as happy
as you are, but I’m really good. Promise.”
He eyed me warily.
“Besides, I seem to remember that not too long ago, the name
on every young tourist’s lips was a different Sutherland brother entirely.”
“That was a long time ago,” he argued. “And let me tell you
something; it got tiresome. The chase, the same boring conversation, the
awkward morning after.”
“So, you thought it’d be a better idea to marry your best
His eyes narrowed as I mentally high-fived myself for that
“It wasn’t my best decision, but thankfully, Molly and I
came to our senses.”
Oh no, I wasn’t letting him off that easy.
“You mean, Jake came back to town and took what was
rightfully his. Man, have you ever noticed how much drama this little town has
going on? It’s like there’s a mini soap opera going on every time I turn
“Yeah, weird,” he answered, clearly annoyed. “Anyway, what I’m
trying to say is—”
“What you’re trying to say is that your way—love and
commitment and all that—is the best and, obviously, the only way. But here’s
the thing, Dean. I’ve been handling things on my own for a while now. While you
were recovering from your accident, I was busting my ass off, rebuilding this
company like I had done time and time before that. So, don’t come in here and
act all big brother on me like you did when we were kids. I love you; I do. But
we’re past the age for love advice, okay?”
He looked a bit taken aback, and I felt bad for the
harshness of my tone, but I wouldn’t apologize for my lifestyle.
Not when he’d traveled the same path only a few years
“Okay,” he finally agreed.
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to prep for an
early morning tour—”
I was cut off by the bell on the office door.
Turning around, I saw our mother flying through it, her eyes
wide and full of panic like she was being chased here by a wild animal.
It wasn’t an impossibility, I guessed, given the town we
“You’ll never guess what I just heard!”
Oh great, town gossip.
Just what I needed to hear at the ass crack of dawn on
“I’d better put on another pot of coffee,” Dean groaned.
“Make it a strong one.”
As a rule, news of any kind spread like wildfire in our
You could get in an argument with your spouse in the morning
on one side of the island, and by noon, it was old news, having already reached
the other side and back again by the time everyone finished their second cup of
So, it was no surprise that something as big as this had
caused a flurry of activity; so much so that an emergency meeting had been
called that very night to try to help calm everyone’s nerves.
Being low season, we met at By the Bay, a popular inn owned
by none other than Molly Jameson, one of Dean’s best friends and ex-fiancée.
They were both married now—to other people. Molly was married to her high
school sweetheart, Jake, the town doctor, and Dean had just recently married
Cora, the town nurse.
Honestly, it kind of made me ill, how well-adjusted and
happy they all were.
I watched as they all took seats next to each other, the
girls complimenting each other on outfit choices while crooning over baby Ruby
as the guys joked.
Not a single bit of animosity or latent jealousy floating about.
Talk about weird.
I looked up to see Millie McIntyre, Molly’s younger sister
and my former classmate from high school, although now she was Millie Fisher,
since she’d recently been married herself.
“Hey yourself,” I said as she helped guide her husband, Aiden,
to a seat beside her.
Although I didn’t know the British artist well, I did know
Millie, having gotten the chance to reacquaint myself with my good friend since
her move back home just over a year ago. She’d come back to help out Molly
during her maternity leave and ended up falling in love with Aiden, who was
internationally recognized for his stone sculptures and the fact that he did them
almost completely blind.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she asked. “All I know is that
something was sold and it’s a big freaking deal because my mom said, ‘Get your
ass to that meeting, Millie. All the other business owners will be there, and
you’ll look stupid if you’re not.’ So, here I am.”
I laughed. “There’s no way your mom said the word ass.”
She shrugged as Aiden chuckled. The dark glasses he wore to
help enhance what little sight he had left made it hard to see his full
“Okay, so I might be paraphrasing, but she did say it was
“You know that dive of a hotel along the marina?”
“Of course. Is that what sold? I told my sister to buy it
I let out a sigh. “Well, it’s too bad she didn’t. Maybe then
we wouldn’t be in this shithole of a mess.”
“Why? Who did buy it?”
“Oh fuck,” Aiden said under his breath, causing his wife to
turn abruptly toward him and then back to me, her eyes wide with alarm.
“Okay! Hello!” my mother said loudly at the front of the
room. “We’re going to get started. I’ve been asked to lead, as the seller of
the hotel in question, The Cozy Hotel, prefers to not participate.”
I bet she doesn’t,
I thought to myself. Selfish bitch. I bet the old hag took all that money they’d
given her and hopped the first ferry out of here.
“Hart International? Like the resorts?” Millie whispered
into my ear. “What do they want with us?”
I let out a sigh as my mother began, “We’re just going to do
this casual-style, so does anyone have any questions?”
A million hands shot up in the air.
“Nothing good,” I answered back. “Nothing damn good.”