Gennie knew she’d found it the moment she passed the first faded clapboard building. The village, pragmatically and accurately called Windy Point, at last captured her personal expectations for a coastal Maine settlement. She’d found her other stops along the rugged, shifting coastline scenic, picturesque, at times postcard perfect. Perhaps the perfection had been the problem.
When she’d decided on this working vacation, she’d done so with the notion of exploring a different aspect of her talent. Where before, she’d always fancified, mystified, relying on her own bent toward illusions, she’d made a conscious decision to stick to realism, no matter how stark. Indeed, her trunk was laden with her impressions of rock and sea and earth on canvas and sketch pads, but …
There was something more about Windy Point. Or perhaps it was something less. There was no lushness here or soft edges. This was hard country. There were no leafy shade trees, but a few stunted fir and spruce, gnarled and weather-beaten. The road had more than its fair share of bumps.
The village itself, though it wasn’t precisely tumbledown, had the air of old age with all its aches and pains. Salt and wind had weathered the buildings, picking away at the paint, scarring the windows. The result wasn’t a soft wash, but a toughness.
Gennie saw a functional beauty. There were no frivolous buildings here, no gingerbread. Each building served its purpose—dry goods, post office, pharmacy. The few houses along the main road held that implacable New England practicality in their sturdy shape and tidy size. There might be flowers, adding a surprisingly gay and smiling color against the stern clapboard, but she noted nearly every home had a well-tended vegetable patch at the rear or the side. The petunias might be permitted to grow a bit unruly, but the carrots were tidily weeded.
With her car window down she could smell the village. It smelled quite simply of fish.
She drove straight through first, wanting a complete impression of the main street. She stopped by a churchyard where the granite markers were rather stern and the grass was high and wild, then turned to drive back through again. It wasn’t a large town and the road was rather narrow, but she had a sense of spaciousness. You wouldn’t bump into your neighbor here unless you meant to. Pleased, Gennie pulled up in front of the dry goods store, guessing this would be the hub of Windy Point’s communications network.
The man sitting in an old wooden rocker on the stoop didn’t stare, though she knew he’d seen her drive through and backtrack. He continued to rock while he repaired a broken lobster trap. He had the tanned brown face of the coast, guarded eyes, thinning hair and gnarled strong hands. Gennie promised herself she’d sketch him just like that. She stepped from the car, grabbing her purse as an afterthought, and approached him.
He nodded, his hands still busy with the wooden slats of the trap. “Need some help?”
“Yes.” She smiled, enjoying the slow, thick drawl that somehow implied briskness. “Perhaps you can tell me where I can rent a room or a cottage for a few weeks.”
The shopkeeper continued to rock while he summed her up with shrewd, faded eyes. City, he concluded, not altogether disdainfully. And South. Though he was a man who considered Boston South, he pegged her as someone who belonged in the humid regions below the Mason-Dixon line. She was neat and pretty enough, though he felt her dark complexion and light eyes had a substantially foreign look. Then again, if you went much farther south than Portland, you were talking foreign.
While he rocked and deliberated, Gennie waited patiently, her rich black hair lifting from her shoulders and blowing back in the salt-scented breeze. Her experience in New England during the past few months had taught her that while most people were fair-minded and friendly enough, they generally took their time about it.
Didn’t look like a tourist, he thought—more like one of those fairy princesses his granddaughter read about in her picture books. The delicate face came to a subtle point at the chin and the sweep of cheekbones added hauteur. Yet she smiled, softening the look, and her eyes were the color of the sea.
“Don’t get many summer people,” he said at length. “All gone now anyhow.”
He wouldn’t ask, Gennie knew. But she could be expansive when it suited her purpose. “I don’t think I qualify as summer people, Mr….”
“Genviève Grandeau.” She offered a hand which he found satisfactorily firm in his work-roughened one. “I’m an artist. I’d like to spend some time here painting.”
An artist, he mused. Not that he didn’t like pictures, but he wasn’t sure he completely trusted the people who produced them. Drawing was a nice hobby, but for a job … still, she had a good smile and she didn’t slouch. “Might be there’s a cottage ’bout two miles out. Widow Lawrence ain’t sold it yet.” The chair creaked as he moved back and forth. “Could be she’ll rent it for a time.”
“It sounds good. Where can I reach her?”
“ ’Cross the road, at the post office.” He rocked for another few seconds. “Tell her I sent you over,” he decided.
Gennie gave him a quick grin. “Thank you, Mr. Fairfield.”
The post office was hardly more than a counter and four walls. One of the walls was taken up with slots where a woman in a dark cotton dress deftly sorted mail. She even looks like a Widow Lawrence, Gennie thought with inner pleasure as she noted the neat circular braid at the back of the woman’s head.
* * *
The woman turned, giving Gennie a quick, birdlike glance before she came over to the counter. “Help you?”
“I hope so. Mrs. Lawrence?”
“Mr. Fairfield told me you might have a cottage to rent.”
The small mouth pursed—the only sign of facial movement. “I’ve a cottage for sale.”
“Yes, he explained that.” Gennie tried her smile again. She wanted the town—and the two miles distance from it the cottage would give her. “I wonder if you’d consider renting it for a few weeks. I can give you references if you’d like.”
Mrs. Lawrence studied Gennie with cool eyes. She made her own references. “For how long?”
“A month, six weeks.”
She glanced down at Gennie’s hands. There was an intricate gold twist of a ring, but it was on the wrong finger. “Are you alone?”
“Yes.” Gennie smiled again. “I’m not married, Mrs. Lawrence. I’ve been traveling through New England for several months, painting. I’d like to spend some time here at Windy Point.”
“Painting?” the widow finished with another long look.
Mrs. Lawrence decided she liked Gennie’s looks—and that she was a young woman who didn’t run on endlessly about herself. And fact was fact. An empty cottage was a useless thing. “The place is clean and the plumbing’s good. Roof was fixed two years back, but the stove’s got a temperament of its own. There’s two bedrooms but one of ’em stands empty.”
This is painful for her, Gennie realized, though the widow’s voice stayed even and her eyes were steady. She’s thinking about all the years she lived there.
“Got no close neighbors, and the phone’s been taken out. Could be you could have one put in if you’ve a mind to.”
“It sounds perfect, Mrs. Lawrence.”
Something in Gennie’s tone made the woman clear her throat. It had been sympathy and understanding quietly offered. After a moment she named a sum for the month’s rent, far more reasonable than Gennie had expected. Characteristically she didn’t hesitate, but went with her instincts.
“I’ll take it.”
The first faint flutter of surprise showed on the widow’s face. “Without seei
“I don’t need to see it.” With a brisk practicality Mrs. Lawrence admired, Gennie pulled a checkbook out of her purse and dashed off the amount. “Maybe you can tell me what I’ll need in the way of linen and dishes.”
Mrs. Lawrence took the check and studied it. “Genevieve,” she murmured.
“Genviève,” Gennie corrected, flowing easily over the French. “After my grandmother.” She smiled again, softening that rather ruthless fairy look. “Everyone calls me Gennie.”
An hour later Gennie had the keys to the cottage in her purse, two boxes of provisions in the backseat of her car and directions to the cottage in her hand. She’d passed off the distant, wary stares of the villagers and had managed not to chuckle at the open ogling of a scrawny teenager who’d come into the dry goods store while she was mulling over a set of earthenware dishes.
It was dusk by the time she was ready to set out. The clouds were low and unfriendly now, and the wind had picked up. It only added to the sense of adventure. Gennie set out on the narrow, bumpy road that led to the sea with a restless inner excitement that meant something new was on the horizon.
She came by her love of adventure naturally. Her great-great-grandfather had been a pirate—an unapologetic rogue of the sea. His ship had been fast and fierce, and he had taken what he wanted without qualm. One of Gennie’s treasures was his logbook. Philippe Grandeau had recorded his misdeeds with flair and a sense of irony she’d never been able to resist. She might have inherited a strong streak of practicality from the displaced aristocrats on her mother’s side, but Gennie was honest enough to know she’d have sailed with the pirate Philippe and loved every minute of it.
As her car bounced along the ruts, she took in the scenery, so far removed from her native New Orleans it might have been another planet. This was no place for long lazy days and riotous nights. In this rocky, windswept world, you’d have to be on your toes every minute. Mistakes wouldn’t be easily forgiven here.
But she saw more than hard land and rock. Integrity. She sensed it in the land that vied continually with the sea. It knew it would lose, inch by minute inch, century after endless century, but it wasn’t giving in. Though the shadows lengthened with evening, she stopped, compelled to put some of her impressions on paper.
There was an inlet some yards from the road, restless now as the storm approached. As Gennie pulled out a sketchbook and pencil, she caught the smell of decaying fish and seaweed. It didn’t make her wrinkle her nose; she understood that it was part of the strange lure that called men forever to the sea.
The soil was thin here, the rocks worn smooth. Near the road were clumps of wild blueberry bushes, pregnant with the last of the summer fruit. She could hear the wind—a distinctly feminine sound—sighing and moaning. She couldn’t see the sea yet, but she could smell it and taste it in the air that swirled around her.
She had no one to answer to, no timetable to keep. Gennie had long since taken her freedom for granted, but solitude was something else. She felt it here, near the little windswept inlet, along the narrow, impossible road. And she held it to her.
When she was back in New Orleans, a city she loved, and she soaked up one of those steamy days that smelled of the river and humanity, she would remember passing an hour in a cool, lonely spot where she might have been the only living soul for miles.
Relaxed, but with that throb of excitement just buzzing along her skin, she sketched, going into much more detail than she had intended when she’d stopped. The lack of human noises appealed to her. Yes, she was going to enjoy Windy Point and the little cottage very much.
Finished, she tossed her sketchbook back in the car. It was nearly dark now or she might have stayed longer, wandered closer to the water’s edge. Long days of painting stretched ahead of her … and who knew what else a month could bring? With a half smile, she turned the key in the ignition.
When she got only a bad-tempered rattle, she tried again. She was rewarded with a wheeze and a groan and a distinctly suspicious clunk. The car had given her a bit of trouble in Bath, but the mechanic there had tightened this and fiddled with that. It had been running like a top ever since. Thinking of the jolting road, Gennie decided that what could be tightened could just as easily be loosened again. With a mildly annoyed oath, she got out of the car to pop the hood.
Even if she had the proper tools, which she didn’t think included the screwdriver and flashlight in her glove compartment, she would hardly know what to do with them. Closing the hood again, she glanced up and down the road. Deserted. The only sound was the wind. It was nearly dark, and by her calculations she was at the halfway point between town and the cottage. If she hiked back, someone was bound to give her a lift, but if she went on she could probably be in the cottage in fifteen minutes. With a shrug, she dug her flashlight out of the glove compartment and did what she usually did. She went forward.
She needed the light almost immediately. The road was no better to walk on than to drive on, but she’d have to take care to keep to it unless she wanted to end up lost or taking a dunking in an inlet. Ruts ran deeply here, rocks worked their way up there, so that she wondered how often anyone actually traveled this stretch.
Darkness fell swiftly, but not in silence. The wind whipped at her hair, keeping up its low, keening sound. There were wisps of fog at her feet now which she hoped would stay thin until she was indoors. Then she forgot the fog as the storm burst out, full of fury.
Under other circumstances, Gennie wouldn’t have minded a soaking, but even her sense of adventure was strained in the howling darkness where her flashlight cut a pitiful beam through the slashing rain. Annoyance was her first reaction as she continued to trudge along the uneven road in thoroughly wet sneakers. Gradually annoyance became discomfort and discomfort, unease.
A flash of lightning would illuminate a cropping of rocks or stunted bush, throwing hard, unfriendly shadows. Even a woman possessing a pedestrian imagination might have had a qualm. Gennie had visions of nasty little elves grinning out of the cloaking darkness. Humming tunelessly to stave off panic, she concentrated on the beam of her flashlight.
So I’m wet, Gennie told herself as she dragged dripping hair out of her eyes. It’s not going to kill me. She gave another uneasy glance at the side of the road. There was no dark, Gennie decided, like the dark of the countryside. And where was the cottage? Surely she’d walked more than a mile by now. Halfheartedly she swung the light in a circle. Thunder boiled over her head while the rain slapped at her face. It would take a minor miracle to find a dark, deserted cottage with only the beam of a household flashlight.
Stupid, she called herself while she wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and tried to think. It was always stupid to set out toward the unknown when you had a choice. And yet she would always do so. There seemed to be nothing left but to find her way back to the car and wait out the storm there. The prospect of a long wet night in a compact wasn’t pleasant, but it had it all over wandering around lost in a thunderstorm. And there was a bag of cookies in the car, she remembered while she continued to stroke the flashlight back and forth, just in case there was—something out there. With a sigh, she gave one last look down the road.
She saw it. Gennie blinked rain out of her eyes and looked again. A light. Surely that was a light up ahead. A light meant shelter, warmth, company. Without hesitation, Gennie headed toward it.
It turned out to be another mile at best, while the storm and the road worsened. Lightning slashed the sky with a wicked purple light, tossing out a brief eerie glow that made the darkness only deeper when it faded. To keep from stumbling, she was forced to move slowly and keep her eyes on the ground. She began to be certain she’d never be dry or warm again. The light up ahead stayed steady and true, helping her to resist glancing over her shoulder too often.
She could hear the sea now, beating violently on rocks and shale. Once in a flash of lightning, she thought she saw the crest of angry waves, white-capped and turbu
lent in the distance. Even the rain smelled of the sea now—an angry, vengeful one. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—allow herself to be frightened, though her heart was beating fast from more than the two-mile walk. If she admitted she was frightened, she would give in to the urge to run and would end up over a cliff, in a ditch, or in some soundless vacuum.
The sense of displacement was so great, she might have simply sat on the road and wept had it not been for the steady beam of light sending out the promise of security.
When Gennie saw the silhouette of the building behind the curtain of rain she nearly laughed aloud. A lighthouse—one of those sturdy structures that proved man had some sense of altruism. The guiding light hadn’t come from the high revolving lens but from a window. Gennie didn’t question, but quickened her pace as much as she dared. Someone was there—a gnarled old man perhaps, a former seaman. He’d have a bottle of rum and talk in brief salty sentences. As a new bolt of lightning slashed across the sky, Gennie decided she already adored him.
The structure seemed huge to her—a symbol of safety for anyone lost and storm-tossed. It looked stunningly white under the play of her flashlight as she searched the base for a door. The window that was lit was high up, the top of three on the side Gennie approached.
She found a door of thick rough wood and beat on it. The violence of the storm swallowed the sound and tossed it away. Nearer to panic than she wanted to admit, Gennie pounded again. Could she have come so far, got so close, and then not be heard? The old keeper was in there, she thought as she beat on the door, probably whistling and whittling, perhaps idling away the evening putting a ship into a bottle.
Desperate, Gennie leaned against the door, feeling the hard, wet wood against her cheek as well as the side of her fist as she continued to thud against it. When the door opened, she went with it, overbalancing. Her arms were gripped hard as she pitched forward.
“Thank God!” she managed. “I was afraid you wouldn’t hear me.” With one hand she dragged her sopping hair out of her face and looked up at the man she considered her savior.
For one thing he wasn’t was old. Nor was he gnarled. Rather he was young and lean, but the narrow, tanned face of planes and angles might have been a seafaring one—in her great-great-grandfather’s line. His hair was as dark as hers, and as thick, with that careless windblown effect a man might get if he stood on the point of a ship. His mouth was full and unashamedly sensual, the nose a bit aristocratic in the rugged face. His eyes were a deep, deep brown under dark brows. They weren’t friendly, Gennie decided, not even curious. They were simply annoyed.
“How the hell did you get here?”
It wasn’t the welcome she had expected, but her trek through the storm had left her a bit muddled. “I walked,” she told him.
“Walked?” he repeated. “In this? From where?”
“A couple of miles back—my car stalled.” She began to shiver, either with chill or with reaction. He’d yet to release her, and she’d yet to recover enough to demand it.
“What were you doing driving around on a night like this?”
“I—I’m renting Mrs. Lawrence’s cottage. My car stalled, then I must have missed the turnoff in the dark. I saw your light.” She heaved a long breath and realized abruptly that her legs were shaking. “Can I sit down?”
He stared at her for another minute, then with something like a grunt nudged her toward a sofa. Gennie sank down on it, dropped her head back, and concentrated on pulling herself together.
And what the hell was he supposed to do with her? Grant asked himself. Brows lowered, he stared down at her. At the moment she looked like she’d keel over if he breathed too hard. Her hair was plastered to her head, curling just a bit and dark as the night itself. Her face wasn’t fine or delicate, but beautiful in the way of medieval royalty—long bones, sharp features. A Celtic or Gallic princess with a compact athletic little body he could see clearly as her clothes clung to it.
He thought the face and body might be appealing enough, under certain circumstances, but what had thrown him for an instant when she’d looked up at him had been her eyes. Sea green, huge, and faintly slanted. Mermaid’s eyes, he’d thought. For a heartbeat, or perhaps only half of that, Grant had wondered if she’d been some mythical creature who’d been tossed ashore in the storm.
Her voice was soft and flowing, and though he recognized it as Deep South, it seemed almost a foreign tongue after the coastal Maine cadence he’d grown used to. He wasn’t a man to be pleased with having a magnolia blossom tossed on his doorstep. When she opened her eyes and smiled at him, Grant wished fervently he’d never opened the door.
“I’m sorry,” Gennie began, “I was barely coherent, wasn’t I? I suppose I wasn’t out there for more than an hour, but it seemed like days. I’m Gennie.”
Grant hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and frowned at her again. “Campbell, Grant Campbell.”
Since he left it at that and continued to frown, Gennie did her best to pick things up again. “Mr. Campbell, I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I saw your light.”
He stared down at her another moment, thinking briefly that she looked familiar. “The turnoff for the Lawrence place’s a good mile back.”
Gennie lifted a brow at the tone. Did he actually expect her to go back outside and stumble around until she found it? She prided herself on being fairly even-tempered for an artist, but she was wet and cold, and Grant’s unfriendly, scowling face tripped the last latch. “Look, I’ll pay you for a cup of coffee and the use of this”—she thumped a hand on the sofa and a soft plume of dust rose up—“thing for the night.”
“I don’t take in lodgers.”
“And you’d probably kick a sick dog if he got in your way,” she added evenly. “But I’m not going back out there tonight, Mr. Campbell, and I wouldn’t advise trying to toss me out, either.”
That amused him, though the humor didn’t show in his face. Nor did he correct her assumption that he had meant to shove her back into the storm. The statement had been simply meant to convey his displeasure and the fact that he wouldn’t take her money. If he hadn’t been annoyed, he might have appreciated the fact that soaking wet and slightly pale, she held her own.
Without a word he walked over to the far side of the room and crouched to rummage through a scarred oak cabinet. Gennie stared straight ahead, even as she heard the sound of liquid hitting glass.
“You need brandy more than coffee at the moment,” Grant told her, and shoved the glass under her nose.
“Thank you,” Gennie said in an icy tone Southern women are the champions of. She didn’t sip, but drank it down in one swallow, letting the warmth shock her system back to normal. Distantly polite, she handed the empty glass back to him.
Grant glanced down at it and very nearly smiled. “Want another?”
“No,” she said, frigid and haughty, “thank you.”