Natalie Grant edged around one of the jutting rocks of the Lavender Island headlands behind her seven-year-old niece, trying not to let the slapping ocean get as high as her tennis shoes.
“Lily, slow down!” she called, but her words were swallowed by the sound of the crashing waves.
Normally she wasn’t afraid of things—normally she was like Lily was right now: fearless, giggling, scampering to greater and greater heights. But at this particular moment, and from this particular position—teetering over the cold Pacific with a child in tow, desperately gripping a four-foot slab of slimy bedrock—she was feeling nervous.
“He’s right over here.” Lily pushed her pink-rimmed glasses up her nose and continued to scuttle over the next set of rocks. “We’re almost there.”
The little girl—shockingly lithe on these rocks, her tanned legs strong and sure—dodged around the next bend with no effort at all. Natalie adjusted her snap-brim hat, threw her thick braid over her shoulder, and resolved to keep up. She used to be the “cool aunt.” She couldn’t believe she was now taking shaky breaths and yelling “Slow down” like some kind of schoolmarm.
She slid her body around the next bend, stepping carefully around the tide pools. She was officially there on LA’s Lavender Island for the next three months to keep an eye on her niece, since her sister Olivia was on bed rest until the end of her pregnancy. Olivia’s husband, Jon, was serving his last tour of duty, which would end right before the baby was due, and they just needed a few months of help.
When they’d proposed the idea, Natalie had agreed immediately. She was between boyfriends and jobs anyway. She’d tried not to be hurt that she was the last one they’d asked—she’d heard they’d asked her mom and her other sister, Paige, first. She’d assured Jon and Olivia with an enthusiastic yes, pulled out her well-worn duffel bag, and jumped on the next ferry to Lavender Island, determined to show her whole family she could be the über-responsible adult they never seemed to think she was.
Lavender Island was a great place to escape for a while anyway. She and Olivia and Paige had spent many childhood summers here, visiting their grandmother’s cottage as young girls. It had surprised the whole family when Olivia inherited the cottage. And surprised them even further that she’d wanted to make it her permanent home. Natalie had loved Lavender Island as a kid, but as an adult she couldn’t imagine how Jon and Olivia could stand it there full-time. With only three thousand residents, it was a little stifling. Plus, there was a serious shortage of twentysomething men, which was why she and Paige usually bowed out of invites, preferring their nightclub-dense Los Angeles.
But three months was doable. Helping Olivia for a short time would be good for her. Natalie needed to escape her life for a bit anyway, and especially men. In fact, the lack of twentysomethings could work in her favor. No temptations.
“Lily! Slow down!” Natalie hoisted herself over the next row of rocks, glancing once at the water. Was the tide rising? She didn’t think it had been quite that high before. Lily was used to these tide pools and rocky headlands—the little girl had made this stretch of beach her playground for nearly two years now, ever since Olivia and Jon had taken over Gram’s cottage—but kids didn’t always think about rising tides and time of day.
Natalie glanced overhead. The sun was already setting. They’d have to hurry.
She pulled herself up and over the next set of rocks, which looked like a lava flow—thank goodness she did all that rock climbing with her girlfriends back home—but, dang, she had to stop and catch her breath. She was only twenty-seven, but lately the increasing number of candles on her birthday cakes was starting to bother her. Maybe she was already over the hill when it came to “scampering.”
She shoved the wisps of hair out of her face and tried to get some air into her lungs. Another wave crashed below her, and a family of seagulls did a flyby near her head.
At the top of the next ridge, her niece stilled. She perched atop a flat granite rock, peering over its edge.
“Here, Aunt Nattie,” Lily called.
Natalie scrambled up and over the next ledge. There, in a deep, horseshoe-shaped cove that was rimmed in the island’s signature sea lavender plant, were three little sea lions, all wriggling on their sides.
“There was only one before,” Lily said, tiny lines of concern etched between her eyebrows. She looked out at the tide coming in, as if another cluster of animals might come ashore with the next wave.
Natalie nervously watched the ocean, too, then slipped over the rocks and moved past Lily. The animals didn’t look well. Natalie didn’t have a lot of experience with sea lions, but she remembered them from her summers here. The ones she was used to seeing were a shiny acorn brown and seemed to weigh nearly five hundred pounds. These were sort of a faded tan color and probably weighed less than fifty. On one, she could see ribs outlined.
Natalie started to shuffle down into the clearing, but Lily touched her arm.
“Aunt Nattie, we’re supposed to stay away. I think a hundred miles.”
“Do you mean a hundred feet?”
“Maybe.” Lily’s eyebrows puckered again.
“We’re about fifty feet right now,” Natalie said gently.
Lily’s fingers came up into the air to count off steps. “We need to stay back and call the rescue center if they’re in trouble.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Brownie Scouts. Will you call, Aunt Nattie? They said an adult has to call.” Tears suddenly brimmed behind her thick lenses.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s okay.” Natalie reached out for Lily. Oh jeez. It was her first day on the job, and Lily was already in tears. Dang, this child-care thing was harder than it looked. Thank goodness parenting wasn’t on her life’s agenda.
But being an aunt was already special. She settled her hand on Lily’s shoulder and gave it a quick rub. “How do we know if they’re in trouble? Don’t they sometimes come up onshore to sun themselves?”
The waves crashed along the rocks below them, splashing the sea lions’ flippers. One little pup made a pathetic attempt to squirm back into the ocean but landed on his side, then simply laid his head down and closed his enormous brown eyes.
Without taking her eyes off the scene, Natalie reached into her back shorts pocket for her phone. She slapped her other pocket. Then the front. Then . . . Damn. Where was her phone?
She whirled on the rocks, looking back over the terrain they’d just traversed.
“What’s wrong?” Lily asked.
“My phone. I don’t know where it is.” Natalie scooted down the rock behind her. Could she have dropped it on the way? The back pockets on her favorite shorts were a tad small—not exactly designed to scale headlands with a small Brownie Scout. She’d have to start dressing more appropriately for this nanny gig.
Lily followed, looking into the rock crevices herself, but her face soon crumpled into panic. “We have to help them, Aunt Nattie! We have to call!”
“Yes. Yes, of course. We will. We will definitely help them. Okay. Let’s . . .” Natalie scanned the cliffs below. “Let’s go back. We’ll find someone with a phone.”
Lily gave an uncertain nod, then glanced worriedly at the animals.
“Let’s go, Lily. We need to hurry. It looks like the tide’s coming in.”
That’s all she’d need: to get poor Lily stranded out here in a cove with three sick wild animals. Jon and Olivia would definitely regret asking her then. Or fire her. First day on the job . . . Damn, she really didn’t want them all to be right about her.
“This way, honey!” She motioned with her hand.
Lily hesitated at the top, still staring at the sandy beach that held her three sick charges, but she finally followed.
Natalie let her pass so she could keep an eye on her while they crawled over the same rough terrain all the way back.
The tide was, indeed, higher. Waves splashed Natalie’s tennis shoes, and her hat fell off her head. She adjusted it quickly, then hurried to keep up with Lily. As they made their way gingerly back around the tide pools, she glanced around for her phone. That thing had cost her three paychecks from her last measly job.
Once around the last of the tide-pool rocks, they scaled one more ledge, then landed with thuds in the sand. Natalie reached for Lily’s hand. “Let’s go find someone to call for us.”
The sun hung low, casting the whole beach in a beautiful sherbet orange. Lily’s pale skin reflected the sunset’s peach hue, her blonde hair now fiery gold around her worried face. Hand in hand, they hustled along the shore.
They wouldn’t have much time. Jon and Olivia’s cottage was still a mile away, and the rising tide would make any kind of animal rescue difficult if they waited much longer. Certainly they would find a jogger or beachgoer with a phone? But Natalie knew the chilly April beaches could remain empty. The only people who might be this far out by the headlands in April were the handful of home owners who lived along the C and D Street cottages with Jon and Olivia, maybe out on an evening stroll.
“Does Dr. Johnson still live up there?” she asked Lily, nodding to the nearest path, which switchbacked up a hillside covered in the bulbous green vines and leaves of dormant beachside ice plants. Dr. Johnson had been the local vet during the years Natalie had summered on the island. He’d helped her patch up a bird she’d found once, and also helped her rescue a rare marine turtle when she was eight.
“No, he moved,” Lily said.
“Who lives there now?”
“A weird guy with a telescope.”
“Why is he weird?”
“He wears funny hats.”
Lily shrugged. “They look like fishing hats, but he never fishes. He just sits on a beach chair and reads books.”
“Is he old or young?”
Lily shrugged again. “Old, I think. He wears glasses.”
Natalie took a deep breath. Personally, she liked funny hats. And reading books sounded pretty harmless. And old and bespectacled didn’t sound like someone who could give them any trouble.
“Do your mom and dad ever talk to him?” she finally asked.
Another little shrug.
“Think he has a phone?”
Lily nodded, and the two of them went hand in hand up the narrow ice-plant trail.
First day on the job and she was already out of her depth . . .
Elliott Sherman balanced the two dinner plates carefully as he rounded the corner of the still-unfamiliar dining room in his rental, then laid them gently on the table, squinting to see if there was anything he’d forgotten.
“This looks delicious,” his date said.
He nodded absently, still inspecting the mounds of spaghetti. Pepper? Salt? No, his sister had laid those on the table in fancy little bowls with tiny spoons she’d brought over about two hours earlier. Basil? No, he’d remembered that. Cheese? Yes!
“I forgot the cheese.” He made an attempt to grab the edges of both plates again, ready to swing back into the kitchen, but his date put her hand on his wrist.
“This is fine.” She directed him back to the table. “Where did you learn to cook, Elliott?”
Elliott tried to focus on her. He blinked the dryness out of his new contacts. Her name was Caren (with a C, she’d said), although he kept wanting to call her Carrie. She was pleasant. She had soft-looking hair. And he liked how she smelled—like pencils and sharpener dust. But he found himself continually distracted, idly glancing toward the bedroom.
“My sister,” he answered.
“Nell taught you well,” she said. Another kind smile.
He returned a polite expression and resisted another glance at the bedroom door.
Not that he was thinking of taking her there. It would be nice, of course—he’d been in quite a drought—but he’d been raised a gentleman and was much too shy to figure out how to seduce this woman anyway. Caren, with her buttoned-up blouse and carefully combed hair, looked too smart and no-nonsense for first-date fumblings. Plus, his sister would kill him. Caren was the second date Nell had set him up with this week, and his sister’s intention was to help him meet a nice, agreeable woman he could settle down with, not hop in the sack with. Nell just wanted to leave for Italy with her new husband and baby and not have to worry about him anymore. He found her fussing unnecessary, but she’d looked at him with increasing concern over the last couple of years. They’d been through a lot together, though, ever since they were kids, so he was trying to cooperate.
“Nell’s always been a good cook herself,” Caren said.
Elliott rubbed an eye. These contacts were ridiculous. Nell thought he should “show off” his eyes, wear trendier clothes, put gel in his hair, switch his waterproof watch for something with style. He’d followed all her advice, but these contacts, and these dates, were killing him. Especially this week. Of all weeks for her to have set him up with a date every night. He was this close to pinpointing a new strain of bacteria that might be affecting Lavender Island’s seashore—the reason he’d been ferried over here by Nell’s husband in the first place. And he’d had an important thought as he was ladling sauce over Caren’s spaghetti. It was all he could do not to rush back into the bedroom, where his laptop was, to search for any precedent for his latest hunch. But Nell had made him promise he wouldn’t be the obsessive, absentminded scientist he usually was on these dates. She’d said he’d had a decade of that since he’d graduated from college, and look where it had gotten him.
He dragged his gaze back from the bedroom for the fifteenth time and turned, instead, to Caren.
“So, how do you like teaching junior high?” he asked.
He tried to concentrate on her answer. The pencil scent swirled around her every time she shifted in her chair, and he tried to focus on that, on her smile, on her delicate hands, on her kind-sounding voice. But the mutations in new isolates from beached sea lions kept shoving their way into his mind . . . Had the organism ever been detected in terrestrial wildlife reservoirs?
“Yes?” His head snapped back up.
“Do I what?”
Her smile took on a forgiving nature as her eyelashes lowered. “I’m not holding your attention very well, am I?”
“No, no—it’s not that. I mean, yes. I mean, yes, you are. I’m sorry. I just keep thinking about this—”
A frantic knock rattled the back sliding door in the living room.
Elliott leaped to his feet. His hand shot out to Caren’s, and he shook his head. This could be dangerous. The slider faced the ocean and very public property. Anyone could wander up to it. When he’d rented the beach house for the year, Dr. Johnson, the old vet, had warned him that the occasional drunk or vagrant might stumble to the back door.
He slipped around the corner into the darkened living room and reached for a golf club out of a dummy set Dr. Johnson kept there for decoration.
Belatedly, he remembered that Nell had suggested he open the blinds in this west-facing room. To let in the sunset because it would be romantic, she’d said. And it would help him avoid looking like the hermit he was becoming. Too bad he hadn’t listened. As it was, he couldn’t see a thing.
He crept through the dark, knocking his shin against a coffee-table corner. As he got past the grand piano, past the last of the three oriental rugs, squinting through his lame contacts, he positioned the club in front of him. Just before he leaped, the figures outside came into full silhouette.
He took a deep breath and lowered the club.
It wasn’t a vagrant.
It was a little girl.
And, if his contacts weren’t deceiving him, a very sexy woman with long, tanned legs in very short shorts, who snatched an old man’s snap-brim hat off her head to lean into the glass with her hands cupped around sharp, beautiful eyes.
His full attention was finally captured.
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Text copyright 2016, Laurie Sanchez
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