LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE same again.
Madison’s gaze flitted across the table of the oceanside restaurant toward Chloe, her baby sister. The bride-to-be. She attempted a smile and tried to ignore the ominous churning in the pit of her stomach. On top of the massive change occurring in their family dynamics, Madison sensed someone watching her, even here. She shivered in spite of the balmy Caribbean heat, and familiar fear crept up her neck.
“You okay, Madi?” Chloe’s concerned face came into focus, and Madison sat a little taller in her chair.
“Sure, I’m fine. Just a little anxious, which is ludicrous, considering you’re the one getting married tomorrow. But that’s me—completely irrational and a nervous wreck.” Her laugh fell flat.
Chloe clasped her big sister’s hand. “Everything will be great—you’ll see.”
Madison breathed in the salty ocean air and concentrated on the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore right in front of them—soft, safe, rhythmic waves with no hint of danger. A gourmet dinner on a tropical beach shouldn’t feel this stressful.
Why am I such a mess? Am I being paranoid?
They were safe here with Chloe’s fiancé, Nathan, and his missionary brother, Luke. Of course, Chloe was matchmaking, hoping some whirlwind romance would occur between her and Luke, but it wasn’t going to happen. No way. That would take a miracle.
Madison glanced around the beach. Other diners were enjoying the spectacular sunset in this picture-perfect outdoor restaurant, engrossed in intimate conversation and delicious cuisine. Some wandered hand in hand down the beach toward the wooden docks and a live band. Everything was fine. There was no logical reason for anyone to stalk her in Jamaica—come to think of it, even back in Seattle, there had been no cause for alarm in months. But prank phone calls and random stalkers left their mark, and the haunting memories crashed over her afresh.
Deep breaths. I’m being ridiculous. I have to pull myself together for Chloe.
Chloe giggled at something Nathan whispered in her ear. Madison smiled even though her heart twinged. Life was changing for them all. She picked up the half-empty glass and took a long sip of ice-cold water. Would her days be half-empty at home without her sister? The last couple of years, it had been just the two of them coming to terms with their parents’ tragic death. The Grey sisters survived together, doing their best to navigate the unfamiliar territory of inheritance issues, legal procedures, and taking over the family home throughout their season of grief. Such a nightmare. And now a new transition stared Madison in the face, forcing yet another major upheaval.
Only, this time, it was a joyous occasion—her little sister was getting married right here in Jamaica. But was it so wrong to wish their straightforward, comfortable life in Seattle could stay the same forever?
“So, how do you like the resort?” Nathan winked at Madison as he helped himself to a spoonful of his brother’s decadent dessert. “I think I found a little bit of paradise for my beautiful bride.”
Madison took a bite of the chocolate bomb she selected from the dessert tray and sighed. Bittersweet chocolate collided with cool, creamy coconut, creating an explosion of bliss in her mouth. “It’s fabulous. I know I’ve only been here one day, but I’m smitten.” She took her time with every delectable mouthful and scraped the plate clean.
Chloe pushed her half-eaten passion fruit cheesecake toward Nathan. “I can’t eat any more if I’m going to fit into my wedding dress tomorrow. It’s all yours.” She kissed his stubbly cheek and clung to his bulging bicep as if it were a life preserver.
Madison shook her head. “Good grief, you two, anyone would think you’re on your honeymoon.” She grinned. “Wait. One more day and you will be.”
Chloe wiggled her engagement ring, the diamonds dancing in the candlelight. “I can’t believe we’re here, sitting among palm trees the night before our wedding. Honestly, I was almost waiting for something to go wrong.” She reached over and patted Luke’s hand. “And with you here for Nathan, it couldn’t be more wonderful.”
Madison followed Chloe’s gaze across the table to Nathan’s older brother. In the hazy orange light, she couldn’t help being drawn to the guy. Even though it was their first meeting, there was something special about him—like an aura of peace. How could he seem so confident and humble at the same time?
Not that she was interested. Her broken heart remained off limits to anyone. Period.
Luke was a missionary in Mexico—that much she knew. And from their brief visit so far, it appeared he had a genuine, vibrant faith. That was most likely the reason Chloe thought they were perfect for each other.
Her eyes flitted from one brother to another. Yes, Luke was handsome, even more so than Nathan in a natural, rugged way. Where Nathan was stocky and blond and spent way too much time sculpting his physique at the gym, Luke was dark and lean, maybe a runner. The brothers did share their eye color, however—an extraordinary deep shade of green, exactly like the dazzling emerald in her mother’s engagement ring…
“Have you ever been, Madison?” Luke’s rich voice broke into her thoughts.
Madison’s cheeks heated. She had missed half a conversation while assessing those fathomless eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t hear you above the crash of the waves. Have I ever been where?”
Chloe stifled a chuckle and shot her sister a mischievous look.
She could quit her matchmaking right now. Madison reached one hand under the table and pinched through the silky fabric of Chloe’s dress before giving Luke her full attention.
He hid a smile as he sipped from his water glass. “Mexico. I was wondering if you’d ever been? I guess I’m a bit obsessed with it.”
“Just a bit.” Nathan licked his spoon clean. “Along with every other country he’s backpacked across.”
“No, but I’d love to explore Mexico one day.” Madison leaned in. “It’s on my bucket list, especially as I love the Spanish language so much.”
“Right, Nathan told me you teach Spanish. Maybe you could point out all the bad habits I’ve picked up by learning the language from kids instead of taking a class.” He grimaced.
“I’m sure you have a better grasp of Spanish than I ever will. A true conversation is not the same as using it in a classroom with my less-than-enthusiastic high-school students.”
“Your students love you.” Chloe turned to Luke. “This sister of mine gave up her dream of going to Spain so she could stay with me as I finished college after our parents died. Teaching Spanish at high school in Seattle isn’t quite what she had planned.”
“I’m having a blast. Really I am. Some days are tough—I’m not going to lie—and I have to admit I was counting the days until summer break began yesterday. But I love my students, even if they’re not particularly enamored with learning a second language. And I’m sure one day I’ll visit Spain.”
“Or perhaps Mexico?” Chloe winked.
Madison’s cheeks burned. Again.
“So, you enjoy traveling?” Luke’s green eyes sparkled.
“Yes, it’s kind of a passion, I guess, although I haven’t ventured far from home these past couple of years.” Madison glanced at Chloe. “This is only the second time we’ve flown since Mom and Dad’s accident, isn’t it?”
Chloe’s big blue eyes brimmed. “Yeah, I think it is. Other than Christmas in Hawaii last year, we’ve just taken road trips. I wish Mom and Dad were here with us now.” She smoothed the linen tablecloth in front of her. “They loved Jamaica.”
Madison squeezed her sister’s hand. “It was their favorite place in the world. They would be so thrilled to know you were getting married here.” She looked at Nathan. “It’s very understanding of your family. Are your parents okay with it only being the four of us here for the ceremony?”
Nathan folded his napkin and set it on the table. “Sure. They’re cool with it. I wasn’t interested in having a massive wedding, unless that was what Chloe wanted. But she roped Mom into helping with the reception in Seattle, so it’s all good.”
Chloe took a sip of sparkling water. “Sylvia is such a sweetheart. And you know she doesn’t have any daughters of her own, so she was more than happy to organize our party at home.”
Madison turned to Luke. “Are you flying to Seattle with us?”
He leaned back in his chair. “I sure am. Believe it or not, I crave the rain and need a Seattle fix at least once a year.”
“He’s weird.” Nathan punched his brother in the arm. “Loves any kind of water, whether it’s coming down from the heavens or in the lakes and oceans. I think he might be half fish.”
A water lover? Deal breaker right there.
Madison’s shoulders slumped. No way was she ever going to end up with someone who was “half fish”—not with her overwhelming fear of drowning. Yet another major frustration to add to the list of insecurities.
Not that I’m remotely interested…
Luke caught her eye and didn’t look away. He cocked his head and rubbed his chin. Surely, he couldn’t read her mind. Was she being that transparent? She plastered a smile on her face and cleared her throat. “I think I’ll stretch my legs and walk off some of that fantastic food.”
She stood, pushed the chair out from the table, and slipped her leather purse over her shoulder. Wait. Where would she go? Along the shore all by herself? What if someone was watching her? She hadn’t thought this through.
“Umm, Chloe, want to come for one last stroll as single sisters?”
Chloe raised her eyebrows at Nathan, and he nodded.
“Go ahead, girls. I have a feeling my brother wants to try to impart some older-sibling wisdom to me this evening anyway. Shall we meet up in half an hour or so in the lounge? I think the pianist is there right until midnight.”
“Sounds lovely.” Chloe planted one last kiss on her fiancé’s cheek. “See you later.”
Madison scanned the area for suspicious-looking stalkers and turned in the direction of the steel band playing farther down the beach. It looked relatively safe with a scattering of vacationers dancing and relaxing in cabanas. She linked arms with Chloe and compared her sister’s spray-tanned arm with her own. Even in the dimming light, she could see the contrast. “Wish I’d thought of a spray tan, too.”
“You don’t need any help—you inherited Dad’s olive skin. I’m the one who naturally glows white.”
“Hmm. I look peaky next to you right now.”
“I thought your cheeks were quite pink back at the table with the guys.”
Madison nudged her sister. “It’s glaringly obvious you’re trying to fix me up with Luke, but please don’t waste your time. You know I have absolutely no desire for my heart to be broken again anytime soon.”
“Okay. My bad.” Chloe pretended to zip her lips shut. “But you look amazing, and Luke must have noticed, unless he’s blind. You always look stunning in red.”
Madison looked down at the full-length dress her sister had picked out for her. “Thanks. I’m going to have to steal you away from Nathan for our shopping trips every once in a while.”
“I think that can be arranged.”
Madison slipped off her flip-flops and carried them, the sand silky beneath her feet. It felt like old times when they used to vacation as a family and she would spend hours having a heart-to-heart with Chloe as they strolled along the shore of a tropical beach. Sweet memories. But that was before.
They passed the main dock holding a number of resort speedboats, which Madison chose to ignore. Deep breaths. Palm trees, yes, she would focus on the palm trees swaying in the balmy breeze. The band’s island music was behind them now and just a few couples strolled along the shore. But they should be safe. She had already checked and the hotel had security along this stretch of sand.
Madison exhaled and let the sound of the waves wash over her, clearing the jumble of thoughts in her mind. Funny how something that held the power to paralyze her with fear also had such a calming effect on her soul. As long as her feet were firmly planted on dry ground.
Chloe pulled her wavy blonde hair over one shoulder and broke the silence. “You’re doing so great. I know this can’t be easy for you after everything that happened with Sam.”
Aware of a second smaller dock on her right, Madison watched her toes sink into the sand with each step. “It helps that you kept the wedding so low-key. We both know you could have put on a magnificent, gigantic celebration if you’d wanted to.”
“Yeah, but that’s not really me. I’m twenty-one years old. I wanted simple and fun. When I told Nathan about Jamaica being Mom and Dad’s favorite place to visit, he was eager to have the ceremony here. He’s such a romantic. And this is perfect. Without Mom and Dad, it didn’t seem right to marry in Seattle. And after watching you plan a big wedding last year, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted anyway.”
Madison winced. The pain of Sam’s betrayal was still fresh.
Chloe sighed. “I’m sorry you had to go through that mess. But I’m serious. Look at you now.”
Madison raised a brow. She must be doing a convincing job at cool, calm, and collected. Clearly, Chloe was oblivious to the skittish sideways glances, clammy palms, and out-of-control heart rate. “Let’s sit for a while, shall we?”
After surveying the area, Madison faced the water and dropped down onto the sand, which was still warm from a day baking in the sun. She tucked the hem of her dress beneath her legs and noticed Chloe had followed suit. They both leaned forward with chins on their knees, taking in the magnificent Caribbean Sea and the final glimpse of a kaleidoscope of colors in the most breathtaking sunset.
Madison lifted a handful of white sand and watched it flow through her fingers in a steady stream. Her life was like this, cascading through a giant hourglass, and she couldn’t do a single thing to slow it down. Or control it. Lord, I don’t know if I can keep up with all the changes. Please help me not to have a meltdown. Not here, not when my sister is so happy.
“That’s strange.” Chloe pointed back at the second dock they had passed. “It looks like there’s a glass bottom boat tied up to that dock. Yes, it is. I can just about make out the sign on the side.”
Madison shuddered. Boats of any description made her skin crawl. She averted her eyes and chose to concentrate on the silvery moon shimmering on the water. “Why’s that so strange?”
“When I asked at the hotel earlier today, they said theirs wasn’t available. Something about it being away from the resort for repairs and that it would be out of action for at least several days.”
Madison spun around, scanning the area. Her stomach clenched. Why does this feel so creepy? I have to get a grip, for Chloe’s sake. She forced a smile. “I guess they were wrong. But we already discussed this—please don’t ask me to come out on it with you. You know I would walk through fire for you, but don’t ask me to go on a boat, particularly one with a glass bottom. You do remember my nightmares, right?”
“How could I forget? You told me every one in vivid detail.” Chloe put a hand on Madison’s bare shoulder and looked deeply into her eyes. “I hate that you’re still freaked out by the ocean. It’s been so long.” She bit her lip.
“I know.” Madison pulled at her hair. “I thought I’d managed to put it behind me, but then it all came back with a vengeance after Mom and Dad’s accident. The thought of them going down in Dad’s plane into the lake…”
Chloe’s eyes clouded with tears. The memories were still excruciating for them both.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be upsetting you on the night before your wedding. But I still have stuff to work through, including my fear of the ocean.”
“Can’t you pray about it or something? You and God are pretty tight, right?” She arched a brow.
Ouch. Did Chloe think she hadn’t prayed a thousand times about it? Her shoulders slumped. How could God ever use her for anything great? She couldn’t even handle her own insecurities. “Yeah, I know. Give me time. And tomorrow…I promise we’ll find a whole bunch of other fun stuff to do before the wedding in the afternoon, and then you’ll have Nathan to go boating with once you’re married.”
Chloe wrapped her in a hug. “Don’t sweat it. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to. And you’re right—tomorrow we have until the ceremony at four all to ourselves. But right now, I think we should make our way back to the guys, don’t you?”
“Sure.” Madison stood and pulled Chloe up, too. She dusted the sand from the back of her dress and dropped one of her flip-flops. As she picked it up, she caught sight of the mysterious white boat, and her gaze lingered. Was that someone in the boat? She froze. A man’s silhouette. There was something hauntingly familiar about him. The figure stopped moving and melted into the encroaching darkness as if he sensed her attention. Madison couldn’t breathe.
“Madi? Are you coming or what?” Chloe grabbed her hand. “Are you okay? You don’t look so great.”
Madison blinked and pointed to the boat. “Do you see that? In the stern of the boat? I think someone’s there. He’s watching us—I’m sure of it.” She squeezed Chloe’s hand.
“Where? Your eyesight must be better than mine because I can’t see anyone in there. But if there is, I’m certain it’s nothing to worry about—probably the owner checking stuff out or something.”
“But he looked like—” Bile stung her throat.
“Looked like what? Looked like a guy in a boat? It’s not exactly suspicious even if there is a guy out there.” Chloe planted a hand on her hip.
“But it’s starting to get dark now. Don’t you find it suspicious that he doesn’t even have a flashlight?” She braved one more look at the boat. “He didn’t count on it being a near-full moon tonight, where he could be seen.”
“Or maybe he was counting on a bright moon so didn’t bother with a flashlight. You are so overreacting. I’m sure there’s nobody in the boat, and even if there was someone, it’s no big deal. There’s a beach full of people close by. Relax.”
Madison struggled to keep her breathing even as she glanced around again to make sure they weren’t being watched. Chloe had no idea how much Madison had sheltered her from most of the crackpots and sleazy guys who had stalked them after their parents’ death when news of their inheritance leaked out. She was also blissfully unaware of the fact that someone had followed Madison around after the disaster with Sam. She would continue to look after her little sister with every protective bone in her body, until she could rest easy that Nathan would take over the role. And even then, she would always be her watchful, somewhat paranoid big sister.
Chloe threw back her shoulders and marched toward the wooden jetty. “I’m going to check it out to prove to you there’s nothing to get all freaked out about.”
“No!” Madison barely recognized her own garbled scream as she rushed to grab Chloe. “Please, don’t go out there. I can’t let anything happen to you. Let’s leave it and get back to the guys. It’s nothing, and I’m overreacting and seeing things in the shadows, like you said. I’m sorry. Please don’t go—I can’t follow you. Not onto a boat.” And not if someone’s out there. Hot, silent tears coursed down her cheeks.
“Whoa, calm down there, sis.” Chloe held her tight. “You’re getting hysterical on me. It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere near the boat. Come on now. Let’s go back to the lounge.” She grabbed a tissue from her clutch and offered it to Madison. “Dry those eyes and take a deep breath.”
“I guess I let my imagination get the better of me. And now you’re the bossy big sister.” Madison dabbed at her eyes. “Better for me to be an emotional wreck tonight rather than at your wedding, though. But please tell me you’re not saying your vows on board a vessel?”
Chloe smiled. “No, of course not. And like you’re not going to cry at the ceremony.” She linked her arm through Madison’s, and they walked back in the direction of the resort lounge, following the glow of lit tiki torches. “Look. There are plenty of people around, and we’re perfectly safe. Feel better?”
“Yes. I’m fine now.” A bout of nausea churned Madison’s stomach, and her arms prickled. The shadow was no figment of her imagination. And the mere thought of the little white vessel bobbing against that dock made her shiver. What could be more frightening than being able to see down into the depths of the ocean?
A glass bottom boat was most definitely her worst nightmare, with or without the creepy shadow of a man. And there was no way she was going anywhere near it.
Read the next chapters every Wednesday and Saturday!
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More books by Laura Thomas:
The Orphan Beach (Coming February 18)