“Jess, are you even listening to me? Hellooo in there!” Vivian waggled her fingers in Jess’s face, snapping her out of her reverie. It had been years since Jess had even thought about the cabin in Tofino, but since visiting her father earlier today, it was all she could think about.
“What? Yes, I’m listening,” Jess lied, hoping Vivian would let it slide. No such luck.
“No, you weren’t. You had that blank stare you get when you’re off plotting with your muse somewhere and have left this plane of existence behind. I know that look. When you get it, I could probably set you on fire and you wouldn’t notice.” Vivian grinned. “Maybe next time I’ll try it and see.”
“I’m pretty sure setting your best friend on fire is against the friendship code of conduct.” Jess smiled. It was impossible not to smile when Vivian did. Her friend’s perpetual sense of joy was contagious.
“It’s nice to see you smile. I was starting to think you had forgotten how.” Vivian wrapped an arm around Jess’s shoulders and hugged her. “You doing okay?”
Jess was tired of the question. She’d heard it so many times in the months since her mother had died. There were days she wanted to cry and shake her head and scream no, she wasn’t okay. She was so far from okay she wasn’t even on the same planet as the concept. Instead, she would just try to smile and tell whoever was asking that she was hanging in there. She lied to everyone else, but she had never lied to Viv.
“Not even close to okay.” Jess took a deep breath and then added, “I went to see Dad today.”
“That couldn’t have been easy, no wonder you’re feeling lousy. What did he have to say?”
Jess laughed bitterly. “He’s worried about me.”
“Now he’s worried? Where was he when you needed him?” Vivian’s eyes narrowed and her smile faded to a sneer.
“It wasn’t his fault, Vivian. As much as I would love to blame him for leaving me to cope with everything alone, he isn’t…” She stopped and corrected herself. “He wasn’t her husband anymore.”
“He is still your father. He could have checked in at least once in all the months he was off sailing around the tropics with Fluffy and the wonder twins.”
Jess couldn’t help but snicker. “You really need to stop referring to my stepmother and her boobs as separate entities.”
“No, I don’t. At least not until she gets those insane implants removed. I bet she didn’t even need a life jacket while they were out sailing around. Those babies are built-in buoyancy!”
Both women fell into a fit of giggles that had more than one patron of the coffee shop staring at them with raised brows. By the time Jess had her composure back, she felt much better than she had when she’d left her father’s place just an hour before.
“So what did your dad want? I know you didn’t just go over there to visit out of the blue.”
“He had something for me,” Jess said with a shrug. “It was a package and a letter from Mom.”
“She gave it to him to give to you?”
“It’s not like she had many options, Viv. She must have arranged it before she got too sick…” Jess trailed off as she caught up in bitter memories of the hellish months that followed her mother’s initial diagnosis. With her health failing by the day, everything had taken on a surreal, nightmarish quality. Jess had wanted to seek alternative treatments and second opinions while her mother had just smiled and got on with what she called, “tidying up the loose ends of a life well lived.”
In the end, it had just been the two of them because her father had been sailing around the Bahamas on his honeymoon, completely out of contact. It had been the hardest time of Jess’s life.
“So what was in the package?” Vivian’s question dragged Jess back to the present.
Jess gave her dearest friend a half smile. “I’ll get to that, but there’s a bit more to tell you first.”
“Just because you’re a crime novelist doesn’t mean you’re supposed to build up the suspense in your day-to-day life.” Vivian stuck her tongue out at Jess and laughed. “So, spill it! What’s the deal?”
Jess took a deep breath and let the words all tumble out of her in a rush. “Mom asked Dad to give me the cabin out on the west coast, you know, the one we all used to go to when I was a kid. He’s agreed to it, and he’s having the paperwork drafted up to make it legal. That was what he asked me over to talk to me about. He didn’t know Mom hadn’t discussed it with me.”
“So he’s giving you the cabin? That’s great!” Vivian squealed and leaned over to hug Jess again. “You are in dire need of a get-away, and the cabin would be perfect! When are you going and how long before I can come and visit?”
“Trust you to cut straight to the heart of things.” Jess laughed as she tried valiantly not to spill the last few drops of her coffee. “It’s tempting, but I’m not sure I should go right now. I would need to give notice at the apartment and figure out how I’m going to get everything I own from Toronto to Vancouver Island without losing my mind in the process.”
“Oh, that’s easy. You don’t move everything. The place has been in the rental pool for years, right? So it’s already furnished. You don’t need to move everything across the country. All you need is a storage locker.” Vivian beamed at her. “I’ll help, and we’ll have you packed up in no time, I think you should go, and the sooner the better.”
“So even my best friend is trying to get rid of me now?” Jess teased. “What would I do without you? If I go, that is.”
“You wouldn’t be without me, not really. The wilds of Tofino have the internet, don’t they? We’ll Skype, and I’ll come out to visit once you’re settled. Tofino is a surfing town and I bet it’s full of hot surfer guys. Do you really think I’m going to let you hog them all? Not a chance!”
“Well, now that you’ve settled my life so nicely, would you like to hear what was in the box?”
“You know I do.”
“An old storybook my mom used to read to me all the time, and an animal fur,” Jess said and waited for Vivian’s reaction.
“What? Your mother was totally against animal cruelty. She was almost a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake. Didn’t she only eat tofu and seafood? Why on earth would she give you a box full of furs?”
“I’m not sure if it’s a single pelt or more than one. Whatever it is, it’s so brittle and aged I didn’t want to touch it in case it fell apart on me. From what I could see it’s a soft, pale-gray fur with dark splotches. It’s really pretty, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it.”
Vivian’s expression softened. “You haven’t read the letter from your mom yet, have you?”
“No,” Jess confessed. “I didn’t want to cry in front of Dad.” She patted her jacket pocket. “I’ve got it here.”
“Well, if you’re all right with crying in front of me and a bunch of coffee-addicted strangers, I think you should read it now.” Vivian reached out for Jess’s hand and squeezed it. “If you don’t, it’s just going to burn a hole in your pocket.”
Jess blew out a short breath and pulled the envelope out of her jacket. Her mother had written Jess’s name on the front in her elegant script, and Jess felt a pang just looking at it.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered and gently unsealed it, careful not to tear the paper.
My darling Jess,
By now your father will have told you that he’s giving you the cabin. It was something we’ve been discussing since the divorce, and I know he’ll do right by my memory and fulfill my last request.
I know you’re hanging in there, Jess. But I also know how hurt you were by your father’s actions. He’s a good, decent man, and I hope one day you can forgive him. I already have.
My last request for you is one I’ll hope you’ll honor. I want you to go to Tofino and spend the winter in your new cabin. You gave up so much of yourself and your energy taking care of me and coping with everything, I want you to rest. You need time to heal, my little one, go to the cabin and take care of yourself for once. I’ve always regretted m decision to stop taking you there. I should never have done that.
There’s only one other thing I want you to do for me. Your father should have given you a box along with this letter. Bring the box and its contents with you to Tofino, along with my ashes. I would like them scattered into the ocean by the cabin. As for what’s in the box, I have faith you will know what to do with it when the time comes.
My greatest wish is for you to have a happy life. I will always be nearby, watching over you.
Jess’s cheeks were wet with tears by the time she finished the letter, and without a word she handed it to Vivian and dove into her purse to grab a handful of slightly dusty tissues. By the time Jess’s eyes were dry, Vivian was tearing up and Jess just handed her one of her less sodden tissues.
“You were the one who said to read it now.” Jess laughed very softly as she saw how puffy Vivian’s eyes had gotten.
“Yeah, well when did you start listening to my advice? You know I’m not to be trusted.” Vivian blotted her eyes and then carefully folded up the note before handing it back to Jess. “So I guess it’s decided then, you’re going to the cabin.”
“Since everyone I know seems to think I should be there, I guess I am spending the winter on the west coast.”
“Lucky you, no snow to shovel.”
“Cheer up, Viv. I’m officially inviting you to visit me for the holidays. We can celebrate our first green Christmas together.”
Vivian brightened immediately. “Oh that’ll be so much fun! You and me and a town full of rugged outdoorsmen. I may never leave.” Vivian shot Jess an encouraging grin. “And when I get there, I bet you’ll have a new manuscript for me to read. I know you haven’t been writing much lately.”
Jess wrinkled her nose and sighed. “I’d be happy to have written anything at all by then. The words just won’t come these days.”
“That’s because you need a change. This is all part of your destiny, you’ll see.” Vivian drained the last off her coffee and pushed back her chair. “Let’s get started.”
* * * *
Rory slammed both hands down on the table, making his mother jump in her chair. “What part of this are you not understanding, Dad? You can’t make me marry anyone, and it will be a cold day in Hell before I would agree to spend the rest of my life with that ice-princess you seem to want for a daughter-in-law.”
“Damn it, Rory, grow up! You know the laws. You can’t inherit if you don’t take a selkie mate from one of the old bloodlines. Those are the rules, son. I didn’t make them, but I surely will enforce them, and so will you when your time comes to lead this colony.” Darius crossed his arms across his chest and glowered at his only son.
“Well, if the only way to get to lead the colony is by marrying that harpy, then you better start looking for another heir.” Rory kicked back his chair and started pacing, covering the distance of the kitchen in a few long strides as he tried for the hundredth time to make his father see reason when it came to finding him a wife.
“That law was made centuries ago, when things were very different than they are now. For fuck’s sake, we didn’t even live on land back then!”
“Language please, Rory.” His mother spoke softly, sadness filling her eyes as she watched father and son fighting yet again.
“Sorry, Mom,” Rory took a deep breath and tried to rein in his anger. He knew it wasn’t going to get him anywhere to rail at his father. They were too much alike for that to do any good. “Dad, I know you want to follow the old ways, and I respect that, really I do. But you have to admit, the pickings out there are pretty damned slim. There just aren’t that many of us left.”
“I know.” Darius sighed and relaxed slightly, though his arms stayed crossed over his chest. “We lost access to so many of the old bloodlines during my father’s time.”
Evan stayed silent, but Rory could see his blood-brother nodding his blond head in agreement. Evan refused to consider himself part of the family despite the bonding between the two of them, and he never spoke up during the inevitable fights that cropped up every time Rory and his father were in the same room for more than a few minutes.
“You are not your father, Darius,” Emma reached out to take her husband’s hand. “You’ve done so much for this colony and made things so much better than they were.” She glanced over at Rory and he saw the reproach in her eyes. “Rory, I know this isn’t easy, but there are only so many changes a leader can make before it starts to be too much for people to deal with. If we could change things for you, we would. Neither of us wants to see you or Evan unhappy.”
“If you do this, I will be unhappy. We both will.” Everyone at the table blinked in surprise when Evan spoke up, and Rory stopped his pacing to listen. “Rory and I just need more time to find our match, and believe me, Renee isn’t the one. If Rory doesn’t drown her within the first week, I will. She’s an unbelievably cold-hearted bitch.” Evan’s gaze flicked from Rory to Emma and he added, “Sorry for cursing, but it really is the only word that describes her.”
“I see,” Darius mused, his tone thoughtful. “That bad, is she?”
Rory nodded, afraid to speak in case it broke the spell Evan seemed to have cast over the room. If his blood-brother had just gotten them both out of marrying Renee Harris, Rory was going kiss his feet and then take him out for a night on the town, and to hell with the expense.
“If she’s so bad not even Saint Evan can put up with her, then I suppose I won’t force the issue.” Darius pointed a finger at Rory and Evan. “But the two of you need to find someone to bond with, and soon.” Darius glanced at his wife and gave her a wink and a grin that made him look years younger. “We are hoping to have a few years with our grandchildren, if you ever get around to giving us any.”
Rory let out a sigh of relief and mustered a smile for his parents. “Thank you.”
“Just get on with it son, you’re thirty-one years old. If you sew any more wild oats, you’ll be a farmer instead of a fisherman.”
Evan snorted with laughter and Rory actually felt his ears get hot as even his mother burst into gales of laughter. “All right, I’ll get on with it. But for the record, Evan’s two years older than I am and I am damned sure he’s sewn enough oats to start a cereal company already.”
“Nonsense, our Evan is the sweetest boy I know.” Emma beamed at her son’s companion before looking back at Rory. “You’re the wicked one, Rory Frazier. Just like your father.”
As Rory and Evan headed out to their truck a few minutes later, Rory shot his best friend and blood-brother a dirty look.
“Evan’s the sweetest boy I know.” He mimicked his mother’s gushing tone and rolled his eyes. “How the hell do you do that? You drink like a fish and have more notches on your bedpost than one man should legally be allowed to have. I’ve had to bail you out of the drunk-tank so often I should get frequent flyer miles, and she thinks you’re the good one!”
“Easy.” Evan brushed his sandy blond bangs out of his eyes and chuckled as he climbed into the passenger side of the truck. “I smile and you’re always frowning. I stay quiet and listen while you always have to be heard. Oh yes, and I don’t curse in front of your mother.”
“Smart ass,” Rory grumbled as he started the truck and backed onto the gravel road connecting all the residences sprawled around their collective home.
“If you’re done insulting me, I’m still waiting for my thank you for saving us from the misery of being married to that bitch from the Haida Gwaii colony.”
Rory grinned over at his best friend. “I’m going to do more than say thank you. Tomorrow night you and I are going to drive into town and celebrate our freedom, however fleeting it may be.”
“Breakers?” Evan grimaced. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Trish is still mad at me.”
“Serves you right, too. Tucker warned you about hitting on his staff, but you just couldn’t keep your hands to yourself.” Rory laughed as he pulled into their driveway and shut off the motor. “You earned that beer shower. But no, I didn’t mean Breakers. You and I are going to drive over to Nanaimo and enjoy ourselves. My treat.”
“Holy shit, you’re spending real money on me? You really are happy your dad agreed to forget about marrying Renee.” Evan hopped out and headed for the house the two of them shared. “I’m holding you to the celebration idea, but honestly I did it for my sanity, not just yours. She’d barely give me the time of day. I’m fine with sharing, but I have no plans on being celibate for the next sixty years!”
“And I would rather be celibate than face a lifetime of sharing a bed with a woman who could give frostbite to a penguin.” Rory followed Evan inside and went to the fridge to grab them both a beer.
“So how long do you think we have to find a compatible mate?” Evan asked as he cracked open the bottle and flung himself into the nearest piece of furniture.
“Not long. We better start praying for a miracle.”
“And you better learn to start smiling, or you’re going to scare them all off,” Evan teased and took a drink.
“I do just fine with the ladies, thank you very much.”
“Oh sure, and every one of them was human and short-term only. We’re selkies, we’ve been seducing human women for centuries, they’re easy. I’m talking about wooing a selkie mate.”
“It can’t be that difficult. If my father managed it, anyone can.”
Evan burst out laughing. “You really should ask your mom about it one day. It’s a fascinating story. She made your dad and Torin work their asses off before she agreed to marry them.”
“What? I never heard the story. How the hell do you know it and I don’t?” Rory stretched out on the couch and downed his beer, shooting daggers at Evan the whole time.
“See? This is why she thinks I’m a sweetheart. I actually listen to her. You should try it sometime. It may make the difference between us getting married to a compatible mate and us spending the rest of our lives with the likes of Renee.” Evan shuddered.
“I’ll abdicate first,” Rory vowed.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m supposed to be the bonded blood-brother of the next colony leader. I have great plans to live a life of luxury while you run things.”
“Nice to know you’ve got ambitions of your own,” Rory muttered.
Evan just grinned. “Drink your beer. You need to get your liver primed for what we’re going to do to it tomorrow night.”