Stacie Halloran was perfectly content running her bed and breakfast in Windon Harbor, on Malaspina Island off the Pacific coast of Canada. Or maybe not perfectly content, since there was a decided shortage of eligible men of a certain age on Malaspina. But it was home, and it was a living.
Then the hot-shot executive from the timber company that owned Nathan’s Forest turned up. Adam Fraser’s presence had the whole island talking – and watching his every move. Because there was only one reason for him to be on their island: his company planned to cut down their forest. Adam was the Enemy, sent to make nice with the natives.
Talk about the last thing Stacie needed. The Enemy was under her roof, and with his big-city vibes he was a fish out of water in tiny Windon Harbor. Then, wouldn’t you know? He had to go and kiss her right there in the guest lounge. Definitely the last thing she needed. Because whatever she thought about that kiss – and she thought plenty – a battle was looming, and they were on opposite sides.
The lines were drawn. But for Adam, it all came down to a brown-eyed bed-and-breakfast owner and an old house on a hill. Because once Malaspina Island wove its spell, all bets were off.
“I’ll have two eggs, scrambled, on whole wheat toast – dry. Sliced tomatoes. Coffee. I don’t have much time, so be quick.”
Jackass. Stacie Halloran, owner and mildly-ticked-off operator of Halloran House Bed and Breakfast, allowed herself a split second to glare at the woman staying in room Three, now seated in the breakfast room. Three was big city all the way – fashionably thin, perfectly dyed red hair, couture vacation wear. Look-down-the-nose-at-the-country-bumpkin expression.
Stacie had read that you couldn’t feel high blood pressure. Lie. Hers spiked. Ignoring it, she pasted on her sweet face. “I’m so sorry, we don’t have any whole wheat bread at the moment. I’m sure you’d enjoy one of the meals we have on this morning’s menu – puffed omelet with sautéed vegetables or blueberry stuffed pancakes. I made extra since you didn’t pre-order.”
As I ask you to, as you might possibly have noticed on the card on your pillow.
Her voice professionally pleasant, she continued, “The egg dish is closest to what you requested …”
“I didn’t request, girl, I placed an order. Your job is to bring my order to me.” Three’s voice dripped with derision.
Yes, ma’am. Anything you say, ma’am.
Well, sometimes a guest did wake up with a headache or have a fight with a spouse or something. Stacie had learned to roll with these punches and accept that she was collateral damage, not the real target. Halloran House was worth the occasional irritation. Her internal rant simply helped her defuse her equally internal desire to boot the woman down the front steps on her skinny fanny.
“And you, sir?” she turned to Three’s companion.
The man in Two was at least more polite, even though he hadn’t pre-ordered either. Businessman all the way, with sandy hair in that kind of spiky short cut that looked like someone had been running fingers through it, dress slacks and business shirt with a burgundy tie. Slender, although Two definitely could do with some exercise. She guessed that Two had maid service and ate out and hadn’t seen a jogging trail or the inside of a gym in ten years or so. Overall, not half bad, though.
Stacie herself was fit. Running the B&B was seriously physical work, for one thing. But at least it saved her from doing less fun things, like pumping iron or watching what she ate. Not that she got to show off the resulting assets when she was on the job. Her morning uniform was plain and businesslike, light gray shirt tucked into dark gray slacks, dark hair confined by an elastic into a low ponytail.
Still, she figured she looked pretty darn good. Even if the almost-hunk in Two – alone in Two – hadn’t looked at her twice.
Not that it mattered. Getting cozy with the paying clients was a big no-no, as far as Stacie was concerned. But still …
He’d followed her dialogue with Three with something approaching amusement. It didn’t last. Two’s voice was formal and vaguely bored. “The pancakes sound good, thank you. And coffee.”
The couple in One left the table under the window. “Fantastic,” the husband called out to her. The wife giggled. Just married, Stacie knew. She’d provided a basket with bubbly and some local gourmet nibbles to keep them happy, not that they seemed to need her help. Over half her business was honeymooners, so she knew honeymooners. Surely there was no worse company on the planet than a newly wed couple.
Careful, Stacie, you’re risking a slide into a little bitterness there. Couldn’t be denied, though, this Friday morning had taken a turn that was enough to make her question her career choice.
She waved back to the couple in One, turning on her big smile. She poured coffee for the pair in Two and Three, delivered a carafe of freshly squeezed orange juice to their table, then headed for the kitchen and those scrambled eggs. The customer is always right – even when they’re totally, obnoxiously, wrong.
She hadn’t figured this brittle couple out. They had checked in the previous evening, looking grim and never once looking at each other. A less likely pair to turn up on Malaspina Island would be hard to imagine. Not outdoor types, not unwinding – so far, at least – and for sure not looking for the romantic ambience Stacie’s B&B offered. Not anything that made sense.
Given the jet lag thing, anyone coming from Toronto to an island off the coast of British Columbia should be first in the breakfast room, shouldn’t they? Instead of turning up ten minutes before time to shut the kitchen down.
At the moment, the pair in question were frozen in silence, the woman looking discontented and the man looking like he’d kill for the morning paper.
Sorry, the first ferry’s only just in. Paper available about 10:30, just like it says in all the helpful information in your room. Deal with it.
The teenager who helped out with the yard work came in the back door to her private apartment, kicked off his shoes in the mudroom, and hovered at the entrance to the kitchen. “Morning, Stacie.”
“Hi, Mike. Coffee?”
Eggs beaten, toast toasting, pancakes cooking, please God let me have a tomato.
“Sure.” Mike ventured into the small commercial kitchen that served the B&B and helped himself from the back-up carafe. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
She looked up from the pan where she’d just poured the eggs. “Any odds it’s not anything good.”
“Afraid not. The waterfall won’t start. I think the pump’s broken. There’s this sort of humming noise.”
“Damn.” Double damn with sauce on it. “Could you get the pump out of the fishpond? One of us can run it into Sam’s. Maybe it needs cleaning or something.”
“I’ll take it in later. Lawn doesn’t need cutting yet so it’s just some weeding this morning.”
“Thanks, Mike. You’re a real asset.” A garden care company would take over the heavy maintenance once they got into full-on summer. In the meantime, Mike saw to basic weeding and raking, so things looked good out there, for May.
Eggs and pancakes plated, she made her way back into the breakfast room. The couple appeared not to have changed position. They just sat there, united in disdain. Stacie ignored the serious antagonism vibes they put out, set the plates in front of them, said sweetly that she hoped they’d enjoy their breakfast, and moved to the window to bus the table that One had vacated. Stacks of crockery balanced expertly on her arms, she returned to the kitchen, loaded the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then went back to the door.
Good. Two and Three were eating. Without any visible enthusiasm, but at least it didn’t look like they’d be calling her over to complain.
It was the point in the day when she loved the breakfast room best. Light flooded the room, turning the pale yellow walls into a form of interior sunshine. The décor tended to sophisticated rather than kitschy – no white geese here. The giant paper flowers decorating the walls – carefully positioned so they never faded under direct sun – glowed in the filtered morning light.
No time for wool gathering.
She let the door swing closed behind her and tackled kitchen clean-up. The morning settled into routine – other than whatever was wrong with the damn pump. She’d deal with the kitchen first. Then the breakfast room, the washroom, the downstairs vacuuming, dusting and tidying. Later, when hopefully the guests had taken themselves off somewhere for the day, she’d tackle the bedrooms.
Halloran House had only four guest rooms. Even at that, she accepted that her morning hours would be spent cooking and cleaning. No matter how efficient she got to be, realistically, it took her that long to bring Halloran House to the gleaming perfection she expected of it.
Sometimes it really did feel like a slog.
Well, it’s a living. And you’re where you want to be. And there’s work to do.
Where she wanted to be was Malaspina Island. She’d tested the waters on the mainland, sure, but Malaspina had drawn her back. For Stacie, this was home.
The morning blitz on the B&B was an excellent time for musing, and there was plenty to muse about this morning. Two and Three, for instance.
Two’s real name was Adam Fraser, and he was city through and through. He’d arrived off the ferry the previous afternoon in a business suit and leather shoes, for heaven’s sake. Stacie idly imagined a teachable moment, such as his slippery soles landing him flat on his butt on the dock.
Might not happen, but a girl could hope.
Not a bad butt.
She shook that thought right out of her head, since it was going nowhere. Stacie didn’t mix business with pleasure. She, or rather Halloran House B&B, had a reputation to maintain, after all.
No penalty for noticing, though.
Besides, the man seemed prepared to look down his nose at her, Halloran House, and probably the whole island.
No, thanks. Two could take his attitude right back to Toronto.
It looked like he and his attitude were going to be underfoot for a while, though. Stacie was in the middle of vacuuming the breakfast room when Two next turned up.
She switched off the vacuum. “Can I help you?” The public, pleasant persona fastened itself to her face.
“I’ll have another cup of coffee. It’s good.”
“It’s locally roasted. Most of what we serve is local, either to the island or to Vancouver Island. Please help yourself.” She kept the coffee fresh all morning, as well as providing hot water and an assortment of teas.
He did help himself. Then – she knew it was coming, given the way the morning had gone so far – he sat down. Stacie sighed as her schedule went to hell. “I’ll finish up in here later.”
Two didn’t seem in the least aware that he was disrupting her work. She got the vibe that he was settling in for a chat, even though so far this morning he hadn’t cracked a smile. Did a man like that even know how to chat? He settled in sideways to the table, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. “So, I wonder what people do on this island. What sort of recreational activities there are.”
Polite, Stacie. Make nice with the paying customers.
“I’ve put brochures in your room.”
“I’ve read them. But what I want to know is, what do the locals do? I can’t see everyone here rushing down to the dock to pay for a kayak tour or a guided hike through the forest.”
He said ‘the locals’ as if she and her friends were some mutant form of life. Being nice to this guy could give her an ulcer.
In the movies, mutants clawed people, made them bleed. Stacie found herself flexing her fingers.
She clamped down on her thoughts and leaned on her vacuum. “Mostly we just get on with our lives, I guess. We take care of our homes and run our businesses and buy groceries. Back yard barbecues in the summer. Hang out with friends – there’s a coffee shop on the Square.”
She carefully didn’t mention the other coffee shop, the one tucked down a side street a couple of blocks from the Square. She felt slightly guilty about depriving Dick and Doreen, the owners of The Brew Place, of business – but would they want the business of this particular snarly couple, or whatever they were? She sincerely hoped not.
“Just an ordinary life, one might say.”
Except that no one on Malaspina would ever use ‘one’ in that royal way.
“Nothing romantic about it.” He had his gaze fixed on her, a puzzled frown pulling his eyebrows together. What did he see, for heaven’s sake? Scrambled egg in her hair?
“And yet you run arguably one of the most romantic establishments on the west coast. Rate-Your-B-and-B-dot-com says so.”
She shrugged. “You mix sea and gardens and decor and you’ve got romantic. It’s no mystery. My own apartment features a second hand sofa. I live like everyone else.”
“And can’t afford a decent sofa?”
The front door opened. Her pal Jessica Thomas stuck her head into the breakfast room. “Hi, Stacie. Just wanted to alert you that the shop’s running low on soap and lavender wands. Any chance of getting some more?” Jess owned the Ocean Thyme Gift Shop, down by the harbor.
“Morning, Jess. I’ve got the soap, but I’ll have to make the wands, so it won’t be till after harvest.”
“Great. I’m way late – see you.” Jessica was gone in her usual flurry of long blond curls and even longer blue jeaned legs.
Stacie straightened, glad to have her cozy chat with Two interrupted. “Is there anything else I can help you with? I have a number of things I have to see to …”
“No. No, that’s all. Thanks for the coffee.” He unfolded from the table and left, taking his mug with him. Stacie watched him go, then turned the vacuum on and went back to her work.
He was right. Halloran House was romantic. The house had been her grandmother’s, and retained the charm of yesteryear. Now, of course, the charm was bolstered by all modern conveniences, such as marble bathrooms with jet tubs, double glazed windows, and WiFi. Gardens rolled down to a little cove where the Pacific could crash if it got mad enough, but generally was sheltered and tranquil. Other than the garden, she cared for it all herself, which made life challenging, and sometimes confining. But it was the life she’d chosen, and overall she was proud of what she’d accomplished in the three years Halloran House had been open.
A restful morning was too much to hope for. By 11:30 Three, whose name was Katherine Sorenson, was on her case. Demanding a remedy for indigestion, undoubtedly caused by the white bread she’d been forced to eat with the scrambled eggs.
Gee, Ms. Sorenson. Must be contagious.
Stacie commanded her stomach to unclench and pointed her guest to the drug store in town. She went back to dusting the guest lounge, across the entry from the breakfast room. With Two and Three’s late breakfast, it was a given that she wasn’t going to finish the cleaning by noon.
The couple in Four had left at 8:00, heading out for an all-day hike. Stacie had given them an early breakfast and arranged bagged lunches in town. One had disappeared for a hand-holding wander around central Windon Harbor. Those couples, at least, looked like they’d enjoy their stay on Malaspina Island.
Dusting finished, she headed upstairs. Now, if she could just get Two and Three out of there.
With the morning cleaning done – except for Three, where the Do Not Disturb sign was displayed – and the morning long gone, Stacie made her usual cruise through Halloran House, looking everything over one more time and checking to see who was there, if anyone. Usually by late morning all her guests had left to take advantage of the island’s activities. Today, however, she heard the voices from the guest lounge well before she got to the door – which, she noticed with disapproval, they had pulled almost closed, as if claiming it as their private office space.
“I’m well aware of that,” Two was saying. He sounded bored. “We both agree that this is ridiculous. But here we are. Live with it.”
“I am living with it. Every damned minute.” Three virtually hissed her words out.
“Do you have a hookup yet?”
“No – do you remember if the password had a capital letter?”
“Bucolic. Capital-B-u-c-o …”
“Shut up, Adam. There. WiFi established.” For a minute there was only the quiet tap of computer keys. Stacie hovered at the door, debating whether to go in. Investigating the mystery of these unlikely guests was tempting. She wanted to know what they were up to.
“Get a note off to Ralph, would you? We’re here, lovely place, blah blah. And send a note to Janet, so she’ll know her job’s on the line when we get out of here. Booking us into this kind of place – her idea of a joke, I suppose.”
“I’m not laughing. And send your own notes. I’m not your secretary.” More typing.
“Okay, fine. I will.”
Since One and Four were away, Stacie decided to leave the charming couple to their emailing the outside world from the guest lounge, and headed for her apartment. At least part of the mystery was solved. This was a business trip, and a secretary named Janet who didn’t value her job had booked them into romantic instead of businesslike. She wondered how their workplace saw them, what the connection was. For that matter, who they worked for. The trouble-making Janet had entered only home addresses and phone numbers in Toronto when she made the reservations.
Safely in her apartment, she put her little stovetop espresso maker on to do its thing. Then she collapsed, anticipating a few minutes of peace.
Stacie’s apartment was her retreat and hideaway. She’d used most of the back half of the ground floor to create it. It wasn’t elegant and the layout was a little wonky, with the bedroom off the living room and the windowless bathroom sort of squished in between, because that’s where it was easiest to reach the plumbing. Her living room had a door – with lock – into the B&B’s entry, and her kitchen had a door – also with lock – into the B&B’s kitchen. Her outside door opened into a little mud room. And no one got in unless she wanted them to.
The espresso maker gurgled. She made an Americano, then sat down at her kitchen table and thought. What business would a couple of people like these have here? What business interests from off the island would care about us?
Business interests …
Abruptly she was on her feet and heading for the phone. The rumors had been all over the island for weeks. Maybe, just maybe, she had the point people in her sights.
The Forest. Nathan’s Forest. Owned by some mega corporation back east. The rumor said it was going to be logged. She had to talk to Abby Fox, the town manager. And also her mother.
About equidistant from Vancouver and Victoria, Malaspina Island retained a small town, once-upon-a-time feeling. Windon Harbor, the only urban center on the island – ‘urban’ in this case meaning ‘really small town’ – hosted an assortment of social activities and festivals.
The romance of Malaspina Island relied on illusion, of course. The magical effect the island had on visitors could only be maintained with a sophisticated infrastructure. Both the island and the town of Windon Harbor had everything needed for road maintenance, financial management, publicity, and so forth. And that’s where Abby came in. She’d been town manager of Windon Harbor for fifteen years now, and it looked like she’d be there forever.
“Hi, honey. How’re things?”
“Busy as always. We’re full.”
In a rush Stacie told her about the strange couple, the separate rooms, the obvious business trip, the tension.
“They’re totally nasty, Mom. And they’re booked in for a week. I’m going to try to get them out of here before I lose my mind – or my other customers. I could be completely off base with what they’re about, but I thought you might want a heads up.”
“Thanks for letting me know.” Her mom swatted crises aside like gnats. She’d figure something out, Stacie was sure. “We’ll kick some corporate ass if we can. In the meantime, want to come over for dinner?”
“Need you even ask?” Dinner plans made, Stacie made one more phone call, this one to the hotel on the waterfront.
The rest of Stacie’s day was uneventful, for which she thanked whatever gods happened to be listening. Early evening found her flopped on the sofa in her mother’s country kitchen, blue-jeaned legs tucked under her. “I’m wiped, Mom. Feed me.”
Her mother aimed a smile in her direction and went on basting salmon fillets. Not the frilly sort, Abby Fox presented a no-nonsense image with her straight, well behaved graying hair and modest denim dress. After a successful career and a bad marriage back east in Calgary, Abby had found a home on Malaspina Island – and the love of her life, her husband Bill.
Everyone knew Abby, and nothing on the island escaped her. Including Stacie’s awkward couple. “I think I saw your guests in town, late this afternoon. Checking out the dinner options, maybe? I can’t say they looked comfortable.”
“They’re not. But for some reason they want to fit in.” Stacie made quotation marks with her right hand only, since her left was wrapped around a beer bottle. “Not that they said so in so many words, but he was pestering me this morning about what the natives do with their spare time. Why would he care?” Stacie took a swig of her beer and burrowed deeper into the corner of the old sofa.
“If they are who you think they are, they may want to know what we think about the forest, and how much resistance they’re likely to get if they decide to cut it down.”
“Don’t say that. You give me shivers.”
Abby raised her glass of cider in her daughter’s direction. “To their ultimate failure.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Stacie drank, then frowned. “But they’re not likely to fail, are they? They own the land, dammit. They have the timber rights. I don’t guess there’s much we can do about it.”
Abby plated the salmon. “With any luck we can snatch partial victory from the jaws of certain defeat,” she said. Then she stuck her head out the back door and bellowed, “Bill!” in a voice that could possibly be heard over on the mainland. “In the garage practicing,” she explained to Stacie in a more normal voice. “They’re playing tomorrow night.” ‘They’ being the Windon Fiddlers, a local band of variable composition, depending on who was available and who felt like playing.
She put the plates on the table. “Come eat, and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.”
Bill ambled in. His weathered jeans suited his weathered face and gray hair. He gave Stacie a hug. “Hey, girl.”
“Hey, Bill. Taking good care of her?”
“I reckon I’d better. She feeds me.” Bill hugged Stacie’s mother, a bear hug rather than the polite, shoulder-to-shoulder version she’d received, then swung into his seat.
“So – what do we do?” Stacie asked around a bite of salmon glazed with something that involved orange marmalade, soy sauce, and garlic. “If the evil is upon us, how do we fight it?”
“Hexes,” Bill said promptly. Stacie wasn’t sure but she thought her mother might have given Bill a gentle kick under the table.
“We could consider that,” Abby said. “The local coven would be thrilled, I’m sure. I was actually thinking sugar.”
“Mom, are you saying I have to be nice to these people? Seriously, I don’t know if I can.”
“I raised you to have a steel backbone. As an example, if they should turn up at the barn dance tomorrow night, then let’s make sure they have a chance to dance – if they want to. And have people to talk to. We can put out the word about that.”
“Seduce them,” Bill put in. “Make them see the wonder of Malaspina.”
Abby nodded. “I agree, that might be a tall order, but it’ll improve our odds. Stacie, your main job at the moment is to confirm they are who we think they are. If they’re an advance party from Callaway Forest Products, we need to know it.”
“I’ll give you a call as soon as I know.” Stacie’s focus was on the salmon, and there wasn’t much room in her head at the moment for anything else. “Mmm. Good,” she added, waving her fork.
“Glad you think so. Roger and I spoke this afternoon.” Roger was the Island Administrator, Abby’s equivalent for that part of the island that wasn’t actually in the town limits of Windon Harbor. “No worry about cooperation there, obviously. But this corporation, they do have the logging rights, so there’s nothing we can do about that. We can work with regulations – water quality, for instance. Maybe something about fish, it’s steep on the south side of the forest so runoff could be an issue.”
Abby was on a roll. “Probably our best bet is going to be the effect on the tourist industry. We can see the slopes of Nathan’s Forest from most of the island. Publicity of course – incite the province, the nation, the environmentalists, whoever’ll listen. And play on their nobler side –”
“If they have one,” Stacie put in grumpily.
“Good citizens of the island and all that. Getting to know your people will give us a clue whether there’s anything to be won in that direction.”
Abby mused a moment, then added, “I’ll probably invite them over one evening, once we’re sure who they are. Start the schmoozing.”
“Take a bite, dear,” Bill put in. “Your soapbox is showing.”
Stacie grinned. She got along great with Bill, and he brought out this massive happiness in her mother. Now, if she could find a way to make the same thing happen for herself. Her mom had been well into her forties when her luck came along, so there was still hope.
Abby shot a smile at her husband. “Sorry. Critical importance.”
“We’re thinking about doing a little gig on the Square tomorrow afternoon. Kinda warm everyone up for the dance,” Bill said. “Any way we can use the band?”
“I’ll think about it. I don’t see it yet. Thanks, sweetie.” Abby reached over and patted Bill’s weathered cheek. “You’re a peach. Speaking of which – have you been to the garden center? They’ve got a selection of heritage apple trees in. I’m wondering ….”
“Your wondering usually means digging ahead for me. Look at the garden, Abigail. Where’d you put another tree?”
Her mother laughed. “Fair point. Just dreaming.”
The conversation wandered off to local people and events. Stacie ate her salmon with gusto and worried about the logging and thought life didn’t get much better than this.
Well, having a good-looking guy along to share this dinner with her mother and Bill might qualify as improvement. But over the three years she’d run Halloran House Bed and Breakfast she’d learned not to have pie-in-the-sky dreams. So, she thought, Yeah. As good as it gets.