The dream was always the same, the last perfect moment before life as Jenny Wilks knew it ended forever. She and her fiancé, Toby, in their cozy New York City apartment, enjoying breakfast, the morning paper, the news on TV, talking about everything and nothing. He’d asked about their dinner plans, and she’d reminded him her parents were coming the next day, so they needed to clean their apartment.
He’d groaned in protest, and she’d laughed at him, as she always did. She was a neat freak, and he was a certified slob. She loved him anyway, even when she had to pick up after him. Every time she had the dream, she tried to recall those final minutes, wanting desperately to know what they’d said to each other.
It was the one thing she couldn’t remember, and the one thing she needed to know.
Toby got up to leave for work in Lower Manhattan, leaning in to kiss her the way he did every morning. He looked gorgeous and successful in the suit that had been cut just for him, as he rubbed his freshly shaven cheek against hers. “I’ll—”
A roar of noise startled her out of a sound sleep, setting off a panic deep inside where the lingering trauma still resided. An engine, close by… In a cold sweat despite the oppressive heat, she launched out of bed and ran for the window to find a shirtless man standing on the back of the biggest lawn mower she’d ever seen. At—she glanced at the clock on her bedside table—5:45 a.m.! Was he serious?
Next to the clock was a framed picture of Toby that brought back the dream in startling, vibrant detail that made her eyes swim with tears and sparked fury that had her running for the lighthouse’s spiral staircase. Down she went to the first floor and then one more level below to the mudroom and out into the pearly predawn, where the air was thick with heat and humidity.
She burst into the yard, screaming as she went, “Hey! Hello! Do you know what time it is?”
The dark-haired man wore a bulky headset over his ears and couldn’t possibly hear her over the roar of that…thing…he was driving. It was massive—and very, very loud. His skin glistened with sweat as day three of the heat wave from hell began on Gansett Island.
Jenny looked around for something, anything she could use to get his attention and zeroed in on the bumper crop of tomatoes that had begun to ripen on the vines she’d planted earlier in the summer. Without giving a single thought to what she was about to do, she grabbed a handful of pulpy tomatoes and began flinging them at the man’s bare back.
The first two went wide, missing the target, but the third one hit him square between the shoulder blades, splattering on contact. Excellent.
Recoiling from the direct hit, he cut the engine on the beast, threw off the headset and jumped from the platform, spinning to face her. “What was that?” Looking around, he noticed the remnants of the first two tomatoes on the ground next to him. “Are you throwing tomatoes at me? What the hell?”
“I could ask you the same thing! Do you have any idea what time it is?”
Despite her rage, she couldn’t help but notice a muscular chest and belly, dark chest hair, tanned skin and khaki shorts that hung from narrow hips. He wore work boots with dark socks that peeked out the top of them. “Five forty-five. In the morning!”
“Thanks for clarifying. Do you mind leaving me alone? I’ve got a long day ahead of me, and you’re the one who complained to the town that we hadn’t been out to cut the grass. Well, we’re here to cut the grass.”
“Not at five forty-five in the morning you’re not.”
“Ah, yeah, I am.”
She took a step closer to him. “No, you’re not.”
He took a step in her direction. “Yes, I am.”
The fourth tomato in her hand went sailing toward his head.
He ducked at the last second, avoiding a direct hit. “Are you completely insane?”
As he looked her up and down under the cover of sunglasses, Jenny realized she was wearing next to nothing as she faced off with the angry lawn guy. The lighthouse didn’t have air-conditioning, and the heat had been unbearable, thus the short nightgown she’d worn over tiny panties. She crossed her arms over her unrestrained breasts.
“Look, lady, I’m sorry if I woke you up, but I need to get back to work if I’m going to keep this already screwed-up day on schedule.”
“You’re not turning that…thing back on at six o’clock in the morning! I thought I was being attacked or something.”
“Right. Attacked. On Gansett Island, where it’s so unsafe.”
Jenny knew what it was like to be attacked in a place where she’d always felt safe, a thought that brought back the images from the dream, reminding her of what she’d missed out on thanks to the roar of his lawn mower.
Who knew when or if she’d have the dream again? It had been more than a year since the last time Toby had “visited” her slumber. “You never know when a safe place can become unsafe.” As she uttered the words, her chin quivered and her eyes swam with tears.
“Oh my God. You’re not going to cry!” He tipped his head for a closer look at her. “Are you?”
“No, I’m not going to cry.” She really had no intention of crying, but having that particular dream threw her out of sorts for days every time it happened. Being blasted out of a sound sleep on top of it was a recipe for emotional overload.
“Good.” He ran his fingers through straight, silky, dark hair, a gesture that made his muscles tighten and bulge, not that she was looking or anything, and then he lifted his sunglasses to swipe at the sweat on his face, revealing dark brown eyes. She couldn’t help but notice how exhausted he looked. “Listen, I’m sorry I woke you up,” he said in a more conciliatory tone. “I wasn’t thinking about someone actually living here. I need to get this done while I can. Since you’re already awake, would you mind if I got back to it?”
The exhaustion that radiated from him had her softening, too. Slightly. “And you won’t show up here again at this hour?”
“I won’t show up here again at this hour.”
“Fine.” He treated himself to another good look at her barely covered body before he stalked back to his Sherman tank of a lawn mower and fired up the beast.
Damn, that thing was loud! Jenny covered her ears and headed into the lighthouse, kicking the door shut behind her because that made her feel like she’d gotten the last word on the matter. She went up the spiral stairs to the kitchen and poured a glass of ice water that she ran over her face, hoping to cool her fevered skin. This heat was unbelievable and heading into another day with no end in sight.
Trying to ignore the impossible-to-ignore sound of the mower, she took the ice water with her when she went up another level to her bedroom and stretched out on the bed. She turned on her side so she could see the photo of Toby and stared at his boyish grin, wishing she could go back to sleep and return to the dream, back to the last minute in time when everything was still right in her world.
What had he said to her before he walked out of their Greenwich Village apartment into a crystal-clear September day and disappeared off the face of the earth? If only she could remember. At times over the last dozen years, she’d considered hypnosis to jog her memory, but she’d never taken it that far. The dream did this to her every time. It made her start to wonder again, which tended to set her back a few steps in the never-ending cycle of grief.
It was less raw and gritty now than it had once been, but it was always with her, as much a part of who she was as the dark blonde hair that refused to grow past her shoulders or the tiny mole next to her upper lip or the brown eyes that were too close together, in her opinion. Toby used to laugh at her inventory of “flaws.” He said she was the most beautiful creature on the planet, and he was the luckiest guy in the universe because she loved him. How exactly did one “move on” after experiencing the all-consuming love of a man like that?
She’d been trying to move on lately, accepting dates with guys her well-meaning friends had fixed her up with. So far she’d been out to dinner with the very nice—and very tall—Gansett Island fire chief, Mason Johns. They’d had a good time together, but there’d been no real spark. She almost hoped he didn’t call her for another date so she wouldn’t have to turn him down.
Linc Mercier, the Coast Guard officer who ran the local station, had called to ask her to dinner tomorrow night, and she’d accepted his kind invitation. She’d met Linc a few times through her friends Mac and Maddie McCarthy and newlyweds Tiffany and Blaine Taylor. Linc seemed like a nice enough guy, and he was certainly handsome, but again, she didn’t look at him and think, wow, the way she had the first time she met Toby at Wharton when they’d been MBA students together.