Secrets were the hardest thing to keep on an island, especially one the size of Fortune’s Island. Jillian Matheson had lived there pretty much all her life, growing up among the small population that stubbornly hung on through the brutal Cape Cod Bay winters. She’d gone to a school that was run out of a converted house, reading Big Red and learning the Pythagorean Theorem alongside the same couple dozen kids from kindergarten to graduation.
In the summer, the population of Fortune’s Island swelled, like a pregnant spider about to deliver thousands of beach-hungry babies. As soon as Labor Day drew to a close, the island emptied out, and life settled down again. After Jillian passed the craziness of her early twenties and grew up a little—okay, a lot—she found she craved the quiet, the…space. The miles of empty beach, the lazy shopping trips with shopkeepers more than happy to pass the time talking about the weather, the late mornings snuggled under the blankets while the wind blew angry breath.
It was also easier to find a quiet place to be alone, which was what had brought Jillian to the rocky outcropping at the southern end of the island today. The beach there tapered down to a smattering of sand, where sharp-edged rocks married each other in topsy-turvy angles. Jillian knew, if she picked her way a few feet further down, she could find one large flat rock, as big as a picnic table, and high enough that the incoming tide never did much more than lick the underside of the stone.
She had spread out a blanket, then settled her acoustic guitar across her waist. She’d bought the Ibanez secondhand in a shop ten years ago, with her first official paycheck from The Love Shack, the cozy seaside restaurant her parents owned. Jillian spent hours on this rock, teaching herself how to read music, how to pick out the notes, and then finally, strumming snippets of songs. It had taken almost a year of these stolen moments against the rocky wall before Jillian had taught herself to play “Hotel California.”
She’d moved through the entire Eagles catalog, then the Beatles, then a little Led, before she got the itch to write her own songs. The first few had been the typical unrequited love/misunderstood teen bullshit most high schoolers wrote about. Like Taylor Swift with a bad attitude. But now, her music had evolved, becoming something that filled her soul, exposed the nooks and crannies that she kept hidden from the world.
This summer, she’d finally gotten serious about her dreams and, in the space of a few days, turned her life upside down and inside out. She’d broken up with Zach, her fiancé, and fired off a college application. For the past month now, she’d been taking the ferry over to Boston three mornings a week to study contemporary music composition at the Boston Conservatory. Before work, she’d steal away to her space under the rock to practice her own songs and study for her classes in music history and theory.
Music was her secret, the one thing she had never shared with her best friend Darcy, or Zach, or her brother—not even with her parents. She sat on the rock and she sang, and she held the secret close to her chest. Doing that made it seem more precious, more…hers.
The Conservatory had allowed recorded audition tapes as part of the application process, and Jillian had done just that, sitting here on her rock, letting her iPhone be the only witness to her singing. Zach would have told her to let her voice be heard, but he’d always been the more outgoing of the two of them. The one who had no problem performing in public.
Zach. He was the last person she wanted to think about. It had been almost three months since she’d given back his ring. After eight years together, he’d let her go as easily as letting the wind catch a balloon. She told herself it didn’t hurt, but it did.
So she wrote about it in songs and told herself she was okay. Totally okay.
Thunder rumbled in the sky, and dark clouds moved across the sun, casting the beach in gray shadow. Rain droplets began to sputter, falling onto the white lined paper before her. Jillian gathered up the guitar and her notepad, then climbed down the rocky path. She jogged up the sandy trail to her car, then stowed the guitar in the trunk, put the engine in gear and took a right, heading toward The Love Shack.
The skies opened up just as she turned onto the road. Her cantankerous Hyundai sputtered and coughed, but kept chugging. Jillian patted the dash. “Come on, Sylvia. Hold on for just a few more months, okay? We had a deal. You make it to February and I’ll use my tax refund to fix you up.”
The rain pounded too fast and too hard for her wipers to keep up. Puddles formed in the road, then spread a river across the rutted worn path. She should have stuck to the main road, but this way was shorter, usually faster. Sylvia shuddered, then the engine stammered. Jillian pressed on the gas, urging the car up a little hill, but the water was pouring down faster than the wheels wanted to go, and halfway up the hill, Sylvia died. Not a slow, quiet death, but a herky-jerky, coughing death spiral.
Jillian cursed and steered toward the side of the road, though the car had already stopped moving. Great. She was stuck here, on this remote road, a mile from work, in a Noah’s Ark-worthy storm. She flipped out her cell phone, and too late realized she’d forgotten to charge it.
She rooted under the front seats, hoping she’d remembered to stow her umbrella, but all she found was a few old French fries and an empty water bottle. Shit.
Guess that meant she was hoofing it. She cursed again, then got out of the car, hunching her shoulders against the downpour, though it did no good. The rain fell in sheets, soaking her hair, running like a waterfall off the end of her ponytail and down her bangs, then streaming down her face. Within seconds, her tank top and shorts were soaked, and her sneakers were sodden. She was cold and wet and pissed off. It was going to be one hell of a long mile.
She broke into a light jog, though for Jillian, about the only running she did was between the kitchen and the dining room at work. She heard the low rumble of an engine behind her, and spun around, thrusting out a thumb. On the mainland she wouldn’t hitchhike, but here on Fortune’s Island, she knew pretty much every single soul.
Almost as soon as she put out her thumb, she put it back down. The low, dark Mustang was one she knew well. As well as she knew its driver.
Jillian spun back toward the road and kept on running. With any luck, Zach would drive right past her. Didn’t he understand that she just didn’t have the energy to deal with him? That every time she saw him, it still hurt like hell?
Just keep driving. Just keep driving.
The car drew up alongside her, and she heard the whine of the power window going down. Damn it.
“Jillian! What are you doing out here?” Zach called to her.
She kept on jogging, never even flicking a glance in his direction. The rain poured into her eyes, made her blink furiously so she wouldn’t trip. “Going to work.”
She scowled. “Thanks for the weather report.”
“Come on, Jillian, get in. Don’t be stubborn.” His voice dropped into those soft, cajoling tones that had always melted her resolve before.
“I don’t want a ride from you.” She kept on going, swiping the rain off her forehead, slicking back her bangs. Her sneakers squished with every step, and she was pretty sure her shorts had gained five pounds of water.
“You’re getting soaked. You’ll get sick.”
“That’s just an old wives’ tale.” She stepped up her pace, even though the car could easily pass her. She wanted to be there already, to see the sign for The Love Shack come into view so she could duck inside and not have this conversation. Maybe she was being childish, but she didn’t care. “Just go wherever you’re going, Zach. I’m fine.”
“You’re drenched. You’re cold. And you’re being an idiot.” He let out a gust. “Get in the car, Jillian. Please.”
She stopped running and pivoted toward the open window. Zach was leaning across the inside of the car, his arm draped over the passenger’s seat. He had big brown eyes, the kind that reminded her of a strong cup of coffee, and a lean, tall frame that still caused her pulse to race. He was smiling at her, that smile she never used to be able to resist, and for some reason, that just made her madder. Like he thought a grin could change everything. “I don’t need you or your car, Zach. Just leave me alone.”
“Don’t Jillian me. And don’t call me an idiot, not when you are the biggest idiot on this island.” All the frustration and anger she’d been bottling up for the past few months spewed to the surface. “I am done letting you talk me into anything again, Zach. And especially done with getting close to you. I don’t care if I’m walking in a hurricane, I don’t need or want a ride from you. Or anything else. Ever again.”
“You’re not letting me talk you into anything, Jillian. For God’s sake, you’re barely talking to me at all.”
She threw up her hands. “That’s what broken up means, Zach. It means I’m no longer at your beck and call, when you want to crash somewhere at two in the morning or bitch about the band over coffee. It means I’ve moved on, and so should you.” She’d done no such moving on in terms of dating, but he didn’t need to know that.
She wanted to move on, she really did. She wanted to forget about Zach, forget they had ever dated, act like the last eight years hadn’t happened. But it was impossible. Her every memory was so entwined with him. Every store she passed, every restaurant she saw, every corner of her apartment, had something attached to Zach. All she wanted was detachment, and that was pretty damned hard considering she saw him four days a week at The Love Shack and he lived less than a mile from her apartment.
That was part of what had pushed her to enroll at the Conservatory. She’d needed new faces, new places, new memories. A world that didn’t center around Zach. The only problem? Going to a music school to forget about dating a musician was pretty much the most masochistic thing she could have done.
“Jillian, just get in the car,” Zach said. His dark hair was a little long, dusting along the collar of his T-shirt. She almost reminded him to make an appointment with Saul, the island barber. When they’d been dating, Zach would get so involved with his music that he’d forget to eat, or forget to shave. She used to think it was cute that she had to remind him to get a haircut. But eventually she realized it just meant his music was more important than anything else. Including her.
“Come on,” he said now. “I’ll give you a ride to work.”
He hadn’t answered her point about moving on. Because he already had? Or because he hadn’t listened? And why did she care? They were over, done, and just because seeing his face made her heart hurt, didn’t mean she was getting back together with him anytime soon.
“I don’t need anything from you, Zach.” She repeated the words for herself as much as for him. “Not anymore.”
Then she broke into an even faster run, praying he’d leave her be and just keep going down the road. And at the same time praying that he wouldn’t.
# # #
Zach watched Jillian run down the road, in between swipes of his wipers. Her body would blur, then be clear, blur, clear. Sort of a metaphor for their relationship, he thought. Just when he’d thought he had everything figured out, she’d dropped that bombshell and broken off their engagement. Ever since, she’d wanted nothing to do with him, no matter how hard he tried to get her to talk to him.
To be honest, he had no idea how to fix what had gone wrong. Sure, things had been a little…stale with Jillian for the last few months, but he’d thought things were fine enough. They’d been dating so long, he figured maybe that was what happened. Isn’t that what those women’s magazine covers were always shouting from the checkout stand? Things like, 5 Quick Ways to Reignite the Fire, or 10 Tips to Rejuvenate Your Relationship. Maybe he should have read a few of those. Maybe it would have made a difference.
Truth be told, that staleness was part of what had paralyzed him when it came to setting a date for their wedding. It was as if putting an engagement ring on her finger had changed everything and turned them into something dull, predictable. Reading the newspaper on Sunday mornings and watching CSI on Tuesday nights and having the same conversations about the same topics, day after day. All of the fun they’d had when they’d first met eight years ago had slowly evaporated, like a slow leak in a tire.
He’d told himself their breakup was for the best, but then every time he saw her, something ached deep inside of him. Like he’d lost an arm or a leg. He’d roll over at night and find a cold, empty space in his bed. Pick up his phone and see no messages, no texts. Walk into The Love Shack to play his set, and she’d be turned away, talking to someone else, barely noticing him the entire night. The more time passed, the worse it got, as if his heart was slow to realize what he had lost.
And now, she was doing this stubborn thing, running in the rain, instead of riding with him. He kept the car at a crawl, staying right behind her, but she never slowed, never even looked back, even though the rain was almost a straight sheet down on her.
Ah, Jillian. So stubborn and beautiful. The only woman he had ever met who could call him on his bullshit.
She’d known everything about him—well, almost everything. Maybe if he’d been more honest with her from day one, things would have been different. But it was as if he had dug a hole the first time he’d met her, and instead of climbing out of it, he’d just dug deeper. Some psychiatrist would probably say the lies he had told had built a wall between them, one that slowly eroded whatever foundation they’d had. Zach was pretty sure that was all bullshit, but still…he wondered. And regretted.
Jillian kept up her steady pace, ignoring his car behind her. God, she was beautiful, even when she was pissed. Lean and fit, with caramel colored hair and dark green eyes. Jillian had a smile that could turn him inside out. It had been a long damned time, though, since she’d smiled at him like that.
He thought of her hands, of the gentle touch she had, the way she could calm him and thrill him, all at once. That was what he’d noticed first about her, when he’d met her all those years ago. Her hands, delicate yet strong, holding an ice cream cone.
He’d been on Fortune’s Island on spring break with his parents, the one and only family vacation the Giffords had ever taken. The vacation itself had been a mistake almost from the start. Fights and recriminations, slammed doors and silent treatments—all Zach wanted to do was escape. His older brother Keith had found a group of teens on the northern part of the island, and only returned to the rental cottage to change his clothes or grab a bite to eat. That had left Zach to fend for himself.
He’d gone to the ice cream shop downtown and seen Jillian sitting at the counter, holding a double scoop chocolate cone. Seventeen-year-old Zach thought she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. She’d been laughing with a girlfriend, her laughter bold and brash and intoxicating.
It took him a week to work up the courage to talk to her. He’d seen her again at the beach, playing volleyball. Like a dork, he used the excuse of retrieving a wayward ball as a reason to go up to her. She laughed when he said something about the way she spiked it, and then she smiled. The next thing he knew, he was blurting out, “Will you go out with me?”
That was it. He’d been hooked ever since. They’d been inseparable that summer, then did the across-the-bay distance thing with phone calls and letters and occasional visits before he made the move over to the island a couple years later. It had taken him some time doing construction and landscaping work before he’d finally landed a regular gig with the band. Finally had some money in his pocket—enough to buy Jillian an engagement ring. Her surprised, breathy yes had been the best word he’d ever heard. He’d thought they would last forever. Turned out they had an expiration date.
Eight years together, and wham, she was done with him.
Zach slowed the car and rolled down the window. Rain fell inside and puddled on the leather seat. “Jillian, please let me give you a ride. We can talk, like we used to.”
She shook her head. “We didn’t used to talk. That was half the problem.”
“Then let’s talk now. We can—”
“Stop, Zach. Just stop.” The entrance for The Love Shack appeared before them. Jillian shook her head, then turned down the drive for the restaurant and sprinted inside.
Zach parked in the lot, but didn’t turn off the Mustang right away. The rain pounded on the roof of his car, keeping the beat with the classic rock playing on the stereo. He had no reason to be at The Love Shack tonight. It was a Tuesday, a slow night, which meant the band wasn’t needed. He should get out of here, run over to practice at Duff’s house. The Outsiders had been together for three years now, and they were just starting to hit their stride. A lot of good things were coming on the horizon, things Zach had put together, and things he wanted to share with Jillian.
But she wasn’t his anymore. Wasn’t there to listen to his stories or cheer him up when a gig fell through or the band squabbled. He missed her, damn it.
Another car pulled in the lot and an older couple who came in almost every night for the early bird specials got out. The gray-haired husband unfurled an umbrella, then wrapped an arm around his wife and the two of them headed inside, arm in arm. For a second, Zach wondered if that was how Jillian and he would have been, forty, fifty years down the road. If she hadn’t broken up with him, that is. Zach lingered a little longer, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, debating.
The rain didn’t stop, and Jillian didn’t come back out, and nothing changed. Zach told himself it was about time he stopped thinking about the impossible and started concentrating on the future. A future that didn’t contain Jillian Matheson. Not anymore.
He put the car in gear and headed out of the lot. Once, he checked the rearview mirror to see if she’d come outside after all, but the rain had obscured his view. Again.