When Currie reached her art studio, she found Trisha Hadley and Mandy Yorke deep in conversation. Trisha, who’d just put her mother in a nursing home, taught pre-school, and Mandy, who’d lost a breast to cancer, taught phys. ed. Currie had noticed that whenever two teachers discovered one another, they had lots to talk about. She was surprised to see Russ Smith, seventy-one and recently widowed, and Avery Ritter, the super brain, sitting at a table, waiting her arrival.
“Good morning,” she greeted her guests. She got straight to the point of explaining their options. “For the first week, I usually teach drawing,” she explained. “I move from that to watercolors for the second week, oils for the third, and lithographs for the last, but there’s no set schedule. We can do whatever interests you. I’m flexible.”
Russ turned red, embarrassed to call attention to himself, but building up his courage. “I noticed you have pottery wheels in here. I was wondering. . .” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
“We have a wonderful supply of clay on the island,” Currie said. “And plenty of wheels. Anyone who’s interested can try them.”
“I’ve never done it before,” Russ said. “My wife was good at it.”
“That’s the nice thing about clay. If it doesn’t work out the first time, you mush it into a ball and try again. And I’m here to teach you the basics and get you started.” She looked at the other three. “What about you?”
Avery said, “My project for the month is to list all of the species on the island, but I’d like to be able to sketch them too--like Audubon did his birds.”
“Have you had any classes before?”
“I doodled cartoons when I was a teenager and was pretty good at it, took some art in college, but my dad thought I should go into something that would make real money.”
“Then you’ll probably pick up sketching fast,” Currie said. “And you two?”
“We’d like to try a little bit of everything,” Trisha said.
“Perfect. Then let’s get started. I’ll teach the basics of drawing so you three can sketch the still life on the table here, and then I’ll work with Russ on the pottery wheels for a while.”
“Can we try those too?” Trisha asked.
“Sure, this is all about doing your own thing.”
The hour-and-a-half class flew by. Currie stayed longer than she should have, so that she had to hurry to the kitchen to start lunch. When she passed Brie’s office, she noticed that Frank Maples was there, going over figures with her sister. Brie took each guest who’d signed up for financial advice and gave them personal time and attention. Frank came to the island because his son had been sent to prison after a long string of run-ins with the law. The “boy”--now twenty-six--had a serious drug problem and resorted to theft to pay for his habit. Frank spent his life savings paying for lawyers and rehab centers to help him, but nothing worked.
When Currie did his caricature, Frank chose an Amish work horse for his drawing’s body. “I’m a plodder,” he told her. “I’m not fast and smart, but I’m steady.” He was one of Saffron’s clients. “His wife’s falling apart, and his son and daughter won’t even visit their brother in prison. The poor guy needs some inner healing,” she said. “He’s not the yoga type. That’s why I assigned him to the fish hatchery and farm.”
“Good idea. When we can’t help someone, the island usually does,” Currie agreed. But right at the moment, she didn’t have time to worry about Frank. She was needed in the kitchen, and pronto!
Thora was already busy when Currie hurried in. “What did we put on the menu for today?” Currie asked.
“Slow down. We’re in good shape--shrimp bisque and wild mushroom soup. I’ve already got a good start on the salad, and we decided on cucumber and egg salad sandwiches instead of breadsticks today.”
Currie took a deep breath to calm herself and shift gears. A huge pile of mushrooms lay on the counter top. “Bless Emeralda--they’re gorgeous. Did she leave already?”
“She went to check on your dad’s willow.” Thora smiled. “AND to check out the firefighter.”
Currie could understand why. There was something about Ward Darrow that was deeply attractive. She found herself glancing out the windows at him more than she should. Maybe it was because she’d just lost her father, and Ward’s thick black hair and solid build reminded her of Samuel. That had to be it, she decided, because she’d never been attracted to a mortal before. It must be part of her grief process, this need to attach herself to someone, to ease the feeling of separation and loss.
“Are you back? I lost you for a minute there,” Thora said.
Currie jerked her concentration to the task at hand. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
Thora studied her friend. “I see that she’s not the only one who’s noticed that our firefighter can turn on the heat.”
“Quit it. I’m not ready for any complications in my life,” Currie said.
Thora grinned. “How about a distraction then?”
They didn’t have much more time to gossip. They needed to hustle to have the food on the buffet table by the time the guests straggled into the dining room at noon.
Russ and Della arrived early. “Need to rest our weary bones,” Della said. The women drifted in next, and Frank came late. “Sorry, time got away from me,” he explained. Currie was refilling the lemonade pitcher when Price waved her to their table. He wasn’t his usual immaculately groomed self. He had dirt on his jeans, and his brown hair looked tousled. “Sit with us again, will you?”
She grabbed her plate and went to join Ward, Price, and Ted. Funny, she thought, how guests formed a pattern of eating at the same table with the same people most days.
“We talked among ourselves,” Price said, “and we told you a little about our lives, but we don’t know a thing about you.”
She’d expected this. It almost always happened--part of bonding, she guessed. “What do you want to know?”
“Where did you grow up?” Price asked.
“Here, on the island.”
“Where did you go to school?”
Price shook his head. “I’ve seen a lot of nature trails, but I haven’t seen a school. No kids are running around. No yellow busses. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen any other people but the handful of you who run this retreat.”
“We’re it,” Currie said.
Ward frowned at her. “How many are there? I’ve seen five, but there have to be more people to run the whole island.”
“Because. . .” He faltered for words. “It would get lonely.”
“Our mom visits once in a while.”
“What about a dad?” Ted asked.
Currie could feel her face go stiff, closing up. “He died three weeks ago.”
“Sorry.” Ward spoke first.
“Was it a disease?” Price asked. “You’re so young, your dad couldn’t have been very old.”
“He didn’t have me until he was older than most parents,” Currie said. It was the truth, and it explained enough to satisfy most people.
“And your mom?” Ward asked.
“She’s one of those women who are ageless.”
“How’s she dealing with your dad’s death?”
“She’s keeping herself extra busy.”
Price shook his head. “Your dad just died and your mom left you guys on this island to run the retreat by yourselves? She sounds worse than my mom was.”
“Mom’s always had to travel. We’re used to it. And we’ve run the retreat for a long time now.”
Ward’s frown deepened. “You’re kidding. How old were you when you started?”
A good question to sidestep. “Dad was here to help us in the beginning. He kept us on track. We have our routine now.”
“That’s a lot of responsibility for five young girls.”
“I wish my sons were as responsible as you girls are,” Ted grumped.
Currie smiled. “They still work with you, don’t they? And I bet you’re no picnic.”
Price laughed. “The man’s a slave driver. He’s sitting on an earthmover and wants me to be able to rake as fast as he can drive.”
Ted’s scowl softened. “I can be a little demanding.”
“A little?” Price shook his head. “If you ask me, your sons have to be the decent sort, or they’d have left you to work for a competitor.”
“What?” But Ted’s outrage faded quickly. “That’s what my wife tells me too.”
“Maybe you should listen once in a while,” Price said.
But Ward’s curiosity wasn’t satisfied. “Are all five of you girls sisters?”
“No, Saffron and Brie are my older sisters. Thora and Emeralda are cousins.” It was the simplest explanation that Currie had found.
“But none of you look alike,” Ward said.
“Yeah, what did your mom do, play around with every milkman who stopped on the island?” Price pointed at each of them in turn. “You’re a brunette, Brie’s golden blond, and Saffron’s a redhead. Thora’s platinum, and Emeralda..” His voice went soft. “She’s a knock out. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Emeralda had black hair, moss green eyes, and an olive complexion. Once again, Currie realized how much having younger men come to the island created complications.
“Careful, boy,” Ted warned. “You’re on the rebound right now. You’ve just lost your girl and you’re hurting.”
“We don’t encourage romances on the island,” Currie said. “You’re emotionally raw when you come here for one reason or another. You don’t need any added distractions.”
Distractions--the word that Thora used for her attraction to Ward.
Ward, for his part, returned to their earlier subject, sinking his teeth into it like a bulldog. “Whether you can run the retreat by yourselves or not isn’t the biggest problem. You need a man, or better yet, men on the island. It’s not safe to leave five girls on their own when a ferry load of strangers--all of them with problems--come for a month. You don’t know any of us, not really. It’s just irresponsible and dangerous.”
“That’s the fireman in you talking,” Ted said.
“No, it’s from years of listening to my dad, the cop. There are too many people who are just plain crazy or violent to have five girls--stranded on an island--deal with a dozen people they don’t know.”
“We’ve never had a problem,” Currie said. “We study your profiles before you come. We specialize in healing.”
“Not good enough,” Ward said. “This time, you have a handful of strong, able-bodied men, and hopefully, most of us are decent human beings, so if something goes wrong, you can call for help. But what’s the balance most of the time?”
“This is the first time my dad hasn’t been here for us. And we intend to invite another man on the island. But three weeks after his death is too soon.”
“You should have cancelled this retreat or rescheduled.”
“Everything was ready, and like you said, we had a nice balance of people.” She couldn’t tell him what she really thought, that nymphs and sprites had nothing to fear from mere mortals. But Ward brought up a worry she’d never considered before. What if someone attacked or hurt one of their guests? How would she and her sisters deal with that?
When Ward opened his mouth to argue more, she stopped him. “Quit it! My dad died, and I’m having enough trouble dealing with that. It helps to keep busy.”
Ward studied her, and she squirmed under his intense gaze. “Fair enough, but before your next retreat, seriously think about having someone else on the island, someone who can protect you.”
Protect her? She hardly needed that. But she nodded to pacify him.
“Did you ever think of becoming a cop?” Price asked Ward.
“No. I see enough heart attacks and heartache as a fireman. I couldn’t handle all of the things my dad’s dealt with.”
“Yes, you could,” Ted said. “You strike me as rock solid. But why would you want to? Your dad probably didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed up. You heard it all growing up.”
“I bet your dad was good at his job,” Price said.
“Bet you’re good too.”
“I wasn’t good enough.” Ward’s voice was harsh. He pushed himself to his feet and took his dirty dishes to the kitchen window.
“I think I hit a sore spot.” Price looked at Currie.
“That man wants to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Ted said, watching him. “My older son’s like that, always covering for his little brother. Thing is, you can’t do it all.”
“Who’d want to?” Price winced as he got to his feet. “It’s hard enough to save your own skin.”
“A little stiff, boy?” Ted asked, standing too.
“You sat on your ass, old man. I was the one doing the heavy work, remember?”
Ted laughed as they walked to the kitchen window together. “Better rest up after lunch. Maybe go for a swim. You need to loosen those muscles for more work tomorrow morning.”
Currie watched them leave before she went to the kitchen. She needed to prep for her afternoon cooking class, but she couldn’t help looking out the wide expanse of windows to see what Ward was doing. He was sitting under her father’s willow tree, staring across the lake. Her heart clutched. He reminded her so much of her father that sometimes it hurt. But it wasn’t just pain she felt when she looked at him. What was it that drew her to this man? As she turned her attention back to the kitchen, Emeralda left the woods and crossed the meadow to sit beside Ward, and a tiny jab of jealousy pricked Currie’s heart. It startled her. She’d never felt jealousy before, and she didn’t think she liked it.