Currie and Thora were on edge the next morning while they worked. Even Brent noticed it. “What’s the deal? Do I have bad breath or have I offended you somehow?”
“I’m sorry,” Thora said. “It’s not you. The truth is, we’re both worried.”
“That something bad’s going to happen again. It’s almost like we can feel the tension mounting.”
“No way,” Brent said. “Our psycho would have to be nuts to try again. He’s covered his ass with poor Em. If he can sweat out eight more days, he’s home free.”
“But he couldn’t sweat it out before. I’m not convinced he can do it now,” Currie said, taking homemade granola from the oven to make room for crescent rolls.
“So what are you going to do?” Brent asked. “Stand at the head of the dining room and make us raise our hands for a hall pass before we leave?”
“That happened to you, didn’t it?” Thora asked, giving him a playful nudge. “I bet you were a pain in the neck as a kid.”
Brent grinned. “My teachers did have a special conference with my parents most years, suggesting military school as a good option.”
Thora laughed. “You were that bad?”
“Never bad,” Brent protested. “I never did anything mean. I just couldn’t mind my own business and shut up--two of the prime talents needed for being a good student.”
Thora shook her head. “Did your parents celebrate when you graduated?”
“My parents have always been my biggest fans. They knew that the school system didn’t see my full potential. They believed in me.”
“And I bet they’re proud of you now,” Currie said.
“Not this last year, but they will be when I come off this island with my head out of my ass.” Currie blinked, and Brent laughed. “Okay, vulgar, but true,” he said. “They love Claire and her boys. I love Claire and her boys. A win/win situation.”
They didn’t have any more time to talk and loaded the last tray on the buffet table while the guests lined up for breakfast. The rest of the day went just as fast. It wasn’t until supper time that Currie finally sat down and had a chance to catch her breath.
“A busy day?” Ward asked.
“Everyone’s trying to cram a little more stuff into each day since they know there’s only another week,” Currie said. “But it was a nice busy.” Teri and Leann had decided to experiment with fish roll-ups for supper while they were still with Currie. Price tried his hand at salmon on the grill, and Mandy made stuffed peppers. Currie bustled around from one station to another, helping them. The results were mixed. Price turned the salmon one time too many and lost most of it to the flames, and Teri would have liked more spice for the roll-ups, but they’d learned from experience.
Ward looked around the dining room. “There’s a nice buzz tonight. It feels good.”
The buzz lasted until the guests started to carry their dirty dishes to the pass-through to the kitchen and Russ collapsed onto a chair. When he pressed his hand to his stomach in pain, Della called, “I think Russ needs help.”
Frank’s wife went to check on him. “Are you all right?”
“No, it hurts.” Russ’ voice came in ragged bursts.
“Feels like my ulcer’s acting up.”
“Have you had problems with it lately?”
“Not for years, almost forgot about it.” Russ winced. “I’ve been drinking milk at every meal for as long as I can remember. It always did the trick.”
Sara nodded. Russ was the only person who had milk every day with his lunch and supper. “I bet these girls have something that will soothe your stomach.”
Saffron nodded. “I use a lot of herb cures. I’ll go get something that should help.”
Sara stood up and took his hand. “Let’s get you to your cabin, and I’ll stay with you a while.”
“I’ll meet you there.” Saffron hurried to get her remedies.
“I watch what I eat,” Russ said, as Frank and Ted eased him to his feet. “I stay away from anything spicy.”
Brie asked, “Would it be safer to take him to the mainland for medical care?”
Sara checked Russ’ pulse and shook her head. “He should be all right in a while. It’s a flare up and painful, but he’ll be okay.”
The men helped Russ to his cabin, and people broke into clusters to go onto the patio or back to their own cabins to talk. Currie went to the kitchen with Thora and Brent to help with clean up, and when she picked up Russ’ glass, rimmed with milk, she noticed a funny color in the bottom. She held the glass to the light to study it.
“What are you doing?” Thora asked.
“There’s something in the bottom of the glass.” She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “White pepper.” She tried to remember what Russ had eaten for dinner from the buffet. He usually didn’t eat very much. Neither did Della. And Russ was careful about what he chose. Most of the time, he couldn’t finish the small portions that he selected. She looked at the dirty dishes scattered on the counter top. A small corner of fish roll-up stuffed with sautéed vegetables and a half-eaten portion of grilled salmon caught her eye. Russ’. She bent to look at it and saw that cayenne pepper had been sprinkled to blend with the glaze on the salmon. No wonder Russ couldn’t finish his meal, and no wonder his ulcer hurt.
“Someone purposely sabotaged Russ’ food,” she said.
Thora stopped rinsing plates and stared. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Maybe it’s the only way our psycho could hurt someone,” Brent said.
“But how?” Thora asked. “We pour Russ’ milk right before everyone comes through the buffet line.”
“And set it at his seat,” Currie said. “People were in and out of the kitchen all day today. It would be easy to take off with some different peppers. We wouldn’t notice. It would be even easier to tamper with Russ’ meal. Everyone goes from table to table to visit before they settle down to eat.”
Brent raised his eyebrows. “You don’t have anything poisonous in the kitchen, do you?”
“Nothing fatal--some cleaning products.” Currie broke off when she heard Fang howl and blue jays call. She ran out the French doors and into the herb gardens.
“Where’s it coming from?” Thora asked.
“The animal nursery. I’m going.” Currie thought of a huge maple tree near the nursery she could meld with when Brent hurried to join her, but he’d only slow her down. “I have to hurry.”
“Go. We’ll catch up later,” Thora said, joining Brent.
Currie couldn’t fly on the wind when people were watching. They’d wonder how she’d disappeared, so she crossed the open field and reached the trees, out of sight, then flew to the maple. She found peanuts scattered near the edge of the clearing. Someone had tried to bribe the blue jays, and it hadn’t worked. She was hurrying to the animal pens when Saffron stepped out of the birch tree nearby. She’d flown here, too. “Are the animals okay?”
“Haven’t looked yet.” Currie ran to where Fang was pacing in front of the fox’s pen.
Saffron raised her eyebrows. “Your wolf stays here?”
“He likes the fox and Thumper.”
The sisters stopped to look inside the hollowed-out log inside the pen. When the fox saw them, he ran toward them. Saffron opened the door, and the fox jumped into Currie’s arms.
Saffron smiled. “He’s chosen you.”
“You’re the one who found him and rescued him.”
“But you’re the one who helped me cart him up the dead tree, and you’re the one who carried him to the nursery. In his mind, you saved his life. And now Fang’s saved his life again.”
“Saffron. . .” Currie felt guilty that the fox had chosen her over her sister, who was fascinated by that species.
“No worry. I have no desire for a pet. I’ll visit him at your place.”
“Our place?” Currie was surprised how easily those words slipped out. Not my place, but “our” place, the home she shared with Ward.
“He won’t feel safe here anymore,” Saffron said. “He wants to stay with you.”
“And you don’t mind?”
“Mind? I still live at the lodge. It’s no place for a wild animal.”
Currie thought about that and had to agree. She bent her head to nuzzle the fox, and it plastered itself even closer to her. Saffron was checking the other pens when worried guests hurried toward them. Ward looked at the fox and shook his head. “Your mother’s not going to like this.”
Saffron laughed. “We have two new men, and we’ve bent the rules on survival. Glad I’m going on vacation and won’t be here.”
Trisha hurried to the pens. “Is every animal all right? We need to move them. They can all come to my cabin, and I won’t leave them.”
Fang allowed Trisha to pat his head and stroke his thick fur. “Good boy. You were guarding them, weren’t you?” But when Leann and Teri came close, he bared his teeth and growled.
“We’ll respect your space,” Teri said, taking a step back.
Leann joined her. “Would he attack?”
“Not unless you pushed it,” Currie said. “He’d warn you first, and then if you kept coming, he’d snap.”
Brie and Avery were the last to come. Brie frowned. “Someone staged this. Thora told me about the pepper in Russ’ milk and food. Someone made Russ sick so that he could slip out, unnoticed, to come to the animal nursery.” She pursed her lips. “No one expected a wolf to be here on guard during the day. It’s a good thing Fang stayed.”
“So the slasher decided to risk the blue jays,” Teri said.
Currie motioned toward the peanuts. “He was hoping to bribe them.”
Leann shook her head. “Never underestimate a blue jay.”
Brie still wasn’t satisfied. “The point is, the slasher risked more than usual. And he plotted way ahead.”
“How do we keep everyone safe?” Saffron asked.
“I’m not sure we can. Maybe we should call this stay short.”
“No!” Trisha linked an arm through Teri’s. “I want to stay. I want to help Saffron train my fawn back into the wild.”
“I want to stay too.” Teri looked at Leann.
“Make it three.”
Brie sighed. “It’s too big of a risk. What if it’s not white pepper next time?”
“I’m not leaving.” Trisha crossed her arms over her breasts. “But I want the animal nursery to be better protected, and I want to take the fawn home with me.”
Saffron patted her arm. “I’ll ask another wolf to stand guard during the day, but you won’t be helping the animals by making them attached to you. I know it’s hard to care for them and let them go, but it’s better for them.”
Trisha sighed. “I know. You’re right.” She reached to touch Fang again, and he rubbed his head on her thigh as if he understood her dilemma.
When the guests left, Brie said, “I need time to think about this. We can’t just sit and wait to see if anything else bad happens. Let’s meet after lunch tomorrow in my office.”
They agreed and went their separate ways. On the walk home--with Fang, the fox, and Thumper following them-- Currie leaned into Ward and said, “I’m glad I have you.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and gave a small squeeze. “Ditto.”
“Ditto? That’s it?” Currie gave him a playful punch.
Ward lifted her off the ground and hugged her close. “I’m glad you can’t die, because I couldn’t stand losing you.”
She melted against him. “Ditto.”
He gave her a long, slow look. “I’ll live as long as I can then.”
She nodded. She didn’t want to think about losing him. Couldn’t think about it. She’d enjoy every moment she had with him.
Russ felt better the next day. He looked paler than usual, but proved his usual irascible self. By the time the sisters held their meeting in Brie’s office after lunch, the guests had settled into their usual routines.
“I just don’t get it.” Brie shuffled small stacks of papers to clear a space on her desk. “I don’t know why these people won’t leave and go home early. They wouldn’t have to pay a penny for their stay and they’d be safe.”
“This is heaven,” Avery said in answer. “You’re giving them a tiny time-out from the crush of everyday life. They want every minute of paradise they can get.”
“And they want to go home whole inside,” said Ward.
“Then we have to make sure we send all of them home in one piece.” Saffron looked out the window at the beauty of the island. “I don’t blame them for wanting to stay, but it’s our job to keep them safe.”
“Do you have any ideas on how to do that?” Brie frowned at the papers as if looking for an answer. “These are the forms they filled out to come here and the background information I found on them. You’d think there’d be SOMETHING to zero on.”
“I think we need to keep a closer eye on Price,” Ward said.
Saffron shook her head. “It can’t be him. The man fell in the pit and hurt his leg. He could have broken something. Only an idiot would fake his own accident, and Price doesn’t strike me as an idiot.”
Avery looked at Ward. “Did your dad find anything on anyone else?”
“Nothing big. Brent has too many speeding tickets, and a girl sued him for a paternity suit once, but the kid had the wrong DNA. Ted popped a guy in the nose when he was younger and had to pay a fine. He has a temper, we’ve seen that, but he doesn’t fit our slasher style in my opinion. Price seems the most likely candidate.”
“And Mandy?” Saffron asked.
“Her bark’s worse than her bite,” Thora said. “She grumps and fusses, but she has a good heart.”
“She can keep resentment alive for a long time, though,” Currie said, joining in. “She nurtures it.”
“Not really, she was ready to forgive and forget until Price opened his big mouth again,” Thora said.
Ward leaned toward Saffron. “Price has lied to us, and that bothers me.”
“Every single person here could have lied to us.” Saffron motioned to the background checks that Brie had done for each client. “How would we know?”
“Are you getting hooked on him?” Currie asked.
“Price? Not me. He’s a control freak. Not my style. He keeps asking if I’ve ever been in love, am I happy on an island with all women, don’t I want more from my life? Anything to make me feel inadequate and needy.”
“That would have worked on Emeralda,” Thora said.
“And Lyssa at first,” Ward added.
“Well, it doesn’t cut it with me.” Saffron’s voice was firm. “I always believed Mom when she said that the wrong man was worse than no man at all.”
Currie nodded. “And Dad told us that happiness comes from within. Nothing outside can fill your needs.”
“So where does a man come in?” Avery asked.
“He doesn’t MAKE us happy,” Brie said. “He ADDS to our happiness.”
“And hopefully, we add to his.” Currie reached for Ward’s hand.
“You’ve got that right.” Ward gave her fingers a gentle squeeze before he leaned toward Saffron again. “This is my worry, though. You’re the one that Price has attached himself to, and you need to be careful.”
“I’m a nymph. He can’t hurt me.”
“What if he catches you off guard before you can meld?”
“All right, he can hurt me,” Saffron amended. “I guess he could even kill me. We don’t die, but I’m pretty sure we could be murdered.”
“I don’t even want to see you hurt.”
Saffron smiled at him. “You’re a good man, and I promise to be more careful.”
Ward’s grimace showed that he wasn’t really satisfied.
“The two people we seem the most worried about are Price and Mandy,” Saffron said. “We can’t keep an eye on either of them every minute, but the birds can. So can the wolves.”
“How?” Brie asked.
“It’s not a perfect plan, but we could have the blue jays alert us every time that Price or Mandy take off on their own, and we could have a wolf follow them.”
The others thought about that. “It’s not a bad idea,” Avery said. “It wouldn’t help with the pepper in Russ’ food, but we’d know if either of them used the commotion to slip off for the animal nursery.”
“Or the ferry,” Ward added.
Brie collected all of the forms into one pile. “Then let’s do it. There’s no use taking chances. This will help us have more control.”
“And if a bird calls, Ward can check on Price and I’ll check on Mandy,” Avery said.
“It’s about the best we can do.” Currie looked around at the others for agreement. When they nodded, she said, “Okay, then, what now?”
Brie looked at Ward. “Would you keep digging for new information? The more we know, the better.”
“He can start right after I take him into the woods to show him which mushrooms and berries are safe to pick and where to find them,” Saffron said. “But I get him first. We don’t want to make the guests sick because Ward accidentally picked the wrong thing.”
Brie gave a curt nod. “Let’s get back to work. Meeting’s adjourned.”
They knew that tone. They got to their feet and went to do their regular tasks. Thora and Currie were heading toward the kitchen together when Price came to join them. He motioned toward Saffron and Ward disappearing into the woods.
“Aren’t you jealous?” he asked.
Currie smiled. “No, she’s showing him how to do Emeralda’s job, where to find the things to pick and how to tell if they’re ripe.”
Price raised a brow. “She’d better teach him about mushrooms. I went with Em once and picked the wrong ones. Boy, did I get a lecture for that.”
“Some of them are deadly,” Thora said.
“That’s what she said.” Price nodded toward the grill by the lake. “Looks like Ward finished it.”
“Don’t get him started. He’s pretty proud of it,” Thora said. “We heard about it most of the morning. Currie found it fascinating. I wasn’t so thrilled.”
“We’re going to break it in tonight.” Currie made a mental list of the evening’s menu. “We’ll have a fun, simple supper out there to celebrate.”
Price rubbed his hands together. “More grilling for me. I’ll be an expert when I leave here.”
An expert at what? Currie wondered. Just grilling? Or were Ward’s suspicions right? Was Price honing his knife skills too? The others started to wander in for their cooking class, so she divided up the chores and pushed her worries aside as they started to prep their food.