Amanda smiled as she watched the speedboat swoop playfully up the bay. Once it drew closer, she could make out the gleam of antique cedar and brass. A lone man sat in the cockpit, one hand on the wheel and the other trailing in the water. He leaned into the curves, grinning as the boat carved up the bay and left curls of froth and ripples in its wake.
She was sitting on a granite rock at the edge of the parking lot, and she rose for a better view as he pulled back on the throttle and aimed the powerful boat toward the nearest slip. Surely this wasn’t George Gifford. She had pictured the kayak outfitter as a rough outdoorsman piloting a dented aluminum runabout. A beard, cargo pants, and khaki jacket with a half-dozen pockets and rings.
While she’d been waiting, there had been no such boat on the bay. In fact, it being late May, there were almost no boats at all. A few luxury yachts bobbed at anchor and a couple were tied up at the docks, but most of the summer cottagers’ boats were still stored in hangars or under tarps inland, awaiting the summer cottage invasion.
Cottage season didn’t truly hit its peak in Georgian Bay until the July 1st weekend, when cottagers and tourists poured in from the crowded cities farther south to set up stakes on the spectacular islands and bays that formed its coastal fringe. Over thirty thousand islands had earned the eastern coast the distinction of the largest freshwater archipelago in the world. Although it had once been overrun by the logging and fishing industries, most of it had now reverted to nature and provided an unspoiled getaway for kayakers, campers, birdwatchers, and hikers during the long, warm summer.
In May, however, the ice was barely out, and only the most intrepid were willing to brave the mosquitoes, blackflies, and chilly winds that still swept across Lake Huron from the west. Amanda was there on a scouting expedition for her family kayaking adventure in July. She had chosen the historic cottage village of Pointe au Baril as the rendezvous point with her outfitter because it was located in a deep, protected inlet near the midpoint of the archipelago. She and Kaylee had been waiting at the village dock for George Gifford for almost at hour, and she was beginning to wonder whether she’d been stood up. She’d thrown the dog’s ball at least a hundred times, and her arm was growing numb.
On his website, George Gifford had seemed like a reliable man. His company wasn’t big and flashy, but he was a fourth-generation Georgian Bay native who had thirty years’ experience in the guiding and outfitting business. He had kayaked all over the world from the roughest Pacific seas to the most serene Ontario lakes, and he claimed to know every tree and shoal on the eastern Georgian Bay coast. She had been counting on him to help her choose the perfect itinerary for her group of eager but utterly inexperienced adventurers.
The man in the speedboat was standing now as he guided the boat into one of the slips and killed the engine. Morning sunlight glinted off his windblown hair, burnishing it to honey gold as he leaped cat-like onto the dock and tied up the boat. On the phone, George had the gravelly bass of an older man, and an internet check of his credentials had turned up a man with a steel-grey buzz cut.
Not George Gifford, then. Amanda felt a twinge of disappointment, which quickly changed to frustration. The man was nearly an hour late for their very first meeting, which didn’t bode well for his reliability during the intricate coordination of the six-day kayak trip to the offshore islands.
She sneaked a peek at her phone. No messages either. And where was Chris? Even if he was late leaving Newfoundland, he should have texted his arrival details by now. Unless he’d gotten cold feet. Not that she would blame him. He’d expressed excitement about coming on this scouting expedition, and there’d been a palpable thrum of electricity between them, but what did she really know about him? No matter how much he was in her dreams, they’d spent barely two weeks together in the past eight months, most of it dealing with crises.
The stranger stood on the dock, shielding his eyes from the sun as he scanned the parking lot. He too glanced at his phone and frowned. Kaylee, delighted at the possibility of a new playmate and oblivious to his dark mood, snatched up her ball and bounded down onto the dock to drop it at his feet.
Amanda was about to call her back when the man’s frown dissolved into a smile. “Well, what do you want?” he asked, bending to pick up the ball. Kaylee danced expectantly, and the man looked up at Amanda. “Can I throw it?”
“She’d love it!” Amanda exclaimed. The man curled back his arm and shot a beautiful high ball far up onto the road behind the parking lot. The little red dog was off like a shot, and the man laughed as he strolled up the dock.
“Beautiful dog,” he said. “It’s a Nova Scotia something, isn’t it?”
“Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Don’t worry, no one ever remembers the whole name.”
Kaylee came bouncing back to drop the ball in front of him. “Look at that focus!” he said. “Does she like the water?”
“Part mermaid! They’re bred for it. I warn you, though, she’ll retrieve until your arm falls off.”
“This is my kind of dog,” he said, bending to pick up the ball. “We just got a Lab puppy, but I think they left the brains out of the package.”
Amanda laughed. “All puppies are like that.” She tried to call Kaylee over so that she would not pester the man yet again, but the dog was too excited. “You have a beautiful boat. Is it an antique?”
“It is. It’s been in the family — well, my wife’s family — for sixty years. It’s temperamental, but it’s my favourite.” He tossed the ball again and then looked up to scan the road behind the parking lot. His frown returned. “You haven’t seen a woman and a baby anywhere around, have you?”
Amanda looked around. There was only one vehicle in the parking lot, an SUV from Michigan parked next to her lime-green motorcycle with its custom-built dog trailer. Most of the traffic that had driven by in the past hour had been contractors in pickup trucks.
“There’s construction on the highway,” she said. She’d been giving herself the same excuse for George Gifford’s delay.
He grinned. “There’s always construction on the highway.” At that moment the roar of an engine and the squeal of tires heralded the arrival of a car. They both turned expectantly just as a silver Audi slewed into the parking lot and jerked to a stop. The door was flung open and a woman leaped out. Amanda noticed the skinny white jeans and the gold wedge sandals first before taking in the mass of platinum curls, the huge sunglasses, and the cherry-red lips. Not exactly a country look.
In that instant, Amanda felt every inch of her frayed jeans, baggy T-shirt, and flip-flops. In anticipation of Chris Tymko’s arrival, she had washed her long, light-brown hair and pulled it into what she hoped was an attractive ponytail, but she’d clearly fallen well short of the mark.
“Her usual grand entrance,” the man muttered before heading up toward the car.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Cherry Lips exclaimed. “The traffic out of Toronto was insane, and I had to stop four times because —” An outraged screech from inside the car stopped her short, and she clutched her head. “Omigod, Benson, he’s been like that the whole time! He just won’t settle! I tell you, you’re a lifesaver. If it weren’t for you, I’d be murdering the kid!”
Benson strode toward the car. “Well, let’s get the little guy out.” He opened the rear door and bent inside, crooning baby talk. The woman seemed to notice Amanda for the first time. Her gaze flicked over the baggy T-shirt, and a faint frown pinched her face. Amanda tried a sympathetic smile, which the woman ignored.
Benson emerged with a baby in his arms, now miraculously quiet. He tossed the little boy into the air and then buried his face in the boy’s belly, making him burst into giggles.
“Benson, I have to go. I’m so late!” The woman opened the trunk and began to dump suitcases, half a dozen bags, a car seat, and a stroller on the ground. “If he gets colicky, push him around in the stroller.”
“We’ll take you for a motorboat ride, won’t we, Tommy?”
“Thomas. It’s Thomas.”
Benson grinned at her, and Amanda suspected they’d played this game before. “Would you like to spend a few days with Uncle Ben? And all your cousins?” He tossed the boy again before tucking him comfortably in the crook of his arm.
“And if he won’t eat, all the instructions from the doctor are in this binder here. His whole routine. He needs his routine.”
“Candy, we’ll be fine. Danielle is a miracle worker with babies. Don’t worry, go!”
“I guess you can always get Kaitlyn to help out as well. If you can get her out of bed.”
A frown flickered across his face. “She’s only fourteen, Candace.”
Candace looked about to contradict him but checked herself. She stood on tiptoe to kiss her son and then paused, her head tilted to gaze up at Benson. Her eyes softened as she touched his arm. “Thank you,” she mouthed.
He bent his head to kiss her forehead. “Have fun. Get some rest.”
Then Candace was gone with a squeal of tires and a little wave of her red-tipped fingers out the window. Benson turned toward his boat and paused to eye the mountain of luggage on the ground.