This is an uncorrected proof copy created for the purposes of preorders. The final is with my editor.
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Hannah navigates her kayak into the inky shadows alongside an abandoned dock. The sun peaks above the horizon, transforming the night sky to shades of pink and lavender and yellow. At low tide, oysters are visible on the banks of the marsh. Shrimp flitter across the water, and egrets poke their yellow bills in the mud. An occasional bird squawk is the only sound in an otherwise silent landscape. Hannah cherishes these brief moments as the inlet comes to life around her.
Taking in a deep breath, she steadies the telephoto lens and stills her body. She passes on the green heron feeding. She has hundreds of similar images stored on her hard drive. She’s holding out for the primo shot. And she doesn’t have to wait long. An osprey flies in from the right, his clawed feet landing gear as he glides across the water before sinking them beneath the surface. She presses and continues to hold the shutter button down as the osprey emerges with a wiggling mullet gripped between his claws. The osprey careens to the left and swoops back around, coming straight toward her. The camera records his movement in a continuous stream of images.
“Show off!” she calls out to the majestic creature as he flies overhead.
She tilts her head back and lets out a woot. A shot of a lifetime. What a fabulous way to start her day.
She paddles the kayak back down the inlet creek to the floating dock at the town’s marina. Hoisting the kayak onto the rack, she slings her waterproof camera bag over her shoulder and hurries up the ramp to the boardwalk. She jogs past Shaggy’s, her favorite lowcountry seafood restaurant, and the Island Bakery, the coffee shop and cafe her mom owns and runs. She bypasses the front door—they don’t open until nine—and she goes around the corner, cutting through the alley to the back door.
“Morning, Mom!” she calls out to Birdie in the adjacent kitchen. Kicking off her wet crocks in the coatroom, she takes the stairs two at a time to their second-floor apartment. Waking Gus from his sweet dreams is the highlight of her day. Her heart melts when his pale blue eyes light up and a smile spreads across his chubby cheeks. But when she enters their bedroom, his toddler bed is empty.
“Gus, time to get ready for school.” She checks the bathroom that connects their bedroom to her mom’s, but he’s not there.
“Gus!” she calls louder, with more urgency in her tone. “Where are you? Are you hiding from me? This isn’t funny, sweetheart. You’re scaring mommy.”
With a racing heart, she conducts a quick and thorough search of the tiny apartment before flying back down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Mom! Where’s Gus? He’s not upstairs.”
Birdie looks up from the floor commercial mixer. “What do you mean? He was sleeping when I came down a half hour ago.”
“Well, he’s not there now.” Panic gripping her chest, she passes through the kitchen to the cafe. Birdie follows on her heels, and when there’s no sign of Gus in the cafe, Hannah whips out her phone. “I’m calling the police.” She’s punching in the number when Birdie’s cell rings in her apron pocket.
“It’s Max,” Birdie says and accepts the call. She listens for nanosecond. “Oh, thank God. We’ll be right there. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
“He’s with Max.” Birdie drops her phone back in her apron pocket and pulls out a set of keys.
She unlocks the front door, and they race across the small park to the Palmetto Hotel, the boutique hotel Birdie’s best friend inherited from her husband when he passed away six years ago from a sudden heart attack. Passing through the lobby, they find Max and Gus sitting together at a small table by the window in the lounge. She’s drinking coffee and he’s holding a sippy cup.
When he sees them, Gus jumps down from his chair and runs over to them. “Mama! Birdie! What’re y’all doing here?”
“We came to get you, you little devil.” Hannah scoops him up and hugs him tight. “You scared me to death. You know you’re not supposed to leave the apartment alone.”
He buries his face in her neck. “But I wanted to see Maxie.”
“Next time ask Birdie or me. We’ll bring you to see Maxie.” She presses her cheek against his blond head of curls. “Okay, little man.”
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