A screeching eagle soared in the blue sky overhead causing Elisabeth "Sunny" Lerner to pause. She shielded her eyes against the sun, watching the bird float effortlessly through the air. Sighing, Sunny lifted her bags and mounted the stairs that led to an apartment above a garage. Using the key she'd received in the mail only a week earlier, she unlocked the door and stepped inside. She dropped her bags near the door, allowing her eyes to adjust to the lack of light.
Shrugging, she crossed the room to the drab brown drapes that covered a large window. Sweeping them aside, she gasped at the view. Boats in the harbor bobbed on the mild waves while beyond, the great Bering Sea stretched for as far as the eye could see.
"Excellent," Sunny hissed as she folded her arms over her chest and gawked, the rest of the apartment temporarily forgotten.
The apartment above the garage, as well as the house it was attached to, belonged to Jim Candel. In addition, Jim owned a tavern one block off the harbor (and only seven blocks from his home) called the Ice Breaker. The tavern was popular among the fishing crews, captains, and even the employees of the processing plant. Not only had Jim offered Sunny a lease on the apartment, but he'd given her a job tending bar and waiting tables at the tavern. Jim had been a friend to the Lerner family for as long as Sunny could remember. Such a good friend was he that Sunny's parents named him her godfather. And she totally adored him.
Glancing at her watch, Sunny swore. She tore her eyes from the view in order to contemplate the bags near the door. She hadn't brought a whole lot as she'd decided she'd take only what she needed. Once she earned some money and settled into her new life, she'd buy whatever she wanted.
Independence was bliss.
Ignoring her bags, she sauntered to the middle of the room so she could survey her new dwelling. The apartment was small as it was merely a studio, but it would work for her. She wasn't into frills.
The combined living room and kitchen were already furnished with what looked like a secondhand sofa, recliner, and round table. The walls were paneled, reminding her of Brady Bunch episodes on meTV. She shivered at the thought, glancing toward the kitchenette area as if Alice would appear bearing a casserole.
Two three-tiered screens cordoned off a corner. Curious, Sunny peeked around one of them and found a narrow bed with a pink comforter and pillow on top. She grinned – Gayle had to be responsible for the girly color. Next to the bed sat a small nightstand with a simple alarm clock and lamp. Nothing fancy which was just perfect.
She scratched her head as she wondered where she was supposed to store her clothes but the answer came to her immediately. The television, which at least looked as if it had been purchased sometime in the past five years, was resting on top of a low, long dresser with six deep drawers.
"Hurray," she muttered as she rolled her eyes. She shrugged in a careless fashion and dragged her bags closer. She wasn't too concerned – it's not like she would be sharing her space with anyone and would have to worry about privacy.
That thought brought a smile to her face. She hummed as she unpacked, her heart light and happy.
When she finished, she ran to the bathroom to freshen up. The bathroom, at least, was white with a blue shower curtain, blue trash can, and blue toothbrush holder to add a little color. She liked it – especially when she peeked behind the curtain and found a clean bathtub. Bubble baths were not something she was willing to sacrifice.
Refreshed, she left the apartment. Practically skipping down the stairs, Sunny paused at the front door of the house, ringing the bell. She frowned, shifting from foot to foot, but no one answered. She figured Jim was more than likely at the tavern waiting for her, but she'd wanted to at least say a quick hello to Gayle before running to the bar. Sighing, she shrugged inside her yellow jacket and jogged down the walk.
She fought the urge to skip as she entered the small downtown area, already feeling as if the people hurrying from shop to shop were eyeing her suspiciously.
"Oh, well," she mumbled under her breath. Eagle Harbor, Alaska was nothing more than a map dot of a town, certainly not used to strangers. Although Sunny had been born and raised in Eagle Harbor, returning home hadn't been quite was she had been expecting. She was feeling like a stranger. Her mother had moved her and her brother, Max, to Indiana almost ten years ago, after the accident. The time away hadn't changed her love for her hometown – but perhaps it had changed the town's feelings toward her.
Blowing a puff of air at her hair, she shoved thoughts of the accident out of her head. She was here to start a new life, not live in the past. She'd dreamt of returning home since she was twelve years old, trying to fit into rural Indiana life. She'd hated the flat land and the corn fields. She'd wanted to look out her window and see breathtaking landscape.
She reached a squat brick building with high windows and plenty of neon signs. As soon as she opened the door, a cloud of smoke rushed toward the fresh air. Sunny squinted as she stepped inside, her eyes hungrily eating all the sights. She remembered as a child walking past the tavern, wondering what it was like inside. Now that she was getting her chance, she was sorely disappointed. It was pretty much like every bar or pub she'd gone to since she'd celebrated her twenty-first birthday three months earlier.
The Ice Breaker was large. A bar stretched across one wall, shelves of liquor behind it. A row of six booths sat directly across from the bar with ten square tables taking up the space in between them. Two dart boards and a jukebox were positioned between a door to the kitchen and the doors to the restrooms, although all were quiet. It was still early afternoon and only a few patrons were at the bar, nursing drinks.
"There's my Sunny girl!" someone exclaimed from behind the bar.
Sunny jerked her head toward the voice, a smile bursting out on her lips. A lanky man with thinning gray hair and a weathered but gentle face scurried toward her, arms outstretched.
"Jim," she said as she accepted his embrace. She closed her eyes, inhaling his scent. A lingering smell of tobacco and salt water clung to his clothes, reminding her of her father. "Thank you for everything."
He kissed the top of her head before releasing her to smile warmly. "Anything for you, Sunny girl."
"So, this is the place, huh?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, taking her hand. "Come on, let me show you around."
He gave her a quick tour of the building, obvious pride in his voice. She wasn't overly impressed, but the place was clean and appeared to have been updated within the last decade.
"I need you to start the day after tomorrow," Jim said apologetically. "I'd love to give you a little more time to settle in, but I'm short-handed."
"I understand," Sunny said as she took a seat on a stool. Jim took his spot behind the bar and served her a soft drink. "Besides, I didn't bring much with me. I've already unpacked."
His smiled widened. "You never were one of those … high maintenance types of girls."
She scrunched up her nose. "No, not really."
"That's a good thing," he laughed. He waved the girl tending bar over to introduce her. "This is Robin, the bar manager. She'll mostly work days but once in awhile she may work a night shift."
Sunny smiled at the other woman who looked to be in her mid thirties. Her skin was smooth and her brown eyes friendly. Sunny had a feeling she'd get along with her just fine.
"You'll work mostly with Mef and Amanda," Jim continued. "They're about your age so I'm sure you ladies will get along just fine."
Sunny nodded, silently agreeing. Sure, she'd get along perfectly with the other 'ladies', as long as they realized that just because she was new and perhaps a little deficient in the height department, didn't make her a pushover. She wasn't about to let them shove the unwanted, dirty jobs on her just because she was the rookie. She'd been that route too many times.
"Gayle went shopping today," Jim said. "She wants to make a big supper for your first night home. What do you say?"
A wide smile curled Sunny's lips. "I say I'd be an idiot to turn down a home-cooked meal – especially if Gayle's doing the cooking!"
Elias Sloane leapt from the boat to the dock and stretched his right arm high above his head. He rubbed his shoulder, working the aching muscles loose, before dropping his arm back to his side.
"Do you want to run over to the Ice Breaker to grab a beer before we head home?" Noah Sloane asked his older brother.
Eli dug the heels of his hands into his weary eyes. "Dude, I'm exhausted. If I drink one beer I'm liable to pass out at the table."
Noah snorted, a sly smile crossing his lips. "For a guy who's only twenty-three, you sure moan and groan like you're old."
Eli smirked, draping an arm around his brother's shoulders. "And for someone who is twenty-one, you sure cry and whine like a baby."
"Bite me," Noah said as he shook his brother's arms off. "Come on – the other guys are supposed to be there."
"Haven't you had enough of them yet?" Eli asked half in jest. "Fishing every day until dark? And next week, we'll all be stuck together twenty-four seven, when king crab season starts."
Noah shrugged. "We have a few days off – let's celebrate."
Eli grunted but followed his brother to the Ice Breaker. He'd have a few with the crew before taking his tired butt home.
As they entered, they both waved to Mef, the frizzy-haired bartender, and shouted out a greeting. Mef returned the greeting vaguely as she loaded a tray for a new waitress Eli couldn't remember ever seeing.
He eyed the new girl as he made his way to a table near the back. Big Ed, Teddy, and Merv – the crew of his father's boat, the F/V Polar Bandit – were pouring beer from plastic pitchers into glasses. Eli slipped off his coat, draped it on a chair, and then sat, still puzzling over the new girl.
Noah, too, had noticed the girl. He watched her curiously as he removed his coat. Suddenly, his face lit up and he smiled. "Oh, hell no! That can't be her!"
"You talking about the new girl?" Teddy asked. He grinned, his blue eyes shining in the overhead light. "She's a cute little thing, isn't she?"
Eli glanced over his shoulder as the girl carried a heavy tray to a booth. She was small – petite but with a nice figure – long blonde hair in a ponytail trailing down her back.
"Do you know her, bro?" Eli asked, nodding his head in the girl's direction.
"I think so," Noah said, his brows furrowed. He stood behind his chair, watching as the girl placed drinks in front of a booth full of people. When she finished, she turned their way, making Noah's face relax into a grin. "I do know her."
Noah strode across the room to take the girl's arm. She smiled, set her empty tray on a table, and threw her arms around Noah's neck. Eli narrowed his eyes as he scanned the girl's face, noting the familiarity.
"Hey, do you guys remember Sunny?" Noah asked as he led the girl to their table. "She used to live here years ago but moved away with her mom and brother."
Eli's blood turned to ice as the name rang a bell. Sunny Lerner. Her father was Jason Lerner, captain of the F/V Mystique, the only boat native to Eagle Harbor to ever go down.
"Sunny Lerner," Noah continued as he introduced her to the crew. He pointed at Eli last. "You remember my brother, Eli, right?"
Sunny's face darkened as she forced a smile. She nodded. "Sure, I remember Eli."
"You're back, huh?" Eli said as he lifted his beer glass.
"It would appear so," she said.
He grunted as he hunched over the table, having no desire to talk to the girl. Sure, he remembered her. She used to be in Noah's class back when they were in grammar school. They'd been friends – hanging out at the playground or near the harbor. Sunny had always been the tomboy type, able to compete with Noah's little group of friends in damn near everything, but after the accident, she'd changed.
"When did you get back?" Noah asked, obviously excited to see his school friend again.
"A few days ago," Sunny said, a frown pulling at her lips. "Jim Candel offered me a job here so I took it. I was tired of Indiana and just wanted to come home."
"I don't blame you," Noah said. "Sit down – have a beer."
"Thanks but I can't," she said with a pained smile. "I have to work. But we'll have to get together and catch up soon."
"Sure," Noah said. Sunny waved as she sauntered over to the other tables to check on her customers.
"Damn, Noah," Teddy grinned. "You got a thing for her or what?"
"No," Noah said, a scarlet blush creeping over his cheeks. "She and I were friends when we were in school. Besides, I have a girlfriend."
"How could we forget," Big Ed said, rolling his eyes. He cleared his throat and spoke in a high falsetto. "Oh, Noah! I miss you, you studly piece of man meat."
Noah's blush intensified. "Shut up."
Merv and Teddy jumped in, taunting Noah about his obsessive texting while out at sea. Eli didn't participate – he was far too busy keeping a discreet eye on Sunny. The tenth anniversary of the sinking of the Mystique was quickly approaching and he had a funny feeling she'd come home for that. He only hoped she had nothing planned to commemorate the event as the town didn't need to be reminded of the tragedy – and neither did his mother.
Yeah, he'd watch her as closely as he could. There was no way in hell he'd let that little slip of a girl do anything to hurt his mother.
A/N: Check me out! Posting twice in a day. I gotta do something to stay awake at work (shh! don't tell my boss).
I don't have the next chapter of this finished yet so I haven't a clue when I'll post again. But let me know what you think.