Written In the Stars

Prologue

Derek Wakefield watched James Whittaker, Esq. pull a paper from his file drawer and settle back into his chair.

In front of the lawyer’s desk, Derek stood, arms folded, scowling. It pissed him off to be so nervous. For God’s sake, it wasn’t like he was in trouble.

Yet.

“Here’s what I have so far.” James glanced up at Derek, as if he expected him not to be listening. As if. “‘Ms. Grace Cooper,’ etc., ‘Saratoga Springs, New York,’ etc. etc. Dear Ms. Cooper. As your father’s attorney, I am writing to you about an offer I think you will find intriguing. Given that your father was not a presence in your life—’”

“‘Not able to be a presence’ in her life.” Derek scowled harder. His ex-wife had prevented any hope of that. Very efficiently. One day she and his baby daughter were there. The next they weren’t.

James blinked. “Okay. ‘Given that your father was not able to be a presence in your life, his wish is—’”

“‘Dying wish.’”

James looked up. “You’re not dying.”

“I was when I thought of this.”

“Only potentially. Not now.”

“I’ll die someday.”

“We all will. Right now you’re in total remission with a good chance the cure will be permanent. That is not dying.”

Derek growled pretty much the way his dog Clancy did when he was seriously annoyed. Derek was forty-eight, but sometimes he felt like a cranky old man. Why couldn’t James get the damn stick out of his poo-bah and put in what Derek was paying him to put in? This had to be done right or there was no point writing the damn letter in the first place. “‘Dying wish’ or forget the whole thing.”

James held his gaze for several seconds, then sighed, picked up a red pen and added the word. “‘It is his dying wish—’”

“‘Was his dying wish.’ I’m not dying anymore. As you said. See? It works out.”

James pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache, which undoubtedly Derek had caused.

Yeah, boohoo.

“‘It was his dying wish to share with you the part of the world he loved most. He is offering you—’”

“No.” Derek shook his head emphatically. “‘He left to you.’”

“I can’t say that.” James’s eyes narrowed. “This isn’t a will.”

“Grace’s mother has had over a quarter century to turn her against me.” He bunched his mouth, hating having to explain himself. “If Grace thinks I’m already dead when she comes here, I’ll have time to get to know her.”

“But that’s—”

“Before I tell her the truth.”

“Derek . . .” James exhaled loudly and edited the page. “How about, ‘You are therefore entitled to a two-week all-expenses-paid vacation at the Northern Lights Retreat in Aurora, Alaska, situated on Polaris Island in Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago.’”

“No, no.” Derek was disgusted. “She isn’t going to know where that is. Just say we’re west of Prince of Wales Island on the Inside Passage.”

James didn’t even object that time. Maybe he was learning.

“‘The resort offers guided mountain hikes, kayaking, fishing and whale-watching, plus caves and an abandoned gold mine for exploration. The lodge has a beautiful library, a movie theater, exercise room with personal trainer and a spacious, comfortable lounge overlooking Aurora’s picturesque harbor. There are also a variety of classes available from yoga to wood-carving, and a massage therapist on staff. Our restaurant—’”

“‘Award-winning restaurant.’”

James pinched his nose again. “What award, now?”

“Health department.” Derek smirked. “Haven’t killed anyone yet.”

James actually cracked a smile—the poor guy needed to lighten up. Derek’s bout with leukemia had taught him to let the small stuff be, and to go after the big stuff as tenaciously as possible. Which was why he was in this damn office being hassled over every word of one of the three most important letters he’d ever write, to daughters he should have contacted decades ago, and would have if he weren’t a stubborn coward.

“How about, ‘Our Michelin- and Zagat-rated top tier restaurant, visited daily by royalty from around the world . . .’”

“Now you’ve got the hang of it.” Derek grinned at him. “Okay, I can let that one go. Plain ‘restaurant’ is fine.”

“Whew.” James went on reading: instructions on how Grace could make and pay for the necessary reservations, and whatever other legal crap he had to put in there.

Derek walked to the window and stared out at the resort he’d inherited from his father in the late 1990s, a resort he’d spent most of his last two decades renovating and expanding. For the lodge he’d chosen graceful lines of natural wood and glass that caught and reflected the morning light. Scattered around the main building like chicks around a mama hen were separate cottages available for rental. The rest of the tiny town of Aurora—all three streets of it—followed the coast around the harbor. Behind their remote speck of civilization stretched a valley separating the evergreen-blanketed peaks of Mount Eagle and Mount Hawk.

This part of his life he’d done well. He’d turned the resort around, saved it from the brink of bankruptcy, which in turn had brought Aurora back to life with new jobs and stability. This he was proud of.

The parent thing not so much.

Over his shoulder James’s printer spewed out the newly-edited letter, the first of three that Derek hoped would be catalysts for changing that sad and regretful part of his past.

If all went as planned, sometime in the near future he’d be given two precious weeks to redeem himself in the eyes of his middle daughter, Grace.

#

Grace held the Alaskan letter up, scanning it again. The content had certainly caught her attention, though she half-expected it would turn out to be a scam. When it had arrived, she’d been frantically busy with her restaurant’s failure, and not in the mood for any more complications. “Mom, I need to ask you something. About my dad.”

“God, Grace. Now? Really? Like this isn’t a difficult enough time for me?”

“I know, but this is important.”

Her mom made a sound of exasperation. “All right. What is it about the selfish pig you want to know?”

“I got this letter.” She told her mother about the offer.

Her mother gasped. “The jerk. I can’t believe he did this. After all this time.”

Grace’s eyes narrowed. “Uh, Mom? You told me Dad died when I was a girl.”

“Oh!” Her mother’s voice rose half an octave. “Well, yes, he did!”

“Then why is he dying again now?”

“How should I know why he does what he does?”

Grace took a deep breath, heart pounding. “You are not making sense.”

“I’m sorry.” Her mother started crying. “I’m so sorry, Grace.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what happened.” She spoke gently, stomach churning, which happened fairly often on the phone with her mother.

“Everything I did was to protect you. I didn’t want you trying to find him and getting hurt. He was such a bastard.”

“Okay. Okay. Shhhhh.” Grace closed her eyes, trying to figure out how she’d carve time out of this conversation to go quietly insane. Her father had been alive during most of her life, and she’d had no idea. “It’s okay. I understand.”

Katherine’s sobs gradually abated. “It was all I could think of to do. You don’t know what I went through getting you away from him.”

“I know. It was hard. You were very brave.” Still clutching the letter, Grace collapsed back onto her bed. Her mother exhausted her sometimes. A lot of the times. Lately—all of the times. “He’s apparently dead all over again now, so it’s done. I’m safe. It’s fine.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“Of course, Mom. Of course I do.” Did she? She’d have to wait until she could process the information. Certainly her father sounded like a piece of work. Bad-tempered, immature, incredibly selfish, bordering on neglectful and cruel. The only good things Mom had ever said about him were that he had a great smile, and that he loved dogs. “Back to the letter, does this sound like something he would do?”

“God yes. Exactly like him. He comes off as the hero, nobly thinking of you on his deathbed, providing you with this great vacation at the place he loved most in the world, and he never had to do a goddamn thing where you were concerned but stick his dick into my—”

“Stop. I do not need that image.” Grace shuddered and sank back onto the bed, wishing her mother understood the concept of boundaries. “As for this offer, if I go, and it’s really all-expenses paid, I could give a good try at burning through his estate.”

Her mom made a choking sound that if she hadn’t been flattened by misery would probably have been outright laughter.

Ten minutes later, Grace had calmed her enough to get off the phone, but she couldn’t make herself move. She was numb. Out of emotion. Her own disaster plus her mother’s equaled overload on their own. Now she had to cope with the fact that even though her dad sounded like a mess worth missing, she should have been able to make the choice of whether or not to have him in her life. Her mother had robbed her of that.

Who had her father been? Mom hadn’t ever even told her his name. In fact . . .

She peered at the letter again. His name wasn’t mentioned. Just “your father.” That was weird. Suspiciously weird.

Ten minutes on the Internet confirmed that James Whittaker was indeed a lawyer in Alaska, and that there were no complaints or criminal charges pending against him. There was a picture, too, and yum was all she would say about that. So he seemed legit at least.

She spent ten more minutes googling the Northern Lights Retreat. Set in the stunning Alaskan wilderness . . . in the Wakefield family for generations . . . exercise your body, your senses, your soul . . . your every need seen to . . .

Every need? That would be good.

Ten more minutes looking up reviews, all four or five-star. A fabulous vacation . . . whales up close . . . spectacular views . . . lounging in the library . . . came back rested and recharged.

Mmmm, rested and recharged.

She’d call Mr. Whittaker and sound him out. No harm in that.

He answered on the first ring, his deep voice making her a bit shivery. “Hi, Mr. Whittaker. This is Grace Cooper.”

“Yes! Ms. Cooper. Hello. Nice to hear from you.”

That was good. He knew who she was. If he’d spammed out a thousand of those letters, her name wouldn’t be familiar. “I’m calling about this letter you sent me? The one about the father I never met, out of the blue wanting to give me an Alaskan vacation?”

He made an odd sound, like he was laughing but wasn’t quite sure how it worked. “I’m sure you have questions.”

“Yes, like how do I know this isn’t on par with the Nigerian prince who wants my bank account number?”

“I understand your skepticism. This is a pretty unusual situation, to put it mildly. All I can tell you is that the offer is indeed your father’s wish . . . uh, was your father’s wish. And . . . I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“It’s not much of a loss, given that I didn’t know him.”

“I, uh . . .” He cleared his throat nervously. “Right.”

Grace rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to fake grief she didn’t feel, even if it made him uncomfortable. If he wanted real anguish, she could tell him about her restaurant. “You’re not going to try to sell me a condo while I’m there, are you?”

“There are no condos on Polaris Island.”

That was good. “And if I decide to come, I really pay nothing?”

“Not a cent. Travel, including taxi, ferry to the island, meals, whether in the resort or at area restaurants, any excursions you’d like to take when you’re here, all included. No strings.”

She sighed rapturously. “I keep thinking about the line I saw in Dear Abby, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’”

“I understand your concern. All I can do is tell you that this is an entirely legitimate offer, exactly as it seems to be. I knew your father and can vouch for his integrity in this matter. But ultimately of course it’s your decision.”

“Thanks.” She decided he didn’t sound that attractive after all. Kind of dorky. “How long do I have?”

“As long as you want. The offer stands.”

“Hmm.” She held out her arm, then let it smack down. No idea how she was going to decide this one. “Thanks for your—wait, one more thing. Mom never told me my father’s name, and your letter doesn’t mention it either.”

“Oh . . . really?”

“Yes. Really.” She made an incredulous face at the phone. Would she lie about that? And why wasn’t he saying anything? “So . . .?”

“I’m sorry. So?”

“So what’s his name?”

“Ah. His name is . . . Dick . . . Wiggins.”

Dick Wiggins? That was a terrible name; Grace was ridiculously disappointed. She’d been imagining a more masculine, heroic name, like Jake Caldor or Brad Rockwell or Trent Clarkson. Silly girl. Even stupider she’d expected the name to have some meaning, some long-buried familiarity that would surface and ignite her memory.

Dick Wiggins did less than nothing.

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Glad to help. If you have any more questions or decide to accept the offer, let me know and we’ll get the details arranged for you. This place, this town, this island—they’re all very special. You’d really enjoy your time here.”

“I’m sure. Thanks.” She hung up and stood in her cramped bedroom, nose wrinkled, excitement thrumming through her veins. Now what? There was no way she could know if this was a front for kidnapping or a scam unless she went and got kidnapped or scammed. But James seemed real, and he said the offer was an honest one. Mom knew the place and confirmed that her father had loved it. Grace sure as hell needed a break from her life right about now.

She’d give it some time, think it over, decide when the solution presented itself as obvious.

A week later that still hadn’t happened. Meanwhile, she was suffering from an early June heat wave and no employment prospects.

Sweaty, discouraged and extremely cranky, Grace read the letter from James Whittaker again. Alaska, huh.

A vacation in a cool uncrowded place would be really, really nice.

She brightened suddenly. Her friend Jennifer had the perfect solution for situations like this: flip a coin. Then, rather than blindly obey the result, see how you felt about the outcome. If you felt uncomfortable, then it wasn’t right. If you were excited, then it was a clear signal that was the result your subconscious wanted you to choose.

Three strides to her bedside table where she’d put a penny that had turned up in a pocket of her jeans.

Heads, she’d go. Tails, she’d stay.

Balancing the coin on her thumb, she tossed it into the air, caught it, turned it over and peeked.

Tails.

Grace smiled. She felt absolutely sick with disappointment.