Memorial Day, Lakeland Cemetery
West Loon Bay Minnesota
Annika Nilsen stood at the grave of her best friend, Hope Cummings and blinked back tears. Hope had been only twenty-seven when her small car collided last December with a white-tailed buck, killing both her and the animal. “I miss her so much.” Annika swallowed hard. “Don’t let me cry, Carly. If I start, I’ll never stop.”
Her other best friend, Carly Strand, squeezed Annika’s hand in support then knelt and placed a bouquet of daisies in the urn next to Hope’s monument. “Growing up, I thought we’d always be together. It still amazes me how one day she was texting us about meeting for lunch. The next day she was gone.”
Annika gazed up at the clear blue sky and thought about how the three of them had been inseparable since first grade. Growing up, the trio spent every summer swimming in Lake Tremolo, slurping root beer floats at the drive-in and taking turns hosting sleep-overs. Hope had the bluest eyes and the thickest, curliest, copper-colored hair of anyone Annika had ever known. A tomboy at heart, Hope loved galloping around town on a huge quarter horse she’d named Angus. She rode so much her family had knick-named her “Merida.” It seemed like only yesterday they were arranging their Christmas lunch date, not six months ago.
“It’s not fair.” Annika’s voice wavered. “Hope, why did you leave us? We had so many plans…”
Carly sighed and flicked her long brown hair over her shoulder. “Plans that aren’t carried out are nothing more than daydreams, Annika.” She emptied her bottle of water into the urn and rearranged the flowers. “Hope may be gone, but there’s nothing to stop you and me from continuing on with the things we’ve always talked about. Like, the road trip we’ve been talking about but never seem to get around to actually doing.”
Annika reached down and pulled a pair of clippers from her purse. “You mean, drive to California?”
Carly nodded. “Hope would want us to go. I want us to go.”
For two years, they’d talked about packing up the car and taking a cross-country trip out west, stopping at every scenic park, museum and tourist trap along the way. Once they got to California, if it proved to be the amazing place they’d heard about from friends who’d moved to Newport Beach, there was a distinct possibility they wouldn’t be coming back.
Annika handed Carly the clippers. “Are you serious?”
Carly began to trim the grass around the base of the monument. “You bet I am.” She stopped and looked up. “There’s nothing in this town to keep either of us here.”
Annika knelt beside her and brushed the clippings away. “You know I agree with you—one hundred percent, but I can’t just drop everything and leave.”
Carly sat back on her heels and exhaled an exasperated sigh. “Why not?”
“My parents need more than a couple days’ notice if they have to find someone to take over my job at the restaurant.” Annika bit her lip, knowing it sounded like a cop-out... “I know it sounds like a convenient excuse, but the only task my mom handles now is the accounting. I’m responsible for everything else.”
“They must have some sort of backup plan, don’t they? I mean, what if you suddenly got sick or you were married and got pregnant?”
Anika responded with a wry laugh. “You know there’s absolutely no chance of me getting married anytime soon. I don’t even have a steady boyfriend. If I got sick, Penny Skoog would probably take over for me.”
Carly held out her palm. “So, there you go. Tell your mother you want to—no, you are taking a trip with me out west and Penny is replacing you.”
That’s easier said than done, Annika thought. My parents depend on me.
“Annika,” Carly said in a cajoling tone, as though she could read Annika’s mind. “Growing up, all the three of us ever talked about was how we were going to break away from the boredom static pace of small-town life. Remember how we used to talk about starting a business together? The future won’t be the same without Hope, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our dreams.” Carly stood up. “Look at us, we’re two years short of thirty. You’re still mopping the floors in your parents’ café and I’m serving beers to rowdy tourists in the town honky-tonk. Pathetic, isn’t it? We need to stop living on the Isle of Someday and start seriously pursuing something better.”
“You’re right. The café is my parents’ dream, not mine,” Annika said in a tired voice. “It’s dominated my family ever since I can remember. I work six days a week and it never seems to be enough. The repetition is boring and often tedious, but I do it because they expect it of me.”
Ten years ago, her brother faced the same dilemma. Rather than walk in his parents’ footsteps, Erik chose his own path in life and moved to the west coast to pursue a career in the music industry. His decision to abandon everything created a rift with their parents and passed the responsibility on to her to take over the family business. Most people wouldn’t turn their backs on an inheritance, but that’s what Erik did when he left. Instead, he’d created his own legacy with his band. Oh, how she envied him!
Erik owned a house in Beverly Hills. He must have found life as a celebrity too important to leave because in the ten years he’d been gone, he’d never once returned to West Loon Bay; or contacted his family. If she and Carly drove to California, perhaps they could pay him a visit. That is, if he was home—and willing to see them.
Carly slid her arm around Annika’s shoulders. “You need a break, Annika. We both do.”
Annika stared into Carly’s brown eyes. “We’ll stock the car with a giant bag of M&Ms and a cooler full of Coke. Have some crazy fun, like old times.”
Carly set the clippers on top of the monument. “You got it! So, that means we’re going, right?”
Annika hesitated at first, then nodded. “Yeah, we’re going.”
Carly pinned her with a no-nonsense look. “Let’s set the date for the end of July. That should give us enough time to get our affairs in order. Promise me you won’t back down—no matter what.”
A beautiful smile spread across Carly’s face. “California, here we come.”
Early June - Uptown West Loon Bay
The corner of Main Street and Broadway
Annika stared through one of the large front windows of The Northern Lights Café, shaking her head in disgust as she watched a fight unfold between two drunks in the street. The men had emerged from the Ramblin’ Rose bar in the brick building next door, hollering and swearing so loud she could hear it inside the café. A rowdy crowd of spectators surrounded them, some jeering, some urging them on.
Her coworker and lifelong friend, Penny Skoog, wandered toward the window. “What’s all the fuss about now?”
Annika shot Penny a sideways glance. “A couple of drunken tourists are facing off like gladiators in the street and if the crowd gets their way, the men will beat each other to a pulp.”
“If they don’t get struck by lightning first.” Penny frowned as she the stared out the window. Her gaze lifted toward the dark clouds gathering overhead. “Maybe we’ll get lucky this time and the storm will break, forcing them back indoors.”
Annika checked her watch. “It’s only four o’clock in the afternoon. The trouble seems to start earlier every Saturday.”
Penny snorted. “What’s new? It’s not townsfolk. It’s the weekend crowd from the Twin Cities. Most of them probably caught their limit of walleye in the lake this morning, so now they’re fishin’ for bottle bass at the town watering hole.” She pulled her phone from her black apron pocket. “I’ll make the call.”
Annika turned away from the window as Penny speed-dialed the county 9-1-1 dispatcher. The Ramblin’ Rose had become a minefield of controversy with similar incidents on a daily basis since the weekend of opening fishing a month ago and the situation had become so bad, they’d started taking turns calling the police.
“Something needs to be done about Rose Lange,” Annika grumbled. “Every person who walks into her bar is drunk by the time they stumble out. They end up here, trying to sober up and I have to help them find a ride home.” She rolled her eyes. “I wish that dump would burn down.”
Aptly named for her chin-length copper hair, Penny smirked as she reached her short, pudgy arm behind the counter and pulled out a disposable butane lighter. “Go ahead, Annika. Torch it. That place is so old it wouldn’t take much.” Her golden eyes twinkled with mischief as she offered Annika the lighter. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Um...just kidding.” Annika spun away from her short, plump coworker and hustled to the back of the empty dining room. Penny loved gossip and spread her fair share of it around town. Annika usually kept her opinions to herself, but the prospect of dealing with trouble over at the Ramblin’ Rose every weekend had made her edgy.
She and Penny had worked for Annika’s parents, the legal owners of the café, as waitresses since they were both sixteen. Five years ago, Annika became the manager when her parents retired and she immediately promoted Penny to head waitress. At twenty-eight, they worked together like a well-oiled machine.
“Too bad it won’t do any good to talk to Rose,” Penny said after reporting the incident. “I mean, when your brother-in-law is the chief of police, you can pretty much get away with anything you want.” She shrugged. “At least, she can.”
Rose Lange’s sister, Robin, was married to Chief Bob Wyatt. Bob was a tough cop who kept the town on a tight leash, but when it came to Rose, he often looked the other way. For years, gossip had circulated around West Loon Bay that Rose Lange and Bob Wyatt were having an affair and a lot of people believed Rose’s son, Alexander, was Bob’s illegitimate child. Rose, however, refused to divulge the father’s name, claiming she didn’t care what anyone said about her. Protecting the identity of the boy’s father had created a juicy scandal and kept the gossip mill grinding for the last thirty years.
A fifteen-pound walleye mounted on the wall behind Annika vibrated to the music of the country song blaring in the Ramblin’ Rose, indicating someone must have propped open the side door to the bar. There was a strip of green space between the buildings where a small structure had been torn down. The area was landscaped with shade-loving flowers and picnic tables, intended as an urban “pocket” park for shoppers to relax, but the bar patrons had taken it over as their private smoking section.
A heavy rumble of thunder shook the building, followed by a deafening crack overhead. The lights flickered then the music next door abruptly ceased as though someone had pulled the plug on the sound system.
Annika hurried to the rear exit and opened it to get a better look at the impending storm. Leaden clouds conveyed an ominous message as they swirled across the late afternoon sky. A gust of wind shoved her backward, slamming the door against the back of a booth. She managed to shut it again. “Looks like we’re closing early, Penny. We haven’t had a single customer in the last hour. Most people are probably taking shelter in their basements. If the storm gets worse, we might have to do the same thing.”
The back door blew open again and Carly Strand hurried into the café, slamming it shut behind her. The slender brunette wore a pair of stretch jeans and a tight-fitting black T-shirt, her uniform for her cocktail waitress job at the Ramblin’ Rose. Her long, glossy brown hair was held in place under a cream-colored western hat with dark brown stitching.
“Hey, Carly,” Penny said in her jovial way as she gave Carly the onceover. “You must be working tonight. I don’t envy you.”
Carly walked toward the counter ignoring the barb. “I need a cup of wild rice soup and an egg salad sandwich on white bread to go, Penny. Rose called me in early tonight and I didn’t get a chance to make something to eat before I left home.” She turned to Annika. “Let’s sit down and talk while I wait for my order.”
Penny pulled her book from her apron. “If we get a bad storm, maybe Rose will shut down and you’ll get out early.”
Carly slid into a booth in the farthest corner of the dining room, their favorite place to talk in private. “The Ramblin’ Rose never closes.”
Annika grabbed the ice scoop. “Want a coke?”
Annika quickly filled two tall glasses with ice and Coke and hurried over to the booth. She slid in and pushed one of the glasses, fizzing like a geyser, toward her friend.
Carly picked up the red plastic tumbler. “Have you talked to your mother yet?” She took a sip. “You keep putting it off.”
Annika glanced toward the front of the restaurant, making sure Penny was too busy to overhear their conversation. “She’s coming in on Monday to do the payroll,” Annika replied in a low voice. “I plan to talk to her about it then.”
Carly’s deep brown eyes studied her. “How do you think she’ll react?”
Annika clutched her coke with both hands and let out a tense breath. “You’ve known her all your life, Carly, so you already know how it’s going to come down. She’ll blow a gasket.”
Carly shook her head. “I don’t get it, Annika. You’re twenty-eight and you still let your mother boss you around like she did when we were in third grade.” Her fine, dark brows knitted together. “She needs to get rid of this place and let you get on with your life.”
Annika responded with a troubled sigh. “She thinks this place should be my life.”
“You promised.” Carly pointed her index finger at Annika. “You agreed at Hope’s grave you’d be ready to leave by the end of July. I’m holding you to it.”
Annika gulped her Coke. “I know, I know. You can’t wait to get out of this town. Neither can I.” She sat back and smiled. “I keep thinking about how cool it’s going to be—rolling into L.A.”
Carly arched one brow. “Yeah, well we’re not there yet. You have to sever your umbilical cord to your parents first and clean out your apartment. I’m not going to breathe easy until we’re in my car heading out of town.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Annika said. “I’ll call you on Monday and let you know how it went.”
Carly nodded. “Have you talked to Penny yet? About taking over your job?”
Annika held her finger to her lips and glanced toward the serving counter where Penny stood conversing through the serving window with the cook. “Not yet. Not until I’ve worked it out with my mother. You know how much Penny gossips. I don’t want my parents to find out I’m leaving town from anyone but me.”
Carly stared curiously at Penny. “Are you sure she’s ready to take over for you? That’s probably the first objection Helen will raise.”
Annika snorted. “Are you kidding me? Penny has been ready and champing at the bit for a promotion for months. She knows my job inside and out.”
Carly absently toyed with her straw. “That’s one big hurdle out of the way, but getting your mother to trust your judgement about turning the café over to a non-family member is going to be your toughest challenge.” She leaned forward. “Don’t let me down, Annika. I’m going to L.A. no matter what, but it would be a lot more fun if you and I went together.”
Annika folded her arms as her chest tightened with a familiar anxiety. “Hey—you’re not leaving me behind. I’m going. I’ve been putting off this opportunity for years. No way am I going to back out now.”
Penny walked toward them with a white paper bag in her hands. “Here you go, Carly. The total is $9.57 with the tax.”
Carly handed her twelve dollars. “Keep it,” she said, indicating Penny could have the change as a tip. Clutching the bag, she stood and glanced over her shoulder at Annika. “Stop into the bar for a drink after you close up.”
“I will if it’s not too late,” Annika replied as she stood to walk Carly to the back door. Going out the back way was closer to the employee entrance of The Ramblin’ Rose. “I’m closing up early, but I’ve got a lot of side work to do tonight.” In addition to her regular duties, she had to clean out the pie case and dust all the trophies on the dining room walls. “You’re probably our last customer.”
She’d barely uttered the words and waved goodbye when a rusted-out Jeep Wrangler with bad brakes screeched to a sliding stop at the front entrance. Disappointed, she walked to the front of the dining room, hoping the people simply wanted something to go.
Alexander Lange shut off the Jeep and stared at the wide front windows of the Northern Lights Café. “I don’t like this,” he said uneasily. “We should have stayed at the cabin and had something delivered. What if someone recognizes us?”
“Relax,” Erik Nilsen replied. “Most people are at home watching storm warnings on TV. The rest are at the bar, getting blitzed. Even if any of them do come into the cafe, they probably can’t see straight enough to read the menu much less zero in on us.”
Alex gripped his hand on the steering wheel. “The last thing we need is for the paparazzi to figure out we’ve come back to our home town. This place would turn into a three-ring circus.”
Erik shrugged. “I needed to get out of the house for a while. I'm tired of pizza and reality TV.”
Alex studied his bandmate and best friend, wondering if that was the true reason Erik had insisted that they stop in here for dinner. Erik had pulled his red Angels baseball cap low on his forehead to cover his buzzed hair. His black-framed sunglasses and close-cropped reddish beard concealed much of his face. If he kept the cap and glasses on, no one would recognize him. Besides, Alex, Erik and the rest of the “Wolfmoon” band members were different people than the five immature boys who’d left town ten years ago. Back then, they were gangly youths in worn jeans and T-shirts. By the time they went on the road to promote their first hit, the public saw a pack of hard rockers with long hair and skin tight clothes. Most of the guys had been “inked” with tattoos and wore flashy jewelry. Now, they were back to short hair, T-shirts and plain, faded jeans—back to the small-town country boys they used to be. Their lives had come full circle. Sadly, the “happily ever after” they always sang about had not…
Alex stared straight ahead. “Your parents still own the café. I checked. There’s a chance we might encounter your sister if we go in there.” Turning his head, he watched Erik’s response at his next question. “What are you going to say to her if we do?”
Erik pulled off his sunglasses and tossed them on the dashboard. His blue eyes narrowed. “What makes you think I want to talk to her?”
Alex’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Erik’s reaction made him uncomfortable. If he planned to reunite with his sister, he’d better drop the defensive attitude. “Isn’t that why you wanted to come here? To make amends?”
Erik folded his arms and glared at Alex with a bullish expression. “Maybe I just want to see her. Maybe I just want to get a feel for how she’s doing before I try to invite myself back into her life.”
Maybe the possibility of rejection is harder to take than you first realized, Alex thought to himself. Maybe you’re not as tough as you act.
“Okay,” Alex said evenly. “It’s up to you. Hey, it’s your show.”
Erik’s only answer was to inhale a tense breath.
Alex pulled the key from the ignition. Couldn’t sit here all day waiting for Erik to make up his mind. He shoved open his door and stuck one foot out. Erik didn’t move. “You okay, buddy?”
“Yeah.” Erik grabbed his sunglass then shoved open his door. “I’m hungry. Let’s go.”
Alex slid out of the Jeep and jammed the key into his jean pocket. Over the years, he’d done his share of fixing things between Erik and girls. This was one time however, he planned to keep his distance. He was an only child. Dealing with a sister was totally out of his league.