As a fresh morning breeze wafted from the nearby beach, April stepped outside to wave at her friend Deb cycling toward her. On Crown Island, locals splashed their homes in all shades of the spectrum, like sun-dazzled gemstones tumbled from the heavens surrounded by a sapphire ocean. Nearby, the Majestic Hotel was the magnificent ruby in the crown and the heart of the community.
Depending on the street, some houses were sherbet-colored, cool and refreshing on a summer’s day. Other neighborhoods boasted hot, happy colors, spilling forth like jelly beans. And on another side of the island, riotous shades bled from houses and swirled onto muraled walls in crescendos of color.
Deb eased to a stop in front of April’s house. Or rather, it was her mother’s home, a pop of deep, rosy pink amidst a neighboring sea of blue bungalows and sunny yellow cottages. Only the towering house at the end of the block stood out in blinding white.
April adjusted the brim of her cotton visor against the sun. “I thought you might have forgotten about our ride.”
“Sorry I’m late.” Deb rubbed her shoulder. “I took a run on the beach with Duke this morning. Another dog attacked him, and I had to bandage a gash on Duke’s snout. He fought me over that part, but he’ll be alright.”
“Poor Duke.” Deb’s rescue shepherd-collie mix was usually playful. “It’s okay. I’ve been cleaning up this old bike.” April eased onto the seat.
Deb peered at the tires. “Do you have an air pump? Your tires look low.”
April slid off and bent down to inspect the tires. “You’re right. This will only take a minute.”
Her mother had stored bikes in her garage for years and kept them in good repair. Still, salt air could creep into every crevice. Specks of rust dotted the faded bubblegum-pink frame of her beloved old bike, and cracks from the summer heat etched a web across the seat. She drew her hand wistfully across the old handlebars.
“A little air in the tires, and she’ll be almost as good as new.” April set the kickstand and brought out a bicycle pump. Hitching up her knee-length shorts, she squatted by the bike.
Her closest friend from childhood perched on a gleaming bike, her sun-bronzed shoulders still toned and taught. Unlike April, who’d moved away thirty years ago, Deb had never left Crown Island except for vacations. Maybe that’s why she still looked healthy and fit. No mom-shorts for her. She wore slim bike shorts and a tank top that showed off toned upper arms.
April covered hers with a navy hoodie that bore a history association logo. Deb was tall, blond, and blue-eyed—more like April’s mother in her youth. In contrast, April thought of herself as fairly average. Her only distinguishing feature was her deep green eyes, which she’d recently learned she shared with a newly discovered set of aunts and cousins.
Deb leaned on her handlebars. “Since you’re spending the year here, you’ll have time to refurbish that bike.”
With a small smile, April said, “I don’t think I’ll have time after all.” She bent to secure the pump nozzle to the tire valve. “Calvin called.”
The early morning call from her husband had been a surprise, especially because the genuine regret in his voice was evident. Darling, I’m so sorry and ashamed for all I’ve put you through. But I want us to make this right because you and the girls mean the world to me. I can’t bear to lose your love.
These were the words she’d been longing to hear from Calvin. Family meant everything to April because she’d lost her father as a teenager. Reuniting her currently fractured family and helping her daughters find their true paths—this is what April longed for.
Although, admittedly, she’d heard her husband’s words before. Yet, here they were again.
Several months ago, April had taken a leave of absence from teaching history at a university in Seattle, Washington, to care for her mother on Crown Island, an artist colony just off the coast of Southern California and south of the Channel Islands.
A severe case of pneumonia had landed Ella Raines in the hospital, and she needed her daughter. Fortunately, her mother was never to be underestimated. Ella had rallied back, even returning to her yoga practice at home. Having worked as a nurse, she’d also received the best care in the local hospital she and her husband had helped establish fifty years ago.
But that wasn’t the only reason April had ditched her summer classes and gone on hiatus. After what Calvin had done, she couldn’t face her fellow faculty members. Their eyes were full of pity for her, understandably.
And she hated that. She turned back to her friend.
Deb raised her brow. “Are you sure you want another ticket on that rollercoaster?”
“We have a family,” April replied, maybe a little too curtly.
Deb held up a hand. “Just checking in with you.”
Instantly, April regretted her defensive tone with Deb. Still, with Calvin’s charisma and good looks, her husband could hardly help attracting attention. For the last time, she hoped, with guarded relief. Soon, all that would be behind them.
Deb shot her a look of warning, but before she could say anything, April’s mother opened the screen door. As Ella Raines stepped out, her thick, lustrous silver hair glistened in the sunlight like a halo. Her casual, blue cotton beach dress hung on her lean, usually fit frame now thinned by illness, although she was regaining her strength. “What a gorgeous day for a ride. In a few weeks, I should be strong enough to join you for an easy spin on the beach.”
Deb’s face brightened. “Just in time, Ella. Would you talk some sense into your daughter? She’s threatening to leave.”
Instantly, her mother’s face drooped. “You’re not going home already, are you?”
“I was going to tell you, but Calvin called as I was dressing. He was getting ready for a flight for a meeting in San Francisco. After that, he’ll catch another flight south and take the ferry. He’ll be here this evening.” April plastered a confident smile on her face. “I’ll ask him to stay over the weekend, but I imagine I should be ready to return with him to Seattle when he wants.”
“So soon?” Ella asked.
At the sight of her mother’s expression, April quickly added, “I’ll be back to visit as soon as possible. I’m sure Junie will want to stay with you.” After what her daughter had been through, she needed sunshine and fresh air.
Ella nodded with reluctant acceptance. “You have your life to live, but it should be your best life, dear.”
Remorse about leaving her mother poured over April’s shoulders, but she was also pleased that Calvin was on his way. “You always told me to fight for what I wanted. Calvin is retiring in ten years, maybe before. He wants to take off in an RV and travel the country, and he’d like to take a cruise every year. Maybe do some volunteer work.”
Deb twirled a finger at her. “Somewhere in all those words, I thought I’d hear what you wanted, but they were all about Calvin.”
“I want that, too.” April lifted her chin, masking the pain in her heart. “He’s still my husband. And the girls will be devastated if we don’t get back together.”
Even though she’d left to look after her mother, they both agreed it was a good time for a trial separation. The truth was, they’d been emotionally separated far longer. Calvin had also left her bed a year ago, feigning trouble sleeping and taking over the guest room.
Taking each front step with care, Ella joined them. “They’re not children anymore. They would understand if you had to make a choice. May—I mean, Maileah—has quite the worldly attitude.” She pressed a finger to her lip. “I keep forgetting her new name.”
“I worry about Junie.” Her youngest daughter’s husband had died in a freak traffic accident on a business trip to London two years ago. Even though relations between Junie and Calvin were strained, she needed her father.
While her mother acknowledged that, it didn’t stop her. “Junie is stronger than you realize, my dear. About your husband—be selfish this time. Tell him what you want.”
“I have, and I will.” Air hissed from the valve as April bent over to unscrew the dust cap on the wheel, and she could feel the blood rushing to her face. Anger, hurt, embarrassment, and disillusionment swirled in her, but she always harbored hope for a better future. She’d been through so much with Calvin.
April threw her energy into the bicycle pump, forcing air into the tire to fill it to capacity. If only such exertion could fill her marriage with renewed passion.
Her mother watched. “It pains me to see you hurt.”
“These affairs run their course.” April switched the nozzle and pumped air into the second tire with equal vengeance. Over the years, her husband had slipped up before, but never in their own backyard at the university. And with a leggy Russian woman the same age as their children? She puffed out air at the thought.
“What was he thinking?” she mumbled.
Suddenly, she realized she’d said that last bit out loud.
Her mother seized on her words. “The question is, what are you thinking? You’ve hardly heard from him all summer.”
“Well, now I have.” April bit back with a sharper response than she had intended. Worry and agitation weren’t good for her mother’s health. “I’ve weighed my options, Mama. I’ve worked hard for our future, and I’m not backing down when it’s right around the corner.”
“I’d love for you to stay a little longer,” her mother added softly. She placed a hand on April’s shoulder. “A few more weeks might give you more clarity.”
As April snapped off the nozzle, air hissed out again. Quickly she screwed on the dust cap. “You can’t fault me for trying to keep my family intact. You remember the wonderful life we had before Dad died. And what we lost.”
“We all have a time, so I focused on being grateful that you were put into my life,” her mother said, her lids lowering slightly at the memory. “Your situation is different, though equally painful. At some point, you must decide what you want for yourself.”
“Don’t think I haven’t.”
Immediately, April wished she could withdraw her words. A pang of guilt shot through her. The young girl, tucked inside a body now surprisingly over fifty, still longed for a deeper sense of family. For years, she had missed holidays with her father, carving a turkey, setting up a Christmas tree, and shooting fireworks over the ocean. Her mother carried on, but it was never the same. April couldn’t do that to her daughters and their eventual offspring.
She put the bike pump away in the garage.
“I’ll shut the garage from inside,” Ella said.
Deb shared a look with Ella that seemed to say, I’ll try.
But how could Deb understand any of this? She’d never been married, and her parents and brothers still lived on the island.
“Your mother will miss you,” Deb said. “And what will you do if you’re not teaching?”
“There might be an opening in the second semester. In the meantime, I can review my research notes for that book I’ve outlined. Maybe even start writing.” However, the words weren’t flowing. And before returning to teach, April needed more time to let this ugly incident blow over.
One of her friends had told her that Olga had left the graduate program and planned to pursue her master’s degree at another private university. But when April pressed her friend, a professor in that department, she admitted she’d seen the tall, buxom Russian woman on campus. With a mane of blond hair and legs that went on forever, Olga was hard to miss—and presumably, equally hard to resist.
Maybe Olga was only on campus to see friends, she told herself.
“You could write here,” Ella said, interrupting her thoughts.
Swallowing her pride, April reached out and hugged her mother. “I know both of you only want what’s best for me. But I’m trying to do what’s best for my family.”
“What a shame they’re not the same.” When her mother pulled away, redness rimmed her eyes. “A ride will be good for you, dear. The sea breeze always clears my mind, helping me see problems with greater clarity.”
Deb nodded emphatically. “I’ll take her on the Queen’s Flight.” She wheeled from the driveway.
April followed, glancing back to reassure her mother. Although she was sure of what she needed to do, her mother’s words clung to her like foxtails on the island trails. Once stuck in your hair, they were hard to get out.
Sort of like Calvin Smith.
April inhaled a deep breath of fresh, briny air and instantly felt her burden lighten. Her mother was right about that, too. Rising on her pedals, she quickened her pace to catch Deb.
“Wait up.” Panting from the exertion of riding and pushing her bike uphill, April paused to peer down the other side. Standing at the high point of Crown Island, she rested on her handlebars, taking in the view.
The morning sun sparkled on the Pacific Ocean, and palm trees swayed in the light wind. From this vantage point, Crown Island shimmered like a rare jewel—so named after a talented jeweler to the courts of Europe, whose specialty was crowns and tiaras. The island was a gift for her service to the crown during the latter part of the Spanish Colonial period in California. From here, April and her childhood friends used to spot whales, sea lions, and seals off the coast. Now, the island contained a bustling village and a sprawling nature conservancy home to more than two hundred species of birds and animal wildlife.
April lifted her face to the ocean breeze that cooled her face.
Ahead of her on the trail, her friend Deb waited. That is, Deborah Whitaker of the Crown Island founding Whitakers and a one-time princess in the annual island parade when they were fifteen. With her stature and poise, Deb could still pass for island royalty, even four decades later. Her artfully tinted blond braid hung between her shoulders. She was the best friend April had ever had.
When April returned to Crown Island at the beginning of the summer to look after her mother, Deb was the first one who called to offer help. April had confided in her when Calvin told her he needed a break from their marriage. Maybe she’d told Deb too much of the ugly side of her marriage and not enough of the good.
When April reached her friend’s side, she stopped. “Whew. Wasn’t sure I could make it up here.”
“I knew you could.” Deb stretched her arms over her head in the sunshine. “I’ve been thinking…if you could do anything besides teaching, anywhere in the world, what would that be?” She pointed to April like they used to when they were young. “Go.”
April gazed out over the island. Not far away, the old Majestic Hotel with its red-and-white wooden cupolas rose from its seaside perch, its red roof contrasting with the bluest of skies. Last spring, her mother had led a community effort to block the owner’s plan to modernize it. Ella Raines had fiercely argued against it at City Hall. She had prevailed, even though her tenacity had come at a cost to her health. Ella always pushed herself. This time, she had allowed her immune system to become rundown.
“This might sound wild,” April began. “But that Victorian lady kindled my love of history. Remember the field trip we took there?”
“Do I ever. The manager let us climb the restricted stairway to the main cupola. The highest point of the hotel—four whole stories. It seemed to stretch to the heavens back then.” Deb grinned. “You never answered me.”
April blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “I would study the history of that hotel and Crown Island. We have such a unique past. It shouldn’t be lost.”
“Ghosts and all?”
“I don’t think the Majestic is haunted,” April said, despite Deb’s skeptical look. “I found its history so intriguing. Film stars, presidents, royalty, and gangsters have stayed there. Until then, that was the oldest structure I’d ever seen. All those black-and-white photographs and stories of old movies shot there fascinated me.”
“Obsessed is more like it.” Deb laughed. “You were like Nancy Drew sleuthing all over the hotel. I was a little jealous because you wrote so many papers about it. You got A’s on every one of them. If you want to write a book, why not one on the history of the hotel and the island?”
April leaned on her handlebars. “Wasn’t someone working on that?”
“You’re thinking of Ruth Miller. She collected a lot of material and spoke about the need for a preservation society, but sadly, she didn’t live long enough to fulfill her mission.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. How sad for her. Still, the island needs a historical society.” The idea intrigued April. As a member of a national historical association through her university work, she understood the significance of preservation and its impact on future generations.
“I could get behind a project like that,” she said. “The Majestic Hotel has a wealth of stories, though there are many others about how this island developed and the indigenous people who lived here over the centuries. But the Majestic…that’s the real jewel of the island.”
“Maybe we’ll meet the new owner soon.” With a wink, Deb stood on her pedals, eager to go.
“Wait, someone finally bought it? Who?” She glanced at the hotel again, concerned about what would become of it under new ownership.
“Another investor. I haven’t met him, but I will. The interiors of the Majestic need a redesign, and I want that job.” Deb grinned and nodded toward the descent. “Come on, let’s do this. You remember how, don’t you?”
“Sure,” April replied, forcing a grin as she gazed down the trail they had christened the Queen’s Flight when they were kids. Legend had it a woman had fled from her husband down this hill, running so fast that she’d become airborne, rising to the clouds in her escape. It wasn’t as steep as she’d recalled from childhood, but it was still unnerving.
“You have to clear your mind and keep your focus,” Deb reminded her. “Don’t do a Jimmy.”
April cringed. She could still see little Jimmy Carlton, who had broken a leg when he’d lost control. They’d been about ten years old, tearing around the island with minimal supervision—swimming, surfing, biking.
Over the years, every time April had returned for a visit, her mother suggested they go for a bike ride along the strand. As the salt-laden wind whipped around her, April wished she’d taken more time to do that—and kept it up.
“Give me a minute.”
Her heart pounding like a jackhammer, she drew another deep breath. As she recalled, the descent was magical, but only if you could empty your mind and imagine gliding across the terrain ahead, willing your wheels to find the unobstructed path. Over the years, the trail had hardened to a smooth surface, but rain still left dangerous pockmarks. She had no idea if kids still filled them in.
As children, this hillside, so regally named, had been their pinnacle of achievement, their badge of courage. It had also seemed much taller back then.
Amateur stuff, her oldest daughter would say. But then, May—or Maileah, as she now preferred—was an avid marathon runner and adventure seeker who also worked in technology. She functioned at a high level of intensity every day.
Not quite able to achieve the necessary frame of mind, April held up a hand. “I’m a little out of shape.” Physically and emotionally. She used to work out a few years ago. But her life had changed so fast this summer she’d gotten emotional whiplash.
If that was a thing, as her students in World History 101 would say. First, it was Calvin’s latest midlife crisis; next, her mother’s hospitalization; then, a host of new family members in nearby Summer Beach. Not even her parents had been informed of April’s family or ancestry when they adopted her. Closed adoption was all that Ella had been told.
All these incidents sent shock waves through April. However, the discovery of a new family was welcome, if not a little overwhelming. Unbeknownst to her, her daughter Junie had done a DNA test. Still, she’d been excited when Junie arranged a meeting with her cousin Ivy Bay and her family at the Seabreeze Inn. There, April presented the best version of herself, ...