Autumn By the Sea by Melissa Tagg

“You know, you really don’t need to keep carrying around that mace. If I had sinister intentions, I probably would’ve acted on them by now.”

Wilder Monroe perched far too comfortably on the arm of Sydney’s faded navy blue couch. As if he hadn’t just barged into her life and dropped a bombshell.

A bombshell that couldn’t possibly have any truth to it. She shook her head. “Nope, I’ve watched enough episodes of Dateline to know the smarter the criminal, the more they’re willing to take their time, wait for the perfect opening or opportunity to carry out whatever dastardly deed is on their agenda for the day.”

Wilder popped the tab on the Diet Coke she’d given him after finally allowing him inside. Considering the way he kept rubbing his knee, she probably should’ve handed him an ice pack.

“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. You think I’m smart.” He took a swig. “Also, I like your use of the phrase ‘dastardly deed.’ If I ever do become a lawbreaker, I’m going to use that in my job title. Doer of Dastardly Deeds. Sounds fancier than plain old criminal.”

Mace canister still clutched in her right hand, Sydney freed herself of the tie that had been strangling her all day and toed off the clodhoppers that were part of the restaurant’s dress code. She’d never really appreciated them until today’s unwelcome run.

Possibly a very unnecessary run if Wilder Monroe really was who he said he was. And she was getting the discomfiting feeling that might actually be the case.

She dropped onto the blush-colored recliner she’d picked up at the Thrift Mart years ago—the first piece of furniture she’d ever owned. The first thing to make her smile after being forced to drop out of college at the end of her freshman year. “Look, it’s been a long day, Mr. Monroe—”

“Wilder.” Another long gulp of his pop.

“If you could just explain yourself—and the quicker the better—I’d appreciate it.”

“A straight shooter. I like that.” He set his pop can on a coaster on the coffee table and slid onto a couch cushion. “Hey, you put down the mace.”

“Yeah, but it’s still within easy reach.” Next to her cell phone on the end table. She might’ve let the man into her apartment, but if things went awry, she could always mist the guy with one hand and tap out a 9-1-1 call with the other.

“Got it. Listen, this is weird, I know. I approached you all wrong. I get that. I apologize—again. And I probably need to be honest with you and say right up front that this is all conjecture at this point.” He rubbed his cheeks with both palms and sighed. “But I made the mistake of telling Maggie I had a lead, and the next thing I know, she’s begging me to go to Chicago and fetch you.”

Maggie—her supposed grandmother. Impossible. “Fetch me?”

Wilder lifted one corner of his mouth in a wry half-grin. “You just can’t say no to Margaret Muir when she gets that hopeful look on her face. She’s the sweetest lady but she’s ruthless with her tactics of manipulation. Anyhow, I have this theory—” He shook his head. “No, let me start from the beginning.”

Sydney reached for her own can of pop, still unopened.

“Maggie had a daughter, Diana. There was a car accident twenty-eight years ago on the coast not far from Maggie’s house. Diana died but her two-year-old daughter, Cynthia—who was believed to have been in the vehicle with her—her body was never found.” He slid his palms over his jeans. “Maggie’s been convinced ever since that her granddaughter’s still alive, still out there somewhere. I’ve been doing my best to investigate with very little to go on.”

Sydney cupped her hands around her cold can. “And somehow your investigation led you to me?”

He nodded. “Diana left Muir Harbor at seventeen and the working theory was always that she’d run off with an out-of-towner she’d met at the local pub. But I have a different notion altogether. Been doing a little digging into Diana’s other connections. Turns out her best friend from childhood dropped out of college right around the same time Diana took off. And strangely, they both returned to Muir Harbor on the same weekend two years later—the weekend of the accident.” He paused, took a breath. “The friend’s name was CarleeAnn Picknell.”

Not until that moment had anything Wilder said truly resonated with her. No sudden prick in her spirit when he spoke of Margaret or Diana or some town in Maine that shared their last name. No whimsical whisper in her soul hushing her doubts or stirring her with possibilities.

But that name and the way Wilder said it, the way he was watching her now . . .

“My birth mom.”

He massaged his knee again. “So you do know—”

“Very little. Only that she brought me to an adoption agency in Illinois when I was a toddler. Begged them to take me.” Then just . . . left. Disappeared. Not that Sydney remembered any of it, but she’d heard the story, whispered from one social worker to another years later.

Not until she was an adult had she known the name that went with the woman.

She stood abruptly, grip tight on her can—enough to send pop dribbling over the edge. She strode to the kitchenette at the far end of the room, plucked a glass from the cupboard, and poured out her Diet Coke.

Most of the time she didn’t mind the small size of this apartment. Micah always called it tiny, but she liked to think of it as snug and inviting. She’d sewn the pretty gray curtains in the main room’s lone window herself. Had shopped discounts and clearance racks to find throw pillows and blankets—all coordinated in navy blues and pale pinks.

It might be small and everything filling it might be cheap, but this apartment was hers. And for a girl who’d bounced around in foster homes until she was eighteen, a place like this meant something.

But at the moment, it also meant she couldn’t get away from Wilder Monroe’s stifling presence.

CarleeAnn Picknell.After all she’d done in an attempt to scrub the name from her brain, one mere mention shouldn’t be enough to send her stumbling back in time. To that day six years ago when she’d actually met the woman. One visit, one hour, one brief conversation . . .

Enough to make her wish she’d never gone searching. Because all it had done was left her wanting, none of her questions answered. CarleeAnn had been dying, the disease eating away at her body making coherent words all but impossible. Except for those few that had hurt. Oh, how they’d hurt.

“At least I did the right thing. Leaving you . . . at least I did that.”

There’d been no exclamation of regret or love or loss. No joyful reunion. No explanations. No, the pain of those words had been the only thing Sydney had taken away from her scant minutes in that sterile hospital room.

Well, and that photo . . .

Three smiling faces, young and carefree, rose in her memory.

“The thing is,” Wilder said slowly, cutting into her thoughts, blurring the image in her mind, “I can’t find a birth certificate with the right CarleeAnn Picknell listed as mother. I can’t find any public records that indicate she ever had a child. I’m trying to get a subpoena for her medical records, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Sydney opened her freezer and riffled around, finally put her hands on a bag of frozen peas. She carried it and her glass back to the living room, handed the peas off to Wilder with a nod toward his knee, then returned to her recliner but didn’t sit. “What are you saying?”

He placed the bag of peas over his sore knee. “I’m saying what if CarleeAnn wasn’t your mother? What if, in taking you to that agency, she was simply doing a favor for a friend who’d died?”

Too many questions chose the same moment to flood her but she couldn’t figure out which one to ask. “There’s a pretty obvious solution, isn’t there? I can take a DNA test and—”

He interrupted her with a shake of his head. “Maggie was never married. Diana was adopted.”

And CarleeAnn wasn’t alive anymore, so there was no asking her. Sydney lowered into her chair, mind spinning.

“Look, there’s other things. Maggie says Diana called her daughter Cindy for short. Cindy . . . Sydney.” He shrugged. “Not all that different. Plus, you’ve got red hair.”

She stared at him. “Millions of people have red hair.”

“Actually, less than two percent of the population—”

“You really expect me to believe that based on a friendship from almost three decades ago, some hard-to-find records, and the color of my hair, I’m the long-lost granddaughter of a woman in Maine?”

“Don’t forget the name thing. There’s also the fact that the couple of extended relatives of CarleeAnn’s I’ve managed to track down so far don’t remember anything about a pregnancy.” He let out a long exhale. “But no. I don’t expect you to believe it. I’m not even sure I believe it. I’ve got clues, but not concrete proof. It’s conjecture.”

“And yet, you came here. You scared me half to death. You insisted on telling me this whole thing. What’s the point when it’s not even provable? What am I supposed to do with it?”

Wilder leaned forward, the bag of frozen veggies crinkling. “I never said it wasn’t provable. Only that I haven’t proved it yet. And as for why I came here and why I told you . . .” Another slow sigh. “It’s like I said earlier. I told Maggie my theory and she sent me. She didn’t want to wait for me to do any more digging. Apparently she thinks her grandmotherly instincts will have all the answers. She wants me to fetch you. Bring you home to Muir Farm. Her words.”

“Fetch me. As in . . . you want me to just drop everything and go to Maine with you?”

He lifted one shoulder, his expression turning apologetic. “That’s about the gist of it.”

The engine’s growl should’ve tugged Neil from sleep.

Would’ve—if he hadn’t already been wide awake, mind churning until he was as knotted up inside as his sheets tangled around him. Instead, the rumble from outside merely stilled his restless movements.

Indi?

But no, she wasn’t due back until Sunday. And Lilian had come home from work around eight, just when he’d been leaving the house, intent on spending the rest of the evening working on the project that just might save Muir Farm.

If he could ever muster up the nerve to tell Maggie about it.

But if it wasn’t either of his sisters in the vehicle outside—and certainly wasn’t Maggie—then who . . .

With a groan as much from fatigue as frustration, he tossed his comforter aside. He dropped his bare feet to the cold hardwood floor and rose to pad across the room to the window overlooking the front lawn.

There, at the end of the gravel driveway—the shadow of a vehicle.

One of his sisters’ friends? Maybe one of them had a boyfriend they hadn’t yet spilled the beans about. Indi’s last breakup had been a good—what? Five, six months ago? Which meant she was probably about due for another relationship soon. Not that she’d appreciate him making assumptions about her roller coaster of a love life.

But no, Indi was in Augusta. Which meant if there was some sort of little late-night tryst happening, it was Lilian. And she, even more so than Indi, definitely wouldn’t love the idea of him standing at the window, playing Nosy Parker.

Except he would’ve heard her if she’d left the house. Every creaking floorboard in the place would’ve given her away. Chilled air wafted from the glass of the window.

With a huff, he turned and reached for the zippered hoodie draped over one bedpost, shrugging it over his shoulders as he padded to his bedroom door. You’re being ridiculous. It’s probably just a lost tourist. Muir Harbor’s Autumn Market was next week and always drew visitors from up and down the coast. Maybe . . .

He paused only a couple of steps into the hallway, the car’s grumble fainter from here, making space for a silence that twined around him. And for one eerie moment, he was fourteen again and flustered, still unused to the house’s nighttime quiet. None of the noise of the busy street he’d lived on in Edinburgh—constant traffic and the whine of sirens not unusual.

No, here there was only the occasional rattling of old pipes or the rap of tree branches against windows. And, if he listened hard enough, at times, the lulling whoosh of the nearby sea.

Well, and tonight, a car’s muffled idling.

“Remember Diana’s ghost?”

He jerked at the startling sound of Lilian’s voice, something a little too close to a yelp catching in his throat. “Sheesh, Lil, give a guy some warning before creeping up on him in the middle of the night.”

She snickered, huddled against her bedroom’s doorframe. “A little jumpy tonight, are we?”

“Not jumpy.” Still discouraged at yet another setback of the broken-farm-equipment variety—yes. Concerned over another of Maggie’s lost-granddaughter “discoveries”—of course. Confused about who in the world was sitting in a car out in their driveway—certainly.

But he’d stopped bristling at ghost stories years ago. “There was never a ghost.”

Lilian brushed her fingers through her cropped blond hair, rolling her eyes. “Obviously.”

Never mind the way he and his sisters used to scare themselves silly at night, ears perked for every little creak and groan of the aged house, telling made-up tales of Diana Muir’s spectral presence still roaming its hallways.

Stories, he’d realized when he was a little older, that would’ve hurt Maggie deeply if she’d ever overheard. Thankfully, her room was down on the first floor, which meant most of their late-night shenanigans went unnoticed. But still.

“What’re you doing up, anyway?” Lilian’s hands disappeared into the long sleeves of her sweatshirt the way they always did when she was cold. Which was probably most nights the closer they drifted to winter, what with the draftiness of this old place. There were times he could swear the wind crept through its walls and tunneled through the hallway. He’d heard it howling in the fireplace often enough.

Guess he couldn’t entirely blame his younger self for indulging in ghost stories. “I heard a car outside. Did Indi mention anything about coming home early this week?”

Their sister owned a couple of antique shops—one in Muir Harbor and another in Maine’s capital. She usually spent half of each week staying in the apartment over her Augusta store. But maybe she’d decided to return earlier than planned this week.

But that didn’t explain stalling at the end of the driveway. And Indi drove an SUV, not the long sedan he’d spotted.

And Lilian was shaking her head. “Nope. Probably just a lost driver. It happens. They’ll turn around.”

So why did it sound as if the engine had just quieted? Not disappeared into the night, but stopped altogether. As if the engine had been cut.

And then—scratching at the front door. Captain? His high-pitched whine a moment later answered that question.

Lilian cocked her head to one side. “Kinda wish I hadn’t just brought up the ghost.”

“There’s no ghost.”

Lilian didn’t roll her eyes this time. “A burglar?”

“Or someone having car trouble.” He started for the stairs, ignoring the prickle of unease weighing his steps. Because there was no reason for it—none at all. It was just the long day getting to him. Or maybe too many long days in a row. Maybe someday he’d actually take a vacation. Take a cue from Wilder, who never had a problem ditching town and gallivanting off on one adventure or another.

Not that the guy was technically gallivanting now. No, he was off in Chicago tracking down a woman named Sydney Rose. Neil halted at the bottom of the stairs. “Did Maggie talk to you about . . .” He wasn’t even sure how to finish that question without doubt crowding every word.

Turned out he didn’t have to. Lilian nodded. “Gonna guess you’re not any more excited about it than I am.”

No, but what could they do? Maggie was everything good and kind and wonderful. But when it came to her lost granddaughter, there was no getting through to her.

He moved through the dim entryway, the car’s headlights cutting circles of muted light through the dark, Captain still scratching from outside. He reached for the door—

But Lilian’s palm on his arm stopped him. “It’s the middle of the night. I’m not sure wandering out there when we don’t know who it is, is smart.”

We’re not wandering anywhere. You stay here.”

“But—”

He pulled open the door and Captain bounded in. “Hey, buddy. What’s got you so—”

Before the question was out, the engine growled to life again and the car’s tires spun against the gravel drive. It veered in a sharp angle, headlights swinging away from the house, until it jolted forward and disappeared down the road.

Cold air bustled in from outside and Captain brushed against his leg.

“That was . . .” Lilian whispered. “Weird.”

Very weird.