*Because I've been avoiding blogging for so long*
Dry sand stuck to the soles of Madison's feet and added to the roughness of the wooden porch. She tiptoed across the white washed planks and sat on the swinging bench. Leaning forward, she let the small collection of shells spill from her hands to the mat at her feet. Their musical jingling reminded her of shards of glass. She then stirred them with her fingertips and surveyed their soft colors in the fading daylight.
As she sat back in the bench, it began to sway like a branch of the genip tree in a lazy breeze. Dusting the sand from her feet, she exchanged smiles with Skyler as he went into the house and eased the screen door closed. His muted footsteps were displaced by the tempo of waves breaking on the white-sanded beach stretched out behind their home. Gazing out over the darkening waters, Madison watched the last of the wader-birds scurry along the glistening shore.
The little house she and Skyler shared was their sanctuary. Sunrises and sunsets, and everything in between was breathtaking. They were a week shy of their one year anniversary, but it already felt like the past year made up for the madness that defined their lives. With nothing but calm days and a quiet town, Madison could nearly forget the nightmare they escaped when they left Chicago. Everything about their established existence seemed therapeutic.
She spent her days as a volunteer at the town library. It was a small facility, but she could always find something to do or a book to read. Skyler worked for the local travel agency. He often oversaw tour groups most mornings, and spent the afternoons filling the company's appointment book. They ended each day with a stroll down the beach and hunt for new shells, like the ones drying on the mat at her feet.
Getting up from the bench, Madison left the solitude of the porch and went inside. She latched the door behind her and expected to hear the shower running. Instead, she was met by the clatter of tumbling tools. It sounded like Skyler was working in the nursery.
The spare room was an office until recently. They were gradually converting it into a room for the baby they hoped for. Skyler finished painting it two days ago. He seemed to be in a hurry to have it ready far in advance, clearly excited about the idea of adding to their family.
She peeked into the yellow room to see what he was up to. The crib was still in pieces stacked in the middle of the room. She was surprised to find him digging through his toolbox just inside the door. "Are you going to work on it tonight?"
His head popped up as if she startled him. He glanced at her before turning back to the box in front of him. "I thought I might have left my ring in here. I've looked everywhere else."
"Why don't you get ready for bed? It'll turn up."
He nodded. "I'll be there in a minute. I just know I set it right here." He tapped an empty cubby in the toolbox.
That was where he put it, and where Madison found it. But she snuck it away several days ago to surprise him for their anniversary. Sighing to herself, she couldn't wait another week.
Two black velvet boxes sat in the bottom of her purse. She drew them out quietly. Opening the first, the silver band with a square sapphire sparkled with charm. She slipped it onto her finger and smiled at its familiar fit. Taking Skyler's ring from the second box, she put it on her thumb. It was too big; so she held it in place with her other hand.
Skyler had the toolbox nearly emptied when she went back to the nursery's construction zone. She knelt and leaned against his side. He acknowledged her presence with a soft smile.
Madison took the ring from her thumb and placed it in the middle of her palm. "There it is," she said.
He stopped what he was doing and stared at the toolbox. "Where? Do you see it?"
His eyes were still intent on the floor in front of him as his hand moved cautiously as he rearranged a few tools. "Where?"
She held her hand out and uncurled her fingers. Skyler tilted is head and narrowed his eyes.
With a gentle movement, he picked up the ring and held it closer to look at. "You found it. Where was it?"
"At the jeweler's." He looked to her with his brows knitted in confusion. "Well," she went on, "it was in the toolbox, but I thought I'd surprise you for our anniversary. I didn't think you'd notice it so quickly."
Skyler held it up between his thumb and forefinger. "You got it cleaned? Thank you. It needed it."
"That too," she answered. "Look in the band."
She watched as he slowly turned the ring in the light and found the engraving. A loving smile came to his face. "Always."
Madison hugged his arm. "Happy early anniversary."
"Thank you," he said, and then kissed her forehead. "Happy early anniversary."
She wiggled the smaller ring off her finger and passed it to him. "Forever." He looked the slender band over with an expression that was difficult to read. "Do you like it?" she whispered.
Skyler drew a deep breath and pulled her closer. "Yes," he answered. He motioned for her hand, she held it out, and he guided the ring onto her finger.
"I'm sorry about your missing it. I wasn't expecting that."
He shook his head once. "You and your surprises."
Madison leaned in and kissed his lips. "No more surprises," she said with a smile.
He studied her. "Why is it I don't believe you?" She faked a frown. He laughed and hugged her tight.
When he released her, Madison got to her feet. "I'm going to bed. Are you staying up?"
"I'll be there in a second." He began returning tools to their place in the box. "Let me straighten this up a little."
Taking his answer, she went on to their bedroom and opened the windows a few inches to let in the sound of the waves lapping on the shore. That sound could lull her to sleep every night. She left the light on atop Skyler's nightstand and tucked herself into bed.
She was on the verge of sleep when Skyler came into the room. She could hear him move about with the rustling of his pajama's material as he set something on his nightstand. He was still as he sat on the bed and turned off his light. Madison waited for him to lay down and put his arm around her as was his routine. When he didn't do so, she peeked over her shoulder.
Skyler held the open laptop. The glow from its screen tainted the blue of his eyes as worry creased his forehead. Those eyes were stern as he read what was on the screen with an expression that was rare for him. He was irritated.
Madison rolled over. "What's wrong?"
His eyes flashed to hers and softened for a breath. He then shook his head and looked to the screen. She could tell he was working to hide his dislike of something. "It's just Chase being Chase."
"Did he send something? I haven't heard from him in awhile."
"Nothing new," he answered as he exited the program. "I'll call him tomorrow."
Closing the screen, he shifted just enough to set the computer on the nightstand before lying on his side next to Madison. All vexation left his eyes as he reached out and wrapped her in his arms. The tiniest of smiles threatened to form on his lips.
Heavy with sleep, she rolled onto her side and held her place as he snuggled against her back. She could feel his breath mix with the breeze from the window and roll across her shoulder.
"I love you," she muttered into the darkness.
His hold on her tightened and he kissed the back of her neck. "I love you," he whispered. She put her hand atop his and relaxed against him.
The constant buzzing of the alarm clock woke Madison. Sunshine from the fresh day flowed through the open window and offered extra warmth. Reluctant to move, she reached over to the nightstand and slapped the snooze button into silence.
She lay motionless for a time. The feel of Skyler drawing a deep breath told her he was already awake. "What would you like for breakfast?" he asked.
She stretched and yawned. "I'll have what you're having."
Skyler patted her side. "Hop in the shower. I'll get something started." He brushed the curls from her face and tucked them behind her ear. After planting a kiss on her cheek, he went on his way.
Once showered, Madison dressed in dark slacks and a pink lacy blouse, and went up the hall. Skyler had breakfast tacos ready and waiting when she stepped into the black and white themed kitchen. She knew what he was making. The aroma of those peppers hit her before she was done in the shower.
"Smells great," she said despite her grumpy stomach.
"Just in time."
She helped him finish setting the wooden table that was tucked in the corner. Skyler pulled the diced pineapple from the fridge. Madison poured a cup of coffee for him and a juice for herself. They then shared the morning meal.
Madison cleaned the kitchen as Skyler took his turn in the shower. They had their routine down perfectly. It took them a few times to catch on to the capacity of the modest water heater when they first moved into the house.
She stood in the front hall once the kitchen was glowing yet again, drinking a glass of water in hopes to settle her tummy. Her eyes scanned the inside of their home. It was warm and inviting with the windows opened and white curtains swaying with the breeze.
The large ceiling fan in the living room turned lazily. It was all the rectangular room needed. A couch with a floral pattern sat in front of the bay window. A matching recliner was placed in the corner beside it. A wooden rocking chair was just inside the room close to where Madison stood. A television atop a black display was against the sage green inner wall. In the center of the room and covering much of the hardwood floor was a round, woven rug in a red a rose would envy.
On down the hall a ways on the left side was the closed door that led to the bathroom. It had a black and white tiled floor. The walls were a light gray. Framed pencil sketches adorned the walls.
The next door down opened up to the nursery. It was only a little smaller than their bedroom, but had a bigger closet. Plush, beige colored carpeting covered the floors. The room had three windows. One faced the side yard with its Casuarina and Mangrove trees, while two windows granted a view of the sandy beaches behind the house.
Across the hall from the nursery was their bedroom. The walls were the same sage that was found in the living room. Paintings of palm trees, waterfowl, and seashells hung on the walls. Four grand windows let in light and air from outside. Their bed sat between the two windows that overlooked the beach. A wicker dresser and matching armoire stood against the inner walls. Beige carpet like that in the nursery was also in the bedroom.
The rest of the house had hardwood floors. A red and white decorative rug covered the length of the main hall right up to the back door. Stepping out that back door would take one to the whitewashed, wraparound porch. A set of wooden chaise lounges was on the right side of the porch while a swinging bench hung on the left.
"Are you ready?" Skyler asked as he came up the hallway. His office attire for the day consisted of light khakis and a black polo shirt.
Madison shook her head. "Are we still good for lunch, or do you want me to pack something?"
"Lunch is good," he answered. "I will pick you up at noon. There shouldn't be any meetings today."
She smiled. There was a soda shoppe they had lunch at once a week, but ended up rescheduling their lunch date for the past three days. Skyler's office was busier than usual as of late. His lunches were on the go when he would get one in. It would be nice to finally have a moment during the work day to actually sit down and have a conversation.
"Any tours today?" she asked.
He moved about the kitchen. Madison already had his travel mug filled and keys set out for him. "I have one this morning," he answered after taking a sip from the mug. "There is a second one this afternoon. Then I'm supposed to go to the marina to help with Richard's boat."
Richard, Skyler's boss, was an older bachelor who owned more boats than pairs of shoes. He recruited Skyler on a regular basis to help him fix them up. The two talked like long lost friends as they worked on motors and repaired hulls.
"Do you want me to walk to the marina after my shift?"
Skyler looked surprised. "No," he answered quickly. "I shouldn't be long. I'll be back before you're done."
She gave him a questioning look. Last time he worked on Richard's boat, he was so engrossed in the project that he didn't notice the late hour. Madison had the Land Cruiser that day, but she waited at his office to pick him up, not knowing he finished early for the day.
"No worries," he shrugged. "Richard won't let me live that down. He reminds me of that every time I see him."
Taking her by the hand, he flashed a smirk and walked her out the front door, strolling up the sidewalk to their old, brown Land Cruiser. He opened the door for her while maintaining a charming smile. Once she was in and settled, he hurried around to the other side and climbed in.
The drive into town was refreshing with a crisp morning breeze. The quiet island would make anyone a morning person. Sunshine and perfect weather was routine.
The library was close to the center of town. Skyler pulled up in front of the stucco building as Tonya, the head librarian, was unlocking the front door. Madison leaned over and met him for a kiss.
"See you at noon," she said. He nodded, and she hopped out of the Cruiser.
"See you at noon," he returned.
Madison stepped back and waved as he pulled out and drove on. His office was only a few blocks away. She could stand in front of the library and watch him until he turned into the agency's parking lot.
But today she was a little behind.
She hurried in the front door and after Tonya. "Good morning!"
The bubbly blonde spun around. "Good morning, Madison.
She walked with Tonya to the front desk. After setting her purse in her office cubby, she grabbed a basket of returns, and the two got to work. Tonya opened boxes that held their newest shipment of books while Madison made her way around the collection of shelves and put each return where it belonged. It didn't take her long to have the basket emptied.
Patrons began to trickle in. Most knew what they were looking for and were content with helping themselves. Madison spent some time helping one woman find a novel she was looking for. She only had a partial title. Madison figured out which it was once the woman told her a bit of the synopsis. It was one she read when she first found the library.
The morning passed quickly and the lunch hour snuck up on Madison. If it wasn't for Tonya suggesting she head to an early lunch, she would have missed the time. An early lunch break sounded really good.
Knowing Skyler would not be expecting her for another twenty minutes, Madison decided to walk the short distance to his office. If he was not ready to go, she would just wait for him on a bench in the park across the street.
The Cruiser was in its regular space as she came to the building. There was only one other vehicle in the lot. Parked right next to the Cruiser was a little red car that belonged to Julie, the agency's receptionist.
Madison found her best smile and walked up the steps. A bell chimed as she opened the front door. Julie's automatic smile shifted to one of familiarity when she looked up.
"Good morning, Madison."
Madison eased the door closed. "Good morning, Julie. I know I'm early. I thought I'd wait here until Skyler is ready for lunch."
Julie leaned back in her chair, and tugged at the collaring of her ruffled purple blouse. "He's not back yet. You can wait at his desk if you want."
She headed for his corner. "Where did he go? The Cruiser is still out there."
"Beats me. Some clients came in about an hour after he got here. He asked me to get him some coffee while he spoke with them. When I came back, he was leaving with them."
Madison sat in the chair at his desk. She scanned over the few notes on his neatly organized workspace. "Was it the tour he had scheduled?"
Julie puffed out a humorless laugh. "No. Richard had to fill in for him. He was not too pleased about that."
"Is Richard already back?"
"He was, but he went to lunch. I'm about to take off if Skyler doesn't show up soon."
The phone rang. Julie got back to work. Madison was relieved for it. She was doing a poor job of holding a conversation with the woman. She never knew what to say. Julie always seemed bored when she spoke to her.
Madison's gaze returned to Skyler's desk. His travel mug stood at the far corner. She picked it up. She was surprised to feel its weight. It was still full. He would usually be halfway through his second refill by lunchtime. The ceramic mug he used at the office was where Julie left it. It had long gone cold.
Something was missing from atop the desk. Madison studied all the displayed items and tried to think of what it was. She rearranged a few things, but it didn't help.
She pulled open the top drawer and found it: the framed picture of them sitting on their porch swing. Chase snapped it not long after they moved in. It was their first photo as husband and wife. They both wore jeans and white t-shirts for a day of painting. Chase took it as they had their morning coffee and watched the tide come in. They didn't even know of the photo until after he had it developed and framed for them.
Why was it tucked away?
Putting the picture back in its usual place, Madison stared at it and wondered. It was not in the way of anything on the desk. It sat to the right of his phone. Maybe the cleaning lady dropped it again and he put it away to prevent it from being broken.
"Madison." She looked up and met Julie's business face. The blonde held her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "It's your neighbor on the line. She is looking to speak with Skyler about something at the house. Do you want to take it since he's out?"
Julie went back to the phone. "Mr. Andrew is not in at the moment, but his wife is here. She'll speak with you. Please hold." After pressing a few buttons, she looked to Madison and held up two fingers. "Line two."
She picked up Skyler's desk phone and took the call. "This is Madison."
"Are you guys all right?" came the frightened voice of their next-door neighbor, Ms. Williams.
"Yes, ma'am. What's wrong?"
"I told them I was calling the police, but they didn't stop. They didn't pay me any attention. I'm sorry I couldn't stop them …"
"Who? Ms. Williams, what happened?"
"Four men were pounding on your door this morning. I told them you were at work. They broke the door down and went inside. They were breaking things. I told them the police were coming, but they went through the house before they left. I don't know what they wanted."
"When was this?"
Ms. Williams slowed for just a moment. "Not long after you left, actually. They were in there for a few minutes. The police are here. They haven't contacted you yet?"
Madison shook her head. She tried to make sense of what was being said. "That might be where Skyler went," she said mostly to herself.
She looked up at Julie. "Were those clients police officers by any chance?"
Julie shrugged. "They didn't look like cops to me. They were too casual to be officers."
A thought struck her. "How many?"
Madison shifted back to the phone. "I'm on my way, Ms. Williams. If Skyler gets there before me, tell him to wait."
She didn't wait for an answer from the neighbor as she hung up the phone. She searched through the desk drawers for the keys to the Cruiser and couldn't find them, but then she remembered the spare set in her purse.
"Is everything all right?" Julie asked, her voice hinting at concern.
Madison got to her feet. "I don't know. You don't know where Skyler went? He didn't say anything?"
Julie shook her head. "He didn't say a word. The men went straight to his desk and started talking to him. He asked me for coffee. When I got back, he was going out the door. They stood on the front step for a few moments, then he got in a car with them. He didn't act like anything was wrong."
Jingling the keys in her hand, Madison crossed the floor to the door. Pausing for a second, she turned to Julie. "Do you have our home number or Ms. William's?"
Julie nodded. "Both."
"If he comes back, would you call and let me know?"
She stepped around her desk. "I will. Will you let me know if you find him first?"
Madison hesitated. There were times she felt the blonde was purposely irritating her, but something about the look in her eyes at that very moment was different. Apologetic. Worried. "I'll call you if I hear anything."
Relief washed across Julie's face. Madison hurried out the door before she could say anything more. A bigger worry was on her mind.
The drive to their house was normally something Madison enjoyed, but this time she had a nagging fear that something happened to Skyler. It burned in her mind throughout the entire length of the trip and nearly drove her mad. Was he hiding something? Did someone from Morgan's group find them? Had they not already paid for their mistakes?
She repeatedly reminded herself of the speed limit. It was easy to push the Cruiser faster with her dread. She was afraid of what she would find at their house.
They had a plan for what to do if they were ever discovered. They were to stick together. Skyler knew people that could help them. There were places they could go.
She decided not to jump to conclusions. She didn't know if anything was actually wrong. Skyler might have simply forgotten a meeting or tour and that was where he went. The men at the house could have been burglars. Their home was some distance from the nearest settlement. Everyone would know it would take a good amount of time before the authorities could arrive.
The island landscape zipped past unseen. Her eyes were locked on the road as her stomach turned and rolled with each breath. The steering wheel felt slick under her sweating palms. She counted down the seconds that felt like hours, and the miles that felt like leagues.
Madison forced herself to focus as she turned onto her road. She reined in her thoughts and found her composure. It would not do any good if she let her emotions run away with her.
Two patrol cars waited in the drive in front of her house. A man wearing the white and black uniform of an officer waited on the porch beside the opening where the door once stood. The red sash beneath his belting and matching stripe down the side of his pant leg was unmistakable. He glanced her way as she pulled in the driveway.