Millie Hart had never seen so many rosy-cheeked men. Her key was under one of them, and if she didn’t find the little bastard before her phone battery died, she’d be spending the night in a neon-green rental car. The same rental car she’d torn apart moments earlier looking for the Post-it on which her assistant, Karen, wrote the “pertinent cottage access information.”
Karen loved Post-its.
Millie did not because they disappeared like socks in a dryer. Not that she shared that or the fact it was no longer 1985 with Karen, but if she’d emailed or a texted even, Millie would have the information on her trusty—her phone battery dropped to 7 percent. In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, her assistant managed a jab.
“Post-its still suck,” she whispered as a chill tickled the edge of her sweatshirt and her Converse sank deeper into the soggy green front yard of a cottage to which she had no key.
Realizing thoughts alone didn’t move her closer to a warm bed, Millie cataloged the things she knew. The key was under a gnome statue. The gnome held… flowers, maybe? She surveyed all the little men. There must have been close to fifty. Roughly a third were in some state of bloom, so Millie got to work.
Holding a flower and leaning on a rainbow? No
Feeding ducks among the flowers? Damn.
After lifting every gnome with a flower or near a flower, her hands were dirty, the knees of her jeans were damp, and she still had no key. Not for the first time in her life, Millie felt ridiculous. How was she supposed to write a serious novel if she couldn’t even get inside?
Sitting back on her heels, she was struck by the silence. The drive up from San Francisco had been surreal moonlight and curves of jagged coast, like a twisted path rescuing her from the noisy bustle. But now, practically on her hands and knees in some stranger’s yard, the hush seemed intimate like she was trespassing. Save the gentle lapping of water somewhere and the tinging of what sounded like boat masts, it was pin-drop quiet.
A breeze strummed the wind chimes along the house awning. Millie sighed, crossed her arms for warmth, and faced the night sky. There were so many stars. Her logical mind knew it was the same sky over her apartment balcony back home, but it sure seemed like Bodega Bay received a bonus pack of constellations. Crisp and clear against the endless black, Millie lifted her hand but snapped it back down and stood.
It was late. She had no access to her rental, and there she was reaching for stars dangling millions of miles away.
“You are ridiculous, Mildred Hartfield,” she whispered with her father’s exacting tone.
A gnome holding flowers behind his back sat a few steps toward the gate. Millie tipped him over. Nothing. She even lifted the paint-chipped one who looked like he might have worn a flower wreath back in his prime.
Were there no female gnomes? Her phone battery dropped another percent.
She should have left the city earlier. The plan was to be on the road by three, which would have given her plenty of time to search for the key in daylight, maybe even stop for groceries instead of rutting around in the dark. But she’d lost track of time researching antique stamps and the best boots for shorter legs. A heated thread on Twitter she stayed out of—but still giggled at some comments—followed by a couple of emails, and before she knew it, she was in the rabbit hole of distractions. Millie had never mastered distraction.
“It’s the internet’s fault,” she whispered, lifting another statue and cursed again when she found nothing but matted grass.
If she hoped to join the ranks of the literary elite, she needed to make and stick to a plan. Outlines, timelines, schedules, and keys. Millie wasn’t a planner by nature, she was a show-up-and-see-what-happens kind of person.
Life was short, she knew firsthand, but her work kept those lines between her eyebrows at bay. To her father’s eternal disappointment, Millie had “insisted on the sunny side of the street.”
Another thing, she reminded herself, that would need to change. No more sun and that started with her writing. None of the meet-cutes and sarcastic banter that had put her squarely on every best-seller list. No sun-soaked getaways and absolutely no winking.
For the next four months, if one of these stubborn gnomes coughed up the key, Millie would step to the overcast side and silence her romantic heart. It was time to delve into the mind of her alter ego and far more serious novelist, Mildred Hartfield. She was determined to become the queen of the metaphors, seriously messed-up character backstories, and lush descriptions. Truly, she would describe the hell out of everything for hundreds of pages if she could only find a key.
Why couldn’t the Millers use a lock box like the rest of the world?
Hoisting the bag she’d left on the cobblestone path to her shoulder, Millie considered if it was possible to fall asleep in such a small rental car. Even if she turned over every little man, with or without flowers, her phone battery would die before she finished.
The front door of the cottage smirked at her from under a yellow awning. A mason jar light, barely doing its job, hung over a doorbell shaped like a rainbow fish. This place looked like it belonged on the board of a Candy Land game and wasn’t even close to the “remote and moody retreat” Millie had asked Karen to find.
She could still hear her mom’s laughter. Reminding herself that she always felt more when she was tired, Millie swallowed the memories. In a last-ditch effort before folding herself back into a car for the night, she shined her light toward a gnome placed beneath the most elaborate birdbath she’d ever seen. No flowers, just a pick over his shoulder, but there were daisies on the birdbath, so she checked anyway. No key.
“Damn, damn, damn.”
“It’s the one by the door,” a rough male voice called out from nowhere. “The one holding the beehive.”
“The beehive. That’s right.” Her bag slipped off her shoulder and hung heavy at her elbow as she attempted to shine light in the direction of the voice. That was the exact moment her phone died, plunging her into darkness as the unmistakable slap of a screen door echoed through the distance.
“Thank you,” she said, knowing no one was there. Hopefully she hadn’t pissed off someone already, not that she’d be borrowing sugar or anything.
It was strange that in all her imaginings leading up to her self-imposed retreat, she’d never imagined people. She’d pictured her writing space, the foggy ambience, the quiet contemplation of her masterpiece, but not neighbors, which was silly. Bodega Bay surely existed on its own with or without her imaginings.
Back at the front door, she found an old chair beneath a matching daisy bird feeder. There were two pinwheels stuck in a pot of flowers and another gnome. The little beehive-holding bastard grinned up at her, some paint flaking from his cherub cheeks. Millie tipped back the statue and on a huge exhale found a silver ring with two keys. She could kiss the man behind the mystery voice, and although he probably looked a lot like the gnomes, she’d kiss him anyway.
Finally letting herself into the cottage, she set her bag down, flipped the switch on the wall, and was again reminded that Karen operated in a vacuum. There was nothing dark or brooding about this cottage. She’d nailed the quiet part, so that was something, but everywhere Millie looked was beach-vacation charming. Rich wood floors, tiny colored tiles in the kitchen, and a rowboat-shaped mug holder near a small sink. Painted-over cabinets with heavy glass inlays and brass fixtures. Even the doorknob still nestled in her hand was a comfortable welcome, as was the tattered rug along with a slipcovered couch and chair.
Everything seemed to have a place and was at least three decades old, but none of it was offensive. Charm, only charm. Even the creaks and groans of the floorboards as she looked around the corner and into the nautical-themed bedroom were friendly. Millie loved it, but love would not help Mildred Hartfield write a literary masterpiece complete with murder, mayhem, and well, lots of alliteration.
Finding a plug for her phone in the bedroom, she returned to the car for the rest of her bags, the litterbox, and Pop-Tart, who had no problem sleeping in a car. Pajamas on, Millie locked the door, careful to hang the keys on the hook at the entry.
“Glass half full,” she mumbled, pulling back the covers and scooting Pop-Tart over. She could write a serious novel in a happy space. First thing in the morning, she’d pull the blinds and do what she’d mastered most of her adult life—she’d slip into another world.
At least it was quiet.
Drake Branch was well on his way to becoming a chamomile tea believer. He’d had his doubts when his sister Jules suggested it, but after two mugs, he’d barely been able to count the bolts in the ceiling of his Airstream. He’d fallen off to blissful sleep around ten o’clock. No nightmares, no running to-do lists until the latest in a long line of Miller cottage renters slammed her car door a little after midnight. He’d rolled over hoping the chamomile would take him back under, but he needed to think about more insulation. And he’d forgotten about the gnomes.
Drake had a theory that the Millers hid the key among their army of gnomes as some kind of initiation. Something to get the renters up close and personal with the garden statuary because every single renter, since Bob and Beatrice Miller moved closer to their grandkids and rented out their house, arrived only to wander the yard in frustration. Drake’s Airstream was ten stone steps from the Millers’ gate. He’d settled there almost three years ago when he and his best friend since forever, Tyler, opened BP Glass Works.
In that time, there had been hundreds of renters, most of whom had the decency to show up before midnight. Drake would admit it was entertaining watching pastel-wearing interlopers hunt around the tiny yard. Hell, he and Tyler had been known to pop open a few beers after work and watch for well over thirty minutes before helping out. There was some animosity between locals and tourists in Bodega Bay. The typical love-hate relationship. Not exactly ill will, save a few who were “knob-noxious” as Bella, his niece, would say, but more a locals-first mantra.
This was their home, their town. The Bay was their collective history and the added stories of generations who’d grown up close. Drake hadn’t always appreciated the town that raised him. Truth be told, there were a lot of things he screwed up in his quest to break free, but that was a long time ago.
The Millers’ latest renter was no doubt here for a girls’ weekend or maybe another bachelorette party. She would park in restricted areas, ask obvious questions like, “So, do you guys actually live here?” and when it got too cold or too rainy, she’d be on her way back to the big city or wherever she’d packed her bags excited for a “getaway.”
While Drake knew full well that tourists lined up for his parents’ crab cakes and kept his friends in business another year, they were still a pain in the ass. Especially ones who showed up in the middle of the night and scared off his chamomile.
But, by the time Drake finally gave up on the hope of sleep and ducked beneath the hot spray of the shower around five o’clock, all was forgiven and almost forgotten. Hopefullytheir latest gnome whisperer spent a ton of cash in town and was only around for a week at the most. Resting his hand on the shower wall, he willed away exhaustion and tried to recall his list for the day.
Drake rinsed his hair, turned off the water, and grabbed a towel to dry his face and most of his body. Grinning at the robe that hung unused on the back of his bathroom door, he tossed the towel on the rack and stepped into his sleeping area. His mom had bought him that robe years ago when she’d learned he could no longer wrap a towel around his waist.
“Robes are great,” she’d said while his sisters held in their laughter and his dad made some reference to Hugh Hefner.
Despite their mocking, he’d tried it, but it proved more trouble than it was worth. He’d learned to dry what he could reach, and the air took care of the rest. Of all the things he missed most about having two hands, the simplicity of wrapping a towel around his waist continued to make the top ten.
After getting dressed and rubbing sanitizer onto his bicep, he pushed into his prosthesis and checked the time. Mondays and Wednesdays, he picked up Bella from his parents and walked her to school. His parents owned the Crab Shack and were usually up to their asses in work by sunrise. Bayside Elementary wasn’t that far, and Jules usually had the boats from either a run or a fishing tour back by eight in time to make the walk herself. Bella started band this year, though, and needed to be at school by seven on Mondays and Wednesdays. So, Mondays and Wednesdays became Drake’s favorite mornings.
Stepping into the dawn and enjoying the soft glow of the horizon, he glanced over at the Millers’ cottage. All was quiet now. Rental car. He noticed the plate. Damn tourists.
Drake climbed into his truck and drove to his childhood home, tucked behind the Crab Shack on a few acres. They’d extended the restaurant patio recently and paved the parking lot. There were people lined up before they opened most days. He remembered being a kid and waking up late on Saturdays to the rumble of motorcycles and slamming doors as people gathered for his mom and dad’s famous crab cakes and chowder.
Bella would have those memories now, he realized as she ran from her room, hands full and still blinking away sleep.
“Cinnamon rolls?” she asked, sitting at the base of the stairs to tie her shoes.
Drake gave a pained expression. “They only had bran muffins.”
Her face fell.
“Of course, cinnamon rolls.” He crouched down and tickled her. “Get your stuff, and don’t forget your horn.”
Still giggling and shaking her head at him, she grabbed her stuff and they gave out a round of kisses at the restaurant before heading off to school.
“How’s the Iron Man arm?” Bella asked, chomping on her breakfast and holding up his hand. Drake flexed his bicep, firing off the fingers in the prosthesis. Bella smiled. “That’s still so cool.”
Bella was six back when she’d named him Iron Man and unknowingly lightened a very heavy load. Since then, Drake had always made sure to wear his prosthesis around her, and the rest of his family. It was part of the superhero mystique, he’d decided. They approached the front of the school and Drake handed over her trumpet.
“How’s band going?”
She took the instrument and shook her head. “The French horns need to get it together or our recital will stink.”
“Always the French horns, huh?” He shook his head too. “Did that kid who kept spitting on you cut it out, or do you need me to take care of him?”
She giggled. “Mr. Mandel talked to him.” She glanced toward the entrance.
“Okay, well you’re five minutes early.” He kissed her forehead. “Have a great day, Beauty.”
She scowled and whispered, “You can’t call me that here.”
“Why not? You’re beautiful. They all know it.”
“Fifth grade is rough. It’s not like it was back when you and Mom were little. Before like electricity and stuff.”
Drake tickled her. “Aren’t you hysterical? Get in there, brat.”
She leaned up on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Love you, Iron Man,” she whispered and ran off to join her bandmates who were gathering outside.
Drake’s heart thumped true in his chest as he walked back and climbed into his truck. He knew his luck now. Grateful for his niece, his family, his friends. Grateful to be alive.
After swinging by Swept Away Books to help Auntie N with whatever chores she made up for him as an excuse to visit and gossip, Drake made it to his studio by nine. Everyone else had arrived, including the guys in the metal shop next door, so Drake cranked the music and got down to creating glass magic.