The alarm rang at 6 AM, jolting me out from under my down comforter and into a pair of slippers. As much as I enjoyed innkeeping, I would never get used to climbing out of bed while everyone else was still sleeping. Ten minutes later I was in the kitchen, inhaling the aroma of dark-roasted coffee as I tapped it into the coffeemaker and gazing out the window at the gray-blue morning. Fog, it looked like–the swirling mist had swallowed even the Cranberry Rock lighthouse, just a quarter of a mile away.
I grabbed the sugar and flour canisters from the pantry and dug a bag of blueberries out of the freezer for Wicked Blueberry Coffee Cake. The recipe was one of my favorites: not only did my guests rave over the butter-and-brown-sugar-drenched cake, but its simplicity was a drowsy cook's dream.
The coffeepot had barely finished gurgling when I sprinkled the pan of dimpled batter with brown-sugar topping and eased it into the oven. My eyes focused on the clock above the sink: 6:30. Just enough time for a relaxed thirty minutes on the kitchen porch.
Equipped with a mug of steaming French-roast coffee, I grabbed my blue windbreaker from its hook next to the door and headed out into the gray Maine morning. As hard as it was to drag myself out of a soft, warm bed while it was still dark outside, I loved mornings on Cranberry Island.
I settled myself into a white-painted wooden rocker and took a sip of strong, sweet coffee. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks was muted, but mesmerizing. I inhaled the tangy air as I rocked, watching the fog twirl around the rocks and feeling the kiss of a breeze on my cheeks. A tern wheeled overhead as the thrum of a lobster boat rumbled across the water, pulsing and fading as it moved from trap to trap.
"Natalie!" A voice from behind me shattered my reverie. I jumped at the sound of my name, spilling coffee on my legs. "I was looking for you." Bernard Katz's bulbous nose protruded from the kitchen door. I stood up and swiped at my coffee-stained jeans. I had made it very clear that the kitchen was off-limits to guests–not only was there a sign on the door, but it was listed in the house rules guests received when they checked in.
"Can I help you with something?" I couldn't keep the anger from seeping into my voice.
"We're going to need breakfast at seven. And my son and his wife will be joining us. She doesn't eat any fat, so you'll have to have something light for her."
"But breakfast doesn't start until 8:30."
"Yes, well, I'm sure you'll throw something together." He glanced at his watch, a Rolex the size of a life preserver. "Oops! You'd better get cracking. They'll be here in twenty minutes."
I opened my mouth to protest, but he disappeared back into my kitchen with a bang. My first impulse was to storm through the door and tell Katz he could fish for his breakfast, but my business survival instinct kicked in. Breakfast at seven? Fine. That would be an extra $50 on his bill for the extra guests–and for the inconvenience. Scrambled egg whites should do the trick for Mrs. Katz Jr. First, however, a change of clothes was in order. I swallowed what was left of my coffee and took a deep, lingering breath of the salty air before heading inside to find a fresh pair of jeans.
My stomach clenched again as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom. Bernard Katz, owner of resorts for the rich and famous, had earmarked the beautiful, and currently vacant, fifty-acre parcel of land right next to the Gray Whale Inn for his next big resort–de-spite the fact that the Shoreline Conservation Association had recently reached an agreement with the Cranberry Island Board of Selectmen to buy the property and protect the endangered terns that nested there. The birds had lost most of their nesting grounds to people over the past hundred years, and the small strip of beach protected by towering cliffs was home to one of the largest tern populations still in existence.
Katz, however, was keen to make sleepy little Cranberry Island the next bijou in his crown of elite resorts, and was throwing bundles of money at the board to encourage them to sell it to him instead. If Katz managed to buy the land, I was afraid the sprawling resort would mean the end not only for the terns, but for the Gray Whale Inn.
As I reached the door to my bedroom, I wondered yet again why Katz and his assistant were staying at my inn. Bernard Katz's son Stanley and his daughter-in-law Estelle owned a huge "summer cottage" called Cliffside that was just on the other side of the preserve. I had been tempted to decline Katz's reservation, but the state of my financial affairs made it impossible to refuse any request for a week in two of my most expensive rooms.
I reminded myself that while Katz and his assistant Ogden Wilson were odious, my other guests–the Bittles, a retired couple up from Alabama for an artists' retreat–were lovely, and deserved a wonderful vacation. And at least Katz had paid up front. As of last Friday, my checking account had dropped to under $300, and the next mortgage payment was due in two weeks. Although Katz's arrival on the island might mean the eventual end of the Gray Whale Inn, right now I needed the cash.
Goosebumps crept up my legs under the wet denim as I searched for something to wear. Despite the fact that it was June, and one of the warmer months of the year, my body hadn't adjusted to Maine's lower temperatures. I had spent the last fifteen years under Austin's searing sun, working for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife and dreaming of someday moving to the coast to start a bed-and-breakfast.
I had discovered the Gray Whale Inn while staying with a friend in a house she rented every summer on Mount Desert Island. I had come to Maine to heal a broken heart, and had no idea I'd fall in love all over again–this time with a 150-year-old former sea captain's house on a small island accessible only by boat.
The inn was magical; light airy rooms with views of the sea, acres of beach roses, and sweet peas climbing across the balconies. I jotted down the real estate agent's number and called on a whim, never guessing that my long-term fantasy might be within my grasp. When the agent informed me that the inn was for sale at a bargain price, I raced to put together enough money for a down payment.
I had had the good fortune to buy a large old house when Austin was a sleepy town in a slump. After a room-by-room renovation, it sold for three times the original price, and between the proceeds of the house and my entire retirement savings, there was just enough money to take out a mortgage on the inn. A mortgage, I reflected as I strained to button my last pair of clean jeans, whose monthly payments were equivalent to the annual Gross National Product of Sweden.
I tossed my coffee-stained jeans into the overflowing laundry basket and paused for a last-minute inspection in the cloudy mirror above the dresser. Gray eyes looked back at me from a face only slightly plump from two months of butter-and sugar-laden breakfasts and cookies. I took a few swipes at my bobbed brown hair with a brush and checked for white hairs–no new ones today, although with the Katzes around my hair might be solid white by the end of the summer. If I hadn't already torn all of my hair out, that is.
When I pushed through the swinging door to the dining room at 7:00, Bernard Katz sat alone, gazing out the broad sweep of windows toward the section of coastline he had earmarked for his golf course. He looked like a banker in a blue pinstriped three-piece suit whose buttons strained to cover his round stomach. Katz turned at the sound of my footsteps, exposing a line of crooked teeth as he smiled. He was a self-made man, someone had told me. Apparently there'd been no money in the family budget for orthodontic work. Still, if I had enough money to buy islands, I'd have found a couple of thousand dollars to spare for straight teeth.
"Coffee. Perfect." He plucked the heavy blue mug from the place setting in front of him and held it out. "I'll take cream and sugar." I filled his cup, congratulating myself for not spilling it on his pants, then plunked the cream pitcher and sugar bowl on the table.
"You know, you stand to earn quite a bit of business from our little project." Katz took a sip of coffee. "Not bad," he said, sounding surprised. "Anyway, there's always a bit of overflow in the busy season. We might be able to arrange something so that your guests could use our facilities. For a fee, of course."
Of course. He leaned back and put his expensively loafered feet on one of my chairs. Apparently he was willing to cough up some change for footwear. "I know starting a business is tough, and it looks like your occupancy is on the low side." He nodded at the room full of empty tables.
"Well, it is an hour and a half before breakfast." He didn't have to know that only two other rooms were booked–and one of those was for Barbara Eggleby, the Shoreline Conservation Association representative who was coming to the island for the sole purpose of preventing his development from happening.
"Still," he went on, "this is the high season." His eyes swept over the empty tables. "Or should be. Most of the inns in this area are booked to capacity." My first impulse was to respond that most of the inns in the area had been open for more than two months, and that he was welcome to go to the mainland and stay at one of them, but I held my tongue.
He removed his feet from my chair and leaned toward me. "Our resort will make Cranberry Island the hot spot for the rich and famous in Maine. Kennebunkport won't know what hit it.
Your place will be perfect for the people who want glitz but can't afford the price tag of the resort."
Glitz? The whole point of Cranberry Island was its ruggedness and natural beauty. So my inn would be a catchall for poor people who couldn't quite swing the gigantic tab at Katz's mega resort. Lovely.
I smiled. "Actually, I think the island works better as a place to get away from all the ?glitz'. And I don't think a golf course would do much to enhance the island's appeal." I paused for a moment. "Or the nesting success of the black-chinned terns."
"Oh, yes, the birds." He tsked and shook his head. The sun gleamed on his bald pate, highlighting the liver spots that had begun to appear like oversized freckles. "I almost forgot, you're heading up that greenie committee. I would have thought you were smarter than that, being a businesswoman." He waved a hand. "Well, I'm sure we could work something out, you know, move the nests somewhere else or something."
"Good morning, Bernie." The sharp report of stiletto heels rescued me from having to respond. Bernie?
"Estelle!" Katz virtually leaped from his chair. "Please, sit down." Katz's daughter-in-law approached the table in a blaze of fuchsia and decorated Katz's cheeks with two air kisses before favoring him with a brilliant smile of straight, pearl-white teeth. Clearly orthodontic work had been a priority for her. Her frosted blonde hair was coiffed in a Marilyn Monroe pouf, and the neckline of her hot pink suit plunged low enough to expose a touch of black lace bra. An interesting choice for a foggy island morning on the coast of Maine. Maybe this was what Katz meant by glitz.
She turned her ice-blue eyes to me and arranged her frosted pink lips in a hard line. "Coffee. Black." She returned her gaze to Katz, composing her face into a simpering smile as he pulled out a chair for her.
"Estelle, I'm so glad you could come. Where's Stanley?" Stanley Katz was Bernard Katz's son, and Estelle's husband. I'd seen him around the island; he had inherited his father's girth and balding pate, but not his business sense or charisma. Stanley and Estelle had seemed like a mismatched couple to me until I found out the Katzes were rolling in the green stuff. As much as I didn't like the Katzes, I felt sorry for Stanley. Between his overbearing father and his glamorous wife, he faded into the background.
"Stanley?" Estelle looked like she was searching her brain to place the name. "Oh, he's out parking the car. I didn't want to have to walk over all of those horrid rocks." She fixed me with a stare. "You really should build a proper walkway. I could have broken a heel."
Katz chuckled. "When the Cranberry Island Premier Resort is built, you won't have to worry about any rocks, my dear." Or birds, or plants, or anything else that was "inconvenient." Their voices floated over my shoulder as I headed back to the kitchen. "You look stunning as usual, Estelle."
"Keep saying things like that and I'll be wishing I'd married you!" I rolled my eyes as the kitchen door swung shut behind me.
The aroma of coffee cake enveloped me as I ran down my mental checklist. Fruit salad, whole wheat toast, and skinny scrambled eggs for Estelle; scrambled whole eggs and blueberry coffee cake would work for Katz, who from the bulge over his pin-striped pants didn't seem too interested in Weight Watchers-style breakfasts. I tugged at the snug waistband of my jeans and grimaced. At least Katz and I had one thing in common. I grabbed a crystal bowl from the cabinet and two melons from the countertop.
As the French chef's knife sliced through the orange flesh of a cantaloupe, my eyes drifted to the window. I hoped the blanket of fog would lift soon. The Cranberry Island Board of Selectmen was meeting tonight to decide what to do with the land next door, and Barbara Eggleby, the Shoreline Conservation Association representative, was due in today. I was afraid the bad weather might delay her flight. Save Our Terns, the three-person island group I had formed to save the terns' nesting ground from development, was counting on Barbara for the financial backing to combat Katz's bid for development. As I slid melon chunks into the bowl and retrieved a box of berries from the refrigerator, my eyes returned to the window. The fog did look like it was letting up a bit. I could make out a lobster boat chugging across the leaden water.
The berries tumbled into a silver colander like dark blue and red gems, and as the water from the faucet gushed over them, the small boat paused to haul a trap. A moment later, the engine growled as the boat turned and steamed toward the mainland, threading its way through the myriad of brightly colored buoys that studded the cold saltwater.
Since moving to the island, I had learned that each lobsterman had a signature buoy color that enabled him to recognize his own traps, as well as the traps of others. I had been surprised to discover that what I thought of as open ocean was actually carved up into unofficial but zealously guarded fishing territories.
My eyes followed the receding boat as I gave the berries a final swirl and turned off the faucet. Lately, some of the lobstermen from the mainland had been encroaching on island territory, and the local lobster co-op was in an uproar. I strained my eyes to see if any of the offending red and green buoys were present. The veil of fog thinned for a moment, and sure enough, bobbing next to a jaunty pink and white one was a trio of what looked like nautical Christmas ornaments.
The boat had vanished from sight by the time the fruit salad was finished. I eyed my creation–the blueberries and raspberries interspersed with the bright green of kiwi made a perfect complement to the cantaloupe–and opened the fridge to retrieve a dozen eggs and some fat-free milk. When I turned around, I slammed into Ogden Wilson, Katz's skinny assistant. My fingers tightened on the milk before it could slip from my grasp, but the impact jolted the eggs out of my hand. I stifled a curse as the carton hit the floor. Was I going to have to install a lock on the kitchen door?
Ogden didn't apologize. Nor did he stoop to help me collect the egg carton, which was upended in a gelatinous mess on my hardwood floor. "Mr. Katz would like to know when breakfast will be ready." His eyes bulged behind the thick lenses of his glasses. With his oily pale skin and lanky body, he reminded me of some kind of cave-dwelling amphibian. I wished he'd crawl back into his hole.
I bent down to inventory the carton; only three of the dozen had survived. "Well, now that we're out of eggs, it will be a few minutes later." It occurred to me that I hadn't considered him when doing the breakfast tally. Although Ogden generally stuck to his boss like glue, it was easy to forget he existed. "Are you going to be joining them?"
"Of course. But do try to hurry. Mr. Katz has an extremely busy schedule."
"Well, I'm afraid breakfast will be slightly delayed." I tipped my chin toward the mess on the floor. "But I'll see what I can do."
The oven timer buzzed as Ogden slipped through the swinging door to the dining room. I rescued the cake from the oven and squatted to clean up the mess on the floor. What kind of urgent business could Bernard Katz have on an island of less than a square mile? Most of the movers and shakers here were fisher-men's wives after a few too many beers. I hoped Barbara Eggleby would be able to convince the board that the Shoreline Conservation Association was the right choice for the land next door. The Katz development would be a cancer on the island. Lord knew the Katzes were.
I raced up the stairs and knocked on my niece's door. Gwen had come to work with me for the summer, cleaning the rooms, covering the phones, and helping with the cooking from time to time in exchange for room and board. The help was a godsend– not only was it free, but it allowed me time to work on promoting the inn–but Gwen was not a perfect assistant.
Part of the reason Gwen was spending the summer at the inn was that her mother didn't know what else to do with her: she'd flunked half of her classes her first year at UCLA and my sister couldn't spend more than ten minutes in the same room with her daughter without one or the other of them declaring war. Her work at the inn, while not F-level, was between a B and a C, when I needed everything to be A+. Still, help was help, and beggars couldn't be choosers. I wished that some of the enthusiasm she showed for the art classes she was taking on the island would spill over to her housekeeping skills.
"Who is it?" answered a groggy voice from the other side of the door. I cracked the door open. Gwen's hair was a messy brown halo in the dim light from the curtained window.
"I'm sorry to wake you, but I need you to run down to Char-lene's and get a dozen eggs."
"What time is it?"
"It's just after seven. Please hurry ...I've got guests waiting."
She groaned. "Seven in the morning?"
"I know. But it's an emergency." She grumbled something and began to move toward the side of the bed, so I closed the door and jogged back down the stairs. I'd start with fruit salad and a plate of coffee cake, and bring out the eggs later. Maybe a pan of sausage, too ...I could keep it warm until the Bittles came down at 8:30.
I was retrieving a package of pork sausages from the freezer when someone tapped on the door to the back porch. I whirled around to tell the Katzes I'd meet them in the dining room shortly, and saw the sunstreaked brown hair of my neighbor, John Quinton.
"Come in!" I hollered, smiling for the first time that morning. John's green eyes twinkled in a face already brown from afternoons out on the water in his sailboat, and his faded green T-shirt and shorts were streaked with sawdust. John was both a friend and a tenant; he rented the inn's converted carriage house from me, as well as a small shed he had converted to a workshop. He was a sculptor who created beautiful things from the driftwood that washed up on the beaches, but supplemented what he called his "art habit" with a variety of part-time jobs. In the spring and summer, he made toy sailboats for the gift shop on the pier. He also
held a year-round job as the island's only deputy.
"You're up early. Working on a new project?" I asked.
"Island Artists ordered a few more boats. I figured I'd churn them out this morning and then start on some fun stuff." His eyes glinted with mischief. "One of Claudette's goats was eyeing your sweet peas, by the way. I shooed her off, but I'm afraid she'll be back."
I groaned. Claudette White was one of the three members of Save Our Terns, and was known on the island as "eccentric." Although her husband, Eleazer, was a boatbuilder and popular with the locals, most of the islanders gave Claudette a wide berth. Her goats were almost as unpopular as she was, since they were notorious for escaping and consuming other people's gardens.
When Claudette wasn't caring for her goats or knitting their wool into sweaters and hats, she was holding forth at length about the evils of the modern world to anyone who would listen. I wasn't delighted that she had chosen to join Save Our Terns,but since the only other takers had been my best friend, Charlene, and me, we didn't feel we could turn her down.
John watched me pry sausage links out of a box and into a cast-iron pan. "I'm not the only one up early. I thought breakfast wasn't till 8:30."
"Yeah, well, we're working on Katz time today." A thump came from overhead, and then the sound of the shower. I sighed: so much for urgency. Gwen must be performing her morning ablutions. I appealed to John for help. "Do you have any eggs I can borrow? I was going to send Gwen down to the store, but I'm short on time."
"I just picked up a dozen yesterday. Is that enough?"
"You're a lifesaver." He disappeared through the back door, and the thought flitted through my mind that he might stay for a cup of coffee when he got back. I spooned fruit salad into a crystal bowl and reminded myself that John had a girlfriend in Portland.
Five minutes later I sailed into the dining room bearing the fruit salad and a platter mounded with hot coffee cake. Stanley Katz had arrived, and sat hunched in an ill-fitting brown suit next to his wife. Estelle glared at me. "Coffee cake? I can't eat that. I thought this breakfast was supposed to be low-fat!" Then she pointed a lacquered nail at the ginger-colored cat who had curled up in a sunbeam on the windowsill. "And why is there a cat in your dining room? Surely that's against health department regulations?"
I scooped up Biscuit and deposited her in the living room. She narrowed her gold-green eyes at me and stalked over to the sofa as I hurried back into the dining room. "I'll have skinny scrambled eggs and wheat toast out shortly," I said. "We had a slight mishap in the kitchen." I shot Ogden a look. He blinked behind his thick lenses. I attempted a bright smile. "Can I get anybody more coffee?"
Estelle sighed. "I suppose so." She turned to her father-in-law, who had already transferred two pieces of cake to his plate. "With this kind of service," she muttered under her breath, "I don't know how she expects to stay in business."
When I got back into the kitchen, a carton of eggs lay on the butcher-block counter. Darn. I'd missed John. The sausages had started to sizzle and Estelle's egg whites were almost done when the phone rang.
"Charlene? You're up early." Charlene was the local grocer, a fellow member of Save Our Terns, and my source for island gossip. She was also my best friend.
"I've got bad news."
I groaned. "You're kidding. The Katzes sprang a surprise 7 AM breakfast on me and then his assistant broke all of my eggs. It can't get any worse."
"It can. I just talked to the coastal airport: no planes in or out, probably for the whole day. A big nor'easter is about to hit the coast."
My heart thumped in my chest. "The airport is closed? So Barbara isn't going to make it in time for the council meeting?"
"It's just you and me, babe. And Claudette."
My stomach sank. Without a representative from the Shoreline Conservation Association to combat Katz's offer for the property next to the inn, we could only sit and watch as Katz wooed the board of selectmen with visions of the fat bank accounts the island would enjoy when the Cranberry Island Premier Resort came into being.
I leaned my head against the wall. "We're sunk."