by Cade Haddock Strong
Wen Apollo dreams of seeing the world beyond the small riverside town where she grew up. But operating the local mailboat keeps her tethered to Coopersville. Islands dot the river, and their residents rely on her to deliver everything from food and medicine to pet food and plumbing supplies.
On a raw spring day, Wen goes to Owl Island—the summer home of the illustrious Gage family—to deliver a package. It’s addressed to the family’s oldest daughter, Estelle, a woman Wen has long admired from afar.
Estelle Gage fled to the islands seeking solitude and an escape. With the deadline for her latest novel fast approaching, her sole focus is to write. But when the handsome mailboat captain shows up on her doorstep, writing is no longer the only thing on her mind.
A steady stream of packages continues to bring Wen back to Owl Island—and to Estelle. But as summer looms, so does the impending arrival of Estelle’s family. The return of the Gages will most certainly spell the end to Estelle and Wen’s idyllic time cloistered together on the island. What will that mean for their budding relationship?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"My wife and I like to read the New York Times over breakfast on Sundays. One morning, back in 2020, there was an article about a family that has operated a mailboat in Maine since 1905. In that time, four generations of the family have delivered letters, packages, and passengers to their island community. The article spurred something in me.
That afternoon Mailboat was born. I set aside the manuscript I’d been working on and began to craft a story about a female mailboat captain. In my story, the boat captain, Wen, serves a fictional island community in a region called the Thousand Islands along the US/Canadian border. Many of the islands Wen serves are owned by wealthy families and their grand “cottages” serve as summer homes.
A large portion of Mailboat takes place in early April. A time of year when winter finally gives way to spring in that neck of the woods. One of the people I interviewed for the book beautifully detailed the joy of spring in the Thousand Islands—seeing buds sprout on the trees, hearing the first loon, or spotting the first oriole. I worked hard to incorporate that kind of detail into Mailboat."
—Cade Haddock Strong
Abbott F. - The author is a skillful writer who knows how to bring readers into her story and hold them enthralled from the first page to the last. Strong has created two characters, one a successful author and the other a mailboat captain, who will capture the hearts of readers and have them rooting for the two characters to make the relationship work even though readers know the book will have a happy-ever-after ending. Both characters are strong, intelligent, and looking for a relationship that will complete their lives. Strong’s descriptions of life on the river are vividly drawn and will have readers Googling possible vacation destinations in the thousand island area.
If you like your romances between two well-drawn strong and intelligent characters without constant angst, this book is for you, and should be put at the top of your to-be-read list.
Betty H. - The author did an exceptional job with the setting, the characters, and especially with the story itself. This is an easy to read, beautiful romance that I really enjoyed. It would make a great summer vacation novel. You should try it.
When she neared the rocky shore of Owl Island, Wen pulled back on the throttle and the boat lowered in the water as it slowed. From her vantage point, only the red metal roof of the main house was visible. A wide wooden dock jutted out into the water, but rather than approach it, she circled the island, searching for any sign of life.
Owl Island, summer home to the illustrious Gage family, was the largest private island on the US side of the Saint Lawrence River. By Wen’s estimate, it measured almost a half a mile in circumference. Soaring trees fringed its shoreline, and a long rolling lawn—one ready-made for croquet—surrounded the now dormant gardens and a three-bay boathouse. Aside from a small cluster of pine trees, the limbs of the trees were bare, and small patches of snow remained in their shadows. Even from the water, Wen could smell the thawing earth under the afternoon sun.
When the hulking, white-shingled house came into view, Wen thought she detected movement in the widow’s watch perched atop its roof, but she might have imagined it. It was probably way too early in the season for any member of the Gage family to be up in the islands, and it wouldn’t be the first time her mind had played tricks on her. Being out on the water all alone each day could do that to a person.
Just as she completed her loop of the island, the boat’s inboard engine sputtered.
“Dammit.” She patted its fiberglass turtle shell. “Come on, baby, don’t fail me now.”
The engine ignored her pleas and stalled out, leaving her adrift in the river’s swift current. She turned the key in the ignition. Nothing.
She let out a low growl. “Why am I stuck running this damn mailboat?”
No time to dwell on that now. The boat drifted dangerously close to a shoal on her starboard side. She counted to three, held her breath, and turned the key again. The engine choked to life.
“That’s my girl.”
But when she nudged the throttle forward, it died again. No matter how many curse words she uttered, it would not restart.
* * *
Estelle Gage stood in the widow’s watch and peered out over the water. She’d come up to the islands to focus on her writing, but all she’d succeeded in doing thus far was freeze her ass off. Maybe I should have stayed in New York…
Commotion on the water pulled her from her thoughts. A woman—it looked like a woman—waved her hands in the air, and even from her perch in the widow’s watch, Estelle could hear her profanity-laced tirade. What in the world? She welcomed the sight of another human being, but this one appeared to be on the verge of a meltdown. And her boat was drifting toward the shoal off Owl Island. Although they weren’t visible until you were right on top of them, rocks loomed inches below the water’s surface. She watched as the woman scurried to the bow and hurled an anchor into the water. Was she in trouble? Estelle got her answer when the woman lifted the engine’s cover and peered inside. She took off down the stairs and snagged a coat from a hook near the back door.
When she got outside, she hollered across the water, “Do you need help?”
What a stupid question, of course she needs help…
“Engine croaked,” the woman replied without looking up.
Estelle ran toward the boathouse, forgetting that none of her family’s vessels were in the water yet.
A rubber Zodiac dinghy rested in the hoist above one of the boat slips. It would have to do. She lowered it into the water and grabbed a life preserver from a hook on the wall. The door to the boathouse creaked as it rolled open. She fastened the buckles on the life vest and jumped in the Zodiac. It rocked heavily from side to side, forcing her to grab onto the nearby deck to keep from falling in the water. The small chunks of ice floating in the river were a grim reminder that this was no time to take a swim, unintended or not. She plunked herself on the wooden bench flanking the Zodiac’s stern, pulled the choke on the engine, and tugged the start cord. The little outboard started on the first pull. Estelle reversed out of the boathouse, shifted into forward, and steered toward the woman in her disabled craft.
“On my way,” she yelled as she closed the distance between them. The large wooden boat engulfed her dinky dinghy in its shadow.
The woman peeked up from the engine compartment and gave Estelle a broad smile. “Quite a mighty vessel you have there.”
Heat rose up Estelle’s neck, but not because she was embarrassed. She hadn’t been prepared for the soft blue eyes that stared down at her.
“Come on around by the stern and I’ll help you aboard,” the woman said. Under the circumstances she was amazingly calm. Her anchor seemed to be holding, at least for the time being, but the current was unrelenting, and if she drifted even a few feet, her boat would be on the rocks.
Estelle maneuvered the dinghy along the hull of the bigger boat. A large wooden platform jutted off its back, right beneath the name MATHILDE stenciled in thick gold letters. Two strong hands reached out. She latched onto them and slid out of the dinghy and onto the platform.
The woman tied the Zodiac’s line to a cleat and nodded toward Mathilde’s helm. “The darn thing won’t start for me. Why don’t you give it a shot? Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
Estelle swung her legs over the back of the boat, stepped inside, and strode toward the helm. The boat rumbled to life on the first turn. The woman pumped her hand in the air and lowered the cover over the engine. Once she’d hoisted the anchor back aboard, Estelle stepped aside to let her take the wheel. They turned toward shore, and the woman flawlessly landed the large boat, bringing it perfectly parallel to the island’s dock on her first try.
Estelle jumped ashore and wound the bow and stern lines around the big metal cleats. “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?” she hollered over the hum of the engine.
The woman nodded and killed the engine. The raw weather had rendered her round cheeks rosy. When she joined Estelle on the dock, she tugged off her wool cap, sending a cascade of blond hair down her back.
Estelle stumbled backward. Dear God. The lesbian fairies were shining on her. Thirty minutes earlier, she’d been shivering in the widow’s watch, cursing her decision to come up to the islands alone in the off-season. And now, a tall, handsome mailboat captain stood on her dock. Ooh, la la. Having a deserted island at her disposal might come in handy. She took a deep breath and extended her hand.
“I’m Estelle Gage, by the way.”
* * *
Wen knew who she was. Although they’d never formally met—townies and the summer folk rarely mingled—she’d long admired Estelle from afar, swooning over her on the rare occasions when she ventured into town during the summer season.
Wen wiped her own hand on her canvas workpants and shook Estelle’s perfectly manicured one. “Wen Apollo. Mailboat captain extraordinaire, except of course when my engine dies. Thanks for coming to my rescue.”
“You’re welcome,” Estelle said, “although I’m not sure how much I did. You probably would have gotten her started on your own.”
“I don’t know. The old girl only decided to cooperate when you came aboard.” Wen patted the hull of her boat. “Mathilde and I both appreciate you venturing into these icy waters on our behalf.”
“Speaking of which, it’s awfully cold out.” Estelle tugged her coat around her lean frame. “How about that tea I promised?”
“If you’re sure you don’t mind.” Surely, Estelle wasn’t on the island alone. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding at all. I’d love the company.”
“All right then,” Wen said, “but before I forget, I’ve got a package for you. That’s why I was out this way.”
She jumped back onto the boat and squinted into a pile of boxes next to the helm. The package she sought wasn’t hard to find. It was large and oddly shaped. Thick block letters scrawled on its brown packaging read: Estelle Gage, Owl Island.
“Careful,” she said as she handed the package to Estelle. “It’s heavy.”
Estelle took the package and effortlessly hoisted it over her shoulder. “Thank you.”
Wen threw two dense rubber bumpers over the side of her boat and climbed back ashore. “Would you like a hand with that?”
Estelle shook her head. “Nah, I’ve got it, but thanks.” She turned and led Wen up the wide stone steps to the front porch of the house. A lone white wicker rocking chair occupied its narrow gray floorboards. The wooden door creaked when Estelle pushed it open and a blast of warm air hit Wen’s face when she stepped into the house’s grand foyer. Why people referred to these island homes as “cottages,” she’d never understand. True, they served strictly as summer homes, partially because they were virtually unreachable during the long, brutal winters, but nonetheless, “estate” or “manse” seemed more apt.
It was barely forty degrees outside, and places like these were rarely insulated. Yet the house was toasty, enough so that Wen’s numb fingers began to tingle. A peek into the living room explained why. A fire raged behind the window of the jukebox-sized wood-burning stove at the far end of the room. The bin next to it overflowed with firewood. If Wen had to guess, Estelle had not been in residence for long. A musty smell permeated the air, as if the house had just been roused from its long winter’s nap.
Wen shrugged out of her wool-lined Carhartt jacket and combed her fingers through her long blond hair. She held up her coat and asked, “Where should I hang this?”
Estelle’s intense brown eyes were on her, and Wen quickly diverted her gaze.
“You can just toss it on the couch,” Estelle said as she lowered the package to the floor.
“Are you sure?” Wen eyed the sofa’s plaid upholstery. “I’d hate to mess it up.”
Estelle waved her off and continued across the living room, so Wen gently laid her jacket on the back of the couch and hurried after her.
“This is my favorite part of the house,” Estelle said when they crossed into the adjoining room.
“I can see why.”
A slightly warped wooden ping-pong table sat in the middle of the floor, and shelves full of board games and books lined the walls. Wooden tennis rackets—encased in dusty racket presses—and a croquet set were tucked in the corner. She ran a hand over some of the book spines. No surprise, all the classics were there. Did the Gage family sit around at night and discuss Homer and Brontë? Probably. A far cry from the conversations around the dinner table at the Apollo household.
“During the summer, we kids spend every night in here,” Estelle said. “I’m the residing Yahtzee champion.”
Wen chuckled. She pegged Estelle to be in her early thirties, so it was funny to hear her refer to herself as a kid, although Estelle’s mother was legendary in town. Rumor had it that she ruled the Gage family roost with an iron fist.
A wide hallway led back to the kitchen, one side lined with a well-stocked bar. Its glass shelves held dozens of bottles of brown liquids and crystal glasses of various sizes and shapes. Wen generally stuck to beer, preferably IPA, the hoppier the better, but if she had a bar like that at home, she might be inclined to toss back a splash of bourbon.
The kitchen was enormous and more updated than Wen expected given the state of the rest of the house. Gleaming stainless appliances, two deep white porcelain sinks, and a light gray granite island that was big enough to ballroom dance on. Did the Gages actually cook their own meals?
Estelle set the kettle on the stove, fired up the burner, and pulled two mugs from the cupboard.
Wen nodded toward the ornate silver tea set atop a nearby butler’s table. “You mean you aren’t going to serve us with that?”
Estelle laughed. “I don’t think anyone has used that since my grandmother died. My mother just can’t bring herself to get rid of it.”
While the water heated and Estelle busied herself arranging cookies on a plate, Wen took the opportunity to steal a few glances. She was even more beautiful than Wen remembered. Her long, dark lashes fluttered when she blinked, and her fair skin bore evidence of having recently spent time in a warmer climate. If Wen had to guess, she was close to six feet tall and had probably grown up playing tennis and soccer and every other sport under the sun. Light streaks ran through her otherwise dark brown hair. A few strands had come loose from her ponytail and hung down alongside her face.
After their tea steeped, Estelle said, “Why don’t we go back into the living room. It’s the warmest place in the house.”
Wen followed her back the way they’d come. “Would you like me to add wood to the fire?” she asked.
Estelle smiled. “Yes, thank you. I swear that stove goes through wood like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Oh, I believe it. We’ve got one at home, albeit a lot smaller than yours. They sure do crank out the heat, though.”
Two leather chairs flanked the wood-burning stove and after Wen tended the fire, Estelle gestured for her to take a seat. The silky-smooth leather crinkled when Wen lowered herself into the chair. A footstool, topped with a bulging needlepoint cushion, sat in front of each chair. Estelle propped her feet up on the one in front of her.
“Cute shoes.” Wen gestured toward Estelle’s black Converse high-tops. “I’ve got a pair just like them.”
She focused on the needlepoint stool in front of her chair. It looked dainty next to her steel-toed Timberlands. Unlike Estelle, she opted to keep her feet on the floor. She’d hate to dirty the stool. It had probably been needlepointed by Estelle’s great-grandmother or something. Shit, where are my manners?
“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. Would you like me to remove my boots? I should have asked.”
“Don’t be silly,” Estelle said. “We’re very informal at the cottage.”
Wen stifled a smirk. She lifted the mug of tea to her lips and took in her surroundings. The room probably looked the same as it had when the prior generation of Gages had summered here. An Apple laptop on the side table next to Estelle was the only indication that they were living in the twenty-first century. A patchwork of well-worn, braided wool rugs covered the pine floors, and photos of sun-kissed children and framed nautical charts hung on the walls. Wen paused at a collection of photos to the left of the wood stove.
“Are those all woodies your family has owned?” she asked. The classic antique wooden boats were a jewel in the river’s rich boating heritage.
Estelle nodded. “We still have two of them, although one is in much better condition than the other.”
“My dad’s got a wooden Chris-Craft in our garage,” Wen said, “but it’s in crappy shape. I don’t think it even warrants being called a woodie. It would probably sink to the bottom of the river if he actually put it in the water. My dream is to fix it up one day.” Wen laughed. “Mathilde is a solid old girl, but she’s not exactly the belle of the ball.”
“If you ask me, Mathilde is a fine vessel,” Estelle said, “but I have to agree, no boat is as beautiful as the old woodies.” She paused to take a sip of tea. “My father was a trustee of the Antique Boat Museum and restoring old Chris-Crafts was a lifelong hobby of his. When I was a child, I considered it the most boring activity in the world, but I’ve grown to appreciate it. It requires a lot of love and patience, but the finished product—a beautifully restored woodie—makes the hard work well worth it.”
Estelle set her mug on the table next to her chair and stood. Her perfectly shaped, white-tipped fingernail tapped the glass on one of the photos and she gave Wen a brief history of the boat in the picture.
Aside from the mammoth silver Rolex hanging around her wrist, her hands bore no jewelry. Interesting that there was no wedding ring. The townies loved to gossip about the wealthy families who owned the private islands, and Wen recalled Estelle marrying another New York debutante a few years back.
She jammed her chapped and calloused hands into the pockets of her hoodie and joined Estelle in front of the photo to get a closer look at the boat.
They stood inches apart as they moved along the row of photographs. Wen tugged at the neck of her sweatshirt. Heat rose up her torso, and she was fairly certain it had nothing to do with her proximity to the wood stove.
When they returned to their seats in front of the fire, Estelle asked, “You might be wondering what I’m doing up here all alone this time of year?”
“I’ll admit, it’s a bit, um, unusual.”
Estelle crossed her ankles on the needlepoint stool. “I’m an author, and I’ve had a rotten case of writer’s block. I thought a change of scene would help. I came here to do one thing: finish my manuscript, come hell or high water.”
“Wow,” Wen replied. “I had no idea you were an author.” She knew very little about Estelle except that she was very rich and very beautiful.
Wen shifted in her seat, suddenly self-conscious about the smears of grease and dirt on her pants. Why hadn’t she put on clean Carhartts this morning? Because you didn’t know you’d be sitting here chatting with Estelle-fucking-Gage.
“I’ve let life get in the way of my writing for too long,” Estelle said, “and now I’ve decided to make it a priority.” She picked at a thread on her sleeve. “Took countless hours of therapy, but I’m finally learning to devote more time to the things that are important to me and not feel guilty about it.”
Their conversation up until now had been mostly superficial. And this sudden shift to a topic of a more personal nature would have been fine under normal circumstances, but the circumstances were anything but normal. Townies didn’t come to tea at places like the Gage residence, and when they did interact with the summer folk, they stuck to cursory topics, like the weather. Wen wasn’t always one to follow conventions, but she knew her place.
There was a lull in the conversation, and she realized she needed to say something in response. She sensed that there was more to the story about why Estelle was up on Owl Island all alone in early April—still borderline winter in this neck of the woods—but she didn’t want to pry.
“Um, good for you…If nothing else, it sure is quiet up here this time of year. Even though the river has mostly thawed, most people still consider it way too cold.”
“I know the calendar says it’s spring,” Estelle said, “but you could have fooled me. Are you aware it’s forecasted to snow tonight? Hopefully I won’t freeze to death.”
Wen leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “I’d be happy to check in on you over the weekend if you like.” She pulled her phone from her coat pocket. “And here, let me give you my number. Feel free to call me if you need anything at all. If I can’t help, I’m sure I know someone in town who can.”
“That’s very kind of you, Wen, thank you.” Estelle jotted down her number and asked, “Did you grow up here in Coopersville?”
“I did. My family has been here for five generations.”
“Sounds like maybe it should be called Apollosville instead of Coopersville.”
“Ha, yeah, maybe I should bring that up with the mayor,” Wen said. “He might entertain it, especially because there’s been talk about naming the new community center after my father. He helped raise most of the money for it.”
“Your father sounds like a miracle worker,” Estelle said. “Raising money isn’t for the faint of heart under any circumstance.”
“He’s an incredible guy. That, and he adores the town.”
“With good reason. It’s a beautiful place, and it seems to be full of decent, hardworking people.”
“I’m sensing maybe you don’t have the same enthusiasm for Coopersville as your father does.”
“Oh, I do,” Wen said. “It’s just, I’ve been here my whole life and—this is kind of embarrassing—the furthest I’ve ever been from home is Ohio. I’m itching to go someplace else. You know, maybe experience another culture. I’m trying to teach myself Spanish, but it’s hard. Everyone in town who speaks it fluently probably wishes I’d get abducted by aliens because I constantly pester them to help me practice.”
“I hope you get a chance to explore the world outside of Coopersville,” Estelle said, “but it appears as though you have a lot going for you here. These days, there aren’t many people who can say their family has lived in the same place for generations, and from the sounds of it, you know nearly everyone in town.”
“Pretty much,” Wen said, “which is great. But growing up, if I so much as peered in the window of the tattoo parlor or, God forbid, sneezed without tucking my nose into my elbow, it got back to my parents.”
Estelle laughed. “Makes sense. A small town like this, no surprise everyone is in your business. I grew up in New York. There’s so much anonymity there. You can get away with a lot, which isn’t always a good thing.”
“I suppose not,” Wen said. “But it had to be a heck of a lot of fun to grow up there.”
“It was.” Estelle cocked her head and smiled. “But of course, I never did anything mischievous.”
“Oh, of course not.” Wen couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not. Even though Estelle sat across from her in Converse sneakers and jeans and had been nothing but friendly toward her, she still had this image of the Gages conjured up in her head. Stuffy, refined, and well-bred.
“But I’ll spare you the details of my youth,” Estelle said.
When she didn’t say anything further, Wen panicked. Had she overstayed her welcome? Maybe their conversation had gotten too personal?
She sprang to her feet. “I’m sorry, I’ve taken up enough of your time. It’s bad enough that you had to come out and rescue me from the shoal. I should let you get back to your writing.”
Estelle stood. “No need to apologize. I’ve enjoyed your company. You’re easy to talk to. I’m the one who should probably apologize. I talked your ear off.”
“Not at all,” Wen said. She walked over to the couch and slipped on her coat and hat. “And anyway, I’m always happy to listen.”
It was true. She often made deliveries to some of the year-round residents, and for many of them, she was the only person they’d seen in days or maybe even weeks. In her line of work, being a good listener was almost as important as knowing how to captain the boat. Although, no one else on her route was as beautiful and intriguing as Estelle. Wen would happily sit there all day and listen to her talk.