Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
Copyright Â© 2006, 2012 by Jeanette Baker
Int'l ISBN: 978-1-62071-006-7
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic means is forbidden unless written permission has been received from the publisher
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
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This Irish House
The Delaney Woman
The Lavender Field
A Delicate Finish
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'd like to thank Peter Riley for his expertise on the subjects of PCBs and water pollution, Steamers' Restaurant for its delicious crab and the watermen of the Chesapeake for their inspiration.
lizabeth Jane Delacourte had married down. It had taken her some time to admit it. Seventeen years, to be exact. But now that she had, there was no getting around it, no polite way of excusing the obvious or mincing words, even if she had wanted to sugarcoat the truth.
Her epiphany came upon her suddenly, two months after her divorce was final. She woke one day in the bedroom of her lakeside Southern California condominium and looked around at the trappings of her life: the beige walls and the beige carpet; the sterile pretentiousness of her green faux-leather couch and chairs, Eric's choice, not hers; the Formica bar separating the dining area from the kitchen nook; the sliding glass door and aluminum window frames; the wood-veneer countertops and cabinets; the solarium entry; the photos of Chloe at various stages of her life; and the king-size bed that now slept one. She realized what she should have accepted long before. She'd made a mistake.
Not that she hadn't been warned. The Beauchamps, her mother's people, dark-haired, golden-skinned, thin-lipped, temperamental, exotic and venomous as tropical lizards, hailed from the Louisiana Delta, where voodoo was still considered a religion. They'd passed down their powers of observation to Libby's mother, Nola Ruthâpowers she'd brought with her to Marshyhope Creek, Maryland, all those years ago. She'd taken one long look at the golden beauty and Colgate smile of the young actor who'd taken up residence in Marshyhope Creek for the summer, and pronounced him unsuitable to grace her table, much less call on her only daughter. Libby's father, a personal-injury attorney who could never quite meet his wife's expectations because of his penchant for accepting nonpaying clients, rarely sided with his wife. This time he did.
But Libby, seduced by the lights of Hollywood, a northern accent and a brilliant white-capped smile, defied them both. She called up the rebellious streak that made its frequent and regular appearance at defining points of her life, turned her back on Marshyhope Creek and the people who loved her, and eloped. Before the honeymoon was over her lust had dried up and she found herself tied to a boy too immature, too self-absorbed and too shallow to assume the role of husband at any time in the present or near future.
Libby did not consider herself a martyr, nor was she lacking in intelligence. What then had kept her three thousand miles away from her home, mired in the trappings of a loveless marriage? Again, the answer came to her on the very heels of her question. It was pride. All the Delacourtes had their share of pride, and Libby, with her Beauchamp genes from her mother, had a double dose.
It was Eric who finally ended it. “Things just aren't the same,” he'd told her. She'd stared at him, wondering what he referred to, considering that he'd spent no more than a total of thirty days in a row in her presence for the whole seventeen years of their marriage. She kept silent, however, for fear he might change his mind and that she might, in a moment of remorse, allow him to come back.
She sighed, looked at the clock, turned off the alarm, pounded the pillow and burrowed down into the covers. She had another fifteen minutes before it was time to wake Chloe for school, another fifteen minutes to mull over the direction of her life.
What she really wanted, if she was perfectly honest, was to relegate her soon-to-be ex-husband to the postage-stamp part of her brain that deserved to be lobotomized and move on as if she'd never known him. She would have done it, too, quite easily, if it weren't for Chloe, difficult, frustrating, sixteen-year-old Chloe, her only child, the feminine image of her beautiful, absentee father who had recently decided to reinstate himself in his daughter's life.
Libby's stomach rumbled. She rested her hand on her waist and squeezed a full inch of flesh between her thumb and first finger. The significance of that inch came upon her slowly. Panicking, she threw the covers aside, jumped up, stepped out of her pajamas and positioned herself sideways in front of the full-length mirror. Once again she pinched the flesh of her stomach, this time rolling the offending inch between her fingers. She sucked in her stomach, and pinched again. Better. Only a half inch this time. Keeping her muscles tight she walked into the bathroom and stepped on the scale. Immediately, the audio voice responded, “One hundred twenty-six pounds.”
It was Eric's scale and she intended to get rid of it this very day. Only a man would devise a scale that pronounced a woman's weight out loud to the world. What woman in her right mind would want that kind of deeply personal information broadcast so that anyone in the vicinity of her entire fourteen-hundred-square-foot condominium could hear it?
“That does it,” she fumed, stepping off the offending machine. “I've had it. Time to get serious. No more Starbucks caramel Frappuccinos. No more bagels and cream cheese from the deli and no more carbs after five o'clock at night.”
She turned on the water in the sink, found her toothbrush, squeezed a hint of Extra Whitening toothpaste on the bristles and marched into Chloe's room. “It's seven o'clock,” she said firmly, and waited.
Chloe didn't budge. Libby sat on the side of her daughter's bed and pulled the comforter aside with her free hand. “You told me to wake you half an hour earlier than usual.”
Chloe's voice, muffled and thick with sleep, drifted out from behind her hair. “I changed my mind.”
“It's too late for that,” said her mother.
“Because you've been to Saturday school three times this month for tardies. You're running out of Saturdays. You'll be thrown out of summer school.”
“Five more minutes,” said Chloe.
Libby swallowed her toothpaste. “Sorry. Get up now.”
Libby's voice sweetened and lowered. The Delta-flavored accent she couldn't completely eradicate even after seventeen years in the golden state came back to her. “Do you know what they tell parents to do with children who are habitually late and won't get out of bed?”
“Dump cold water over them and be sure the sheets get nice and wet.”
Chloe sat up. Her eyes were sleep puffy. Silver hair framed her face like a halo. “You wouldn't,” she said witheringly.
“Probably not,” her mother agreed. “But I will ground you. You'll come straight home every day. No more after-school theater and no more dance class until you go a whole quarter without another tardy.”
“Dad wouldn't let you do that to me,” Chloe said smugly.
Libby's eyes flashed. “Try me.”
Chloe shrugged a tanned shoulder and fixed slanted blue eyes on her mother. “Whatever.”
“Are you getting up?”
“As soon as you leave.”
Chloe sighed and threw the covers aside. “I'm naked. Do you mind leaving my bedroom so I can get up?”
“Of course not,” Libby said, averting her eyes and hurrying to leave. She stopped at the door. “Why would you sleep naked?”
“You bought me T-shirt sheets. I can't feel them with pajamas and, besides, I was hot. This is California, not Siberia.”
Libby left the room without answering. There was nothing more to say. Chloe's reasons were solid. There was nothing wrong with sleeping in the nude. Libby had done it herself, many times, but she hadn't been alone. Why was she disturbed that her sixteen-year-old daughter would choose to sleep without a stitch on? She would have to think about it, analyze it, resolve it. Libby was a great analyzer. She would isolate her feeling and diagnose the problem. Then she would dissect it, bit by bit, until it was stripped clean, bluntly exposed, the solution clear.
Forty minutes later she was still in the middle of the process when Chloe, fully clothed in her usual black, joined her in the kitchen.
She stared pointedly at her mother's grapefruit and black coffee. “Are you on another diet?”
“Good morning to you, too,” Libby said brightly. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
“I've gained six pounds.”
Chloe dumped an indecent amount of Lucky Charms into her bowl and began picking out the marshmallow bits and popping them into her mouth. “Since when?”
Libby thought back to when she'd last been one hundred and twenty pounds. “I'm not sure. Three months, maybe four.”
“You don't look any fatter.”
Chloe shrugged. “Don't thank me. It's the truth. You're always obsessing over your weight, but your clothes fit and you always wear the same size.” She licked her fingers. “Do you know what I think?”
“Please, enlighten me.”
“I think you have an eating disorder.”
Libby nearly choked on a mouthful of grapefruit. “You're joking.”
Chloe shook her head. “We learned about them in school. You have all the symptoms.” She ticked them off. “Obsession with weight, always thinking you're fat when you're not, starving yourself with weird diets that never make you look any different, checking labels on everything, feeling guilty when you eat something fattening in public. Face it, Mom. You're a classic case.”
Libby's first reaction was to deny and her next was to retaliate. She was instantly ashamed of both.
Sixteen years old
, she reminded herself.
She's sixteen years old. You're above squaring off with your sixteen-year-old daughter.
She opted for maturity, swallowed and smiled. “That's very interesting. I'll keep your diagnosis in mind. Meanwhile, I'll watch what I eat for a while just to make sure those six pounds don't turn into ten.”
“Whatever lifts your skirts,” Chloe said.
Libby's eyes flashed pure fire. Her voice was soft and dangerous and very Southern. “What did you say?”
Chloe yawned. “You heard me.”
“Yes, but I was hoping I'd heard wrong. Wherever did you pick up that piece of vulgarity?”
“I don't believe you. Your father is immature, lazy and selfish, but never vulgar.”
Chloe stood, leaving her chair pulled out, and shouldered her backpack. “I'll relay the compliment. By the way, I'll be home late. I have a theater-club meeting and Daddy's picking me up for dinner.”
“It's a school night,” Libby reminded her. “Be sure he has you home early.”
“How about eleven o'clock?”
“What if I have all my homework done?”
Libby considered the request, mentally willing herself to be objective, something she had difficulty doing when it came to Eric. “Only if your homework's done. Otherwise it's nine o'clock and not a minute later.”
“I don't know why you have to be this way,” Chloe countered. “You never used to be unreasonable. It all started when Daddy came home for good.”
Libby stood and began clearing the table. “I disagree. It's an age problem. Fortunately, it has time limits. Come here and kiss me goodbye or I won't be able to make it through my day.”
Chloe groaned, reluctantly pecked her mother's cheek and walked out, slamming the door behind her.
Libby sighed, rinsed the dishes and stacked them in the dishwasher. A growing desire for independence was only a part of Chloe's recent rebellion. Most of their conflicts arose over Eric. Now that he'd decided to return to the West Coast permanently, Chloe was obsessed with him and with the perceived glamour of his lifestyle, neither of which Libby approved.
She picked up Chloe's box of Lucky Charms and absentmindedly reached in for a handful. Sanity returned before the bits of marshmallow and puffed wheat reached her mouth. Hastily she dumped the offensive particles into the garbage disposal and secured the dishwasher door. “I am
a classic case,” she said, leaving the kitchen to collect her jacket and briefcase. She deliberately ignored her reflection in the full-length hall mirror and walked into the garage.
Libby, honest with herself more than she wasn't, felt the sting of Chloe's pronouncement. Not that she believed she had an eating disorder, but wasn't there something wrong when a thirty-seven-year-old woman was never satisfied with her appearance, when she kept checking her reflection in store windows and pulling out her mirror to reapply lipstick twice every half hour? When had she become so insecure over her looks? The question was a rhetorical one and she already had the answer. Elizabeth Jane Delacourte, golden girl, homecoming queen of Marshyhope Creek's lone high school, had thrown it all away for a man, and not just any man. She'd changed the direction of her life for Eric Richards, who, before the ink was dry on their marriage certificate, suggested, strictly for her benefit of course, that she was unsophisticated, frumpy and lacking in relevant conversation.
At first she'd believed him, and later, even when she knew better, even when she no longer cared what Eric thought of her, occasionally the old wound would throb. It was throbbing now that Chloe, her precious child, thought that her father, who'd shown virtually no interest in her until three months ago, walked on water.
The three lanes of the 101 Freeway North to Ventura were jammed with the usual rush hour traffic. Libby tapped her thumbs nervously on the steering wheel of her Toyota Corolla and blew a strand of hair off her forehead. It was unusually hot for July. California weather wasn't normally unbearable until August and September, but how could anyone predict the temperature in a state without seasons?
Her meeting was scheduled for eight-thirty and she was late. Like mother, like daughter. A new BMW cut her off. She slammed on her brakes and fumed silently. What was she doing living in this place where people ordered Coca Cola martinis and lined up with sleeping bags for the premier of a
film, where the air quality on the best of days was only fair, where drinking water from the tap was a health risk, where the normal wait for a seat in a restaurant was at least two hours, where deluded mothers tossed aside their children's youth, paid thousands of dollars for headshots, drove countless miles to parade their sons and daughters before casting directors in the pathetic and vicarious pursuit of a three-second commercial blip.