Read Chesapeake Tide Online

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

Chesapeake Tide (3 page)

“I wonder where I got it,” she muttered.

“Your mother has her heart set on going to see her parents. She's had a very hard time of it since they cut her off. Libby is a small-town girl. She always was. Living here has been a strain. She's done as well as can be expected, but she's never fit in. Surely you can give her a brief visit.”

“What if it isn't a visit?”

“We'll tackle that hurdle when we come to it. My guess is that if you're miserable, she'll be miserable. She won't stay if you're unhappy.”

“Why can't I stay with you?”

He sighed. “Christ, Chloe, you're relentless.”

“Answer the question.”

“I'm not set up to take care of you. You'd have to transfer schools. I'm not home every night. I may have been an absentee father, but even I know it isn't good to leave teenagers home alone.”

“I can stay by myself,” said Chloe sulkily.

“Of course you can,” her father agreed, “now and then.”

“Will you send for me if Mom decides to stay in Maryland?”

“She won't.”

“If she does?”

“God, Chloe, all right. You win. I'll send for you.”

“Promise.”

“I promise.”

Satisfied, Chloe sat back in her seat and closed her eyes again. Her heart constricted whenever she thought of her father. Despite the trappings of the good life, she sensed a vulnerability in him, as if something was missing. She wanted to protect him. It was selfish of her mother to take her away. He needed someone to take care of him. He needed Chloe. The sun had gone down during their argument. “I want to eat at Spagos.”

Eric laughed. “You're a spoiled brat,” he said. “I can't believe your mother allows this kind of behavior.”

“She doesn't. And I'm not spoiled. Spoiled brats don't appreciate the gifts they're given. I do. I've only eaten there once, with you. I want to go again.”

He picked up his cell phone and shook his head. “You're a smart girl, Chloe, too smart. I'm no match for you. I'll see if I can get a reservation.”

Th
ree

N
ola Ruth Delacourte reclined on a daybed pulled out on the porch of her big white house on the outskirts of Marshyhope Creek and looked across at the water, a finger of the Chesapeake. On the other side of the inlet, migrant workers picked peaches in Marshall Hadley's grove. It had been a dry spring, drier than most she'd seen in her sixty-five years, and the summer promised to be dry as well. By eight o'clock that morning a relentless wet heat had settled over the land like a steam bath from which there was no respite. She squinted her eyes and smiled into the steamy morning. The workers, gathered together from other farms to help harvest the grove, were cooling themselves, bathing in the murky water. The sight of dark, bare-skinned bodies, shiny and water slick, reminded her of earlier, lustier days when she was young and hot-blooded and the nights held out promises of magic and romance and music.

Sometimes, her faded hearing came back and her ears, too damaged to really listen to the conversations around her, picked up the old familiar strains of the blues. There was BoBo Jones with his sax and Johnny Fontana on the trumpet and Moss Daggett banging his spoons. The music was sweet and sharp and so achingly poignant it could charm the clothes right off a woman's back. Those were years worth remembering, when she had her youth and her looks and her hearing, the absolute power of a young woman in full bloom with all of life ahead. Where had the time gone? Where had
she
gone? Who was that old woman looking back at her from the mirror? Life wasn't fair. She didn't feel any different, not until the stroke had suddenly pulled her into a dervish of helpless dependency, making even the smallest tasks insurmountable challenges.

Lordy, Lordy, where was Libba Jane? Where was her precious, spirited, exquisite daughter? How had such an absurd argument come between them and grown until there was no going around it and seventeen years had blinked by? How could something as insignificant as a man have parted them? Somehow, their words had gotten away from them. Passions were high and things that shouldn't have been said were said. Still, Nola Ruth was completely unprepared for the finality of their break. Libba had always been so sensible, with one exception. But she wouldn't think of that now. It was water under the bridge. Libba was coming home with her child and without Eric Richards. Except for seventeen empty years, Nola Ruth couldn't have planned it better.

“Nola Ruth.” Her husband's voice cut through her thoughts. “Can I get you anything? Iced tea or lemonade, maybe?”

She shook her head and didn't look at him, hoping he would fade back into the dim hallway from where he'd come. Coleson Delacourte, as unresponsive to his wife's moods as he'd been forty years ago, walked out on to the porch and sat down beside her.

“The doctor said you should use your voice as much as possible, Nola. Your speech will improve faster.”

“My speech is fine,” she snapped, angry that he'd brought up a sensitive subject. She abhorred weakness, more so in herself than in anyone around her.

Cole bypassed her anger. “I want to talk about Libba and Chloe.”

Nola Ruth looked at him and waited.

“There will be some adjusting to having a child in the house. It won't be the same.”

“I know that.”

“We've only had Libba,” her husband continued. “Kids are different today. Chloe is California born and raised. She's not going to settle in right away. I don't think anyone should mention staying here permanently.”

“Are you censoring my speech, Coleson?”

Coleson Delacourte looked at his wife, shriveled and broken, old before her time, but still beautiful. Nola would be beautiful if she lived to be a hundred. It was in her bones and in her eyes and in the lean, exotic length of her. She was first-lady material. He'd told her that long ago. It had pleased her. There was a time, long ago, when she had been easily pleased. Not anymore. “That's exactly what I'm doing, Nola Ruth,” he said softly.

She did not look away. “You never cared before,” she said. “Why now?”

“You're wrong,” he said gently. “I cared a great deal.”

Nola Ruth looked down and fidgeted with the fringe of her linen wrap. “I won't say anything, not unless Libba brings it up first.”

“Thank you.”

She hoped he'd go now that he'd said what he came for, but he didn't.

“Do you remember the first time I brought you home?”

“Why are you bringing that up now?” she asked, impatient, as usual, with his resurrecting the past.

“You were so young and so lovely.”

“Do you have any idea how that makes me feel, now that I'm not?” she demanded.

“Everyone ages, Nola Ruth,” he said patiently. “No need to be sensitive because you aren't twenty-five anymore. You're still the loveliest woman I've ever known.”

“I'm not sensitive about my age, Coleson, or my looks. It's my condition I find hard to tolerate.”

“The doctors say you're doing well.”

She didn't look at him. “That's encouraging. I wonder how they'd feel if they were in my place, unable to perform even the smallest act of independence.”

Coleson Delacourte, a spare, fit man looking much younger than his years, shrugged his shoulders. “You're one feisty woman, Nola Ruth.”

She didn't answer him. Cole was a good man, a philanthropist. The word
no
wasn't in his vocabulary. Once, forty years ago, she'd loved that about him. When had it changed? When had the sensitivity she'd admired become weakness in her eyes? She couldn't pinpoint a specific moment. Perhaps it happened gradually, when she was no longer grateful, when she realized that he was content to putter at the law, to take those cases that no one else would take, to set aside his fees more often than not, to allow their daughter, their only child, to attend the local public school and then, later, live at home and attend a state university when it was most important for her future to go elsewhere, when all the right people went elsewhere.

Everything Cole did, he did in the name of principle and balancing the scales. He was a civil rights advocate well before it was politically correct, well before Thurgood Marshall and
Brown
v.
Board of Education of Topeka
turned everything below the Mason-Dixon Line upside down. In his own way, he was a hero. Nola Ruth had heard him described in exactly those terms. She had no use for heroes. She wanted nothing to do with a martyr who sacrificed his family in the name of righteousness. Because of him Libba had left the Tidewater and gone where no self-respecting Southern woman would think of going, to Hollywood, and with an actor, no less, a self-absorbed, shallow shell of a boy-man who lived in the imagination of the moment pretending to be someone other than himself, traits that did not lend themselves to his settling into being a serious marriage partner.

Cole sat beside her, relaxed, back curved, elbows on his knees, one hand under his chin, lean, flat-bellied, with all his original hair. He wasn't a man given to excesses. He rarely drank, never smoked and ate only to fill the emptiness in his stomach. He was as different from Eric Richards as a man could be. Women were supposed to marry men like their fathers. Nola Ruth would have liked to see Libba marry someone like Cole, only more ambitious. She would have liked her daughter to be appreciated, even treasured.

“Do you still blame me for her leaving us?” he asked.

To be kind or to be truthful, that was the question. She decided on honesty. “Not directly.”

“What does that mean?”

“You didn't send her out the door, Cole. She brought Eric home. She was attracted to him. You were as unhappy about it as I was. We pushed her away with our disapproval. I let her go because I wanted her to come home on her own. I didn't want history to repeat itself. Neither of us can help what we are.”

He looked surprised. “Thank you. I didn't expect that.”

She shrugged, a ragged painful lifting of one shoulder. “She's coming home. That's all that's important.”

Coleson Delacourte struggled within himself. She could see it in the folding skin between his eyebrows, in the tense line of his jaw and the rigid set of his shoulders. “She's a thirty-seven-year-old single mother with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. What in the hell will she do with herself in Marshyhope Creek?” he asked at last.

Nola Ruth frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Who will she talk to? I can't think of a single woman her age in this town who's done what she has.”

“Women are different, Coleson. She'll do fine. This is Libba's home. She'll find her place.”

A shadow darkened the blinding brightness of the walkway, diverting their attention. A small, cocoa-skinned woman carrying a basket hobbled toward them.

Nola Ruth stiffened. “It's Drusilla Washington trying to pawn off more of her vegetables.” She gripped her husband's arm. “Send her on her way, Coleson. I don't want her to see me like this. We don't need anything from her.”

Cole frowned. “What's gotten into you, Nola? She's a harmless old woman. I'll send her around the back. Maybe Serena needs something for dinner.”

Nola Ruth closed her eyes and turned her head away. Her grip on her husband's sleeve relaxed. She pretended the woman wasn't there.

“Good evenin', Mr. Delacourte, Miz Delacourte.” The old woman nodded her head and offered up the basket. “I grew me a fine crop of sweet potato plants, tasty as they come. Serena might like to stir some into a pie or two if you're thinking of company.”

Nola Ruth willed her hands to stay motionless. There was no point in asking how she knew Libba was coming home. Drusilla always knew everybody's business.

Cole rose, lifted the towel and looked into the basket. “They look good, Drusilla. Go on around to the kitchen and tell Serena to buy up the whole bunch.”

The black woman grunted and smiled. Her gums were black and one front tooth was missing. “You won't be sorry, Mr. Delacourte.” She turned and shuffled toward the back of the house. “Verna Lee says hello.”

“Tell her I'll be in for some more of that tea. It helps me sleep like a baby.”

“I'll do that, sir. She got some healing potion for you, too, Miz Delacourte. I'll bring it next time I come.”

Nola Ruth waited until she was sure the woman was barely out of sight before shuddering. “She's dreadful. As if I'd even consider that voodoo nonsense.”

“Verna Lee doesn't have anything to do with voodoo. Her specialty is alternative medicine. You know that.”

“I know nothing about any of that and I intend to keep it that way.”

Her husband shook his head. “I keep telling myself that this edge you've cultivated is due to the stroke. God help me if it isn't. God help us all. I hate to say this, Nola Ruth.”

She braced herself.

“You've become a very difficult woman.”

Her eyes widened and then she laughed. “Oh, Coleson, that didn't even wound me. Surely you can do better than that.”

“I'm a lawyer, Nola Ruth,” he reminded her. “I can do much better than that, but I choose not to.”

“Always the gentleman, aren't you?”

“Be grateful.”

She looked at him curiously. Coleson was rarely sarcastic. “Since when have you taken to giving Verna Lee your business?”

He lifted her hand and laced his fingers through hers, but he didn't look at her. “I've always felt a certain responsibility for Verna Lee Fontaine. She hasn't had an easy time of it. She deserved better.”

Nola Ruth lifted a hand to her throat. The air was too thin, as if she were pulling it into her lungs through a narrow straw. “I'm tired, Coleson,” she managed. “I think I'd like to sleep now. When will Libba and Chloe be here?”

He looked at his watch. “Their plane landed in Richmond two hours ago. Libba had to rent a car. I'd say they should be here in about three or four hours. I've asked Serena to hold supper.” He kissed the back of her hand. “Get some rest, Nola Ruth. I'll wake you if they're early.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, shutting out her porch, the workers in the peach grove, her husband's voice and the memories it evoked, everything but the thought of her daughter driving up the long road leading to the circular driveway. Seventeen years would have changed her, but how?

Nola Ruth allowed her imagination to wander and conjured up a thirty-seven-year-old woman with her daughter's coffee-colored hair and dark eyes, her oval face, slender bones and shapely, beautiful legs. Libba would still be slim. She was half Beauchamp and all the Beauchamps looked malnourished as children, turning into adults with lean, attractive bodies. Not even seventeen years could change that. Her hair would be different, though, shorter, more coiffed. She was an adult, after all. Perhaps her skin would be different as well. It didn't rain in California and the summers were hot and dry. Perhaps she would have crow's feet or even wrinkles. Perhaps she would be suntanned with bleached hair, a tattoo and several holes in each of her ears.

Nola Ruth chuckled at the absurdity of her thoughts. Libba Jane would've had to change a great deal to come home sporting a tattoo. Still, it wasn't impossible. How odd to be so ignorant about her only daughter. Once they had been so close. She wanted that closeness again. Nola Ruth had become very aware of the limited time she had left. She was quite willing to give most of it away if it meant she could have her daughter by her side again.

She pursed her lips and unsuccessfully tried to blow a cool stream of air up to where a few wisps of hair rested on her forehead. Lord, it was warm, the warmest summer she could remember.

Libby Delacourte came back to Marshyhope Creek on a day so hot the asphalt blistered and curled like pigskin in a barbecue pit. By noon, drinking water flowed hot from the taps and shadowed doors showed inky black against the blinding whitewash of peeling storefronts. Cicadas and hummingbirds, searching for relief, dove down into the cool green stranglehold of southern pine and dogs lay like the dead in the dripping shade of hickory hardwood trees. Heat rose, fans hummed, images shimmered like gasoline fumes, and still the mercury climbed until even the tepid swimming hole near Marshall Hadley's peach grove brought no respite to the migrant workers camping on its banks.

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