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
Unshed tears burned the insides of Libby's eyelids.
She knew. Somehow her mother knew what she was feeling.
Libby knelt down, buried her face in her mother's lap and closed her eyes.
Nola Ruth stroked her daughter's smooth head. “There, there, child,” she murmured. “Go ahead and cry. It's all right, honey. Mama's little girl can't always take on the world by herself. Mama's right here.”
Cole Delacourte, on the way to wheel his wife into her downstairs bedroom, stopped at the entrance to the living room. After assessing what he thought was a long-overdue meeting of the minds between his wife and his daughter, he backed out of the room and walked away. Now, if Nola Ruth's life was cut short, she would go without regret.
Fall was Libby's favorite season. Cold, crisp days and the final piercing brightness of sunlit afternoons before the chill gray of winter set in revived her spirits. Early in the morning when the boats moored out of the docks, frost lay on lawns and latticed windows, freezing bottled milk and shriveling the last vegetable pickings in summer gardens. Wools, smelling of mothballs and cedar, came out of closets, and rosy-cheeked children blew smoky breaths at one another with renewed energy, the indolence of summer gone for another year. It was a time for apple cider, hot cocoa and wood smoke, for Christmas shopping in Salisbury and wild duck on restaurant menus.
Chloe had been gone nearly three weeks. She talked to Libby on the phone every evening and planned to be back in Marshyhope Creek for Thanksgiving. Gradually, like marsh grass struggling to sprout through mud-thick ponds in search of sunlight, Libby began to adjust to life without her daughter. It was Russ she missed. He had disappeared after the trial, leaving Hennessey House closed and shuttered. She was hurt that he hadn't said goodbye or told her where he was going, but she couldn't really blame him, not after their last conversation.
Slowly, the fish count was rising in the bay. Watermen reported activity around the oyster beds, but Libby was skeptical. Oysters weren't like shad or blue gill. They needed time to reproduce, generations of time. Still, there was enough work to keep food on the table for most who depended on the water for a living. Once again, there were fall vegetables for sale at the farmers' market. Libby's favorite haunt was Drusilla Washington's booth. She had never seen vegetables like Drusilla's harvest. Golden squash and orange russets, huge tomatoes and the tenderest purple string beans she'd ever tasted. She brought home boxes of produce, stirring them into soups and stews, steaming and flavoring them the way Serena taught her. Even Nola Ruth, whose appetite was waning, was tempted by plates piled high with tender-crisp greens and salads filled with beets, cucumbers, scallions and mushrooms.
“The earth is forgivin', Miz Libba,” said Drusilla. “Jus' look at these here greens. One season later and they come back jus' as fresh and healthy as befo'.”
“Too bad it's not the same for people,” Libby muttered. Drusilla rolled her eyes and laughed, a deep rumbling sound that came from her belly. “Ya got some learnin' to do, Miz Libba. People is jus' like the soil. Ya got to give it some help now and then, tha's all, jus' like ya got to help people. Patience helps, too. The Lord wants us ta have patience.”
“I've never been very good at that,” Libby admitted.
The black woman's dark eyes gleamed like points of fire between the wrinkled folds of flesh. “Well now, seems ta me that knowin' what you need to work on is the first step.”
Libby stuffed her bag into her bicycle basket and pedaled toward home, taking the short cut along the creek. For the first time since Bailey's trial she felt her spirits lift. Leaves brushed her cheeks and insects swarmed in airy circles around her head. She hadn't taken this route in years. Laughter bubbled up inside of her and spilled out. She would give Serena a night off and make spaghetti for dinner.
Her father sat in a chair on the porch. Someone was with him. Libby couldn't see who it was until he stepped out from behind a pillar and waved.
Life wasn't fair, was her first thought. Where was it written that a woman should hope and wait and want only one man for twenty long years? She brought the bike to a stop, swallowed and smiled brilliantly. “Hello, Russ. It's been quite a while. Are you staying for dinner?”
He hesitated. “I'd like to, if it's no trouble. Otherwise, I could take y'all out.”
“It's no trouble.” She stepped around him and walked through the door. “I'll start now.”
Cole Delacourte looked thoughtfully after his daughter. There was something in her face that hadn't been there in a long time. The serenity she'd worked so long to achieve was gone, replaced by a wariness completely unlike the calm poise with which she faced the world. That wasn't exactly right, either. He couldn't describe it, he who was so good with words.
At dinner, around the banter of polite conversation, he watched her surreptitiously. A memory danced on the edge of his consciousness. She looked younger than usual and her eyes were very bright. Her responses were spontaneous and teasing and she smiled frequently. He was struck by the softness of her. Libba always seemed so competent, so sure of herself.
was a word he never used when describing his daughter. His memory sharpened and focused. Awareness dawned. She looked like Nola Ruth, but not the Nola Ruth who was now confined to her bedroom. It was the woman he'd first met that Libba resembled.
Tactfully, he excused himself as soon as dinner was over. “Since Serena's off, I'll do the dishes and look in on your mother,” he said. “You two stay here and talk.”
Libby looked up in surprise. “That's all right, Daddy. I'll do them.”
Russ stood. “Libba and I will do them.”
Silently, she rinsed plates and handed them to Russ. Just as silently, he stacked them neatly in the dishwasher and waited for the next one. After the last piece of silverware was put away and the counters wiped down, he spoke. “Is this a standoff, Libba Jane? Aren't you going to talk to me at all?”
She dried her hands and folded the dish towel. “You haven't said anything, either.”
“Do you want to know why I'm back?”
She turned around and leaned against the counter, facing him, taking in the dark, archangel beauty of his face. “I assumed you had some time between trips and came to see Tess.”
He grimaced. “I suppose I deserve that.”
Libby frowned. “You aren't making sense, Russ. Has anything changed?”
“I read your article in the
he said softly. “You've done a good job here. I'm proud of you.”
“Thank you.” She smiled and his breathing altered. There was nothing in the world like Libba's smile. It had haunted his dreams for twenty years.
“All right,” she said, laughing. “What brings you back to Marshyhope Creek? I thought you were done with us for good.”
“You brought me back,” he said softly.
“Oh?” She crossed her arms, wary once again.
Warning signals went off in Russ's brain, but he'd thought a long time and driven a long way to have her hear what he had to say. “There isn't anyone better than you,” he began, and stopped. He couldn't even articulate. No one messed him up like Libba.
“And just exactly where did you research that very interesting opinion?” she asked calmly.
“Damn it, Libba, I can't even think when you're around.” He searched his pockets for his cigarettes and remembered he left them on the porch. “Don't go away. I'll be right back.”
Her heart pounded painfully in her chest. She reached for the chamomile tea, poured hot water into a cup and waited for it to steep. The sweet, golden liquid always soothed her. She dimmed the lights and sat down at the kitchen table to think. Her life was settled again. If there was no passion, there was contentment and stability, not a terrible compromise for a woman.
Libby believed in windows of opportunity. There was a window for learning to speak, for crawling, for becoming fluent in a foreign language, for balancing a hula hoop around your middle. Once the window closed, the opportunity was still possible but never as easily attained.
She looked down at the liquid in her cup. Slowly, she stood and walked out of the kitchen, down the hall to the glassed-in porch where she knew Russ would be smoking his cigarette.
He looked uneasy. The corners of her mouth turned up.
She cut him off. “Nice night. We don't see too many of these this time of year.”
He stared at her. “I know that. I grew up here, or don't you remember?”
“You haven't exactly been around on a regular basis,” she retorted.
“I had to settle a few things in D.C. I thought you were going back to California with Chloe.”
“No.” She wrapped her arms around the pillar behind her and struggled to control her voice. “Do you still blame me for the way your life turned out?”
Russ looked out the window. “I don't blame you for anything. The problemâ” He stopped and started again.
problem is I love you and I can't seem to work things out between us. It's almost as if we've been hexed by that old voodoo woman at the market.” He turned around. “You've changed and I don't know how to handle it. You're so damned bossy and independent I can't imagine you wanting to hook up with anybody at all, especially me. All I want, all I've ever wanted is to be with you, but honestly, Libba, I don't know if I can take it. You don't give an inch, and the truth is, I think you're a lot smarter than I'll ever be.”
Libba was suddenly very tired of the misunderstanding between them. Someday she would tell him about those years in California, the years that would explain the changes in her, but not now, not when so much more stood between them. Slipping off her shoes, she walked across the porch to where he stood and slid her palms slowly up his chest. “You were saying?”
He pressed his lips against her throat. “You better not be changing your mind,” he muttered, “or this time I swear I'll wring your neck.”
Bending his head, he nearly found her mouth when she pulled away, out of reach, his cigarettes in her hand.
“You can come in,” she said in a breathy voice, “or you can go home. But the power's off at your house and we don't allow smoking in ours.”
His laugh was warm and easy like the air around them. “What if I get the urge in the middle of the night?”
A smile started in her eyes and moved to her mouth. “It's been a long time, Russ Hennessey, and this is a big old house, but I'm sure you can still find your way to my room.”
“What will I find in it, Libba?”
“A bossy, independent woman.”
Russ hooked his fingers through the belt loops of her jeans and considered her answer.
Seconds passed. Libby held her breath.
“I'm open-minded,” she heard him say. “I suppose I can take independent. I don't know about bossy, though.”
Her heart pounded. “Maybe I could work on that.”
Again, Russ said nothing for slow, agonizing seconds while he thought. Someday he would tell her about his years with Tracy, emasculating years when nothing he touched was his own. He would tell her why he needed words like
But not now, not when she was starting to let him in. She wasn't the Libba Delacourte of his youth. She was more than that, a careful, confident woman, a woman who knew her own mind, a woman who would take some getting used to.
He took the cigarettes from her hand and threw them on the table. Then he swung her into his arms. This was as good a time as any to start.