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
“Tickled pink. It's about time you came back. This ol' place hasn't been the same without you.”
“I'm not sure I can make it work, Effie. This was never my thing.”
Her smile faded. “That's not the way I remember it. You're a born waterman, Russ. The best I've seen. Haven't you sowed enough wild oats for ten lifetimes? I would have thought all these years awayâ”
“C'mon, Effie,” he chided her. “You know I always meant to leave. This was Mitch's baby.”
“C'mon yourself, Russ Hennessey. I know nothing of the sort. This is your home. This is where you belong. People are depending on you. Their livelihoods are at stake. Billy Dupree's been taking a skeleton crew out on two boats, but it isn't enough. These men need you.”
The sun-dark line of his jaw hardened. A dozen emotions flickered behind his eyes before they emptied and became unreadable again. “Nice of you not to put any pressure on me, Effie,” he drawled.
She laughed. “I know you better than you know yourself, sugar. You're gonna stay and give it all you've got. The boy I remember won't let us down.”
“I'd like to get a handle on all the new rules and regulations before I decide anything permanently.”
Effie's eyes twinkled mysteriously. “There might be a bonus in it for you.”
He went along with it. “Go on.”
“Libba Delacourte's come home to be with her mama while she's recovering.”
Russ shook his head. “You never give up, do you, Effie?”
“Don't talk that way to me, Russell Hennessey. I wasn't born yesterday. I remember the way it was with the two of you.”
“You got it right, Effie. The qualifying word is
Libba Jane and I are ancient history. For Christ's sake, we both married other people.”
“She's divorced, just like you.”
“That doesn't mean anything. Everybody's divorced.”
“Lord, Effieâ” He stopped. “Never mind. It doesn't matter.” He looked at his watch. “Isn't it past closing time?”
“I thought you might want to start right in and look at the books.”
“I do. But you don't have to stay.”
“I wanted to be sure you could get inside.”
She was offended. He'd make it up to her, but not tonight. “I appreciate it, Effie. It was mighty nice of you. But it's late. Herb'll be waiting for his dinner. We'll take this up in the morning.”
She looked at the clock. “My gracious, it is late.” She picked up her purse. “Everything is labeled in the files. If you can't find something, call me at home and don't mess anything up.”
“Yes, ma'am. I didn't see a car. Are you walking home?”
He opened the door. “I'll drive you.”
“You been gone too long if you don't know how silly that sounds. Marshyhope Creek isn't any bigger than a football field. There's more energy goes into getting into that big car of yours and pulling on the seat belt then there is walking down the street to my house. Save the chivalry for Libba. I already got me a man.”
He grinned. “I'll keep that in mind.”
“You do that.” She hesitated.
“Spit it out, Effie.”
“The thing is, I've been meaning to retire for some years now. I won't leave you in the lurch or anything, but I can't be here full-time now that you're back. Herb wants to do some traveling. We're looking at Florida.”
Russ's heart sank. Effie had been with Hennessey Blue Crab and Fishing for as long as he could remember. Her hopeful expression stopped the words in his throat. Somehow he would manage. “Don't worry about it, Effie,” he said gently. “Take your Florida vacation. You deserve it.”
Two hours and a dozen files later Russ still couldn't concentrate. The small office hummed from the noise of the wall-mounted air conditioner. Cold air blasted him from behind. His last meal was seven hours ago and his stomach roiled with emptiness, guilt and a new emotion he couldn't place, something that was more than tension but not quite anxiety. At some point he would have to fill the hole in his stomach and then call his ex-wife to tell her he was home again. He would eat first because after their conversation he was fairly sure he wouldn't feel like eating again that night. But it wasn't lack of food, nor was it the thought of talking to Tracy, that prevented him from interpreting the profit-and-loss statement Effie had so carefully filled in. It was her news that hobbled him and kept the numbers two-stepping in front of his eyes.
Libba was home.
There had never been a time when Russ didn't know Elizabeth Jane Delacourte. Everyone who lived on the northern side of Marshyhope Creek in that exclusive community of green lawns and white homes and pedigrees predating the Revolutionary War knew one another. But the first time he really saw her was when she entered Miss Warren's second-grade class in the middle of the school year. She had contracted pneumonia as a toddler and her anxious mother insisted on teaching her at home. By the age of seven, she'd bloodied her knees and fallen out of trees so often that her father insisted his only daughter was well enough to attend the local public school.
Standing there skinny and scared, dark hair pulled back in a lopsided bow, eyes dark and enormous in her pale pixie face, scabby knees showing beneath her crisp, plaid jumper, she showed a promise of something more. She'd searched the room for a friendly face, those expressive eyes sending a mixture of fear and hope, until they'd stopped at him. He grinned. She smiled. His breath caught. Few things would remain in his memory with the same crystalline clarity as that first time he saw Libba smile.
At first glance she was nothing out of the ordinary. Dark-eyed, dark-haired girls with the sculpted bones, ivory skin and square jaws of their French ancestors were a common-enough sight in Marshyhope Creek. But when Libba smiled, that was something else entirely. There wasn't a man, woman or child whose breathing didn't alter for a good minute or two while staring into that vibrant face, wondering what it was about her that held the casual observer spellbound. Taken individually, her features were pleasant enough to spark a passing interest, but not so unusual as to inspire that liquid, bone-weakening jolt of awareness that comes only occasionally in a lifetime to the very few and the very lucky.
Russ had always known that no one but Libba could bring the glory of that wild, fire-leaping heat to his blood. No one since had come close to touching his heart. There was a time when he was sure she felt the same. Hell, he would have staked his life on it, poor judge of character that he was. And yet, two months after he'd left for college, after she'd promised to love him forever, Libba Delacourte had run off with a passing stranger.
He was over it, of course, over her, over the anger and the hurt, even over the desire for retribution. If he stretched it a bit, he could even find it in his heart to be grateful to her. If it weren't for Libby's defection, he would never have joined the army, never seen the world, never broadened his horizons, so to speak. He wouldn't have Tess because he wouldn't have married Tracy. He wouldn't have wasted years of his life in a disastrous marriage. Maybe he was being too charitable. Maybe Libba Jane did have something coming to her after all.
hloe stared at the ceiling of her bedroom, unwilling to expend the energy necessary for a morning stretch. She'd been awake for nearly twenty minutes. It was still not even eight o'clock in the morning and it was already hot. Her grandmother had a cardinal rule for running the air conditioner.
unless the thermometer read one hundred degrees in the shade. For the first time in her life, Chloe understood the meaning of the word
She'd used the term before, even believed she'd meant it before, but she hadn't really.
had nothing to do with California, not even in September when the temperature rose to the mid-nineties in the Valley. Given what she now knew, she would define what she'd previously known at home in Ventura County as comfortably warm.
had nothing to do with the gentle, temperate rays of a California sun.
was something completely different.
where she had been banished.
meant Marshyhope Creek and the mind-drugging, steam-bath, mosquito-biting heat of a Maryland summer.
Nothing helped, not the four tepid showers she'd taken every day for the three days she'd been here, not the inadequate air conditioner that never quite made it to her second-story bedroom, not the fans humming in every corner of the house, not even the ice cubes melting on her chest. The heat slowed her body. Her movements were slothlike, her mind scrambled. She had no appetite. She couldn't sleep. She hated this place and everyone in it, with two exceptions, her grandfather and Serena.
After finally dragging herself out of bed, she headed down to breakfast. While serving the meal, Serena came up with the suggestion that Chloe be sent to the hardware store in town to purchase two molleys to fit over the screws to be drilled into the lathe-and-plaster walls of her grandmother's sitting room, their purpose to hold pictures of Chloe as a baby. Her mother had brought them from home and Nola Ruth wanted them hung immediately. No one had objected to the errand and no one had volunteered to drive her. The last place on earth Chloe wanted to be was in a hardware store in a hick town in the middle of nowhere. But she said nothing. Rules were different here in Marshyhope Creek. At home she would have complained and wheedled her mother for a ride. Here, the thought had occurred to her, but she knew better than to waste her time.
Dressed in her skimpiest top, the spaghetti-strapped one that bared her belly, and a pair of cutoff, rolled-up denim shorts, Chloe stepped out on the porch. Her grandfather sat on the bottom Step holding up a bicycle that had seen better days.
“Hi,” she said cautiously.
“Hi, yourself.” He grinned at her and nodded at the bike. “This'll help you get there.”
“That's okay, Granddad. I don't mind walking.”
“It's three miles into town, Chloe. After ten minutes in this heat, you'll be grateful. I oiled the chain and checked out the brakes.”
He was so sweet and so enthusiastic. Chloe didn't have the heart to tell him she wouldn't be caught dead riding a bike. She'd find a bush to park it under and no one would be the wiser. “Thanks, Granddad,” she said.
“You know how to ride a bike, don't you, sugar?”
“Yes.” She gripped the handlebars and swung her leg over the crossbar. “Don't worry about me. I might take some time to look around.”
“It's about time you thought of getting a driver's license.”
“That was on the agenda before we came here.”
“I see.” Cole reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. “Here's a little something to tide you over.”
“I don't need any money, Granddad.”
“Take it, just in case. You never know. A little extra cash can be mighty handy in a pinch.”
Reluctantly, Chloe pocketed the money. “Thanks,” she said again. “It's really nice of you.”
“My pleasure. Run along now. It's a straight ride to Main Street. You won't get lost.”
Conscious of her grandfather's eyes on her back, Chloe pedaled down the long driveway and out onto the dirt service road. Only when she reached the highway leading into town did she brake and slide off the seat. Holding on to the handlebars she began to look for a place to stow the bike. She chose a clump of brush set back from the road. By the time she'd dragged the bike down the embankment, hidden it in the bushes and climbed back up, she was breathing heavily. Sweat trickled down her forehead, the insides of her thighs and between her breasts. God, she hated this place.
Keeping to the side of the road, Chloe lingered in the shady spots, wishing she'd brought a water bottle. How long was three miles, anyway? She was quite sure she'd never covered such a distance on foot in her life. What were they thinking, Serena and her family, to send her on a mission like this? It was more than inconvenient, it was dangerous. Any old pervert could come by and kidnap her. Her father would flip out if he knew the chances Libby was taking with his daughter's life.
She was sure she'd missed the turn into town. Her top was drenched, her toes had blisters and her hair hung in lank wisps around her face. She'd made a mistake about the bike. Anything was better than this, anything at all. Dismissing every warning she'd ever heard about riding with strangers, she turned at the sound of a car engine and stuck out her thumb.
An old pickup, so rusty and banged-up its color was no longer discernible, passed by, leaving her in a cloud of dust. Discouraged, Chloe gritted her teeth and started down the road again. She was an idiot to have come with her mother. She should have thrown a temper tantrum, refused to eat, held her breath. Hell was no worse than Marshyhope Creek.
A sound came from the other direction. Another car? Chloe shaded her eyes, squinting against the glare. The same truck was coming toward her, slowly. A trickle of fear slid down her spine. She looked around. There was nowhere to go. She couldn't outrun a truck or a man. Lifting her chin, she waited. The truck made a U-turn and stopped beside her. Chloe released her breath. The driver was a boy, near her age with straight black hair, dark, hooded eyes and a face so sharp and severe and beautiful it could have graced the cover of a magazine.
He leaned across the seat and opened the door. “Need a ride?”
Chloe climbed into the truck and pulled the door shut. “Thanks.”
“I'm going to the hardware store in Marshyhope Creek,” she volunteered.
With one hand on the wheel, he pulled a cigarette from his pocket, stuck it in the corner of his mouth and pushed in the lighter on the dashboard. “Who are you?”
“You're new here.”
It was a statement, not a question.
“I'm not staying,” she said quickly. “My grandparents live here. My mom came to visit because my grandmother had a stroke.”
He bent his head to light the end of a cigarette, drew in and exhaled. Her heart flipped.
“Cole Delacourte's your granddaddy.”
“How did you know?”
“Nola Ruth's the only lady I know in Marshyhope Creek who had a stroke.”
“Who are you?” Chloe countered.
“Bailey Jones.” He pulled out on to the road. “Where ya from?”
“No, but close enough. Hollywood isn't all that great.” She looked around. “I guess if you lived here all your life, it might seem great.”
He grinned and Chloe's eyes widened.
“It might at that,” he said.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Do you go to school?”
Again he grinned. “Now and then.”
Chloe's heart pounded. “How old are you?”
She relaxed. Eighteen she could handle. “I really appreciate the ride.”
He glanced down at her shoes. “You wouldn't get very far in those. I'm surprised they let you out dressed like that.”
Chloe flushed. “What's wrong with the way I'm dressed?”
He shrugged. “It's twelve noon, hotter'n a fry station, and you don't have anything on. You'd likely have passed out from heat stroke if I hadn't stopped.”
“So, this is an act of mercy.”
“What did you expect? I'm not into cradle robbing, if that's what you're thinking.”
“I wasn't thinking anything of the sort,” Chloe snapped. She couldn't help adding, “You're not all that much older than me.
“How old are you?”
“None of your business.”
“Fair enough.” The cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. A breeze blew his hair back from his forehead. He tapped the steering wheel and whistled in time to the music coming from the radio, a song Chloe had never heard of. He didn't look at all offended.
She stared out the window, cheeks burning.
“Didn't anybody ever tell you not to hitch rides with strangers?” he said when the song was over. “I coulda been an ax murderer or a rapist.”
Chloe snorted. “Please. I'm from Los Angeles. I'd know a rapist if I saw one. You're definitely not the type.”
He raised one eyebrow. “What type am I?”
“The dumb, naive type. My friends and I would eat you for breakfast.”
“Whatever you're into, I guess,” he said amiably. “You could be wrong.”
“Not a chance. You already made your first impression.”
“So, I'm stuck with dumb and naive?”
Chloe almost smiled but caught herself in time. “That's right.”
“I don't understand the part about eating me for breakfast. Is that some California joke?”
“It means you aren't up to speed. No one who is anyone would associate with you.”
“I get it.” He chuckled. “Maybe Marshyhope Creek and California aren't all that different.”
Chloe frowned. “What does that mean?”
He pulled over to the side of the road. “It means you get out here.”
Her mouth fell open. “You're dumping me, in the middle of nowhere?”
“Relax, Chloe. Marshyhope Creek's about fifty yards from here, just around the bend. The hardware store's two blocks away.”
“Why can't you drop me off there?”
He stared out the window for a bit and then looked directly at her.
Chloe Richards felt her heart race. She was quite sure she had never seen anyone so beautiful in her life.
“You won't have a prayer of fitting in if you're seen with me.”
He threw the cigarette out the window. “Let's just say I'm not acceptable company.”
“What's wrong with you?”
“I don't fit the mold.”
“What's the mold?”
He frowned. “You sure do ask a lot of questions.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Jocks are the mold. Jocks and guys in ROTC heading for the Citadel or Annapolis and girls who like 'em.”
“I won't fit the mold, either. I'm not into sports. I'm going to be an actress. But it doesn't matter, anyway. I already told you I'm not staying, so drive on.”
He shook his head. “Either way, this is where we part company.”
“Maybe you don't want to be seen with me, dressed the way I am with nothing on,” she challenged him.
He laughed. “That's it. Now, get out of my truck.”
Chloe opened the door and slid out. She leaned into the open window. “No wonder you're not acceptable company. It isn't because you're not a jock, Bailey Jones. It's because you're rude.”
His teeth were very white and she had never seen eyes so dark in her life.
“Bye, Chloe Richards. It's been nice meeting you.”
“Yeah, sure. Stop by any old time.”
He lifted his hand in a farewell salute. She stepped back, away from the truck, a slim straight little figure, rigid with injured pride and indignation.
Taft's Hardware sat on a corner, a square building with a flat roof and wooden doors that were securely closed. A wheelbarrow, garden supplies, brooms, shovels and packaged seeds cluttered the entrance. Chloe pulled at the door. It wouldn't budge. Then she saw the sign. Closed for Lunch. Come Back at 1:00. Now what? How could a store be closed in the middle of the day? Stores had salespeople who lunched in shifts. She'd never heard of a store that was closed in the middle of a weekday. Why had they sent her on this errand at lunchtime? One more reason to hate Marshyhope Creek.
The sun beat down relentlessly. She was hot, sweaty and beginning to feel sick. Her stomach rumbled. Defeated, she walked down the street, empty of anything alive in the sweltering noonday heat. It never occurred to her to go home without accomplishing her errand. She had her pride, and there was something about Cole Delacourte that made her seek his approval.
Across the street, a door opened. Music drifted into the air. Drawn to the soothing sound and to the tall woman energetically sweeping the front sidewalk, Chloe made her way to the other side of the road. “Hello,” she said politely.
The woman stopped sweeping. “Hello, yourself.” Her smile was lovely. “I've never seen you before.”
Chloe shook her head. “I'm visiting my grandparents. I'm waiting for the hardware store to open.”
“It's mighty hot out here. Would you like to wait inside?”
Chloe sighed with relief. “Yes.”
“I've got some iced herbal tea or maybe you'd like a smoothie?”
“A smoothie? You have smoothies in Marshyhope Creek?” Chloe had died and gone to heaven.
Verna Lee laughed and pointed to the window of her shop. “Perks has everything, coffee, tea, herbs, health foods, books, cards, whatever you're looking for.” She held out her hand. “I'm Verna Lee Fontaine.”
Chloe took it. “Chloe Richards.”
“Who are your grandparents?”