Teach Island looked exactly the same as Marlow Madsen remembered it. Since the entire world had been disrupted by the pandemic, the comfort and familiarity of this place nearly brought tears to her eyes. Part of that was how strongly she associated it with her father. John “Tiller” Madsen, who’d gotten his nickname because of his love for sailing, had died a month ago. But the island had long been his escape from the rat race of Washington, DC, where he’d served as a United States senator for thirty years.
“I can’t believe I’m back. Finally,” Marlow said as she rolled down the passenger window to let in some fresh air.
Part of the archipelago of forty-five hundred islands off the coast of Florida, Teach was only seven square miles. Marlow loved its homey, small-town atmosphere. She also loved its white sand beaches and its motley collection of bars, restaurants, bait-and-tackle stores and gift shops, most of which, at least in the older section where they were now, had kitschy decor. Because the island was named after Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, one of the most famous pirates to operate in this part of the world in the early eighteenth century, there was pirate stuff all over. A black skull-and-crossbones flag hung on a pole in front of the most popular bar, which was made to look like a colonial-era tavern and was named Queen Anne’s Revenge after Blackbeard’s ship.
In addition to the Blackbeard memorabilia, there was the regular sea-themed stuff—large anchors or ship’s wheels stuck in the ground here and there, fishing nets draped from the eaves of stores and cafés, and lobsters, crabs and other ocean creatures painted on wooden or corrugated metal sides. Her parents had a house in Georgia, a true Southern mansion, as well as their condo in Virginia for when her father had to be in Washington. But this was where they’d always spent the summers.
Now that Tiller was gone, her mother was talking about selling the other residences and moving here permanently. Marlow hated the sense of loss that inspired the forever change, but since Seaclusion—her father’s name for the beach house—had always been her favorite of their homes, she was also relieved that her mother planned to keep it. This was the property she hoped to inherit one day; she couldn’t imagine it ever being out of the family. And after what so many people had experienced with the fires in California, where she’d been living since she graduated college, and all the hurricanes in recent years that had plagued Florida, she had reason to be grateful the house was still standing.
“Sounds like you’ve missed the place.” Reese Cantwell, who’d been sent to pick up her and her two friends, had grown even taller since Marlow had seen him last. His hands and feet no longer looked disproportionate to the rest of his body. She remembered that his older brother, Walker, had also reminded her of a pup who hadn’t quite grown into his large paws and wondered what Walker was doing these days.
“It’s a welcome sight for all three of us,” Aida Trahan piped up from the back. “Three months by the sea should change everything.”
Claire Fernandez was also in the back seat, both of them buried beneath the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk. They’d met at LAX and flown into Miami together. “Here’s hoping,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t, I’m looking forward to putting my toes in the water and my butt in the sand.”
“You’ll get plenty of opportunities for that here,” Reese said.
Claire needed the peace and tranquility and a chance to heal. She’d lost her home in the fires that’d ravaged Malibu last August. To say nothing of the other dramas that’d plagued her this past year.
Marlow looked over at their driver. Apparently, since her father’s death, Reese had been helping out around the estate, in addition to teaching tennis at the club. His mother, Rosemary, had been their housekeeper since well before he was born—since before Marlow was even born. Marlow was grateful for the many years of service and loyalty Rosemary had given the family, especially now that Tiller had died. It was wonderful to have someone she trusted watch out for her mother. Eileen had multiple sclerosis, which sometimes made it difficult for her to get around.
“Looks as casual as I was hoping it would be.” Claire also lowered her window as Reese brought them to the far side of the island and closer to the house. Situated on the water, Seaclusion had its own private beach, as well as a three-bedroom guesthouse and a smaller apartment over the garage where Rosemary had lived before moving into the main house after Tiller died so she could be available if Eileen needed anything during the night.
“There are some upscale shops and restaurants where we’re going, if you’re in the mood for spending money,” Marlow told them.
“When have I not been in the mood to shop?” Aida joked.
“You don’t have access to Dutton’s money anymore,” Claire pointed out. “You need to be careful.”
Claire had lost almost everything. She had reason to be cautious. Aida wasn’t in the best situation, either, and yet she shrugged off the concern. “I’ll be okay. I didn’t walk away empty-handed, thanks to my amazing divorce attorney.”
Marlow always felt uncomfortable when Dutton came up, and sometimes couldn’t believe it wasn’t more uncomfortable for them. The way Claire and Aida had met was remarkable, to say the least. It was even more remarkable that they’d managed to become friends. But Marlow twisted around and smiled as though she didn’t feel the sudden tension so she could acknowledge Aida’s compliment. Although Marlow was only thirty-four, she’d been a practicing attorney for ten years. She’d jumped ahead two grades when she was seven, which had enabled her to finish high school early and start college at sixteen. A knack for difficult negotiations had led her to a law degree and from there she’d gone into family law, something that had worked out well for her. Her practice had grown so fast she’d considered hiring another attorney to help with the caseload.
She probably would’ve done that, if not for the pandemic, which had shut down every aspect of her life except work, making her realize that becoming one of the best divorce attorneys in Los Angeles wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. No matter how much money she made, she didn’t enjoy dealing with people who were so deeply upset, and the richer, more famous the client, the more acrimonious the divorce. She hoped she’d never have to wade through another one. If a marriage worked, it could be wonderful. Her parents had proved that. But after what she’d witnessed with other people since passing the bar, she was beginning to believe Tiller and Eileen were the exception.
“All I did was make Dutton play fair,” Marlow said. “But at least you have some money you can use to get by while you decide what to do from here.”
“I liked being a trophy wife,” Aida grumbled. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for anything else.”
Like so many in LA, she’d been an aspiring actress at one time, but her career had never taken off. After she’d married Dutton, she’d spent more time at the tennis club, where she and Marlow had met, than trying out for any auditions.
“Don’t say that,” Marlow told her. “You can do a lot more than look pretty.”
Claire remained conspicuously quiet. She’d been subdued since they left, so subdued that Marlow was beginning to wonder if something was wrong.
“We’ll see.” Aida shrugged off the compliment as readily as she had the warning. “But before I have to make the really hard decisions, I deserve a break. So where’s the expensive part of the island again?”
Reese chuckled. “We’re almost there.”
“We’ll be able to play tennis, too,” Marlow told her. “The club’s only a mile from the house. And Reese is our resident pro.”
“No way! You play tennis?” Aida’s voice revealed her enthusiasm.
“Every day,” he replied.
“Can he beat you?” Aida asked Marlow.
“He was just a kid the last time we played, and he could take me about half the time even then. I doubt he’ll have any problem now.”
“I can see why you talked us out of renting a car,” Claire said, finally entering the conversation. “Considering the size of this place…”
“Like I told you before,” Marlow said, “most people walk or ride a bike.”
“You only need a car if you’re going off island,” Reese chimed in. He was driving them in Eileen’s Tesla.
Marlow was anxious to ask how her mother was doing but decided to hold off. If she questioned him while her friends were in the car, she’d probably get the standard “Fine.” But she wasn’t looking for a perfunctory answer. She wanted the truth. What he’d seen and heard recently. He was the one who’d been here. Marlow hadn’t been able to visit, not even when her father died. Thanks to the pandemic, they hadn’t been able to give him the funeral he deserved, either.
Reese glanced into the rearview mirror. “Are the three of you staying all summer?”
Marlow suspected he was hoping Aida, in particular, would be on the island for a while. Although Aida was thirty-six, fourteen years older than he was, she was a delicate blonde with big blue eyes. The way she dressed and accessorized, she turned heads, especially male heads, wherever she went.
“We are,” Aida said, and the subtle hint of flirtation in her voice told Marlow that she’d picked up on Reese’s interest.
“We have some big decisions to make in the coming months,” Marlow said, hoping to give Reese a hint that this wasn’t the opportunity he might think it was. Aida was on the rebound. She needed to put her life back together, not risk her heart on a summer fling.
“What kind of decisions?” he asked, naturally curious.
Claire answered for her. “Like what we’re going to do from here on. We’re all starting over.”
Reese’s eyebrows shot up as he looked at Marlow. “Meaning…what? You won’t be returning to LA?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I sold my condo and closed my practice before I left, just in case.”
His jaw dropped. “Really? But your mom said you’re one of the most highly sought-after attorneys in Los Angeles.”
No doubt her mother talked about her all the time. She’d heard a few things about Reese’s family, too, including the fact that he hadn’t finished school because he’d let partying come between him and a degree. But Marlow didn’t know Reese that well. She’d spent more time with his much older brother, Walker, when they were growing up. “It’s not that it wasn’t working out. It was. I’m just…done with divorce.”
He turned down the rap music he’d had playing since they got in. “Have you told your mother?”
“Not yet. I was afraid she’d try to talk me out of it. I know it’s sort of crazy to walk away from what I had going. Not many lawyers would do that. But after being quarantined for so long, working with people who almost always behaved their worst, I’m finished suffering through other people’s emotional turmoil.”
“Can’t say as I blame you,” Aida agreed. “I feel so bad about how Dutton treated you.”
Aida’s ex hadn’t just called Marlow names. He’d gotten her cell phone number from Aida, claiming he wanted to negotiate directly, and then proceeded to threaten her on more than one occasion. “We can all be glad Dutton’s out of our lives.”
“Amen,” Aida said, but again Claire said nothing.
They reached the gap in the shrubbery that signaled the beginning of her parents’ drive, and Reese turned into Seaclusion.
“Look at this!” Aida exclaimed. “It’s a whole compound.”
Reese parked in the detached four-car garage. “Welcome home,” he said with a grin.
Marlow had her carry-on with her, but when she went to the trunk to get the rest of her luggage, Reese insisted he’d bring it in.
She thanked him, put her bag down and, eager to see her mother, hurried to the house.
Rosemary was waiting on the stoop, where her mother would normally be. “It’s good to see you, Marlow.”
“Thanks, Rosemary. It’s good to see you, too. Is Mom okay?”
At fifty-five, Rosemary was five years younger than Eileen and tall and thin, like her two sons. They’d gotten their good looks from her—didn’t resemble their father at all, who wasn’t around anymore. Marlow could recall him showing up at the Atlanta house drunk and bellowing for Rosemary to “get her ass home.” It wasn’t any surprise to Marlow that the relationship hadn’t lasted. He’d abandoned the family when Reese was four or five.
“She’s fine. A little tired.” Although Rosemary smiled, she seemed anxious and uptight herself. Was it because of Eileen? Was she worse off than Marlow had been told?
“Is it anything to be concerned about?” Marlow pressed.
“No. She was so excited to see you that she couldn’t sleep last night. That’s all. She’s in her room resting if you want to go in.”
Anxious to reassure herself that nothing more serious was going on, Marlow introduced Aida and Claire to Rosemary, and while Rosemary led them to the guesthouse, where Reese was taking the luggage, Marlow went inside. “Mom?” she called as she moved through the living room.
“In here!” her mother called back.
Marlow’s stomach knotted as she reached the master bedroom and swung the door open wider. It was a beautiful day outside, not a cloud in the sky, yet the shades were drawn, making it dark and cool.
As soon as she reached the bed, she bent to kiss her mother’s paper-thin cheek. “I’m so glad to see you again.”
Eileen’s hands clutched her wrists. “Let me look at you. It’s been too long.”
“Who could’ve guessed a pandemic would come between us? That wasn’t something I even considered when I went so far from home.”
Once her eyes adjusted to the light, Marlow could see that the room hadn’t changed. Her father’s watch glimmered on the dresser, his slippers waited under the side chair and his clothes hung neatly in the closet as though he might walk through the door at any moment. Her mother hadn’t done anything with his personal property. That meant Marlow would have to deal with it, but she was actually grateful Eileen had waited. Touching his belongings was their only remaining connection to him, their only chance to say goodbye, and now they could do that together.
“Are you hungry?” her mother asked. “Rosemary made tea for you and your friends.”
Marlow sat on the edge of the bed. Eileen had thick dark hair and bottle green eyes—both of which Marlow had inherited—and looked good despite being so ill. But she was pale today and had lost significant weight. “That sounds wonderful,” Marlow said.
“I thought your friends might enjoy it. And I know how much you like clotted cream. When we were in London with your father several years ago, that was all you wanted to eat.”
The twinkle in Eileen’s eyes made Marlow feel slightly encouraged, until her mother winced as she adjusted her position. Eileen had to be feeling terrible, or she’d be up and around and asking to meet Aida and Claire.
“Are you having another attack?” Marlow asked. Her mother’s disease came in waves, or what they called “attacks.” Sometimes she grew worse for no clear reason—she didn’t do or eat anything different—and then she improved just as mysteriously. Although the steady decrease in her functionality attested to the fact that each attack took a little more from her…
“I must be. But don’t worry about me. It’s…more of the same. How was your flight?”
The lump that swelled in Marlow’s throat made it difficult to swallow. She’d already lost her beloved father. Was she going to lose her mother this year, too? The probability of Eileen’s dying had hung over their heads ever since she was diagnosed twenty-six years ago, so it’d come as a total shock that Tiller had died first. He’d never been sick a day in his life—until he got shingles. Then he’d spent five weeks in bed and simply didn’t wake up one morning. According to the autopsy, a blood clot had formed and traveled to his lungs.
“The flight was crowded and miserable,” she answered. “But aren’t all flights that way?”
“You should’ve come first class.”
Marlow thought about her decision to sell her place and close her practice but decided not to mention it until later. Eileen’s father had been a steel baron; she’d married into money, as well. She’d never known what it was like to struggle. Marlow hadn’t, either, but she was out in the world and much more cognizant of the difficulties faced by those who didn’t have quite as much. “I didn’t want to ask Aida and Claire to spend the extra money. You know what happened to Claire.”
“Yes. The poor thing. I’m so glad she had insurance to cover the rebuild. The fires in California have been awful. I’ve seen them on the news.” Eileen lifted her head to look toward the door. “Where are your friends?”
“Rosemary’s helping them get settled in the guesthouse.”
“I can’t wait to meet them.”
“They’re grateful to you for letting them come home with me. But with the way you’re feeling, maybe I should’ve come alone—”
“No, no,” she broke in. “They both needed a place to recoup, as you said. And having them here won’t hurt me. New friends might help fill the terrible void I’ve felt since Tiller…” Her voice cracked.
Marlow squeezed her hand, wondering if it was the emotional toll of losing Tiller that’d gotten the best of Eileen, rather than MS. “I miss him, too,” she whispered.
Her mother brought Marlow’s hand to her cheek. “It’ll be good to have you here for practical reasons, too. I think there’s something that has to be done with the estate.”
“What’s that?” Marlow asked in surprise.
“I don’t know. Samuel Lefebvre’s been calling me, trying to get me to come meet with him, but I told him you’re the one to talk to. I can’t face it.”
Sam was her father’s attorney and had been since Marlow could remember. He’d written her a character reference when she applied to Stanford, since he’d graduated from there himself, which was how she’d landed on the opposite coast. “I can handle it. It shouldn’t be hard. Most, if not all, of Dad’s estate will pass directly to you. Maybe he left me a few trinkets.”
“I’m sure he did. But Sam acts as though there’s business at hand, so he must need something.”
“You know Sam. He’s fastidious, always in a hurry to wrap things up. It won’t be a problem.”
A ghost of her mother’s former smile curved her lips. “You’re so capable. You’ve always been capable—just like your father.”
Marlow heard Rosemary come into the house with Aida and Claire. “Should I wait to introduce my friends to you until after we eat?”
“Maybe that would be best,” Eileen said. “It’ll give me the chance to rest a bit longer.”
“Of course. There’s no rush.”
“I can’t wait to spend more time with you. It’s comforting to know we have the whole summer.”
“It is.” Marlow hugged her mother, breathing in the welcome scent of her perfume before going out to join Aida and Claire in the dining room, where Rosemary had put a tea caddy filled with small sandwiches, crackers with herb spread, homemade scones and chocolate-covered strawberries. The clotted cream was in small dishes at the side of each plate.
“Looks delicious. I don’t think anyone in the UK could do it better.”
“Then I did it right,” Rosemary joked.
When Marlow sat down, she halfway expected Reese to join them, since she knew he was on the property, but he didn’t come in. As generously as her family had treated Rosemary and her boys, there’d always been a distinction between the family and the help. Marlow supposed that, in many situations like this, it was inevitable: there was a natural hierarchy when it came to employment.
“Reese has gotten so tall,” she remarked to Rosemary, helping herself to a cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwich.
“He’s a handsome man,” Aida said.
Marlow shot her friend a warning look but didn’t dare say anything in front of Reese’s mother, who seemed to take the compliment at face value. “He’s six-four, as tall as his brother now,” she said proudly.
“What’s Walker been doing these days?” Marlow asked.
Rosemary used a towel to hold the hot teapot with both hands. “He’s living here on the island now.”
Marlow paused, her sandwich halfway to her mouth. “He left Atlanta to come here permanently? When?”
“As soon as he heard about COVID. Poor guy’s always felt he needs to be there for me and Reese,” she said with an affectionate chuckle. “I guess it’s no wonder since, growing up, he had to be the man of the house.”
Eileen hadn’t mentioned that Walker had moved to Teach, but at thirty-six, he probably didn’t come to the house much. “What part of the island does he live on?” Marlow asked. “He’s not staying above the garage, is he?”
“No, Reese is there now. Walker bought the cottage down by the cove. It’s not very big, but the setting is magnificent. I’ve never seen prettier sunsets than the ones I see from his front porch.”
Marlow liked the cove, too. The beach there was small and completely cut off from the other beaches, so it was often overlooked by tourists, which made it feel almost as private as the beach her family owned. “What does he do for a living?”
“He’s the chief of police.”
Marlow sat taller. “The chief of police?”
Rosemary shrugged off her surprise. “It sounds loftier than it is. There are only two other officers on the force.”
“But…how’d that happen? Last I heard, he was a street cop in Atlanta.” She remembered someone telling her that a friend had talked him into going into the academy. That had been a while ago—probably a decade—but Walker’s ascent still seemed quick.
“This is your oldest son?” Claire interrupted.
“It is,” Rosemary replied before answering Marlow. “He didn’t want to be separated from me or his brother during the pandemic, so he kept checking for jobs on the island—and he found one.”
“The chief of police quit or was fired or something?” Claire asked.
“No, Walker got on as a regular officer first,” Rosemary clarified. “But when the chief retired, he took over.”
“Do you have a daughter-in-law, too?” Aida asked. “Or any grandbabies?”
“Not yet,” Rosemary replied. “I bug Walker about finding a wife all the time, but he just laughs it off and tells me you can’t hurry love.”
“Maybe Reese will be the one to give you grandbabies,” Aida said.
“He’s got some growing up to do first,” Rosemary said and headed into the kitchen.
Marlow and Claire both gave Aida a pointed stare.
“What?” she said, lifting her well-manicured hands as though she’d done nothing wrong. “He’s twenty-two. It’s not as though he’s underage.”
Rosemary reappeared before they could say anything further. “Walker’s here,” she announced. “I needed a few things for the soup I’m making for dinner tonight, and he said he’d grab them for me.”
A knock sounded on the door. After Rosemary opened it, Marlow could hear Walker say, “Here you go. You’ll find some of those dark chocolate–covered almonds you like in the bag, too.”
Marlow could see a slice of Rosemary as she accepted the sack he handed her. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ll see you later.”
“Walker?” his mother said, calling him back. “Marlow’s home if you’d like to come in and say hello.”
There was a slight pause, which indicated he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. Marlow could understand why. They hadn’t exactly been close, at least not during their teenage years. But he eventually said, “Fine. But just for a minute. I have to get back to work.”
Walker had filled out since she’d last seen him. Marlow remembered him as tall and skinny, like his younger brother, but with a little more acne and a lot more attitude. He was still lean, but he looked far more powerful these days, especially through the arms and shoulders. The acne was gone—a shadow of dark razor stubble had replaced that—but she couldn’t yet tell how much his attitude had improved. It was odd to see him in a police uniform.
His light eyes, more the color of ice than the cornflower blue of Aida’s, circled the faces at the table as he nodded. “Nice to see you again,” he said to Marlow, but he hung back instead of coming very far into the room, and he sounded more polite than sincere.
Marlow already knew he didn’t like her. He’d made several attempts to get something going between them when they were teenagers, but she hadn’t been interested. Back then, he’d had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. She wasn’t sure why, but he’d tried to kiss her several times, and the last time she’d refused, he’d accused her of thinking she was too good for him. After that he would scarcely even look at her.
“It’s nice to see you, too,” Marlow said as if those previous run-ins had never occurred and motioned to her friends. “This is Aida Trahan and Claire Fernandez. They’re planning to spend the summer here with me.”
“Great place to hang out for a few months,” he said to them. “I hope you enjoy the island.”
Duty done, he was already stepping back when Marlow remembered her manners. “We’ve got plenty of food here. Would you like to sit down and have a cup of tea?”
“No, thanks.” He was eager to go. That was clear. He hadn’t wanted to come in to begin with. But Aida wasn’t about to let such a good-looking guy escape that easily.
“Are you sure?” She jumped up and pulled out the chair next to her own. “It’s all delicious.”
When he checked his watch, Marlow could tell he was planning to give them an excuse. “I would if I could—” he started, but was interrupted when Eileen came into the room.
“Walker!” She beamed at him. “I thought I heard your voice. I haven’t seen you in months. What have you been up to?”
His first genuine smile appeared. “Oh, you know me. Just causing trouble.”
“Can you believe Marlow’s home? I’m so happy to have her back. And she’s brought friends! Won’t you join us for a few minutes?”
The sudden change in his body language signaled he wouldn’t refuse Eileen the way he’d refused them. He seemed to have a soft spot for her. “All right. I guess I have a minute or two.” He helped Eileen, who was a little less steady on her feet than usual, to a chair before taking the one Aida had pulled out for him.
“Welcome to Seaclusion,” Eileen said to Claire and Aida when Marlow introduced them. “I hope you’ll make yourselves right at home.”
Claire leaned back as Rosemary came around to top up her tea. “Thank you. This is going to be a fabulous reprieve.”
“Claire’s house burned down in the Malibu fire last August,” Aida confided to Walker.
The size of Walker’s hand made his teacup look small by comparison. “I’m really sorry to hear that. California’s fires seem to be getting worse.”
“Yes, which is why we might not stay there much longer,” Aida said ruefully.
“Don’t tell me you lost your house, too,” he said.
“No. I lost my marriage.”
“Divorce is also hard,” Eileen said.
“At least I had a good attorney,” Aida joked.
Eileen covered Marlow’s hand with her own. “Marlow handled the divorce,” she explained proudly.
Walker’s eyes flicked in Marlow’s direction, but he glanced away almost immediately. “If I ever get married and it doesn’t go well, I’ll know who to call,” he said as he lifted his cup.
Marlow got the feeling she’d be the last person he’d call for any reason. He still held the past against her. He’d probably been going through a lot when she rejected him. As an adult, she understood that his life hadn’t been easy and wished she’d been kinder. Maybe he was right about her—she’d been rich and spoiled and immature, and he’d been the housekeeper’s son. That type of bias wasn’t easy to admit, but it was probably the truth.
“You said ‘we,’” Rosemary said to Aida. “But Marlow has no plans to leave California, does she?”
Marlow had been hoping no one had picked up on that. “Actually, I’ve closed down my practice,” Marlow told her. She’d planned to wait before going into this, but since the subject had come up…
“You…what?” Eileen said.
“My job wasn’t working for me,” she explained.
Eileen set her cup on its saucer with a clink. “What do you mean? You had more cases than you knew what to do with.”
“That’s the problem,” she said. “It was a constant onslaught of negativity. ‘She said this… He did that…’ Some of my clients would tear their own kids to shreds if it meant getting a bigger piece of the asset pie. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Aida cupped a hand around her mouth as though she was sharing a secret with Walker. “My ex was partially to blame. He got so ugly with Marlow.”
“Because I was making him give you what you deserved.”
“You didn’t tell me about this,” Eileen said, clearly alarmed.
“There was no reason to upset you. Dutton—or Dumbo, as I call him—didn’t end up doing anything.”
Her mother didn’t seem comforted. “But he could have.”
“Did you get a restraining order against him?” Walker asked.
As a police officer, he would immediately wonder if she’d gone to the authorities. “I tried. The judge wouldn’t grant it, but I took other precautions.”
“What other precautions?” Walker held her gaze for the first time since he’d arrived, and she couldn’t help thinking she’d never seen such striking eyes. He’d always had them, of course. But they were somehow different these days. Wiser. More tempered. More mature. And more skeptical.
“I put a camera at both doors that I could monitor on my phone. And I was careful never to leave my office on my own.”
“How long ago was this?” he asked.
She looked to Aida to confirm her memory. “We settled…what? Two months ago?”
“Three,” Aida said. “The divorce is final.”
The fact that Dutton was no longer a threat seemed to satisfy Walker. “I’m glad it didn’t come to anything,” he said and popped a sandwich into his mouth before downing the rest of his tea. “I’d better go. I have a lot to do today.”
“You should come by more often,” Eileen said. “You know I’ll feed you.”
“I’ll do that,” he said with a chuckle, but Marlow was willing to bet he wouldn’t be back while she was there.
He told her friends it was good to meet them and left, but he and his mother—Rosemary was walking him out—hadn’t been gone more than a few seconds when Eileen got up and started for the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Marlow asked, since her mother seemed to be in a hurry.
“To wrap up some leftovers I can send home with him. Walker loves chocolate-covered strawberries.”
“How do you know?”
“His mother told me.”
Eileen had to catch her balance by grabbing the door frame, so Marlow shot up. “Let me do it,” she said, but by the time she took over, Rosemary had already come back in alone.
“Oh, is he gone?” Eileen asked, disappointed. “I was going to send some of the sandwiches, scones and strawberries home with him.”
“How nice,” Rosemary said. “I’ll ask him to swing by again later.”
After finishing their tea and helping to clean up, Marlow, Aida and Claire thanked Eileen and Rosemary and walked over to the guesthouse to change. They couldn’t wait to get out of their sticky clothes and into their swimsuits so they could hit the beach.
“Why haven’t you ever mentioned Walker or Reese?” Aida asked as they crossed the yard.
Marlow glanced toward the apartment over the garage, where she’d learned Reese was staying, but she didn’t see any movement. “Why would I?”
“You’re kidding, right?” she said. “Two men who look as good as they do?”
“I grew up with them,” Marlow said as if they were more like family. But she didn’t feel remotely sisterly toward them. Especially Walker…
“I hope we run into them again, don’t you?” Aida joked and nudged Claire to try to get her into the spirit.
Although Claire had hardly said a word since they left California, she spoke up now. “I wish I could move on as easily as you have.”
Aida pulled them both to a stop. “What does that mean?”
When Claire didn’t answer, just stared at the ground, Aida said, “Don’t tell me you’re still stuck on my asshole ex-husband.”
A guilty expression flitted across Claire’s face as she glanced up. “He’s been calling me,” she admitted.
Marlow almost couldn’t believe her ears. “Dutton?”
“No way!” Aida cried. “Tell me that’s not who you mean.” But they both knew it was. Claire was the reason for Aida’s divorce; she was the “other woman.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Aida demanded without waiting for Claire’s confirmation.
Claire’s shoulders slumped. “Because I was secretly glad. I’ve lost everything this year—my house, my yoga studio thanks to COVID, and the exciting new relationship I thought I was starting. I know it’s terrible of me, but…I’m still in love with him.”
Aida gasped. “After all the lies he told you? After all the lies he told both of us?”
Claire looked downright miserable. She didn’t answer, but her silence made the truth clear.
Now Marlow understood what had been going on with Claire, why she’d been so reserved on the flight and in the car. “Aida,” she said softly, hoping to temper her response, but Aida wasn’t listening—not to her.
Her gaze was riveted on Claire. “He threatened to destroy Marlow’s reputation and her practice!” she said.
“I hate what he did,” Claire responded. “But…he was angry and…and hurt. And he didn’t act on it. He’s told me he’s sorry.”
No wonder Dutton had stopped bothering her, Marlow thought. He was trying to get back with one of the women he’d lost—the one he’d been cheating with until Claire found out he was married and showed up on Aida’s doorstep to tell her what had been going on. “Claire, I don’t trust him.”
“But…you should hear how terrible he feels.”
“I don’t believe he feels terrible, or that he’s remotely sorry,” Marlow said. “I believe he’s placated because he thinks he can get you back.”
“Besides, it doesn’t matter if he didn’t act on his threats,” Aida chimed in. “He still said those things. He frightened her—after he abused our love and our trust.”
Claire winced. “I know, but—”
“If he’ll cheat on me, he’ll cheat on you,” Aida broke in.
“You can’t be sure of that,” Claire said, a slight wobble in her voice.
The last thing Marlow wanted was an argument erupting between them, especially on their first day here. Putting an arm around Claire’s shoulders, she gave her a reassuring squeeze to help offset what she felt compelled to say. “He’s not a good person, honey.”
“People always act their worst when they’re going through a divorce. You’ve said that a million times.”
The pain Marlow had witnessed—heartbreak just like this—was why she refused to get involved with anyone. Love made people too vulnerable. “That’s when someone’s true character is revealed.”
“You’ve never lived with him,” Aida concurred. “Take it from someone who has—for ten years. He’s too narcissistic to truly love anyone.”
Claire began to blink more rapidly. “What if he’s changed?”
“Oh, my God!” Aida cried. “He hasn’t! It’s an act. You have to get over him.”
“And you will,” Marlow added, more gently. “With time.”
Claire didn’t respond to her encouragement. She looked out from under her bangs at Aida. “What about you? Are you over him?”
That Claire hadn’t become combative despite their shocked and unhappy reaction—that she was so vulnerable and confused and hurt—took the fight out of Aida. “I don’t know,” she said. “All I know is that I can’t go back to him, even if I’m not. So what does it matter?”
With a sniff, Claire wiped her nose and started toward the guesthouse again. “If you can do it, maybe I can, too.”
Aida also put an arm around Claire so they were all three walking as one unit. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re going to hit the reset button, remember?”
Claire attempted to smile through her tears. “I remember.”
When Claire’s phone vibrated under the towel protecting it from the sun, she told herself to ignore the call. She’d come to Teach Island for an escape, and she was going to take full advantage—forget the world she’d left behind and gain a healthier perspective so she could return to California stronger and in better control of her life.
But the fact that it was probably Dutton made her pull the phone out and lift her sunglasses for a peek.
A quick glance at the ocean showed Marlow and Aida deep in conversation, standing in the waves that lapped gently at the beach. They were probably talking about her, and the bombshell she’d dropped a couple of hours ago. No doubt they were wondering how she could continue a relationship with Dutton. Sometimes she wondered that herself. But she hadn’t been able to turn him away, couldn’t just move on as Aida seemed to have done. Dutton was different from the other men she’d dated. Never before had she been with someone who seemed so capable of navigating the bumps of life. He stood up and took charge, and for someone who’d dated men who weren’t willing to be responsible for anything, even making future plans, that was a strong aphrodisiac. He was always willing to go to the work of having a good time, too, no matter how much planning it took, and he was interested in so many things, which made him fun to be with.
Fortunately, this call had come while she was alone—or essentially alone. Otherwise, she couldn’t have answered.
Tilting her wide-brimmed floppy hat to shield part of her face, she turned away from the water as she raised the phone to her ear. She’d never dreamed she’d ever get involved with a married man. She’d always considered herself a good judge of character and a person of strong character herself. But with Dutton, she hadn’t seen it coming.
A little over a year ago, when she’d bumped into him while closing up her yoga studio as he was heading to the hair salon next door, there’d been an immediate spark. He’d teased her about how she had to struggle to get the darn door to lock properly and had offered a little elbow grease to get it to latch, and then he’d returned the next day to say he hadn’t been able to quit thinking about her.
The relationship had progressed quickly from there—until, almost six months later, Tori Valens, the hairdresser next door, finally came forward to tell her he was married.
“Hello?” she said now.
“Hey, babe.” His voice, as deep and rich as that of any radio host, sent a jolt of pure longing through her. This was the person who’d supported her—emotionally and financially—during the loss of her house and her business, when the state’s shutdown lasted for months and months and she could no longer pay the rent on her studio. When she was so distraught she could barely climb out of bed in the morning, he was there to help her cope with the bitter disappointment of seeing her dreams come crashing down, especially after her house was destroyed in one of the biggest wildfires in California. He’d moved her into his apartment, given her security and financial support, and helped her wade through all the red tape of dealing with the insurance company, getting bids for the rebuild and choosing the contractor.
He’d lied so convincingly through all of that time, created a whole world for her that didn’t actually exist. She’d never even suspected that the apartment he’d rented was just for show. The job he claimed to have as a pharmaceutical rep, the one that demanded he travel—his excuse for being gone so much—was nothing like his practice as a pediatric surgeon. And he’d told her his parents and his sister lived out of town, which was why she never got to meet any of his family.
He’d had an answer for everything. And she’d believed every word.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Missing you,” he said.
She was missing him, too. But she didn’t say so. She was trying to hang on to her principles, and what she knew would be best for her in the long run.
“How was the trip to Florida?”
“I’m not a big fan of flying, but it was okay as flights go, I guess.”
“I told you—you have a greater chance of dying in a car crash than a plane crash.”
“If only I could convince my subconscious of that. I almost had an anxiety attack when they closed the door.”
“You should’ve taken a Valium.”
“I don’t have any.”
“I would’ve prescribed some for you. All you had to do was say the word.”
He saw nothing wrong with writing a prescription. His willingness to bend the rules was a problem. She saw it as the red flag that it was. So why didn’t his lack of integrity stop her from caring about him? From wanting to be with him? “I made it safely,” she said simply. “So it’s a moot point.”
“You still have the return flight. Do you want me to send you something?”
She couldn’t argue with him. Not right now. Putting him off would be easier. “We’ll talk about that when I’m closer to leaving the island.”
“Don’t tell me you’re staying all summer,” he said.
She straightened in surprise. She’d never indicated otherwise. “That’s always been the plan.”
“I can’t go three months without seeing you.”
She was afraid she couldn’t last that long, either—not if she didn’t manage to somehow strengthen her resolve.
“By then Marlow will have poisoned you against me,” he said. “She and Aida have nothing good to say about me.”
“They’re looking forward, not back.” Loyalty demanded she not tell him certain things. He was as angry with them as they were with him. He freely admitted that he’d been wrong to cheat, but he justified his behavior toward Aida by saying she’d never had to work a day since she married him, that for ten years he’d provided her with a fabulous life where all she had to do was get her nails done and sit by the pool, and yet they’d “taken him to the cleaners” in the divorce.
“I wish you’d come to me instead of Aida when Tori told you.”
So he could…what? Lie some more? Hide his income so Aida wouldn’t get her fair share?
Claire hated to assume the worst, but she had only his track record to go by. “Let’s not talk about that,” she said. They’d been over it before. When he called her out of the blue after the divorce had been finalized, he’d been careful not to fault her for telling Aida. But she’d noticed more and more blame creeping into their conversations in the weeks since, and she wasn’t going to let him make her the villain for telling his wife. Aida had the right to know. She’d want to know if she were in Aida’s shoes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that they screwed me so bad.”
“I’ve told you how I feel about the situation.”
“You believe what happened was my fault. But there are two sides to every story, Claire. Aida wasn’t a perfect wife any more than I was a perfect husband.”
She’d already heard all about that, of course. He’d told her that Aida lived her life barely scratching the surface of it, that after the decade they’d been together, he’d grown bored, listless. He craved someone to speak to at the end of the day who was interested in deeper conversation. And as much as Claire hated to admit it, she could sort of understand why Dutton wouldn’t be satisfied—not if he was looking for a critical thinker who could see the many shades of gray in life.
Afraid to face the ocean again for fear Aida or Marlow, or both of them, had seen her talking on the phone and would guess it was Dutton, she kept her head turned away. “Look, I’d better go. I can’t talk right now.”
“Come back to California,” he said. “What we had… You don’t want to throw that away, Claire, not when we can finally be together on the up-and-up. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance at happiness.”
She squeezed her eyes closed as desire warred with loyalty, friendship, duty—and common sense. “I’m going to stay here for the summer, Dutton. If…if I still feel the same way about you when I get home, maybe…maybe something will change. But I need time to decide if I can forgive you and trust you enough to get back into a relationship.”
Silence. She could feel the negative energy coming through the phone. “I’m scared,” he admitted at length. “I can’t imagine you’ll come back to me after spending three months with my ex-wife. I mean…this isn’t how it normally works. You two are supposed to hate each other, and I can’t figure out why you don’t.”
Claire understood how unlikely their friendship was. Part of it was being in the same terrible situation. That was what had drawn them together in the first place, and supporting each other had made the past six months easier to survive. The other part was simply…Aida. Maybe she wasn’t the deepest person Claire had ever met, but she was kind and optimistic and sweet. Not many wives would be able to see, almost immediately, that Claire wasn’t to blame. From the very beginning, Aida had offered understanding instead of recrimination, which was remarkable. “It’s unusual, but…”
“But…” he echoed.
She hated herself for hesitating. It had to be jealousy that made it difficult for her to praise Aida’s many fine qualities, because doing so would’ve been easy and automatic if she were talking to anyone else. “She’s special,” she forced herself to admit.
He should know. He’d married her for a reason. There were moments when Claire wondered if he was only coming back to her because Aida had refused to reconcile. Before everything turned completely acrimonious during the divorce, Aida had indicated that there’d been a few weeks when he’d tried to win her back.
Later, he’d told Claire that it was because he’d already invested ten years in the marriage and didn’t want to see it all go down the drain. But she suspected it had more to do with losing half his net worth.
Or was she being too hard on him? Relationships were complicated. Maybe he’d been sincere in trying to reconcile, because some part of him had truly loved Aida. But that was as difficult for her to contemplate as the opposite.
“You’re right. I don’t want to talk about her,” he said. “What happened…it’s over and done with. We need to move on. But I can’t move on without you.”
The doubts that crowded into Claire’s mind made her feel as though her head might explode. Did he really love her? That was the million-dollar question. Or was he just trying to save what he could? Aida claimed he had to have a woman in his life at all times, feared being alone. Claire didn’t want to fall for his lies twice. But he could get almost any woman he wanted. He didn’t have to pick her. And she couldn’t help remembering how wonderful things had been between them before she’d learned the truth. “We’ll see. As I said, I’m going to spend the summer here on Teach and try to get my thoughts together. I’ll let you know where I’m at once I’m home.”
“It sounds like you’re not even planning on talking to me while you’re there.”
“I think that would be best.” How else could she get her heart and her mind in alliance? Just the sound of his voice made her start to question herself all over again.
“Isn’t there anything I can do to convince you that what we had was real? That I wouldn’t have cheated with anyone else? The day you walked out of your studio… I don’t know how to describe it. It sounds corny, but I was just…struck.”
She’d had the same reaction to him. She’d been so excited when he’d come back the next day, and everything had moved so fast from there. He’d told her later that he couldn’t reveal he was married, that he was terrified he’d lose her, so one lie had led to another, which had led to another, and pretty soon he was living a life that wasn’t even close to reality. But as wrong as it was to do what he did, she could understand how it could happen—because she’d been there. She’d experienced the power of their attraction, how instantly they’d connected, how his touch had set her skin racing with anticipation and excitement, how fulfilling their conversations had been and how often they’d talked until deep into the night. Those first love-drunk weeks together were unlike anything she’d ever known, which was why she felt so lost now.
Shit. What was she going to do?
“I know you felt the same way about me.”
“I hate that I loved you and trusted you so much,” she said. “I’ve never felt the kind of pain I’ve experienced since I found out about Aida.”
“The pain can go away if you’ll let it. I’m right here, and I still want you. All you have to do is forgive me.”
“And trust again,” she added. That was the part she wasn’t sure she could do.
“I’ll earn your trust day by day. You’ll see.”
How? If she got back with him, she’d not only ruin her friendships with Aida and Marlow, she’d spend the next few days, weeks, years wondering if he was paying for an apartment for some other woman when he claimed to be called in to the hospital or working late.
“Just say you’ll think about it,” he said.
That was easy enough to promise, since getting back with him was all she could think about. “Okay.”
After they disconnected, she slid her phone back under her towel and stared out at the sea. Fortunately, Aida and Marlow didn’t seem to be paying her any attention. They’d started walking along the shoreline and had their backs to her as they approached a small jetty, where Marlow’s family had a slip for their catamaran. What were they talking about?
Marlow was one of the smartest women Claire had ever known. She would definitely advise Claire not to allow Dutton back into her life. But Marlow was so cynical about men that she hadn’t ever let a relationship get serious.
Claire wasn’t convinced she was willing to pay that steep a price to keep her heart safe.