At six, running away from home had been a scary proposition. It should have been easier and less traumatic at thirty-two.
It wasn’t, Maggie concluded with regret after three weeks in hiding. Oh, the logistics were easier, but the emotional wear and tear were about the same.
Way back then, lugging a Barbie suitcase packed with Oreos and her favorite stuffed toys, Maggie had set out to show her parents that she didn’t need them anymore. But by the time she’d wandered a few blocks away from their Charleston home onto unfamiliar streets, and by the time darkness had closed in with its eerie shadows, she’d begun to wonder if she hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
Still, she’d been far too stubborn to consider backing down. She’d climbed onto a wicker rocking chair deep in the shadows of a deserted front porch and, tightly clutching her tattered Winnie the Pooh, gone to sleep. Her frantic parents had found her there the next morning, thanks to a call from the owner of the house, who’d been alerted to her presence by his son. Leave it to terrible Tommy Henderson to rat her out. No wonder no one in first grade liked the little tattletale.
It seemed more than a bit ironic that twenty-six years later, Maggie was running away from home again and that she was still trying to prove things to her parents. The only difference this time was that Tommy Henderson was nowhere around. Last she’d heard, he was working somewhere overseas as a CIA operative for the United States government. At least he’d put his capacity for sneakiness to good use.
Sitting in a rocker on the front porch of a tiny rented beach house on Sullivan’s Island, Maggie sipped her third glass of sweetened iced tea and watched the fireflies flicker in their endless game of tag in the evening sky. The air was still and thick with humidity, the night quiet and lonely. Even though she was all grown up, in many ways she was just as scared now as she had been at six, and just as stubbornly determined to stay away till she made sense of things.
She couldn’t recall exactly what had sent her fleeing into the night back then, but now it was all about a man, of course. What else could possibly drive a reasonably sane and mature woman to run away from her home and business and fill her with enough self-doubt to keep her on a shrink’s couch for years? She didn’t miss the irony that it was, in fact, a shrink who’d turned her world upside down.
Safe, solid, dependable Warren Blake, Ph.D., had been the kind of respectable, charming man her family had always wanted for her. Her father had approved of him. Predictably, her mother had adored him. Warren didn’t make waves. He didn’t have any pierced or tattooed body parts. He could carry on an intelligent conversation. And he was Southern. What more could they have asked, after the parade of unlikely candidates Maggie had flaunted in front of them for years?
Basking in all that parental approval for the first time in her life, Maggie had convinced herself she loved Warren and wanted to marry him. The wedding date had been set.
And then, with the invitations already in the mail, Warren had called the whole thing off, saying he had come to his senses and realized their marriage would be a mistake. He’d done it so gently, at first Maggie hadn’t even understood what he was trying to say. But when the full import had finally sunk in, she’d been furious, then devastated. Here she’d finally done the right thing, made the right choice, and what had she gotten in return? Total humiliation.
She’d packed her bags -- Louis Vuitton this time -- and run away from home again. In terms of distance, it really wasn’t that much farther than she’d run all those years ago, but Sullivan’s Island was light-years away from Charleston in terms of demands on her shattered psyche. She could sit on this porch, swatting lazily at mosquitoes, and never once have to make a decision that she’d come to regret the way she regretted her decision to get engaged to Warren.
She could eat tomato sandwiches on white bread slathered with Miracle Whip for breakfast and an entire pint of peach ice cream for lunch. She could play the radio at top volume and dance around the living room at any hour of the day or night, if she could summon the energy for it. She could go for a swim without waiting a whole hour after eating, and she could track sand through the house, if she felt like it.
In fact, she’d been doing all that for a while now and, she was forced to admit, it was getting on her nerves. She was a social creature. She liked people. She missed her art gallery in Charleston. She was almost ready to start seeing her friends again, at least in small doses.
But she’d made up her mind that she wasn’t going home until she’d come to grips with why the devil she’d been so determined to marry Warren in the first place. There had to be a reason she’d talked herself into being in love with a man who was the complete opposite of every other male she’d ever dated in her life. When she was willing to give Warren credit for anything, she conceded that he’d only saved them both a lot of misery. So why had the broken engagement sent her packing?
It wasn’t the humiliation. Not entirely, anyway. Maggie had never given two figs what anyone thought of her, unlike her mother, who obsessed about everyone’s opinion and had been horrified by her daughter’s broken engagement.
It certainly wasn’t a broken heart. Her ego might have been a little bruised, but her heart had been just fine. In fact, in a very short time she’d found herself breathing a sigh of relief. Not that she intended to admit that to Warren. Let the man squirm.
So, if it wasn’t her heart or her pride that had been wounded, what was it? Maybe nothing more than watching a last desperate dream crash at her feet, leaving her with no more dreams, no more options.
On that disturbing note, Maggie dragged herself out of the rocker and went inside to retrieve another pint of ice cream -- chocolate-chocolate chip this time -- from the freezer. At this rate she’d be the size of a blimp by the time she decided to go back to Charleston. She shrugged off the possibility and dipped her spoon into the decadent treat. If she never intended to date again, what difference did it make if she was the size of a truck? Or a blimp?
She flipped on the radio and found an oldies station. She preferred country, but wallowing in love-gone-wrong songs at this particular moment in her life struck her as overkill.
She was dancing her way back toward the porch when she spotted three people on the other side of the screen door. Unfortunately, even in the dark, she knew exactly who they were -- her best friend, Dinah Davis Beaufort, Dinah’s new husband, Cordell, and the traitorous Warren.
If she’d had the energy, she would have bolted for the back door. As it was, she resigned herself to greeting them like the proper Southern belle she’d been raised to be. She could hear her mother’s words echoing in her head. Company, even unwanted company, was always to be welcomed politely.
But even as she forced a smile and opened the door, she also vowed that the next time she ran away from home, she was going to choose someplace on the other side of the world where absolutely no one could find her.
As interventions went, this one pretty much sucked. Not that Maggie knew a whole lot about interventions, never having been addicted to much of anything -- with the possible exception of truly lousy choices in men. She was fairly certain, though, that having only three people sitting before her with anxious expressions -- one of them the very man responsible for her current state of mind -- was not the way this sort of thing ought to work.
Then, again, Warren should know. He’d probably done hundreds of them for his alcohol- or drug-addicted clients. Hell, maybe he’d even done a few for women he’d dumped, like Maggie. Maybe that was how he’d built up his practice, the louse.
"Magnolia Forsythe, are you listening to a word we’re saying?" Dinah Davis Beaufort demanded impatiently, a worried frown etched on her otherwise perfect face.
Dinah and Maggie had been friends forever. It was one reason, possibly the only reason, Maggie didn’t summon the energy to slap Dinah for using her much hated given name. Magnolia, for goodness’ sakes! What had her parents been thinking?
Maggie regarded her best friend -- her former best friend, she decided in that instant -- with a scowl. "No." She didn’t want to hear anything these three had to say. Every one of them had played a role in sending her into this depression. She doubted they had any advice that would drag her out of it.
"I told you she was going to hate this," Cordell Beaufort said.
Of everyone there, Cord looked the most relaxed, the most normal, Maggie concluded. In fact, he had the audacity to give her a wink. Because Maggie’s futile attempt to seduce him before Dinah’s return to town last year from a foreign assignment was another reason she was in this dark state of mind, she ignored the wink and concentrated on identifying all the escape routes from this room. Not that a woman should have to flee her own damn living room to get any peace. She ought to be able to kick the well-meaning intruders out, but -- her mother’s stern admonitions be damned -- she’d tried that not five minutes after their arrival and not a one of them had budged. Perhaps she ought to consider telling them whatever they wanted to hear so they’d go away.
"I don’t care if she does hate it," Dinah said, her expression grim. "We have to convince her to stop moping around in this house. Look at her. She hasn’t even combed her hair or put on makeup." She surveyed Maggie with a practiced eye. "And what is that she’s wearing? It looks as if she chopped off her jeans with gardening shears."
"I’m at the beach, for heaven’s sake! And stop talking about me as if I’ve left the room," Maggie snapped.
Dinah ignored Maggie and went right on addressing Cord. "It’s not healthy. She needs to come home. She needs to get out and do something. This project of ours is perfect."
"In your opinion," Cord chided. "Maggie might not agree."Dinah frowned. "Well, if she doesn’t want to help us with that, then she at least ought to remember that she has a business to run, a life to live."
Maggie felt the last thread holding her temper in check snap. "What life is that?" Maggie inquired. "The one I had before Warren here decided I wasn’t his type and dumped me two weeks before our wedding? Or the humiliating one I have now, facing all my friends and trying to explain how I got it so wrong? Or perhaps you’re referring to my pitiful and unsuccessful attempt to seduce Cord before you waltzed back into town from overseas and claimed him for yourself?"
Of all of them, only Warren had the grace to look chagrined. "Maggie, you know it would never have worked with us," he explained with great patience, just as he had on the night he’d first broken the news that the wedding was off. "I’m just the one who had the courage to say it."
"Well, you picked a damn fine time to figure it out," she said, despite the fact that she’d long since conceded to herself that he’d done exactly the right thing. "What kind of psychologist are you that you couldn’t recognize something like our complete incompatibility a year before the wedding or even six months before the wedding?"
Warren regarded her with an unblinking gaze. "We were only engaged for a few weeks, Maggie," he reminded her in that same annoyingly patient tone. "You were the one who was in a rush to get married. Neither one of us had much time to think."
"I was in love with you!" she practically shouted, irritated by his determination to be logical when she was an emotional wreck. "Why would I want to waste time on a long engagement?"
Warren’s tolerant expression never wavered. It was one of the things she’d grown to hate about him. He wouldn’t fight with her. He was always so damn reasonable. It might be a terrific trait in a shrink, but in a boyfriend it had been infuriating, especially for a woman who enjoyed a good argument.
"Maggie, as much as I would love to think that you fell head over heels in love with me so quickly we both know the rush was all about keeping up with Dinah and Cord. The minute they got married, you started to panic. You hated being left behind and I was handy."
"You’re wrong," she protested stubbornly, not liking the picture he was painting.
"Am I?" he asked mildly. "We’d already stopped seeing each other after just a few mostly disastrous dates, but right in the middle of Cord and Dinah’s wedding reception, you decided we should give it another chance."
"Because my family adored you, because everyone said you were perfect for me. I was being open-minded," she countered. "Isn’t that what the sensible women you so admire do?"
Cord tried unsuccessfully to swallow a chuckle. Warren and Dinah scowled at him.
"I have to say, I think Warren is right," Dinah chimed in. "I think you latched on to Warren as if he were the last life raft in the ocean."
"Oh, what do you know?" Maggie retorted. "You and Cord are so into each other you barely know anyone else is around."
"We’re here, aren’t we?" Dinah asked, completely unfazed by Maggie’s nasty tone. "We can’t be that self-absorbed."
"How did you find me, by the way? I thought I’d covered my tracks pretty well." The truth was, she hadn’t tried all that hard. In fact, in her state of self-pity, she hadn’t been able to imagine anyone caring enough to come after her.
"I’m a journalist," Dinah reminded her. "I know how to make phone calls. Besides, I know you. I knew you’d never go too far from home. Charleston is in your blood."
"More’s the pity," Maggie grumbled. She really did need to broaden her horizons. Maybe that was what was wrong with her life. She’d never had any desire to be anyplace except South Carolina’s Low Country. Maybe if she’d traveled the world the way Dinah had during her career as a foreign correspondent for a TV network, Maggie would have discovered some other place where she could be perfectly happy. At least it would have gotten her out from under her mother’s judgmental gaze.
"Do you really want to talk about the pros and cons of living in Charleston?" Dinah inquired tartly.
"Not particularly," Maggie said.
"Then let’s focus on getting your life back on track. Moping around out here all by yourself is not you, Maggie."
"I’m not moping," Maggie retorted. "I’m on vacation."
"Oh, please. You were halfway through that pint of ice cream when we walked in," Dinah responded. "That’s moping. Believe me, I know all the signs. It’s obvious you’re in trouble and we want to help."
"I really don’t need the three of you sitting here with these gloomy expressions on your faces trying to plan out my life. Hell, Dinah, you’re the one who talked Warren into going out with me in the first place. Considering how things turned out, I should hate you for that."
In fact, she was pretty darn irritated about it. If it hadn’t been for Dinah’s meddling, Maggie would never in a million years have fallen, however halfheartedly, for a man like Warren Blake. Rock-steady and dependable might suit a lot of women, but such traits had always bored Maggie to tears. She preferred dark, dangerous and sexy. Men like Cord Beaufort, as a matter of fact.