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The Gin & Chowder Club
By Nan Rossiter
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Nan Rossiter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAll day long, the leaden sky had hung low and threatening over Nauset Light. Asa sat at his desk and watched the lighthouse from his bedroom window. There was something haunting about the steady measurement in each revolution.... It was almost as if you could watch time passing.
"Asaaa, we could use your help down here," Samuel Coleman bellowed from the kitchen, interrupting his son's thoughts.
"Be right down," the boy answered. He scribbled one last sentence and closed the notebook, slipped it into the bottom of his desk drawer, and pushed back his chair, almost tripping over the family's old black Lab who was dozing on the braided rug beside his bed.
"Sorry, ole girl," Asa said, scratching her head.
Martha thumped her tail forgivingly and followed him gingerly down the worn narrow treads as he hurried to help his father and brother.
Samuel looked up. "Please rinse before dropping 'em in."
"Yes, Dad," the boys replied, rolling their eyes and elbowing each other. When they had first begun helping with the task of pulling clam bellies from their shells, the boys had stood side by side on a chair. They had grown considerably since then, but the task would not be the same if their father forgot to reiterate these mundane instructions. Asa didn't mind. He loved to help with the recipe that had been in their family for generations. He loved it not only because it was a tradition, but also because it meant that his parents would be having company. When they were younger, he and Isaac would already be in their pajamas when their parents' friends arrived, and they would be allowed to stay up just long enough to say hello and to explain that they had indeed helped with the chowder. Then they would be ushered upstairs for prayers and gently tucked into bed. The ocean breeze would whisper to them through their bedroom window as they listened to the merry laughter and voices downstairs. Finally, the boys would hear the chowder being served and the men jovially toasting, their voices lilting with unmistakable Cambridge accents....
"'Tis the chowdah that waams a man's belly ... But aye, 'tis the gin that waams his soul!"
Then they would drift off to sleep, warmed by the happiness in their parents' deep old friendships....
Asa pulled the last clam belly, gave it a quick rinse, and dropped it into the pot. He scooped the empty shells into a large metal pail, and Isaac carried it outside. Asa watched his father drain off the potatoes and add them to the steaming pot as well.
"So, what do you boys have planned for tonight?" Samuel asked as he poured in a generous amount of cream.
"Depends on the weather," Asa answered. "We're supposed to meet some of the fellows down on the beach for a bonfire."
"Just fellows?" His father looked up with raised eyebrows as Isaac came back into the kitchen.
"Dad, do you need ice up here?" Isaac asked.
"Yes, we'll need some ice. Are you offering to bring it up?"
"Sure. Asa, give me a hand."
Isaac gave his brother a playful shove as they headed out of the kitchen. Samuel watched them go. He was amazed to think that these young men were his sons. What had become of the small boys who, just yesterday it seemed, had relentlessly chased each other through the house? Where were the little fellows he had carried out into the waves, one in each arm, the older one squealing with delight, the younger one silent and wide-eyed with determined courage? Now they were as tall as he was.
Isaac and Asa were both slender and handsome. Isaac reminded Samuel of himself at the same age—chestnut-brown hair that was already showing signs of receding, hazel eyes, and long dark lashes that were the envy of every woman who ever saw them. Isaac was a mathematician and an artist. He was creative in a conscientious and orderly way. He attended art school in Rhode Island and, having just finished his foundation year, had settled on architecture as a major, and it suited him.
Asa, on the other hand, looked just like his mother. His features were gentle and kind. His blond hair shone in the sun. By August, it would be bleached to almost white against his brown skin. Asa's eyes were as blue as the sweet summer sky and often reflected the distant thoughts of the poet he tried to keep hidden. Samuel wondered why his younger son was so reluctant to share his writing but respected his privacy. Asa would be heading to college in the fall, and Samuel hoped that there, he would finally grow more confident.
Samuel's reverie was interrupted by the sound of chunks of ice sliding into the old metal tub on the porch. The boys were laughing about something. Samuel decided that Isaac was teasing his brother again.
"Hey, Dad, are Uncle Nate and Noelle coming tonight?" Isaac asked through the open window.
"They are." Samuel nodded. He glanced at the clock and decided that it was late enough. He usually enjoyed having a cocktail when he was cooking, but today he had put it off. Now, with the chowder simmering on the ancient gas stove, Samuel went out onto the porch and handed Isaac his glass. His son filled it with ice cubes, splashed gin over the ice, topped it off with tonic, and squeezed a slice of lime into the mixture. He pushed the lime under the ice with his finger, gave it a quick stir, licked his finger, and handed the glass to his father.
"Nice stirrer," Samuel said as he took a sip and eyed his older son. "How'd you get so good at this?"
"Watchin' you," Isaac said with a mischievous smile.
As Samuel sat down on the wooden porch swing, the sun tried to break through the sullen clouds. A mild ocean breeze was pushing the clouds inland, and a bit of blue sky was finally visible. The old rambling Cape Cod house was situated on a bluff on the northern side of Nauset Light, and its back porch looked out over the vast expanse of the rugged shoreline that extended all the way to Coast Guard Beach. Asa leaned on the railing. He loved the ocean. When he and Isaac were younger, their father had told them that England was just over the horizon, and they had believed him. Soon after, Samuel had found them pushing off in their inflatable raft at low tide.
"We're going to England," they had shouted over the surf. "Tell Mom we'll be back for supper."
Samuel had had to swim out and pull them back in.
Both boys loved the ocean, but Asa was drawn to it in a deeper way and was captivated by the mystery of its deep waters. He was also fascinated by the faithful lighthouse that stood guard and prevailed against the region's punishing storms. On countless boyhood mornings, Asa had wandered down the worn path to the lighthouse's clearing on the precipice, slipped inside its heavy wooden door, climbed its narrow spiral stairs, studied its great rotating lens, and stood on a box to look out its tiny window to the sea. On just as many evenings, he had lain in bed and watched its light pass across the walls of the room he shared with his brother, dreaming of the day when he would live on the outer reaches of some jagged and treacherous coastline and be the trusted keeper of the light.
Now, Asa looked at the open window of the lantern room and thought of Noelle. She had stopped by that morning to drop off the old metal tub Nate had borrowed the previous summer. Asa had been the only one at home. He closed his eyes and pictured her standing in the doorway....
"I can't stay," she had said.
"It's so good to see you."
"It's good to see you too."
He had walked her to her car, and she had tried to think of something more to say. "I see they painted the lighthouse."
"Yeah, they've been working on that."
"You know, I've never been inside a lighthouse."
Asa had looked up at her in disbelief. "How can that be? Didn't you grow up in Maine?"
"Yes, but not coastal Maine."
He had reached for her hand. "C'mon, you have to see the inside."
"I can't ..." She had pulled back, and he had let go. Seeing the disappointment in his eyes, she had relented. "Okay ... but only for a minute."
"Only for a minute," Asa had agreed, smiling.
They had walked down the worn path, and Asa had jiggled the lock and pushed open the heavy door. When they reached the lantern room, Noelle had looked in amazement at the mechanics that created the light.
"It's a Fresnel lens," Asa had explained, showing her how the light was reflected. She had listened attentively and watched for a while before walking over to the window to look out at the sea. Asa had looked at the slender curve of her body outlined under her thin sundress and moved behind her. He had reached over her shoulder to push the window open, and the ocean breeze had rushed in and swept back her hair. Asa had slipped his arms around her, breathing in the lovely scent of her body, and Noelle had put her hands on his arms and closed her eyes. She had felt him against her and thought again about how easy it would be ...
They had stood silently together. The only movement in the room had been the rotation of the reflecting light and the breeze that whispered in to cool their skin.
Finally, Noelle had broken the silence. "Asa, if you only knew how much I would love to be with you." She turned to him and searched his eyes. "I'm so sorry.... I should never have come." Asa had looked away, and Noelle had reached up and gently turned his face back to her, searching his eyes. "Asa, I would love to lie beside you.... Don't you see? But then what? What about Nate? I love him too. Asa, please, help me not let this happen...."
Tears burned at Asa's eyes. "Noelle ... don't you know?" He struggled with the words. "I would do anything you ask—anything at all—even if what you ask is not letting this happen...."
Noelle had leaned up and pressed her lips against his flushed cheek. Asa had closed his eyes and kept his hands stiffly at his sides....
"So, a bonfire with the fellows, is that it?" Samuel asked, interrupting Asa's thoughts.
Isaac winked at his brother. "That's the plan, Dad," he replied.
"Well, you boys know the rules—if you have any alcoholic beverages at your bonfire, stay out of the water," Samuel warned. "I was a fellow at a bonfire once, you know." He paused. "Are you going to hang around here for a while? I know everyone is looking forward to seeing you."
"Of course, Dad," said Asa. "We wouldn't miss out on chowder."
Samuel smiled and drummed his fingers on his glass. He looked his boys over. "Well, I hope you'll change out of those rag-tag shorts and T-shirts."
"Yup," said Isaac. "I might even take a shower."
"Sure you want to do that?" Asa teased. "It hasn't been a week yet."
Isaac gave his younger brother a smirk and walked toward the open door. Sarah Coleman was standing there with a grocery bag in her arms.
"Sam, I have the French bread and the shrimp if you want to come in and make cocktail sauce," she said. "Asa, maybe you could slice the bread."
"Yes, my dear," Samuel replied, easing himself up from the swing and walking over to freshen his drink.
"May I get you a cocktail ... or would you like the whole rooster?"
Sarah smiled. "A small glass of white wine would be good."
Asa watched his parents. He was always amazed by the easy, warm comfort of their relationship. He wondered if he would ever know another so well ... and if another could ever possibly know him. He thought of Noelle, and his heart ached for what could never be. He shook his head and went into the kitchen to slice the bread. Behind him, the summer sky was now a cloudless blue.
Chapter TwoNate peered in the bedroom doorway. "Almost ready, hon?"
"Almost." Noelle glanced in the mirror and sighed. Why did God create wrinkles?
Nate stepped into the room, wrapped his arms around her, and looked at her reflection too. She was slender, and her dark brown hair hung just past her shoulders. Her smooth skin was tan against the coral color of her linen sundress. She looked amazing and lovely, and Nate wondered how he hadn't noticed when he used to see her in her starched white nurse's uniform.
"How'd I get so lucky?" he pondered out loud.
Noelle put her hands on his arms and remembered how Asa had felt standing behind her.
She pushed the thought from her mind and whispered, "I'm the lucky one."
Nate closed his eyes and held her. The silver in his sideburns had long ago started spreading into the neatly clipped hair above his ears. Noelle had told him that it made him look distinguished, but he wasn't convinced. She continued to stroke his arms, pulling on his soft hair. She smelled his aftershave and felt a rush of warmth between her legs. Looking at Nate's head bent down over her shoulder, she thought about the events that had brought them to this place. Her eyes were drawn to the reflection of the bedroom behind them. She studied the Shaker headboard and the blue and white country quilt that was tucked neatly into its oak frame. She had found the bed in an antique shop, and it had fit perfectly between the two windows that overlooked the ocean. The walls were painted a soft sea green and were offset by creamy white trim and wainscoting that reached halfway up the walls. Noelle had chosen the colors and repainted the room soon after she and Nate had married. Even so, the memory of another life—Annie's life—still lingered. A gentle breeze drifted in through the windows and made the gingham curtains billow.
"We should go," Nate murmured.
"Mmm-hmm," she agreed, still lost in thought.
Annie, Nate's first wife, had died in this room. She had fought her long illness valiantly until its very end. As Annie's nurse, Noelle had witnessed the fight. She had witnessed the love and the heartache, and after Annie's passing, she had watched as grief and despair had consumed the brokenhearted man who was left behind. Witnessing all this and offering what comfort she could, Noelle Ryan couldn't help falling in love with Nathaniel Shepherd.
Blinded by sadness, however, Nate had barely noticed Noelle's presence, much less her striking features. It wasn't until they ran into each other some six months later that Nate noticed how beautiful she was. He had been going out of the grocery store as she was coming in. They had stopped to chat, and Nate had unexpectedly asked her if she had time for a cup of coffee. Noelle had obliged. They'd gone to a little outdoor café and continued their conversation, which Noelle had kept light. When they'd finished, Nate had leaned over to pick up his bag, and it had ripped open. Melted ice cream had dripped all over his shoes. "Guess I forgot what I had," Nate had said, laughing. It had felt good to laugh. After saying good-bye, he realized that he hadn't thought of Annie once during the conversation. It was a much-needed respite for his weary soul. Two weeks after their chance meeting, Samuel encouraged Nate to invite Noelle to one of their famous gatherings. He did, and by the end of the evening, it was evident to all present that Nate was smitten with Noelle, despite their eighteen-year age difference.
Chapter ThreeAn hour later, Samuel was standing in the kitchen wearing a pressed white oxford, sleeves rolled to his forearms, and khaki slacks, mentally checking his list of preparations. Big band was playing on the radio. The kitchen counters were spotless. The shrimp was on ice, and the cocktail sauce had the perfect amount of fresh horseradish, Tabasco, Worcestershire, and lemon. The buttered French bread was in foil and waiting to go in the warm oven. The chowder was still simmering, and the fresh pepper grinder had been filled. The old metal tub was stocked with beer, white wine, tonic, and sweet tea on ice. Merlot, Tanqueray, and other mixers were on the old oak side table, and there were slices of lemon and lime in a chilled glass bowl. Sarah had cut blue hydrangea blossoms and made two bouquets, one for the kitchen and one for the porch. The outside table was covered with a pressed white linen cloth on which the glasses sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Samuel glanced around one last time. He prided himself on being an organized and conscientious host.
"Hey there, you old fox," a familiar voice called out.
Martha slowly pulled herself up off the wooden floor and barked warningly down the steps while her welcoming tail gave away her true emotions.
"Hey there, yourself!" Samuel replied, stepping out onto the porch and reaching for Nate's hand. The two friends clapped each other on the shoulder and hugged.
Samuel turned to Noelle. "I don't know how you put up with this old bear," he said, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. "You are a saint—and a beautiful saint at that," he added with a wink.
Excerpted from The Gin & Chowder Club by Nan Rossiter Copyright © 2011 by Nan Rossiter. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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