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You'll feel like a new woman.
That's what Annie said. The perfect opportunity to reinvent myself.
Annie was raving excitedly, brushing her hair away from her face as we sat outside on the patio of Chez Monsieur, a name that sounded way fancier than the actual restaurant. Perhaps that was why I was skeptical of her enthusiasm — I was uncomfortable, distracted by the sucking sound that came each time I pulled my forearms off the sticky plastic tablecloth. And that loaded term: new woman. Was Annie suggesting that I was damaged?
Perhaps I was skeptical of everything. Nothing worked out to be perfect. There was no perfect, no happy-ever-after. No happy ever, it seemed.
Still, my younger sister was almost the only thing I had left, so I nodded, sipping my water from a filmy glass with only a few chips of ice still withstanding the late-summer Philadelphia sun.
"The off-season at the beach," she said wistfully, staring off into our very un- beach-like surroundings as a taxi driver honked his horn and tossed a select finger at another driver trying to back into a space on the narrow street. "It's a great opportunity to relax, recoup — recover." She smiled reassuringly. "And the house — oh, Allison. It's divine. You won't even believe it."
I tried not to roll my eyes at my sister's undying optimism. "And I'm sure these heavenly people are just going to hand me over the keys, right? Without even checking up on my ... background?" I asked.
A large cumulus cloud whipped over the sun, dimming the patio and turning the strong wind cold. An omen, my mom would say, but quickly dismissed it.
"No, no, no." Annie leaned forward, and I caught my reflection in her large lenses — a hunched-over, thin waif of a person with hair too long for forty. Ever since I'd gone off-air I'd let it grow past my shoulders, though vainly I still dyed it every five weeks. I could never stand the gray roots.
I sat up straighter, adjusted my chair. Annie was still going. "Like I said, my friend Sharon knows the couple really well. And the town — she grew up right near there. I can vouch for you, no problem. They want someone they can trust — not just someone off the street. Oh, Ally. It's so perfect for you. A chance to get away from ... from all this."
I thought about making a snide comment along the lines of, you mean get me out of your apartment, but that would've made her feel self-conscious about Mike, and I didn't want her to feel guilty for having a stable relationship. So instead I said, "Do you think I could really ever get away from any of it?" Because, contrary to what Annie believed, despite the protests she was now making at my negativity, I didn't need to become a new woman — I needed to get back to the old me. The me I was before. Before it all crashed.
Yet in spite of my sarcasm and doubt, already, already the idea was beginning to appeal. An oceanfront home, rent-free for the winter. The couple had just bought the place last year, but the wife's job was unexpectedly calling her abroad and they didn't want the house to be vacant for that many months. But they also didn't want to bother with the mess of renting the place out — distrustful of random strangers trooping in and out of their home week after week. All those horror stories you heard about people renting their homes through Airbnb on the internet —
"Do they use Google?" I asked, half joking.
Annie just shook her head at me. "Allison, please don't."
"YouTube? I'm just being practical."
"You just need to see this house," she said, ignoring my comment.
My sister had a talent for ignoring subjects she didn't want to discuss. It came as part of her nurse package — cute kitten-adorned scrubs, a cheery sing-song voice and a no-nonsense attitude for dealing with grumbly, pessimistic patients. The best medicine is a positive attitude, she always said, and I mostly admired it, though sometimes I wanted to do what one of her patients once did — dump a filled bedpan on her. She put up with a lot, but she always did it with a smile.
"Four bedrooms, a back deck, a sunroom overlooking the ocean. You could use the time to relax. Or you know, figure out your next steps. The beach is a great place to study weather, right?" Annie snaked her hand across the table to squeeze mine, but I picked up my water glass and watched her pull her hand back. "Besides, you're doing much better."
"Well, according to everyone else, that bar is pretty low, isn't it?"
Annie ignored that, too. She knew where this conversation was headed. It was a relief, really. I didn't want to talk about Duke anymore either — the same ground over and over again.
"Just think about it, okay? We'll take a look tonight — they've got pictures. We have to act fast, though, because someone's going to snatch this up, I just know it. It's like a dream come true."
* * *
It turned out that Annie wasn't exaggerating. Divine was a good word for Patty and John Worthington's beach house. Cozy, but also lavish. The place looked like it had morphed out of an issue of Architectural Digest. Wooden siding on the outside, cute A-frames. On the inside, an open living room with a ceiling that stretched to the top floor. A sunroom off the back with views of the ocean and a second-floor back deck with sun chairs.
"Built in 1986," the online ad read. The house had an opulent charm, and I immediately fell in love. It was exactly what I needed. A chance to get away. A place of beauty to run to.
"See? I told you." Annie squeezed my arm, shaking me until I broke into a grin. She squealed like she used to when we were kids and pressed snails or earthworms we'd found near the neighbor's pond into each other's palms. Or later, as teenagers, when we'd slip into each other's beds after a night out and whisper secrets about the guys we'd met, the way their clove cigarettes had smelled, sweet and smoky, the way their hands had nestled onto the smalls of our backs. Annie would giggle, her face pressed into her pillow, then sit up, hair streaming around her, eyes gleaming in the moonlight with all the possibility. We'd always been each other's ears, there to absorb both the delights and the horrors. So when Duke betrayed me, Annie was the one to help me pick up the pieces.
Annie kissed the top of my head and jumped up from the couch. "I'm going to call Sharon."
I sat back and closed my sister's laptop, staring up at the ceiling of her little apartment in Manayunk. My home for the last nine months.
This was not where I was supposed to be. This was not in any of the New Year's resolutions I'd sketched out each year in my leather-bound planners. I was supposed to be in Annapolis, living in a large, single-family home not far from the water, giving the morning weather report on WDLT Annapolis with a beaming smile and a jaunty flair, married to Dennis "Duke" Shetland. I was supposed to be finding tile to remodel our kitchen, planning a trip to Greece, fighting with my mother about not having kids. In other words, turning forty with a husband, house, job and friends — like everyone else I knew.
Instead I had regular appointments with a divorce attorney, sleeping pills, antidepressants, jaw pain and a tiny bedroom my little sister let me crash in while I sorted out my life. Instead, for the first time in my adult life, my compass was twirling around and around, unable to find direction.
Maybe the house was the solution. A chance to prove I was just fine, to show everyone — including myself — that I was no longer the Allison- puddle-toxic-hot-mess that I had been for the past year. In a new space, I could get perspective. Annie's apartment had its charm — with her stacks of dog-eared paperback books, colorful afghans over every chair, cross-stitch framed inspirational quotes posted slightly askew in the halls (You can't see the sunshine with your eyes closed!) — but it was nowhere close to the breathing room I'd have in a three-story house right on the coast.
I tried not to, but I started to get excited. An actual new start. The possibilities were whirling inside me, gaining momentum like a tropical storm gathering strength just off the coast. I could use the time to figure out my next steps, as Annie had said. Repair the self-confidence that Duke had systematically filed down to a small sliver. Find a new job or take a class. I could start a blog — my lawyer had told me to bump up my online presence with good things, positive things, that would push the bad stuff down in the search results.
Page two, my lawyer had chanted. Your goal is to get them to page two. Do you know what the percentage is of people who click to page two of the search results? It's low, Allison. Very low.
How sad my goals and aspirations had become.
Opal Beach was about a two-hour drive without traffic from downtown Philadelphia. It was somewhere halfway between Ocean City and Atlantic City and way less touristy. The beach always reminded me of vacations as a kid, running barefoot on hot sand, creating lopsided sand castles with plastic buckets, breaking crab legs and sucking out the meat. But there was also a sense of slowing down, of taking it all in, and I needed that now. I could feel the air change, the way it clung, coated, opened everything up. Through the car windows, the October air was shockingly cold but also reviving. The salty air had always bothered my mother and sister, who complained it was too humid and their tongues felt strange, but I loved the way it worked its fingers into my hair and curled around the tendrils. It made me feel a little wild, a little different. Untamed. Like anything could happen.
Was I really doing this? Was I really pressing on this pedal, steering, guiding these four wheels to a stranger's beach house, where I would live for the next three months alone? It had all happened so fast. A blur, really. Annie's friend Sharon, with that same nurse-like efficiency that Annie had, set it all up so quickly that I'd barely had time to adjust to the idea before it was actually happening.
But I was used to life messing with me now, used to tripping over a curb or forgetting to eat breakfast or chipping a nail, waking up only to discover that everything I'd known to be true was suddenly different. So in some ways this jour- ney, the picking up and leaving behind, felt like an emerging. Like Rockefeller, the hermit crab I'd bought on our family vacation one year at a boardwalk shack, I was crawling out of a dingy shell and moving into a shinier, larger home. (Unlike Rockefeller, though, I hoped I wouldn't die from the soap residue that was left inside the new shell when someone tried to clean it too vigorously before setting him inside the cage.)
I drove down a two-lane road just off the ocean, the main drag for all the beachfront houses. I could imagine that on a weekend in July it looked like a parking lot as families navigated in or out of town, canoes and coolers tied up on their roof racks. But now it was eerily vacant, and I had the sense I was the last woman on earth, that in my quiet drive alone the rest of humanity had vanished. I was trying to decide if that was a good thing or not when a giant orange Hummer zoomed into view behind me and passed without slowing down. "Well, so much for that. Asshole," I said.
The houses were dramatically large and looming, blocking what otherwise would've been a magnificent view. You could tell which ones were just rentals — the monstrosities with thirteen bedrooms and a six-car garage that five families could rent out at once. But further down the road, the houses had more style and character. The kind of places — lots of windows, big porches, nice landscaping — that would make your mouth water even without the lush ocean backdrop as icing on the cake.
I slowed as my GPS indicated I was getting close, but even so I almost missed the tiny driveway and its faded, weather-beaten road sign declaring my new mailing address: Piper Sand Road.
I had made it.
The long gravel drive split off halfway up, with one side leading to the Worthington house and the other side to their neighbor's. When I'd first met the Worthingtons for my "job interview" just a few weeks before, I'd been so nervous about the whole thing that I'd taken the wrong driveway and parked in the neighbor's lot and stared at it for a good minute before realizing the house number was wrong.
But now, pulling into the correct driveway slowly, it felt like an adventure movie soundtrack should be swelling. And our heroine finds her destiny.
I could imagine Annie's reaction when she finally saw the house in person. It was stunning. The surrounding homes were propped up on beams, like old ladies hitching up their skirts so they wouldn't get wet in the surf, but that just gave the Worthingtons' house an understated effect. It stood confident and modest between them, a beach gingerbread house right out of a fairy tale, with light blue curtains and sweeping eaves.
I parked right at the porch steps and got out, wrapping my cardigan around me to stave off the whipping wind. The front porch was small but quaint, with two wooden rocking chairs and a small white table with flaking paint. I ran my palm along the back of one of the tall chairs, and it creaked from my touch. The chairs seemed to be more for decoration than sitting.
Dolores, Sharon's sister who lived in town, was supposed to be meeting me to hand over the keys. Yet it seemed I'd arrived first. I'd had to come one week sooner than planned, as Patty and John had been whisked away to her mysterious assignment in Eastern Europe a little earlier than expected. Patty had called me from the airport with the news. I'd pictured her in her white visor and tennis sneakers rushing through the terminals, bags bouncing off her lower back as she breathlessly gave me instructions.
Still, I half expected Patty to appear in the window as I squatted down and peered inside the house. It was hard to see with the bright sun glaring at my back, but I could make out the shadowy silhouette of the large island counter in the middle of the kitchen. Beyond that room, I remembered, was the living room, with doors and stairs leading to all the many nooks of the house.
All empty now, waiting for me. A shiver curled from my spine up to my neck, unwinding inside me. Calm down, you idiot, I told myself. Not everything is a trap. Think positively, and positive things will come.
You'll be safe here, Patty had told me that day in the kitchen, leaning up against the kitchen island, popping a grape into her mouth and patting me on the shoulder. Her voice, otherwise booming, had been low, possibly so her husband couldn't hear from the next room.
"Sharon told me — well, she told me you were having — she mentioned the divorce."
"Oh, well, thank you, but —"
Patty held up a hand. "No buts here. Just ifs. I didn't mean to say anything to you — it's all your business. You don't have to explain anything to me. I know every situation is different. I don't need the details. I just know that Sharon said a friend could use some escape, some time to recoup from a major life change, and this is what we want."
* * *
A crunch of gravel brought me back to the present. I turned. A car was coming up the driveway, its headlights cutting through the thin mist of the afternoon. A small, beat-up red Toyota, music blaring. The car jerked, stopped messily behind mine, and I could see Sharon through the windshield, waving her hand at me. But no, it wasn't Sharon. As she got out, her car door squealing in protest, I realized it was a punk version of Sharon. Her hair looked almost purple, curled in tight ringlets around her face. Her nose stud sparkled, and a tattoo peeked out from the neckline of her black sweater dress. This must be Dolores.
She gave a wave, and I left the porch to meet her.
"I'm sorry I'm late. We were just closing up at the gallery and someone walked in. Can you imagine? We get no one for days on end this time of year and the one time I've got somewhere to be, we get a customer." She extended a thick hand. "I'm Dolores. You must be Allison."
"Thanks so much for doing this," I said. "I'm sorry to put you through the trouble."
Excerpted from "One Night Gone"
Copyright © 2019 Tara Laskowski.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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