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The Chesapeake Bride
Owen Parker shortened the last leg of his morning run, going over instead of around the dune behind the Cannonball Island General Store. The calendar might say September, but the thermometer mimicked July. Even the slight breeze off the Chesapeake did little to cool him. Sweat caused his T-shirt to cling to his chest and his sunglasses to continually slide down the bridge of his nose. He’d had enough for one day.
His great-grandmother Ruby Carter stood on the back porch of the store and watched him approach, her hands on her hips. Her white hair was pulled back in a tidy bun at her nape, and she was dressed in one of her favorite uniforms: a white sleeveless blouse with a round collar and a cotton skirt that hit smack in the center of her calves. Today’s skirt was light summer green. Her other favorites were cotton-candy pink and a shade of lavender that precisely matched the color of the lilacs that grew around the back of the store in spring. While her height had diminished somewhat over her one hundred years, her back was still relatively straight and her voice strong. Her mind was as sharp as the proverbial tack. In her, the old island still lived, through her stories and through the speech patterns peculiar to Cannonball Island.
“You get much more sun, boy, you’ll be fried like a fritter ’fore too long,” she said as he crossed the driveway. “There’s sunscreen there on one of the shelves inside—use some once in a while.”
He smiled and kissed her on the cheek as he came up the steps. “I think it’s too late for sunscreen. I’ve been tan for months now. Since Costa Rica.”
“Don’t know why you have to be running off to foreign places all the time. Sun’s just as good here as there.”
“But it’s not always summer here, Gigi.”
“Summer be overrated. God made all four seasons for a reason.”
“What reason was that?” he teased.
“Do I look like God?” Ruby frowned. “Not mine to know what he be thinking. He has his plan and it’s not mine to question. Yours either.”
“Your garden’s still hanging in there.” He nodded in the direction of the fenced-in plot where she grew vegetables and her favorite flowers. “All those tall things still look pretty good.”
“Tall things be hollyhocks and dahlias.” She turned to look at her pretties and admired them. “My Harold loved dahlias. Used to buy him one every year for Father’s Day. Those sweet things you see growing out there—that big pink one and the smaller yellow ones—they be offshoots of offshoots of offshoots of the ones I bought him years ago. You know how to divide ’em, you can keep ’em forever.” She turned back to him. “Least for as long as you be on this earth. Can’t know for sure who you can count on to tend to such things after you be gone.”
“I’ll tend to your dahlias, Gigi. Just like you showed me. I’ll dig them up before the frost and I’ll wrap them in newspaper and put them in the shed, just like you do.”
“Order to do that, you have to be around, boy. You saying you be staying on the island from now on? That you be back for good?”
“No,” he said cautiously. “But I will plant your dahlias in the spring after the frost, and I’ll dig them up in the fall before it gets cold. I don’t have to be here full-time to do that.”
She stared at him, and for a moment he thought she was going to say something, but the moment passed. When a car pulled into the driveway, she turned to go back into the store to see to her customer. “Folks need to know where they belong, boy. Just like I told your sister. See how she’s heeded me.”
“Lis is marrying a local boy. Up until she fell in love with Alec, she had no intentions of ever coming back here to live. No matter how much you bugged her about it. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you somehow made her fall in love with him.”
“Just ’cause you can sometimes know don’t mean you can make folks do your will.” She smacked him on the arm as she turned and went into the store. “You be living proof of that.”
Owen suppressed a smile and followed her. “I’m going to run upstairs and take a shower, Gigi.”
“That be the best idea you had since you woke up today.” She went into the front of the store, and he took the steps to the second floor, still smiling.
Until a year ago, Ruby lived over the store, which had been in her family for two hundred years. At one hundred years of age, though spry and lively, the time had come for her to eliminate taking that trip up and down the steps twice every day. The large storage area behind the store had been redesigned and renovated into her new living quarters—a sitting room, a modern kitchen, bath, and bedroom. Alec Jansen—engaged to Lis—had used his considerable carpentry skills to convert what had been empty, unused space into a comfortable, modern apartment.
The bedrooms on the second floor above the store were mostly unused, except for the room Ruby had shared with Harold, which Lis, an artist, had taken over for her studio. The room Owen occupied was the same one he’d slept in when he visited as a boy. He knew some might find it strange that at thirty-eight he was living with his great-grandmother, but he couldn’t care less what anyone else thought about the arrangement. His masculinity was intact even though the old metal bed he slept in was still covered by the same white chenille spread from his childhood, and the walls remained painted in a light shade of blue. The upholstery on the chair that sat near the window was threadbare plaid, and the curtains hadn’t changed since he was in his teens, but Owen liked the familiarity of it all. After long periods of living elsewhere, it always soothed his soul to come back to this room where he’d spent so many happy times. It never occurred to him to stay anywhere else.
Owen had only been back on Cannonball Island for a few months, having spent the past couple of years here and there like the rolling stone he’d always been. There’d been Alaska and the fishing boat he’d worked on before he flew a mail plane for a few months until he tired of the cold. Next he headed for Australia, where a friend owned a cattle ranch, but mending fences and chasing cattle bored him, so he retreated to Costa Rica and spent time diving off a sunken ship, rumored to have been loaded with gold from the California mines, that had gone down in a storm in 1853. Owen had joined up with an old friend, Jared Chandler, whose salvage company had bid on the wreck and won the right to excavate it. Owen had spent a few months there before something had told him it was time to go home to Cannonball Island. He’d assumed that inner voice had been prompted by his sister’s reminder that Ruby had celebrated her one-hundredth birthday without him, and the terrifying thought that she might pass on before he’d spent time with her. Jared’s offering Owen work on a ship that had sunk in his home waters had made the decision a no-brainer—that and his sister’s impending marriage added up to Owen’s being homeward bound.
He’d thought of stopping in Arizona to visit his mother, Kathleen, on his way to the island, but she’d recently remarried—again—having found widowhood no more to her liking than her second husband had been. Apparently the third time for her was the charm, because she sounded happier than he could remember. Owen’d checked in with her but her calendar was full, she’d told him, with her stepgrandchildren’s events.
Who knew that stepbabies and toddlers trumped your own grown children?
Owen hadn’t minded, not really. His mom hadn’t had an easy time when his dad, Jack, was alive, and she was entitled to a happy life. Owen would never begrudge her that. He and his sister, Lisbeth—Lis—knew how unpredictable and unpleasant their father had been and the cloud they’d all lived under while he was alive.
Showered and dressed, Owen made his way downstairs, pausing on the landing to look out the window. A stone’s throw from the store on the opposite side of the road flowed the narrowest section of the Waring River. A mile farther and it widened where it reached the bay. He hadn’t had cause to think about its course until last week. Not until Jared had started asking questions had the river, its mouth, and its relationship to the bay become relevant.
“This diving job is going to be more complicated than I’d thought,” Jared had told Owen by phone late in the evening of the night before.
“Anytime you’re diving in the Chesapeake, it’s complicated,” Owen had replied. “Visibility is always an issue because the water is dark pretty much everywhere, plus it’s a route on the way to Baltimore Harbor, and there are all those crab and oyster fishermen to be worried about. You’re talking about diving off Cannonball Island in the bay waters, and—”
“That might be changing. Something’s come up.”
“Something like what?”
“Something like the Maryland Historical Society thinks there’s something down there that they might not want disturbed.”
“What are you talking about?” Owen had grown up on the island, and while old folks had been full of tales of the old days, he couldn’t recall a story about something in that area of the bay, and he said so.
“Not the bay,” Jared told him. “The Waring River. The mouth of the river in particular.”
“Start from the beginning.”
“As you know, a builder’s bought up as much of the unused land on the island as he could. His plans include building a dock in the river where his buyers can tie up their boats. They’re all ready to start dredging in the mouth of the river so it’s deep enough to allow for all those pretty yachts. So in the meantime, the state EPA has done some testing to determine how many houses could be built, how development would affect the bay and its natural resources, waste water, drainage, that sort of thing.”
“Right. All standard. My future brother-in-law is the environmental consultant for the builder, Deiter Construction.”
“Well, in the process, they scanned the waters around the island and apparently found evidence of something at the mouth of the river that had not been seen before.”
“You mean a vessel of some sort?”
“Yeah. Maybe even more than one. They did some preliminary scanning, and it looks like there could be more than one. Like something sank at some point and landed on something else that was already down there. No telling what without diving and photographing, though, so that’s what we’re going to be doing.”
“Huh. In the morning, I’ll ask Ruby if she’s ever heard about something sinking in the river.”
“I guess if anyone local would know, she’d be the one. Is anyone on Cannonball Island older than Ruby?”
“Not that I know of.”
“We’ll be doing our first dive as soon as I can get one of our smaller boats up here. The one we brought is too big for the job we’re going to be doing. It would have been fine for working out closer to the channel. I’ll be taking this one back to my dad’s place in South Carolina, and I’ll bring back the Juliana. I should only be gone a few days. Call me if anything comes up that I should know about, and be ready for that first dive when I get back.”
“I’m ready when you are.”
Owen had hung up, but the implications of what Jared had told him kept him awake until after midnight. If a sunken vessel of any kind was found in the river, the builders’ construction timetable could be delayed until the vessel and whatever else might be down there had been identified and properly recorded. Depending on what they found, the dredging for the new dock could be scrapped indefinitely. The permits for the first new construction on Cannonball Island in over a hundred years could be put on hold.
Owen was still thinking about the phone call when he awoke that morning, wondering how the builder, Brian Deiter, was taking the news of the delay, assuming he’d already been told. Specifically, Owen was wondering what the project’s architect, the builder’s daughter, Cass Logan, would think.
The builder’s beautiful blond daughter had made it clear she was immune to Owen’s charm and good looks. Oh, she’d always been friendly enough in the past whenever they would run into each other, but she’d never hesitated to let him know she had absolutely no interest in him. Since he was unaccustomed to women ignoring him, Cass occupied a special place in his thoughts. He’d never walked away from a challenge.
He was still thinking about her, wondering what it was going to take to change her mind about him, while he stood on the landing and watched the sun glint off the river. He went down the remaining steps and peeked into the store. Finding Ruby busy with a customer, he went out to the porch and back to his favorite rocking chair.
A few minutes later, the door behind him opened, and he heard Ruby’s deliberate footfall as she stepped outside.
“You thinkin’ on settin’ all day?” Ruby Carter walked to the edge of the porch, her eyes narrowing as she challenged him with her stare.
“Maybe.” Owen flashed a smile and patted the arm of the chair next to his. “Sit with me for a bit?”
“Maybe for a bit.” Ruby sat. “Something on your mind?”
“Did you ever hear about any vessels sinking in or around the mouth of the river over on the southwest side of the island?”
Ruby established what she called her rocking rhythm before she responded. “Many a something gone down out there over time.”
“Hard to know truth from tale, but it been said one of those merchant ships went down with some tea, back in the day. Before we came to the island.”
“You mean before the War of 1812, when the loyalists in St. Dennis were forced to leave and sent here to the island?”
“Way before that. Course, no one be living on the island then, nothing here but shrub pine and salt marsh. Townsfolk forced some to pack up and leave, thinking they’d die out here.” She smiled. “Showed them a thing or two.”
Ruby’s ancestors had been among those loyal to the crown of England when the War of 1812 broke out. When several of St. Dennis’s patriot sons had been conscripted by British warships, angry townsmen had forced the loyalists onto the uninhabited island across the sound. Somehow the exiles had survived despite having to build their shelters out of the small pines that grew there and having to subsist on what they could catch from the bay and raise in hastily planted gardens. Over time, a little colony was established, and those who thrived were proud of their rebellious heritage of having defied the odds.
“What was the story you heard about the merchant ship?” Owen sat back in his chair and waited.
“Well, I heard tell about a man from over to Virginia, owned some of those big ships. Brought tea and pottery and such from England—indentured servants, too—took back tobacco and wheat and whatever. The folks over to Annapolis decided they didn’t want English tea coming into Maryland—this was after the folks in Massachusetts threw all that tea up there into the water. When ships came in with tea, they sent them back to England. Some of the ships stayed in the harbor too long—they got burned with the cargo still aboard. ’Cept the indentured folks, a’course.” Ruby rocked, her eyes on the bay. “Seems one of them ships owned by this Virginia fellow tried to make it up the river here to hide from the folks who wanted to burn it. Storm struck outta nowhere, smashed the ship on the shoals out there in the bay, near the mouth of the river. That big ship went down, everything with it, so they said.”
Owen frowned. “Gigi, there aren’t any shoals in the bay near the mouth of the river.”
“Maybe not this day, but back then, there be shoals. That tea ship not the only one that broke up there.”
Owen knew the changing currents in the bay had, over time, built up some sections and flattened others. Sand and silt pushed by one fierce storm might later have been redirected by another.
“What else had you heard?”
“I heard some tell of early people who had a settlement on the other side of the river, thereabouts, be lost when the land sank. Maybe be down there near that tea ship.”
“You mean there was a Native American settlement on the shore across from the island?”
Ruby nodded. “Native of these parts for sure, been here long before our people.”
“And you think it sank into the bay?” Owen thought about the stories he’d heard over the years, about how many islands in the bay had disappeared when the water rose.
“Lots of places be sunk. Whole islands downwind of here be lost, too. Houses, all went into the bay.”
“But there were warnings, right? The water levels shifted gradually and the shoreline eroded.” Owen recalled the stories of Chesapeake islands totally disappearing without a trace and knew they were true.
“Bit by bit the waters rose, ate away at the land, ate the ground right out from under trees and such, whole houses slid right on into the bay. Still, some folks ignored what was happening, barely had time to get their goods to dry land. Soon enough, whole islands where folks lived and worked and farmed were eaten alive by the bay, and that be the truth. Holland Island, Cockneys Island, Eastern Neck Island—all be gone. Others, too.”
“Why do you suppose Cannonball Island has been able to remain intact?”
Ruby continued to rock. “No way to tell for sure, but we haven’t had a direct hit by one of them big hurricanes since I was a girl. We get the rain, but it seems not the worst of the winds. No telling why. Last real big storm I remember hit hard took a few pines off the point, nothing more.”
“You really think there could be the remains of a settlement down there?”
“All be down there at one time, not for me to say what still is or isn’t. Folks say that was a summer village, early folks come to grow wheat and feed off the bay. Winter comes, they go elsewhere. I never did hear tell where. But like I said, water shifts things, moves things around as it pleases. No telling where things be now.” She glanced at Owen over the top of her glasses. “Seems to me those new machines y’all have should be able to say.”
A car pulled into the store’s parking lot and drove around toward the back. Owen watched his sister’s old sedan come to a stop.
“Hey, Gigi. Owen.” Lis waved as she approached. “Break time?”
“We just sitting and chatting,” Ruby told her. “You feel free to sit and chat, too, Lisbeth.”
“I just stopped by to see if you needed any help unloading boxes in the store. I know today’s delivery day.” Lis sat on the top step and turned so she was facing her brother and great-grandmother. She was dark haired, like Owen, and slender. Their features were similar, both having inherited wide-set eyes the same shade of green, and dimpled cheeks.
“Already taken care of,” Owen told her.
“Oh, my, aren’t we the efficient one.” Lis stretched out her legs. “So Alec tells me there’s going to be a delay in building the dock.”
“That’s the word.”
“So where does that leave your girlfriend? Think she’ll stay around during the delay?” Lis smirked.
Owen scowled. “If you’re referring to Cass Logan, she’s not my girlfriend, and I have no idea what her plans are.”
“Jared might know. They looked pretty cozy chatting in the lobby at the inn yesterday. I stopped in to see Grace about borrowing folding chairs for the wedding, and I just happened to walk through the lobby to Grace’s office.” Lis grinned. “Jared is such a stud. If I’d known you had such hunky friends, I might have learned to dive myself.”
“Lisbeth, you just being a brat, tweaking your brother’s nose like that.” Ruby tried unsuccessfully to hold back a chuckle. “And you, Owen, if you have an interest in that girl, best you be man enough to speak up, before someone else has a mind to.”
“Someone else might already have done so,” Lis said.
“All right, that’s enough. Yes, I admit I have somewhat of a casual interest in Cass.” Owen nudged at Lis’s outstretched leg with his foot. “She doesn’t seem very interested in me.”
“What? What did you say?” Lis cupped a hand up to her ear. “It almost sounded as if you admitted you’d met a woman who seems impervious to your legendary charm.”
“I know. Hard to believe. But then, I suppose it was only a matter of time.” He pretended to be crestfallen.
“Well, there’s still that redhead who started to work at Steffie’s ice cream shop a few weeks ago. Maybe a little young for you, though. Thirty-eight would be almost another generation to her.”
“Yeah, but those were thirty-eight fun-filled, action-packed years.” Owen stood, and Ruby shifted in her chair, about to stand as well. Both Lis and Owen moved to give her a hand.
“I’m able to stand and walk on my own, thank you both very much.” Ruby straightened her back. “Time to be getting back inside, see what needs to be done. And I got a new book that came in the mail yesterday, not going to read itself.”
“Another gory story of murder and mayhem? It kills me that you love those creepy stories.” Lis pretended to shudder.
“They just be made-up, Lisbeth. That’s why they call them fiction books.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” Lis conceded. “You need me to do anything, Gigi?”
“Owen took care of the shelves and swept up the floor. Filled the coolers and changed a lightbulb. No, I’m good for today.” Ruby made her way into the store. “Tomorrow’s another day, though, so stop back.”
“She never fails to amaze me,” Lis said after the door closed.
“Me, too. She’s barely slowed down since we were kids.”
“I hope I’m as hardy as she is when I’m one hundred. If I’m lucky enough to live that long.”
“You’ve got a shot at it. Only the good die young.”
Lis hopped down the two steps to the ground. “But seriously, about Cass? Just a little sisterly advice: if you’re interested, speak up. I don’t know what her story is, but Cass Logan is not a woman who’s going to be alone for too long.”
“How do you know she’s not involved with someone, someplace else?”
Lis shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but she doesn’t have a settled look about her. Of course, you’re the one with the ‘sight,’ not me. I’m surprised you haven’t already figured her out.”
“You know I don’t do that.” Owen frowned.
“Ruby says it isn’t something you ‘do’ or ‘not do.’ It’s something you have or don’t have. You and Ruby have it. I, on the other hand, do not. Which I never thought was fair, by the way.” Lis started toward her car. “I never understood why you and not me.”
“I’d gladly hand it off if I could.” He stood on the porch, leaning on one of the posts. “It’s not something I ever wanted.”
“Ah, so you admit it.” She stopped near the car’s front fender and turned. “You admit you have the Carter eye.”
“Maybe. But not for Cass.”
“What do you mean, not for her?”
“I mean, maybe I have some kind of second sight, but it doesn’t seem to apply to her. Not to anyone I’m close to. I never could read you or Ruby. I have no idea how it works.” He shrugged and lowered his voice. “I can’t read Cass.”
“Aha! So you have tried.”
He shook his head. “I never have to try. The knowing is always just there. But I admit, if I did, I might try to read her.”
“Huh.” Lis seemed to think this over for a moment. “How ’bout that?”
“Nothing.” She opened her car door. “?’Cept Ruby always says she could never get a read on her Harold, either.”
Lis got in and started the car, then backed out of the drive, pausing once to look back and raise a hand to wave. Owen waved back and stepped down onto the grass, walked aimlessly toward Ruby’s garden. He knew all about how Ruby could never get a read on their great-grandfather, always referred to as Ruby’s Harold or, less frequently, Grandpap. Ruby always said it was because they were too close, it would be like reading herself. But that sure as hell wasn’t the case with him and Cass Logan, who made small talk with him but, other than that, never seemed too interested. He wished he knew how to change that because, yeah, much to his annoyance, his sister had been right about one thing.
If he could get a read on Cass, by any means, he’d take it.