The coming of spring usually means renewal, but for Linnea Rutledge, this spring is a season of challenge. Linnea faces another layoff, this time from the aquarium she adores, and her family’s finances, emotions, and health teeter on the brink. To complicate matters, her new love interest, Gordon, struggles to return to the Isle of Palms from England. Meanwhile, her old flame, John, turns up from California and is quarantining next door. She tries to ignore him, but when he sends her plaintive notes in the form of paper airplanes, old sparks ignite. When Gordon at last reaches the island, Linnea wonders—is it possible to love two men at the same time?
Love in the time of COVID-19 proves challenging, at times humorous, and ever changing. Relationships are redefined, friendships made and broken, and marriages tested. As the weeks turn to months, and another sea turtle season comes to a close, Linnea learns there are more meaningful lessons during this summer than opportunities lost: that summer is a time of wonder, and that the exotic lives in our own backyards.
Poignant and moving, The Summer of Lost and Found is “a novel of growing up, saying goodbye to the past, and learning to ask yourself the hard questions, including one of the most vital of all: ‘Who do you really want to be’” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).
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Chapter One chapter one
Beware the Ides of March.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
HOW COULD THIS happen to her? Again?
Linnea Rutledge drove her vintage gold VW bug across the vast expanse of marshlands on the arching roadway known as the Connector. It was the main route from the mainland to the small island she called home. Below, the tide was low, revealing marsh grass that was just beginning to green at the bottom—one of the lowcountry’s first signs of spring. When Linnea reached the apex of the roadway, she caught her first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. Today she didn’t feel her usual euphoria. Rather, she felt numb.
She crossed onto Isle of Palms and drove the short distance seaward to Ocean Boulevard. Less than a mile more until she reached the quaint house she called home. Primrose Cottage was one of the few remaining 1930s houses on the island. It sat now dwarfed by the luxury mansions that dominated the boulevard.
Pulling into the gravel driveway, hearing the crunch of stone under tires, Linnea climbed from her car and walked swiftly to the front door, struggling with tumultuous thoughts of the injustices of fate. She didn’t take in the first signs of wildflowers dotting the dunes or stop to enjoy the heady scent of honeysuckle along the fence. Linnea climbed the stairs with savage purpose, seeking safety. She pushed open the door, then closed it behind her and leaned against it, as one holding back a storm.
Closing her eyes, she panted, mouth open. She’d held herself together by sheer force of will while she gathered her personal photographs and belongings and carried them out in a cardboard box from her cubicle office at the South Carolina Aquarium. Her face muscles ached from hoisting a smile and bidding teary farewells to her fellows. It was a mass exodus of nonessential personnel. The aquarium was closing its doors to the public because of the pandemic.
She collected her breath and opened her eyes. Looking around the dimly lit house, Linnea felt the quiet familiarity embrace her. This was her aunt Cara’s beach house, left to Cara by her mother, Linnea’s beloved grandmother, Lovie. Linnea had grown up visiting here, becoming part of the group of women who loved the beach, sea turtles, and each other with an abiding devotion. This little beach house had been their sanctuary from whatever buffeted them outside the clapboard walls.
It was her house now, albeit by rental from Aunt Cara. She let her eyes glide across the creamy-white and ocean-blue walls of the small rooms, along the fireplace mantel where sat silver-framed photographs of the Rutledge family that went back generations in Charleston, across the shabby-chic white slipcovered furniture.
Linnea feared she wouldn’t be able to stay here any longer. She dug through her purse and pulled her phone to her ear. Within moments, the familiar voice of Cara answered.
“Hello, Sweet-tea. You’re home early today.”
Linnea loved the nickname her aunt had called her since she was little. “I, uh... was let off early. Can you come over? I have to talk to you.”
A pause. Then in a more cautious tone, “Of course. I have to get Hope gathered. She has a doctor’s appointment. I’ll be there in ten.”
Linnea tucked her phone away and strode directly to her bedroom. Sunlight poured in across the pine floors and oriental rugs. Her gaze swept the view of the ocean beyond; seeing it, she felt an immediate connection. Bolstered, she unzipped her pencil skirt and laid it on the mahogany four-poster bed that dominated the small bedroom. A simple skirt and crisp blouse constituted her uniform at the South Carolina Aquarium where she worked as the conservation education director. It was a style adopted from Cara.
Linnea had been Cara’s assistant at the aquarium. After Cara resigned, the position as education director was offered to her. It was her dream job. Linnea loved teaching and inspiring others, as she had been taught and inspired by the women in her life. Though Linnea emulated Cara’s sleek dress at work, at home she changed into her favored vintage look.
She went to the bathroom and, with efficient movements, washed the makeup from her face, then unpinned her blond hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. Scratching her head vigorously, she tried to shake off the tension that had held her taut since the news. Feeling a bit better, she put on cuffed jeans and a worn pink sweater, finally stepping into blush Capezio ballet slippers, a favorite since she’d taken ballet lessons as a girl.
Feeling more comfortable, she went out onto the porch from her bedroom and took in the view of sea and sky. The power of the vista had a calming effect. Then, hearing the crunch of tires on the driveway, Linnea hurried down the deck stairs and rounded the house to the driveway to see Cara’s car parked there.
“Thank you for coming!” Linnea called out.
Cara’s long legs, encased in black jeans, slid out from the car. She offered a quick wave. “I can only stay a moment. I was on my way out for Hope’s physical.”
Linnea waited while Cara removed her precocious six-year-old from her car seat. Hope’s dark hair was tied in two braids and she wore a blue-gingham smocked dress.
“You look like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,” Linnea said, placing a kiss on Hope’s cheek.
“Who’s that?” asked Hope.
Linnea looked at Cara with mock indignity. “She doesn’t know The Wizard of Oz?”
Cara lifted her shoulders. “She’s only six. Those evil trees and monkeys... I think Baum had older children in mind.”
“Oh, please. Let me read it to her. It’s a classic.” Linnea lowered to meet Hope’s eyes. “You’re not afraid of witches or scary trees, are you?”
Hope’s eyes were round, but she shook her head. “No,” she said with a hint of doubt.
Cara laughed. “If she wakes up in the middle of the night, it’s on you.”
“Oh, she won’t,” Linnea said, then turned to Hope. “It has a happy ending. Let’s read it.” Then looking back at Cara, she added, “Even if the Wicked Witch of the West tells me not to.”
“Who’s that?” asked Hope.
“Later,” Linnea answered with a wink. Straightening, she asked Cara, “Want to go to the deck? I have wine? Coffee? Water?”
“Nothing. Thanks. I have to leave in a few minutes.” As they began walking to the oceanside deck, Cara’s dark eyes focused on Linnea. “So, tell me, what’s up?”
Linnea gestured to the patio chairs under the pergola. They sat while Hope hurried through the porch doors into the house to the toy bin that was filled with Hope’s playthings. Linnea pulled her hair back into her hands, then let it go with an exhale.
“The aquarium is closed until further notice. I’m furloughed.”
Cara’s face reflected her shock. “My God. But of course they had to. The coronavirus is shutting down everything. They can’t allow people to gather. Still, it’s sobering.” Always practical, she asked, “How are you fixed financially?”
Linnea shook her head. “You know what my salary is. I’m in trouble.”
“None to speak of. Even with you helping with rent, I’m not sure how long I can keep afloat.”
Cara waved her hand. “Forget the rent for now.”
Linnea was awash with relief. “Seriously? Are you sure?”
“Don’t be silly. These are hard times.” She put her hands on Linnea’s shoulders. “Back when I was in financial”—she lifted her shoulders and her lips in an ironic smile—“and emotional trouble, my mother welcomed me into this little house, knowing I’d find my way. And I did. And now, it is my turn to offer the same to you. This is what we Rutledge women do. We take care of each other. And other women as well. It’s a tough world out there for women, as you’ve just experienced.” She let her hands drop. “So, darling girl, no thanks necessary. This is your legacy. And the purpose of this dear house. With so many blessings, we pay it forward.”
Linnea felt the responsibility of her aunt’s mandate profoundly. This was a passing of the torch. There were no words, so she remained silent.
Cara said, “Frankly, I’m more worried about the aquarium. How long will they be able to survive with their doors closed? They still have all those animals to feed and house.”
“They’ve kept on a skeleton crew. I know it was a hard decision for Kevin to furlough us.”
“He had no choice. Bosses have to make the tough decisions and do what’s best for the institution.” She sighed then shook her head and said wryly, “Beware the Ides of March.”
Linnea looked at her aunt sitting across from her. Always cool and practical, she had a long history in management. She’d left Chicago almost two decades ago to settle in the lowcountry, but even on the island, she maintained her city chic. In jeans and a crisp chambray shirt, she looked elegant. Her hair was cropped short again and framed her face in a style that flattered her cheekbones and dark eyes.
Cara had the dark Rutledge looks of her father, Stratton. Linnea, like her father—Cara’s older brother, Palmer—had the softer, petite, blond genes from Grandmother Lovie. As always, Linnea was taken by the way her aunt casually waved her hand in the air as she spoke or raised her fingers to tuck a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. Linnea studied the subtle and refined gestures, wanting to emulate this woman she admired. Cara was not merely elegant or in possession of a razor-sharp intellect, she was generous. Family came first with her. Cara might look like her father, but in this, she was most like her mother, Lovie.
Cara glanced at her watch. “I really must go,” she said, rising. “Don’t worry, Sweet-tea. Keep the faith. We always pull through somehow, don’t we?” She looked over toward the house. “Hope! Time to go, honey.”
From inside they heard a wail: “I don’t wanna go to the doctor.”
Cara met Linnea’s eye, smirked, and went to fetch her daughter. Linnea heard a brief complaint before Cara walked out of the house with her daughter’s hand firmly in hers.
“Come for dinner Sunday?” Cara asked Linnea as they walked together down the gravel driveway to Cara’s car. “I’m hoping David will be home.”
“I thought he was back.”
Cara’s lips tightened as she shook her head. “Not yet. The coronavirus is hitting London hard and he’s been trying to get out for days. Flights are packed and there’s talk of shutting down the airports.”
Linnea heard the worry in her voice. “If anyone can get home, David will.” She smiled. “He’s like a homing pigeon.”
Cara met her eyes with a grateful smile. “He’s pretty resourceful.” Then she said in a more upbeat tone, “Shrimp and grits sound good?”
“I’ll be—” Linnea broke off. Catching a movement from the second-floor window of the carriage house next door, she stopped short, gripping Cara’s arm.
“There’s someone in the carriage house,” Linnea said sotto voce.
Cara looked up to the window and broke into a wide grin as she waved. “That’s John.”
Linnea felt her throat grow dry. “John Peterson?”
Cara laughed and looked at her with amusement. “Of course, John Peterson.”
Myriad emotions flooded Linnea. This shock threatened to break the dam of her emotions, already brimming over with worry over being laid off.
“What’s he doing here?” she demanded, her cry sounding petulant to her own ears.
“He had a conference in the area and stopped to visit his mother. Emmi, of course, was over the moon. She dotes on that boy. While he was here, he got word one of his colleagues in San Francisco tested positive for coronavirus. So, rather than take a chance of infecting others, he put himself into quarantine in his old apartment. He’s worried not only about his mother, but about Flo. In her eighties, she’s vulnerable. I admire him for that decision.”
Linnea’s brain was stuck on the fact that John was back. Living next door. She hadn’t seen him since their breakup a year earlier. She’d thought he was the love of her life. And then he wasn’t.
“Why didn’t Emmi tell me he was back?” she asked.
Cara’s brows rose. “Why would she? You’ve made no secret of the fact that you don’t want anything to do with John. He is her son. That put her in a tough position.”
Linnea crossed her arms. “She could have at least given me fair warning.” Her gaze shot up to Cara along with her temper. “Wait. You knew. Why didn’t you tell me?”
She felt the tension flare and saw the spark of indignation in Cara’s eyes, the slight lifting of the chin.
Cara waited to speak, considering her words. “I suppose I could have told you. And might have if I wasn’t so preoccupied.” She paused. “Excuse me if I’m worried about my husband. The fact is, I just didn’t give John’s being here much thought.”
Linnea swallowed, awash with shame for her show of pique. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped at you like that. I’m all off-balance, thinking only of myself.” She reached out to place a hand on Cara’s arm encircling her daughter. “Is there anything I can do for you? Watch Hope for a while? Make you a casserole?”
Cara’s shoulders lowered and she quickly shook her head. “Please, no casseroles!” She smiled. “You know what I really need?”
Linnea shook her head.
Linnea’s heart sank. “Oh?”
“I have to get the house ready for David’s arrival and Hope is cranky. She hasn’t been able to play with anyone since they’ve closed the school. Not even her cousin Rory. Heather is under lockdown with him and Leslie.” She sighed dramatically. “Hope is clinging to me. Honestly, I could use a break to get something done. I’ll pay you, of course. And”—she raised a brow—“don’t you need a job?”
“I do. And of course I’ll be your nanny.”
Cara looked skyward. “Thank heaven. I’ll take her to the doctor’s for her checkup, then could you watch her for a few hours? I want to spread plastic in the hallway, spray things down, get everything ready.”
“Just drop her off.”
“Thanks. Better go.” Cara looked meaningfully at the carriage house window. “Be nice,” she said cajolingly, then leaned forward to kiss her.
“How long is John going to be here? Gordon is coming from England in April. I don’t think I can bear the battle of the beaux.”
Cara raised a brow. “I didn’t think John was still in the beau category.”
“He’s not,” Linnea said firmly. “At least not in my mind. But I haven’t seen Gordon since he returned to England, what...” Linnea did a quick count on her fingers. “Over six months ago. That’s a long time to be apart. I don’t want my ex hanging around when he finally gets here.”
“You and Gordon are still together, right?”
“Then it’s only a problem if you still care about John.”
Linnea felt a prick of uneasiness. “Right.”
Cara looked at her watch. “Really must go. Thanks so much for being Hope’s nanny. It’s only temporary.”
“I’m her aunt. ’Nuff said.”
Cara smiled and climbed into the car.
Linnea waved, then stepped back from the Range Rover as it backed out of the driveway. Then, because she couldn’t stop herself, she glanced up at the large arched window of the carriage house. In the light of midday, she saw John clearly. His dark auburn hair caught the light but his face was shadowed. In her mind’s eye, she could see him smiling his crooked smile.
John lifted his hand in a wave.
Linnea reluctantly raised her hand and gave a halfhearted wiggle of her fingers. Then she turned heel, rolling her eyes, and walked resolutely to the rear deck. Once out of his sight she grabbed her phone and texted her friend Annabelle. She was on the staff of the sea turtle hospital and was also a victim of this morning’s layoffs at the aquarium.
Can you come over? Must commiserate. I have wine.
She went indoors to pull out two wineglasses. As she set them on the counter, her phone pinged with a return text.
On my way.
LINNEA SETTLED BACK into the wicker chair, tucked her feet up, and crossed her arms. The large wood deck extended seaward from the house over the wild dunes of the Rutledge property. Most of the yards on Ocean Boulevard had been manicured with grass and plantings to resemble mainland lawns. Her grandmother had adamantly refused to alter the natural landscape so their property was a riotous collection of wild grasses, plants, and flowers. Across the road, a large lot was held in conservation, allowing the sand dunes to roll on unimpeded to the beach. It was a rare view on the developed island.
Looking at the sea, Linnea realized how grateful she was for the friends in her life. She remembered what her Grandmother Lovie had told her: In life you’ll have many acquaintances. But consider yourself lucky to have one or two true friends.
Linnea had always been popular in school. She’d had a dozen girls she’d called friends. But none of them had gone in the same direction she had after graduation. Some were married with children; some had moved elsewhere. Linnea had been part of the latter group. When she’d returned home from California last year, she found she had less in common with her old friends. It had been hard to realize how friendships shifted over the years. She’d made new friends—Pandora James and Annabelle Chalmers. No two women could be more different. They were like oil and water and didn’t get along. Still, a tenuous, new friendship had developed.
Pandora was high style, gorgeous, fun, and flamboyant. She was in graduate school for engineering in England and, Covid permitting, planned to fly back to her grandmother’s beach house on Sullivan’s Island for the summer.
Annabelle was a local girl. She and Linnea had attended the same private high school in Charleston but had never been friends. Linnea was part of the South of Broad elite society of old Charleston. She and her friends had hung in the same circles since the nursery and seemed destined to continue throughout their lifetimes. In contrast, Anna was a scholarship student who lived with her mother in a poorer part of the city. She’d never blended in with the popular group at Porter-Gaud. Though she and Linnea had had a rocky start last summer, over the past year working together at the aquarium they’d experienced a tidal shift in their relationship. Annabelle’s habitual resentment of Linnea’s privilege had ebbed, and in turn, Linnea’s ability to open up, as a true friend must do, began to flow.
Linnea heard the crunch of Annabelle’s car pulling up in the driveway. She got up to go greet her but hesitated at the edge of the deck. She sighed with annoyance. She didn’t want to get tangled up with John again. Once burned/twice shy and all that. Instead of walking out on the driveway where John could see her from his window, Linnea crossed her arms as she waited for her friend to arrive. This could make for an annoying few weeks, she thought. When was John to hightail it back to his beloved California?
“Just go,” she muttered. Then lifted her frown to a smile as Annabelle’s face appeared from around the corner.
“I come bearing wine!” Annabelle called out as she climbed the deck stairs, a bottle of red in one hand, a bottle of white in the other. Her long red hair hung straight past her shoulders and on her ears she wore large gold loop earrings. She was dressed, as usual, in jeans and a black T-shirt that read Save the Seabirds.
“Bless your heart!” Linnea called back, grinning. They walked together into the house in search of wineglasses and a corkscrew.
“Red or white?” Annabelle asked, corkscrew in hand.
“Today we’re going to need both.”
Annabelle chuckled in her low-throated fashion. “I hear you.”
Linnea watched with awe as Annabelle twisted off the capsule around the neck of the bottle. She made it look so easy.
“How do you do that?” Linnea asked. “I’m pitiful trying to scrape that wrapper off.”
“Comes with practice,” Annabelle replied smugly. “Perks of being a bartender. Interesting fact: the original capsule was wax. Each bottle had to be dipped in wax to seal the end to prevent mold growth. The next innovation was lead. No surprise, that didn’t work out, for obvious reasons, but it took them till the 1980s to switch to these polylam ones.”
“So, if you collect old wines...” she said, thinking of her father.
“Yep. They still have those lead capsules.”
“That explains a lot,” Linnea said with a laugh. She gratefully took the offered glass of white wine. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to be tacky and add ice cubes. I can’t drink warm chardonnay.”
Annabelle shuddered. “I’ll put this bottle in the fridge—and pour myself a Malbec.” She worked on opening the new bottle as Linnea plopped ice cubes in her wineglass. “So, let me guess—you got laid off too?”
Linnea said with a groan, “Again. I can’t believe I’m back here.”
“At least we weren’t fired.”
“We’re not getting paid....”
Annabelle frowned while pouring out her wine. “Jeez, I hope it’s not for too long.”
“No one knows. That’s the scariest part. It could be a while.” Linnea brought her glass to her lips. “If the aquarium gets in trouble, people will have to be let go permanently.”
Annabelle’s finely arched brows narrowed deeper and she took a long sip of wine.
“Let’s sit outside,” Linnea suggested, hoping the fresh air would lift the sudden drop in mood.
Annabelle grabbed the bottle of wine and followed her. “How are you holding up?”
“Same as you, I expect.”
Annabelle settled in the chair recently vacated by Cara. She crossed her long legs. “Not quite the same.” Leaning back in her chair she tossed out, “I’m guessing your family will help you out.”
Linnea paused to sip rather than rise to the bait, recognizing Annabelle’s knee-jerk reaction to the wealth difference between their families. “They’ll try, I’m sure,” she replied in an even tone, then sidestepped. “Seriously, are you okay, money-wise?”
Annabelle’s shoulders lowered as she stared into her glass. She exhaled loudly and shook her head. “No. I’m worried.”
“I am too. I have zero savings.”
“Savings?” Annabelle snorted. “What’s that? I was barely making rent with my extra bartending job. Thank God for catering gigs. That’s how I ate most weekends. It’s so damn expensive living in the city—hell, even near the city—that there’s no hope of putting money away. I don’t know how I’m going to make next month’s rent.”
“I’m guessing you won’t be bartending much, will you?”
“Nada. Zip. Restaurants are closed. No one is having events.”
Linnea looked at her friend’s face. Annabelle’s normally serious expression had a deeper edge bordering on desperation.
“Can you move home?” she asked.
“Good God, no. My mother’s remarried to this creep,” she said with a hint of disgust. “Who knows how long this one will last?” She rolled her eyes. “I can’t go there.”
Linnea licked her lips as a thought played in her mind. Part of her balked at the idea. But the other part, the one that made her think of Aunt Cara as inspiration, won out. In a rush, the words came pouring out.
“I have an extra room here, and Cara is giving me a break on the rent until this virus thing blows over. Seems only right to pay it forward.” She paused. “You can move in here with me if you want. You wouldn’t have to pay rent. But we’d split utilities and food. That way we’d help each other out. What do you think?”
Annabelle’s eyes went wide. “Are you serious?”
“Never more serious.”
Annabelle put her glass down on the table, resting her hand there as though to steady herself. Relief flooded her face and she replied, “Yes.”
Linnea smiled and felt that gush of joy born of one woman helping another. She lifted her glass. “Well, then... here’s to being roommates.”
Anabelle’s face lit up. She lifted her glass, and they clinked in the air.
Linnea sipped her chardonnay, then settled back in her chair. As she swirled the glass in her hand the ice cubes clinked, and she wondered if this was the best of ideas... or the worst.