A Time to Forgive and Promise Forever (6 page)

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“I knew.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” Anger spurted through his words, scalding her.

“I'm telling you now.”

“You should have told me the day we met.”

Of course he'd think that. “It was all so complicated. What was I supposed to do that first day in the church? Announce that I was here to repair the windows and, by the way, my mother was involved in the disappearance of the dolphin?”

“That would have been better than hiding it from all of us.”

“I didn't know enough, don't you understand that?” She wanted to grasp him and make him believe her, but she couldn't. “I had to try and find out where you stood before I could tell you anything.”

He shook his head. “This is crazy.” Something sharpened in his tone. “Did you talk my mother-in-law into this commission just so you could come here?”

“Of course not.” She should have realized he'd
assume the worst. “She'd already decided on the window. I had nothing to do with that. But when I saw her ad for someone to work at the Caldwell Cove church, I felt as if it was meant.”

“Meant.” He repeated the word heavily. “Why? What possible reason could you have for coming to the island? Don't tell me you've finally decided to give the dolphin back.”

Her nails bit into her palms. He'd never believe her, and he'd probably use this as an excuse to stop work on the windows. She couldn't blame him.

“You have to understand.” She said the words slowly, hoping against hope he'd hear the truth in them. “I can't give the dolphin back. I don't have it. I never did. My mother didn't take it off the island.”

There was silence again, but this time sheer disbelief emanated from him. It hurt more than she'd have thought possible.

“How can I believe that?” Adam flung out his hand toward the study door. “You were listening. You heard what my father said.”

“She didn't take it away.” She searched for the words that would convince him. “All I can tell you is what I believe to be the truth. When my mother was dying, she seemed to become fixated on that time. It was as if she thought all the problems in her life stemmed from the events of that summer.” She couldn't stop the tremor in her voice. “Maybe knowing you're dying does that to a person.”

Some of the anger seemed to go out of him at her pain. “I'd forgotten she died so recently.” He
touched her wrist, his sympathy light as a gull's wing. “I'm sorry.”

Her tears tried to surface again, and she fought them back.

“I hadn't known about the dolphin before, but it seemed to haunt her. She kept saying, ‘I never meant for him to take it.' I didn't know then who she meant.”

“I guess we know now.” His voice was dry, but his father's actions had to have cut him deeply. They were both trapped by their parents' behavior.

Her hands clenched. “It doesn't seem to lead anywhere. Your father says he gave her the dolphin. But she didn't take it away.”

The clouds cleared from the moon, showing her his face, intent and frowning. To her relief, his antagonism faded as he focused on the problem.

“Didn't she tell you what happened to it?”

She shook her head slowly. It all sounded so improbable, but she knew it was true. “She kept drifting in and out of consciousness those last days. I had to piece it together. One thing was clear—she blamed herself for what happened, but she didn't take the dolphin away.”

“How do you know she was telling the truth?” He sounded as frustrated as she felt. “You said yourself she was confused, incoherent.”

“She wasn't lying.” Tory knew that, bone deep.

“All right, not lying.” He frowned, obviously trying to come up with something to explain. “She was just a kid at the time. Maybe she took it, pawned
it, even threw it away. Then she was ashamed and didn't want to admit it. Did you look through her papers for any clue?”

“Of course I did. There was nothing.” She reached out to grasp his sleeve, intent on making him believe her. She could feel the warmth of his skin through the fine cotton, and she had to take a breath before she could go on. “I know she didn't take the dolphin. I know because of what she asked me to do.”

“What do you mean?” His hand closed hard over hers. “What did she ask you to do?”

He was listening. He wasn't dismissing her out of hand.

“That was my mother's dying wish.” She forced away the tears she was determined not to shed in front of him. “She begged me to find the dolphin and put it back in the church where it belongs.”

Chapter Six

I
t was true, then. Adam wanted to reject Tory's words, but he couldn't. Her determined, passionate face convinced him he couldn't deny them, no matter how much he wanted to.

His gaze traced her features, turned toward him in the moonlight. His father had described Emily as a golden girl, but Emily's daughter was the opposite. The dim light silvered her skin, as if she were a pen-and-ink sketch of a woman.

He had to say something. “It's over then. The dolphin is lost for good.” His sense of relief surprised him. He'd have said they all wanted it back, but maybe he didn't feel that way. As far as he was concerned, raking up the past only seemed to bring pain. “Now we can stop wondering what happened.”

“It's not over.” The passion in her voice caught him off guard. “It can't be over.”

“Tory—” He shrugged, feeling helpless in the
face of her reaction. “What do you expect to do? The dolphin's been gone for forty-some years. There's no way we can find it now.”

You.
He should have said
you.
He shouldn't align himself with her.

“There has to be.” Tory's lips tightened. “Don't you understand? This was the last thing my mother ever asked of me. I made a promise.”

“An impossible promise. It's not your fault if you can't keep it.”

“You wouldn't say that if you were the one who'd made it.”

“I'd face reality.” He couldn't help the exasperation that filled his voice.

“No, you wouldn't.” She shook her head, her cloud of black hair flying rebelliously. “I didn't have to know you ten minutes to see what mattered to you. You wouldn't give up if you'd made a promise. Loyalty is too important to you for that.”

Loyalty.
The word lodged in his heart, and he couldn't speak. How could she know that about him? The thought of Lila flickered through his mind, and he pushed it away. Protecting the memory of the wife who'd betrayed him didn't have anything to do with loyalty. He was doing it for his daughter.

“What I would or wouldn't do isn't the question.” He had to fight to maintain a detached tone. “Why did it mean so much to your mother? You'd think she'd have forgotten the dolphin.”

Matt had said that Emily Brandeis had died in poverty. What had happened to his father's golden girl?

“She never forgot. That night—I don't know, it was as if something broke in her that night.” Tory's eyes clouded with pain, and he fought a ridiculous urge to comfort her. “She felt guilty for involving your father and his brother. Apparently her father was so furious that he took her away the next day. He pushed her into the life he'd planned for her—the right schools, the right friends, the right marriage.”

The bitterness with which she said the last words tipped him off. “I take it the marriage wasn't so right, after all.”

She shrugged, but the casual gesture couldn't hide her pain. “I don't remember much about my father, but by all accounts it wasn't a happy marriage. She remarried after his death. The situation with my stepfather wasn't much better. Maybe it would have lasted a little longer, but the summer we came here—”

She stopped abruptly, her lips tightening as if to keep back the words.

“I thought you'd never been to the island before.” Suspicion sharpened his voice. He'd been too quick to believe her.

“I…” She looked at him, maybe considering another lie. Then she shook her head. “I was here once.” The words came out reluctantly. “A long time ago, when I was fifteen.”

“We met then.” His sureness surprised him. He hadn't remembered her before, but now he knew. There'd been that sense of familiarity that plagued him from the first day at the church.

“We met,” she agreed. “I came to a dance at the yacht club, and you were there.”

He stared at her, memories stirring. The yacht club terrace, music playing in the background, the scent of roses. A girl wearing a white dress, standing in the moonlight.

“You wore a white dress. You had a white rose in your hair.”

He thought she flushed, although he couldn't be sure in the dim light. “That's right. It was nothing. Just a dance.”

“A dance.” He frowned at her, remembering. “You turned into Cinderella, as I recall. You ran off and you didn't bother to leave a glass slipper behind.”

Something quick and pained crossed her face. “I had to leave.”

“Why?” He wouldn't let her get away with less than the whole story.

“My mother.” She looked past him, toward the spartina grass waving in the marsh, but he wasn't sure she saw it. “When I called home to ask if I could stay later at the dance, my mother was crying. Hysterical. I knew what that meant.”

A dozen possibilities raced through his mind. “Your stepfather—”

“No, he wasn't abusive, not physically, anyway. But he didn't understand her. When something upset her, she couldn't help it.” She seemed to be begging him to understand. Or maybe she was trying to understand herself. “She'd start down into
depression. I always thought if I just got to her soon enough, I could stop it. But I never could.”

He saw. “You think it was because she'd come back to the island.”

“I know it was. This place haunted her. I promised I'd put that to rest for her. I have to try.” Her eyes were wide and dark in the moonlight. “Will you help me?”

If she'd asked him that ten minutes ago, he might have been able to resist. He didn't want to do this.

But he'd seen how much it hurt her. Like it or not, his family shared the responsibility. He couldn't say no.

“All right,” he said finally. “I don't know what I can do—what either of us can do. But I'll try.”

The smile that blossomed on her face would have made any amount of effort worthwhile. “Thank you, Adam. My mother would be grateful.”

“I'm not doing it for her. I don't even think I'm doing it for you.”

Her brows lifted. “Then why bother, if you don't believe we're going to get the dolphin back?”

He thought about what Tory must have faced when she'd run out of the yacht club that night. Regret shimmered through him. She'd been a kid, and by the sound of it, she'd had to be a parent to her mother. She hadn't deserved that.

“I guess I'm doing it for that girl in a white dress with a rose in her hair,” he said.

Tory brushed at her hair a little self-consciously. “Maybe I should wear a rose in my hair more often.”

“Maybe you should.” He touched the springing hair at her temple. He intended it for the lightest of
gestures, a relief from the emotion of the last few minutes.

But a lock of her hair twined around his finger, almost as if clinging to him. He brushed the fine skin at her temple.

“Did I kiss you that night?”

She swallowed, and he felt the effort through his fingertips. “I don't remember.”

“Hard to believe I wasn't more memorable than that.” He tried to keep it light, but something deeper than memory was driving him. “Maybe we should try it again.”

“I'm not sure—”

He stopped her words with his kiss. Her eyes closed. He made no move to hold her, and nothing touched but their lips. It should have been the simplest of gestures.

A wave of longing swamped him. He wanted that feeling again—wanted to see the future stretching ahead of him, ready to be explored, clean as a fresh page in Tory's sketch pad.

But he couldn't have that again. Probably neither of them could. He drew back reluctantly, not quite able to regret that he'd kissed her.

“I guess I should apologize.”

Tory shook her head quickly. “It's all right. It doesn't mean anything.”

She spun and hurried toward the door, the white dress fluttering in the evening breeze. In an instant she was gone.

There was no fresh page. They couldn't go back
and become teenagers kissing in the moonlight again. Too much had happened to both of them.

He'd committed himself to helping her in an undoubtedly futile attempt. He'd try, but somehow he didn't think any of this was going to turn out the way Tory wanted. And he couldn't disregard the sense that they were headed for trouble.

 

Each time she thought about the night before, Tory's stomach tightened. It was a wonder she'd been able to eat any of the mouthwatering she-crab soup Miz Becky had fixed for lunch.

She frowned at the sketch pad in her lap. She'd been sitting in the bentwood rocker on the front veranda since lunch. It was certainly safer to sit here than on the side of the house overlooking the salt marsh. There, she'd have been reminded with every breath of confiding in Adam. Of kissing Adam.

Her stomach quivered as she saw Adam's face in the moonlight. She felt the featherlight touch of his lips, and a wave of longing swept through her. If only—

No. She drowned the longing with anger, but it was anger at herself, not Adam. She'd wasted too many dreams over the years on the Adam she remembered. She wouldn't do that to herself again. She set the rocker moving with a push of her feet. Its creak was oddly comforting. She could be rational about the situation with Adam.

He'd promised his help. That was all she wanted. Other than that, their relationship was strictly business, nothing more.

She was still staring at the page a half hour later when she heard the crunch of tires on the shell-covered driveway. Adam was back from the boatyard, and she hadn't accomplished a thing. She smoothed the cover of the pad over the design.

He came toward her, his step assured, giving her that endearing smile as he mounted the front steps. Her stomach quivered again.

“Hey, Tory.” He glanced at the pad in her lap. “Are you busy?”

“Not terribly,” she said cautiously. If he brought up last night…

“Come for a ride with me, then. There's something I want to show you.”

Her preservation instincts told her that being alone with Adam in a car was not a good idea. “What is it?”

He lifted an eyebrow, the effect devastating. “Don't you like surprises?”

“No.” She didn't have to think about that one. All the surprises in her life had been unpleasant ones.

He studied her for a moment, then nodded as if he understood. “All right. No surprises. I was able to find the house your mother's family rented when they came here that summer. I thought you'd want to see it.”

She had to catch her breath. He'd promised to help, but she hadn't expected anything so concrete already. “That was fast.”

“It wasn't that hard. There's only one rental agency that handles houses suitable for wealthy
summer visitors. Their records go back a hundred years.” He nodded toward the car. “Shall we go?”

Tension gripped her, but she couldn't back out. She dropped the sketch pad on the rocker as she stood. “Am I dressed all right?”

“Since I have the keys and no one is renting it, you won't meet anyone but me.” His gaze swept her chinos and cotton sweater with what seemed to be approval. “And you look good to me.”

Warmth flooded her cheeks. She really hadn't been asking for a compliment. “Let's go, then.”

She followed him to the car. He opened the door and took her arm to usher her in. Her skin tingled where he touched it.

Stop it, she lectured as he went to the other door and slid behind the wheel. Just stop it.

Adam turned the car, swung out through the pillared wrought-iron gates to the road, and Caldwell Cove spread out in front of them. From Twin Oaks, situated at the end of the village, a crescent of houses and shops faced the inland waterway. The docks, busy with boats, fringed the water.

Tory's gaze traced the outline of the village, bisected neatly by the church spire, and her fingers itched for her pencils. If she didn't include the few cars along the street in a sketch, the scene might have been today or a century ago.

Adam turned away from town onto the road that swung around the heel of the island. The breeze through the open window freshened as they drove along the shore, lifting her hair. Unfortunately it
couldn't blow away the lump that had formed in her throat.

“You're sure you found the right house?” She asked the question more for the sake of saying something than because she doubted him.

“Positive.” He glanced at her, creases forming between his brows. “Having second thoughts?”

“No.” She couldn't. “But there won't be anything left to find there after forty years.”

Adam shrugged, frowning at the narrow road. “I don't expect to find anything, period. Not after all this time. But I said I'd help, and this was the only place I could think of to start.”

“I guess you're right.” She discovered she was watching his hands on the wheel and averted her eyes as if afraid he'd catch her. “I was so worried about getting here that I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how I'd look for the dolphin.”

That sounded stupid, and she half expected him to say so. Instead he pointed toward the waves. “Speaking of dolphins, there they are now.”

She followed the direction of his hand. At first she saw nothing but ocean. Then a silver crescent arced through the waves, followed by another and another. She couldn't stop a gasp. “They're beautiful.”

“Yes.” His voice was soft. “Seeing them is just as exciting the hundredth time as it is the first.”

She glanced at him, moved by the tenderness in his voice. “You said the legend was that the dolphins saved the shipwrecked sailor. Can that part of it possibly be true?”

“Sure. There are plenty of stories about dolphins interacting with people.”

“I've seen trained ones, but in the wild, that has to be different.”

Adam smiled. “You should see my cousin Chloe. She'd make a believer out of you. She talks to them, and when you watch them, you're convinced they talk back to her.”

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