A Time to Forgive and Promise Forever (7 page)

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Adam spoke easily, without the tension that had marked every conversation they'd had since she came to the island. Her gaze followed the dolphins as they headed toward the open ocean. If she could talk to them like his cousin Chloe, she'd thank the dolphins for that.

Adam turned into a shell-covered drive opposite a deserted stretch of beach. The car bounced over ruts, then came to a stop. “There it is.”

She looked, and everything in her froze. She was still sitting, hands pressed against the dashboard, when he came around and opened the door.

“Tory? Is something wrong?”

She turned her head slowly, forced herself to focus on his face. “You're sure this is the right house? The one my grandfather rented when my mother was a girl?”

“Of course.” He looked puzzled. “Why?”

She swallowed hard. “Because this is also the house my stepfather rented when I was fifteen.”

She watched him absorb that, his face troubled.

“It's not so unusual, when you stop to think about it,” he said finally. “There are only so many houses
of this size to rent now, and there were even fewer then.” His gaze rested on her face, sympathetic. “Are you sure you want to go in?”

She wouldn't be a coward about this. “Yes.”

They went up the steps to the porch, and Adam put the key in the lock. She looked around, trying to remember their arrival that summer. She couldn't. That had been wiped out by the way the vacation ended.

But she had probably run up the steps, excited and happy at the prospect of staying at the shore. The weathered gray shingles would have been the same, as well as the beach roses climbing the porch rail.

Adam pushed open the door, then looked at her, eyes questioning. “Okay?”

She nodded. “I'm fine.” She took a breath and walked into the house.

He followed her to the hallway, then went into the living room, footsteps echoing on the uncarpeted floor. “I'm sure it's been refurnished since you were here.”

“Yes.” She stood in the archway, scanning the room. New furniture, fresh paint, different pictures on the walls. It was a pretty room, with its pale walls and floral upholstery. Nothing was left of the past.

But the view from the large windows was familiar. She'd stood in the archway looking at her mother sobbing on the sofa and her stepfather shouting in anger and frustration.

“They'd have replaced the mirror.” The words came out before she thought about them. “He threw a glass at it and broke it.”

Adam touched her shoulder—a brief, sympathetic stroke of his hand. “I'm sorry.”

“It's all right.” She took a breath, sought for calm.

“How long did you stay?” He was probably trying to help her by talking.

“Just a few days. I remember my mother was brittle, too excited, almost feverish the whole time.” She shook her head. “I should have known something was wrong. I shouldn't have gone out that night.”

“You were a kid.” The anger in his voice startled her. “It wasn't your responsibility.”

“I was all she had.” She pressed her fist against her stomach as if that would push away the sick feeling of remembering. “I guess I understand now.”

“What?” He moved a step closer, as if he wanted to protect her.

But she didn't need protecting. She'd been taking care of herself all her life.

“Why that trip sent my mother over the edge. It's affecting me, being here, and I'm strong. She was fragile. She was always fragile. Being back in the same house, being flooded by memories and guilt—it's not surprising she fell apart. We never should have come here. She didn't want to, but my stepfather didn't listen. He never did.”

It was so quiet she heard the intake of his breath. “What happened? After that, I mean.”

She tried to concentrate—to separate what really happened then from what she'd learned later. “She was hospitalized for depression, I know. And my
stepfather filed for divorce. I stayed in his house until she got out of the hospital, but then I found a place for the two of us.”

“You were too young for that.” Again there was suppressed anger in his voice. “Wasn't there any family who could help you? What about your father's family?”

“They'd washed their hands of us a long time before that. We did all right on our own.”

“You shouldn't have had to.”

She tried to force a smile. “Ancient history. It doesn't matter anymore.”

She'd never told anyone most of what she'd poured out to Adam. She saw why Miranda said he was everyone's friend. That sympathetic voice had pulled far more out of her than she'd intended to say.

“Well.” She tried to sound brisk. “Shall we take a look at the rest of the house?”

He shrugged. “If you want.” He studied her face for a long moment. “Are you sure you're okay?”

“Fine.” Despite Adam's sympathy, she knew he had his own agenda in all of this. She had to remember that. His family was involved, too.

“You know, it's funny,” he said slowly, his gaze still fixed on her face.

“What is?”

“The way things ended, both times. It almost seems as if history repeated itself.”

Something shivered inside her. Her mother had been snatched away from her summer love in traumatic circumstances, and she'd never really stopped regretting that.

Years later, Tory had been snatched away just as suddenly.

Nonsense, she told herself sternly. The two things had little in common. Adam hadn't been a summer love. She'd only known him for a single evening. He didn't mean anything to her.

You dreamed about him for years, a little voice whispered in her mind. How long will you dream about him when you leave this time?

Chapter Seven

T
ory hadn't shaken off the feelings roused by their visit to the beach house when she entered the dining room that night. Being in this place didn't help. Each time she entered the gracious room with the rice-carved mahogany furniture that was unique to the low country, she was reminded of that other life, just as the rice carving was reminiscent of the rice plantations that had once thrived here.

The mahogany-framed mirror over the sideboard reflected her pale face at her. Paler than usual? She wasn't sure.

“Tory.” Jefferson Caldwell rose from his seat and pulled out her chair before Adam could move. “Good evening.”

She slipped into the chair, glancing at Jefferson's urbane face as he resumed his seat at the head of the oval table. Adam must have told him who she was. What did he think about having the daughter of the
woman he'd once been infatuated with in his house? Her tension jerked up a notch. Was this going to be unpleasant?

Jenny bounced into her chair. “Is it my turn to say the blessing?”

Adam nodded, and Jenny lowered her head and clasped her hands. She raced through the words so quickly Tory barely got her head bowed in time. When she looked up, Adam was frowning at his daughter.

“Jennifer Ann, I don't believe that's an appropriate way to ask the blessing. You sound as if you're in a race to get finished.”

She wiggled. “But Daddy, you know cousin Andi's coming to spend the night tonight. I want to be done with supper when she gets here so we can play.”

“You know perfectly well that Andi will wait if you're not finished with your meal.”

“But, Daddy…”

Miz Becky pushed through the door from the kitchen carrying a steaming platter of fried chicken. Tory suspected the distraction was well timed, before Jenny managed to talk herself into any more trouble with her father.

Jefferson offered her a bowl of sweet potatoes. “Andi is my son Matthew's oldest girl,” he said, as casually as if explaining his family to any stranger instead of to an interloper who'd hidden her identity from him. “These two young ladies will be giggling all night if we don't watch out.”

Jenny looked up from her drumstick. “We'll be good, Grandpa. Honest.”

He smiled indulgently at the child. “We'll believe that when we see it. Or when we don't hear it, as the case may be.”

Tory was still smiling at Jenny's expression when Jefferson turned to her. “Adam has told me about your mother.”

She nearly choked on the sweet potatoes. What was he going to say? He couldn't be happy with the situation. She put her fork down carefully on the silver-trimmed edge of the plate.

“I was sorry to hear of her passing.” The words were formal, but sorrow touched his face. “I remember her well.”

“Thank you.” She hesitated, wondering if she should say more. “She remembered you, too. She…she regretted what happened.”

He nodded gravely, his white hair glistening in the light from the chandelier. “I appreciate knowing that, Tory. I wish—” He stopped. “Well, there's little point in revisiting the past.” The lines of his face deepened, making him look very different from the young man her mother had talked about.

Did his words mean Adam hadn't told him she wanted to recover the dolphin? She couldn't imagine he'd welcome that. He'd apparently kept his involvement secret for most of his life. She glanced toward Adam for a cue.

He seemed to pick up instantly on her unspoken question. “My father doesn't feel there's much hope of finding it after all these years.”

He shot a look toward his daughter, and Tory
understood. He didn't want to talk about this in front of her.

“Finding what, Daddy?” Jenny, of course, had picked up on what he might want her to miss.

“Nothing, honey. It's just something that was lost a long time ago.”

“I lost my green barrette on the playground last week, and Andi helped me find it. She's good at finding things.”

“It sounds as if you're lucky to have a cousin like her,” Tory said. Obviously she never should have said anything at the dinner table. Still, Jefferson had been the one to bring it up.

The doorbell rang, and Jenny leaped from her seat. She bounced up and down on her toes, fingertips resting on the edge of the table “That's Andi. May I be excused, Daddy? Please?”

He looked from her half-finished plate to her excited face and sighed. “All right, go ahead. I expect Miz Becky's going to have a snack for you two later.”

Jenny darted from the dining room before he finished the sentence, and her high voice echoed from the hallway as she greeted her cousin.

“I'm sorry.” Tory glanced from one male Caldwell to the other. “I shouldn't have discussed the subject in front of her.”

Jefferson's face darkened with sudden emotion. “Sometimes I wish we'd never heard of that dolphin. We'd be better off forgetting the thing ever existed, legend or no legend.”

Well, she'd wondered what he thought. She couldn't blame him for telling her.

“I'd like to forget it, but I can't.” She met his gaze squarely. “I made a promise to my mother, and I have to try and fulfill it, even if it seems hopeless.” She tensed, waiting for him to suggest she pack her bag.

“Hopeless is the right word. Everything about that situation is hopeless.” For an instant Jefferson looked startled at his own emotion. Then he tossed his napkin on the tablecloth. “Excuse me.” He went quickly out of the room.

She bit her lip. Her return to Caldwell Cove seemed destined to bring nothing but grief. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset him.”

“Forget it.” Adam managed a smile, but she could see his tension in the way his hand gripped the fork. “You had to tell him the truth.”

“I could have been more tactful. I'm not very good at that.” At least it didn't look as if she'd be kicked out. Yet.

“It's all right, Tory.”

But it wasn't, and they both knew it. Too many emotions swirled, and no matter what she did, somebody was going to be hurt.

 

This was what she needed, Tory decided the next morning. A few hours away from anybody named Caldwell and from all the complications associated with their mutual past. She walked down the narrow main street of Caldwell Cove, enjoying the breeze off
the water and the salt tang of the air. It was cooler today, with just a hint that autumn must come, even here. She zipped the light windbreaker she'd thrown on when she left the house.

The channel between the island and the mainland was busy with boats of all sizes and descriptions. An elegant sailboat skimmed past a bulky shrimper that drew in toward the public dock. Gulls swooped around it, probably hoping for lunch.

Glancing away from the water, she saw canopies dotting the open lawn between the bank and the café. A few feet closer and she could read the sign. Gullah Market Today.

She hesitated. She ought to get to work, but the windows weren't going anywhere, and she deserved a break. She stepped off the sidewalk and started down the grassy space between the canopies.

Booths offered everything from fresh fruit to baskets to brightly woven cloth. She turned toward the display of baskets and found herself standing next to Miranda Caldwell.

“Hey, Tory. Nice to see you. How are the windows coming along?”

So much for her assumption that she could avoid the sprawling Caldwell clan anywhere in Caldwell Cove. At least it wasn't Adam.

“Fine, thanks. I was ready for a break from them.”

Miranda's green eyes sparkled with amusement. “Same here. My mother announced it was time for fall cleaning at the inn, so I decided I needed to come to market.”

“These baskets are lovely.” Tory picked one up, hoping it would be a safe subject of conversation. Adam had told his father who she was. Had he passed the information on to the rest of his family? She hoped not.

She probably should have asked him, but things had been strained enough between them after that uncharacteristic display of emotion from his father.

“Sweetgrass,” Miranda said, touching the intricately woven strands of the basket. “This is Josepha Green's work. She's a local Gullah basket weaver.”

“How can you tell?” Her artisan's curiosity won out over her desire to end the conversation quickly.

“Every Gullah weaver uses the same tools and techniques that have been used for hundreds of years, but each one has his own little trick.” She traced the rim of the basket. “See this strand of bulrush woven in? Nobody else does that.”

“The artist's personal touch. I guess each of us wants to put our own stamp on things.”

“Yes.” Miranda's voice was soft. “Like you with your window design, trying to find a way to say who Lila was.”

Startled, she met Miranda's gaze, oblivious to the moving, colorful crowd around them. Was she imagining it or was that a hint that Miranda would talk about Lila?

Before she could find a response, someone stopped close behind them. Her pulse thudded, notifying her that it was Adam even before she turned.

“Sharing secrets, ladies?” His words were casual,
his eyes guarded. She didn't think he liked finding her in conversation with his cousin.

“Just talking about baskets, sugar.” Miranda smiled. “What brings you away from the boatyard in the middle of the day?”

He shrugged. “The chance I'd run into my favorite cousin talking to Tory, maybe.”

She studied him as he bantered with Miranda, switching between English and Gullah, the mixture of dialect native to the sea islands. He should look casual and relaxed in his khakis and faded denim shirt. But the tension lines around his eyes gave him away.

Why didn't he want her to talk to Miranda? Was he afraid of what Tory might say or what Miranda might tell her?

Before she could decide, he turned to her. “If you're done here, I'll give you a ride to the house.”

“Sugar, she hasn't even bought anything yet.” Miranda linked arms with Tory, her voice gently teasing. “What's wrong? Don't you want to turn your guest loose at market with me?”

“I probably should be getting back to work.” Tory felt vaguely uncomfortable, as if she'd been caught gossiping on the boss's time.

“Come on, now,” Miranda coaxed. “My daddy's back at the food stand munching on sweet-potato fries. Let's join him.”

Adam frowned, and she could feel his tension. “Miranda, if Tory wants to get back to work—”

“Here comes Gran,” Miranda interrupted, turning
to greet the erect elderly woman who marched toward them through the crowd, nodding or speaking to practically every person there.

Tory took advantage of Miranda's momentary distraction to speak to Adam. “Is there some reason you don't want me to talk with your cousin?” she said quietly.

“Of course not. Why would there be?”

If that were true, he probably wouldn't have spent so much time on his answer. But there was no chance to discuss it. Mrs. Caldwell had reached them.

She zeroed in on Tory. “Miz Tory, you're just the person I want to see. Are you coming to the beach picnic tonight?”

Tory blinked. “I'm sorry. I didn't know about it.” Was this something someone had mentioned and she'd forgotten?

Mrs. Caldwell poked Adam's arm. “Well, young man? Why haven't you invited Tory to the picnic yet?”

He caught his grandmother's hand in his. “Stop poking me, Gran. I'm not six anymore. Next you'll be asking if I've brushed my teeth and said my prayers.”

His light answer didn't disguise his annoyance. From the sharp look she gave him, it didn't fool his grandmother, either. She turned to Tory.

“Since this grandson of mine didn't remember, I'll do the inviting. The Caldwells are having a picnic on the beach tonight. We want you to come.”

She could practically feel Adam willing her to say no. “I don't think I…”

“No excuses, now. You come along with Adam and Jenny, you hear? I'll see you there.”

She made it sound like a command. Tory seemed to have no choice but to nod agreement.

But when she looked from Adam's face to his grandmother's she knew she wasn't imagining things. Mrs. Caldwell wanted her there. Adam didn't. He couldn't very well say so, but taking her to this family event was the last thing he wanted to do.

 

Thanks to Gran, he didn't have a choice about the picnic. Adam paused in the kitchen to pick up the cooler Miz Becky had left ready on the table. He'd best collect Jenny and Tory and be on his way.

His father wouldn't be going, of course. As usual, Jefferson had found a pressing business meeting that took priority. Any other time, Adam might have tried to talk him into going, but with Tory there…

Balancing the family's need to have the dolphin back against Tory's promise and his father's wishes wasn't just difficult—it was impossible. All his instincts told him that having Tory attend the picnic was a bad idea.

As he swung the cooler off the table, he heard the low murmur of voices from the back porch. He moved quietly to the screen door. Tory and Jenny sat on the top step, probably waiting for him.

“Well, I think it was mean.” Jenny's pout was visible from where he stood. “Andi didn't have to go home yet. I wanted to play some more.”

“If her mother needed her, she probably had to
listen.” Tory was clearly trying to be the voice of reason for his strong-willed little daughter.

“Her mama would have let her stay if she'd asked. I wanted to cut out paper dolls, but Andi didn't. So she went home. And I'm not going to play with her anymore.”

Knowing Jenny's habit of trying to boss everyone around, he suspected there was more to it than that. He should intervene, but she'd chosen to confide in Tory, not in him.

“Well, I've never had a cousin, so I don't really know what that's like,” Tory said. “But I do know what it's like when somebody you love disappoints you.”

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