A Time to Forgive and Promise Forever (9 page)

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He caught her hand in what was meant to be a reassuring gesture. Her long fingers curled around his, and his skin tingled.

How long had it been since he'd held a woman's hand while they walked? Too long, certainly. He hadn't had either the time or the inclination for dating since Lila left.

He shouldn't let Tory get her hopes up. “The thing is, if Clayton had any answers, he'd have spoken up long ago.” He grimaced, knowing the darkness protected his expression. “He wouldn't keep something like that secret to protect my father. Guess you've already figured that part out.”

She'd probably also guessed how Adam felt about it. He sensed her searching gaze.

“I understand they don't get along. You never did tell me just what went wrong between them.”

It wasn't any of her business, was it? And yet their histories were so entangled it made little sense to try and keep it from her.

“My father uses words like lazy and shiftless to describe his brother,” he said, his voice dry. “And
Uncle Clayton's been known to say that my father would sell his honor for success. You might say their values are polar opposites.”

Tory was silent for a long moment. “You'd think there must be something more personal that started it.”

She meant the dolphin, of course. In spite of what he knew, he wasn't quite ready to admit that. “The way I understand it, they always fought, like brothers do. But now…” Now the breach seemed wider than ever. “Maybe we'd better concentrate on hearing his version.”

The string of lights that outlined the dock sent an amber glow over his uncle. Clayton sat with his back to a post, his bad leg stretched stiffly in front of him. His pipe made an orange spark in the darkness as he puffed on it.

“Kind of thought y'all would be along.” He took the pipe out of his mouth and cradled it in one hand. “Seems like Tory would want to see me.”

“You know who I am.” Tension radiated from Tory, passing to Adam as if they were connected.

Clayton nodded. “The whole family knows. Pull up some dock and sit. I'm not sure I can help, but I'll try.”

Tory sank to a cross-legged position opposite him, and Adam sat next to her. He didn't have a good feeling about this. He couldn't stop it.

“You don't favor your mother much.”

Tory's hands clasped each other tightly. Was she tired of being compared to her beautiful mother or was there more going on?

“No.” Her voice had tightened. “I look like my father.”

The incoming tide shushed softly against the weathered wooden boards of the dock, and the breeze lifted Tory's hair. The silence stretched. Probably neither of them knew where to start.

Adam leaned forward, planting his palms against the warm, rough planks. Looked as if it was up to him, like it or not. “My father already told us everything he knows about that night. Tory was hoping you might remember something else.”

Clayton frowned absently at his pipe, then glanced at Adam with an expression he couldn't interpret. “He told you everything?”

Adam nodded. They all knew what his father had done.

“Well, I don't have much else to add, but I'll try. There were a bunch of folks there on Angel Isle that night. We'd had a crab boil.” He jerked his head toward the fire that shone on the beach. “Sort of like tonight, ‘cept it was all kids, mostly islanders, a few summer folk.”

“Did you see my father when he came? Did you know he had the dolphin with him?” Adam found it harder to say the words than he'd expected.

“Not then. I didn't learn that until the next day, when they found out it was gone. Then I knew.”

“You didn't tell.” Tory's voice was soft.

“He's my brother.” Clayton didn't seem to think it required more explanation than that.

“But did you see him?” Adam frowned, trying to
picture what it had been like. “Was it dark when he got there?”

“Just dusk. I saw his boat come in, but I was busy with the fire. Emily was in the house, fixing something in the kitchen. Guess he went in to see her.”

His hands pressed down so hard he felt as if he could launch himself off the dock. “Did you see him leave?”

“Nope, just noticed later his boat wasn't there. Emily never said anything about what passed between them, and I never spotted the dolphin that night.”

“It must have been there.”

Clayton shrugged. “Maybe so, but after Emily's father heard what Jefferson had to say, he and a bunch of his yacht club friends came storming in like the marines landing.”

Adam was concentrating so hard on the sequence of events he almost missed it. Then he looked at his uncle, and dread hardened into a ball in his stomach. “My father told? That's how they found out?”

Clayton looked stricken. “Son, I thought you knew. You said he told you everything about that night.”

“I guess he left that part out.” He wanted to say his father couldn't have done that, but he knew it wasn't true. He could have. If Emily had turned him down, had scorned him for taking the dolphin, Jefferson might very well have done that.

His father had betrayed his own brother. Pain tightened around Adam's heart.

Tory made a small, distressed sound and reached toward him in sympathy. He pushed her hand away
with a quick gesture. He didn't want her sympathy. He didn't want anything except to forget what he'd just learned.

But he couldn't. He had to find out everything. He swallowed hard. “Didn't Emily explain what happened with the dolphin?”

He could feel Clayton's reluctance. He shook his head slowly.

“But why?” Tory's voice sounded choked. “Surely she'd tell you what happened.”

The lines in Clayton's weather-beaten face looked carved in stone. “Guess she never had the chance. I was outside, y'see, and I climbed on the lumber we had piled up for the addition to the cottage. Had this dumb idea I was going to get everyone's attention, try to calm them down.”

Adam pictured a young version of his uncle clambering up, waving his arms, trying to take charge of an out-of-control situation. Something bad was coming, he could feel it.

“What happened?”

“I saw her daddy pulling Emily along. She was crying. I tried to jump down and get to her, but the wood shifted. Whole thing collapsed, came down right on top of me.”

The sick taste of dread filled Adam's mouth. “You were hurt.”

Clayton rubbed his bad leg. “Felt this snap—turned out it was broke in a couple of places. I heard Emily screaming as her daddy dragged her away.” He shook his head. “Reckon I passed out then.”

Tory rocked back and forth, hugging herself as if she couldn't stand that last image of her mother. Adam didn't know how he was going to get the picture out of his mind. Or how he'd forget his father was responsible.

His instincts had been right. The past was better off buried. Tory's determination to uncover it would lead to a lot of heartache for all of them.

Chapter Nine

“A
re you sure you want to do this?” Tory stood on the dock late the next afternoon, watching as Adam pulled the covers off the boat's seats. He didn't look happy to be taking her to see Angel Isle, the site of the dolphin's disappearance. And after the shock they'd received the night before, she could hardly blame him.

“It's no trouble.”

Adam's words were his usual response to helping someone. She'd heard him say that a dozen times since she'd been in Caldwell Cove. No trouble, he'd say with that boyish smile, regardless of the request.

Unfortunately taking her to Angel Isle was a problem for him, and they both knew it.

Clayton's revelation had blown up in their faces. She suspected Adam still hadn't come to terms with the idea that his father had not only taken the dolphin, he'd also informed on his brother.

Jefferson couldn't have foreseen the results of that angry act. It wasn't his fault that Clayton had climbed on that woodpile, but still, in some way, he must feel responsible. Clayton had to deal with a lifelong disability, and as for Tory's mother—she winced at the image of young Emily, screaming, being dragged away after seeing the boy she loved lying hurt, probably fearing he was dead.

It was small wonder Emily had never been able to forget. They all still felt the repercussions of that night, fair or not.

She leaned against the dock railing, looking at the water and letting the sun dazzle her eyes, making a reasonable excuse for any unwanted tears.

That night had changed her mother's life. She tried to shrug the tightness out of her shoulders at the thought of Emily, dragged from her summer romance, feeling guilty over what happened with the dolphin, grieving the loss of Clayton.

Was that the seed that had sprouted into drinking and depression? Or would something else have precipitated her mother's problems if that hadn't? Tory would never know.

Adam pressed the lever that lowered the boat into the water, and Tory tried to let the whir of the motor drown out all the voices in her head. The boat settled gently, rocking with the tide, and he shut the motor off. The screech of a laughing gull broke the momentary silence, and she realized she had to try again.

“Adam, I'm sure you have other things you need
to do. I can get someone else to run me out to Angel Isle. Or we can go another time.”

His brows lowered in annoyance. “If you're going, I'm taking you,” he said shortly. “Hop in.”

That seemed to be that. She stepped onto the catamaran's seat, then the deck, trying to keep her stomach from misbehaving at the rocking movement. She hadn't been on a boat since her childhood, and she didn't want to disgrace herself in front of Adam. Although it hardly seemed likely he could regard her as more of a nuisance than he already did.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Jenny's voice, accompanied by the sound of running feet, stopped his hand as he reached toward the starter. The child raced toward them along the tabby path from the house, Miz Becky behind her. “Stop. I want to go.”

Adam leaned on the windscreen, watching his daughter as she reached the dock. “Jenny, I've already told you that you can't go this time. Ms. Tory and I have work to do.”

Jenny grabbed the dock railing, teetering as if about to jump into the boat. “Dad-dy!” It was a plaintive wail. “Take me.”

“Jenny.” His tone was a gentle warning. “We've had this conversation before.”

Her bottom lip came out. “I don't want you to go with Miz Tory. You went with her last night.”

He frowned. “What are you talking about? We all went to the picnic.”

Jenny's lips trembled. “You went for a walk with
her all by yourselves. And my mama was lots prettier than she is.”

The child's words seemed to hit Tory right in the heart. Surely Jenny didn't think…

She backed away from the rest of that thought. Her cheeks had to be scarlet, and all she wanted to do was climb right out of that boat and disappear.

But Adam pinned her in place with a single glance. He swung onto the dock, and the power of his push set the boat rocking. He squatted to bring his face level with his daughter's.

“Jenny, there is never a good reason to make a guest in our house feel uncomfortable. I'm embarrassed by your behavior.”

His voice was firm, sounding a note of regret and disappointment. He took both the child's hands in his, the touch loving.

“I know my girl doesn't like to behave that way, does she?”

“No, Daddy.” Jenny's voice dropped to a whisper. “I'm sorry.”

He put his arm around her. “It's Miz Tory who deserves your apology, sugar.”

Jenny looked at her, blinking back tears. “I'm sorry, Miz Tory.”

She wanted to protest, wanted to explain that Jenny was wrong, that her daddy wasn't interested in Tory in any way that required a comparison with the child's mother. But she couldn't.

“It's all right, Jenny,” she said softly, and blinked back a tear.

Adam nodded toward Miz Becky, who waited at the end of the dock. “Go on back to the house with Miz Becky, now. We'll go out in the boat together another day.”

Jenny threw her arms around his neck in a throttling hug. Then she ran to the waiting housekeeper.

So that was what a father was like. Tory turned away so Adam couldn't see her tears as he dropped into the boat. That was how a real father handled his child when she disappointed him—with love, with fairness, without blame. A sudden longing for something she'd never had filled her, so intense it almost made her gasp.

By the time she'd gained control of her emotions, Adam had started the motor and begun easing the boat away from the dock.

“Adam—”

He shook his head. “Leave it, Tory.”

She had no choice but to obey as he turned the boat seaward. His hands were tight on the wheel as he eased through the no-wake zone near the docks. Once clear of the area, he accelerated.

The speed pressed Tory back on the bench, and the motor's roar drowned anything she might have found to say. Adam was taking his frustration and embarrassment out in typical male fashion—speed and noise.

She settled a little more comfortably on the bench seat. She might as well enjoy the ride. Adam probably wouldn't slow down until he'd gotten the emotions out of his system.

The boat rocketed around the curve of the island, passing the long, low yacht club with its cluster of white boats at the dock. Her gaze traced the steps she'd gone up with such anticipation the night she'd met Adam. There'd been nothing but dread filling her when she'd run down them hours later.

She shook her head, lifting her face to the wind that whipped her hair into tangles. Let the ocean breeze blow the ugly thoughts away. She couldn't go back and change the past. She could only try to make amends by fulfilling her promise.

The boat bounced over waves as Adam took the turn into the sound between Caldwell Island and the fringe of barrier islands that protected it from the open ocean. He eased back on the throttle. The roar of the motor softened to a purr, and Tory's stomach seemed to catch up with the rest of her.

“Dolphin Sound,” he said, and he pointed to the waves. “And there are the dolphins it's named for.”

She leaned forward, seeing nothing but the shimmer of sun on water at first. Then a silver shape lunged into the sunlight only feet from the boat. The dolphin balanced on its tail, seeming to smile at her. “He's beautiful.” She grabbed her sketch pad.

“Yes.” He let the boat rock gently. The dolphin slipped beneath the waves, then surfaced farther away. “I never tire of watching them.”

“You couldn't.” The graceful shape, water sheeting from its back, formed under her pencil. “I can't do it justice.”

Adam left the wheel, coming to look at the sketch.
He braced one hand on the seat back behind her, his arm brushing her shoulder and sending waves of warmth through her. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and his tanned strength stole her breath.

“I think you've captured the essence, the way you did with Jenny on the swing. You're very talented, Tory.”

She shook her head, reminded of the wooden dolphin and all it meant. Had its carver been satisfied he'd captured that grace and power in his work? He must have been, if he'd been willing to give his creation to the church.

She glanced at Adam, wanting to say something about the dolphin carving. He was frowning at the sketch pad.

“What is it? Did I get it wrong?”

“You got it right.” He shook his head. “I was thinking about Jenny. I'm sorry about the way she behaved. She obviously thought…”

She could understand why he didn't want to finish that sentence. “She misunderstood what was happening, that's all.”

“I'll talk to her. Make her see that we don't have that kind of relationship.”

And what about the night you kissed me, Adam? What did that mean?

Nothing, obviously.

“I think that would be a good idea,” she said carefully. “She needs to understand the situation between us so she won't be upset when we need to spend time together.”

He straightened, standing between her and the sun. “She shouldn't be upset in any event. Just because I haven't dated in the last four years doesn't mean I won't sometime.”

She wanted to say she understood how Jenny felt. Wanted to say she'd been there. But if she started talking about her reactions to her father's death and her mother's remarriage, where would it end? She might give away more of herself than she'd bargained for.

“You'll make her understand,” she said finally. “You're a good father.”

Adam looked at her for a long moment, his gaze probing. Then he managed a half smile. “I try.”

He turned to the wheel and started toward the small island across the sound. The moment she could have opened up to him was gone.

The dolphins were gone, too. A sense of loss touched her as she watched them move toward open ocean. They seemed—she struggled to formulate the thought. Somehow the dolphins symbolized this place and these people, living off the sea, moving in tune with the tides. The carved dolphin had been a fitting symbol of God's providence for the people of the island.

The small island on the horizon grew as they approached it, changing from a smudge against the sky to a mosaic of green and gold.

“Angel Isle.” Adam slowed the boat as they approached a tangle of lush green undergrowth jutting into the water. He rounded it. Beyond the junglelike growth stretched a crescent of sandy beach backed
by loblolly pines, live oaks and crepe myrtle, untouched and unspoiled.

Tory's breath caught at the sight. “It looks like Eden.”

He cast her an approving glance. “I've always thought so.” He cut the motor, and the catamaran bumped gently against a mossy dock. “Angel Isle has belonged to the family for generations.”

“You're lucky.”

“We are.” Some emotion shadowed his face briefly. Was he thinking that Angel Isle hadn't been lucky for the Caldwell brothers one particular night? Whatever it was, he seemed to shake the feeling off as he tossed a rope around the dock's post.

“Come on.” He climbed out with that deceptively easy grace and reached down to help her. “Let's have a look at the site of the infamous party.”

Her determination to come here suddenly seemed as foolish as looking at the rental house. “There won't be anything to see after forty years.”

“No, I suppose not.” He led the way off the dock and started up a path through the undergrowth. “Still, not much has changed. You'll be able to see what it was like.” He paused, nodding toward the dock. “That hasn't changed. Unless they came in something small enough to pull onto the beach, they tied up there.”

She tried to visualize it. Young people—kids, really—scrambling out of their boats with towels, blankets, hampers, intent on nothing more than a good time. Probably for her mother the excursion
had been even more exciting because she'd known her father wouldn't approve.

“Does your family come here often?” Did his father come back? That was what she really wanted to ask, but she couldn't quite.

Adam shrugged, and she suspected he knew what was in her mind. “In the olden days, the Caldwell clan summered here. Before air-conditioning everyone headed for the outer islands if they could.”

Her father's family had summered on Tybee Island, off Savannah. Those must have been happy times, but she could barely remember.

Adam brushed a gnat away from her face. “Let's go inside before you get bitten.” He led the way around a last clump of crepe myrtle. “Here's the cottage.”

She stopped next to him. It wasn't a cottage at all, not that she'd expected it to be. The long, two-story building, its gray shingles merging into the gray-green background of trees and Spanish moss, stretched out a welcoming porch to them.

“I guess from what Clayton said the house was here when they had the party.”

Adam nodded. “It's sat in that spot since the mid-1800s. Added onto and propped up now and then, but otherwise just the same. A summer haven for all the Caldwells. Uncle Clayton actually owns the island, but we all use it.”

Her imagination peopled the porch with a young version of her mother, the golden girl, and the two boys who'd loved her.

“Your uncle said Emily was in the kitchen. If
that's where she and your father talked, that must be where the dolphin was at the time.”

“Let's have a look.” The words sounded casual, but she could feel the tension in his hand as he touched her elbow to lead her up the steps. He unlocked the door and ushered her inside.

“You're welcome to look around the kitchen all you want.” He moved away from her quickly to throw open a shutter. “But there have been a few thousand meals cooked in there, probably, since that night. You won't find anything.”

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