Authors: Alison Ryan
By Alison Ryan
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2016 Alison Ryan
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Declan DeGraff was hungover.
It was the kind of hungover he hadn’t been since his fraternity days at the College of Charleston. And that had been almost a decade ago.
After graduating, he’d grown up a bit and only imbibed when in the presence of his business colleagues; to network and close deals. And it was always bourbon for him. Beer was for college kids and shrimpers. And he was no longer the former and never the latter.
Returning to Charleston, however, meant a return to old vices.
He stood up and immediately smashed his head against the ceiling above him. Right. He’d forgotten he was on his yacht. In a bunk. Naked.
He was really too old for this shit.
“Dec-laaaaaaan,” a faux high-pitched voice yelled down to him from the deck. “Get your drunk ass up. Your daddy is calling your phone.”
, Declan thought. His father was the last person he needed to hear from at the moment.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’,” Declan said, jumping down from the bunk, still naked. He noticed two slender girls were sleeping on the bottom, their legs intertwined and their breasts mashed against each other. One was a blonde and the other a red head. And he couldn’t for the life of him remember either of their names.
It didn’t matter. They’d be gone in a few minutes anyway.
His best friend Winston Ravenel handed him his buzzing iPhone.
“You look like shit,” he told Declan.
“Thanks,” Declan replied. “Can you get those girls dressed and out of here? I want to go to brunch. I need to eat.”
“Why can’t they come with?” Winston asked. Declan gave him a look and Winston dropped the subject.
Declan didn’t take women to brunch. He took them to bed.
Declan answered the phone, “Hey, Dad. Everything okay?”
“Where are you?” his father, Henry DeGraff, bellowed into the phone. “I’ve been texting and calling you all morning.”
“Well, I’m on the boat,” Declan said, trying to be patient. “Why? I told you, your nurse was coming in…”
“I just fired her,” Henry said. “She was incompetent.”
Declan was angry now, “Fired her? Today was her first day. You’ve fired every nurse we’ve hired in the last month. This is getting out of control. You will not fire her. I’m not dealing with this bullshit, okay? I have a life to live and handle and you’re making that very difficult.”
“Oh, so sorry Declan. Didn’t mean for my pancreatic-fucking-cancer to be such a burden on your life. You know, the one you still get to live? With all the money your family made for you.”
Declan sighed. They had this same exact conversation every damn day lately.
“May I remind you,” Declan said. “That our family money is now actually money
made. That our old, aristocratic money ran out and I went and made us more so you can have all the nurses and care and morphine in the world! Or is your memory going, too? Because if that’s the case, I can always put you in a home- “
.” His father said it every time. Before Declan would say something he regretted. It was one his father’s few mercies.
They were both silent.
Declan spoke more softly now, “Dad, I’m just asking that you give the nurse a chance. And if she’s that bad, I’ll get rid of her, okay? But we’re running out of nurses, Dad. Charleston isn’t a major metropolis.”
He heard his father relenting, “Okay, son. But I don’t have to like her.”
“Dad, you’ve never liked anyone. Why start now?”
They hung up.
Declan walked over to the side of the boat. It was docked in Charleston Harbor, right next to the Charleston Yacht Club, where he planned on having brunch in just a few moments.
He watched as the two leggy coeds disembarked and sashayed their way down the plank and onto the sidewalk that led to the stairs that went up to the parking lot. He noticed one of them had a magnificent ass and suddenly he remembered a little bit about last night, just enough to put him in a slightly better mood.
“Hair of the dog?” Winston asked, handing Declan a glass of Maker’s. “Thought it would help.”
“Always does,” Declan said, taking a long drink.
“Hey, another thing,” Winston said.
“Can you please put some pants on?”
Charlotte had been driving for two hours. She’d left Nashville that morning after a brief goodbye with her sister, Vanessa, punctuated by a promise to be back in a week, two weeks at the most.
She hated lying to her younger sibling.
“Why Charleston?” Vanessa asked. “You haven’t been back there since college. Right?” Vanessa leaned against Charlotte’s very sensible Volkswagen Passat, her hand shielding her freckled face from the Tennessee sun.
“Right,” Charlotte said, shoving the last of her suitcases into the back seat.
“So why go there now?” Vanessa asked. “It’s not about…”
Charlotte slammed the back door shut and started walking toward the other side of the car.
“What?” Charlotte said. “About who? Declan?”
It had been years since she’d spoken his name out loud to anyone.
“Yeah, I mean,” Vanessa couldn’t look her in the eye. “I just don’t know why else you’d go. That city
Charlotte sighed, “It was almost ten years ago, V. If I’m not over Declan yet, that would be pretty pathetic. Besides, I don’t think he lives there anymore. Another perk of going.”
“So you keep up with him?” Vanessa was smirking now.
“No,” Charlotte said, emphatic. “He was in the New York Times a couple months ago. When he sold his company. He’s now one of the youngest self-made billionaires in the country.”
Charlotte thought about the long-form interview on the front of the New York Times’ business section. She’d been in her office at the hospital, eating a bagel, turning the pages of the paper over to look for the style section when his face suddenly appeared and she’d almost choked. There was Declan DeGraff, all six-foot-three inches of handsome leaning against a sleek, black Range Rover, his arms crossed. He smiled at her from the photo almost as if to say, “Miss me?”
She’d thrown the paper across the room, but then picked it up and folded it, right through his picture, and hidden it in her desk the past few weeks. Whenever she was feeling out of sorts, or like one of her panic attacks was on the horizon, she’d peek into her desk and look at his knowing smile.
For some reason it could still comfort her. Despite the past.
“Declan DeGraff is a
now?” Vanessa guffawed. “Is he married?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Charlotte said. “But the interview said he lived in California. Probably with a harem for all I know. It doesn’t matter. He has nothing to do with why I’m going.”
Vanessa sighed, “I just don’t understand any of this. You worked so hard to become an obstetrician. You loved your job, you helped people. And now you’re suddenly referring your patients to other doctors and giving up all your plans to take some random trip to Charleston. I mean, are you okay? Is this about turning 30? Are you having a crisis?”
Charlotte laughed, “I’m not afraid of aging. You should know me better than that.”
“Then why?” Vanessa’s eyes were wide and on the verge of tears. “I’m your sister. We’ve never gone more than like four days without seeing each other. And Dad…”
“I have to do this for my own reasons,” Charlotte said. “One day you’ll understand.
“I doubt that,” Vanessa muttered under her breath. “This just isn’t you, Charlotte. You’re the one that stays. You’re steadfast and solid and this is completely out of character for you.”
Charlotte sighed, “I’m not a robot. I’m a person. And I need to find my way out of a thing. Okay? You trust me?”
Charlotte was in front of her sister now, her arms outstretched.
“I love you, Vanessa,” she said. “To the moon and back.”
Vanessa paused, still sore over what was happening. But she couldn’t resist a hug from the Sanders sister that wasn’t known for being the most warmly affectionate of the two of them.
Vanessa wrapped her slender arms around Charlotte’s shoulders, “To the moon and back.”
Just hearing Vanessa say Declan’s name out loud had shaken Charlotte up. Of the two huge ghosts in her life, he was the one still walking around, still alive, and the memory of him haunted her ever since the last time she saw him. But this wasn’t really the time to think about that. She had hundreds of miles in the car ahead of her. Nashville was a good eight and half hours from Charleston. It would be a long day.
She had been driving for two hours without the radio, lost in her thoughts from the past and her time with the only man she’d ever loved. As much as she wanted to protest that she hadn’t considered him when planning this trip, she couldn’t. Vanessa was right. Declan
And the DeGraffs were Charleston royalty. With Declan the sole heir.
But, in truth, Charleston was so much more than any of them. Or all of them.
Charlotte had always been drawn to the Holy City. She, Vanessa, and their parents had vacationed there when she was young, always renting the same house on Folly Beach. They’d get up early and go to the pier every day and watch the sun rise together. Eat crab legs and all you can eat shrimp at The Crab Shack. Her mother would take the girls downtown to King Street and they’d wander in and out of shops while eating large Styrofoam cups full of Italian Ice that they’d buy from a vendor on the corner. It was so hot that the ice would turn into “sugar soup” as her mother called it, before they could even finish it all.
The city represented both the best times of her life and the worst.
When Charlotte was thirteen years old, they’d come to Folly Beach later in the summer than usual, in August, right before school was starting up. The high season was over by then and their rental was a little cheaper.
On their first night there, Charlotte’s mother said she needed to go to the store.
“I have such a headache,” she’d said. “And I forgot to pack Tylenol. Your daddy is sleeping the drive off so I’m going to slip out and pick some up. I’ll be gone just a few. Charlotte, do you want to go with me?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes, “Uh, no thanks. Vanessa just painted my nails. I want them to dry.”
“Okay, baby,” her mother said, kissing her on the forehead. “You stay here and dry those little toes of yours. I love you. See you soon.”
Charlotte thought about that conversation all the time. At least once a week. She thought about how if she’d only said yes and taken her time to put her shoes on, or grab her purse, or really add any time to her mother’s journey, the whole tragedy could have been prevented.
The sudden, tragic things are often determined by chance and seconds of time.
Her mother had left to go to the store and had not returned. On her way back she’d been t-boned at a stop light, waiting to turn onto the road that led to their cottage.
The driver who hit her had fled the scene.
Charlotte remembered someone telling her that her mother had felt no pain. That the accident had taken her instantly. It was what was told to comfort her and her father, who had been destroyed by the news, and angry that she’d gone alone at night to the store. Her mother’s entire life was lived just to end over a tension headache.
“You should have woken me up!” he yelled at Charlotte that terrible night.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Charlotte tearfully said.
“Daddy, it’s not her fault,” Vanessa defended her sister. “Mom was a grown woman. It was a horrible accident.”
But what was said couldn’t be unsaid.
Her father never again set foot in Charleston, or even in the state of South Carolina. And when Charlotte decided to go to College of Charleston he’d been angry and confused.
“Why would you want to go to college there?” he’d said. “After what we lost in that damn town? How can you go back?”
Charlotte could never have explained it. But for her Charleston was the great ellipsis of her life. In a way she would always feel that was where her mother still was, trapped in a time and place where things had been good and right with the world.
She could also never have been able to describe it, but Charlotte was drawn to it. Like an invisible force was beckoning her back. For reasons unknown to her then, something was waiting for her in Charleston.
Charlotte shook away the memory as she drove down I-26. She turned on the radio and switched through a million gospel and country stations until she gave up and threw in a Ray Lamontagne CD.
His soulful voice filled the inside of her car and for a moment Charlotte allowed herself to forget about what had happened years ago and stop worrying about the future. For now, it was just her and the music, and her trying her best to hang on to the present and forget the past.