Authors: Kelli Estes
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Copyright © 2015 by Kelli Estes
Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Kathleen Lynch/Black Kat Design
Cover images © One hundred birds with a Phoenix, Canton, Republic Period (1912–49) (hand embroidery), Chinese School (20th century)/Allans of Duke Street, London, UK/Bridgeman Images; Dawn Bowery/Arcangel Images; Mark Owen/Arcangel Images
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The girl who wrote in silk / Kelli Estes.
(pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Chinese American women—Fiction. 2. Chinese Americans—Fiction. 3. Immigrants—United States—Fiction. 4. Family life—Fiction. I. Title.
For my husband, Chad.
Without you, I wouldn’t be me.
Sunday, February 7, 1886—just past sunset
Puget Sound, Washington Territory
Mei Lien felt the steamship shudder beneath her feet and wondered if the quaking of her own body had caused it.
“You don’t have a choice,” Father hissed. Before she knew what was happening, he’d prodded her to the ship’s cold metal railing. “Climb up, Mei Lien.”
She looked at him in horror. She’d always obeyed him without question. But this? “I can’t.” She pressed a hand to where her heart pounded in her chest and felt the coin purse under her bindings. “Please!”
His face hardened. “Do not disappoint me, Daughter. Do it. Now!”
His tone made her fear recede long enough for her to hear her own voice of reason. It told her Father was right. She had no other choice.
Shaking, she climbed up on the railing to sit at the top, her hands holding tight to the wet metal bar. Beneath her right palm, she felt a pockmark where someone had painted over an old chip. She wondered if that was the last thing she’d touch before death.
Before Mei Lien could say another word, Father placed his palms at the small of her back and pushed her off the steamship.
” she screamed, the words echoing as she fell. Her breath left her as she hit the bitterly cold water. Icy fingers dragged her into the void below.
Somehow she found the strength to fight. Kicking and clawing at the water, she dragged herself upward, her lungs on fire.
As her head broke through the surface, she dragged in lungfuls of air between racking coughs. When she managed to wipe the water from her eyes with her fingers, she saw the ship passing dangerously close. Father stood at the railing but his back was to her, as if he hadn’t just cruelly pushed his only child to what could be her death.
A wave splashed over her face, and she felt herself sinking again. This time her limbs felt stiff and her muscles were starting to cramp in the near-freezing water. Instinct took over, making her feet kick as she dragged her body away from the ship with her arms, as Father had taught her all those years ago. She shut off her mind and swam, with no idea of what she might be heading toward.
Mei Lien’s head pounded from the cold. With each kick, her limbs ached to rest, to give in to the pull from below that promised ease and warmth.
She looked one last time toward the ship, but it was little more than a distant blur of light growing smaller.
Her family was gone from her. Her life was gone from her. If she gave in to the pull of the water, what would it matter?
She stopped trying to fight and let herself fall into the water’s frigid grasp, willing it to carry her to the spirit world. She even saw death coming. It rose out of the water as a huge, black sea monster, one glaring yellow eye boring into her aching head. Just as the monster grabbed her, she felt the void take over her mind.
She welcomed it.
Sunday, May 27—present day
San Juan Islands, Washington
Inara Erickson stood at the ferry’s side rail with her sister and watched as the wake from their ship splashed against Decatur Island as they passed. A blast of cold air wrapped around her, filling her nose with hints of sunbaked cedar, damp moss, and tangy salt. Immediately her mind took her ahead in her journey, to the family estate and all she’d left behind there years before.
She wasn’t ready to face the memories yet, so she pushed them away and, in an attempt to ignore the shaky, melting feeling in her core, turned her attention to her older sister, Olivia. “Liv, are you warm enough? We can go inside if you want. Get a cup of coffee.”
The wind tugged a strand of long blond hair from Olivia’s bun. She tucked it behind her ear and lifted her face to the unseasonable sun shining down on them. “God, no, this is heaven.” Despite her words, she pulled her jacket tighter around herself and hunched her shoulders against the biting cold air off the water.
“Thanks for coming with me today. You sure Adam’s okay with the kids?”
Olivia opened her eyes and shot Inara a glance that told her she wasn’t worrying about her family today. “They’re fine. I’m happy you asked me to come with you. I can’t believe it’s been nine years since we’ve been there.”
Inara nodded and watched as a pod of porpoises raced alongside the ferry, their black bodies arching in and out of the sun-splashed waves. “I should have come to see Aunt Dahlia before she died, but…” She shrugged, at a loss for the right words. “I don’t know. It was too hard, I guess.”
At that, Olivia put her arm around Inara’s shoulders and squeezed. “Me too… It was easier to move forward.”
Inara swallowed and would have said more, but a rowdy group of kids burst out of the ferry’s side door. One of them, a boy about ten years old, pointed to a porpoise and exclaimed, “Look! A killer whale!”
Inara grinned with her sister. As kids, when they’d come to Orcas Island every summer, they’d feel so superior about their knowledge of the islands’ flora and fauna. They’d laugh at all the tourists, like these kids, who expected to see orca whales along the ferry route. The locals knew the whales tended to stay west of San Juan Island in Haro Strait.
“Those sure are small whales.” A shorter, female version of the boy put her fists on her hips. “Are you sure that’s a killer whale?”
Her brother scoffed as only brothers can do. “I’m not stupid.”
Just then Olivia nudged Inara’s elbow and pointed to a channel marker where a fat harbor seal rested on the rusting metal.
It was like time had not passed here at all, Inara realized. Just as the ferry slipped between the islands, she was slipping into the life she’d left behind—and that felt surprisingly comfortable. The only difference was that today she counted her sister as a friend, while years ago, they couldn’t quite bridge the eight-year age gap between them.
Inara’s cell phone buzzed in her jacket, and she pulled it out to answer the call, thankful the kids were moving to the front of the boat, leaving the side deck quiet. “It’s Nate,” she told Olivia before putting the phone to her ear. “Hey, big brother, guess where Liv and I are right now.”
“No, closer.” She had to shout over the noise of the ferry’s engines.
“No. We’re on the ferry to Orcas.”
Silence. Then Nate cleared his throat. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she answered, even though she wasn’t sure that was true. Leave it to Nate to understand how hard it was for her to come back here for the first time. “Olivia is keeping me distracted.”
“Good. Hey, I’ve got a question for both of you. I’m here with Dad, and we’re nailing down a date for our dedication of the Duncan Campbell Memorial Park. Since the mayor will be out of town the week before, we’re thinking October sixth. Does that work for you?”
Duncan Campbell was their great-great-great-grandfather on their mother’s side of the family, and the man who had single-handedly launched the maritime trade industry in Seattle. He’d emigrated from Scotland in the late 1800s to what had been little more than a muddy logging town and built an international shipping company from practically nothing. Because of him, Seattle was known as a major port for trade. If not for Duncan Campbell, Seattle might never have been put on the map and Seattleites knew it, having named buildings after him and devoted a whole section to him at the Museum of History and Industry. His success had allowed Duncan to build the family’s island estate, Rothesay, named after his hometown in Scotland.
“Is this when Duncan’s statue will be revealed?” she asked. A year before, her dad had commissioned a bronze sculpture for prominent placement in the new public park the company was building on the waterfront near the cruise terminal. Inara’s dad ran the company Duncan founded, Premier Maritime Group, or PMG as it was known, after taking over from her mother’s father more than a decade ago. He’d had great success of his own since expanding the company to include cruise lines serving Alaska, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
“Yes. So, the sixth?”
“Hang on.” She moved her phone away from her ear to pull up her schedule and fill in Olivia on the plans. Olivia nodded. “We’re both good with the sixth,” Inara told her brother.
A loud beep sounded over the ferry speakers, followed by the announcement that passengers disembarking on Orcas Island should return to their vehicles.
“I gotta go,” Inara told Nate, turning with Olivia toward the door that led inside.
“Wait. Dad wants to know if you want him to call his real estate agent and get the paperwork going.”
Inara smiled to herself. “Tell him I’ve got it handled, but thanks.” Her dad made no secret of his relief that she was selling the estate that none of them wanted.
“Good luck today. Let me know how it goes.”
“I will.” She hung up, and she and Olivia made their way down the green metal stairs to the car deck and the old BMW she’d owned since graduating from high school. Through the windshield she watched Orcas Island draw nearer, her heart beating faster with each passing second. Sweat pooled between her breasts.
At fifty-seven total square miles, Orcas was the largest of the islands in the San Juan archipelago in the northwest corner of Washington State, though not the most populated, at only five thousand year-round residents. The ferry dock at Orcas Village was at the bottom of the left arm of the horseshoe-shaped island that bent around the body of water called East Sound. This meant Inara would have to drive up through the bend, where the town of Eastsound—named after the water—was located, and then a quarter of the distance down the right arm to get to Rothesay. On that drive, she’d pass the accident site.
This was a mistake. She should have arranged for someone else to come and inspect the property and box up her Aunt Dahlia’s ninety-seven years’ worth of personal possessions. With one phone call Inara could have had a real estate agent on the job, and she’d be home in Seattle, at peace today. She had enough going on, what with her new job starting in a couple of weeks.
Olivia must have seen her panic. “Inara, it’s okay. I’m here and we’ll face this together. Don’t be scared.”
Inara felt like a kid about to get a vaccination on Olivia’s exam table, but she had to admit that the soothing voice helped. She looked at her sister. “Aren’t you freaked out at all? You haven’t been back either.”
Olivia nodded. “A little.” She looked out the front window as the brake lights on the car in front of them came on, indicating it was time to turn their own car on and drive off the ferry. “Tell me about your new job. Fresh out of grad school in March and about to start a career with Starbucks. I bet you’re excited, huh?”
Inara went along with her sister’s ploy to distract her as she carefully maneuvered off the ferry and onto the island. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll be on the global supply chain operations team. Did I tell you they might send me to Italy within the first three months?”
“So why do you only ‘guess’ you’re excited?”
Of course her sister had caught her slip. Inara shot Olivia a look of frustration, then gave in and admitted, “I know it’s a great opportunity, and Dad is so proud of me for getting it and all…” She struggled to find the right words. “I’m just not sure it’s the right job for me.”
“So do it for a few years, then find something else. Dad will understand.”
“Yeah,” Inara agreed, not so sure. As they continued chatting about the job, Inara found herself distracted by memories.
Orcas Road looked exactly as it always had, with sunshine spearing through the trees, leaving dappled shadows flickering on her windshield. Through the forest she spied occasional glimpses of beach shacks tucked beside million-dollar mansions. Dirt driveways were often the only indicator of a dwelling behind the trees. She rolled down the window and drew in the scent that her mind had forgotten but her soul had held on to—sun-warmed dirt, blooming blackberry bushes, briny salt water. As she breathed it in, she felt something inside of her shift, like a puzzle piece sliding into its niche.
She was still breathing deeply when she crested the rise and came upon the corner where their mom had been killed. The moment she saw it, every bit of air in her lungs was sucked out, leaving her gasping.
“Just keep going,” Olivia murmured. “You’re okay.”
Inara had been fifteen when their mother died in a car accident on this corner. The police said there must have been something on the road, like a deer or raccoon, and that her mom had swerved to avoid it and lost control. But Inara knew her mom was a hypervigilant driver who never would have lost control of her car if she hadn’t already been upset and distracted by the argument she and Inara had just had.
Olivia didn’t understand. Not fully. She’d been twenty-three, already married, and doing her residency when it had happened. She hadn’t been at Rothesay when the local sheriff had pulled in with lights flashing and a rain-soaked hat held to his chest in sympathy.
Inara slowed down, way below the forty-mile-an-hour speed limit, and focused on breathing while trying to avoid looking at anything but the pavement in front of her.
But then her gaze darted to the side of the road.
No sign of trauma remained on the huge cedar. Blackberry vines and wildflowers grew abundant and pristine, as though nothing bad had ever happened here. As though a car hadn’t slammed into the tree, flinging her mother’s mangled body against the rough bark.
Someone behind her honked, and she realized she’d come to a complete stop in the middle of the road. Flustered, she lifted her hand in a wave of apology and carefully navigated around the corner, picking up speed. A black SUV tore around her and sped away. Her fingers cramped on the steering wheel.
“Maybe you should pull over.”
Without answering, Inara did as her sister suggested, easing to a stop at the next gravel pullout. Then she closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. After that horrible day, she’d gone back to Seattle with her dad and tried to be a normal teenager, but everything had changed. Normal teenagers didn’t cause their mothers’ deaths.
Nate too had been off at college, leaving just Inara and her dad at home, two ships with broken propellers drifting on the currents of life, unable to find their way to shore. So she’d lashed herself to her dad and his dreams for her. After high school she’d plunged into pursuing a business degree to make him happy, even though she would rather have done something else, like anthropology or history.
“I know it’s hard, but you’ve made it this far.” Olivia was rubbing Inara’s back and speaking softly, like she did to her three-year-old daughter after a meltdown. “Want me to drive?”
It helped, Inara realized. Her sister’s voice gave her something to grab on to so she could pull herself from the abyss she might have sunk into if she’d been here alone. She took one more deep breath, then lifted her gaze out the windshield, relieved to find the road no longer seemed impassable. She could keep going. She’d come this far, as Liv had said, and she would continue, not because she had inherited a house she had to deal with, but because it was time to face her past and move forward. “I’m okay now.”
She guided her car back onto the road and glanced one last time at the corner in her rearview mirror before resolutely focusing forward.
Forward was Rothesay. And forward was making all the necessary decisions about the crumbling estate that Dahlia had left to her. Inara had been so surprised at the reading of the will, and yet it kind of made sense. Although Dahlia was really her mother’s great-aunt, Inara and Dahlia seemed more closely related. Of the three siblings in their generation, Inara had been the one who’d loved the island the most and the one who’d spent every waking moment with Dahlia. But what didn’t make sense was the next part of the will, Dahlia’s expressed wishes that the estate be converted to a bed-and-breakfast so that Rothesay would once again be filled with joy and life.
Really? A bed-and-breakfast? Of course she wanted to give Dahlia her final wish, but Inara had her own career to launch now that she finally had her master’s degree. She was sure Dahlia would understand that she needed the proceeds from the sale of the property to pay off student loans much more than she needed to run a bed-and-breakfast to satisfy someone else’s dream. The first payment on those loans was due in September. Only a few months away.
Too bad she couldn’t keep the estate to use as a vacation home like her family had done during her childhood. Dahlia had lived there year-round with her partner, Nancy, and had offered full use of the manor and grounds to the entire family, just as her parents and grandparents had done before her. It was where they’d all gathered for holidays and where Inara and her siblings had spent every summer while their parents worked in Seattle. Her mom had always taken the month of July off to spend with them on the island, and most weekends too. When she arrived every Friday night, they’d all gather on the beach around a bonfire.
Keeping Rothesay as a family vacation home made sense, but a bed-and-breakfast? Crazy.