AUTHOR’SNOTE This book isawork offictionbyBriaMarche.Names,characters,places,and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used solely for entertainment. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is
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LifesailsalongsmoothlyonbeautifulSt.ThomasforAbbyMelroseBellavance, or so she thinks. That is, until her husband Remy steals her trust fund and disappears for parts unknown. Now, with five million reasons to write off men forgood,shereturnstoCharleston,brokeandgrovelingathermother’sfeet. Living again in the opulent mansion on South Battery, Abby is thrown another curve ball. Her mother passes away, leaving Abby with an enormous homebutnomoneytosupportit. Turning the mansion into a boardinghouse has its advantage—immediate cash—anddisadvantage—twoofthehottestmeninCharlestonarenowAbby’s tenants. Abbywantsloveagain,especiallywithhunkyErik,thehandyman,andsexy Brandon, the prominent attorney, living in the mansion with her. They are so different,yetthey’resimilarinonewaysheneedstoavoid—theyaremen,and sheshouldkeepherdistance. As the southern summer blazes on, Abby’s life becomes even more complicated. Personal secrets are revealed, and fate deals her one final blow. Shewondersifshewilleverbegivenasecondchanceatfallinginlove.
ChapterOne Sleepeludedheragainasithadeverynightforthepastweek.Abbylayinthe dark, her piercing blue eyes fixated on the shadowy image of the spinning ceilingfan.Shehopedstaringateachrotatingbladewouldhelpherdozeoffas countingsheepdid—butitdidn’t.Remywasinherthoughtsandinthepitofher stomach.Evenafterallhe’ddone,hestillhadafirmgriponherheart. “Ihateyou…Ihateyou…Iloveyou.Whereareyou,andwhydidyoudo thistome?” Tearsdampenedthesatinpillowcaseundertheunrulycoilsofblackhairshe had worn since she was a toddler. Anger and heartache had begun to feel the sametoher.Shetossedthelightweightblankettothesideofherbedandrose.In thedarkenedroom,shefeltforherrobeatthefootofthebedandslippediton. The balcony’s sliding doors were only steps away, where she’d find fresh air, whereshecouldsitandthink.Thesoundofcrashingwavesinthedistanceused tosootheherbutnotanymore.Theonlycalmshefoundcamefromabottleof anti-anxietypillsinthemedicinecabinet. Chimessoundedfromanantiquegrandfatherclockinthefoyer.Shecounted thestrikesinherhead—sixo’clock,andthesunwouldsoonrise.Theautomatic brewsettingonthe coffeemakerwouldhavefourcupsofsteamingColombian roastwaitingforherwhenshewentdownstairs. She opened the double doors to the walk-in closet, accustomed to dressing nicely for Remy—something instilled in her by her mother—then reminded herselfhewasgone.Apairofshorts,aT-shirt,andflip-flopswasallsheneeded anymore.Withacupofcoffee inhandandtwentyminutesbeforesunrise,she walked out with a beach towel slung over her shoulder and locked the door behindher.Apathcarvedthroughthedensecanopywouldendatthesugarsand beach,whereshecouldsit,watchthesunrise,andcry. The sky lightened gradually until a burst of brilliance hit the horizon and began its ascent. The glowing orange ball cast rays upward and outward, illuminatingtheCaribbean,makingthewaterdanceandshimmer.Black-headed laughing gulls scurried about on the beach, looking for an early morning delectable morsel. She was sure by the sound of their call, they were indeed laughing at her foolishness, for putting her trust in someone like Remy Bellavance. ThereonthebeachatMagensBay,shespreadouthertowelandsat.Other
thanthesoundofthegullsandthewavescrashingagainsttherockstoherleft, the beach was silent. The tourists never showed up before ten o’clock, and by then,she’dbehomecontemplatingherfuture. “Abby?” Shespunaround,startledbythesoundofavoicesoearlyinthemorning.He stoodtoherrightwithabeachrakeinhishand.Abigailshieldedhereyeswith herhand,blockingthemorningsun. “Hi,John.Whatbringsyououtthisearly?Thebarcouldn’tpossiblybeopen yet,couldit?”Shewipedhertear-stainedcheeks,hopinghewouldn’tnotice. “Naw… it’s Monday. The cruise ships are coming in. Gotta rake the beach andgetthekayaksandsailboardssetup.I’vegottostockthebar,too.Thereal questionis,whyareyououthere?It’sbarelydaylight.Doesn’tRemythinkit’s weirdthatyou’dbeherealonethisearly?Whydidn’thecomewithyou?” “Remy left, almost a week ago today. I’ve been coming out here every morningbeforesunupto clearmyhead.Thequiethelpsmostofthetime.I’m usuallybackhomebyseventhirty.” “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but as long as I’m here…” He gave her a raised-eyebrowstare,concernetchedinhisforeheadashesatonthesandnextto her. With a small branch from a turpentine tree gripped tightly in her hand, Abigaildrewaninfinitycircleinthesandastheytalked.Drawingthatcirclewas ahabitsheandRemyhadshared.Thethoughtmadeherkickthecirclewithher foot,lettingthetidereclaimtheimage. “Whatdoyoumean,Remyleft?IshesettingupgigsfortheIslandGuys?I hearthetouristsliketheirmusic.Didn’ttheyplayatBeachTimeonSt.Johna fewweeksago?” “Yeah,theydid.Ishouldgetgoing.I’vegotalotofplanningtodo.” “Planningforwhat?Comeonuptothebar.I’llmakeapotofcoffee.” “Ithoughtyouwerebusy.Ican’ttieupyourmorningwithmyproblems.” “Whatarefriendsfor?Itseemslikeyouneedtogetsomethingoffyourchest. I’llgiveyouthirtyminutes,”hejoked.“Afterthat,we’llhavetomeetatsome clandestinelocationwhenIgetoffworktotalkfurther.” AbbybecameacquaintedwithJohnaftershemovedtoSt.Thomaseighteen monthsagoandmarriedRemy.ANebraskatransplant,JohnRichmondhadbeen livingontheislandforfifteenyearsandhadinsideinformationabouteverything that went on throughout the islands. He gave her a heads-up when he heard about a beautiful two-bedroom bungalow up for sale and located just minutes fromMagensBaybeach.Abbycontactedtheownersbeforetheylistedthehouse andboughtitfromthemdirectly.
Shesatatthebaronawell-wornrattanstoolandcozieduptotherail.John pouredtwocupsofcoffeeandhandedherone. “Okay,spill.What’sgoingonbetweenyouandRemy?” “Remyisyourfriend.Doyoureallywanttogetinvolved?” “Idon’thavetobeinvolvedtolisten.”Hesetoutthecreamandsugarthen camearoundthebartositonthestooltoherright. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning. You know me only as Abby Bellavance, Remy’s wife. I met Remy on a vacation two years ago in CharlotteAmalie.TheIslandGuyswereplayingattheFatTurtlethatnight.Of course, Remy was doing his thing, handing out free drink vouchers to all the tourists gettingoffthecruiseships—mebeing oneofthem. Heprobably gota kickbackfromthebartobringthecrowdsin.Iwasdrawntohimlikeamothto light, with his enormous smile, dark golden skin, and those crazy dreadlocks.” Shelaughedinhindsightastearspooledinhereyes.“Idon’twanttodragthis explanation out, but the bottom line is, Remy emptied out the bank account, liquidated all my stocks, and sold the house and furnishings. I didn’t know anything was going on until I got a knock on my door last week from a contractorsayingthenewownerswantedanestimatetoenlargethebalcony.Can youimaginemysurprisewhenIheardthat?Mysuspicionswereright.Ichecked thebankaccountandmystocks,andtheywerecleanedout…vanished,justlike Remy.” “He’s a native, Abby, and quite the player. Women never could resist him, and he took advantage of that constantly. In the past, women have paid for everythingandanythinghewanted.Remyhasacertaincharisma,charmifyou will,thatworkswellforhim.Goodlooksdon’thurteither.There’vebeenplenty ofladiesinhislifethathavecomeandgone,probablybecausehetookthemfor everythingtheyhad.Heworethatabilitylikeabadgeofhonor.Ireallythought he’dchangedwhenheaskedyoutomarryhimthough.That’sabigstepforhim, toactuallycommittosomeone.” “Maybe the other women were filler until his ship came in… literally. The shipthatwouldmakeRemyarichmanjusthappenedtobetheoneIwason.I doubtithadanythingtodowithcommitment,butithadeverythingtodowith mylastname.” “Whichwas?” “Melrose. A common name unless you do the research. I’m sure Remy did aftermeetingmymomandseeingourhomeinthenicestareaofCharleston.My dadbuilthiscomputerprocessorbusinessfromthegroundup.Iknowitdoesn’t soundsexy,buthegotinattherighttimeandmadeafortune.Itwasnewmoney, andheearneditallonhisown.Myfamilywasjustthethreeofus—mydad,my
mom,andme—butmydadwaskilledinNewYorkafewyearsagoinarandom mugging.” “I’msosorry,Abby.Thatmusthavebeenheartbreaking.” Shetracedtheoutlineofhercoffeemugandgaveawistfulshrug.“Nowit’s justmymomandme,unlessshe’salreadydisownedme.Inhindsight,Iwouldn’t blameherifshedid.Shewasveryprotective,especiallyaftermydaddied,and Remysentupeveryredflagpossible.Momthreatenedtocutmeoutofthewill ifImarriedhim,whichofcourseIdidtospiteher.Iwasasmart-assthenand calledherbluff,yetIhavenoideaifshewasactuallybluffingornot.AllIdo know is the five million dollars I received from my trust fund when I turned twenty-fiveiscompletelygone.Obviously,MomreadRemyandhisintentions muchbetterthanIdid.I’mgoinghometoseeifIcanfixthingswithher.She hasn’tspokentomesinceIgotmarried.Ineedtofindajobandtrytogetonmy feet, unless my mom reconsiders and welcomes me back into the fold.” Abby smiledwearilyandsippedhertepidcoffee. “Needawarm-up?”Johnaskedashereachedforthepot. “Sure,thanks,butIthinkmythirtyminutesisup.Anyway,Ihavetobeoutof thehouseintwoweeks.IhaveaprivateinvestigatorlookingforRemyandmy money,butwhoknowsifanythingwilleverturnup.He’sprobablydrinkinga piña colada on some remote island that doesn’t have extradition laws with the UnitedStates.Whydidn’tIlistentomymomwhensheinsistedIgetaprenup?” “Itsoundslikeyouwerebuttingheadswithherandtryingtoliveyourown life,especiallywithfivemillionbucksinyourpocket.Haveyoueverworked? Whatwillyoudotosupportyourselfifyoutwocan’tmakeamends?” “Well,IdidworkbeforeIgotmarriedjustsoIwouldn’tseemlikeadeadbeat daughter. Actually, I had my master’s degree and interned as a relationship counselor.Whatajoke,right?Onlyreallifecanbethatironic.It’simpossibleto makeupstufflikethat.” “Let’stalksomemorebeforeyougo.I’mreallysorrythishappened,andI’m sorry Remy did this to you. He’s your husband, so I don’t know if he actually committed a crime or not, but I think he did. Someday, karma will come back and bite him in the butt. The world has a way of righting itself, and I hope everything eventually turns out right for you. You’re a great person, and you didn’t deserve this. Stop by for coffee before the crowds show up in the mornings.I’malwaysherebynineo’clock.” “Thanks. I guess I needed to get that off my chest. I’ll stop by later this week.” Abby shook the sand out of the towel and draped it over her forearm. She waved goodbye and followed the path through the mahogany and turpentine
ChapterTwo Thankfulthatshehadafewthousanddollarsstashedinthebackofhercloset, Abbycheckedtheairlineschedulesandfaresandpreparedtoleavetheparadise she had known for two years and return to her home and the familiarity of Charleston,SouthCarolina.ThecheapestflightshefoundleftonaThursdayand hadtwoconnections.Shetappedthe“buynow”buttononthescreenandclosed herlaptop.Withafreshcupofcoffee,shesatonthebalconywithapadofpaper inhandandapenlodgedaboveherleftear.Remywasgoneforgood.Itwasn’ta joke, he wouldn’t return, and it was time to start that to-do list. In two weeks, beautifulSt.ThomasandtheturquoiseCaribbeanwouldbehistory. The ringing cell phone brought Abby out of her deep concentration. The callerwasMelanieDavis,Abby’sdearestfriendsincechildhood. DoIfeelliketalkingtoMelrightnowornot?Notwantingthedramabutstill needingherbestfriend,Abbypickedup.“Hi,Mel.What’sup?”Shestaredout throughthetreecanopytoseetheglorious,vibrantseabeforeher.Tearssprung tohereyesassheheardMel’sfamiliarvoice. “Hey,Abby.Howareyoudoing?” “Youknow.Samething,differentday.” “I think it would be a good idea if I flew down and helped you pack up everythingyou’rebringinghome.Whatdoyousay?” “Idon’tthinkthat’snecessary.AllIhavearemyclothesandafewpersonal belongings. I’m going to box everything up this week and ship it back home. Haveyouseenmymomrecently?” “IsawherlastFridaynightattheartwalkonBroadStreet.Shemadesmall talk with me, probably because there was a crowd. She didn’t look too happy. Haveyouheardfromhersinceyoutoldherwhathappened?” “No, not a peep. After the scolding and the ‘I told you sos,’ she’s been keeping herself pretty scarce. I think she wants me to grovel. Unfortunately, that’sexactlywhatI’llhavetodountilIgetonmyfeet.Thiswasreallyarude awakening.Ijustwishitwasayearfromnowandallofthiswasbehindme.I guessI’llfindoutwhereIstandafterIgethome.” Thelistoffriendsandacquaintancestosaygoodbyetowasshort.Itseemed as though Abby had spent the last year and a half keeping Remy happy and being his wife instead of making friends of her own. Most of the people she knewwerethroughRemyandtheIslandGuys.Johnseemedliketheonlyperson
thatwasn’toneoftheirgroupies. ThenewsofRemy’sbetrayalhadspreadthroughtheislandlikethemorning sun.Abbywantedtogetawayfromthehumiliationassoonaspossible.Today, herintentionsweretotieuplooseends,saygoodbyetoanyoneshecaredabout, and reconnect with her mom before the flight out tomorrow morning. With a shortstopinPuertoRicoandatwo-hourlayoverinMiami,she’dhaveplentyof timetoregroupandcalmdownbeforearrivinginCharleston.Melanieofferedto pick her up at the airport and take her home. Abby would enter through the wrought-iron gates of the pink Italianate mansion on South Battery. Charlotte Melrose,andAbby’sfate,wouldbewaitingontheothersideofthedoor. *** Her seat was near the tail of the airplane, a bumpy, noisy area next to the lavatories, and since the seat didn’t recline, she would be sitting in a very uncomfortable,uprightpositionuntiltheyreachedPuertoRico. Life may be a lot different going forward. No more first class, at least for now, she thought as the plane lifted skyward. She looked out the window and stared down at the island she was leaving, the place she had called home for nearlytwoyears.Shewonderedifshewouldeverreturn.Wouldthememoriesof Remyruinanyhappinessofafuturevisit,orcouldsheseparatethetwo?Didshe even dare to imagine being there again, sometime down the road, with a man thatreallylovedher?Iguesstimewilltell.Fornow,goodbye,St.Thomas.I’ll missyou. Abbytookadvantageofthetwo-and-a-half-hourflightbetweenSanJuanand Miami to catch a nap. She would be too amped up to rest on the flight to Charleston. “Goodmorning,ladiesandgentlemen.Thisisthecaptainspeaking.We’llbe landing in Charleston right at the noon hour. The weather is a balmy eighty degrees with light winds and good visibility. Please return your seats to the upright position and lock your tray tables. The flight attendants will be by to collectanylast-minuteitemsyouwanttodiscard.Thankyou,andhaveagreat afternoon.We’llbeonthegroundintwentyminutes.” Ishouldhaveorderedastiffdrink,shethought.Herheartwaspoundingatan alarmingrateattherealizationshewasabouttobebackinCharleston.I’ll ask Melanie to stop somewhere before we get home. I definitely need a drink… or two. ThereMelaniestood,wearingthathugesmileshewasknownforandwaving asAbbywalkeduptheconcoursetowardher.Melaniewashappy,carefree,and
vibrant—the woman Abby had always wanted to be like. She lived life on her owntermsandsaidtohellwithanyonewhotriedtochangeanythingabouther. A single woman not looking for anyone to complete her, Mel was the most upbeat, positive person Abby knew. People gravitated toward her. Abby was certainMelwasself-medicatingtoalwaysbeinthatgoodamood. “Thereyouare!I’msohappyyou’rehome,safeandsound.We’regoingto getyoubackontrack,justlikethat.”Melaniesnappedherfingerstoemphasize howquicklyAbby’slifewouldbebacktonormal.“Considerthelasttwoyears asnothingmorethanasmallspeedbumpinyourjourneythroughtime.It’sall good.Let’sgetyourluggageandgohome.”Melaniegrabbedthebackpackoff Abby’s shoulder and slung it across her back. She air-kissed Abby’s cheeks, Europeanstyle,andtookherbythehandbeforeleadingherdowntheescalator towardbaggageclaim. “I’mgladthere’sonepersonthat’shappyI’mback.Ican’tsayIamsinceI’m scaredtodeath,andmymomwon’tanswerthephone.IhavenoideawhatI’m goingtowalkinto.You’recomingintohelpbreaktheice,right?”Theconveyor belt started, and Abby watched each piece of luggage drop onto the carousel. Hereyesscannedthemultitudeofsuitcasesasshelookedforthemonogrammed leatherLouisVuittonduffelbagshewassofondof. “Sure,if youthinkitwillhelp.I wouldn’twanttobethatpoor soulonthe wrongsideofyourmom…she’skindofscary.” “Yathink?Iknowonethingforsure,”Abbysaidwhilestrugglingtograbthe leatherhandlesoftheheavyduffelbagandpullitoffthebelt. “We’restoppingsomewhereforadrinkfirst?” “You’vegotthatright.HowaboutCrabby’sShackonKingStreet?” Melanieparkedher2011ToyotaCamryalongthecurb,andtheyenteredthe darkenedestablishmentthathadbeentheirgo-toplacesincetheyturnedtwentyone. The food was great, and Louis Dillard wasn’t too bad either. He was gorgeouswithacapitalG,buthappilymarried.Louisdidmakethebestcocktails in Charleston though. Strong yet smooth, just like him. He was co-owner of Crabby’sandagoodfriendtoanyonepassingthroughthelouveredfrontdoors. The girls grabbed vinyl barstools and sat, waiting for him to notice Abby Melrosewasbackintown. “Abby,Ican’tbelieveyou’rehome!Areyoustayingforgoodthistime?” “Itkindoflooksthatway.Howhaveyoubeen,Louis?”Shereachedforthe drinkmenu,knowingsheneededsomethingstrong. “I’mgreat.We’reexpectingourfirstbabyinamonth.It’sgoingtobeagirl, andDianaismorethanstoked.Prettyexcitingstuff,right?” ThesincerityinhisvoicewarmedAbby’sheart.Shewashappyforhim.She
tookinadeepbreathandletitoutslowly.“That’ssocool.Congrats.I’llhavea GypsyGirl,andmakeitstrong.” “I’llhavethesamebutweak.I’mdriving.” “Mel, it’s thirteen blocks to my house from here. That’s less than seven minutes by car,” Abby said, laughing at Melanie’s responsible yet fun-loving nature. “Well, whatever… the streets are always full of tourists darting around. I wouldn’twanttohitanyonebecauseIwaswasted.” “Really,ononeweakdrink?You’renuts.Youknowthat,right?” ShesmiledatAbbywithperfectlyalignedsparkling-whiteteeth.“Iknow,but youlovemeanyway.” “Whodoesn’t?” Aftertwodrinkseach,theysettledthetabandpromisedtobebacksoon. “Areyoureadyforthis?”Melaskedastheyclimbedintothecarandbelted themselvesin. “No,butIdon’thaveachoice.It’stimetofacethemusic.Iwaswrong,and mymomwasright.It’sreallyjustthatsimple.AllIneedtoknowrightnowisif she’sgoingtowelcomemehomeornot.” MeldrovethetwelveshortblocksdownKingStreetandturnedleftonSouth Battery.Shepulledintothesidedrivewayahalfblockupandkilledtheengine. Theornateirongatesthatledtotheinnercourtyardwithitsenormousfountain weretwentyfeettoherleft.Bothwomenstaredatthehouse,feelingasifthey werebeingwatched,andquicklydidtheiryogabreathingexercises. “Okay,there’snosenseinprolongingthisanymore,butmyheartisgoinga hundredmilesanhour.Let’sgo,”Abbysaid. Mel popped the trunk then grabbed the backpack off the back seat. Abby pulledtheduffelbagoutofthetrunk,closedit,andpunchedthecodeintothe keypadonthegate,allowingthemtopassthrough.Thechandeliersintheparlor glowed as the women walked by the open window. Charlotte was home, and they saw her watch their arrival from her vantage point on the widow’s walk. Withasolemnlookonherface,Abbyopenedthefrontdoor.Mittens,theblack cat with white feet, greeted the women as they entered. She meowed loudly, brushingagainsttheirlegswithhertailheldhigh.Abbydroppedherbagonthe walnut floor of the foyer and knelt to pet the cat. The sound of high heels clicking on the second-level hallway told Abby her mother was approaching. CharlotteMelrosedescendedthecircularstaircase,obviouslyexpectingalleyes to be on her, and they were. She wore a hot pink Lilly Pulitzer knit shift with palegoldtrim.Charlottewasamemberofupper-classsocietyandwasperceived bymanyasolder, butatonlyforty-nine,shewasfartooyoungtodresslike a
stuffy socialite. She hadn’t seen Abby for eighteen months, yet she offered no motherlyembrace. “Mom,youlookgood.Howhaveyoubeen?”Abbyasked,tryingtobreakthe tensionhangingheavilyintheair. “Hello,Mrs.Melrose.Nicetoseeyouagain,”Melaniesaidasshefollowed Abbyandhermothertotheparlor,whereteaandfingersandwicheswaitedon theQueenAnnetable. CharlotteMelrosewasn’tsnootybynature.ShewasangryandhurtthatAbby hadgoneagainstherbymarryingRemy.Herintentionwastoprotectheronly daughterfromthatpredator,yetAbbycouldn’tseeitatthetime.Themarriage forced a permanent wedge between mother and daughter, ruining the close relationshiptheyoncehad.Theybothknewitwouldtakealotofworktorepair thedamage. “Melanie, thank you for picking up Abigail at the airport, I’ve been busy. Please,havesometeaandasandwich.” Charlotte was accustomed to wearing dresses every day. “One might have unexpected guests,” she’d always say. Before the money, twenty years earlier, they were just another family living a common middle-class lifestyle far from the likes of the upper-crust families in Charleston, south of Broad Street. That waswherethesocietypeoplelived,aplacecommonpeopleonlydreamedabout. CharlotteusedtotakethecitybuswithAbigailandastrollerintow.Shewould walk Meeting Street, Bay Street, and East and South Battery. She’d daydream aboutthepeoplelivingthereandwhattheirimportantlivesmustbelike.Dothey hostpartieswithservantscateringtotheireveryneed?Dotheyattendgalasand artexhibits regularly? Back then, those questions consumed her whenever she strolledpastthegorgeousmansions,eachmorefabulousthantheonebefore. Buttodaylifewasdifferent.Charlottewaswealthy,andshewantedtoprotect that wealth, especially since Edward was gone. And because of Abby’s bad judgment,Charlottehadfivemillionreasonstobefuriouswithher. Melanie said goodbye and graciously left. Abby and Charlotte needed time alone to sort out what the future would bring. Abby wasn’t due another withdrawalfromhertrustfunduntilshewasthirty,andshestillhadthreeyears togo. “Abigail,let’ssitinthedrawingroom,shallwe?Wehaveplentytodiscuss.” CharlotteinstructedBetsy,themaid,tobringatraywithcoffee,cream,and sugar into the drawing room, along with pen and paper. Abby followed her motherlikeascoldedadolescent,waitingforthewreckingballtodrop. The drawing room was always one of Abby’s favorite places to sit and reflect.Thewallsworearichbutsubtlecreampalettetoensurethepaintingshad
no competition. Antique Chippendale furniture filled the room, and a vibrant Persianrugwithfour-inchcream-coloredfringelayoverthewalnutfloors.The crystalpendantshangingfrombrasssconcescreatedbrilliantcolorsthatdanced against the walls every time the lights were turned on. Two matching brocade wingbackchairsbeckonedthemtosit. Betsyplacedthecoffeetrayonatablebetweenthechairs.“Welcomehome, Miss Abigail. May I get you anything else, Mrs. Melrose?” she asked as she steppedbacktowardthepocketdoors. “No, thank you. I think we’re fine for now. Please close the doors on your wayout.” “Yes,ma’am.” “Is there any new information on your missing husband and money, Abigail?” “No, Mom, there isn’t. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see either of them again. From what I’ve been told, it isn’t illegal for a spouse to withdraw as much moneyfromabankorstockaccountastheywant.” “Butitwasyourmoney,nothis.” “After we got married, it belonged to both of us. I put his name on all the accountstomakelifeeasier.Ididn’tfeelitwasrighttohavemyhusbandasking meformoneyeverytimeheneededsome.” “So the con artist had no money of his own until you made life easier for him?Iguesshe’slivingoneasystreetnow,andyou’retheonewithnothing.I wascertainyouweresmarterthanthat,butobviouslyIwaswrong.” “Thanks,Mom.Don’tyouthinkIfeelbadenough?” “You do remember what I said when you threatened to marry that vagrant, don’tyou?”Charlottestiffenedandsatupright.Sheheldtheporcelaincupinthe BlueMagnoliapatterninherrighthand,herpinkiefingerpointingupward.She handed Abby the paper and pen. “Here, figure out your life. Tomorrow at breakfast, I want to see what you wrote. If it’s reasonable and makes financial sense,I’llspeaktomyattorney.Ifnot,you’reonyourown.Breakfastisateight o’clock sharp. I suggest you get to it.” Charlotte patted her mouth with the hemstitched linen napkin, stood, left the room, and closed the pocket doors behindher. Abbystaredattheblanksheetofpaper,holdingthefountainpeninherhand. “Ihatethesedamnthings.”Shefoundherbackpack,stilllyinginthefoyerwith her duffel bag, and brought it into the parlor. A dozen hotel pens were in the zipped side pocket. “Good enough.” After pouring another cup of coffee, she curleduponthechairandbegantochartherfuture.Abbywonderedifshecould everbeinarelationshiportrustmenagainafterRemy.Didheruinanychance
shemighthavehadtofallinlovewithsomebodyelse?Atthemoment,shehad tofocusonherimmediateneed.Mencouldwait.She’dcheckoutjobpostings online, hopefully in the only field she knew—relationship counseling. If there weren’t any jobs available working for somebody else, she’d start her own practice,somehow,somewhere. Thisoutlinehastolooksincere,likeIputalotofthoughtintoit.I’llneedto takesomerefreshercoursesandfindoutifmycertificationisstillgood.Maybeif Itakethisseriously,I’llbeabletoreadpeoplebetter. AftertwohoursofInternetsearchesandnotetaking,Abbyhadaviableplan ofactiontopresenthermotheratbreakfast.Sherosefromthechair,stretched, androlledherneck.Poppingsoundsfromherknottedmusclestoldherjusthow tenseshereallywas.Withadeepsigh,sheopenedthepocketdoorsandwalked out of the drawing room. Her duffel bag still lay untouched in the quiet foyer. Seeing it lying there made her wince with anxiety and remorse. Her mother wasn’twelcomingherhome,anddeepdown,Abbyknewreconnectingwithher wouldn’tbeeasy.Betsynormallywouldhavetakenherbagupstairs,butitwas likelyCharlottehadtoldhernotto.Abbywouldhavetoearnbackherplacein hermother’shome,evenifitwastemporary. Shewonderediftheywouldeverbecloseagainorifallchancesofthatwere goneforgood.
ChapterThree Shewoketoanentirelydifferentfeeling—lifehadchangedagain.Gonewerethe tropicalbirdcallsandsoundsofthesurfcrashingagainsttheshoreline.Shelayin the bed she had used while growing up, sleeping alone, just as she had then. Abby rolled over, rubbed her eyes, and checked the time on her cell phone. Crap!Ihavetobedressedandatbreakfastinfortyminutes.Luckily,hercloset stillheldtheclothesshe’dleftbehindalmosttwoyearsago,andhersuitehada private bath. She dove out of bed with no time to wake up slowly and lazily. Withtheshowerrunningandthewaterheating,sherifledthroughtheclosetand picked out a simple peach-colored sheath. Abby pinned her mass of curls up withahairclipandsteppedintotheblissfullyhotwater.Shedidn’thaveenough timetobotherwithherhairthatmorning.ShehadtoprovetoCharlottethatshe wasresponsiblebyarrivinginthebreakfastroomateighto’clocksharpwithdry hairandwearingarespectabledressinoneofhermother’sfavoritecolors. Abbygrabbedtheoutlineshehadpreparedthenightbefore,inhaleddeeply, and descended the staircase. Her mother sat at the table in the breakfast room, waiting. Charlotte glanced at the antique mantel clock sitting on the sideboard andgaveanapprovingnodwhenAbbywalkedthroughtheFrenchdoors. “Goodmorning,Abigail.Ihopeyousleptwell.” “Goodmorning,Mom.Isleptfine,andthecoffeesmellsgreat.” Abby sat across from Charlotte, with White Point Garden directly out the large window in front of her. Betsy poured coffee for both of them, placed a bowloffruitandaplateofcroissantsonthetable,andexitedtheroom.Abbyset heroutlineonthetable,hopinghermotherwouldn’twanttoseeitquiteyet.Her stomach growled, indicating food and coffee were necessary before anything else. Oncebreakfastwasover,Charlotteaskedtoseetheoutline.Abbynervously handedthepaperworktohermother,waitingtofindoutherfate.Afterliftingthe reading glasses that hung from the beaded lanyard and perching them on her nose, Charlotte read the four-page outline. Abby already had her master’s degree,butshewouldneedtotakecontinuingeducationcoursesandbecomea licensed counselor if she wanted to start her own practice in marriage, family, and relationship counseling. She had been disappointed that she couldn’t find anyjobopeningsinanexistingpracticeduringheronlinesearchlastnight.She researchedthecostandlengthoftimeitwouldtakebeforeshecouldopenher
practice.Shewassurehermotherwouldfindthatarespectableoccupation.All Abbyneededwasaloanfromhermothertomakeitareality. “It looks like you’re taking this seriously with all the work you’ve put into this outline,” Charlotte said. “The only problem is, it will take a year to accomplish, and you want a twenty-thousand-dollar loan. What will you do in themeantime?” “I’llfindsomethingtoprovemyself.I’llworkinadaycarecenterornursing homeduringthedayandtakemycoursesatnight.AllIneedisaroofovermy head,andI’mhopingitwillbehere.I’mtrulysorryforallthegriefI’vecaused theselastfewyears.I’llevenaccompanyyoutothegalasandartevents.Itcan belikeoldtimesagain.” “Wedidhavefun,didn’twe?Allright,I’llgiveyouanotherchancetodothe right thing. I’ll stop in at my attorney’s office this afternoon and have him changethewillbackasitwasbeforetheRemyfiasco.I’mhavinglunchwiththe board members of my favorite charity anyway, so I’ll be in the general neighborhood.”Charlottepouredeachofthemanothercupofcoffeeandbitinto achocolatecroissant. “Soyoureallydidchangethewill?”Abbywasshockedbutnotsurprisedthat hermotherhadliveduptoherword. “OfcourseIdid,dear.Youdefiedme.Ihadnochoice.Iwantanotheroutline tonight at dinner of the school you’re going to enroll in and places you’ve contactedtodayforemployment.Afteryougetajobandstartschool,I’llloan youthemoney.” Abbyfelttheflushofangerpricklethebackofherneck.Hermotherwasa control freak, but there was nothing she could do about it yet. Sure, she could workformeagerwagessomewhere,butthatincomewouldbeeatenupbyrent andlivingexpenses.Forthetimebeing,she’dhavetoconformtohermother’s demandseventhoughtheyinfuriatedher.Abbyretreatedtoherbedroomtoget started on her assignment. She felt like a schoolkid again, having to obey her mother.Thisissuchcrap.I’llcallMelandseewhatshe’supto.Hopefully,she hastimetodolunch. At twenty-seven, Abby felt like an irresponsible child, not having much moneyorevenacartocallherown. “Mel,whatareyoudoingtoday?Ireallyneedsomeonetotalkto,andafew beers.I’llbuylunchifyou’refree,butyou’llhavetopickmeup.” “Sure,noproblem,doyouwanttogotoCrabby’sagain?” “Yeah,Ilikethevibethere.Itisn’tatouristtrap.Dotheystillofferthebest CrabLouieSaladintown?” “They sure do, and the largest choice of beers. Okay, I’ll pick you up at
noon.” Abby checked the time. She still had two hours to kill. She’d get to her mother’sdemandslater.Rightthen,shewantedtoreconnectwiththebeautiful city she used to call home. She followed the sound of voices she heard from downstairsatthebackofthehouse.Hermothermightcomelookingforher,so it was best to be upfront and say she was going out to clear her mind. Abby foundCharlotteandBetsyinthelushwalledgardenbehindthehouse.Charlotte satatthewrought-irontable,pagingthroughtheMeyer’sNurserycatalog.She waschoosingtheannualsshewanteddeliveredandplanted.Betsywasincharge ofcontactingthelocalnurseryandmakingCharlotte’severywishareality. “Hi,Mom.I’mgoingforashortwalkaroundtheneighborhoodtogathermy thoughts.I’llbebackinahalfhour.” “All right. Just remember what you need to do later. Don’t disappoint me, dear.” “Iwouldn’tthinkofit.I’llbebacksoon.” Abby left, feeling more deflated than ever, wondering how long she could tolerate Charlotte’s stranglehold on her every movement. She walked up East BatterytoRainbowRow,tryingtoenjoythemoment.Shehadalwayslovedthe colorful homes and the beautiful private gardens behind each gate. She rememberedcomingtotheneighborhoodasachildandbehavingthesameway the tourists did, gasping with excitement and clicking cameras at every lovely home and historical monument they passed. That was long before her family moved there themselves. She turned west on Elliot Street and followed it to MeetingStreet,whereshewentsouth.AbbystoppedatTwoMeetingStreetand wentinside the beautifulbed-and-breakfasttosayhelloto theproprietors.The ownerswereclosefriendsofCharlotte’s—awelcomingcouplewhohadbeena mainstayinCharlestonforyears.Onherwayhome,shestoppedatWhitePoint Gardenandfoundanemptybenchtositon.She’dgonethereoftenbeforeshe metRemyandmovedtoSt.Thomas.Sheinhaledtheoceanairdeeply,thankful thatnothingabouttheareahadchanged. BackinherroombeforemeetingMel,Abbysearchedthejobpostingsonline andjotteddownanythingshethoughtmightbeapossibility.Shecaughtsightof theflashingredlightonherchargingcellphonelyingonthenighttablenextto herbed.JohnatMagensBayhadleftamessagethatsaidhe’dheardthroughthe grapevinethatRemywasinEcuadorlivingitup.ThatwasallJohnknew,except that Ecuador didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. He apologizedagainforAbby’smisfortunewithRemyandassuredherthatshewas missedbyeveryoneinMagensBay. AbbywasthankfulCharlottehadleftthehousebeforeMelaniearrived.The
lastthingshewantedwastobeinterrogatedbyhermotherinfrontofherbest friend.Abbypulledthesheersbackandwatchedfromherbedroomwindowas CharlottedroveawayinherblackMercedessedantomeetwithboardmembers from one of her many charities. Charlotte was involved with a dozen organizations throughout Charleston. Abby wondered if her mother was really that philanthropic or if she just enjoyed the attention, inflating her already oversizedego.Withasigh,Abbyploppeddownonherantiquemahoganybed, causing the springs to squeak, and began searching the online job sites. She foundfourpossibilitiesshewouldcheckintoafterlunch.Shebookmarkedeach site and powered down her laptop. Mel would be out front any minute. Abby grabbed her purse, checked her reflection in the gilded mirror hanging in the foyer, then went outside to sit on the columned, covered veranda to watch for Melanie. *** “Seriously,areyoureallygoingtoworkatafast-foodjointforsevenbucksan hourjusttopleaseyourmom?”Melasked.Sheslurpedherclamchowderwith fishcrackersfloatingontop. “No,I’mnotgoingtothoseextremes,butI’vesavedfourjobsI’mgoingto call about later this afternoon. Two of the jobs are in daycare centers, one is a hostess position in a downtown restaurant, and one is a job as a helper in a retirementcenter.Iknownoneofthemaregoingtopaywell,butIneedtoprove tomymomthatI’mmakinganeffort.IhavetodosomethingwhileI’mgoingto schoolorshewon’tloanmethemoneytoopenmypractice.” “Soyoureallywanttobearelationshipcounselor?That’syourdesireinlife, somethingyou’vealwayswantedtodo?”Melaniechuckledandshookherhead. Afterdowningherfirstbeer,shehelduphermugtogetthewaitress’sattention. “TwomoreBullsBayOysterStouts,please.” “No Louis today?” Abby noticed behind the bar several people she didn’t recognize. “Naw…Iguesshe’sbeenremodelingoneoftheirbedroomsintoacutepink nursery.Businessisreallygoodhere,sohecantakeoffwheneverhewantsto. Hey,whydon’tyouaskLouisforajob?” “I don’t know about that, especially since he knows my mom has money. Don’tyouthinkitwouldseemweirdtohimthatI’mbeggingforajob?Atleast ifIworkinaplacewherenobodyknowsme,Iwon’tcomeoffaspathetic.” “Iguessyou’reright,butIcanaskaround,too.Iknowalotofmoversand shakersinthefashionindustry,plusmyjobisactuallyfun.”
“True. I’d much rather work in some high-end fashion house than give old peoplespongebaths.”
ChapterFour AftershefinishedherCrabLouieandbeer,Abbycheckedthetime.“Ibetterget homebeforemymomdoes.Idon’treallywantherknowingI’vebeenout.I’ll get another lecture, and believe me, I’ve had enough for this week.” Abby got theattentionofthewaitressandaskedforthecheck. “Abs,ifit’sreallythatbad,justmoveinwithme.Wecanmakeitwork.” “Thanks, but two people living in a one-bedroom apartment the size of my roomathomeisnexttoimpossible.Youbarelyhaveenoughroomforyourown clothes,fashionistathatyouare.I’lldealwithmymomforaslongasIcan.” The women left Crabby’s and headed south on King Street. Several blocks down, a police officer stood in the street redirecting traffic. He motioned for themtoturnleftontoTraddStreetwiththeothercarsaheadofthem.Theycould catch Meeting Street from Tradd and continue to South Battery. They craned their necks, trying to look farther down King Street before they turned left. Sirensblaredandlightsflashedseveralblocksaheadastheytriedtoseewhatthe commotion was about. An ambulance and two squad cars zoomed past before theymadetheturn. “I remember hearing sirens while we were eating, don’t you?” Abby squinted,tryingtogetabetterlookbeforetheyturnedoffKingStreet. “Nowthatyoumentionit,yeah,Ido.Iwonderwhattheheckisgoingon.” TheyreachedthehomeofCharlotteMelrose,andAbbygotout.“I’dinvite youin,butuntilIfindemploymentforpay,Ibetterlaylow.Thanksfordoing lunchwithmeandlisteningtomywoes.I’llletyouknowhowmyjobsearchis going.” “Don’tforget,I’mgoingtoworkmymagiconyourbehalf.MaybeIcanfind yousomethingbetterthanchangingbedpans.”Melanielaughedatthescowling expressionAbbymade. “Thanks for that visual. Now I’ll probably dream about it.” Abby punched thecodeintothekeypadandenteredthecourtyard.ShewavedtoMelandclosed theheavyouterdoorbehindher.Sittingonthebenchinthefoyer,Abbykicked off her shoes. The habit was long ago instilled in her because she was never allowedtowearoutdoorshoesinsidethehouse.Onlyhighheelswereallowed onthefloors,andthatwaspermittedonlywhenexitingthehomeonthewayto anelegantaffair. Betsycalledout,“MissAbigail,wouldyoulikesomesweettea?”
“Thatsoundsdelicious,butI’llcomeandgetit.Noneedtobringituptomy room.” Abby entered the kitchen and sat at the small table nestled in the bay windowalcove.Sittingtherebroughtbackfondchildhoodmemories.Theyhad moved to the mansion on South Battery when Abby was ten years old. She rememberedmorningswithherdadatthatverytable.Theywouldhavetoaster wafflesswimminginthickmaplesyrupseveraltimesaweekbeforeheleftfor work.ThoseweretheearlydaysbeforeBetsy,whenEdwardMelrosewasonthe fasttracktobecomingamillionaire.Theyhadjustpurchasedthepinkmansion, still pinching themselves in disbelief that they could live in such an opulent homeinthebestneighborhoodofCharleston.Backthen,thethoughtofamaid orhousekeeperhadn’tenteredtheirminds.“Betsy,comeandsitwithme.” “Oh, Miss Abigail, I should really start preparing dinner. Your mother said she wanted to eat at six o’clock sharp. She has a fund-raiser to go to at seven thirtytonight.”Betsyfilledacut-glasstumblerandcarriedittothetable,setting it down in front of Abby. Beads of condensation rolled down the glass to the linennapkinbelow. “Pleasesitwithmeforjustoneglassofsweettea.You’llhaveplentyoftime tomakedinner.Didmymomsaywhenshewouldbehome?” “No,ma’am,butI’dexpectherbacksoon.”Betsyreachedforanotherglass fromthewhiteuppercabinet.“I’llsitfortenminutes.”ShegaveAbbyatoothy grinandpouredherselfaglassofsweettea. “WoulditbotheryoutoomuchtojustcallmeAbby?I’dratherbeinformal, atleastwhenmymomisn’there.” “Yes,MissAbigail,butI’llhavetopracticebeinginformal.Itdoesn’tcome naturalforme,beingamaidmostofmylife.I’llcallyouMissAbbyifyoulike. Whenyourmotherisn’there,thatis.” “Thanks,I’dreallylikethat.Letmepourusbothanotherglassoftea.” At three o’clock, Abby retreated to her room to begin making phone calls. She hoped to schedule at least two interviews before the weekend and more beginning the next week. She also wanted to research what was required to changeherlastname.ThatwouldmeaninvolvingCharlotte,though,something Abbydreaded.Shedidn’twanttobecalledAbbyBellavanceanymore,yetshe hadseriousreservationsaboutgoingbacktotheMelrosename.Thereweretoo many predators out there, people that had one and only one intention—to take the money and run. Abby would be far smarter than that next time around, if thereeverwasanexttime.Shewouldconsultwithhermom,likeitornot.Abby wasseriouslyconsideringusinghermother’smaidenname.Hopefully,withher mom’sblessing,she’dchangehernametoAbigailMarieJohnstone.Iftherewas another marriage in her future, Abby would be prepared—with a different last
nameandaprenup. *** With one interview set up at Children’s Hour Daycare Center for tomorrow at tena.m.andanotherinterviewforaserverpositionatTheWickedHopBrewery atonethirty,Abbyhappilyrandownstairstograbanothersweettea.Surprisedto find Charlotte hadn’t yet returned at four o’clock, Abby sat in the backyard, feeling a little deflated. She was anxious to tell her mother she had interviews scheduled. They weren’t overwhelming opportunities, but they were jobs nonetheless. The sound of the doorbell and voices in the foyer were enough to pique Abby’scuriosity.Sherosetogoinside,butmetBetsyandtwouniformedpolice officersinthedoorway.AquicklookatBetsytoldAbbysomethingwasterribly wrong. Tears streamed down Betsy’s caramel-colored face. The officers wore somberexpressions. “Betsy,what’swrong?What’sgoingon?” “Miss Abby, it’s your mother.” Betsy took two steps and collapsed at the tableonthepatiowithherfaceinherhandsandsobbed. “Ma’am,I’mOfficerRhine,andthisisOfficerBouton.”Theolderpoliceman pointedtotheyoungermanbesidehim.“IsCharlotteMelroseyourmother?” “Yes.” The quivering lower lip was involuntary, but Abby couldn’t help herself.Sheknewbadnewswascoming.ShesatnexttoBetsyandgrabbedher hand.Tearssprangfromhereyesaswordsshedidn’twanttohearwerespoken. Sheknewtheycouldn’tbetakenbackoncetheyweresaid. “Ma’am, we’re sorry to inform you that your mother passed away in a car accidentafewhoursago.ThefiredepartmenthadtousetheJawsofLifetopry open the car. That’s why it took so long to identify her. Ma’am… Miss Melrose?” “What?Areyousure…areyoucertainitwasher?Couldyoubemistaken? Thiscan’tbehappening.NotMom,too.”TearsstungAbby’seyesastheyrolled downherchinandfelltohershirt.“Whatkindofcarwasit?Areyousureitwas hers?Wherewastheaccident?”Thequestionsseemedirrelevant,butshehadto besure. “It was a black 2014 Mercedes E-Class sedan. The accident happened on KingStreetandPrice’sAlley.Agarbagetruckbroadsidedhercarasitcameout of the alley. Apparently, the driver had a massive heart attack and died at the scene,too.” “No,itcan’tbe.Iwasdetouredawayfromthataccidentearliertoday.Ican’t