At 6:02 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, Vanessa Keaton turned the key in the back door lock of her sweet little boutique on Charles Street and flicked off the lights. Foot traffic had been scarce, and would be, she knew, for another two weeks, at least until the St. Dennis Secret Garden Tour brought the first of the serious visitors to town. And that was just fine with her. Once the tourist season began in earnest, there would be fewer opportunities for dinners with friends or for closing early to enjoy slow walks through the town she had come to call her own.
She turned the dead bolt on the door leading down into the basement, then let herself out through the front and locked that door behind her as well. She paused to take a deep breath of the spring fragrance which she found unique to St. Dennis: salt from the Bay mixed with the scent of the hyacinths, daffodils, and early tulips planted in the wooden barrels—?compliments of the garden club—that stood outside each of the shops along Charles Street. The very colors of the flowers said spring to her: purples and pinks, yellows and whites. Just to see them made her smile.
She stepped back to take a good long look at the window she’d spent most of the day designing. Was it too early to display the tennis whites and the pastels that many of the local ladies liked to sport while golfing at the new country club outside of town? Maybe she should move those items to the smaller windows on the side of the shop, and dress her mannequins in something other than sportswear. Maybe those pretty cocktail dresses she got in from New York last week, and maybe a few of those darling evening bags from that designer she found in Cape May over the winter.
The promise of warm weather put a bounce in her step, and as she crossed the street, visions of all the new items she’d recently ordered for Bling danced in her head.
“Step lively there, miss,” the driver of the car that had stopped to let her cross called out. “Or I’ll have to arrest you for jaywalking.”
“Oh, you . . .” Vanessa laughed. “Why aren’t you out chasing bank robbers or car thieves?”
“There hasn’t been a bank robbed in St. Dennis for as long as I’ve lived here.” Gabriel Beck—chief of police and Vanessa’s half brother—pulled his car to the side of the road and activated his flashing lights. “And the last report of a stolen car we received turned out to be Wes Taylor’s fifteen-year-old son sneaking out in the middle of the night to see his girlfriend.”
“Slow day, eh, Beck?” She walked over to the car and leaned into the open passenger-side window.
“Just another day in paradise.” He hastened to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“Well, wait another few weeks. Once the tourists start pouring into town, you’ll be wishing for a day like this, when you can cruise around town in your spiffy new official police-chief car and stop to chat with the locals.”
“Only way to stay in touch, kiddo.”
“Well, I admit I like the calm before the storm. I like to be able to close up shop at six and have the evenings to myself. I know it won’t last—and I’m grateful that my shop does so well. But it’s nice to have some quiet days to enjoy this glorious weather before the crowds arrive.” She stood to wave to the driver of a passing car. “So where’s the fiancée?”
“I dropped her off at BMI early this morning. She’s on her way to Montana to see her brother.” He glanced at his watch. “Actually, she should be arriving at his place anytime now.”
“Is this her brother the hermit?” The one I like to think of as Mountain Man?
Beck nodded. “She’s hoping to talk him into walking her down the aisle.”
“Your wedding’s in five weeks.” Vanessa frowned. “Isn’t she cutting it a bit close?”
“She already asked her other brother, Andy, and he’s on board. But she wants them both to give her away, since their dad died last year.”
“Well, I wish her luck with that.”
“Yeah, me, too. I offered to go with her, but she thought she’d have a better chance on her own. Mia doesn’t think he’s left his place for any length of time since their dad’s funeral. We’ll see.” He didn’t appear optimistic. “So where are you off to now?”
“I’m meeting Steffie for dinner.”
“I don’t think she’s closed up yet. There was a group in town this afternoon for a lecture over at the Historical Society. From the crowd gathered outside Steffie’s, I’d say they all stopped at her place for ice cream before getting back on their bus.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll walk on down and see if I can give her a hand.”
“You just want ice cream,” he teased, and put the car in drive.
“You know what I always say.” She stepped back onto the curb. “Eat dessert first.”
She waved good-bye as he pulled away, and glanced back at Bling, the front window dressing still on her mind. She mentally slapped herself on the forehead. Duh. The display should reflect the upcoming wedding. Pretty dresses and shoes to wear to the event. Flowers—maybe some terra-cotta pots planted with something colorful across the front of the window. Pans?ies, maybe. Vases of budding flowering cherry in the corners. Lots of white chiffon, puffed like clouds . . .
It was less than a ten-minute walk from Bling to Steffie Wyler’s ice-cream shop. Her arms swinging, Vanessa strolled along, marveling, as she always did, at the twists and turns her life had taken since she first arrived in St. Dennis. It was hard to believe that just three short years ago, she’d been destitute and exhausted mentally and physically from the stress of removing herself from a marriage that had started to go bad even before the petals had begun to drop from the yellow roses she’d carried on her wedding day. Even now, the mere sight of yellow roses could make her knees go weak.
That was then, she reminded herself sternly. This is now. No need to go back to that place and time. Keep the focus on all the good things that have happened since I came to St. Dennis.
Finding that she had a half brother—finding Beck—was probably the best thing that had ever happened to her. That he and his father, Hal Garrity, had welcomed her so warmly, had urged her to stay, and had offered to help her start up a business in a storefront that Hal owned just when St. Dennis was emerging as a tourist attraction . . . well, who could have foreseen all that happening?
Timing is everything, she reminded herself. Everyone knows that.
She waved through the window of Lola’s Café at Jimmy, one of Lola’s geriatric waiters, and passed Petals & Posies, the flower shop next door, where tall galvanized steel containers outside held long branches of blooming forsythia and pussy willow, and the windows held the eye with a rainbow display of cut tulips and daffodils.
Next to Petals & Posies, at the corner, was Cuppachino, where many of the townies gathered first thing in the morning for coffee, the latest gossip, and to watch the news on the big-screen TV that hung on the side wall before heading off to their respective mornings. Through the screened door, propped open to encourage the evening breeze to enter, Vanessa noticed Grace Sinclair, the owner and editor of the local weekly paper, the St. Dennis Gazette, at one of the front tables. She was deep in conversation with Amelia Vandergrift, the president of the garden club. Gathering tidbits for a piece on the upcoming tour, no doubt, to remind everyone to buy tickets to the event. Vanessa considered Grace, a white-haired septuagenarian with unlimited energy who knew everyone and everything, the town’s number one cheerleader. Secretly, Vanessa attributed half of what she’d learned about St. Dennis to Hal, and the other half to Grace Sinclair’s weekly editorials about the community.
She rounded the corner of Charles and Kelly’s Point Road, and moments later, passed the municipal building, with its new wing that housed the police department. She noted that Beck’s car had not yet returned to its designated parking space.
Probably out doing what he does best, she mused. Reassuring the locals that all is just skippy in St. Dennis.
At the end of the road, right where it T’d into the wooden boardwalk that ran next to the Bay, stood One Scoop or Two, the onetime crabber’s shanty Steffie Wyler had turned into a charming ice-cream parlor. Seeing the crowd gathered around the tables out front of the small structure, Vanessa quickened her step. She excused herself to those patrons waiting patiently in line, smiling as she walked around them and between the two freezer cases to grab an apron off the pegs that hung behind the cash register.
“I can help the next person in line,” Vanessa announced. She slipped on a pair of thin, clear plastic gloves as a pleasant white-haired gentleman stepped up to place his order.
“I owe you big-time, babe,” Steffie whispered in Vanessa’s ear on her way to the cash register.
“Yes, you do. And you’ll pay up.” Vanessa smiled and turned to the customer. “Sir, did you want the blackberry or the chocolate on the bottom?”
Thirty minutes and four dozen customers later, the crowd had been served and the last cone dipped. When the buses departed, Steffie sank into a chair at one of the small tables that stood along the outside wall.
Excerpted from The Chesapeake Diaries: Coming Home by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2010 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.