Excerpt from Chapter One
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Charlene Morrison leaned over the dark green, metal guardrail of the Clara-Sue, that afternoon’s last ferry out to Brenton. She dropped one, then the other of the four-inch spiked heels Phillip had insisted she buy because he said they made her legs look longer, into the rising tide of the murky river.
A woman wearing tight white shorts and a hot pink tank top with the words Sexy Babe spelled out in silver glitter across the front stood a couple of feet away tossing bread into the air.
Charlene glanced up at the seagulls that had begun to swarm above the ferry and shook her head. Really, lady?
She started to move away when the woman let out a sudden, shrill shriek, drawing the startled attention of the handful of passengers scattered around the deck.
“Eeewww!” She reached out and grabbed the person closest to her—Charlene—and shoved her bleached-blonde pouf within inches of her face.
“Tell me I don’t have bird crap in my hair!”
Angling away, Charlene eyed the splat of whitish-brown excrement seeping into the highly teased mound, and winced.
“I do! I do, don’t I?” The woman scrunched up her nose and pulled her lips back into an expression that made her look a bit like a feral dog.
“Bud!” She gesticulated toward someone before Charlene could respond, and then hurried toward a man who had just exited the inside seating area with a drink in each hand.
Tourists. Charlene rolled her eyes. There was a reason for the signs posted around the deck that read: Do Not Feed the Birds.
She turned back to the rail, looked down, scanned the water, but saw no trace of the three hundred and twenty dollar footwear that epitomized everything gone wrong with her life the last year and a half. There was only the churning wake of the Clara-Sue.
The wind picked up, blowing several long, unruly curls across her face. Charlene pulled the dark mass to one side and wove it into a thick braid before letting it drop to hang halfway down her chest.
It was late afternoon, hot and humid, typical of Maryland summers, especially near the water. She tilted her face up toward the sky, closed her eyes, and welcomed the breeze as it brushed against her cheeks. Rolling her shoulders to work out some of the tension, she released a slow, steady breath—as much a sigh of relief she’d pulled things off, as one of fortification.
The ferry plowed through the wake from a tugboat pushing a barge loaded with rock up the river. Charlene swayed with the motion of the boat as she zipped up the outer pouch of her old black and yellow backpack. She’d stashed the heels in it after changing them out for a pair of navy flip-flops before boarding.
The zipper on the bag’s small front pocket had torn years ago, held together now with an assortment of various-sized safety pins. She didn’t care that it looked shabby. It had been her cousin Blake’s when he was in high school, until he’d given it to her, one of the few possessions she still had from her former life.
Growing up, she had idolized her twin cousins, Blake and Justin. They’d been more like brothers than cousins, and they had looked out for her like a well-loved little sister.
Charlene gripped the railing. She should never have let so much time pass without getting in touch with them…just one more thing on the list of things she’d change about the last few years if she could.
Slipping her arms through the straps of the backpack, she hiked them up over her shoulders, grasped them in her hands, and pulled the bag in snugly against her body.
Tucked in an inside pocket was a red leather pouch containing forty-eight thousand dollars in cash, money left over from the small inheritance she’d received when her father died the year after she’d started college. She’d had it in a savings account Phillip didn’t known about, plus what she’d been able to scrimp and save over the last six months without raising his suspicions.
Early that morning, she’d walked out of their prestigious penthouse condo, locked the door, taken the elevator to the garage, gotten into her silver Mercedes, and driven over sixty miles to a grocery store in New Jersey. There, she abandoned the car in the parking lot and taken a cab to the bus terminal. She paid cash for a ticket to Baltimore, Maryland.
In Baltimore, a friend she hadn’t spoken to in over five years, before last night, picked her up and drove her another fifty miles to the ferry that was now transporting her to Brenton.
When she got there, she would make a call to one of her cousins in Glebe Point, her final destination—all because the man she’d been living with for the last two years had suddenly decided he wanted to get married.
As the ferry drew nearer to the opposing shoreline, Charlene leaned forward and rested her forearms on the top of the guardrail and watched their approach.
Mountain laurel was the predominate understory populating the sandy soil on this part of the river. In mid to late spring, tiny clusters of white and pale-pink blossoms burst forth in jubilant profusion against its lance-shaped, evergreen leaves.
In July, not much bloomed in the muggy heat. Here and there, though, a few swamp mallows grew close to shore, towering over the reed grass to show off their dinner plate-sized flowers, mostly white with dark maroon centers, but with a smattering of pink blossoms scattered amongst them. They flourished in the river’s brackish waters, softening the otherwise green backdrop of mid-summer that grew beneath the taller loblolly pine and white oak that were so common to the area.
The Clara Sue slowed and began to sidle up to the pier where it would be tied off for the night. Beyond the pier lay Brenton, which consisted of little more than a country store that doubled as the ferry station; the Brenton Inn, which had the only restaurant in town and served the best oyster stew and beaten biscuits in Maryland; a one-pump gas station; and Smythe’s Book and Brew, where you could get a cup of coffee while you browsed the book stacks. And beyond Brenton…the road to everything Charlene held dearest to her heart.
Phillip wouldn’t get back from his latest business trip to find her note until Thursday night. That gave her four days’ lead before he discovered she’d left him. She didn’t know if he’d try to find her, but she’d covered her tracks as well as she could just in case.
For the first time since making the decision to leave, she began to relax. Inhaling deeply, she dragged in a soul-bolstering breath of the churning salt water air. It filled her head with a thousand old memories and her heart with a whisper of hope. She was a Bay girl, and she was going home.