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Whiskey Beach

Nora Roberts

  The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.



  THROUGH THE CHILLY CURTAIN OF SLEET, IN THE INTERMITTENT wash of the great light on the jutting cliff to the south, the massive silhouette of Bluff House loomed over Whiskey Beach. It faced the cold, turbulent Atlantic like a challenge.

  I will last as long as you.

  Standing three sturdy and indulgent stories above the rough and rugged coast, it watched the roll and slap of waves through the dark eyes of windows, as it had—in one incarnation or another—for more than three centuries.

  The little stone cottage now housing tools and garden supplies spoke to its humble beginnings, to those who’d braved the fierce and fickle Atlantic to forge a life on the stony ground of a new world. Dwarfing those beginnings, the spread and rise of golden sand walls and curving gables, the generous terraces of weathered local stone sang to its heyday.

  It survived storm, neglect, careless indulgence, dubious taste, the booms and the busts, scandal and righteousness.

  Within its walls, generations of Landons had lived and died, celebrated and mourned, schemed, thrived, triumphed and languished.

  It had shone as bright as the great light that swept the water off Massachusetts’ rocky and glorious north shore. And it had huddled, shuttered in the dark.

  It had stood long, so long now it simply was Bluff House, reigning above the sea, the sand, the village of Whiskey Beach.

  For Eli Landon it was the only place left to go. Not a refuge as much as an escape from everything his life had become over the past eleven horrible months.

  He barely recognized himself.

  The two-and-a-half-hour drive up from Boston over slick roads left him exhausted. But then, he admitted, fatigue cozied up to him like a lover most days. So he sat outside the house, in the dark, sleet splatting off his windshield, his roof, while he debated the choices of gathering enough energy to go inside or just staying put, maybe sliding into sleep in the car.

  Stupid, he thought. Of course he wouldn’t just sit there and sleep in the car when the house, with perfectly good beds to choose from, stood only a few feet away.

  But neither could he drum up the enthusiasm for hauling his suitcases out of the trunk. Instead he grabbed the two small bags on the seat beside him, ones holding his laptop and a few essentials.

  Sleet slapped at him when he climbed out of the car, but the cold, that whistling Atlantic wind, cut through the outer layers of lethargy. Waves boomed against the rock, slapped against the sand, combining into a constant hissing roar. Eli dragged the house keys out of his jacket pocket, stepped onto the shelter of the wide stone portico to the massive double entrance doors hewn more than a century before from teak imported from Burma.

  Two years, he thought—closer to three—since he’d been here. Too busy with his life, with work, with the disaster of his marriage to drive up for a weekend, a short vacation, a holiday visit with his grandmother.

  He’d spent time with her, of course, the indomitable Hester Hawkin Landon, whenever she’d come to Boston. He’d called her regularly, e-mailed, Facebooked and Skyped. Hester might have been cruising toward eighty but she’d always embraced technology and innovation with curiosity and enthusiasm.

  He’d taken her to dinner, to drinks, remembered flowers and cards, gifts, gathered with her and his family for Christmas, important birthdays.

  And that, he thought as he unlocked the door, was all just rationalization for not taking the time, making the time, to come to Whiskey Beach, to the place she loved most, and giving her real time, real attention.

  He found the right key, unlocked the door. Stepping inside, he flicked on the lights.

  She’d changed some things, he noted, but Gran embraced change even as she managed to embrace traditions—that suited her.

  Some new art—seascapes, gardenscapes—splashing soft color against rich brown walls. He dumped his bags just inside the door, took a moment to just look around the glossy spill of the entrance hall.

  He scanned the stairs—the grinning gargoyle newel posts some whimsical Landon had commissioned—and up where they curved gracefully right and left for the north and south wings.

  Plenty of bedrooms, he thought. He just had to climb the stairs and pick one.

  But not yet.

  Instead he walked through to what they called the main parlor with its high, arching windows facing the front garden—or what would be once winter opened its claws.

  His grandmother hadn’t been home for over two months, but he didn’t see a speck of dust. Logs lay in the hearth framed by the gleam of lapis and ready to light. Fresh flowers stood on the Hepplewhite table she prized. Pillows sat fluffed and welcoming on the three sofas ranged around the room, and the wide planked chestnut floor gleamed like a mirror.

  She’d had someone come in, he decided, then rubbed his forehead where a headache threatened to bloom.

  She’d told him, hadn’t she? Told him she had someone looking out for the place. A neighbor, someone who did the heavy cleaning for her. He hadn’t forgotten she’d told him, he’d just lost the information for a moment in the fog that too often crawled in to blur his mind.

  Now looking out for Bluff House was his job. To tend to it, to, as his grandmother had asked, keep life in it. And maybe, she’d said, it would pump some life back into him.

  He picked up his bags, looked at the stairs. Then just stood.

  She’d been found there, there at the base of the steps. By a neighbor—the same neighbor? Wasn’t it the same neighbor who cleaned for her? Someone, thank God, had come by to check on her, and found her lying there unconscious, bruised, bleeding, with a shattered elbow, a broken hip, cracked ribs, a concussion.

  She might’ve died, he thought. The doctors expressed amazement that she’d stubbornly refused to. None of the family routinely checked on her daily, no one thought to call, and no one, including himself, would have worried if she hadn’t answered for a day or two.

  Hester Landon, independent, invincible, indestructible.

  Who might have died after a terrible fall, if not for a neighbor—and her own indefatigable will.

  Now she reigned in a suite of rooms in his parents’ home while she recovered from her injuries. There she’d stay until deemed strong enough to come back to Bluff House—or if his parents had their way, there she would stay, period.

  He wanted to think of her back here, in the house she loved, sitting out on the terrace with her evening martini, looking out at the ocean. Or puttering in her garden, maybe setting up her easel to paint.

  He wanted to think of her vital and tough, not helpless and broken on the floor while he’d been pouring a second cup of morning coffee.

  So he’d do his best until she came home. He’d keep life in her house, such as his was.

  Eli picked up his bags, started upstairs. He’d take the room he’d always used on visits—or had before those visits stretched out fewer and farther between. Lindsay had hated Whiskey Beach, Bluff House, and had made trips there into a cold war with his grandmother rigidly polite on one side, his wife deliberately snide on the other. And he’d been squeezed in the middle.

  So he’d taken the easy way, he thought now. He could be sorry about that, sorry he’d stopped coming, sorry he’d made excuses and had limited his time with his grandmother to her trips to Boston. But he couldn’t turn back the clock.

  He stepped into the bedroom. Flowers here, too, he noted, and the same soft green walls, two of his grandmother’s watercolors he’d always particularly liked.

  He put his bags on the bench at the foot of the sleigh bed, stripped off his coat.

  Here, things had stayed the same. The little desk under the wi
ndow, the wide atrium doors leading to the terrace, the wingback chair and the little footstool with the cover his grandmother’s mother had needlepointed long ago.

  It occurred to him that for the first time in a very long time he felt—almost—at home. Opening his bag, he dug out his toiletry kit, then found fresh towels, fancy seashell soaps. The scent of lemons in the bath.

  He stripped down without glancing at the mirror. He’d lost weight, too much weight, over the last year. He didn’t need to remind himself of it. He turned on the shower, stepped in, hoping to burn some of the fatigue away. He knew from experience if he went to bed exhausted and stressed, he’d sleep fitfully, wake with that dragging hangover.

  When he stepped out he grabbed one of the towels from the stack, again caught the whiff of lemon as he scrubbed it over his hair. Damp, it curled past the nape of his neck, a mop of dark blond longer than it had been since his early twenties. But then he hadn’t seen his usual barber, Enrique, for nearly a year. He hardly had the need for a hundred-fifty-dollar haircut, or the collection of Italian suits and shoes packed in storage.

  He was no longer a sharply dressed criminal attorney with a corner office and the fast track to full partner. That man had died along with Lindsay. He just hadn’t known it.

  He tossed back the duvet, as fluffy and white as the towel, slid in, switched off the light.

  In the dark he could hear the sea, a steady growl, and the sizzle of sleet against the windows. He closed his eyes, wished as he did every night for a few hours of oblivion.

  A few was all he got.

  God damn, he was pissed. Nobody, absolutely nobody, he thought as he drove through the hard, freezing rain, could trip his switch like Lindsay.

  The bitch.

  Her mind, and apparently her morals, worked like no one else’s he knew. She’d managed to convince herself, and he was sure any number of her friends, her mother, her sister, and Christ knew, that it was his fault their marriage had deteriorated, his they’d gone from couples counseling to a trial separation to a legal battle in preparation for divorce.

  And his fucking fault she’d been cheating on him for well over eight months—five more than the “trial” separation she’d campaigned for. And somehow it was on him that he’d found out about her lying, cheating, conniving ass before signing on the dotted line so she could walk away with a fat settlement.

  So they were both pissed, he decided—he that he’d been an idiot, and she that he’d finally clued in.

  No doubt it would be his fault they’d had a bitter, vicious and public fight about her adultery that afternoon in the art gallery where she worked part-time. Bad timing, bad form on his part, he admitted, but right now? He didn’t give a shit.

  She wanted to blame him because she’d gotten sloppy, so sloppy his own sister had seen his estranged wife and another man all over each other in a hotel lobby in Cambridge—before they’d gotten on the elevator together.

  Maybe Tricia had waited a couple days to tell him, but he couldn’t blame her. It was a lot to tell. And he’d taken another couple to absorb it before he’d manned up, hired an investigator.

  Eight months, he thought again. She’d been sleeping with someone else in hotel beds, in B&Bs, God knew where else—though she’d been too smart to use the house. What would the neighbors think?

  Maybe he shouldn’t have gone, armed with the investigator’s report and his own fury, to the gallery to confront her. Maybe the two of them should’ve had more sense than to start a shouting match that carried through the place and out to the street.

  But they’d both have to weather the embarrassment.

  One thing he knew: the settlement wouldn’t be so sweet for her now. All concept of clean and fair, and no need to stick hard to the prenup? Done. She’d find that out when she got home from her charity auction and found he’d taken the painting he bought in Florence, the Deco diamond that had been his great-grandmother’s and had come to him, and the silver coffee set he had no interest in but was another family heirloom he’d be damned if she’d throw into the community property pot.

  She was going to find herself batting in a new ball game.

  Maybe it was petty, maybe it was stupid—or maybe it was right and just. He couldn’t see through the anger and betrayal, and simply didn’t care. Riding on that anger, he pulled up in the driveway of the house in Boston’s Back Bay. A house he’d believed would serve as a solid foundation for a marriage that had begun to show some cracks. One he’d hoped would one day house children, and one that, for a short time, had plastered over those cracks as he and Lindsay had outfitted it, chosen furnishings, debated, argued, agreed—all of which he considered normal—over little details.

  Now they’d have to sell it, and both likely walk away with half of little to nothing. And instead of renting a condo for what he’d hoped would be the short term, he’d end up buying one.

  For himself, he thought as he climbed out of the car and into the rain. No debates, arguments or agreements necessary.

  And, he realized as he jogged to the front door, that came as a kind of relief. No more holding time, no more maybes, no more pretense his marriage could or should be saved.

  Maybe in her lying, deceitful, cheating way, she’d done him a favor.

  He could walk away now without guilt or regret.

  But he’d damn well walk away with what was his.

  He unlocked the door, stepped into the wide, gracious foyer. Turning to the alarm pad, he keyed in the code. If she’d changed it, he had his ID, listing his name and this address. He’d already worked out how to handle any police or security questions.

  He’d simply say his wife had changed the code—true enough—and he’d forgotten it.

  But she hadn’t. The fact that she hadn’t was both relief and insult. She thought she knew him so well, was so sure he’d never enter the house that was half his without her permission. He’d agreed to move out, to give them both some space, so he’d never intrude, never push too hard.

  She assumed he’d be fucking civilized.

  She was soon to discover she didn’t know him at all.

  He stood a moment, absorbing the quiet of the house, the feel of it. All those neutral tones serving as a backdrop of splashes and flashes of color, the mix of old, new, cleverly quirky adding style.

  She was good at it, he could admit that. She knew how to present herself, her home, knew how to arrange successful parties. There had been some good times here, spikes of happiness, stretches of contentment, moments of easy compatibility, some good sex, some lazy Sunday mornings.

  How did it all go so wrong?

  “Screw it,” he muttered.

  Get in, get out, he told himself. Being in the house just depressed him. He went upstairs, directly to the sitting room off the master bedroom—noted she had an overnight bag on the luggage rack, half packed.

  She could go wherever the hell she wanted to go, he thought, with or without her lover.

  Eli focused in on what he’d come for. Inside the closet, he keyed in the combination for the safe. He ignored the stack of cash, the documents, the jewelry cases holding pieces he’d given her over the years, or she’d bought for herself.

  Just the ring, he told himself. The Landon ring. He checked the box, watched it wink and flash in the light, then shoved it into the pocket of his jacket. Once the safe was secured again and he started back down, it occurred to him he should’ve brought bubble wrap or some protection for the painting.

  He’d grab some towels, he decided, something to shield it from the rain. He took a couple of bath sheets from the linen closet, kept going.

  In and out, he told himself again. He hadn’t known how much he wanted out of that house, away from the memories—good and bad.

  In the living room he took the painting off the wall. He’d bought it on their honeymoon because Lindsay had been so taken with it, with the sun-washed colors, the charm and simplicity of a field of sunflowers backed by olive groves.

/>   They’d bought other art since, he thought as he wrapped the towels around it. Paintings, sculptures, pottery certainly of greater value. They could all go in the communal pile, all be part of the mechanism of negotiation. But not this.

  He laid the padded painting on the sofa, moved through the living area with the storm slashing overhead. He wondered if she was driving in it, on her way home to finish packing for the overnight trip with her lover.

  “Enjoy it while it lasts,” he murmured. Because first thing in the morning, he was calling his divorce attorney and letting him off the leash.

  From now on, he intended to go for the throat.