A Month at the Shore cover(30K)

A Month at the Shore



PROLOGUE

The day after eighth-grade graduation was the best and worst of Kendall's life.

He was minding his own business, which happened to be tracking down a snowy owl that had been sighted in a woods just outside of town, when he heard boys' voices farther up the trail.

He was sorry to hear them. He didn't want to be caught with a pair of expensive binoculars around his neck and looking for birds, so he got back on his bike with every intention of leaving the way he came: quietly. As he pedalled off, the voices got more shrill--whoops and yelps, the sounds of small-town kids on the warpath. He would be fair game for them, he knew from experience, so he picked up his pace.

And then he heard the scream. It was a girl's cry, frightened and angry at the same time, and it sent chills up his back and arms. He slammed on the brakes so violently that his bike skidded on the soft path and went out from under him, falling on top of him and scraping across his pale, thin legs.

He righted the bike, but his hands and legs were shaking as he mounted it again and set off in the direction of the scream. Part of him was hoping and praying that it was all just fooling around; but part of him knew better.

He found them in a clearing next to the trail where he knew kids liked to hang out drinking and smoking--and, he had always assumed, having sex. Four boys had a girl cornered.

She was standing in front of the campfire rocks. Ken couldn't see her very well because she was shielded by the four boys. They were practically shoulder to shoulder, but one pair of shoulders stood higher and broader than the rest: they belonged to Will Burton, the doctor's son, a bully who had squeezed more than one allowance out of Ken on a Friday afternoon. Will's younger, red-haired brother Dagger was there, too, and two other kids that Ken didn't recognize.

"Hey!" he yelled at their backs, almost before he could think about it.

They all turned around at the same time, surprised and therefore pissed. But Ken wasn't looking at them, he was looking at her. He hadn't seen her for four years, and he was stunned to realize that she had breasts. She was clutching her torn shirt to herself, but one of her breasts was clearly exposed and he could see her dark pink nipple. Instantly he looked away; when he looked back again immediately, he saw that her face was all flushed and her cheeks were wet, and he felt desperately ashamed.

"Leave her alone," he said in a voice filled with fury.

Will Burton just laughed. "Ooh, I'm scared. What're you gonna do? Run and tell your daddy?"

The other boys snickered and approached him as he stood astride his bike.

He could have taken off. He didn't, because he wanted her to make a break for it. But she stayed right where she was! He couldn't believe it. She wasn't moving. It was like she was hypnotized or paralyzed or something. She was looking straight at him and nobody else. He was ashamed in advance for what he knew was going to happen to him.

He became aware of the crack of branches underfoot as one of the boys he didn't know took up a position behind him. Instinctively he glanced over his shoulder at him. At the same instant, Dagger Burton grabbed his binoculars out of his bike basket.

Dagger turned to focus the binoculars on her breasts while Ken and the others remained in their standoff. Everything seemed to go on hold while Dagger did his thing.

"Shit, I can't see anything," Dagger said after fiddling with the adjustments. "Everything's blurry. I must be too close."

Stupidly, Dagger began backing away from her in an attempt to get in better focus.

So that left three.

"Leave her alone," Ken said, controlling the quaver that hovered at the back of his voice. "Get out now, and I won't tell anyone."

Will Burton was only a year older than Ken but just then seemed twice his size, minimum. He snorted and said, "Who's gonna make me? You--skinnykenny? what a dork."

Ken tried to make his voice sound strong. "Leave her alone." But his voice broke and the last word came out like a hiccup, and everyone laughed, except her, of course.

He didn't dare look at her; he was so totally mortified. For her, for him, for both of them. He was rich and she was poor, but at that moment both of them were equals.

Hulking Will Burton waited until the snickers died down, and then in a voice that was way calmer and deeper than Ken's, he said: "Dork."

It was true. Ken was a dork; he knew he was a dork. But there was something about being called one in front of her that made something inside of him snap. He threw down his bike and went wading into Will Burton: head down, arms flailing, landing punches half in the air. But he made contact, too--for the stolen allowances, for the snickers, and mostly for that exposed nipple, which he knew was now burned into his memory for life. He hated them all, hated them for their contempt for anyone who wasn't as cool as they were.

They punched him and kicked him and he tasted his own blood, but still he kept flailing. His eyes were shut, so he couldn't tell if she had taken off or not. Before he could get the chance to look, he felt a hard whack on the back of his head -- he was pretty sure, from his brand-new binoculars.



CHAPTER 1

"Here he comes at last."

Against a blood red sun sliding into a dark blue sea, a beat-up Subaru without a muffler wheezed its way toward the two sisters standing on the knoll.

Laura Shore was dismayed by the bedraggled sight: it was so typically Shore.

"Well, he missed Dad's funeral," she said, sighing. "Why should I be surprised that he's missed the memorial?"

"You're not being fair," her sister protested in their brother's defense. "Six months ago, Snack was in jail for stealing a car."

"Yeah. Obviously not the one he's driving," Laura said dryly. "Will you look at that wreck? I'll bet he went out of his way to drive right down Main in it, tooting to everyone in sight."

Corinne grinned and said, "That's our Snack."

It had always amazed Laura that her sister was so willing to accept their brother's outlandish, provocative behavior. But then, Corinne had managed to live at home with their father until the day that he died. She'd been tempered in a very hot fire.

"What do you want to bet he stopped at Foxwoods?" Laura said.

"Today? Snack wouldn't do that."

"Wouldn't hit the slots? Since when?"

"Not today," Corinne insisted.

It might have been the ocean damp, it might have been their father's grave: suddenly Corinne shivered in her thin cotton sweater and had to hug herself. "I'll bet he had car trouble. It's a miracle that he made it all the way here from Tijuana in that thing."

"Tijuana. God." Laura turned her back on the noisy, smoking car in time to see the last sliver of orange dip below the horizon, leaving behind a rich tapestry of gold, blue and lavender sky. It was a spectacular Cape Cod sunset, and despite her resentment at being summoned back home by her younger sister, Laura felt the pull of the moment.

"Why," she asked with grudging wonder, "would Snack move to Tijuana when he could have stayed here?"

Corinne shrugged. "Why did you go off to live in Oregon? To make a mark, I suppose."

"I could just as well have made my mark In Chepaquit," Laura said quickly, rounding on her younger sister. "That is not why I left. I left to get as far away from Dad as I could."

"And from everyone else around here, Laura. Admit it."

"If you mean, from some of the people in this stifling, small-minded town--then, yes, I suppose so."

"Mm-hmm. You and Snack. You're more alike than you know."

It was a startling comparison, and Laura didn't like it at all. Corinne was a shy, sweet, totally naive homebody who'd virtually never ventured off the Cape. What could she possibly know about psychological profiling?

Laura had to ask. "Corinne--just what, exactly, did you mean by that?"

Corinne shrugged. "You know. Big chip on the shoulder? You and Snack just deal with it in opposite ways, that's all." Her gaze was locked on the Subaru now, and she was waving her arm in broad arcs.

"I do not have a chip on my--"

Snack beeped loudly half a dozen times in return, making Laura wince. "The man is driving in a graveyard," she snapped, "not in a St. Patrick's Day parade."

"Laura, stop. You haven't seen one another since Mom's funeral. Bend a little, won't you? It's been so long since we've all been together."

"Four years isn't so long. Anyway, Snack could have come to visit this past Christmas, when you did."

"How? He had to be in court."

Laura smiled grimly. "Case closed. So to speak."

But she was still smarting from her sister's observation. Laura and Snack, two sides of the same warped coin? It wasn't possible. Corinne didn't know what she was talking about. She hadn't taken a psychology course in her life--hadn't had the chance to go to college, period--whereas Laura had worked and scrimped and saved and earned not only a degree in computer science, but a minor in psychology as well.

And never once, during all of the psych courses she'd taken at Oregon State, had it occurred to her that she and Snack shared the same motivation for their respective behavior. The same genes, yes. Apparently. But not the same motivation.

Please. The very thought was laughable.

Snack stopped at the end of the winding lane, got out of the car, and began climbing the rest of the way with long-legged strides. A cigarette dangled from his lips; he pitched it over a headstone and smiled at his sisters sheepishly.

"Brakes went kaput," he explained when he got near. "Just over the line in Jersey. I had to tip a mechanic thirty extra bucks, all I had, to work late. So I'm starving, incidentally. And I blew it anyway--didn't I, big sister?" he added with an edgy and yet good-natured smile at Laura. "I know, I know: thirty-one, and what a mess. Go on. Say it. I'm waiting."

Same old Snack.

Laura said nothing.

He laughed and took in the sweep of Nantucket Sound that lay before them and, with a wink at Corinne, said, "Great view. Dad picked a good spot. Morning sun, sheltered from the wind--not bad. Not bad at all. Ever notice that about graveyards in these old towns? They're always on primo real estate. Yep. Every single one I've ever--"

Suddenly Corinne threw her arms around Snack and began to cry. Taken aback, Snack murmured comforting words without making whole sentences out of them, patting her back as he spoke. Over her shoulder he cocked his head at his older sister, a half-smile of query on his lips: were they friends, or were they not?

Laura brushed a few grains of sand from the silk skirt of her dark gray ensemble and then let her glance drift from it to her brother's greasy jeans and denim jacket. "I see you dressed for the occasion?"

A corner of Snack's thin, finely drawn lips lifted a little higher, and he shrugged. "Dad wouldn't have recognized me any way else."

Laura made a dismissive sound and said, "The fog will be rolling in soon. We'd better get back to the house. Come on, Rinnie. Snack can follow us in his car."

Corinne withdrew from her brother's embrace and wiped her eyes with outstretched fingers. "No, wait. Snack needs to say ... hello, and I guess goodbye. We'll wait for you by your car," she said to him in gentle command.

She linked her arm through Laura's and led her away, giving their younger brother a quiet moment in which to pay his respects, whatever they happened to be.

Corinne walked down the grassy knoll without looking back, but Laura had no such compunctions. She glanced over her shoulder to see Snack standing at the foot of their father's grave, its new headstone obscured under bunches of flowers from the family nursery. Snack's head was bowed, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans.

Despite her desire not to care, Laura found herself wondering what was going through Snack's head. Was he really reflecting, or was he just faking it? Was he feeling what she had felt earlier in that same spot--confusion, and a horrible, wrenching emptiness? Or was he simply wondering what Corinne, a wonderful cook, had whipped up for them for supper?

With Snack, it was always hard to tell.

After a moment, he bobbed his head and then turned and hurried to catch up with his siblings. Even in the fading light, Laura could see that his thin, boyish face was pale. His voice was subdued as he said, "I could damn well use a drink about now."

"What else is new?" Laura murmured from the other side of Corinne.

Her brother snapped, "Not your attitude, that's for sure."

"There's nothing wrong with my--"

"Stop! Both of you--stop. Think where you are."

Embarrassed by the reprimand, Laura said stiffly, "She's right, Snack. Truce." She held out her hand and shook her brother's firmly when he accepted her offer.

Corinne, presiding over the handshake, sounded relieved. "Good. This has to be a team effort if my plan's going to be a success."

"Success? I'm not used to the sound of that word," Snack quipped.

"What're you talking about?" Laura asked. "What plan?"

Corinne pulled out a rubberband from the pocket of her skirt and began binding her long, sunstreaked hair in a ponytail. With a sweet and gentle smile, she said, "I'm going to make you both an offer you can't refuse."

Snack was all ears. "Oh? Whatddya got?"

"Follow me. You'll see."

Corinne climbed into the nursery's pick-up truck, a blue Chevy that was older than Snack's Suburu but not quite as rusted, and Laura climbed in beside her.

"What're you up to, Corinne?" she demanded to know. "Whatever it is, it had better be quick. I leave tomorrow."

Corinne merely smiled. "You'll see."

They were about to pull out when they were halted by the sound of Snack yelling after them to hold it.

Laura groaned. "Now what?"

They climbed back out of the truck. Snack was standing beside the Suburu. "It won't start," he announced in that half-smug, half-defiant voice that they knew so well. "If I had to guess, I'd say it's the solenoid, but who knows? I think the old girl took a look around and thought, 'What the hell, this is as good a place as any to die'."

"Do you want us to tow you?" Corinne asked.

"No," Laura said quickly. "We'll leave it here. A tow-truck can come for it in the morning. It's not exactly blocking traffic."

Them towing Snack. It was all Laura needed: a decrepit truck towing a decrepit car through the middle of town on a Saturday night. She could hear the old snickers so clearly. Oh, how she hated being back!

Snack took his duffelbag out of the Suburu's trunk and tossed it in the back of the pickup, and then he squeezed into the front seat next to Laura. It was predictably tight, and Snack was ripe from his long drive.

"Just like old times, huh?" he said, tugging at Laura's blunt-cut hair. "Remember how Dad used to throw us all in the back of the truck for cranberry harvest?"

The word "cranberry" sent Laura hurtling back in time. For a year or two at the end, when money was especially hard to come by, their father had dragged them off to the cranberry bogs like migrant workers, and that's exactly what they had looked like as they rode in the back of the truck in plain view of everyone in Chepaquit. Oliver Shore was the sole surviving heir to a fourth-generation nursery, and yet he ran it so badly that he'd had to farm out his own children.

Driving out to the bogs hadn't been too unbearable, because few people were up and around at that early hour; but coming back, they had felt painfully on display. They were teenagers, after all; the experience was excruciating. Laura used to pull her baseball cap as far down over her eyes as she could, not because she thought she was disguising herself, but because at least then she couldn't see who was laughing at her.

Often they'd miss school; she hated that even more. Snack, of course, was happy to skip, and even Corinne was relieved--she'd always been shy--but Laura had wanted desperately to make something of herself, and the cranberry bogs were not the place to do that.

"I do remember Octobers here," Laura said quietly. "All too well."

She much preferred her Octobers in Portland, where her garden was a feature on the annual fall tour in her neighborhood, and where afterward she held an open house for the other entrants, treating them to various coffees as well as desserts, none of them baked by her.

"Hey, isn't that the old Sumner place?" Snack said, peering through the deepening dusk. "Holy shit, I hardly recognize it. Who lives there now? The fricking governor?"

"Oh, some trust-fund baby bought it," Corinne explained. "He's playing at being a gentleman farmer. He has sheep."

Whereas the Sumners had pigs. Even so, the Sumner girls had never occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder. That position had been reserved exclusively for the Shore kids. After all, a murderer in the family trumped a pig farmer any day

Laura scarcely glanced at the shingled, gabled farmhouse, now trimmed in pristine white and surrounded by a fenced-in, gently rolling field. She didn't need a walk-through to know that the kitchen was filled with Sub Zero appliances and that the new wing held a master bedroom with a walk-in closet the size of an Olympic pool. The same kind of gentrification was going on back in Portland. Bigger, better, more: it was the mantra of the new millenium.

"I wonder what became of the Sumner girls," Laura said, only vaguely curious. She was far more curious about what had become of Sylvia, the bright, shining star who had suddenly appeared in their evening sky, and then not long afterward had orbitted out of all of their lives. Sylvia, who had been everything that Laura was not: sexy, confident, beautiful, and most of all, free as a butterfly to go wherever she wanted and do whatever she wanted.

"Jean Sumner got married and lives in Indiana; I think she's pretty happy there," Corinne said in a home-town, gossipy way. "Jan, I'm not sure about. I think she's moved to Maine."

Snack said, "So who's still around? Besides you, I mean."

"Lots of people," Corinne argued, sounding defensive. "Two of the Bosenfield kids still live nearby, and so does Nonni Pritchard. And Kendall Barclay, naturally, because of his bank. Will has a practice in Chatham. And, let me see, who else? Oh--Leon Borkowski!"

"Porky Borky?" said Snack fondly. "He's still around?"

"He lives with his mother over the liquor store."

"Gee-eez."

Every name felt like a pinprick to Laura, and two of them were red-hot needles. Which was why coming back to Chepaquit was always a hundred times more painful than leaving it had been.

She remembered vividly the day she moved out. By then the dazzling Sylvia had been gone for a couple of years. Laura had had all that time to reflect on what exciting and dramatic lives people like Sylvia led, and to contrast it with how empty and limited her own life was.

By six p.m. on her eighteenth birthday, Laura was packed and ready to run. After a final, bitter fight with her father, she hadn't even stayed for cake, breaking her mother's heart. It was her single regret.

That, and leaving Corinne. Corinne had been too loyal to their parents and to the family business to leave. Well, that phase of her life was behind her now. As soon as she sold the nursery, Corinne would be free to follow her heart's desire. She had paid her dues, with interest. As sole heir, she was going to enjoy her well-deserved reward. No one was more pleased about that than Laura.

She glanced at her sister and let her gaze settle into a thoughtful study of her profile. Corinne might be thirty-three, but hard work and the sun had taken their toll: even in the near-dark, Laura could see thin lines branching from the corners of her sister's green eyes, and a deepening of the line that ran from her nose to the full, well-shaped mouth that presided over a strong, resolute chin.

Was she alluring? It was hard to say. She was Corinne. Laura knew her too well and loved her too much to know how someone seeing her for the first time would respond.

She was Corinne: sweet and loyal and loving and therefore, in Laura's eyes, achingly desirable. For Laura, it was as simple as that. Why couldn't some man, somewhere, see what she saw?

Because men were jerks. Men were all the same. Jerks.

"What? Why are you staring at me?" Corinne asked, cocking her head before turning her attention back to the road.

"I like what the sun has done to your hair," Laura improvised. "Women pay big bucks for that highlighted effect."

"You can't even see my hair in this light," said Corinne, grinning.

"I see fine."

"You do not."

"Yes, I do. And I'd forgotten how perfect your teeth are. Whereas I had to suffer through braces at thirty. What a birthday present to myself."

"Okay, enough girl talk," said Snack, cutting in. "Rinnie! What's that offer that we won't be able to refuse, hmm?"

Corinne said smugly, "Right in front of your nose, Snack."

The road had dipped and risen and taken its familiar bend, and now they were at the turnoff to the nursery. Even in the romance of dusk, the place looked as sad and forlorn as ever--a run-down collection of shops, sheds, greenhouses and outbuildings, all of them presided over by a large farmhouse built on the highest point of the property. Nothing had been fixed or painted in decades, and--for a nursery-- very little seemed to be either green or growing.

True, several tables sat haphazardly in front of the shop, but the few pots on top of them held nothing in bloom. It was early in the season for flowers ... but still. A solid display of spring perennials and bulbs would have gone a long way to attracting customers and distracting them from the woebegone state of the rest of the site. As it stood, no one but a long-time resident in the area would even know the place was a nursery: the carved and painted sign that once crowned an arch near the entrance was faded and unreadable, even in daylight.

Shore Gardens. A wonderful name for what was once (Laura had seen the photos) a delightfully charming and well-stocked garden center.

No more.

"Will ya look at that?" Snack said in a voice of wonder. "I used to think that it was the peeling paint that held the buildings together. But the paint's all gone and they're still standing. I guess it's by habit."

"Smartass," Corinne said, but with surprising good humor. Clearly she had something to say, and nothing was going to wreck her mood. "Everyone out," she commanded.

Snack and Laura climbed down from the truck like high-school kids on a prison tour: whatever was ahead, they didn't look all that excited to learn about it.

Positioning Snack and Laura next to her on the wraparound porch of the house, Corinne threw her arms wide and said, "Okay. What do you see out there?"

Not the ocean, that was for sure. The porch faced away from it.

"I see ruins," Snack said candidly.

Laura didn't have the heart to agree out loud.

"Squint a little," Corinne ordered them. "You'll see a thriving business with not only annuals and perennials and shrubs and trees, but garden furniture and water fountains and bird feeders and decorative pottery and ... squint! You'll see."

"Corinne. I have a one-thirty flight out of Logan tomorrow. Cut to the chase or I'm going to miss the damn plane," Laura said, more leary than ever. "Just tell us what you have in mind."

"Just this: I want you to spend a month at the Shore."

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