فصل 11

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CHAPTER 11

Avery

Spanish moss drips from the trees, as delicately spun as the lace on a bridal veil. A blue heron launches itself from the salt marsh, disturbed by the passage of my car. It flies clumsily at first, as if it needs a moment to become at home in the air, to find its wings. It beats hard, then finally floats into the distance, in no hurry to be earthbound again.

I know the feeling. For two weeks, I’ve been trying to sneak away and make the drive to Edisto Island. Between the meetings and press ops that were already scheduled and an unexpected complication with Dad’s health, it’s been impossible.

I’ve spent the last six days in doctors’ offices, holding my mother’s hand as we tried to discern why, when the cancer and intestinal bleeding were supposed to have been cured by the surgery, Dad was once again anemic and so weak he could barely stay on his feet. After endless tests, we think the cause has been found. The solution was simple—a laparoscopic surgery to fuse broken blood vessels in his digestive system, a problem unrelated to the cancer. Outpatient. Quick and easy.

Except nothing is simple when you’re trying to hide from the whole world, and Dad insists on not telling anyone he has experienced a minor setback in his health. Leslie is completely onboard with that. She’s reporting that my father had a nasty case of food poisoning; he’ll be back to his regularly scheduled activities in a few days.

My eldest sister, Missy, stepped in to handle appearances at a couple of charity events that couldn’t be canceled. “You look exhausted, Aves,” she said. “Why don’t you get away for a little while, since Leslie has pretty much cleared the schedule anyway? Go see Elliot. Allison and I can keep an eye on things at Drayden Hill.”

“Thanks…but…Well, you’re sure?”

“Go. Talk wedding plans. Maybe you can convince him to knuckle under to the mom pressure.”

I didn’t tell her that, other than a few rushed conversations, Elliot and I haven’t even discussed wedding ideas. We have too much else going on. “Elliot had to fly to Milan to meet with a client, but I think I’ll go down to the old place on Edisto. Has anyone been there lately?”

“Scott and I took the kids for a few days…oh…I guess it was last spring. The housekeeping service keeps the place in such great shape. It should be all ready for you. Go have a little vacay.”

I was packing a suitcase almost before she could tell me to say hello to the beach for her. On the way out of town, I paid a long-overdue visit to May Crandall’s nursing home. An attendant there told me May had been hospitalized with a respiratory infection. The attendant didn’t know how serious it was or when to expect May back.

Which means that the mysterious packet of papers on Edisto is my one possible lead, at least for now. Trent Turner won’t take my phone calls. Period. My only option is to confront him in person. The envelope he’s holding has begun to haunt my every waking moment. I’m getting a little obsessed, making up stories in which he plays different parts in each scene. Sometimes he’s a blackmailer who has discovered a horrible truth about my family and sold the information to my father’s opponents; that’s why he won’t answer my calls. Other times, he’s the man in May Crandall’s photograph. The pregnant woman he’s holding close is my grandmother, and she had some sort of hidden life before she married my grandfather. A teenage love affair. A scandal that’s been covered up for generations.

She gave the baby away, and it’s been living somewhere all this time. Now our dispossessed heir wants a fair share of the family money, or else.

All my scenarios seem crazy, but they’re not completely unfounded. I’ve learned things from reading between the lines in my grandmother’s appointment books. My dragonfly bracelet has some sort of deeper history on Edisto. A lovely gift for a lovely day on Edisto, the entry read. Just us.

It’s the just us part that niggles at me. Only a page before, she’d noted receiving a letter from my grandfather, who had taken the children fishing in the mountains for the week.

Just us…

Who? Who was buying gifts for her on Edisto in 1966?

My grandmother often came here alone over the years, but many times she wasn’t alone after she arrived on the island. That much was obvious from her daybooks.

Could she have been having an affair?

My stomach roils as the Dawhoo Bridge rises ahead. That can’t be the case. Despite the pressure of a life lived in public, my family has always been known for rock-solid marriages. My grandmother loved my grandfather deeply. Aside from that, Grandma Judy is one of the most upright people I know. She’s a pillar of the community and a fixture at the Methodist church. She would never, ever keep a secret from the family.

Unless that secret is something that could hurt us.

And that’s exactly what scares me.

It’s also why I can’t have an envelope floating around heaven knows where with my grandmother’s name on it and some sort of clandestine information inside.

“Ready or not, here I come,” I whisper into the salt air. “What was it that you wanted with my grandmother, Trent Turner?”

While sitting in cars and doctors’ waiting rooms these past few weeks, I’ve tried researching Trent Turner, Sr., and Trent Turner, Jr., the grandfather and father of the Trent I talked to on the phone, who is Trent Turner III. I’ve looked for political connections, criminal records, or whatever might explain ties to my grandmother. I’ve used all my favorite prosecutor tricks. Unfortunately, there is nothing obvious. According to an obit from seven months ago in the Charleston paper, Trent Turner, Sr., was a lifelong resident of Charleston and Edisto Island and the owner of Turner Real Estate. Just an ordinary fellow. Plain and simple. His son, Trent Turner, Jr., is married and lives in Texas, where he owns a real estate agency.

Trent Turner III doesn’t seem to be anyone out of the ordinary either. He played basketball at Clemson and was pretty good at it. He was in the commercial real estate business until recently, mostly in New York. A local press release from a few months ago indicates he left the city behind to take over his grandfather’s business on Edisto.

Why, I can’t help but wonder, does a man who’s been brokering high-rises suddenly move to an out-of-the-way place like Edisto and start dealing in beach cottages and vacation rentals?

I’ll find out soon enough. I’ve looked up his work address. One way or another, I plan to leave the Turner Real Estate office with my grandmother’s envelope and all of its contents, whatever they may be.

Despite the nervousness that stirs inside me, Edisto begins to work its magic as I descend the island side of the bridge and continue along the highway, passing small, sea-weathered homes and a few businesses tucked among pines and live oaks. Overhead, the sky is a perfect shade of blue.

This place is still so much like I remember it. It has a peaceful, gracious, untraveled feel. There’s a reason the locals have nicknamed the island Edi-slow. The ancient oaks bow low over the road, as if seeking to shield it from the outside world. Moss-laden trees paint deep shade over the small SUV I’ve spirited away from the barn at Drayden Hill for the trip. The back roads on Edisto can be a little rugged, and beyond that, showing up in a BMW didn’t seem like a good idea considering that I’m wondering if the contents of the envelope have anything to do with blackmail.

The Turner Real Estate building is easy to find. It’s quaint but not necessarily impressive—the sort of place that’s happy to be just what it is, a seawater-blue vintage cottage on Jungle Road, just a couple blocks from water. Now that I’m here, it does look vaguely familiar, but as a kid, of course, I never had any reason to go inside.

As I park and cross the sand-sprinkled lot, I’m momentarily jealous of the man I’ve come here to find. I could work in a place like this. I could live here even. Just another day in paradise, every single morning. From not far away, laughter and beach sounds drift over. Colorful kites fly above the treetops, kept in the air by a steady sea breeze.

Two little girls run down the street, trailing long red ribbons on sticks. Three women pedal by on bicycles, laughing. Once again, I’m envious, and then I think, Why don’t I come here more often? Why don’t I ever call my sisters or my mother and say, “Hey, let’s just take off and go sit in the sun awhile. We could use some girl time, right?”

Why haven’t Elliot and I ever come here?

The answer tastes bitter, so I don’t chew on it very long. Our schedules are always filled with other things. That’s why.

Who chooses the schedules we keep? We do, I guess.

Although, so often it seems as if there isn’t any choice. If we aren’t constantly slapping new paint on all the ramparts, the wind and the weather will sneak in and erode the accomplishments of a dozen previous generations of the family. The good life demands a lot of maintenance.

Walking up the porch steps to Turner Real Estate, I grab a fortifying breath. The sign says COME ON IN. WE’RE OPEN….So I do. A jingling bell announces my entry, but there’s no one behind the counter.

The front room is a lobby area with colorful vinyl chairs lining its edges. A watercooler waits with paper cups. Racks display endless brochures. A popcorn machine reminds me that I’ve missed lunch. Beautiful photographs of the island line the walls. The base of the counter across the room is decorated with children’s artwork and photos of happy families posing in front of their new beach homes. The display randomly mixes past and present. Some of the black-and-whites appear to be from all the way back in the fifties. I stand and I scan them, looking for my grandmother. There’s no sign of her.

“Hello?” I venture, since nobody seems to be materializing from the rooms down the hall. “Hello?”

Maybe they’ve stepped out for a minute? The place is dead quiet.

My stomach growls, crying out for popcorn.

I’m about to raid the machine when the back door opens. I slap the popcorn bag down and turn around.

“Hey! I didn’t know anyone was in here.” I recognize Trent Turner III from the photo online, but that picture was taken from a distance, a full-body shot in front of the building. He was wearing a ball cap and had a beard. It didn’t do him justice. Now he’s clean-shaven. Dressed in khakis, well-worn loafers with no socks, and a nicely fitted polo shirt, he looks like he belongs under an umbrella table somewhere…or in an ad for casual living. He’s sandy blond and blue-eyed, the hair just shaggy enough to backhandedly say, I live on beach time.

He moves up the hall, juggling a couple to-go bags and a drink. I catch myself ogling the haul. I think I smell shrimp and chips. My stomach offers another audible protest.

“Sorry, I…there was no one here.” I thumb over my shoulder toward the door.

“Ran out for some lunch.” Placing the food on the counter, he looks around for a napkin, then settles for swiping up stray cocktail sauce with a piece of printer paper. Our handshake is sticky but friendly. “Trent Turner,” he says with casual ease. “What can I do for you?” His smile makes me want to like him. It’s the kind of smile that assumes people do like him. He seems…honest, I guess.

“I called you a couple weeks ago.” No sense starting right off with names.

“Rental or buy-and-sell?”

“What?”

“A place. Were we talking about a rental or a property listing?” He’s searching his memory banks, clearly. But there’s also more than casual interest coming my way. I feel a spark of…something.

I catch myself smiling back.

Guilt niggles at me instantly. Should an engaged woman—even a lonely one—be reacting this way? Maybe it’s just because Elliot and I have barely talked in almost two weeks. He’s been in Milan. The time difference is difficult. He’s focused on the job. I’m focused on family issues.

“Neither one.” I guess there’s no sense postponing this any longer. The fact that this guy is good-looking and likeable doesn’t change reality. “I called you about something I found at my grandmother’s house.” My fledgling friendship with Trent Turner is, no doubt, doomed to be short-lived. “I’m Avery Stafford. You said you had an envelope addressed to my grandmother, Judy Stafford? I’m here to pick it up.”

His demeanor changes instantly. Muscular forearms cross over a ripped chest, and the counter quickly becomes a negotiation table. A hostile one.

He looks displeased. Very. “I’m sorry you wasted the trip. I told you, I can’t give those documents to anyone but the people they’re addressed to. Not even family members.”

“I have her power of attorney.” I’m already pulling it from my oversized purse. Being the lawyer in the family, and with my mother and father preoccupied by the health issue, I am the one designated on Grandma Judy’s documents. I unfold them and turn the pages toward him as he’s lifting his hand to protest. “She’s in no shape to handle her own affairs. I’m authorized to—”

He rejects the offering without even looking at the papers. “It’s not a legal matter.”

“It is if it’s her mail.”

“It’s not mail. It’s more like…cleaning up some loose ends from my grandfather’s files.” His eyes duck away, take in the swaying palms outside the window, evading my probing.

“It’s about the cottage here on Edisto then?” This is a real estate office, after all, but why maintain such secrecy over real estate documents?

“No.”

His answer is disappointingly brief. Usually, when you throw a wrong assumption at a witness, the witness responds by inadvertently giving you at least a piece of the right one.

It’s obvious that Trent Turner has been through many a negotiation before. In fact, I sense that he’s been through this very negotiation before. He did say those documents and people, as in multiple. Are other families being held hostage as well?

“I’m not leaving until I find out the truth.”

“There’s popcorn.” His attempt at humor only serves to stoke the fire in my belly.

“This isn’t a joke.”

“I realize that.” For the first time, he seems slightly sympathetic to my plight. His arms uncross. A hand runs roughly through his hair. Thick brown lashes close over his eyes. Stress lines form around the edges, hinting at a life that was once considerably more high-pressure than this one. “Look, I promised my grandfather…on his deathbed. And trust me—it’s better this way.”

I don’t trust him. That’s the point. “I’ll go after them legally if I have to.”

“My grandfather’s files?” A sardonic laugh indicates that he doesn’t take to threats very well. “Good luck with that. They were his property. They’re my property now. You’ll have to be satisfied with that.”

“Not if this could damage my family.”

The look on his face tells me I’ve struck close to the truth. I feel sick. My family does have a deep, dark secret. What is it?

Trent lets out a long sigh. “It’s just…This really is for the best. That’s all I can tell you.” The phone rings, and he answers it, seeming to hope the interruption will drive me away. The caller has a million questions about Edisto beach rentals and activities on the island. Trent takes the time to talk about everything from fishing for black drum to finding mastodon fossils and arrowheads on the beach. He gives the caller a lovely history lesson about wealthy families who resided on Edisto before the War Between the States. He talks about fiddler crabs and pluff mud and harvesting oysters.

He pops fried shrimp into his mouth, savors them while he listens. Turning his back to me, he leans against the counter.

I return to my original seat by the door, perch on the edge, and stare at his back while he offers an endless litany about Botany Bay. He seems to describe the four-thousand-acre preserve inch by inch. I tap my foot and drum my fingers. He pretends not to notice, but I catch him peeking at me from the corner of his eye.

I pull out my phone and thumb through email. If worse comes to worst, I’ll scroll through Instagram or dawdle around with the wedding ideas my mom and Bitsy want me to look at on Pinterest.

Trent bends over a desktop computer, looks up information, talks about rentals and dates.

The customer finally settles on a time and place for the ideal vacation. Trent confesses that he’s not the one who handles logging the rental bookings. His secretary is home with a sick baby, but he’ll email her, and she’ll take care of the confirmations.

Finally, after what seems like at least thirty minutes of chatterboxing, he straightens to his full height and looks in my direction. A staredown ensues. This man is, quite possibly, as stubborn as I am. Unfortunately, he can probably hold out longer. He has food.

Hanging up the phone, he taps a knuckle to his lips, shakes his head, and sighs. “It won’t matter how long you’re here. It’s not going to change anything.” His frustration is starting to show. I’m getting somewhere. I’ve got him rattled now.

I proceed calmly to the popcorn machine and the watercooler and help myself.

Thusly equipped for the sit-in, I wander back to my seat.

He yanks an office chair into position behind the computer, sits down, and disappears behind a four-drawer file cabinet.

At the first taste of popcorn, my stomach lets out an indelicately loud roar.

The shrimp basket suddenly appears on the edge of the counter. Manly fingers shove it my way, but he doesn’t say a word. The kindness makes me feel guilty, even more so as, with a resolute thump, he adds an unopened soda. I’m undoubtedly ruining his perfectly good day.

I help myself to a little handful and return to my spot. Guilt and fried shrimp go quite nicely together, it turns out.

Computer keys click. Another sigh comes from behind the file cabinet. More time passes. The desk chair squeals in protest, as if he’s rocking back in it. “Don’t you Staffords have people to do this kind of thing for you?”

“Sometimes. But not in this case.”

“I’m sure you’re used to getting what you want.”

His insinuation burns. I’ve been fighting it all my life—the idea that my only qualifications are a cute blond head and the Stafford name. Now, with the speculation heating up about my political future, I’m incredibly sick of hearing it. The family name didn’t get me through Columbia Law School with honors.

“I work for what I get, thank you.”

“Ffff!”

“I don’t ask for any special favors, and I don’t expect any.”

“So I can call the police and have you removed from my waiting room, just like I would with anyone else who stakes out the place and won’t leave when they’re asked?”

Shrimp and popcorn merge to form a lump just below my breastbone. He wouldn’t…would he? I can just imagine the newspaper coverage. Leslie would string me up singlehandedly. “Does that happen often?”

“Not unless someone’s tipped back a few too many brewskies on the beach. And Edisto’s not really that kind of place. We don’t get much excitement here.”

“Yes, I know. And I have a feeling that’s one reason you won’t want the police involved in this.”

“One reason?”

“I doubt you’re unaware that there are people who wouldn’t have hesitated to threaten my family with information that could be damaging…if there were any such information. And that sort of behavior is illegal.”

Trent is out of his chair in a heartbeat, and I’m out of mine. We face each other like generals across a war room table. “You’re about a half inch from meeting the Edisto Beach police.”

“What did your grandfather want with my grandmother?”

“It wasn’t blackmail, if that’s what you’re getting at. My grandfather was an honest man.”

“Why did he leave an envelope for her?”

“They had business in common.”

“What business? Why didn’t she tell anyone about it?”

“Maybe she thought that was for the best.”

“Was she coming here to…meet someone? Did he find out about it?”

He draws back, his lip curling. “No!”

“Then tell me!” I’m in courtroom mode now, focused on one thing—getting to the truth. “Give me the envelope!”

He slams a hand on the counter, rattles everything there, then whips around the end. In a few strides, we’re face-to-face. I stand as tall as I can, and still he towers over me. I refuse to be intimidated. We’re settling this thing. Right here. Right now.

The bell on the door rings, and it barely registers at first. I’m focused on white-rimmed blue eyes and clenched teeth.

“Whew! It’s a hot one outside. Got any popcorn today?” When I glance over my shoulder, a man in an official-looking uniform—a Park Service employee or perhaps a game warden—is standing in the doorway, looking back and forth between Trent Turner and me. “Oh…didn’t know you had company.”

“Come on in and take a load off, Ed.” Trent beckons the incomer with friendly enthusiasm, which quickly wanes when he turns my way again and adds, “Avery here was just leaving.”

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