“With all due respect, this don’t look like you, ma’am.” The security guard at the ferry checkpoint gave her a crooked smile as he handed her driver’s license back to her. As Faith took the well-worn card, she noticed the intense farmer’s tan on the young man’s muscled biceps.
“Yeah, I was trying something,” she mumbled as she shoved the card back into her favorite Louis Vuitton purse. Nobody would notice her bag was from two seasons ago on Saint Rose Island anyway.
“They say blondes have more fun,” he said in that syrupy southern drawl as he extended an arm to usher her onto the ferry. “But brunette suits you. You got that young Angelina Jolie thing going on.”
“Thanks,” she said quietly as she hurried to the far end of the platform. Faith dug her phone out of her purse. Two bars and 35 percent. She thumbed to Natalie’s name. When her best friend picked up, it didn’t sound like she and San Francisco were almost three thousand miles away.
“Nat, thank God,” she said. Faith stumbled as the ferry left the dock. All around her, couples and families stuck to the railings and gazed into the distance. She was the only single rider and definitely the only one wearing a whit of black.
“Hey! Are you already there? How’s island life? Is it all coming back to you now, like that Celine Dion song?” She could hear Natalie munching on something and phones ringing wildly in the background.
“Not quite yet, just got on the ferry,” she said. “Actually, yeah,” she said as she gazed onto the banks of the passing islands. “Kind of. I didn’t realize I remembered this ferry ride until just now.” She had a glimpse of herself at around four years old, clutching her dad’s hand while a towheaded toddler pulled at her new dress.
The warm breeze ruffled her hair. Faith wobbled slightly in her Louboutin heels. It had been stupid to wear them. She’d thought battling the hills of San Francisco in four-inch stilettos had made her a pro, but she had nothing on the shaky wooden slats of a southern ferry.
“Oh! Any hotties on board?” Natalie said. “I picture it, like, full of cowboys and gentlemen who stand up when you approach a table.”
“Cowboys?” Faith laughed. “It’s Georgia, not Texas. And there aren’t any grand plantation tables on the ferry for me to try out your approaching-the-table test.”
“Well, let me know when you find out. So how is it? I swear, it’s not even officially summer yet, and this place is already living up to its freaking cold-ass reputation. You know I wore my leather jacket to the office today?”
“Warmer, that’s for sure,” Faith said. She scanned her ferry mates. None of them wore heels. The women were clad in floral sundresses. A few wore floppy hats. She could tell they were genuine, not picked up at a boutique for a one-time trip to Mexico. Swipes of coral and pink lipstick were carefully applied to their easy smiles. “Different.”
“Different how?” Natalie asked through another mouthful. It was the lunch hour in California—at least for Natalie. She never found time for her packed lunch until four o’clock. If Faith were there, buried in legal briefs and reaching for her fourth coffee of the day, she’d be digging into her own protein bowl at the moment, too.
“I don’t know. It’s breezy, like back home. It’s the people. The water.”
“The water? Well, yeah, I don’t imagine it’s anything like the Bay.”
“No, but it’s more than that.” Faith looked toward the golden sun in the horizon slowly starting to sink closer to the turquoise water. The ferry ambled toward it. It was like the sun was beckoning to her. Slow as molasses, that’s probably what someone would say here. “It’s like, I don’t know, the ocean’s alive or something. You’re really aware that it’s teeming with life. You know?”
“You’re sounding quite philosophical for a Cali girl who’s only been in the dirty South for less than a day,” Natalie said. “That big inheritance turning you into a navel-gazer? Your guru at that granola yoga place would be so proud!”
Faith shook her head. “I can’t explain it. And it’s not like I’m Silicon Valley rich, either,” she said with a laugh. “I told you, Google Earth couldn’t even give me a clear shot of this place. For all I know, ‘a good deal of land’ on Saint Rose might not mean much. And I didn’t get that much money,” Faith said quickly. She hadn’t even told Natalie how much cash she’d received. She still couldn’t quite believe it herself.
“Yeah, well, no matter how big the estate is, it’s gotta be huge compared to these so-called efficiency studios going for three thousand a month and a kidney. I can’t believe that estate attorney didn’t even have a picture or anything.”
“He did,” Faith admitted.
“What? So tell me! What’s it like? Are you going to be all Scarlett O’Hara? Oh my God. You have to invite me. I can’t do another whole summer in this place.”
“I can’t. I told him I didn’t want to see it. But I’ll let you know as soon as I find out what I’m in for. I’ll send pictures.”
“You’re crazy,” Natalie said. “You’re gonna be the kind of pregnant woman who waits until the baby’s born to find out the sex. I swear, I could never have that kind of patience.”
“Please, no baby talk,” she moaned. “You sound like my aunt.”
“Your aunt’s crazy,” Natalie said. “But yeah, getting on you at twenty-six about marriage and grandkids and everything is kind of overkill.”
“I think she knows my guy cousins aren’t going to be settling down anytime soon. Kind of hard to meet wife material when you spend every day surfing. And her daughters, well, you know how my cousins are.” Faith heard the judgment in her voice, but she couldn’t help it.
Her cousins were grown, and the guys were still making ends meet at board shops and bars. The girls had been husband hunting before they’d even finished their bachelor degrees. When she’d escaped that lazy Southern California surf town after law school and gotten an offer in Silicon Valley, she’d thought her aunt would be proud of her. Instead, all she’d heard was that it was the perfect place to meet a man who could take care of her.
“It’s the generation of perpetual boys. They’re never growing up,” Natalie said.
“I don’t know, not according to my cousins. You know the one I babysat growing up? She’s twenty-one and just got engaged.”
“No shit!” Natalie said. “To who?”
“I don’t know, some actor-model in his thirties. He’s had a bunch of small parts on television, then some soap commercial or something.”
“God, and she can barely drink legally. What a waste,” Natalie said.
“Yeah, well. I guess when you’re the archetypal California blonde, your expiration date starts looming at that age.” Faith pulled her oversize Oliver Peoples sunglasses down her nose. “And my aunt, well, you know. Always comparing me to her perfect sorority sister daughters.”
She caught the eye of another ferry worker who walked by, arms full of rope. “Ma’am,” he said as he nodded at her with a boyish smile.
“Who was that?” Natalie asked. “Ma’am? Dear God, you really are in another universe.”
“Someone who works here,” Faith said. “I think they’re being overly polite because I stick out here like a sore thumb.” She could see a lush green island start to appear in the distance. A couple of pristine white houses faced the ocean.
“Whatever! I saw that spray tan before you left. You’ll fit right in.”
“I don’t know,” Faith said as she looked at the women on board. There was an obvious ease to them. Their honey-colored hair was highlighted by the sun and fell in natural waves. Nothing like the processed and perfected “beach waves” painstakingly added at blowout bars in San Francisco.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Natalie said softly.
“I’m not,” Faith said. She pushed the thought of her clan of bubbly blonde and laidback surfer cousins out of her head. I can’t believe I thought coming here would make me feel like I fit in. “So your aunt didn’t tell you anything about this place? That’s so mysterious.”
“No, not really, but I don’t think she knows much,” Faith said. “I mean, I don’t know how much my mom visited Dad’s family out here. And when Dad died seven years ago . . .”
She let her voice trail off. It was true what everyone said. It did get easier not to cry when she remembered the car accident. But that didn’t mean it actually got easier.
“I’m sorry,” Natalie said.
“No, it’s okay.” She took a deep, pranayama-guided breath and pulled herself together. “When he died, I don’t think introducing me to my southern roots was really at the top of his priority list.”
“Yeah, but to not even know you had a whole other family over there? Why all the secrecy?”
“Who knows?” Faith said. “Looking back on it, my dad wasn’t really the most forthcoming person. But you know, I’m sure he thought he had plenty of time.”
“Well, I can’t believe that your firm let you have the whole freaking summer off! I’m so jealous.”
“It’s not totally off,” Faith said. “I’m doing some remote consulting here.”
“Yeah, yeah, nobody wants to hear it,” Natalie teased. “Everybody in this town is a virtual worker except me.”
Faith hadn’t told Natalie just how burned out with corporate law she was. Who got burned out at twenty-six? But as she looked into the clear depths of the jewel-colored water, she knew this was what she needed.
“We’re five minutes from docking at Saint Rose on the afternoon express from Fernandina Beach,” said a deep, slow voice over an intercom that crackled. “Thank you for riding with us, and y’all have a blessed afternoon.”
“Oh, sweet tea, I heard that,” Natalie said. “I swear, if you don’t have some bodice-ripping southern romance where you christen every room in some wicker-covered plantation home, I’m revoking your woman card.”
Faith laughed. “I’ll see what I can do. But you’ll have to swap the bodice for a tailored suit.” She tugged at the fitted black skirt. What had she been thinking, wearing work clothes to go to an island? From San Francisco to Atlanta and then Savannah, she’d felt confident. Poised. Now she felt like she was about to reenact Hart of Dixie.
“Ugh, you’re killing me. I have to wear a suit; you don’t! Go put on a bodice or a sundress or whatever it is you wear down there.”
“I’m on it. I’ll call or text once things get settled.”
“Okay, bye. Love you,” Natalie said.
When Faith hung up, the exhaustion really hit her. The ferry rocked to rest at the dock, and as she stepped off, the first security checker offered his arm to her. “Miss Jolie, ma’am,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Uh, thanks,” she said.
Only one person stood with a sign. “Faith Capshaw” was handwritten in gorgeous print. “Miss Capshaw?” he asked. “I’m Lee, part of the team at Greystone Inn. Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Can I take your bag?”
“It’s a purse,” she said, suddenly embarrassed.
“Oh! My mistake. Y’all ready? Let’s get your suitcase and hit the road. Gonna have to hustle if y’all wanna get there before dark.”
“Uh, is this the car?” Faith asked as she eyed the gold cart.
Lee laughed as he hoisted her luggage into the matching gold trailer. His bronzed muscles flexed in the Georgia sun. “Technically a golf car, ma’am. It’s part of the estate. Miss Capshaw,” he said, holding the little door open for her.
As they whipped through the winding roads, Faith was in awe of the Spanish moss and massive oak trees. Every now and then they passed gorgeous and perfectly preserved white plantation homes. She could only see a couple clearly, with their wraparound porches and Adirondack chairs. Most were hidden down long tree-lined driveways and behind ornate wrought-iron gates.
“Have you worked at Greystone long?” she asked.
“ʼBout fifteen years, ma’am,” Lee said. “I live there, too.” He glanced at her. “From what I hear, you used to spend a good amount o’ time here.”
“Really?” she asked. “Who told you that?”
He shrugged. “Island life. People talk,” he said.
She picked at a cuticle, a terrible habit. Lee didn’t seem like the type to offer up information, but she was desperate to find out more. “What do people say?”
“What? You mean ʼbout you?”
He shrugged again. “Not much. Just that you, your cousin, an’ your daddy used to spend most summers here.”
“A cousin?” she asked. “Which cousin? Maxine? Ashleigh? Was it a girl or boy? From California?”
“Don’t know the names, ma’am,” he said. “All I heard is that it was just you an’ one other, though. Think it was another little girl.”
Faith chewed at her lip. There was no way her aunt would have brought just one of her cousins.
“Do you like it?” she asked, probing for a conversation and changing the topic. “Working here, I mean.”
“GI’s a great place, ma’am,” he said. “But I don’t know how much I’d call it work.”
“What do you mean?”
He laughed. “I mean, I’ve lived here most o’ my life.”
“In the inn?”
Not much of a talker, huh? Faith wanted to ask. But she was reminded of what her yoga teacher always told them. “Silence can often say everything you need.” She struggled to keep from asking questions just to fill the quiet. By the time they pulled up to a driveway with old oak trees lining the way to a two-story bright-white home, she had started to relax.
Lee hopped out, jaunted to her side to open her door, and grabbed her luggage. He nodded toward the front door, and Faith was aware of the harsh click of her heels on the wooden steps. She gave him a look. “Should be open, ma’am,” he said, and nodded toward the big wooden front door.
When the door swung open, she walked into what could only be described as a grand foyer that led directly to a parlor. The dark wooden floors were obviously newly polished.
“I don’t give a damn!” a low voice yelled.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you—”
Faith wavered at the french doors as she took in the two men arguing. They looked similar, obviously brothers. Both with sandy-blond hair and piercing light eyes.
“Hi,” Faith said. “I’m—”
“Faith Capshaw,” one of them finished for her. The one with the curious eyes fired up with a blaze of something she couldn’t quite put a finger on. The other one had nothing but cold hardness in his gaze.
“Miss Capshaw, this is Mr. Alex and Mr. Caleb Caldwell,” Lee interjected.
“Mister?” Caleb asked with a laugh. “Lee, what the hell? Since when did you go all southern hospitality?”
“Can’t help how Mama taught me,” he said, which seemed to quiet Caleb.
Before anyone could say something more, a coiffed woman appeared. She glided through the set of doors on the opposite end of the room, hair a silvered blonde and cut short. It offset her linen trousers and silk blouse perfectly. She shot the men a glare and walked directly toward Faith.
“Faith, honey, I’m so happy you’re here,” the woman said as she pulled Faith toward her.
“Oh. Hello!” Faith said. “Are you . . . I’m sorry. Are we related?”
The woman laughed and tossed her head back. “No, sweetheart, I’m sorry. I’m Mae Caldwell, mother of these two,” she said, and nodded to the men. “And second mother to Lee.”
“Oh,” Faith said. She heard the disappointment in her voice. What was I expecting? A whole new family?
“You must be tired. We’ll get you set up upstairs, and I’ll fix you some supper. I know you told me on the phone that you’re eager to see the land and house, but you can see it in the morning. It’s not far from here. Alex will take you,” she said.
Faith looked toward the men, and the one with the icy gaze rolled his eyes. Great, Faith thought.
“He’s the best at flying the plane,” Mae said as she took Faith’s elbow and led her toward a wide spiral staircase.
“Plane?” Faith asked.
“Well, you could take a boat, but it would take a while.”
“Oh. I see,” Faith said. She was clearly out of her element. “I have had a long day. Perhaps I should just go to bed.”
“Of course. Lee, will you show Faith to her room? I’m going to stay down here and talk to your brothers.”
Brothers? Clearly Alex and Caleb are related, but how does Lee factor into the situation? Was he adopted?
Faith smiled at Mae uncertainly as Lee led her upstairs. She heard Mae head down the hall, but she still felt a pair of eyes as they bored into her. When she glanced behind her, she saw Alex. He watched her with something like hatred in his eyes.
She quickly looked away. What did I do? Why is he so angry?
Lee saw the look on her face as they reached the landing, and he looked toward Alex. “Don’t mind him, ma’am. It’s nothing personal,” he said quietly. “I’ve known Alex his whole life. We were best friends when we were kids.”
Were? So what happened?
She followed Lee down the long hallway. Large wooden fans provided a cool breeze. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “With him, I mean.”
“Alex, he just doesn’t really like outsiders. ʼSpecially women. Don’t you worry, though. Mama Mae keeps him in line. Keeps us all in line,” he said with a wink.
Faith tried to shrug it off as she stepped into the room. Lee placed her luggage on the king-size four-poster bed and left her with a little bow. The warm walnut floors matched the wood of the bed and curtain rods. She tried to take it all in, but the white bedding looked too delicious.
She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.