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ACTS OF MERCY

Epilogue ~

“What’s that you’ve got, Trula?” Robert looked up from his seat at the kitchen table where he, Susanna, and Mallory watched Ian feed himself the lunch that Trula had prepared for him. Since his return to the Magellan home, Ian’s every move had been watched by several pairs of eyes: first, because those eyes had been starved for the sight of him, and second, because those eyes were constantly watching for signs that the little boy was becoming more acclimated to his surroundings and was starting to bond with his family.

“A package was delivered this morning,” Trula told him, closing the door behind her. “For me.”

Trula smiled and placed the box on the kitchen counter. “It’s from my friend, Gracie.”

She opened a drawer, found the scissors she was looking for, and cut the tape that wound around the box.

“Secure little sucker,” she muttered as she pulled the tape from the box. “Must have wrapped it around four times.”

“Must be something important,” Susanna mused. “I guess Gracie wasn’t taking any chances.”

Trula opened the box and removed the contents.

“Ah.” She lifted a white porcelain coffee mug from the box. “It’s a reminder that I’m overdue for a visit.”

“Looks like a coffee mug to me.” Mallory looked over her shoulder and grinned. “Because, you know, Trula can always use another.”

Trula held up the mug and turned it toward the table so the others could read the side she’d been looking at.

DISCOVER ST. DENNIS! the mug demanded in bold red letters.

“That’s Gracie’s way of telling me it’s time for my annual visit.”

“Gracie’s a childhood friend, right?” Robert recalled the name.

“Grace Sinclair and I have been friends since we were, oh, I guess five or six,” Trula told them. “Her grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up – she was Grace Abernathy, then. She came to visit every summer for several weeks. We used to have one heck of a time, the two of us.” Her eyes sparkled with memories. “And your grandmother, too, if she wasn’t away at camp the weeks Gracie visited,” she told Robert. “The three of us always had such fun.”

“Gracie’s the one who lives on the Chesapeake Bay, right?” Susanna smiled to herself, wondering what childhood recollections had put that twinkle in Trula’s eyes.

“St. Dennis, Maryland. Where the New River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Her late husband’s great-great grandfather settled there back in the early 1800’s, built a lovely home facing the water. Sinclair’s Cove, he named it, and it’s still called that today. Imagine all the history that old place has seen.”

“She still lives there?” Mallory asked.

“She has an apartment in the main house, which her son operates as a B & B, just as she and her husband did in their day.” Trula gave the mug a cursory rinse, then filled it with coffee. “Her husband died, oh, it’s been at least fifteen years since her Dan passed. Daniel, their son, and his wife took over then. His wife drowned a few years back, and he’s been running it alone ever since. Gracie helps out some here and there, but her real love is her newspaper.”

“Gracie works for a newspaper?” Mallory asked.

“Owns it. Her grandfather on her dad’s side started it up in 1893. She started writing features while she was still in college. Took it over when her dad retired. It was a daily back then. These days, she has her hands full getting it out as a weekly.” Trula leaned on the counter and appeared to be deep in thought. “I suppose when Gracie goes, the St. Dennis Gazette will fold. No one wants to run a weekly paper anymore, she tells me. Says she has a tough enough time getting ads these days. Mostly she relies on the older businesses around St. Dennis, those that have been advertising with the paper forever.” She took a sip of coffee. “Don’t know how long that’s going to last, though. The town’s changed so much over the past few years. Not that that’s a bad thing,” she hastened to add. “There are lots of lovely shops now right along the main street. New restaurants, art galleries, antique shops, you name it.”

“Sounds charming.” Susanna leaned over to pick up a slice of apple that Ian had tossed onto the floor.

“Oh, St. Dennis is crazy with charm these days. It’s been ‘discovered’. It’s the new ‘in’ place to go on the Eastern shore,” Trula explained.

“I guess it’s over run with tourists,” Mallory remarked.

“There are lots of tourists, but it isn’t tacky with them, if you know what I mean. The town’s survived a lot over the years – I guess it can survive some shoppers and sightseers. It survived the War of 1812, didn’t lose a building even though the British shelled it from the bay. A few of the houses still have cannonballs embedded in the walls, but none of them fell.” Trula sipped her coffee. “The son of the Sinclair who built the inn married a British beauty and brought her home. She wasn’t real popular with the town’s people for the first few years they lived there, it being so close to the end of the war and all that, but she won them over eventually. Gracie could tell you the story. It was very romantic.” Trula sipped her coffee. “Yes, that inn is really something. Looks like an old Southern plantation. It’s a real popular place, too. Gracie says they’re always full. There’s so much to do there – it’s a real family place. They have boating and swimming, of course. Sailing, for those who enjoy it. Kayaks and canoes for those who like the calmer waters. A children’s pool and play area. Beautiful views from most of the guest rooms. A terrific chef. Oh, and there’s a wildlife preserve right there on the property.”

“Hell, what are we waiting for?” Susanna laughed. “When do we leave?”

“I’m going to go on Tuesday, I think.” Trula poked Robert in the ribs. “I think you should come, too.” She pointed at Susanna. “And you and Ian. I think it would do you both good to get away for a few days. Take the little guy someplace where he can have fun with you, Rob. Do something together. Remember what the child psychologist told you? Ian needs to experience a whole range of new things with you, he needs to make new memories. I think a few days at Sinclair’s Cove would be a lovely start. I imagine there might even be a few kids his own age to play with.”

Robert tapped on the table top, obviously considering the idea. He looked at Susanna. “Would you go? For Ian? Just for a few days? That is, if you didn’t have any other plans...”

“I have no plans,” she replied. “Of course, if you think Ian needs me, I’ll go.”

“Then that’s that.” Trula drained her mug and stood. “Mallory, you and Emme will be here this week, interviewing to replace Sam, now that he’s decided to go back to the FBI. You can hold down the fort for a few days, can’t you?”

“Sure.” Mallory nodded.

“I’ll give Gracie a call, see if she can put a few rooms aside. Since we’ll be going in the middle of the week, we’ll have a better chance of a vacancy. I can stay with Gracie, but we’ll need to reserve a room for you.”

“Two rooms,” Robert reminded her. “We’ll need two rooms.”

“Oh. Right. You and Susanna.” Trula smiled to herself as she went up the back steps. “Two rooms. Sure. No problem...”

# # # # # # # # # # # # ## # # # # # # # # # # # # #

“Wow, this place is gorgeous. It’s everything you said it is, Trula.” Susanna stood with her hands on her hips, taking in the glorious faηade of the Inn at Sinclair’s Cove. Tall white columns rose three stories from the wide front porch that was lined with rocking chairs. A wing grew off each side of the house, and beyond, a wide swath of green led down to the sparkling water of the Chesapeake.

“It really is a pretty place, Trula,” Robert agreed. “Thanks for letting us tag along with you.”

He unstrapped Ian from his car seat, and set the boy on the drive which was constructed of crushed shells. Immediately Ian bent over at the waist to pick at a shell that had somehow escaped being crushed.

He studied it carefully, then looked up at Robert. “What it is?”

“That’s a shell,” his father told him.

“Shell.” Ian repeated, holding the bone white shell between pudgy fingers for a moment, before handing it to Robert. “Shell.”

“That’s right, Ian. Shell.” Robert smiled. That Ian had automatically turned to Robert was, in Robert’s mind, a victory of sorts, a breakthrough, albeit a very tiny one. But still, Ian had turned to him, not Susanna or to Trula.

“Let’s get ourselves settled, then we can go down to the beach and see if there are other shells to be found. Of course, there’s not much beach here, but...” Trula’s voice faded as she marched toward the porch.

Robert held his hand out to Ian, who took it without hesitation. Robert sighed inwardly with relief. The relationship with his son was still so tenuous. The therapist had reminded him that Ian would come around in time, and Robert understood that. He just wished it wouldn’t take so much time. He ached to feel like a dad, like the dad he knew he would have been if his son hadn’t been taken from him. A dad who’d play with him and read to him and hold him...all the things Ian had refused since they’d brought him back.

He turned to Susanna. “I suppose we should follow Trula, see where our rooms are.”

“Good idea.” Susanna fell in step with Ian and Robert. “Once we get checked in, we should decide what to do first. Maybe we could go into town and get ice cream. We passed a place right on the main road.”

She reached down to take the boy’s hand, and he bolted in the direction of the play yard where several other children were joyously using the small slide on their own.

“Oops!” Susanna laughed, watching him run. “I guess he knows what he wants to do.”

She and Robert followed Ian to the play park and leaned on the fence with several other parents who obviously felt comfortable enough to allow their toddlers to play on the equipment on their own. Robert tried his best not to appear anxious, but he wasn’t sure of Ian’s skill levels and didn’t know if he should be permitting him to climb that slide or that very low jungle gym. For a moment, Ian stood silently, staring at the other children, just watching, as if taking it all in at once before climbing onto the ladder on the back of the slide.

“First time letting him go on his own, eh?” The man on Robert’s left gently nudged him in the ribs.

“It shows?” Robert laughed in spite of himself.

“We were the same way, the first time we brought Drake to one of these little play parks. My wife was scared to death.” The man told him. “But he was fine, and he loved being just a little bit independent. It’s only three very small steps up to the top of that slide, but the first time he did it on his own, you’d think he’d climbed Everest.”

“I guess when you’re that small, it would seem like a huge accomplishment.” Robert’s eyes never left his son. Ian stood on the top step, for a moment uncertain what to do next.

“Step up to the top, Ian, then sit.” Susanna called instructions to him, but Ian still appeared unsure. Susanna went to the slide and held her hand out to him. “Hold on to my hand. Now, step up...that’s right. Now hold on to the sides – yes, just like that. Now you want to sit and...yes, good, Ian. Go ahead and push...yay, there you go!” She applauded and Ian beamed.

The man standing next to Robert leaned over and said, “Looks like your wife has the system down pat.”

“Oh, she’s not...” Robert began to protest.

“Good job there,” the man called to Susanna, giving her a thumbs up. “We had to give our boy a little assistance on the see-saw yesterday – he was playing with a kid who was much heavier and it didn’t work out too well. But he got the hang of it later when we found another child closer to his size. Maybe they’ll want to try that together.” He pointed to a boy in a red and white striped shirt. “Drake and your boy look to be about the same weight. They’d probably do really well on the see-saw together.”

Robert nodded, but wondered how one introduced one toddler to another, how to encourage them to play together. There was so much about being a father, so much about children in general and Ian in particular he had to learn.

“Here comes my wife,” the man was saying as a pretty blond in tennis whites approached. “Elisa, see if Drake and...what’s your boy’s name?”

“Ian.”

“See if Drake wants to see-saw with Ian, the little guy on the steps there. That’s his mom in the white top.” He turned to Robert. “I’m Dave, by the way.”

“Robert.” Robert extended his hand, wondering if he should correct Dave’s erroneous assumption about their relationship with Susanna. And if he did, how would he describe what she was to them? He hadn’t even been able to define that to himself.

“This your first time here, Robert?” Dave asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s a great place. You’ll love it. Do you sail? They have sunfish you can take out. The river at this point is pretty deep but the bay is nice.” Dave crossed his arms over his chest as he watched his son. “We’ve been coming here for about six years now. No place I’d rather be in the summer. The kids love it ‘cause there’s so much to do. We have twins who are seven, they’re in an art class back there in one of the cabins.” He pointed to Ian. “Your only child?”

“Yes.”

“Great place for kids of all ages. Say, do you play tennis?”

“Yes, but...”

“They have a great court here, if you feel like a game later.”

“Thanks, but I think...”

“How long are you staying?” Dave asked. “There’s going to be a clam bake tomorrow night. The kids love that.”

“We’ll still be here. I think.”

“Hey, I understand.” Dave punched Robert’s arm playfully. “My wife makes all the arrangements, too. I show up when she tells me to, drive where she tells me to go.”

Before Robert could correct him, Dave pointed to the see-saw. “See? I was right. The boys are just the right size to ride that thing together.”

Robert leaned on the fence and watched his son’s face at play, the first time he’d observed him playing with a child his own age.

It’s all going to be new, every day now for forever, he told himself.

The two boys laughed every time one of them hit the ground, silly laughter Robert had not heard before, and he fought a tinge of something that felt ridiculously like jealousy. He didn’t know how to make Ian belly laugh like that.

One more thing he had to learn.

“Daddy!” Drake threw his hands up in the air as his father approached, and jumped off the seat, leaving Ian to bounce onto the ground. Howling with indignation at having been, literally, dumped, Ian ran to Susanna and clung to her legs. She picked him up and soothed his hurt feelings and patted his backside where he’d hit the ground.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” Dave quickly apologized. “Is he all right?”

“He seems to be.”

“They always want Mommy first, don’t they?” Dave observed. “The Mom always knows what to do.”

Robert nodded, his eyes still on Ian, whose wounded spirit – and bottom - had progressed from wailing to mere sniffles after having been comforted by Susanna.

The way she’s always comforted me, a little voice inside him whispered. Susanna knows what to say, how best to soothe, how to bring back the smiles. Hadn’t she always?

“How did you get him to calm down so quickly?” Robert asked.

“I promised him ice cream,” Susanna told him. “What do you think?”

“Sure.” Robert watched her walk toward him, her gait easy and carefree, her gauzy white skirt billowing around her calves in the breeze, her dark hair twisted up atop her head casually. Her eyes were hidden by her dark glasses, giving her a slightly exotic look.

Had he ever seen her outside of work and looking this relaxed? This happy? This...beautiful?

Robert frowned. The answer was a big fat no. He’d never seen her quite like this.

“Here, I’ll carry him.” Robert held out his arms, but Ian shook his head and struggled to get down.

“Walking,” he said, tugging on each of their hands. “Walking for ice cream.”

“I guess we’re walking.” Susanna laughed. “But I think it might be a bit of a distance. You may have to carry him after a while.” Before Robert could reply, she laughed and said, “And if it’s as far as I think it is, you might have to carry me, as well.”

“I think I might be up to the challenge.” He smiled at her, and she smiled back, one of those big, happy smiles that made her face glow. From somewhere inside himself, he began to feel the glow, too. Deep inside, that little voice told him if he had a brain in his head, he’d nurture that glow, and it occurred to him then that he’d be willing to carry her anywhere.

“Where the devil have you been?” Trula demanded from the top porch step. “I’ve had people looking all over for you.”

“We walked into town for ice cream,” Robert explained. “I’m sorry, Trula. I should have let you know.”

“Come inside and meet Gracie. We’ve been waiting damn near half the afternoon for you.” Trula’s eyes narrowed as she took in the three coming up the stairs together. Susanna, as always, looking cool and fresh, Robert and Ian with ice cream dribbles in exactly the same place on their shirts.

They followed her inside and were introduced to Grace Sinclair, a bird-like woman with white hair tucked into a tidy bun at the base of her neck. She wore a cotton wrap-around skirt, a polo shirt, and a pink tennis cap, and appeared to be, like Trula, in her mid-seventies. They made small talk until a sleepy Ian began to fuss.

“I’d better take him to my room,” Susanna told Trula. “He really needs to take a nap if he’s to have any fun at all tonight.”

“Good idea,” Robert agreed. “You get the key, I’ll get your bags and his things.”

“Oh. A small glitch.” Grace laid a hand on Susanna’s arm. “I hope you don’t mind, dear, but we had to give you one of the cabins out back. Our new desk clerk made an error, and I’m afraid there is, literally, no room at the inn. Trula said it wouldn’t be a problem for you to share, since you both stay with the baby at night anyway. I hope that’s all right.” She held up a key, glancing anxiously from one to the other. “And there is a separate sitting room with a sofa...”

“We’ll be fine.” Robert turned to Susanna and hastily added, “Of course, if you’d rather not, we can drive back to...”

“No need to do that,” Susanna shook her head. “Trula’s right. We do end up staying with him every night anyway. And I can sleep on the sofa, if you think...”

“No, no. If anyone gets the sofa, it will be me,” he assured her. He took the key from Grace. “We’re grateful you were able to accommodate us at all.” To Susanna, he said, “I’ll walk you down to the cottage, then I’ll get everything from the car.”

“I can have someone do that for you, dear,” Grace told him.

“It’s okay,” Robert said. “I don’t mind.”

“If you’re sure, then, we’ll see you at dinner. We have seats for you both and a high chair for Ian at our table. Six-thirty in the main dining room.” Grace added, “Dress is casual.”

“Great. Thanks.” Robert nodded, one hand holding Ian’s, the other at the small of Susanna’s back as if to guide her down the steps.

The two women stood on the porch and watched the man, the woman, and the child disappear around the side of the house.

Gracie sighed. “What a perfectly lovely family.”

“Then you do think I’m right?”

“Oh, definitely, Trula. Any fool could see the two of them belong together.”

“Yes, well, it’s the fool part that has me worried. If ever a man has been a fool, it’s Robert Magellan.” Trula frowned. “Do you really think we’re doing the right thing?”

“Our track record when it comes to matchmaking has been damned impressive,” Grace reminded her. “Unparalled, I might even say.”

“True.” Trula nodded. “I’d say we’ve done pretty well over the years.”

“Starting with Rob’s own grandparents.” Grace smiled at the memory. Introducing Grace’s brother’s best friend to Trula’s friend, Margarite, one summer evening had been nothing less than genius. It had been love at first sight.

“Right on down to your nephew, Carl, and his lovely Rosalie.” Trula returned the smile.

“Another match for the ages. We had the loveliest wedding here, right down there on the south lawn.” Grace recalled happily. “I just love to see true love win out.”

“Well, don’t start draping the arbors with tulle and roses just yet.” Trula frowned. “I love Rob like a son, but sometimes, that boy is dense as mud. Can’t see what’s right under his nose.”

“That’s why he needs us, dear,” Grace reminded her.

“And why I called last week. I couldn’t sit by and watch him bumble away this chance to be happy with a woman who loves him.” Trula watched the threesome as they walked down the path toward the back of the house. “She’s always loved him, you know.”

“So you said.”

They watched as Ian broke away from his father and ran laughing across the grass, Robert in hot pursuit. When Robert caught the toddler and tossed him in the air, Ian screamed with delight. Trula felt a catch in her throat when Robert set his son atop his shoulders and continued across the lawn with Susanna on their way to their cottage.

“They do indeed make a handsome family,” Trula murmured.

“Indeed they do.” Gracie sighed.

# # # # # # # # # # # # ## # # # # # # # # # # # # #

“That was a fun night, don’t you think?” Robert busied himself with gathering Ian’s toys from the floor of the living area of the cottage.

“It was, yes.” Susanna smiled. “Trula did not exaggerate about the chef. The meal was perfect. Everything was...well, perfect.”

“And Ian seemed to have fun with the other kids.”

“He did. The therapist was right, you know. He needs to spend more time with other children.”

“Well, in the past, his exposure was minimal, remember. We know now that Carole Woolum kept him to herself most of the time. She admitted to Chief Collier that she was afraid someone was still looking for him and would recognize him.”

“They were right about that. We were still looking for him.”

“If it hadn’t been for you...”

“You’ve said your thanks, Rob, a hundred times. I know you’re grateful.” Susanna’s smile was tight. Of course, Robert was thankful that she’d devoted so much time to looking for his son. But she was beyond thankful and grateful now. Neither was enough; neither was what she wanted from him.

“You know,” he began tentatively, “all those weekends you left on Friday and didn’t come back until Sunday night...”

“How did you know when I left, and when I returned?”

“Sometimes I’d call your house, or stop there, but you were never around.”

“You called for work stuff?”

“Mostly,” he admitted, “but sometimes I was just lonely and wanted your company.”

“Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you had a guy somewhere, someone you obviously didn’t want me to know about.” He seemed to trip over his words, and his awkwardness made her want to smile.

“You thought I was having an affair with someone?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Well...yeah, I guess I did. I didn’t want to ask you. I figured if you wanted me to know about it, you’d tell me. If you wanted me to meet him, you’d have brought him around.”

“The only guy I was looking for was Ian.” Because the only guy I really wanted, was you.

“I know that now.” He hesitated for a moment, as if inwardly debating with himself, before saying, “I’m so glad there wasn’t someone else. I know I probably shouldn’t feel that way – I mean, if you’d been in love with someone who loved you, you’d have been happy, right?”

“Yes. That would have made me happy, Rob,” she said quietly.

“So for me to say now, that I’m glad you didn’t have someone then, makes me sound very selfish, doesn’t it? I mean, if that’s what you wanted...”

“It depends.”

“On what?” He frowned.

“On whether or not I’ll have what I want now.” She crossed her arms over her chest and watched his face. There was a softness there, an expression she hadn’t seen before. In that moment, she could almost believe that maybe he’d begun to see her in the same light in which she’d always seen him.

“You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?” he asked.

She shook her head, her smile spreading slowly. “Not a chance.”

Robert stared at the floor, then put down the teddy bear he’d been holding. He took the half dozen steps to where she stood and put his hands on her shoulders, his eyes meeting hers.

“You’re right. I don’t deserve a break. Anyone who’s been as...” He grimaced. “I hate to call myself stupid, because, you know...”

She took his face in her hands and kissed him fully on the mouth, a big, smacking kiss. She’d wanted her first kiss from him to be tender and hot all at the same time, but she’d gotten cold feet, thinking maybe she was misreading the signals he was sending her, and a big, smacking kiss could be explained away as a joke, if she was wrong about the look in his eyes.

Had she been?

She started to pull away, a hot wave of something close to humiliation spreading through her.

“Not so fast,” he said, his breath warm and soft on her cheek.

He kissed her then, a way-more-than-adequate first kiss by anyone’s standards, she later recalled thinking. Actually, it was a wowzer of a kiss, a kiss designed to make her head spin and her heart beat faster and her pulse race through her veins, the kiss she’d dreamed about for years.

For once, reality surpassed the fantasy.

A soft cry from the other room brought them both back, his lips slowly disengaging with what felt to Suse like the greatest reluctance.

“We should see...” Robert nodded toward the bedroom. “Maybe he’s frightened, waking up in a strange place. He’s probably looking for you. You’re always there when he wakes up.”

“So are you,” she reminded him.

“Maybe between the two of us, we can get him back to sleep quickly.” Robert draped an arm around her shoulders, and together they went to his son. “You and I have a lot to catch up on...”




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