The car Dallas had ordered in advance was waiting for her when they arrived at BMI, and she loaded the bags into the cargo area. She’d thought about tucking her hair back into the dark wig, but decided not to bother. No one would be expecting to see her in Baltimore, she theorized, and anyone who might recognize her would probably think she was someone who merely looked like someone else. She put on her dark glasses, pulled her hair back into a pony tail, and put her theory to the test.
She’d been correct. No one gave her a second glance — at least, until she reached the car rental kiosk and had to hand over her driver’s license.
“Really?” the woman behind the counter squealed after a triple-take. “You’re really Dallas MacGregor?”
Dallas nodded, then whispered conspiratorially, “Yes, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself. My son and I are trying to have some quiet time away.”
“I understand,” the wide-eyed woman replied, then began to gush. “Oh, my God. I’ve seen every one of your movies. You’re my favorite actress. I even voted for you in last year’s America’s Favorite Actress poll.”
Dallas smiled and glanced at the woman’s name tag. “That award meant a lot to me, Dawn. Thanks so much for voting for me.”
“Oh, my God, wait till I tell my mother.” Dawn giggled, then recalled her promise. “Oh. Right.” She made a zipping gesture across her lips.
“Well, I guess you can share with your mom,” Dallas whispered, knowing there was no way this woman was not going to tell her mother and everyone else in her calling circle. Dallas could almost hear the calls go out the minute she drove off: Okay, she asked me not to let on that she was in town, so you can’t tell anyone, but guess who just rented a car from me!
Dallas added on a car seat for Cody, signed autographs for Dawn, her mother and her best friend, Colleen, then strapped her son into the back of the SUV and headed for the Bay Bridge. Cody didn’t say much until they were crossing the Chesapeake. Then he craned his neck to look out the windows.
“Mommy, what are those birds? See the little island down there? Do the birds live there?”
“They look like some sort of gull,” she replied. “I don’t know if they live there. They might just be fishing for their dinner out there on the water.”
“There are lots of boats down there.” His face was as close to the glass as he could get.
“There sure are,” she glanced out the side window. “All kinds of boats. It’s summer, remember, and in the summer, lots of people come to the Chesapeake Bay to vacation.”
She lowered the windows, hoping for a whiff of the Bay. What she got was a hot blast of early evening air.
Cody stretched his arm to stick his hand out the window. “It’s hot.”
“Want me to close the windows and turn the air conditioning back on?”
He shook his head. “I like it. The water’s all sparkly and pretty.”
It was pretty, with the sun just beginning to set gently behind them and the water morphing gold and orange in its wake, fingers of light glowing on the waves and touching the sails as they turned in the wind. She adjusted the mirrors against the glare, and checked the outside temperature. The thermostat read eighty-seven degrees, so it must have been blistering there on the water when the sun was high, Dallas mused. She recalled days from childhood summers when it had been hot as blazes from the morning straight through till the sun set. She and her brother Wade would take Berry’s row boat onto the river, trying to keep close to the shady banks. Sometimes they just drifted, hanging strings over the side of the boat to catch crabs, chicken parts tied to the end to lure their prey to feast. When there was a nibble, they’d ease the string upward slowly until they could see what was hanging onto the bait. If a big enough crab, one careful scoop of the net would bring it home. Small ones would be released to grow bigger and fatter for next year. Whenever interviewers asked how she’d had the patience to wait for the roles she wanted, Dallas always said that she learned that fine art while crabbing on the New River when she was barely in her teens.
There were other things she’d learned in St. Dennis when she got to be a little older.
She smiled to herself, remembering all those summer nights when she was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Remembering Grant Wyler, her first and only real summer love.
Berry had mentioned several times that Grant had gone to veterinary school, just like he’d always planned, that he’d married a girl he met in college and had at least one child that Berry knew of. Well, good for him, Dallas thought. He deserved to be happy.
“Mommy, I’m talking to you.” Cody kicked the back of her seat.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. What did you say?”
“I said, are we almost there?”
“We’ll be there soon,” she assured him. Once on the Eastern shore, she knew they were less than an hour from St. Dennis.
A few minutes later, Cody asked, “Where are all the big, tall buildings?”
“Well, there aren’t any.”
“How come?” He frowned.
“I suppose because people don’t really need them here. There aren’t as many people living here as there are in Los Angeles or in New York. Remember when we went to New York last year?”
He nodded solemnly. “There were lots of big, very tall buildings in New York.”
“Lots of big, tall buildings because there are lots of people and not so much space for them to live and work. So they have to build up to make room for their apartments and for their offices.”
“‘Cause there’s more room in the sky than on the ground?”
Cody continued to trail his hand out the window as the highway narrowed to two lanes, and the strip malls gave way to fields, opening and closing his fist as if catching and releasing the muggy air.
They stopped at a gas station attached to a convenience store where Dallas bought them each a bottle of water and used her iPhone to call her aunt to let her know where they were.
“Berry said we’re only about a half hour from St. Dennis and we’ll be there just in time for dinner,” Dallas told Cody as she drove from the small parking lot. “I guess you’re hungry.”
Cody nodded but fell silent.
They drove past weathered barns and through several small towns, past an old mill, and a farm with a sign that read, Miniature Horses, for sale and for stud. Corn shot up in straight rows in fields that ended right at the shoulder of the road, and they passed more than one farm stand that advertised tomatoes, green beans, melons, peaches and fresh cut flowers on large hand-lettered signs. They stopped at one and bought produce to take to Berry’s and a bouquet of colorful summer flowers — zinnias in every shade and some fuzzy blue flowers on long arching stems that fascinated Cody.
The small bridge she crossed over was as familiar as if she’d driven over it yesterday. Dallas knew that just beyond it, on the right, would be the first of the marshes. On her left would be the old Madison farm. As she passed by, she checked the name on the mailbox. H. Madison was barely visible in faded, thin black letters, but it still proclaimed ownership. Brooke Madison had been her rival for the heart of the boy they’d both loved back in their high school days. It had killed Dallas at the end of every summer to leave to go back home to New Jersey, knowing that Brooke would still be around, sharing classes with Grant and probably going to all of the same parties and social events. She wondered where Brooke was these days. Berry had never mentioned her.
She made the turn onto River Road and slowed so she could drink in the sights. The houses in Berry’s neighborhood looked much the same as she remembered them. On big lots that sloped down to the river, with carriage houses or barns — some with both — and wide porches, tidy lawns and colorful flower beds, the imposing old homes were all approximately of the same vintage. All were still well kept, which spoke as well of their new young owners as it did of the older residents who’d never left their family homes.
Dallas slowed on her approach to Berry’s, to savor that first view of the main house that had been built by an ancestor over two hundred years ago. She was just about to point it out to Cody, just about to tell him how the original section of the house was even older than that when he asked, “Are we almost there?”
“We are here,” she told him as she eased into Berry’s winding driveway and followed it around to park near the back porch.
“There’s the river, just like you said, Mommy!” Cody was out of his car seat and running across the yard in the direction of the river before the key was out of the ignition.
“Cody, hold up.” Dallas opened her car door and called to him, but he was already closing in on the dock.
“Well, for heaven’s sake, Dallas, let the boy wander a bit.” The back door flung open and Beryl Eberle — stage name Beryl Townsend - glided onto the porch.
Eighty-one years young, but looking at least ten years less, Dallas’s great aunt Beryl had been a star in her own right once upon a time. She’d never lost her sense of timing or failed to make a memorable entrance. Her once blonde hair was now snowy white, but her blues eyes still sparkled and her figure was still trim. Dressed in white gauze Capri’s, a matching tunic and white mules studded with large faux gems, she posed momentarily at the top of the steps before descending, both arms open to her grand-niece.
“You look frightful, darling.” Berry’s arms wrapped around Dallas.
“Frightful?” Dallas grimaced as Berry embraced her.
Berry stood back and held Dallas at arm’s length. “Bags under the eyes, skin pale,” Berry observed. “And possibly a bit too thin.”
“But frightful, Berry?”
“All right, sweetie. We’ll go with exhausted,” Berry announced. “Is that better?”
“Anything is better than frightful.”
“Nothing that some restful days and nights and some time in the sun can’t cure.”
“I always heard that sun exposure isn’t good for your skin,” Dallas replied. “That it ages you prematurely.”
“Does this face look prematurely aged?” Berry asked. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “I get my twenty minutes every day without sunscreen, which you need to do for vitamin D. Do I look as if I’ve aged prematurely?” she repeated.
“You look wonderful, as always, Berry.”
“Of course I do, dear. And you’re here now, and we’ll take good care of you and soon you’ll look wonderful again too. Now, I need to see my boy.”
“Who at this moment is a little too close to the water.” Dallas handed her aunt the flowers and set off for the dock.
“Lovely colors, dear, thank you.” Berry laid the bouquet on the steps then hastened to keep up. “The child does know how to swim, doesn’t he?”
“He’s taken lessons but he’s never been tested.”
“Well, he has to be able to swim if he’s going to be staying here on the river, Dallas. We can’t be worried about him falling in and drowning.”
“There’s a pleasant thought for our first night here.”
Dallas stepped on to the wooden deck and walked the length of it to where Cody lay on his stomach trailing his fingers in the water.
“Cody, you’re not showing very good manners. You didn’t even say hi to Aunt Berry,” Dallas chastised him softly.
“Hi, Aunt Berry,” he said without looking up.
“Cody, that isn’t...” Dallas began but Berry dismissed her with the wave of her hand.
“What’s down there, Cody?” Berry asked. “What do you see?”
“There are lots of little tiny fishes,” he told her. “See there? By the pole?”
“The pole is called a piling, dear,” Berry told him. She looked over the side of the pier. “Look here, Cody, there’s a crab near this one.”
“Where? I want to see.” He jumped up and followed her pointing finger. “Is that a Chesapeake blue crab?”
The crab took off, scurrying through the sea grass and disappearing in a blink.
“Ah, there’s a lesson learned, my dear,” Berry said. “Soft voice, slow movements when you’re trying to observe something in nature.”
“The crab heard me under the water?” Cody narrowed his eyes.
“No doubt it did, but I believe it was your shadow falling on the water that frightened it away. Creatures like crabs and small fishes are always alert for danger, but yes, that was one of our famous Chesapeake blue crabs.”
Cody knelt slowly and inch by inch, approached the end of the dock and peered into the water.
“Much better, child.” Berry turned to Dallas. “He is quite the quick study, isn’t he?”
Dallas laughed. “Very quick.”
Berry tapped him on the shoulder. “Well, then, Cody, come along inside and let’s see if you’re as quick to learn how to eat one of those Chesapeake blue crabs.”
He looked up at her as if confused. “Do you eat them a special way?”
“Oh, my yes. There’s a special technique to opening the shells.” She stood and she took his hand and led him up the gentle slope toward the house. “Perhaps tomorrow, your mother and I will teach you how to catch one. Assuming, of course, that she remembers