Ford Sinclair eased his rental car onto the approach to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia Beach and reduced his speed. It had been several years since he’d made this crossing, and he wanted to savor it. The bridge — named one of the Seven Engineering Marvels of the Modern World — had been a favorite destination when he was a young boy and his father was still alive. Some days, they would sneak away from the family’s inn, just the two of them, and head south in the old Bayrider down through Virginia’s Pocomoke Sound. His father would drop anchor off Raccoon Island where they’d sit for a while and watch the cars over the northbound span of the bridge-tunnel — which was still new back then, and attracted attention like a shiny new toy — then they’d head back into Maryland waters where they’d spend the rest of the day fishing. They’d go home, more often than not sporting a farmer’s tan along with a cooler of whatever had been running that day, rockfish or sea bass or croakers. Once his dad had helped him bring in a tuna that had given him — at ten — the fight of his life. The memory was so vivid that whenever Ford dreamed of that day, he still felt the rod biting into his hands as he struggled to hold it.
The bridge-tunnel itself was, in fact, a marvel. A little over seventeen miles long from shore to shore, it was exactly what the name implied: a series of bridges and tunnels that crossed the Chesapeake Bay where it joined the Atlantic Ocean, connecting Virginia Beach to Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Ford stopped at the first of the four bridges and pulled into the parking area. He walked to the rail which overlooked the water, and from there he could see for miles. Below, where the Chesapeake and the Atlantic met, the water was still dark and disturbed from last night’s storm. In the distance, a large Navy vessel headed into port at Virginia Beach, and far out in the ocean, another made its way toward the bridge. Noisy gulls circled overhead hoping for a handout from the sightseers on the pier, while others swooped and soared over both sides of the bridge. Ford closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of salt water, and held it in his lungs for a few seconds before letting it out in a whoosh. Chesapeake Bay born and bred, he hadn’t realized how much he had missed its scent. In that moment, he couldn’t wait to be home. He climbed back into the car and continued his trek north.
The radio reception was spotty along the back roads — some things, he thought, never changed — so he could only pick up a country station. He’d been away too long to know who was singing, only caught enough to know it was a girl with a pretty voice singing about vandalizing the SUV that belonged to her cheating boyfriend. He turned it off when the static drowned her out, and drove in silence, the windows up and the air conditioner blasting against the heat and humidity of the late summer afternoon.
Before he knew it, Ford was crossing the bridge over the Choptank River and was half-way to Trappe, where he and his high school buddies had proven their manhood by spending the night in the haunted White Marsh Cemetery and living to tell about it. Even now, memories of that night made him grin. They’d been so cocky, all five of them, until they heard the faint tinkling of a tiny bell borne on a breeze around three in the morning. They spent the rest of the night wide awake, huddled in the car, windows closed and the doors locked, but still bragged that they’d lasted the night because they didn’t drive back out through the cemetery gates until dawn.
Ford’s smile faded when he recalled how far he’d come from that cheeky kid whose most terrifying moments had been spent in a dark cemetery with his friends telling ghost stories. Back then, he’d never imagined what real terrors the world held. The innocent boy — brash though he may have been — would never have understood the things he’d come to see. Even now, Ford was at a loss to really understand what motivated a man to commit atrocities such as those he’d witnessed over the past few years.
He was close to home now. One left turn off Route 50 and he was almost there. He cruised along just under the speed limit so he could take it all in.
If there hadn’t been another car behind him, he’d have slowed even more as he passed the Madison farm. Ford had learned to ice skate on the pond that lay beyond the corn field. It had been Clay Madison — now married to Ford’s sister Lucy — who’d taught him to skate. Clay had always been sweet on Lucy — even as a small kid Ford had known that. An old pickup was parked near the back of the farmhouse, and he thought briefly about stopping to say hello, but he knew if his mother caught wind of him stopping somewhere other than home first, he’d be in for an earful. And somehow, his mother had always known what he was up to. He’d never really figured out how she knew things, but she did. He thought she must have had a pretty darned good spy network, though she never seemed to keep track of Dan or Lucy the way she’d kept track of him.
Ford hoped that hadn’t held true these past few years. He hated to think she might have somehow picked up on exactly where he’d been and what he’d seen and done.
Though his mother’s phone calls and letters had kept him abreast of the changes in St. Dennis, the development of the town’s center still surprised him. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t the upscale shops he passed by. The supermarket was still in the same place, but it’s previously dingy façade had had a significant facelift. When he left, most of the current store fronts had been boarded up or were still single family homes. Now, the shops he passed told a story of increased prosperity — Cupcake, Book ‘Em, Bling, Sips, and on the opposite side of the street, Lola’s Café, Cuppachino, Petals and Posies. Only Lola’s and the flower shop had been there before he left.
A new sign at the corner of Kelly’s Point Road pointed toward the bay, and listed the attractions one would find by following the arrow: public parking, the municipal building, the marina, Walt’s Seafood — Ford was pleased to see that the St. Dennis landmark restaurant was still open — and something called One Scoop or Two.
His mother hadn’t been kidding when she said there’d been a lot of changes in a very short period of time.
Farther down Charles Street he turned right onto the drive that led to the inn and stopped the car. A very large, handsome sign pointed the way to the Inn at Sinclair Point. The drive itself had been recently black-topped, some of the trees on either side had been cut back, and it was now, he realized, two full lanes wide where, for as long as he remembered, it had been one.
What next, Ford wondered as he drove around the bend and got his first view of the inn that had been his family home and business for generations.
The large, sprawling main building had been painted since he left, the fading white walls now rejuvenated. The cabins that faced the bay had been painted as well, and he noted that the front of each now sported a window box that overflowed with summer flowers. He parked his car in the very full visitors’ lot and sat for a moment, trying to take it all in. There were new tennis courts, a fenced in playground, and if he wasn’t mistaken, jutting out into the bay was a new dock — longer and wider — at which several boats were tied. Kayaks and canoes lined the lush lawn that stretched toward the water like a carpet of smooth green Christmas velvet.
And everywhere, it seemed, people were engaged in one activity or another.
“Damn.” Ford whistled under his breath. “Mom wasn’t kidding when she said they’d made a lot of changes since I left.”
He got out of the car and looked around. While so much was different, the inn still somehow felt the same. Of course, he reminded himself as he gathered his bags out of the trunk of the car, it was still home.
Home. He stared at the building that loomed before him, where a seemingly endless stream of people came and went through the door to the back lobby. No amount of paint or landscaping or added features could change the way he felt when his feet touched ground at Sinclair’s Point. The restlessness he’d felt when his plane landed that morning began to fade, but it was still there, under the surface. He knew that the sense of peace he felt would be fleeting, and could not be trusted.
He barely made it across the parking lot when his sister flew out from the back door.
“You’re late, you bugger! We’ve been waiting for hours!” Lucy threw her arms around his neck and hugged him.
“My plane was late.” He dropped his bags and returned the hug for a moment, then held her at arms length. “But look at you. You’re all tan and your hair’s long again.” He tugged on her pony tail. “When I left, you had that short ‘do and you were working your tail off out in L.A., and now you’re...”
“Working my tail off in St. Dennis.” She laughed.
“Business is good?”
“Business is great. If we were any busier, we’d be double-booking dates and holding weddings in the parking lot.”
“Well, you must be doing something right, because you look a million times better than you did the last time I saw you. I’m guessing marriage agrees with you.”
“Totally. Work is good, home life is fantastic. I never thought I’d come back to St. Dennis to live — and me, live on a farm? Ha! But I guess it just goes to show, never say never.”
“I’m glad you’re happy, sis.”
Never happier.” Lucy took his arm. “Let’s go inside. Mom has been pacing like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I would believe. Mom never changes.”
“I hope not. She’s amazing, with all she does here at the inn, and still she keeps the newspaper going. Of course, that’s her baby.” Lucy chatted away as they walked to the inn. “She still does the features and most of the photographs — though sometimes someone in town will have a great shot of something or other and she’ll use it. She did hire someone to do the ads, though, and someone to handle the books. And of course, the printing and mailing...”
Ford frowned. “Mailing? Since when has she mailed out the paper? Who’s she mailing it to?”
“You have been gone a while. Gone are the days when you could only pick up a copy at the grocery store or the gas station or Walt’s.” Lucy grinned. “The St. Dennis Gazette now has out of town subscribers, mostly summer people who want to keep up with what’s going on so they’ll know when to plan to come back. She mails the paper every week to places as far away as Maine, Illinois, Nebraska. In your absence, little brother, the family business has become the go-to spot on the Chesapeake. We’re big doin’s, kiddo.”
He paused and looked around. “The place looks amazing. And busy! I don’t remember ever seeing so many people here, especially this late in the summer. And I see there’s been a lot of work done on the grounds. I don’t remember a gazebo there.” He nodded toward the structure that sat between colorful flower beds and the water.
“We had a professional landscaper in last summer and he suggested the new gazebo and designed the new gardens at my request,” Lucy explained. “I had a big ticket wedding here and the bride wanted the ceremony out on the lawn overlooking the bay. Since she was dropping a bundle, we did what we had to do to make the area as gorgeous as we could.”
“Well, you succeeded. It’s really beautiful.” He took one more look around before reaching for the door. “Who’d have ever thought the old place could look like this?”
“Dan, that’s who. That brother of ours was determined to make the inn shine, and he did.”
Ford opened the door and held it for his sister. Once inside, he gazed around the lobby, then whistled.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Lucy grinned. “Not fancy, but just...upscale and cool.”
“Like me.” Dan emerged from behind the reception desk. “Hey, buddy...”
Ford dropped his bags and hugged his older brother. “I can’t believe what I’ve seen here so far. You’ve done a great job. Dad would be so proud.”
“I like to think so.” Dan gave Ford one last pat on the back before releasing him. “But the inn’s old news to us. How are you? Glad to be home?”
“I’m dazzled by the changes, but yeah, glad to be here.”
“I hope you can stay for a while.” Dan picked up his brother’s bags.
“I don’t have any plans right now. I’m just glad to be back in the states, glad to see you guys again.” Ford glanced around the lobby. “Where’s Mom?”
“She’s in her office. She’s been pacing like an expectant father since dawn. Come on.” Dan headed across the lobby, Ford and Lucy following behind.
“Mom has an office here?”
Lucy nodded. “She still has the newspaper office, but she likes to work here sometimes. Says she likes to keep an eye on things, likes to see the comings and goings.”
“There sure seems to be a lot of that going on,” Ford observed.
“Never been busier.” Dan rapped his knuckles on a half-opened door, then pushed it open. “Mom, look who’s here.”
Grace was out of her chair, arms around her son, in the blink of an eye.
“Well, then,” she said as she stepped back to hold him at arms length, “let me have a good look at you.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve lost so much weight. Your face is so thin. Are you feeling all right?” She looked around him to address Dan. “Tell the chef he’s going to be working overtime until we put a few pounds back on your brother.”
Ford laughed. “Mom, I’m fine. I might have lost a few pounds, but you know, where I’ve been, fine dining was only a dim memory. A very dim memory.”
“And where have you been?” Grace forced him to look into her eyes.
“Here and there,” he told her. “Africa. Mostly.”
“That covers a lot of ground, son,” she said softly.
Ford nodded. He knew she was fishing for details but right now, he wanted nothing more than to savor the experience of being home. He knew there’d be questions to answer, but the longer he could leave the past behind him, the better off he’d be.
“Well, we can get the whole story from Ford over dinner.” Dan stood in the doorway. “Right now, let’s get you settled in, then we can get together in the dining room and have a great dinner. We managed to snag a phenomenal chef from a fine D.C. restaurant last year. He’s part of the reason we’re such a hot destination venue for parties and weddings.”
“Ahem.” Lucy coughed.
“You didn’t let me finish.” Dan smiled at his sister. “Lucy’s skills as an event planner are what really made our name, but the chef has turned out some pretty spectacular meals.”
“We gave him the menu for tonight.” Grace took Ford’s arm as they walked into the lobby. “All of your favorites.”
“That’s great, Mom. Thanks.”
“How ‘bout you and I go out to your car and get the rest of your bags?” Dan offered.
Ford held up the two bags he’d brought with him. “This is it. Been living in tents or huts for the past six years, so I don’t own very much.”
Their expressions said it all.
“Really,” he told them. “It wasn’t always that bad.”
They walked toward the stairwell in silence and Ford could only imagine what they were thinking. When they got to the bottom of the steps, his mother said, “Oh. Dan’s son D.J.’s been using your old room, dear, so we had to move you into another suite. I hope it’s all right.”
“It’s fine, Mom. Any room that has a bed and a bathroom with a working shower is more than fine,” he assured her.
“There really isn’t another room in the family wing, since Diana has Lucy’s old room. We needed to keep Dan’s children together, and...”
“Mom, don’t worry about it.”
“I saved a special room for you.” Dan took Ford’s bags from his brother’s hands. “Overlooks the bay, has a sitting room and a bedroom. Nice fireplace, one of the few rooms that has its own balcony...”
“Captain Tom’s old room?” Ford paused on the step.
Ford grinned. “I always wanted to sleep in that room.”
“I thought you’d like it.” Dan grinned back.
“Dan, don’t you think the room just around the corner from the family suite might be more appropriate?” Grace frowned and gave her eldest son a look of clear disapproval.
“Nah. You heard Ford. He wants Captain Tom’s room.” Dan continued up the steps.
“Ford,” Grace called from the bottom of the steps. When he turned, she said, “That room might have a few -” she cleared her throat — “cold spots. You might be more comfortable sleeping in a different room.”
“’Cold spots’ is Mom’s shorthand for ‘uninvited guests’, if you get my drift,” Dan whispered loud enough for their mother to hear.
“Daniel, you know there have been reports...” Grace threw her hands up in defeat. “Oh, never mind.”
“Mom, you still think that the old captain is hanging around?” Ford laughed. “Dan used to try to scare me with that old tale about how the old man never left the building and how he haunts his old room.” He winked at Grace. “I don’t scare quite as easily any more. But I’ll tell you what. If Tom shows up, I’ll be sure to get an interview for the Gazette. Can’t promise a photo, though...”
He took the steps two at a time to catch up to Dan, who’d already reached the second floor landing.
“You remember the way?” Dan asked.
“Sure. Down this hall, take a right and go to the end. Last door on the left. I used to sneak in there every chance I got. Never did see the captain, though.”
“I think that was something Mom made up to keep us from going out onto that balcony and falling off.” Dan made the turn onto the side corridor and Ford followed.
“It wouldn’t surprise me. She and Dad had any number of crazy stories about their ancestors. Tom was, what, Great-granny Hunt’s maternal grandfather?”
“Something like that. I know he went back about four generations.” Dan handed one of the bags off to Ford so he could search his pockets for the key to the room.
Dan fitted the key into the lock and gave the door knob a good twist. The door swung open silently.
The two men entered the suite through a short hall that led to a sitting room with a brick fireplace over which hung the ancestor in question.
“Ah, there’s the old guy.” Ford stood with his hands on his hips. “Good to see you again, old man.”
The portrait’s dark eyes seemed to be looking back at them as they entered the room.
“I’m sure he’s happy to see you, too.” Dan went past him into the bedroom. “There’s only a light blanket on the bed, but if you need something else, just let housekeeping know. It’s been pretty hot lately, and even though we have central air these days, this part of the building doesn’t seem to cool off quite as well as some of the others.”
“Central air, huh? So much for Mom’s cold spots.” Ford followed Dan into the bedroom where an old poster bed stood directly opposite a pair of French doors. Ford crossed the room to open them, stepped out onto the balcony and inhaled deeply. “Ah, the Chesapeake. Nothing smells quite like it.”
“Be grateful we had the marsh dredged last year, or you’d be smelling something else entirely.”
Ford laughed. “Hey, that marshy smell is a big part of one of my fondest childhood memories.”
“Yeah, you and that buddy of yours...”
I remember the two of you used to spend hours out there and come home covered in mud and mosquito bites.”
“Tracking nutrias. Never caught any — never really wanted to. The fun was all in the hunt.”
“You’d find the hunting not as good these days. Nutrias have been mostly eradicated in this area. I’d like to get my hands on the guy who thought it would be a good idea to raise those nasty little critters.” Dan stood in the doorway, his hands on his hips.
“I don’t think anyone expected them to get loose. I think it was someone’s get-rich-quick scheme. Raise the animals, sell them for their pelts. Just didn’t turn out that way.”
“They created chaos in the marsh here a few years ago before the town found a way to control them. Furry little bastards ate through large sections of the wetlands, cleared out whole areas of bulrush, cordgrass, cattails — you name it, they ate it. Big loss of habitat for a lot of wildlife. You take out the native grasses, the sediment erodes, and the native plant populations suffer.”
Ford walked to the end of the balcony and looked across the vast lawn to the wetlands his brother was going on and on about. He knew all about the nutria and the damage the population had done in changing the face of the wetlands. He was well acquainted with the many ways that outside forces could change a place.
He could have told Dan how the long bloody wars had changed the face of emerging African nations, but what, he asked himself, would be the point? Besides, the last thing he wanted to do right at that moment was to look back at the devastation he’d left behind when he’d boarded the helicopter outside Bangui in the Central African Republic. Ford had witnessed the kind of horrors that were the stuff of nightmares. Being here, in this peaceful place, was almost jarring to his senses.
“So, you ready to head downstairs and see if we’ve exaggerated about our chef?” Dan asked from the doorway.
“Think I could grab a quick shower and change my clothes first?” After having traveled non-stop for the past forty-eight hours, Ford was a little road-weary.
“Sure thing. Just come down to the lobby when you’re ready.” Dan started toward the door. He glanced back over his shoulder and said, “I guess it must be great to be back after all those years living in those foreign places.”
“Yeah. It’s great to be back.”
“I’ll see you downstairs.” Dan closed the door behind him.
Ford stood in the middle of the small sitting room, taking in the papered walls that surrounded him and the cushy carpet under his feet, the comfortable-looking sofa and chairs. He went into the bathroom and stared at the clean white tiles and the gleaming glass shower. There were fluffy towels on a chrome shelf and a new bar of soap in a porcelain dish on the counter next to the sink. He picked up the soap and inhaled its light pine scent. The every day things he’d once taken for granted were now luxuries that he’d only dreamed about. He turned on the hot water and let it run through his fingertips.
After where he’d been, home seemed like the most foreign place of all.
Excerpted from On Sunset Beach by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2014 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.