The heat that crept into the airport baggage area whenever the door opened should have told Barrie Watson that she had arrived in hell. But it wasn’t the Charleston weather, or the fact that her mother’s sister, who she’d never even heard of before the funeral, was three hours late picking her up. Neither of those things kept Barrie’s butt glued on top of her suitcase and her eyes on the door.
It was hope that kept her stuck, that stole her breath and made her eyes smart every time some likely looking woman rushed in and scanned the nearly empty area around the luggage carousels. Barrie hated hope. Too often, it was a Go Directly to Jail card that led to disappointment.
The latest candidate through the door did seem promising, though. Blond. Midthirties. The mile-high heels of Barrie’s
purple sandals left fresh dents in her suitcase as she leaned forward to search for some tug of recognition or family connection. But the woman ignored her and ran to embrace a man in madras shorts at carousel number two.
Around Barrie, the walls tunneled in. The whole day, the whole week, had been hell, and now her chest was tight and her heart was racing. She sucked in a deep, calming breath. Then she wiped her palms on the thighs of her capris and got ready to redial the number the lawyer had given her for Watson’s Landing. Yet again. She nearly dropped the phone when it suddenly vibrated in her hand.
For an instant, she couldn’t help but hope. The screen showed her godfather’s number, though. And now what? Mark would worry himself sick—sicker—if she told him Aunt Pru hadn’t come. Barrie couldn’t add to his worries. She had to be cheerful.
She was going to be cheerful.
“Hi, Mark!” she chirped.
Great. Now she sounded like a demented cheerleader.
“Don’t you ‘Hi, Mark’ me, Miss Thing. Do you know how long it’s been since your plane landed? Since when don’t you call when you’re supposed to?”
Barrie’s eyes closed at the love in his voice. That rich timbre with its hint of a lisp was at the heart of her every memory: Mark making her laugh, soothing her, teasing her
out of being afraid. With her eyes closed she could keep him closer, see him in the size-fourteen pumps and yellow dress he had worn to drop her at the airport that morning, see the strain in his red-lipstick smile and in the pallor of his dark brown skin as he’d pulled her in for one last hug. As he’d fussed over her. Waved to her. Sent her away.
No. She wasn’t going to cry. Barrie was through with tears.
Cradling the phone against her shoulder, she laid both palms flat against the suitcase and told him the literal truth: “I just this minute put my hands on my luggage.” Her voice cracked, but she pulled herself together. “How are you feeling? You’re not overdoing it, are you? Yelling at the movers? Flirting with them?”
“No more than they deserve.” Mark’s smile was audible. “Now tell me everything, baby girl. Were you okay on the flight? No panic attacks? How’s your aunt Pru? Is she anything like Lula? Are you going to like her, do you think?”
“You aren’t supposed to be worrying about me—”
“Of course I’m going to worry. Now, what’s wrong? You don’t like it there. I can tell—”
“You can’t tell a thing.” Barrie sat up indignantly. “I haven’t even seen the place. But I’ve got to go. Aunt Pru just got back with the car. I’ll have to call you later.”
It was only a little lie. It slipped out without Barrie’s permission, but the weight of it settled around her shoulders when they’d said their good-byes. What if her aunt never came? Barrie couldn’t call Mark back and tell him she had lied. She refused to let that be one of the last conversations they ever got to have.
All right. Fine. She would find the place by herself, and once she got there . . . No, she wouldn’t think of that just yet. Aunt Pru had to let her stay long enough to finish high school. That was all there was to it. There were no other relatives to take her in.
The thought finally pushed Barrie to her feet. She wobbled briefly on the skyscraper sandals Mark had talked her into wearing that morning for extra confidence. Towing her luggage behind her, she stepped through the exit door into a curtain of humidity that made her long yet again for San Francisco.
A dispatcher materialized beside her. “Cab, miss?”
“Yes, please.” Barrie blew a wilting strand of blond curls from her eyes.
The dispatcher waved a taxi to the curb. Barrie slid into the back while the driver loped around to stow her suitcases. The trunk slammed closed. The cab shook, and rocked again when the driver wedged himself behind the wheel.
“So, where we goin’?” he asked, studying her in the rear-view mirror.
“That’s a good hour, dependin’ on traffic.” His gaze slid from the three diamond-encrusted keys on Barrie’s necklace to the oversize gold watch Mark had slipped onto her wrist that morning. Once he had finally decided she was good for the fare, the driver nodded. “You have an address?” he asked.
“Watson’s Landing Plantation.” Barrie hated the heat that crawled up her cheeks. “Just go to the island. I can find it.”
That was one thing Barrie could always count on. Finding things was the Watson gift. Barrie could find anything—had to find it, really—and the pressure that built in her head whenever she was near something lost had seemed stronger since her mother’s death. Even now, an object on the floor of the taxi tugged at her attention, squeezing her temples in a rapidly increasing ache.
The driver lurched out into traffic. Barrie bent and groped under his seat until she freed something small and round from beneath the rails. A wedding ring. The gold was cool against her fingers and scratched thin from years of wear.
“Excuse me.” She tapped the driver on his shoulder. “Is this yours?”
He turned and a grin split his face. “I thought I’d never see that again. Lord, thank you. Thank you.”
Barrie dropped the ring into his palm and sighed at the familiar click in her head, like a puzzle piece snapping into place. The pressure vanished.
The cab gathered speed. Barrie rested her cheek against the window. Miles of sky and saltwater marsh sped past, interrupted by stands of pines swathed in palmetto skirts, and houses buffered by masses of pink and yellow flowers. Even in June, San Francisco cloaked itself in cool, protective layers of fog, but here the landscape overwhelmed her like the crowds at the airport. It was all too open, too bright, too much. She distracted herself from her nerves by imagining how she would paint the scenery—in bold, broad strokes with lots of white—and that made the time pass faster. Almost before she knew it, before she was ready, the cab drove over the bridge to Watson Island.
“Can’t be long now,” the driver said. “There’s a signpost for the plantation there.”
According to the arrows, the town of Watson’s Point was to the left and Watson’s Landing was to the right. The driver nosed the cab onto a road shadowed on both sides by trees dripping Spanish moss. They drove a few miles before crossing a shallow creek via a smaller, wooden bridge, and immediately a historical marker stood at the edge of a tall brick wall. About all Barrie caught was the word “Watson” before the cab moved past.
“Wait. Stop!” The command came out louder than she’d intended, and her cheeks went warm again as the driver slammed on the brakes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Could you please back up?”
The driver gave her a long-suffering look, but he backed the cab to the marker.
Watson’s Landing Plantation was established in 1692 by a grant to Thomas Watson, captain of the privateer vessel Loyal Jamaica, and has remained in the Watson family without interruption. It is one of the oldest rice plantations on the Santisto River, and the original house, constructed of locally made brick, remains intact.
Privateers and rice plantations. Wonderful. More details Lula had never bothered to share about their family. Barrie tucked her hands beneath her thighs to keep from rubbing Mark’s watch as if it were Aladdin’s lamp.
The brick wall, too tall to see over, continued alongside the road as the cab drove on. Above it, expanses of sky alternated with oak and cypress woods until, after what must have been several miles, bursts of camellias and roses appeared, climbing over the top of the bricks as if trying to escape.
The driver swung the cab into a driveway. A gold W hung in the center of the scrollwork above a closed black iron gate, and a plaque embedded in one of the brick end posts read:
Private property. No trespassing.
Gardens and Tearoom
Open 1:00 p.m.– 6:00 p.m., Thurs to Sun
Open. As in, to the public.
The idea brought a slick of moisture to Barrie’s palms. Strangers walking around, peering in the windows . . . How could anyone live like that?
“You sure this is where you want to go?” the driver asked.
“Yes,” Barrie lied.
The driver continued to watch her expectantly, as if there were something she was missing. Finally he said, “It’s closed Wednesdays.”
Barrie stared at him another moment before realizing he meant that the gardens and tearoom were closed. What if there was no one to let her in?
“I’ll go buzz the intercom,” she said with an inward sigh.
She forced herself out of the cab and picked her way across the crushed oyster shells and gravel. Beyond the gate, a sunken lane ran between two rows of live oaks so old, their branches mingled overhead. Claws of light tore through
the leaves and drapes of Spanish moss, creating mottled patches of shade on the ground. No house was visible. Barrie pressed the antiquated buzzer and steadied herself against the gatepost.
The moment her skin made contact with the bricks, the Watson gift gave its familiar returning click, and she felt an easing of pressure, as if a headache she hadn’t even been aware of had suddenly released its grip. Yet she hadn’t returned anything. Nothing except herself, and she hadn’t been lost. She wasn’t even staying unless someone answered the stupid intercom.
All right. Stay calm. Barrie gulped in another breath. She reached for the buzzer again, then paused. The gate was open half an inch. Had it been like that before? She gave it an experimental shove, and it slid across the driveway with a metallic screech. After waving the driver through, she closed the gate behind him and climbed back into the cab. Foot jiggling with nerves, she peered ahead while they crawled down the lane.
The house emerged slowly from behind the violet-shadowed trees. Where at first there was only an impression of whitewashed bricks, fluted columns, and gabled roofs, once the taxi neared the end of the lane, the branches pulled back to reveal a beautifully proportioned mansion framed by blooming gardens. The lawn stretched to meet the woods
and sloped gently toward a river where the sun reflected on tar-dark water.
Barrie gasped. Not at the size, not at the age, not even at the fact of the plantation. What struck her most was how much the house reminded her of Lula’s house in San Francisco.
“This is where my mother grew up,” she whispered, surprising herself. She’d never called Lula “mother,” not out loud. Lula had hated the word. But then, Lula had never told Barrie about Pru or Watson’s Landing, or anything at all, really, so to hell with what Lula’d wanted.
“My mother died last week,” Barrie said, testing the sound of those words too.
“I’m sorry.” The driver’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror.
Barrie nodded and looked away. The cab pulled up to the house and rolled to a stop behind an ancient Mercedes with a live albino peacock perched on the hood like some bizarre kind of ornament. The bird shrieked, flew down, and landed beside a woman seated on the steps. Purse clutched on her knees in a white-knuckle grip, the woman stared at Barrie.
This had to be Lula’s sister. Lula’s twin. The woman resembled Barrie enough to make that clear. Unlike Barrie’s mother, though, she had no burn scars to hide behind a wig and veil. She wasn’t stooped in pain. She was pretty. Beautiful, almost.
Was this what Lula would have looked like if fate had been kinder all those years ago? Barrie studied her aunt’s full cheeks, her neat triangular chin, the liquid play of emotions across her face. Slowly, she climbed out of the cab.
“Aunt Pru?” Barrie asked.
The woman struggled to her feet, scrubbing at eyes as gray as Barrie’s, as pale as Lula’s. She smoothed back her blond curls, and with her gaze locked on Barrie, she took a shaky step. That was as far as she got, as if she didn’t have the strength to descend the remaining stairs.
“Barrie?” she asked. “Is that you?”
Barrie ran a few steps, then stopped. A handshake seemed too formal, but she had never hugged anyone except for Mark, and a hug felt awkward when she and her aunt had never met. She clasped her hands behind her and licked her lips. “I kept trying to call you, but no one answered.”
“I was on my way to get you.” Her aunt’s words trickled out like they weren’t in a hurry, a syllable at a time. “I—I was going to the airport. I just sat down a moment to catch my breath. . . .”
Barrie glanced at her watch. “It’s four fifteen—”
“Four fifteen?” Pru checked her own watch. “Oh, goodness. It is.” She sank back down on the step, wrapping her arms around herself as though she felt cold despite the afternoon heat. “You must have thought I’d abandoned you—”
“No. It was fine,” Barrie cut in before her aunt could burst into tears.
Of course it wasn’t fine. The problem wasn’t only that Pru hadn’t come for her. Something about her aunt, and the whole situation, was off. Pru’s clothes seemed more like what a teenage girl might have worn years ago, instead of a woman of thirty-six. The sundress was ironed stiff, as if Pru had taken trouble with it, but the pattern was so faded, Barrie couldn’t tell if the fruit on it had begun as apples or apricots. And Pru’s scuffed, old-fashioned Mary Janes would have made Mark groan. Overall the look was more can’t-afford-anything-new than vintage chic.
In that, Barrie’s aunt matched the house. A shutter hung drunkenly on a nearby window like it was going to crash down at any moment. Paint peeled from one of the tall columns, and mortar had crumbled from between the bricks.
Unlike the manicured gardens around it, the house looked neglected, as if no one cared enough to maintain it. The opposite of Lula’s obsession to have every room and knickknack perfect.
The driver handed Barrie the charge slip to sign. “You sure you’re goin’ to be all right here, child?” He nodded his chin in her aunt’s direction and added softly, “I can still take you back. No trouble.”
Barrie shook her head. Now that she was here, she couldn’t
leave. Her aunt was undeniably strange, but Pru’s features added up to familiarity, to family. And the house, while run-down, was magnificent. It was Watson’s Landing. Lula’s history. Barrie’s own history.
“I’m going to be fine here,” she said, as if determination could make that true.