Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
gray: perfect island blonde
I had always been a planner. My calendar was filled a year in advance, vacations chosen from a well-curated spreadsheet of bucket list destinations ranked in order of interest, and my son’s potential summer camp options were mapped out for the rest of his childhood, categorized by activity and color-coded by region. My company’s succession plan should I (a) die, (b) retire, or (c) never return from one of the aforementioned bucket list vacations had been detailed since the day I filed for my first LLC.
Needless to say, when my startup took off, and I got married, had my son, and bought my dream house all in very short order, I thought my hard work had been worth it. The hours spent goal setting, evaluating, strategizing, and visualizing had come to fruition, bloomed into the beautiful garden that I had been seeding, sowing, and watering for the past several years. I thought I had this adulting thing in the bag. I thought I was set.
Life had other plans.
I put the car in park, took a deep breath, and stepped out. The heat rose from the asphalt of the parking lot as I hoisted my rattan beach bag onto my shoulder. Cicadas sang in the tall sea oats, and the dunes in front of the beach club rolled like hills, their valleys revealing a spectacular view of the ocean. The hazy sky went pink, yellow, or orange depending on where I looked, blending to a seamless blue over the ocean at the horizon line.
I gave my outfit a final once-over in the car’s reflection. Large floppy hat, huge Jackie O sunglasses, vintage pareo tied around my neck, and plain but chic flip-flops. I stood up straighter and cleared my throat. It was going to be okay. On a day as spectacular as this, it couldn’t help but be. I had gone over the plan at least a hundred times in my head: Park car on the far side of the lot, directly opposite the pool. Exit car and veer left of the octagonal patch of grass visible from the terrace and outdoor dining area. Walk briskly but nonchalantly straight into the protective watch of my best friend, Marcy, who would be waiting for me poolside.
My flip-flops traveled in measured steps across the concrete pavers as Step on a line, and you’ll break your mama’s spine came to mind, reminding me that, always and forever, we are children at heart.
No matter our age, first days back are never easy. I was a grown-up now. I could have avoided this first day. But I refused to hide out in the shadows as though I had something to be ashamed of; I refused to sacrifice a summer at one of my favorite places in the world because of a little scandal. On this opening day at the beach club, members from near and far who called Cape Carolina—this little slice of sandy paradise—home each summer would gather together again for three glorious months by the shore. They would be chattering excitedly, catching up on everything that had happened over the past nine months while they were apart. Suffice it to say, I would be a hot topic.
As I turned the corner, I gave my friendliest wave to the brunchers on the terrace who called out greetings. But I passed by quickly. For every person who would give me a hug in true concern, there were four who would try to gather dirt and then whisper about it behind my back later.
My plan didn’t account for the fact that the teak lounge chairs between the terrace and the pool deck were teeming with sunbathers, mimosa sippers, and bridge players.
I had almost passed through unnoticed when Mrs. Jenkins, a remarkably agile octogenarian whom I hadn’t seen since the previous summer, jumped up from her chair and stopped me in my tracks. “Gray, darling,” she said dramatically, her bright abstract-print caftan blowing in the breeze. “I am so sorry…”
Here it was. I nodded in polite recognition and braced myself for the blow. I knew it was inevitable, but I wasn’t ready to hear how sorry everyone was about my impending divorce. I knew they were, in their way, even the ones who weren’t as charitable about their delivery. But they were also relishing a new scandal to discuss this summer.
But then she continued, “I am so sorry I didn’t make it to your mother’s funeral, sweetheart. Burl was in the hospital, and I simply could not leave him.” She took my hand, making the bangles on my wrist jingle, and I was grateful for my huge, tear-concealing sunglasses. I gave her jeweled left hand an understanding squeeze, my ring finger conspicuously empty in comparison to hers. This was how it was when we came back together, as though the past few months had never happened, were suspended in time. I usually loved that. But this year it meant rehashing things that had happened almost nine months earlier, including my mother’s funeral.
“It was a beautiful service,” I said. It had been. I had enlisted my favorite florist to make the arrangements nothing short of spectacular. Mom had specifically told me not to waste money on flowers. They weren’t a waste, though. They were glorious, the backdrop of the church’s stained-glass windows making them even more so. Those flowers brightened one of the darkest days of my life. No one in the church except for Marcy realized that I was grieving the loss of three people. My mother, of course. My husband, who was next to me in the pew but no longer next to me at night. And my sister, whose brand-new husband, Elijah—who, to put it mildly, I believed was a cult leader—had brainwashed her out of our family. To add insult to injury, he had performed the service, per my mother’s request. I hadn’t had the heart to tell her in her final days that the man she thought had saved her wild child, Quinn, and brought her to Jesus was nothing like he seemed—much less that Greg had left me.
Mom had died in September barely seven months after her February diagnosis, after a swift but valiant battle with a cancer that seemed determined to take her from here, from me, from all of these earthly problems. It was a blessing; I knew that. But it still hurt like hell. She had left when I needed her the very most. I needed her today, to help me face this firing squad head-on.
“It was magnificent,” Mrs. Stoddard added, standing up to join us.
I was trapped. The plan had failed. I quickly scanned the property for Marcy, but she was nowhere to be found.
“And congratulations on your sister’s wedding,” Mrs. Stoddard added, raising her wrinkled hand to shield her face. “I only wish we had been invited,” she said lightly.
Wow. I felt like I was getting away with murder. The first dig of the day didn’t have to do with Greg. Even still, I couldn’t help but imagine everyone around me whispering about my marriage. If she hadn’t worked so much.… If she had cared a little more about the man being the man.… Did you see her travel schedule?… Poor little Wagner.… It is the worries that plague us the most that cut the deepest when other people call them to the surface. Because this year had been difficult for my son. He had adjusted remarkably well to his new circumstances, but that didn’t keep my shame and guilt from being very real.
If only Greg would agree to the very generous settlement I had offered him, this could all be over, and I would feel so much less self-conscious. Once it was over, it was over. No one would have anything left to talk about. But Greg was turning a simple divorce into a now sixteen-month soap opera by demanding half of my affiliate marketing company, ClickMarket. My company, the one I had been building since I was twenty years old. Just thinking about his greed made anger rise in me. He didn’t want me, as he had made abundantly clear on our “second honeymoon” last February, three days after I found out my mother had cancer. But he wouldn’t let me go either. So I was stuck here, in legal and emotional purgatory, waiting for a bunch of strangers to decide my fate to the tune of $500 an hour.
Deep breath. I reeled myself in and replied to Mrs. Stoddard: “It was such a small wedding. I’m sorry we weren’t able to have all our friends there, but Quinn was insistent that our mother see her walk down the aisle, so time was of the essence.”
She looked contrite now. “Of course it was, sweetheart. Of course.”
They meant well, these ladies. I knew they did. They had seen me through good times and bad, were the first to bring meals when Wagner was born, to throw parties when a celebration was in order. Maybe now they’d want to throw a party for my divorce. Or my thirty-fifth birthday, which was looming large.
Just when I felt myself start to relax, I saw her. Her. The twentysomething blonde with the MBA I had hired to be my husband’s executive assistant when I had somewhat begrudgingly promoted him to CFO of my company and given him a corner office. It wasn’t that I didn’t want my husband on my playing field. Greg just wasn’t a very hard worker, and everyone except him could see that he didn’t deserve to be a part of my C-suite. There were positives to Greg’s aversion to work, especially when it came to raising our son, but I’d always had serious qualms about his being a part of my business.
Ironically, his executive assistant was not one of them.
Suddenly I was thankful that these ladies had taken post along my route to the pool. Though we hadn’t specifically addressed the Greg and Brooke situation—thank God—I knew they were abreast of the drama. Everyone was abreast of the drama. So I nodded my head slyly toward Brooke as she approached and said, “Mrs. Jenkins, Mrs. Stoddard, would you do me the very large favor of keeping her occupied for a few minutes?”
They laughed delightedly, always glad to be caught up in a scheme.
Brooke was in full makeup, a sundress, and five-inch wedges that seriously slowed her pace. As she called “Gray!” I pretended not to hear her and crossed the final few yards of concrete pavers to the pool gate. Before she could catch me, Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Stoddard descended on her with small talk. They were so good; it didn’t even seem suspicious. But just when I thought the worst was over, I heard a muffled “how humiliating” from a “friend” as I walked by. I’m sure she thought I couldn’t hear her, but I have ears that rival a bat’s. So I turned, shot her my most genuine smile, and said, “You have absolutely no idea.”
“Oh, no,” she stammered. “I wasn’t talking about you.”
But I was already gone, lifting the safety latch on the iron gate and walking past the elaborate hut with its Bermuda shutters that served as the pool bar. There were a dozen or so sunbathers lounging around the perimeter of the pool, some in full sun and others under the club’s black-and-white-striped umbrellas. Children splashed and played in the water. Even in my state, I couldn’t help but smile at their joy.
Palm trees swayed above the white wooden cabanas. The trees weren’t native to this area, but the club kept them alive by wrapping them through the winter. The view across the pool of the otherworldly blue ocean was transportive, and it made this little oasis in Cape Carolina feel like a tropical mini-vacation. Not that I was eager to return to the tropics after last time.
“Gray,” I heard Brooke calling again from behind me, louder than before. Good Lord, leave me alone, I thought. I was being immature, I knew. Still unable to locate Marcy, I quickly and calmly removed my sunglasses, hat, flip-flops, and pareo and set them in a pile by the edge of the pool. There was one place I knew Brooke wouldn’t follow me. She would never ruin a perfectly good blowout, which, to be fair, I respected.
I had been mature when Greg told me, on our trip to the British Virgin Islands, as we were sipping mimosas on the stern of our boat—still sex-sticky, no less—that he was leaving me. I had been mature when he moved out of my house and straight into Brooke’s the day after we buried my mother. I had been mature when they asked to take my only child on a three-week vacation to Europe, which they were leaving for tonight. I was done being mature.
As I heard Brooke’s footsteps behind me, I flashed back to the BVIs, to Greg looking me in the eyes and saying, “Gray, you are the mother of my child, and I will always love you. But I think it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”
Ten years of holding his hand and smelling his particular brand of morning breath and feeling his cold feet underneath our sheets. Ten years of his bad jokes at my office and even worse show tunes in the shower. My husband—the man I had made love to less than thirty minutes earlier, the man who had held my leg in the delivery room, who had stood at the other end of the aisle when I was in a white dress—was out.
Trapped on that boat with Greg, I panicked. I had just found out my mother was sick a few days earlier, and now this? All I wanted to do was flee. Before I could gather my thoughts to respond, before Greg could try to stop me, I climbed onto the side of the boat and dove off into the clearest aqua water. I held my breath, ears roaring from the pressure of my descent. I could feel my hair, which I’d had tinted that perfect island blond for this trip, for this husband, streaming out in a sleek V behind me.
Now, feeling the same primal urge to escape the clutches of Brooke, I raised my arms above my head, bent my knees ever so slightly, and dove gracefully into the deep end. No splash, no fanfare, just a simple, swift motion that united me with the water. I had known that day in the islands that that dive, like it or not, was the beginning of something for me, the start of a new life. Now, as the water covered my streamlined body, it washed away all the things those people on the terrace and the pool deck were saying about me, all those judgments, all the hurt and fear that losing my mother and my husband and, for all intents and purposes, my sister in such short order had caused.
Safe from the noisy world above the surface, I told myself things would get better. I was strong, I was smart, I was proud, and I was worthy of being loved, even if I had forgotten those things during the past few months. My dive, that tiny snapshot of fearlessness, of freedom, did more than set me a pool’s length apart from Brooke; it offered a moment of meditation that would propel me forward into a summer of change. There is nothing like the deep, immersive water to cleanse us of even our darkest demons, to wash us whole and set us free, until we can emerge, as I did that day, gasping, reborn into the light.
My brothers and sister and me, we’re all named after royalty. Diana, Charles, Elizabeth, and Phillip. But my momma was wrong when she said naming people after royalty would make them grow up to be like royalty. My boyfriend was a case in point.
“Harry, I don’t give a damn where you were all night,” I said. “All I care about is that you get out of my sight.” I threw one more wrinkled shirt into my duffel and put my hand up to my throbbing jaw.
Harry was behind me, his breath stale from the night before, pleading, “But, babe, I’m gonna win it all back. Don’t you know your man well enough to know that he’s an ace at poker?”
I turned around, so pissed I could hardly speak. “Are you freaking kidding me? An ace? You blew all my money on that poker tournament. You got any damn idea how long it takes to save a thousand bucks? You got any damn idea how I’m going to fix this toothache, now that you spent all my money?”
“Babe, you gotta understand. I can win all that money back like that.” He snapped his fingers. “All I need is another hundred to put in down at the bar tonight. I’m feeling lucky.”
I hoisted an overstuffed bag over each shoulder and marched to the car. “You’re nothing but a drunk and a gambler, Harry, and you can bet your sorry ass I won’t be back this time. Good luck finding your hundred dollars.”
He was lumbering behind, trying to keep up, trying to get between me and the door of the creaky old Impala that I could’ve traded in if he didn’t keep spending all my money. I shoved him away from the door, slammed it shut, and lit a cigarette.
I shivered at the stained pits of his old T-shirt and the beer belly rolling over the band of his cargo shorts as he leaned against the car, fogging up my window. His hairline had receded since I met him, revealing an oddly red scalp. Harry wasn’t ever magazine handsome, but in his day he’d been all right. Some days, when I could get him into a collared shirt, he was even something to look at. Let’s just say, Harry hadn’t aged gracefully.
Maybe I wasn’t some prize pony at the fair either, but I’d kept myself up pretty good. And I figured I’d rather be alone than deal with his crap for the rest of my life. Thank the good Lord I’d had the sense not to marry the bastard. I took a long, slow drag of my Marlboro, feeling it calm my nerves even though the smoke made my throbbing tooth hurt worse. Where was I going to go? I didn’t have any family nearby. My girlfriends would take me in in a hot minute, but they’d warned me sideways and backward about Harry from the beginning, given me down the country about dating him. He was worthless. He was no good. I was too proud to admit they had been right.
I sighed and resolved to head to the shelter if I had to. Wouldn’t be the first night I’d spent there. Probably wouldn’t be the last. “One of us has to go to work!” I shouted through the glass, sounding less intimidating than I would’ve if my busted window had rolled down. But that ship had sailed around January. “Get out of my way, you moron. I swear to God, I’ll run over you. Don’t make me do it.”
I shifted the car into reverse, ignoring Harry’s muffled whines. The Impala was rattling and shaking, the air-conditioning blasting and the radio up. It seemed right fitting that “Goodbye to You” was playing as I backed out of the short dirt driveway of the tiny house Harry had inherited from his mother, where we’d been living for eight years. People were always asking why Harry and me didn’t make it official. Well, this was why.
He was all right. I mean, he was a nice guy deep down, the kind of guy who makes them weepy speeches about how beautiful you are and how he’s so lucky he’s got you and all that bull. But then you turn around and he’s lost his job again, and he got ahold of your savings and blew it at some blackjack table at some casino his friend swears he got rich at. The man just didn’t have any sense and that’s the God’s honest truth of it.
I was forty years old and starting over again. I briefly thought that maybe I should stick with Harry, that the devil I knew was better, that at least I wasn’t alone.
But then the tooth pain shot all the way through my ear and reminded me that it wasn’t me that should be feeling bad. If it weren’t for Harry, I’d be on my way to the dentist right now. If it weren’t for Harry, I wouldn’t be in all this pain because I wouldn’t be flat broke with nowhere to go, praying I could make it through the day at work.
“Morning, Mr. Joe,” I said as I walked through the back door of the fluorescent-lit local pharmacy for another long day on my feet in the photo lab. The job at Meds and More made me a living, yeah, but it sure wasn’t what I’d dreamed of back when I was a kid and my momma said that anybody named Diana’d grow up to be a princess.
“You all right there, D?” Mr. Joe asked. He was about the nicest manager you could ever hope to have. He was an inch shorter than me, kind of round, with a nice head of hair even though he was in his early fifties. The thing I liked best about him was that the blue shirts he wore tucked into his khaki pants were always pressed. Either he was good at ironing or he had some kind of generous girlfriend because I knew his wife had died a while back.
I nodded and tried to smile but ended up wincing instead. “My tooth is hurting something fierce again. I’d saved up all the money to get a root canal and whatnot, but that damn Harry found my stash and blew all my money in a poker tournament.”
Mr. Joe looked real nervous, and I said, “Now, don’t you worry. I’ll get me something back in the pharmacy to numb it up enough to get through the day.” And I’ll get a bottle from the ABC store to get me through the night, I thought.
“Now, Diana, I’m not gonna have any of my girls running around in pain all day. You get on to the dentist. I’ll cover photo until you get back.”
I shook my head. “I can’t pay for it anyhow. I’ll be all right.”
“Look here. Let’s you and me go on up to the bank in a few minutes, and I’ll see if I’ve got enough to help you out.”
I wanted to refuse, but there wasn’t any denying pain like this. I wanted to save that tooth like the dentist said, but at this point there wasn’t any choice but to pull it. Even that’d be a couple hundred bucks. I nodded and pulled Mr. Joe into me. “I can’t stand it anymore. You know I’m good for it.”
He smiled proudly and said, “I got your back.” Then he added, “Hey, D. Don’t you know a good girl like you could do a whole hell of a lot better than somebody like that Harry?” Then he looked down at his feet. “I know people aren’t supposed to say things like that, but I’ve sat around here and watched him hurt you about long enough now. I’d say it’s time to move on.”
I nodded, suddenly feeling sick to my stomach from being in so much pain for so long. I took a deep breath, put my hand on my jaw again, and said, “Mr. Joe, think we might be able to go right now? I can’t make it much longer.”
Mr. Joe led me to the car, and I swear I don’t much remember the rest of it. Next thing I knew, I was crying I was so happy because that tooth was numb. I couldn’t bear to put my tongue there, on that big hole in my mouth. I’d sworn up and down that I wouldn’t be like my momma, I wouldn’t just get my teeth pulled and get some dentures later on. But I’d sworn a lot of things that didn’t really pan out these last forty years.
“I’m real sorry, Doc,” I said. “I wanted to save that tooth like you said, but I don’t have any insurance.”
He had a mask over his mouth, but you could tell by the way his green eyes were sparkling that he was smiling. “It’s okay, Miss Diana. I have this new machine I’m testing out that makes crowns, so this one is on the house.”
“Crowns… Wait…” I thrust my tongue back on my molar. My tooth was there! With a crown. Maybe I was a princess after all. My eyes filled up again. “Oh, Doc. You didn’t take my tooth out? I promise I’ll pay you every last penny and—”
“Diana, you’ve been a really good patient all these years, and besides, sometimes we all need a little help. You just help somebody else out when you can, and we’ll call it even.”
I leaned up and hugged him tight. He laughed and said, “You should be as good as new.”
I wasn’t all that used to somebody really helping me out. I mean, I was always kind of scraping by and whatnot, more used to somebody pushing me down than pulling me up, so this was a nice treat.
He turned back to me and said, “Oh, and Diana?”
“This would be as good a time as any to quit smoking.”
I groaned. Tomorrow, maybe. Tomorrow I’d quit.
Mr. Joe was in the waiting room, and he jumped to his feet when he saw me. “You okay?”
I smiled as best I could with my cheek all numb. “Good as new. Let’s get to it.”
My job at the photo lab wasn’t a real natural fit for me because I’d never been any good at computers. But it was the only job I could find after the plant I’d been working at closed down a couple years ago, so I took it. I’d probably have looked for a new job if I had time, but, even still, I liked it pretty good. When somebody came to pick up their pictures, it was like I knew them already. We weren’t just meeting over the counter. I’d seen their kid’s school play and them posing with their momma at her seventy-fifth birthday party. I’d seen some other stuff too, but I’m lady enough to look away and not talk about it to anyone. Well, maybe Harry. I felt a pang in my stomach for Harry. He wasn’t a bad guy when you got right down to it. He simply wasn’t made of sturdy stock like me.
I looked up from where I was alphabetizing the photos and saw Mr. Marcus, the owner, walking in. He was tall and slender, and you could tell all the suits he wore were expensive. It almost made you laugh to see him and Mr. Joe walking beside each other, like he was a Great Dane and Mr. Joe was a little Chihuahua running alongside to keep up. I sighed under my breath. He was real nice about it, but I was always getting in trouble with Mr. Marcus for doing something or another wrong. Today was no exception.
“Hi, Diana.” He smiled.
“Hi, Mr. Marcus,” I said, getting up and wiping my hands on my pants. I tried to smile and lisped, “Sorry about my swollen face.”
“You’re a real hard worker, Diana,” he said. “I admire that. Most people would have laid out after having their tooth worked on.”
I nodded and said, “Thanks,” knowing that my loyalty to the job was the only reason Mr. Marcus kept me around. Well, that and the fact that I’d half raised his kids that year his wife got the harebrained idea to run for Senate.
“Look,” he said, “this probably isn’t the best time, but you should know that I’ve had a couple of complaints lately about photo cropping and, you know, people’s heads being chopped off.”
“I’m real sorry,” I said. “The machine just wasn’t—”
He put his hand up. “It’s all right. Just consider it a warning.”
I got back to my alphabetizing but looked up when a pretty girl in a short skirt came in, looking like she just got out of a tennis racket ad with her long skinny legs and blond hair. I wondered what it would be like to be one of those girls, all tan and pretty and lying around by the pool all summer. Probably not too bad. But I’d never know.
“May I help you?”
“Sure. I need to pick up some photos for Howard.”
“Got them right here,” I said. I knew from the photos that she had a little boy. Blond like her. She had some professional shots of her and the boy on the beach.
I handed her an envelope, and she pulled out the pictures right away. “Oh, they look great,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling like she’d looked at the water so long they near turned into water themselves. I guessed it was easy to be sparkly when you didn’t have a care in the world.
I nodded, wondering if a picture of her had ever not looked great. “I just need to get a copy of your release for the professional ones,” I said.
She bit her lip, perfectly plump and pink without even a hint of lip gloss. “Oh, I have it, I promise. The photographer is a really good friend of mine, and she gave me the thumb drive with all the pictures and a written release.”
I didn’t mind fighting with Harry, but otherwise I’d never been good at confrontation. And I felt like one was brewing here. “Okay,” I said hesitantly. “Well, in order to let you leave with the photos, I either need a copy of the release or this form signed by the photographer.” I handed her a paper from under the counter.
“Look,” she said. “I’m having kind of a rough day. Maybe I could bring the release back later? I promise you that I have it.”
I wanted to say she didn’t know what a rough day was, but I didn’t. Mr. Marcus was real particular about those releases, saying we could get sued and all kinds of mess if we didn’t have them. My cheek was starting to get some feeling back in it again, and I thought about what the dentist had said: You just help somebody else out when you can.
I sighed, the butterflies I always got when I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to do fluttering around in my belly, and whispered, “You make sure you bring it back before we close today, okay? Because I could get in real deep trouble for this.”
She nodded and smiled. “Thank you so much.”
But when she pulled out the professional photos, she frowned.
“Everything good?” I asked hesitantly.
“The color is all wrong on these.” She pulled out her phone, opened an e-mail with the photos attached, and held one up to the prints. “The blues of the ocean look black, and Wagner’s shirt looks almost green.”
“Something the matter, Gray?” I’d had no idea that Mr. Marcus was standing only a few feet behind me.
“These pictures are not right,” she said, sounding more than a little testy.
Mr. Marcus’s response was soothing, but I could tell he was frustrated and even a little embarrassed. “Don’t you worry a bit about that. We’ll get that all straight.” He paused. “Take the ones you’re happy with. On the house. I’ll personally drop the others by this afternoon.”
Before he even said anything, I knew that soon I’d have all the time I needed to look for a new job.