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Message in the Sand

A Novel

An emotional and unforgettable tale of a small town irrevocably affected by an unforeseen and shocking event—from the author of the “charming gem of a novel” (Elin Hilderbrand, #1 New York Times bestselling author) Mystic Summer.

Wendell Combs is as local as they come. Born and raised in the small town of Saybrook, Connecticut, his venture into the larger world was met with heartbreak. Now, middle-aged and a confirmed bachelor, he seeks solitude from his tour of duty as a soldier back in his hometown, working as head caretaker for wealthy Alan Lancaster’s forty-acre estate, White Pines, a place he has come to love for its beauty, peace, and quiet.

Alan’s eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Julia, also loves White Pines, but for very different reasons. She and her little sister spend their days riding horses, swimming in the lake, and painting landscapes inspired by the property they adore. While her parents prepare to host their annual summer gala fundraiser, Julia’s eyes are set to the simpler joys of summer: she’s fallen in love with the boy-next-door and longs for their next encounter.

But as the last guests leave on that magical summer night, a tragedy no one could have predicted suddenly occurs, shaking the entire town to its core. Wendell and Julia now face an uncertain future. At the height of their grief, two very different women return to Saybrook: Ginny Feldman, Wendell’s first love, who cannot stay away any longer, and Candace Lancaster, Julia’s estranged aunt who wants nothing to do with the town or the family estate she escaped decades earlier. Now, the only familiar things Julia has to cling to are Wendell and White Pines, but it looks like she’s about to lose both...

With Hannah McKinnon’s “sharp and evocative” (Kirkus Reviews) prose, this stirring and affecting tale explores the connection between people and place and what, ultimately, makes up the fabric of a family.

Chapter One: Wendell One Wendell
A man who’d dwelt every one of his thirty-nine years in Saybrook, Wendell Combs had seen more than a few untoward things in his time. For all its open-faced New England charm, he understood that even quiet hill towns like his own hid their share of unpleasantries behind the virtuous lines of their cobble-stone walls. Still, a lifelong bachelor who’d never seen the wisdom in pulling his gaze away from a good thing, he hadn’t hankered for what may have lain beyond the town’s bucolic boundaries. What was the point? Like the three generations of Combses before him, Wendell knew what he liked, and he liked what he knew. Saybrook had long been a hamlet in the Connecticut hills of Litchfield County, where most of the faces you nodded to at the local market or gas station were the same ones you’d been passing in those very places since childhood. Tucked in the fertile valley at the base of the Housatonic watershed, whose dormant farmlands ran as deep as the tributaries that spawned them, Saybrook seemed to turn a sleepy eye away from time. It was what had drawn the city folk from their noisy urban sprawl and set them scrabbling over the George Washington Bridge and up the Saw Mill River Parkway to cross its borders. Just an hour shy of the wiles of the Big Apple, Saybrook may as well have been a world away. But no matter, the city had come to it.

That morning, hours before most had even stirred in their downy beds, Wendell had risen and climbed into his truck with Trudy. He, too, could have used a few more hours of sleep. After eight years being back home from his tour in Afghanistan, Wendell felt he should’ve been able to silence the dark memories that found him in the night. But last night’s had been worse than usual, and around four a.m. he’d abandoned any hope of rescue via the strategies Dr. Westerberg had pressed him to try in therapy and staggered out to the screened-in porch. There, he collapsed into the Adirondack chair until the rivulets of sweat dried between his shoulder blades, his hands stopped shaking, and the sky lightened. He still thought of Wesley every day, but it had been a long time since the dreams had been that bad.

Now, with one more night behind him, he drove through the sleepy town center. There were only two main roads in town, both owned by the state, and designated so by double-yellow lines and bright signage. All the rest were of the windy scenic sort, as rural as the hills and private lakeshore properties that made up Saybrook. Back when Wendell’s father was the mayor, he used to joke that if you blinked as you drove through, you’d miss the village center. His father had been gone a long time, but little had changed. Historic houses lined the main street, their windows still dark. The New England charm of the tiny town center was not much interrupted by commerce, aside from a gas station, a coffee shop, and the sole restaurant in town that served good burgers but lousy pasta. There were two churches: a sweeping modern design for the Catholics and a traditional white chapel for the Protestants. Wendell wasn’t much for religion, even though his mother had tried, but he supposed the Protestant church was where he’d end up if he had to go. These days, that was of little concern to him; quietude in the great outdoors was the only religion he needed.

Beside him in the cab, Trudy slept on as they passed the stately brick library, the playhouse his godfather had built, and the historical society museum that resided by the library in an antique red barn. Where the two main roads converged at the only stoplight in town, he turned left. The village market was the only thing open, its small parking lot already crowded with pickup trucks whose drivers were probably standing in line at the market deli counter for a fried egg sandwich and cup of coffee. Across the way, the school was closed for the summer, its colorful playground equipment gleaming in the early-morning sun like spit-polished shoes.

A mile north, Wendell swung his truck off the main road and onto Timber Lane, toward the Lancaster place. Here the road narrowed, its paved median void of painted yellow lines. People who lived in this town knew to stay in their own lane, at least the ones who’d grown up here. Trudy lifted her nose from the folds of her blanket and peered out from beneath heavy lids at the scene rolling by. Wendell rested a hand atop her head, and almost immediately, the basset hound resumed her wheezy snore. They passed Lonny Hastings’s dairy farm. The lights were on in the milking barn. When Wendell returned, hours later, the cows would be out in the pasture. Just past the dairy, farmhouses dotted the hill on both sides, their windows shadowy. Outside the driver’s window, the first rosy glimmer of the new day emerged. Wendell glanced at it. It surprised him, the fuss people made over a sunrise: snapping pictures and posting them on all those social media sites. No different than the cardboard sign affixed in the center of town inviting residents to experience sunrise yoga! down at the lake. Wendell shook his head. For him, dawn marked the beginning of another day, an hour after he’d had his first cup of coffee before he drove up to check on the Lancaster place, and two hours before he’d stop at the market for his second cup. He didn’t need to snap a picture.

At the crest of the hill, the sun burst in full on the horizon, and Wendell pulled the tattered brim of his John Deere cap lower on his forehead. He glanced in the rearview mirror. His blue eyes shone back at him. Honest eyes, his mother used to say. Eyes that once knew the ins and outs of almost every front door and backyard in this town. Though some people in town complained there were fewer locals and more transplants from the city. It was nothing new. People bought weekend places, had kids, and moved here full-time. Knocked down walls and put up fences. Expanded. Improved. Wendell didn’t pay it much mind. As his father used to say, when he was sitting behind the first selectman’s desk at town hall, it was how things went.

At a dense grove of pine trees, Wendell turned left onto a gravel driveway and stopped at the gates. The simple wooden sign at the edge of the drive was so discreet you might miss it if you weren’t looking: White Pines. Wendell stopped at the gate and punched in the security code: Alan trusted him with that, as with most everything else on the property, a fact that Wendell harbored little sentiment over. It was business.

At the end of the gravel drive, the big gray house rose up. It was early yet, but he was surprised not to see Alan’s Jeep Wagoneer. Despite his choices of vehicles—a Ferrari, a Porsche, a vintage T-Bird—all covered and stored here on the estate, Alan favored the old wood-paneled Jeep for daily use. But this morning the Wagoneer’s spot by the barn was empty. Wendell put the truck in park and Trudy sat up, her expression little changed in wakefulness. He held the door while she lumbered across the seats and hopped down. “Come on, girl. Time to get to work.”

As Wendell waited for Alan to come down from the house to go over the day’s schedule, he took inventory of the equipment. The Kubota was running low on gas, as were the weed eaters, but they could wait. It was the Scag he was here for. He grasped the orange handles and maneuvered it down the ramp and outside. Today he’d mow the acreage that Alan referred to as the western lawn, where his wife, Anne, kept a vegetable garden. She’d once told Wendell that he need not think twice about it—that patch of dirt was hers to bother with. Even so, Wendell made sure the hoses were hooked up properly and the water ran through the irrigation system he’d built for her. Each year he took pleasure in spying a flash of red tomato or the orange orbs of pumpkins in fall. He especially enjoyed seeing Anne, her straw hat pulled neatly over her blond hair. Wendell appreciated hard work in any form, but he’d dare to say there was something artful in the tended rows of lettuce and gently woven pea lattices. Broad stalks of Brussels sprout arced over leafy pepper plants, and beneath them all the tangled vines of squash wove their way through the underbelly of the garden like secrets. By midsummer it was a dazzling array of texture and color that Anne tended to as lovingly as she did her two daughters, lending a sense of wild beauty to a property that was otherwise hedged and trimmed and shorn from one immaculate corner to the next. He loved it when the girls joined their mother, filling small baskets with whatever was growing. Often Wendell caught himself gazing wistfully in the direction of the garden. But at this hour of the day, the yard was quiet.

As he rolled the Scag mower to the edge of the lawn and started it, a flicker of movement by the house caught his eye. Wendell looked up, but it was not Alan. It was Pippa, the younger of the two girls, pushing her bike across the top of the driveway.

As a rule, children were largely mystifying to Wendell, and Anne and Alan’s two daughters were no different. The younger one, who had a shy streak, kept as close to the house as she did to her mother. She was a sprite of a thing, all elbows and kneecaps and fine-spun golden hair, fairylike. But Lord, did she have a set of pipes on her, which he’d had occasion to hear when her temper was piqued or she was overcome with something particularly delightful. Today seemed of the delightful variety, he was relieved to note as he watched her skip with reckless abandon across the yard, singing loudly and out of tune. She stopped suddenly by her mother’s garden gate and disappeared in the greenery. The tall stalks of gladiolas shook violently as she rummaged through the rows, until she finally emerged with a handful of picked flowers that Wendell was pretty sure she ought not to. Wendell glanced at Anne, bent over the house beds in the shade. He would never say anything, of course. Caretakers existed in the background.

The older one, Julia, was a different story. She was in her early teens and a curious thing, always lurking about like a cat. Perched in a tree branch with a book or hopping down from a fence, catching him by surprise on his rounds. Despite his better efforts to steer clear, the two had had a few memorable run-ins.

Earlier that spring, while mowing the upper fields, he’d come across her crying at the base of a dogwood tree, cupping something gray and tufted in her palms. “You have to help it,” she’d cried, holding her hands out to him.

Wendell was used to coming across wildlife in his line of work, if not weeping little girls, so he took the bird gently from her. It was fully feathered, just a fledgling.

“Well?”

He turned, and Julia’s eyes locked expectantly on his. They were the same arresting blue as her mother’s. Wendell glanced across the field toward the house, but neither parent was around. “All right,” he said hesitantly. “Let’s see what we can do.”

Julia had remained fixed by his side as he considered the tree the bird had fallen from, eventually pulling himself up into its dense branches in search of the nest. Nearby, a gray swallow chided them loudly. “She’s not happy with us,” he said, pointing her out. “Must be the mother.”

“But we’re helping.”

“No,” he said. “To her we’re predators.”

Julia bit her lip. “Then you’d better hurry up.” He’d paused, glancing down through the crisscrossed limbs at her insistent face. Much more like her father, he decided.

They’d returned the baby bird to its nest and, as far as Wendell knew, to safety. After that, Julia began popping up during his workdays. Swinging her leg over a fence rail. Peering around the corner of an open barn door. Most often she found him in the stable, where her horse, Radcliffe, was stabled. Each time, “Whatcha doing?”

Wendell made it a practice not to interact with his client’s families. It kept things clean. Besides, he had no kids of his own and had never wanted any. They were as baffling to him as the wider world beyond Saybrook, a world he saw no point in acquainting himself with any more than necessary.

It was true what others said about him: that Wendell preferred the company of animals to people. Animals did not bother him, nor ask for more than what they required. And when he looked in their eyes, he saw an instinctual certainty about life that he recognized: the need to survive. But horses—like children—were another matter altogether. The fact of the chestnut horse had forced his path to cross with Julia’s more than once. Radcliffe was clever and stubborn, just like his young owner, and after the matter of the little bird they’d rescued, Julia began to seek Wendell out when things went awry.

On a particularly gusty day a few months earlier, he’d been surprised to see the two heading out for the fields. “Windy days make for frisky ponies,” he’d cautioned. “You may want to keep to the safety of the riding ring today.”

But Julia had already made up her mind. “I’d rather ride in the field,” she’d retorted, urging the horse into a brisk trot. Not five minutes later, she came stomping back on foot, red-faced and covered in grass clippings.

Wendell knew enough about females to keep his gaze fixed on the hay bales he was busy stacking. He did not look up when she huffed into the barn and slammed the door. “Need a hand?” he asked finally.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Julia swipe at the mud stains on her britches. “No.” Then, her eyes filling with tears, “Maybe.”

Wordlessly, he went to the tack room and scooped some sweet grain into a bucket. In the doorway, he glanced back at Julia, who seemed poised to retreat to the house for a bubble bath. “What’re you waiting for? He’s your horse.”

After a sharp look, she followed. It had taken half an hour between the two of them, but eventually, the little beast had been caught. Since then, Wendell seemed to have risen in Julia’s estimation as more than a curiosity who worked on her father’s property. And though Wendell preferred to be left alone, he was surprised to find he did not entirely mind her occasional presence.

But there was no time for distraction today. The Lancasters were hosting the annual gala that evening, and there was much to be done. Alan’s Jeep rumbled toward him, and he rolled down the window as he pulled up alongside Wendell. “Good morning,” he said. “What a day, what a day.”

Wendell was used to Alan’s vocal affection for his property. It extended beyond the ownership of the estate; Alan was in love with the land.

“It is, Mr. Lancaster. What’s first on the schedule this morning?”

Alan rested his elbow on the window. “Wendell, I admire your work ethic. But a morning like this is to be admired. Look at that sky! Not a cloud.”

Wendell cleared his throat and glanced up obligingly. The truth was, he saw in this property exactly what Alan Lancaster did: the lush greenery, the watery shadows around the pond, the thrilling flash of white-tailed deer or wing of osprey. Having grown up in this town, Wendell didn’t just see all of what Alan saw, he felt it. And ever since his tour of duty, he needed it.

The sky overhead was sharp and cloudless, and with some hesitation, Wendell allowed his eyes to wader across its expanse. It was a luxury he did not often allow himself. Wendell knew it was better to stay busy—to keep moving, his hands working, his brain planning. He did not allow himself to soak things in, as Alan suggested. Because then his mind wandered, and when that happened, the ability to control what filtered through it might slip. Wendell held his breath as his gaze traveled: There were the treetops, branches reaching like a woman’s slender arm. The light was gauzy and soft at this hour, and Wendell began to relax, to let his breath out. Suddenly, in the distance, an egret launched itself gracefully off a weeping willow, and Wendell followed its slow sweep across the lake. Alan was right: the morning was nothing short of spectacular.

But as he watched the egret glide across the water, the sky began to blur at the edges. Wendell blinked. He tried to focus on the egret’s silhouette, but it, too, began to flicker. And before he could stop it, the scene before him flashed away, replaced suddenly by Wesley’s profile. There he was, against the sky. All twenty-five years of him, staring off in the distance as if he, too, were watching the egret’s descent. Wendell recognized the strong set of his jaw, the determined gaze. Exactly as he’d looked the last time Wendell saw him in Afghanistan. Wesley turned his way and, seeing his big brother, grinned like an eight-year-old. Then disappeared. Wendell braced himself, shook his head against the memory.

Alan misunderstood his expression. “Stops you in your tracks, this view. Doesn’t it?”

Wendell blinked, forced his tongue to work around the sandy confines of his mouth. “Yes, sir.” He met Alan’s gaze and prayed his own was steady, but inside, the wave of nausea crested violently in his gut.

Alan looked at him curiously. “Feeling okay, Wendell?”

Wendell ran a hand across his brow. “Yes, sir. Just a little warm.” He peeled off his sweatshirt, willing the nausea to subside, to climb down the burning walls of his insides once more. The first waves were always the worst. Thankfully, Alan did not press him.

“I have to run in to town,” Alan said, passing him a piece of paper. “Here’s what Anne has set out for us today.” He looked apologetic. “The damn gala is upon us.”

But even as he said it, Alan Lancaster’s eyes twinkled. Wendell knew how it went: Alan in his black tie. The man loved nothing more than hosting people he cared about or who also cared about the land, the town, his mission to preserve it. He did not shy away from crowds but entered them with a glass raised and a clever remark on the tip of his tongue. His laugh was rich and infectious, his intentions honorable enough, as Wendell saw it. Though his friends often gave him crap for thinking so, accusing him of going soft. Going to the other side. Wendell didn’t care.

All Wendell cared about was doing his job. Doing it well enough to be left alone, to be welcomed back here where he could try to do something good, however small or simple, and contain the dark well within him.
Photograph by TK

Hannah McKinnon is the author of The Lake SeasonMystic SummerThe Summer HouseSailing Lessons, and The View from Here. She graduated from Connecticut College and the University of South Australia. She lives in Connecticut, with her family, a flock of chickens, and two rescue dogs.

 

"A sweet story about a small town, and the one summer that changes everything for its inhabitants. Right now, more than ever, we need stories about resilience, strength, and how the people we see every day have the power to change our lives— the latest novel by Hannah McKinnon delivers."

– Brenda Janowitz, author of THE GRACE KELLY DRESS

"Loyal readers of Catherine Ryan Hyde and Mary Alice Monroe will appreciate the web of relationships spun over decades and the strength of unlikely allies. Blending young love, rekindled romance, and the power of potential, McKinnon’s latest is heartwarming to its core."

– Booklist

“A cast of deeply wounded souls struggles with devastating losses in Message in the Sand, a gripping, heart-wrenching novel of domestic fiction by Hannah McKinnon . . . In this gripping, emotional story, a shattering tragedy upends the lives of two young girls and those in their orbit.”

– Shelf Awareness

"McKinnon effortlessly transforms tragedy and family drama into a story about love, hope and laughter that has you turning the pages in hopes of a happily ever after for everyone involved . . . Full of heart wrenching moments and plenty of surprises."

– The Girly Book Club

More books from this author: Hannah McKinnon