Chapter One Chapter One
The lowcountry, also known as the low country, is, as the name implies, a low-lying area along the South Carolina Atlantic coast. This area is rich with unique culture, geography, architecture, economy, cuisine… and stories.
THE LOWCOUNTRY WAS spread out far below as she soared in the sky. Linnea Rutledge sighed and placed her fingertips on the plane’s cool window, her eyes tracing the twisting creeks and winding rivers that snaked through the seemingly impenetrable greenery of the salt marsh. From her vantage point, the rivers looked like great arteries, and all the myriad creeks were veins. Salt water coursed through them like a bloodstream. The tides were the lowcountry’s pumping heart.
As the plane descended, bringing the landscape closer and closer, Linnea felt that salt water thrumming in her own veins, as it did for all who called the lowcountry home. Her connection to the landscape—and its crown jewel, Charleston—was as vital as an umbilical cord.
She should be happy returning to her home, her family, her friends. Instead, she felt demoralized. A failure, both professionally and personally. Two years earlier Linnea had headed west in a great show of independence. She’d won out over hundreds of applicants for a job with an environmental startup company in San Francisco. To add to her status, she was accompanied by her new beau, defying her parents, and convinced she was in love. Only to lose her job and be dumped by her boyfriend. She wasn’t sure which she was more embarrassed about—losing her job, or losing her boyfriend, or just returning home with her tail between her legs.
Linnea had visited only three times during her two years away, twice for Christmas and once for the wedding of a friend. She liked San Francisco. The great city by the Pacific was a thriving, beautiful, intellectually stimulating place. But she’d been homesick for the Atlantic Ocean. For the slower pace of Charleston with its southern culture, its rich history, the narrow cobblestone streets she knew by heart, the weather-washed pastel colors of the old South, the clip-clop of horse carriages, and the smell of jasmine surprising you as you walked past a walled garden. And the food. Barbecue and sweet tea, collards and shrimp. Her empty stomach growled at the thought.
Her ex-boyfriend, John Peterson, had accompanied her home each time. A southern boy himself, he’d spent his summers on Isle of Palms and was always glad to join her and visit his childhood friends and, of course, his mother, Emmi Baker. She was her aunt Cara’s best friend and neighbor. Linnea and John used to laugh that their relationship had seemed almost incestuous. But John was always antsy to head back to the West Coast. That’s where he’d made his home and planned to stay. They’d still been deep in the throes of romance when attending the Charleston wedding the previous summer. Linnea had watched the bride walk down the aisle, then looked up at John dreamily. Her first clue should have been that he wasn’t looking back at her.
The plane landed with a graceless thump, bounced, then glided down the runway to a stop. En masse, the sound of clicking seat belts filled the air as passengers reached for their phones. Linnea’s legs felt wobbly as she dragged her carry-on suitcase into the terminal. She craved a bathroom, a face wash, and strong coffee, in that order. Her reflection in the mirror made her burst out a quick laugh. Her eyes were puffy from tears and lack of sleep, her skin chalky, and her shoulder-length blond hair was falling out of the tenuous hold of a scrunchie. The neighboring sinks were being used by women with the same idea as her. Digging into her large bag, she pulled out supplies. She splashed her face with cool water, then quickly ran a toothbrush across her teeth and a hairbrush through her hair. She applied moisturizer, a quick stroke of blush, and lip gloss, then reassessed herself.
She’d always been considered pretty in the classic southern belle style, with her small stature, blond hair, and blue eyes, a clone of her grandmother, Olivia Rutledge, a comparison that pleased her. Her Charleston accent was delicately southern, her social manners deeply ingrained. Today, however, even after her quick primp, she looked tired, a bit ragged around the edges. Her retro 1940s high-waisted capris were wrinkled from the long plane flight. At least her nautical striped top still looked fresh. She adjusted the navy bow. Oh well, she thought, turning away from the mirror. She didn’t have anyone to impress.
Stepping outside the airport’s glass sliding doors, Linnea paused and took deep breaths of the April air. It felt moist and delicious. Everything was so fresh and green here. She lifted her face to the sun, relieved and grateful to be out of the cramped, stuffy airplane and the staleness of airport terminals. She could feel her pores open under the sunlight and her cells tingle. A rush of excitement flowed through her. She was home. In a few months’ time summer would descend and the scorching heat and humidity would be unbearable, the mosquitoes beastly, but now everything felt heavenly.
A shiny black Hyundai pulled up to the curb in front of her. Linnea checked the model and license plate against the order on her phone. It wasn’t a fancy car, but opening the door she saw that it was roomy and obviously well-tended by the middle-aged man driving it. A bottle of chilled water had been thoughtfully placed in the back seat, as well as a Charleston magazine, though a few months old with curling edges. She made a mental note to leave a generous tip for the effort. She leaned back against the cushion with a weary sigh. Now all she had to do was sit and she’d be home. The car accelerated and she smiled. She was on her way to Sullivan’s Island.
The address she’d given the driver had felt strange on her tongue. It was the first time she’d come home since her family had sold the house in Charleston. Linnea had been born and raised in the Rutledge House on Tradd Street. The lovely Charleston single with the two-story piazza had been purchased by her grandparents, then handed down to her father. The stately home was within walking distance of Charleston Harbor and had an impressive walled garden. The garden had been her grandmother Lovie’s passion and been included in the city’s garden tours for years.
Tradd Street was named for Robert Tradd, the first white child to be born in Charles Town. Names were important in Charleston, more important than the address where one lived. Linnea’s father, Palmer, was a Rutledge, one of the great historic families of the old South. Even today, the names Rutledge, Middleton, Huger, Pinckney, Tradd, Calhoun, Legare, Ball, and Pringle raised eyebrows. These great names were passed down from one generation to another, heavy with hyphens. She’d been given the name Linnea Lee Rutledge. Her brother was Cooper Pringle Rutledge. Many of her friends had some combination of these historic names. Linnea never thought of this as snobbishness; rather, it pointed to their deep connection to the city, its significant history. It revealed their roots.
So it felt odd for her to not be taking the road into the heart of the peninsula, to the renowned South of Broad, but rather to cross over the imposing Ravenel Bridge high above the Cooper River to Mount Pleasant. In truth, Linnea wouldn’t miss the house, despite its beauty and the prestigious address. Maybe her bedroom, she amended, with the gabled ceiling, the carving in the doorframe that marked her growth, the elaborate dollhouse she could never let go of, and all the nooks and crannies in the old house that only a child who grew up there could know. Still, she’d always preferred living at the beach. In this, too, she was like her grandmother and her aunt Cara, who despised the Rutledge house and called it haunted.
She glanced at her watch, then made a quick call to her parents. She’d been disappointed that they had an engagement they couldn’t break and didn’t pick her up at the airport. The call went to the answering machine; her parents were still out. Linnea didn’t want to sit in an empty house, waiting. She chewed her lip and looked out at the vista as a new thought blossomed. As much as she loved her mother and father, missed them, having to live with them in the smaller beach house would give her precious little room to hide.
She made a quick decision. “Excuse me,” she called out to the driver.
He turned his head a bit to hear better. “Yes, ma’am?”
“I’d like to change the address of where to drop me off.”
“You don’t want to go to Sullivan’s Island?”
“No. I want to go to Isle of Palms. I’ll give you the address.”
“I’ll have to change the fare,” he said over his shoulder.
“No problem; it’s next door to Sullivan’s Island. It shouldn’t be much of a difference.” Pulling out a pen and paper, she wrote down the address, then handed it over to the driver.
He reached around to take hold of the paper, frowning with worry. When they stopped at a light, he punched the address into his GPS.
“I can guide you,” she told him.
He either didn’t hear her or ignored her. She leaned forward and kept an eye on where the car was headed, ready to call out directions. But his GPS was doing a fine job leading him down Highway 17 past the Towne Centre shopping plaza, then turning toward the Connector, an aptly named long stretch of road that rose over the marshes to reach the island. It was low tide, and Linnea smiled at the sight of the vast acres of Spartina grass, signs of bright spring-green shoots at the roots. Here and there, white egrets stood like lone sentinels in the mud.
Over the waterway, the sun was beginning its slow descent in the western sky. The sky was the color of amber, streaked with shades of purple, gold, and sienna. The last rays of the day’s sun pierced the palette like an exuberant brushstroke.
“Could you slow down a minute, please?” she asked the driver as they neared the apex of the road. She scooted forward in her seat. “Look at that sunset.”
He did so, almost slowing to a stop. His pinched face relaxed, and he seemed as enthralled by the sight as she was.
“It is very beautiful,” the driver said in heavily accented English.
She smiled at the awe in his voice. “I don’t think there is a more beautiful sunset anywhere else in the world.”
“I, uh, have to speed up now, okay? The car behind me…” he said by way of apology.
“Of course. Thank you. It was a moment.”
Linnea had seen countless sunsets in her life, yet they never failed to stun her. It was the surprise of it. They had the power to literally take her breath away. She remembered Grandmama Lovie telling her that a sunset was daily proof that God existed. As usual, her grandmother was correct. Seeing a sunset, Linnea felt connected both to the earth below and God above.
Linnea began tapping her foot in excitement as the car crossed through the light at the foot of the Connector, and they were on the island. Before she could speak, the driver had sped across the intersection, then turned onto Ocean Boulevard. She would have advised him to go a different route to avoid the traffic. As expected, they slowed to a crawl along Front Beach, where restaurants and beach shops clustered. But she was in no hurry and enjoyed the sight of vacationers on spring break strolling along the street.
There were elderly couples taking their time looking at the shop windows or checking out menus. Little children were licking ice cream cones. Lovers walked hand in hand. Cars filled every parking space, and those searching for one crept at a snail’s pace. At last they broke free of the strip of shops, and the car moved at a steady pace through the residential section of Ocean Boulevard. They passed one pastel-colored mansion after another, which formed a wall bordering the ocean. Linnea remembered Lovie explaining how when she was young, there were far fewer houses on the island and one could see long stretches of sand and sea from the road.
“Turn here,” she said to the driver, leaning far forward and pointing. “The road dead-ends ahead.”
In a few short blocks, she spotted Primrose Cottage. It appeared shadowy in the darkening sky. No lights were on. That small, charming cottage had been Lovie’s sanctuary. At the beach house, Olivia Rutledge had felt free to enjoy her own interests at her own pace. To live a simpler life. This was a gift she’d shared with her daughter, Cara. And her granddaughter, Linnea.
A jungle of shrubs and trees filled the empty lot to the house’s left; Flo and Emmi’s Victorian, blue with coral-colored bric-a-brac, was resplendent on the right. These two vintage homes were wedged on the block between mansions, a glimpse from a time long gone.
“This it?” the driver asked, a tone of disappointment in his voice. No doubt he’d expected to pull into one of the impressive estate houses.
“Yes, you can go right up to the porch.”
He took it slow up the patchy oyster-shell driveway dotted with a few puddles from an earlier rain, and came to a stop near the front walk. At last, Linnea thought, and sprang from the car. Her eyes devoured the house.
In early spring, the property looked a bit shabby to the unknowing eye. But one who’d grown up on a barrier island saw the natural beauty of a place where there was more sand than soil. Lovie had taught Linnea to see the manicured lawns as abominations not meant for an island. It took pesticides to maintain them, which in turn killed important insects, like butterflies and bees. Rather, Primrose Cottage’s lot was covered with tufts of unruly wildflowers, not yet blooming but sending up green shoots. Shells, sand, sweetgrass, and scrubby vegetation filled in the rest.
The driver dragged her large suitcase from the trunk, along with her carry-on. Just about everything she owned was packed into those two bags. Not a great statement at twenty-five years of age.
“Don’t look like anyone’s home,” the driver said.
She glanced at the dark house, acknowledging the truth in his observation. “I’ll be okay.”
He accepted that answer, gave her a short wave, then scurried back to the car and drove off.
Linnea pulled out her phone to call her aunt Cara, but as she dialed, her battery died and the screen went black. Linnea took a deep, bracing breath of sea air and told herself that it was okay. She didn’t care, because she was home.
She began dragging the giant suitcase close to the front steps, the kitten heels of her pumps digging into the sand and shells. She noted that Cara had improved the property in the past year. The walkway was now bluestone, and she had widened the front steps and front porch, adding a pergola as well, a signature touch for her. Two hunter-green rocking chairs and four hanging ferns filled the porch. Primrose Cottage had never looked better, she thought.
Struggling and cursing, Linnea at last managed to drag the suitcases to the front step. Wiping a tendril of hair from her face, she knocked several times on the front door and rang the bell for good measure. All remained silent within.
She left her luggage and walked around the house toward the ocean-side door. The shells crunched beneath her navy pumps, and from Emmi’s garden she caught the scent of honeysuckle. Rounding the house, she saw the expansive deck and the glass-enclosed porch, and her heart pinged. These were the last projects completed on the house by Cara’s first husband, Brett. He’d been a second father to Linnea and her brother, Cooper. Brett had been so full of life, his sudden death had been hard for them all. There was a time she wasn’t sure Cara would get past losing him. Or if any of them would, for that matter. That was the lesson they’d all learned: Life was precious. Each day was a blessing. Life went on.
The porch door was unlocked, as she’d suspected. When she’d lived with her aunt, Linnea never remembered anyone locking doors. People were more trusting on the island than in the city.
“Aunt Cara?” she called out into the quiet, dark house. Only Cara’s canary chirped cheerily at the sound of her voice. For a moment Linnea wondered if she should simply walk in. Did spending a lifetime inside these walls, sharing milestones, being a granddaughter, a niece, give her permission to enter Cara’s house uninvited? She imagined her aunt’s face, heard in her mind Cara’s welcoming Come in!
Walking in felt natural, familiar—the aroma of coffee, the scent of jasmine perfume that was always in the air, the sound of Moutarde chirping in his cage. She flicked on a few lights, then went to plug her phone into the charger. That done, she brought her luggage inside, slipped off her pumps, and dug through the large wicker basket full of sandals. She smiled when she found a pair of her old flip-flops on the bottom. Slipping them on, she went back outdoors. She was eager to see the Atlantic Ocean again after two years of living by the Pacific.
The sky over the sea was darkening to violet, gold, and crimson. The beach house was perched high on a dune overlooking the ocean. When it was built in the 1920s, the charming cottage was oceanfront. Years later, a road had been built through the dunes to create Ocean Boulevard. Developers kept a one-foot width of the right-of-way on the ocean side of the road. Over the years, the shoreline built up more and more sand. Finally the dune was wide enough to allow new houses to be constructed, even closer to the sea. Back in that time, Russell Bennett, a great friend of her grandmother, had purchased lots directly in front of Primrose Cottage and put them into a conservation easement. It was a boon for her grandmother, who subsequently would never lose her view of the ocean. To the left of that land was the lot that Lovie had bequeathed to Cara.
Linnea’s gaze swept the expanse that opened to the sea from the deck of Primrose Cottage, one of the precious few older properties left on Isle of Palms without a house blocking the view. Her gaze came to an abrupt halt and she sucked in a soft gasp of surprise. There on Cara’s lot was the house her father was constructing. It was already completely framed in! Before her eyes she saw her father’s dream becoming a reality.
It was going to be a beautiful house. The design was simple, with classic lowcountry features. The first floor was raised on pilings to keep out the floodwaters, mandatory now. The house was clearly built for a family that would enjoy the ocean breezes. And, she thought with a smile of approval, Palmer had kept his promise to Cara. He’d not obstructed any view of the ocean from her beach house. Not that she would let him. The new house was anchored by a two-story central structure from which a pair of one-story wings extended.
Linnea, having grown up near water, knew that everyone called the side of the house that faced the water, whether river or beach, the front. The back of the house faced the road or driveway. It was confusing for northerners, who called the street side of houses the front.
Her father loved porches. He’d included covered porches that faced the street, and without seeing it, she knew there would be another porch facing the sea.
Linnea felt a flush of pride that Palmer had built such a gracious, elegant house of lowcountry flavor. It was too bad he wouldn’t live in it. He couldn’t afford to. The lot belonged to Cara. It had been given to her by Grandmama Lovie, along with the beach house and all the secrets both held. Cara had confided the truth to her brother two years before, only after he’d committed to AA and begun rebuilding his life.
Palmer’s intention was to sell the house and use the profit to seed his next house. In this way, he would begin his long-cherished dream of building top-quality houses. Likewise, Cara would benefit from her land. Brother and sister would share the profits, and this, Linnea knew, would have pleased Lovie immensely.
She made her way along the narrow beach-access path, her arms swinging at her sides. Seeing her father’s house project left her uplifted. She remembered her father’s low point before she’d left. To witness now what he’d built in the time she was gone, Linnea knew a moment of hope. An If he can do it, so can I feeling.
She climbed to the peak of the dunes, past the sea oats, still green and slim-stalked. The hearty ocean breeze whisked the soft hairs that had fallen around her neck. It swirled and caressed her cheeks. Welcome home, she heard whispered in the wind.
Linnea stood for a moment looking out over the expanse of beach and the ocean beyond. No one else walked the sand. The vast sea appeared to match her mood, reflective and shifting to deep purple. Waves rolled in gently, lapping the shoreline. She put her hands on her hips and drank in the immense vista of perpetually moving sea.
Somewhere out there, the turtles were gathering from all points of the continental shelf. Mating was a tempestuous affair as several males might try to breed with just one female, creating the seeds of a new generation. Within weeks a new sea turtle season would begin on the islands as the female turtles came ashore to lay their nests. When she’d lived on the island, their summers had revolved around the nesting season. Linnea was no stranger to the loggerheads. For as long as she could remember, she’d tended turtles with her grandmother, and later Aunt Cara and Emmi and Flo.
Grandmama Lovie had been a shining star in Linnea’s life. When Lovie’s feet were in the sand, she was in her element: happier, freer, expansive. Linnea could identify with that. As much as she loved the city, she too had always felt more at home by the sea. It was her grandmother who’d inspired Linnea to pursue a career in environmental science, despite her father’s objections.
Linnea wasn’t a child with dreams any longer. She was an adult facing adult problems. Cara was getting married again. Her father was building his dream house. Cooper was a rising junior at the University of South Carolina. It seemed everyone was moving on, except for her.
The looming cloud she’d felt when she arrived in Charleston returned, blotting out the joy she’d reveled in moments ago. Her heart physically hurt and cried out for release. Linnea missed her mother, loved her dearly. She needed to confide in someone. But her mother could sometimes ignore reality and shove problems under the rug, out of public view, with a pat phrase and a firmly hoisted smile.
She adored her father. But he’d likely bluster and blame John for breaking his daughter’s heart—and worse, remind her that he’d told her that going to California was a big mistake, how she should get a real job and not waste her time with low-paying nonprofits.
Which was why she’d made the snap decision to come to the beach house and seek advice, honest and not sugar-coated, from her business-minded aunt. Cara was never one to suffer fools and wasn’t afraid to speak plainly. The beach house was always a haven. A house of reason. She could get her bearings here before she confronted her parents.
From the beach she looked up at the cottage on the dune, and sighed. Cara wasn’t home, and the night was falling. It was time to throw in the towel and retreat home. Linnea turned back to the sea for a final look. She crouched and picked up a handful of sand. Countless tiny particles filled her palm; clenching it tight, she brought her fist to her heart.
“Grandmama Lovie,” she said aloud. “I know you’re out there somewhere. Thank you for loving me, and teaching me about the turtles, the ocean. I love this beach and every particle of sand on it. It took me a while to understand, but I belong here. I came back. But I’m at square one again.”
Linnea lowered her hand and let the sand slowly flow from her palm to form a small pile on the beach. Straightening up, she wiped her eyes, then wrapped her arms around her chest and looked seaward.
“Lovie, what do I do now?” she asked.
Her voice was carried away on the breeze.