Excerpt from Beach Colors

Chapter One

Margaux Sullivan stood unmoving and listened to the echoes of her failure. Only a week ago, her Manhattan loft had been thrumming with energy, excitement, and caffeine, as twenty-five pattern cutters, drapers, and seamstresses worked round the clock to prepare M Atelier’s latest collection for the event of the year. New York City’s Fashion Week.

Now it was just an empty space. The finished pieces carted away in cardboard boxes. The long work tables cleared of everything but a few forgotten scraps of fabric. The manikins repossessed, the brick walls bare except for the row of five by three foot photographs of Margaux’s award-winning fashions that her creditors left behind.

The asymmetrical black, moiré satin sheath had been her first CDFA award winner. The black wool Tuxedo had made the cover of Vogue. Marie Claire had called the black tulle ball gown—not a fluffy evening dress, but cutting edge stark—“Tulle with a Bite.”

The models stared back at her, caught in time, sleek and scowling. This dress will make you thin, this will make you beautiful, this will make men adore you. Black, unique and powerful. They’d promised to make Margaux’s dream come true.

And it had come true. Ever since that sticky summer day when she’d discovered a bridal magazine in the Crescent Cove library. She’d opened its shiny pages to brilliant white, palest pink, creamy ivory. Pearls and veils and promises—and she thought, this is what I want to do.

For the rest of the summer, she rode her bike to the library almost every day to draw and dream. During the school year she took art classes and every summer she returned to the library to copy the latest magazines. She majored in design in college and interned in New York, and graduallly worked her way up to owning her own workshop.

It had been a long fierce climb, but she’d made it. She was successful, envied, happily married. But it was just an illusion. While she worked unceasingly to establish herself as one of New York’s top designers, her loving husband had siphoned off their assets and disappeared.

The bank had taken everything else.

All she had left was her car and her reputation. The car was paid for, but her reputation wouldn’t be worth a two martini lunch, once the news got out that M Atelier had gone belly up.

Margaux felt her chin quiver. Not now. She had one more thing to do before she broke down and howled at the moon.

She slipped the business card out of her pocket and picked up her portfolio. She stepped into her secretary’s office. “Guess we’re the last two.”

Yolanda looked up from a soggy Kleenex. Margaux thrust the business card toward her. “Liz Chang at DKNY has been threatening to steal you for years. Here’s her number. Call her.”

Yolanda took the card. “She’d take you, too.”

Margaux shook her head. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” She’d thought about hiring herself out again. But the thought stuck in her gut. She couldn’t do it. It was too humiliating. And she wouldn’t give her competition the sastisfaction of seeing her grovel. Not yet, anyway.

“Good luck.” Margaux turned to leave and came face to face with the most recent photo of herself. An award dinner at the Plaza. Tall, sleek, her impossibly curly auburn hair gelled, sprayed and pulled back into a classic French twist that an earthquake wouldn’t ruffle. Her black evening gown, one of her own designs, had stopped conversation when she’d entered the room. She was holding a glass of Tattinger’s champagne and smiling. At the top of her game.

And now the game was over.

She walked across the long expanse of wooden floor to the elevator, her heels tapping in the deserted room. She stepped inside and closed the grate; listened to the rhythmic creak as the ancient elevator descended to the ground floor one last time, stood as it clanked at the bottom, then pushed open the door to the street.

The air was thick with car fumes and the noise of living. Handcarts filled with goods rattled up the sidewalk. Garbage bags lined the curb. Men late for appointments shouldered past slower pedestrians. An old woman stuck her mittened hand at Margaux. “Help an old lady?”

Margaux couldn’t even help herself. She no longer belonged here, had no place here, no business, no apartment, no income.

There was only one place she could go.

 

Nick Prescott glanced up as the blip appeared on his radar. Resignedly, he tossed his History of the Ostrogoths in Italy onto the passenger seat beside him. He should be sitting in his office correcting final exams, not hiding in the trees waiting to ticket some unsuspecting speeder.

Nick flipped on the siren, pulled the cruiser onto the tarmac and took off after a bright blue sports coupe going at least sixty. The tourist season hadn’t even begun, and already the summer people were breaking the law.

The car slowed and pulled to the sandy shoulder of the road. Nick followed and stopped several yards behind it. He noted the make, model, and license plate—New York—of course. Connecticut was their weekend retreat of choice.

As he got out of the cruiser, he slipped on his sun glasses and unsnapped his holster. He’d been out of the army for ten years, and until six months ago, he never thought he’d ever use a firearm again.

A woman sat behind the wheel, the window was open, her hair was windblown. Auburn, deep, rich, like burnished mahogany. A color that as a boy stopped him in his tracks. It stopped him now, even while his rational mind told him it couldn’t be her.

He took a breath and stepped up to the car. “Ma’am.”

She looked up at him with wide, serious blue eyes. Eyes the color of a sunlit sea.

He’d know her anywhere in spite of the years that had passed. Felt the same jolt of connection he’d felt twenty years before. It hadn’t changed, hadn’t softened or diminished. And was still just as one-sided as it had always been. She had no idea who he was. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

“Fifty-five?”

“Sixty.”

“But . . . that’s only five over the speed limit.”

“It was—a mile back. But you've entered Crescent Cove and it’s thirty here.”

A worried expression flitted across her face. “I didn’t see the sign.”

“Driver’s license.”

She rifled through an expensive looking hand bag and came up with an even more expensive looking wallet.

“Take it out, please.”

She jimmied the license out of the plastic sheath and handed it to him. Her fingers trembled a little.

“Margaux Sullivan.”

She jumped as if the sound of her own name was a surprise. He frowned at the license, mainly to keep from staring at her.

She clutched the edge of the window. Her nail polish was chipped. She definitely had been biting her nails. The cuticles, too. Not something you’d expect from a hot shot New York fashion designer. And though she had turned into a beautiful woman, there were dark circles under her eyes and she looked drawn, not just model thin. It made her eyes larger, vulnerable.

If this is what the big city did to you, she could have it. He studied her license. “New York City.”

“Yes.”

“Around here, Ms. Sullivan, we stick to the speed limit.”

“I do, too,” she assured him. “I just didn’t realize I had entered the town limits.”

“Uh-huh. Registration.”

She fished in the glove compartment and handed it to him.

He took a look, then handed it back and pulled out a citation pad from his back pocket. It was his job after all.

“Officer,” she pleaded.

“Chief of Police.”

“What? What happened to Herb Green?”

“Retired.”

He didn’t want to give her a ticket. Not with the way she was biting on her bottom lip. His heart was pounding and the sun beating down on his neck felt like a third degree burn. He wanted to take her hand and tell her that whatever was making her look so unhappy would go away. He would make it go away. But he didn’t. She’d been speeding, not five miles over, but twenty five over. Ignorance was no excuse.

He handed her the ticket. “Drive carefully.”

When she eased the Toyota onto the road, he pulled out behind her. He stayed behind her all the way into town, down Main Street to the other side of town where it joined Shore Road. He followed her until she turned through the chain link gate of Little Crescent Beach. She was on her way home, and that open gate might as well have slammed shut behind her.

He jammed on the accelerator and sped away. For a few minutes he’d been young again. Just a townie boy with an ordinary dream. Not an ordinary man with no dreams left.

 

Margaux gripped the steering wheel in an effort to keep from shaking. She didn’t have the money to pay for a speeding ticket. She barely had enough to pay for gas. When she’d slid her card into the gas pump on the way up, she prayed that it wouldn’t be denied.

She drove slowly down Salt Marsh Lane, staring straight ahead, not even glancing at the summer house her best friend Bri’s family owned, or at the cottage Grace’s family rented each summer. She blinked away tears so close to the surface they hurt, but she resisted the urge to speed toward sanctuary. Most of the cottages were still boarded over from the winter, but small towns had a way of noticing things. It would be hard enough facing everyone without having to explain why she’d come running back or why the police had followed her home.

When the lane reached the beach, it curved to the right. Three houses later, Margaux turned left into the parking niche at the back of the Sullivan beach house.

She took her suitcase and a bag of groceries out of the trunk and dumped them at the back door. She didn’t go inside but took the path between the houses to the beach, scuffing through the sand, her head bowed, letting her shoes fill up with the heavy grains and her hair blow wild in the salt air.

She knew exactly when to look up. The perfect moment for that first full view. The blues of the water reaching up to the sky. The white sand stretching to each side in a graceful curve, like a smile.

When she was a kid, she would throw her arms open to the sea, let it take her troubles away. No matter how sad or angry or hurt she’d been, the waves could wash the feeling away. Could make her problems seem not so bad.

Margaux was older and wiser now and knew the waves couldn’t fix what was wrong in her life, but at least they might give her some temporary respite.

There was one family on the beach, clustered beneath a bright umbrella near the empty lifeguard station. Farther along, two figures crawled over the rock jetty looking for crabs.

She sat down on the porch steps, closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. Spots danced on her eyelids, the waves murmured in her ears. She concentrated on breathing and gradually her body began to relax. The knots in her shoulders eased. Her stomach gave up its churning, and she drifted back to a place where each day was a promise, and joy was just waking up to the cries of the gulls.

She lost track of time, maybe she dozed. When she opened her eyes again, the sky had turned from blue to mauve and the sun sat like a fiery, fat beach ball on the horizon. The crabbers were gone. The family gathered up towels and their cooler and trudged up the beach toward home.

A solitary gull strutted near the water’s edge, his bill jack-hammering the sand in search of food. A wave rolled in; he swooped into the sky and was swallowed by the dusk.

Margaux was alone.

Lights began to come on in the condominium complex two coves away where her mother lived. Was Jude sitting on her balcony watching the sunset? Could she see Margaux? And what would she think if she did?

Would her failure become one of those moments printed indelibly on the memory, linked forever with these steps, this porch. Posing for pictures in her white First Communion dress. Chasing sand crabs that Danny had dumped on Jude’s lap to proudly show off his catch. Louis’s proposal. Dad, Jude and her sitting together the Sunday after Danny died. And sitting with her mother, years later, when Henry Sullivan followed his son.

From deep inside the house the telephone rang. Resolutely, Margaux stood and climbed the steps to the porch. A rectangle of wood hung from a nail beneath the porch light; its black letters spelled out The Sullivans. She lifted the sign. Paint flakes drifted to the floor; a spider, disturbed from sleep, scuttled beneath the cedar shakes. She extracted the house key and let the sign fall back into place.

The lock was stiff and she had to lean against the door to open it. But when she stepped over the threshold, she stopped, suddenly terrified. What had she been thinking? How could she come back like this—jobless, husbandless, childless. How could she face Jude with her boundless compassion and unfailing optimism.

The phone continued to ring. She groped her way across the dark foyer and picked up the receiver.

“You’re there,” said Jude’s familiar voice.

“I’m here.”

“I saw you from my terrace. Why didn’t you let me know you were coming? I would have aired the house.”

“It was a spur of the moment thing.”

“Are you free for dinner?”

“Sure, but let’s eat here.”

“Deke’s? I can pick up food and be there in an hour.”

“Deke’s would be great.” Margaux replaced the receiver and closed her eyes. She didn’t think clam rolls were exactly what she needed to salvage her life. But maybe her mother could help.

 

Jude slid the glass doors shut and called Deke’s Clam Shack.

“Holy cow,” said Deke O’Halloran. “The only reason you’d be eating fried is if Mags was home.”

“She’s home,” Jude said, trying to keep the worry out of her voice. It wasn’t like Margaux to show up unannounced. It wasn’t like her to show up at all. She hadn’t been back in years.

“Twenty minutes,” Deke said. “I’ll put on a fresh batch.”

Jude hung up. When she’d seen the figure sitting on the front steps of the beach house and recognized her daughter, her heart leapt to her throat. Something it hadn’t done in a long while.

Margaux never told her the real reason she and Louis had stopped coming to the shore, though Jude suspected that it had nothing to do with how busy she was. She’d just about given up hope of them coming again, but she kept the house clean anyway—just in case. Jude had been disappointed but not surprised when Margaux called to say she’d filed for divorce. She didn’t say why, only that things weren’t working and that she could handle it.

Jude was proud of Margaux’s strength. She had always known what she wanted, worked hard to get there. But that strength had become brittle in the last few years and Jude was worried. Strength ebbed and flowed, but brittle would break.

Well, whatever it was, they would see it through together. She glanced at the clock. Time to go. And on her way, she’d stop by the church to light a candle to the saints; her daughter had come home.

 

Margaux sat at the kitchen table, running her bare toes across the old linoleum floor, scratched from years of sandy feet. She was tired, she wanted to be alone, to stay in this cozy old kitchen while its dark, maple cabinets and wallpaper of watering cans and ivy created a cocoon of safety around her.

But she knew that was impossible and when she heard the familiar beep-beep of Jude’s Citroen as it pulled into the drive, she dragged herself from the chair and went to meet her.

Jude bustled through the door, carrying a greasy paper bag and a six pack of Budweiser. She was trim and fit, a few inches shorter than Margaux with the same auburn red hair. She was sixty-two but she had a new hair style that made her look years younger. She put down her parcels and opened her arms. Margaux walked into a hug. Her mother’s cologne mingled with the smell of fresh fried clams, and the aroma was enough to make her cry.

Jude gave her a squeeze. “Let’s eat. Deke’ll kill me if the clams get cold. He put on a fresh batch just for you.”

Margaux pulled away. “You told him I was here?”

“Well, of course.” Jude frowned. “Shouldn’t I—”

“You have a new hair do. It looks great.”

“Whole town does. Even Dottie, if you can believe that. New girl. From Brooklyn of all places. Bought the old Cut n Curl across from the marina. And a sheer genius.” She smiled at her own joke. “By the way, Dottie said she better see you at the diner first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Dottie knows, too?” She’d hoped to hibernate for a while, but now that was impossible. Dottie’s Diner was the local gossip exchange.

Jude opened the bag and placed two foil-wrapped paper cartons on the table. “I was supposed to meet her for girls’ night. Had to call to tell her I wasn’t coming.” She flipped the tab of one can then stopped and peered at Margaux. “Is there a reason you don’t want people to know you’re here?”

“No.” Margaux sat down at the table.

Jude sat down too, but she didn’t take her eyes off Margaux. “Is something wrong?”

Margaux shook her head, nodded.

Jude handed her a napkin. “Eat. Then we’ll talk. There’s nothing in this world that can’t be fixed.”

Margaux picked up her clam roll. It was so stuffed with succulent clams that a handful fell out when she bit into the roll.

They ate in silence. When Margaux had scooped up the last clam bit, Jude put down her beer. “Now tell me what’s happened.”

Margaux took a breath, but the words stuck in her throat. She took another breath. “In a nutshell. While I was climbing the ladder of haute couture, becoming famous and building a nest egg so we could start a family, Louis stole everything. Savings, investments, everything, then dropped out of sight. I’ve lost the apartment, my business—”

“What? No. This can’t be.”

“He—” Margaux’s voice cracked; a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. She sucked in air. “They repossessed everything. Patterns, machines, fabric, even the drafting paper. I only had enough credit left to pay my staff.

“And my designs. They shoved them into cardboard boxes and took them away. What could the bank possibly want with them?”

She felt a hand on her shoulder and she turned into her mother and held on for dear life. “I’ve lost everything. How could Louis do this?”

And how could she have been so stupid not to notice before it was too late?

“Why didn’t you call me? I could have transferred funds, sold the condo.”

“It was over before I knew what was happening. Besides, I couldn’t ask you to bail me out. It wouldn’t have done any good. We’re talking about a couple of million.”

Jude pulled away abruptly. “I’ll call a lawyer I know. We’ll stop this.”

“I have a lawyer. She had the court freeze whatever assets were left. There wasn’t much. She has a forensic accountant trying to trace the money, but they may never find it, if he still has it.”

Margaux groped for a napkin. “You hear about this kind of thing all the time and you think, that could never happen to me. I’d never be so stupid. And look.” She held out her hands. “Everything I dreamed of, worked for. Gone. I was on the brink of making it big, and now, zip, nada, nothing.” The thin control she’d been holding onto for the last few weeks broke and she cried, sobbing in big gulps and not caring. “I would have given him half—money, property—more than half. I only wanted one thing and he took that, too.”

Jude pushed a wild strand of hair from Margaux’s cheek. “What?”

“My future.”

“Oh, Margaux. It only seems that way now. You were right to come home.”

Margaux sniffed. “Where else could I go?” She hated herself for sounding so needy, so incapable, but she’d used up every reservoir of strength just getting through the last two months.

“No place else in the world. You’ve got family and friends and a home. You’ll create more designs, make more money and someday you’ll meet someone to love and have a family with.”

“Mom, I’m thirty-four.”

“Thirty-four is nothing. Women have children into their forties these days.”

“There won’t be anyone else.”

“Of course there will be. It’s early days yet.”

“There wasn’t for you.”

“No.” Jude smiled. “You’re exhausted. Things will look better when you’ve rested. Why don’t you come stay at the condo with me tonight?”

“Thanks, but—” Margaux shook her head.

“Or . . . I could stay here.”

“No. I just need to sleep. You go on home. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you’re sure?”

“I’ll be fine. I promise.”

Jude gathered up their trash. “Okay, but call me if you change your mind. Doesn’t matter what time. I mean it.”

“I will.” Margaux walked her to the car.

Jude kissed her good night. “Dottie’s for waffles. I’ll pick you up at nine.”

“Mom, I can’t.”

“Sure you can. You don’t want to hurt Dottie’s feelings and you need to eat.”

Margaux gave in. It took more than she had to resist. By tomorrow she’d be able to hold herself together. For a while anyway.

Jude beeped as she rounded the curve and Margaux went inside. She was numb with shock, with pain, with sheer exhaustion, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. It seemed like she hadn’t slept in years, and the stairs to her bedroom seemed to stretch forever.

She walked through the parlor and out the front door.

She hesitated at the bottom of the porch steps. The beach was dark, the sand eerily illuminated by the sliver of moon. She took a step and the sand shifted beneath her feet. Another step, another shift. Another . . . and another until the sand turned wet and hard. Another and another until she stood ankle deep in the cold water of the Sound.

She looked into the darkness, opened her arms and gave in to the pull of the tide, strong, relentless, its siren call singing her home.

 

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