One of the things I can always count on in a Novak book is exceptional storytelling. The characters are always well defined and realistic, even when I wish they’d behave differently. I definitely found that here in all the main characters. Each woman had some baggage and all were accomplished, intelligent and personable but didn’t always make the best choices for themselves. Marlow reconnects with Walker Cantwell, now the Island police chief but who had a major crush on her in high school and she rebuffed. As his mother Rosemary is Marlow’s invalid mother’s caretaker, they can’t avoid each other. I liked the tension between these two as they navigated relating to each other as adults while trying to overcome hurts from their teenage past. Both could have handled things better at times but it felt authentic to how most would behave in real life.
In addition to the explosion created by revelations in the will, the connection between Aida and Claire was also a surprise. I won’t spoil things by revealing the exact details but there were times I just wanted to throttle Claire. Again, she made decisions born of the heart instead of common sense, which mirrors human nature. There was a lot of drama here but it wasn’t over the top and felt like what most families experience. I listened to the story and the narrator paced it perfectly, providing easily distinguishable voices for each character. This was hard to put down as I was completely invested in the characters and where the journey would lead. It was a little messy, which feels like normal family dynamics, and a wonderful listening experience.
Teach Island looked exactly the same as Marlow Madsen remembered it. Since the entire world had been disrupted by the pandemic, the comfort and familiarity of this place nearly brought tears to her eyes. Part of that was how strongly she associated it with her father. John “Tiller” Madsen, who’d gotten his nickname because of his love for sailing, had died a month ago. But the island had long been his escape from the rat race of Washington, DC, where he’d served as a United States senator for thirty years.
“I can’t believe I’m back. Finally,” Marlow said as she rolled down the passenger window to let in some fresh air.
Part of the archipelago of forty-five hundred islands off the coast of Florida, Teach was only seven square miles. Marlow loved its homey, small-town atmosphere. She also loved its white sand beaches and its motley collection of bars, restaurants, bait-and-tackle stores and gift shops, most of which, at least in the older section where they were now, had kitschy decor. Because the island was named after Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, one of the most famous pirates to operate in this part of the world in the early eighteenth century, there was pirate stuff all over. A black skull-and-crossbones flag hung on a pole in front of the most popular bar, which was made to look like a colonial-era tavern and was named Queen Anne’s Revenge after Blackbeard’s ship.
In addition to the Blackbeard memorabilia, there was the regular sea-themed stuff—large anchors or ship’s wheels stuck in the ground here and there, fishing nets draped from the eaves of stores and cafés, and lobsters, crabs and other ocean creatures painted on wooden or corrugated metal sides. Her parents had a house in Georgia, a true Southern mansion, as well as their condo in Virginia for when her father had to be in Washington. But this was where they’d always spent the summers.
Now that Tiller was gone, her mother was talking about selling the other residences and moving here permanently. Marlow hated the sense of loss that inspired the forever change, but since Seaclusion—her father’s name for the beach house—had always been her favorite of their homes, she was also relieved that her mother planned to keep it. This was the property she hoped to inherit one day; she couldn’t imagine it ever being out of the family. And after what so many people had experienced with the fires in California, where she’d been living since she graduated college, and all the hurricanes in recent years that had plagued Florida, she had reason to be grateful the house was still standing.
“Sounds like you’ve missed the place.” Reese Cantwell, who’d been sent to pick up her and her two friends, had grown even taller since Marlow had seen him last. His hands and feet no longer looked disproportionate to the rest of his body. She remembered that his older brother, Walker, had also reminded her of a pup who hadn’t quite grown into his large paws and wondered what Walker was doing these days.
“It’s a welcome sight for all three of us,” Aida Trahan piped up from the back. “Three months by the sea should change everything.”
Claire Fernandez was also in the back seat, both of them buried beneath the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk. They’d met at LAX and flown into Miami together. “Here’s hoping,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t, I’m looking forward to putting my toes in the water and my butt in the sand.”
“You’ll get plenty of opportunities for that here,” Reese said.
Claire needed the peace and tranquility and a chance to heal. She’d lost her home in the fires that’d ravaged Malibu last August. To say nothing of the other dramas that’d plagued her this past year.
Marlow looked over at their driver. Apparently, since her father’s death, Reese had been helping out around the estate, in addition to teaching tennis at the club. His mother, Rosemary, had been their housekeeper since well before he was born—since before Marlow was even born. Marlow was grateful for the many years of service and loyalty Rosemary had given the family, especially now that Tiller had died. It was wonderful to have someone she trusted watch out for her mother. Eileen had multiple sclerosis, which sometimes made it difficult for her to get around.
“Looks as casual as I was hoping it would be.” Claire also lowered her window as Reese brought them to the far side of the island and closer to the house. Situated on the water, Seaclusion had its own private beach, as well as a three-bedroom guesthouse and a smaller apartment over the garage where Rosemary had lived before moving into the main house after Tiller died so she could be available if Eileen needed anything during the night.
“There are some upscale shops and restaurants where we’re going, if you’re in the mood for spending money,” Marlow told them.
“When have I not been in the mood to shop?” Aida joked.
“You don’t have access to Dutton’s money anymore,” Claire pointed out. “You need to be careful.”
Claire had lost almost everything. She had reason to be cautious. Aida wasn’t in the best situation, either, and yet she shrugged off the concern. “I’ll be okay. I didn’t walk away empty-handed, thanks to my amazing divorce attorney.”
Marlow always felt uncomfortable when Dutton came up, and sometimes couldn’t believe it wasn’t more uncomfortable for them. The way Claire and Aida had met was remarkable, to say the least. It was even more remarkable that they’d managed to become friends. But Marlow twisted around and smiled as though she didn’t feel the sudden tension so she could acknowledge Aida’s compliment. Although Marlow was only thirty-four, she’d been a practicing attorney for ten years. She’d jumped ahead two grades when she was seven, which had enabled her to finish high school early and start college at sixteen. A knack for difficult negotiations had led her to a law degree and from there she’d gone into family law, something that had worked out well for her. Her practice had grown so fast she’d considered hiring another attorney to help with the caseload.
She probably would’ve done that, if not for the pandemic, which had shut down every aspect of her life except work, making her realize that becoming one of the best divorce attorneys in Los Angeles wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. No matter how much money she made, she didn’t enjoy dealing with people who were so deeply upset, and the richer, more famous the client, the more acrimonious the divorce. She hoped she’d never have to wade through another one. If a marriage worked, it could be wonderful. Her parents had proved that. But after what she’d witnessed with other people since passing the bar, she was beginning to believe Tiller and Eileen were the exception.
“All I did was make Dutton play fair,” Marlow said. “But at least you have some money you can use to get by while you decide what to do from here.”
“I liked being a trophy wife,” Aida grumbled. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for anything else.”
Like so many in LA, she’d been an aspiring actress at one time, but her career had never taken off. After she’d married Dutton, she’d spent more time at the tennis club, where she and Marlow had met, than trying out for any auditions.
“Don’t say that,” Marlow told her. “You can do a lot more than look pretty.”
Claire remained conspicuously quiet. She’d been subdued since they left, so subdued that Marlow was beginning to wonder if something was wrong.
“We’ll see.” Aida shrugged off the compliment as readily as she had the warning. “But before I have to make the really hard decisions, I deserve a break. So where’s the expensive part of the island again?”
Reese chuckled. “We’re almost there.”
“We’ll be able to play tennis, too,” Marlow told her. “The club’s only a mile from the house. And Reese is our resident pro.”
“No way! You play tennis?” Aida’s voice revealed her enthusiasm.
“Every day,” he replied.
“Can he beat you?” Aida asked Marlow.
“He was just a kid the last time we played, and he could take me about half the time even then. I doubt he’ll have any problem now.”
“I can see why you talked us out of renting a car,” Claire said, finally entering the conversation. “Considering the size of this place…”
“Like I told you before,” Marlow said, “most people walk or ride a bike.”
“You only need a car if you’re going off island,” Reese chimed in. He was driving them in Eileen’s Tesla.
Marlow was anxious to ask how her mother was doing but decided to hold off. If she questioned him while her friends were in the car, she’d probably get the standard “Fine.” But she wasn’t looking for a perfunctory answer. She wanted the truth. What he’d seen and heard recently. He was the one who’d been here. Marlow hadn’t been able to visit, not even when her father died. Thanks to the pandemic, they hadn’t been able to give him the funeral he deserved, either.
Reese glanced into the rearview mirror. “Are the three of you staying all summer?”
Marlow suspected he was hoping Aida, in particular, would be on the island for a while. Although Aida was thirty-six, fourteen years older than he was, she was a delicate blonde with big blue eyes. The way she dressed and accessorized, she turned heads, especially male heads, wherever she went.
“We are,” Aida said, and the subtle hint of flirtation in her voice told Marlow that she’d picked up on Reese’s interest.
“We have some big decisions to make in the coming months,” Marlow said, hoping to give Reese a hint that this wasn’t the opportunity he might think it was. Aida was on the rebound. She needed to put her life back together, not risk her heart on a summer fling.
“What kind of decisions?” he asked, naturally curious.
Claire answered for her. “Like what we’re going to do from here on. We’re all starting over.”
Reese’s eyebrows shot up as he looked at Marlow. “Meaning…what? You won’t be returning to LA?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I sold my condo and closed my practice before I left, just in case.”
His jaw dropped. “Really? But your mom said you’re one of the most highly sought-after attorneys in Los Angeles.”
No doubt her mother talked about her all the time. She’d heard a few things about Reese’s family, too, including the fact that he hadn’t finished school because he’d let partying come between him and a degree. But Marlow didn’t know Reese that well. She’d spent more time with his much older brother, Walker, when they were growing up. “It’s not that it wasn’t working out. It was. I’m just…done with divorce.”
He turned down the rap music he’d had playing since they got in. “Have you told your mother?”
“Not yet. I was afraid she’d try to talk me out of it. I know it’s sort of crazy to walk away from what I had going. Not many lawyers would do that. But after being quarantined for so long, working with people who almost always behaved their worst, I’m finished suffering through other people’s emotional turmoil.”
“Can’t say as I blame you,” Aida agreed. “I feel so bad about how Dutton treated you.”
Aida’s ex hadn’t just called Marlow names. He’d gotten her cell phone number from Aida, claiming he wanted to negotiate directly, and then proceeded to threaten her on more than one occasion. “We can all be glad Dutton’s out of our lives.”
“Amen,” Aida said, but again Claire said nothing.
They reached the gap in the shrubbery that signaled the beginning of her parents’ drive, and Reese turned into Seaclusion.
“Look at this!” Aida exclaimed. “It’s a whole compound.”
Reese parked in the detached four-car garage. “Welcome home,” he said with a grin.
Marlow had her carry-on with her, but when she went to the trunk to get the rest of her luggage, Reese insisted he’d bring it in.
She thanked him, put her bag down and, eager to see her mother, hurried to the house.
Rosemary was waiting on the stoop, where her mother would normally be. “It’s good to see you, Marlow.”
“Thanks, Rosemary. It’s good to see you, too. Is Mom okay?”
At fifty-five, Rosemary was five years younger than Eileen and tall and thin, like her two sons. They’d gotten their good looks from her—didn’t resemble their father at all, who wasn’t around anymore. Marlow could recall him showing up at the Atlanta house drunk and bellowing for Rosemary to “get her ass home.” It wasn’t any surprise to Marlow that the relationship hadn’t lasted. He’d abandoned the family when Reese was four or five.
“She’s fine. A little tired.” Although Rosemary smiled, she seemed anxious and uptight herself. Was it because of Eileen? Was she worse off than Marlow had been told?
“Is it anything to be concerned about?” Marlow pressed.
“No. She was so excited to see you that she couldn’t sleep last night. That’s all. She’s in her room resting if you want to go in.”
Anxious to reassure herself that nothing more serious was going on, Marlow introduced Aida and Claire to Rosemary, and while Rosemary led them to the guesthouse, where Reese was taking the luggage, Marlow went inside. “Mom?” she called as she moved through the living room.
“In here!” her mother called back.
Marlow’s stomach knotted as she reached the master bedroom and swung the door open wider. It was a beautiful day outside, not a cloud in the sky, yet the shades were drawn, making it dark and cool.
As soon as she reached the bed, she bent to kiss her mother’s paper-thin cheek. “I’m so glad to see you again.”
Eileen’s hands clutched her wrists. “Let me look at you. It’s been too long.”
“Who could’ve guessed a pandemic would come between us? That wasn’t something I even considered when I went so far from home.”
Once her eyes adjusted to the light, Marlow could see that the room hadn’t changed. Her father’s watch glimmered on the dresser, his slippers waited under the side chair and his clothes hung neatly in the closet as though he might walk through the door at any moment. Her mother hadn’t done anything with his personal property. That meant Marlow would have to deal with it, but she was actually grateful Eileen had waited. Touching his belongings was their only remaining connection to him, their only chance to say goodbye, and now they could do that together.
“Are you hungry?” her mother asked. “Rosemary made tea for you and your friends.”
Marlow sat on the edge of the bed. Eileen had thick dark hair and bottle green eyes—both of which Marlow had inherited—and looked good despite being so ill. But she was pale today and had lost significant weight. “That sounds wonderful,” Marlow said.
“I thought your friends might enjoy it. And I know how much you like clotted cream. When we were in London with your father several years ago, that was all you wanted to eat.”
The twinkle in Eileen’s eyes made Marlow feel slightly encouraged, until her mother winced as she adjusted her position. Eileen had to be feeling terrible, or she’d be up and around and asking to meet Aida and Claire.
“Are you having another attack?” Marlow asked. Her mother’s disease came in waves, or what they called “attacks.” Sometimes she grew worse for no clear reason—she didn’t do or eat anything different—and then she improved just as mysteriously. Although the steady decrease in her functionality attested to the fact that each attack took a little more from her…
“I must be. But don’t worry about me. It’s…more of the same. How was your flight?”
The lump that swelled in Marlow’s throat made it difficult to swallow. She’d already lost her beloved father. Was she going to lose her mother this year, too? The probability of Eileen’s dying had hung over their heads ever since she was diagnosed twenty-six years ago, so it’d come as a total shock that Tiller had died first. He’d never been sick a day in his life—until he got shingles. Then he’d spent five weeks in bed and simply didn’t wake up one morning. According to the autopsy, a blood clot had formed and traveled to his lungs.
“The flight was crowded and miserable,” she answered. “But aren’t all flights that way?”
“You should’ve come first class.”
Marlow thought about her decision to sell her place and close her practice but decided not to mention it until later. Eileen’s father had been a steel baron; she’d married into money, as well. She’d never known what it was like to struggle. Marlow hadn’t, either, but she was out in the world and much more cognizant of the difficulties faced by those who didn’t have quite as much. “I didn’t want to ask Aida and Claire to spend the extra money. You know what happened to Claire.”
“Yes. The poor thing. I’m so glad she had insurance to cover the rebuild. The fires in California have been awful. I’ve seen them on the news.” Eileen lifted her head to look toward the door. “Where are your friends?”
“Rosemary’s helping them get settled in the guesthouse.”
“I can’t wait to meet them.”
“They’re grateful to you for letting them come home with me. But with the way you’re feeling, maybe I should’ve come alone—”
“No, no,” she broke in. “They both needed a place to recoup, as you said. And having them here won’t hurt me. New friends might help fill the terrible void I’ve felt since Tiller…” Her voice cracked.
Marlow squeezed her hand, wondering if it was the emotional toll of losing Tiller that’d gotten the best of Eileen, rather than MS. “I miss him, too,” she whispered.
Her mother brought Marlow’s hand to her cheek. “It’ll be good to have you here for practical reasons, too. I think there’s something that has to be done with the estate.”
“What’s that?” Marlow asked in surprise.
“I don’t know. Samuel Lefebvre’s been calling me, trying to get me to come meet with him, but I told him you’re the one to talk to. I can’t face it.”
Sam was her father’s attorney and had been since Marlow could remember. He’d written her a character reference when she applied to Stanford, since he’d graduated from there himself, which was how she’d landed on the opposite coast. “I can handle it. It shouldn’t be hard. Most, if not all, of Dad’s estate will pass directly to you. Maybe he left me a few trinkets.”
“I’m sure he did. But Sam acts as though there’s business at hand, so he must need something.”
“You know Sam. He’s fastidious, always in a hurry to wrap things up. It won’t be a problem.”
A ghost of her mother’s former smile curved her lips. “You’re so capable. You’ve always been capable—just like your father.”
Marlow heard Rosemary come into the house with Aida and Claire. “Should I wait to introduce my friends to you until after we eat?”
“Maybe that would be best,” Eileen said. “It’ll give me the chance to rest a bit longer.”
“Of course. There’s no rush.”
“I can’t wait to spend more time with you. It’s comforting to know we have the whole summer.”
“It is.” Marlow hugged her mother, breathing in the welcome scent of her perfume before going out to join Aida and Claire in the dining room, where Rosemary had put a tea caddy filled with small sandwiches, crackers with herb spread, homemade scones and chocolate-covered strawberries. The clotted cream was in small dishes at the side of each plate.
“Looks delicious. I don’t think anyone in the UK could do it better.”
“Then I did it right,” Rosemary joked.
When Marlow sat down, she halfway expected Reese to join them, since she knew he was on the property, but he didn’t come in. As generously as her family had treated Rosemary and her boys, there’d always been a distinction between the family and the help. Marlow supposed that, in many situations like this, it was inevitable: there was a natural hierarchy when it came to employment.
“Reese has gotten so tall,” she remarked to Rosemary, helping herself to a cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwich.
“He’s a handsome man,” Aida said.
Marlow shot her friend a warning look but didn’t dare say anything in front of Reese’s mother, who seemed to take the compliment at face value. “He’s six-four, as tall as his brother now,” she said proudly.
“What’s Walker been doing these days?” Marlow asked.
Rosemary used a towel to hold the hot teapot with both hands. “He’s living here on the island now.”
Marlow paused, her sandwich halfway to her mouth. “He left Atlanta to come here permanently? When?”
“As soon as he heard about COVID. Poor guy’s always felt he needs to be there for me and Reese,” she said with an affectionate chuckle. “I guess it’s no wonder since, growing up, he had to be the man of the house.”
Eileen hadn’t mentioned that Walker had moved to Teach, but at thirty-six, he probably didn’t come to the house much. “What part of the island does he live on?” Marlow asked. “He’s not staying above the garage, is he?”
“No, Reese is there now. Walker bought the cottage down by the cove. It’s not very big, but the setting is magnificent. I’ve never seen prettier sunsets than the ones I see from his front porch.”
Marlow liked the cove, too. The beach there was small and completely cut off from the other beaches, so it was often overlooked by tourists, which made it feel almost as private as the beach her family owned. “What does he do for a living?”
“He’s the chief of police.”
Marlow sat taller. “The chief of police?”
Rosemary shrugged off her surprise. “It sounds loftier than it is. There are only two other officers on the force.”
“But…how’d that happen? Last I heard, he was a street cop in Atlanta.” She remembered someone telling her that a friend had talked him into going into the academy. That had been a while ago—probably a decade—but Walker’s ascent still seemed quick.
“This is your oldest son?” Claire interrupted.
“It is,” Rosemary replied before answering Marlow. “He didn’t want to be separated from me or his brother during the pandemic, so he kept checking for jobs on the island—and he found one.”
“The chief of police quit or was fired or something?” Claire asked.
“No, Walker got on as a regular officer first,” Rosemary clarified. “But when the chief retired, he took over.”
“Do you have a daughter-in-law, too?” Aida asked. “Or any grandbabies?”
“Not yet,” Rosemary replied. “I bug Walker about finding a wife all the time, but he just laughs it off and tells me you can’t hurry love.”
“Maybe Reese will be the one to give you grandbabies,” Aida said.
“He’s got some growing up to do first,” Rosemary said and headed into the kitchen.
Marlow and Claire both gave Aida a pointed stare.
“What?” she said, lifting her well-manicured hands as though she’d done nothing wrong. “He’s twenty-two. It’s not as though he’s underage.”
Rosemary reappeared before they could say anything further. “Walker’s here,” she announced. “I needed a few things for the soup I’m making for dinner tonight, and he said he’d grab them for me.”
A knock sounded on the door. After Rosemary opened it, Marlow could hear Walker say, “Here you go. You’ll find some of those dark chocolate–covered almonds you like in the bag, too.”
Marlow could see a slice of Rosemary as she accepted the sack he handed her. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ll see you later.”
“Walker?” his mother said, calling him back. “Marlow’s home if you’d like to come in and say hello.”
There was a slight pause, which indicated he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. Marlow could understand why. They hadn’t exactly been close, at least not during their teenage years. But he eventually said, “Fine. But just for a minute. I have to get back to work.”
Excerpted from Summer on the Island by Brenda Novak, Copyright © 2022 by Brenda Novak, Inc. Published by MIRA Books.
(Thanks to Harlequin Audio for my complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.)