Back at the house, Tru found himself at loose ends. If he could, he’d call Andrew, but he wasn’t comfortable with the thought of dialing from the house phone. Overseas charges were substantial, and besides, Andrew likely wouldn’t be home yet. After school, he played soccer with his youth club; Tru always enjoyed watching him practice. Andrew lacked the innate athleticism that other kids on the team displayed, but he was a relaxed and natural leader, much like his mother. Thinking about his son eventually made Tru retrieve his drawing materials, which he carried out to the back deck. Next door, he noticed that Hope had gone inside, although the towel she’d used on Scottie was still draped over the railing.

Settling himself in the chair, he debated what he should sketch. Andrew had never seen the ocean, not in person, so Tru decided to try to capture the enormity of the sight before him, assuming that was even possible. As always, he started with a general and faint outline of the scene—a diagonal point of view that included the shoreline, breaking waves, the pier, and a sea that stretched to the horizon. Drawing had always been a way to relax his mind, and as he sketched, he allowed it to wander. He thought about Hope and wondered what it was about her that had captured his interest. It was unusual for him to be so instantly taken with someone, but he told himself it didn’t really matter. He’d come to North Carolina for other reasons, and he found his thoughts drifting to his family. He hadn’t seen or spoken to his stepfather, Rodney, or his half brothers, Allen and Alex, in almost two years.

The reasons were rooted in history, and wealth had further compounded the estrangement. In addition to the Walls family name, Tru had inherited partial ownership of the farm and business empire. The profits were substantial, but in his daily life, he had little need for money. Whatever he earned from the farm was sent to an investment account in Switzerland that the Colonel had set up when Tru was still a toddler. The funds had been piling up for years, but Tru seldom checked the balance. From that account, he arranged for money to be sent regularly to Kim and he paid for Andrew’s schooling, but aside from the outright purchase of the house in Bulawayo, that was it. He had already arranged to sign over a chunk of the money to Andrew when his son reached the age of thirty-five. He assumed that Andrew would find more use for it than he would. Recently, his half brothers had started to become resentful about that, but theirs had always been a distant relationship, so it wasn’t altogether unexpected.

Tru was nine years older than the twins, and by the time they would have been old enough to remember Tru, he was already spending most of his time in the bush, as far away from the farm as possible. He moved away for good when he was eighteen. In essence, they were, and always had been, strangers to each other. Things with Rodney, on the other hand, were more complicated. Tru’s equity in the business had been causing problems with Rodney ever since the Colonel had died, thirteen years ago, but in truth, the relationship had been broken far longer than that. To Tru’s mind, it dated back to the fire, when Tru was eleven years old. Much of the compound had gone up in flames in 1959. Tru had barely escaped by jumping from a second-floor window. Rodney had carried Allen and Alex to safety, but Tru’s mother, Evelyn, had never made it out. Even before the fire, Rodney had never been supportive or affectionate with his stepson; he mostly tolerated Tru. In the aftermath, Rodney’s attention became almost nonexistent.

Between dealing with his grief, raising toddlers, and managing the farm, he was overwhelmed. In retrospect, Tru understood that. At the time, it hadn’t been so easy, and the Colonel hadn’t offered much in the way of support, either. After the death of his only child, he sank into a profound depression that seemed to lock him away in a vault of silence. He would sit near the blackened ruins of the compound, staring at the wreckage; when the debris was hauled off and construction began on the new houses, he stared without speaking at the ongoing work. Occasionally Tru went to sit with him, but the Colonel would mumble only a few words in acknowledgment. There were rumors, after all; rumors about his grandfather, the business, and the real reason for the fire. At the time, Tru knew nothing about them; he knew only that no one in his family seemed willing to speak to him or even offer so much as a hug. If it hadn’t been for Tengwe and Anoona, Tru wasn’t sure he would have survived the loss of his mother.

 The only thing he could really remember from that period was regularly crying himself to sleep and spending long hours wandering the property alone after school and his chores. He understood now that those had been his first steps on the journey that led him from the farm to living in the bush. Had his mother survived, he had no idea who he would have become. But that wasn’t the only change in the aftermath of his mother’s death. After she passed, Tru had asked Tengwe to purchase some drawing paper and pencils. Because he recalled seeing his mother sketch, he began to do so as well. He had no training and little natural skill; it was months before he could re-create on paper something as simple as a tree with any semblance of realism. It was, however, a way to escape his own feelings and the quiet desperation always present at the farm. He longed to draw his mother, but her features seemed to vanish more quickly than his skill developed. Everything he attempted struck him as wrong somehow, not the mother he remembered, even when Tengwe and Anoona protested otherwise. Some attempts were closer than others, but never once did he complete a drawing of his mother that he felt fully captured her.

 In the end, he threw the stack of sketches away, resigning himself to that additional loss, like the other losses in his life. Like his father. Growing up, it had sometimes felt to Tru as though the man had never existed. His mother had said little about him, even when Tru pressed; the Colonel refused to speak of him at all. Over time, Tru’s curiosity waned to almost nothing. He could go years without thinking or wondering about the man. Then, out of the blue, a letter had arrived a few months ago at the camp in Hwange. It had originally been sent to the farm; Tengwe had forwarded it, but Tru hadn’t bothered opening it right away. When he finally did, his initial instinct was to regard it as some sort of practical joke, despite the plane tickets. It was only when he scrutinized the faded photograph that he realized that the letter might be genuine. The photo showed a young, handsome man with his arm around a much younger version of a woman who could only be Tru’s mother. Evelyn was a teenager in the photograph—she had been nineteen when Tru was born—and it struck Tru as surreal that he was more than twice the age she’d been back then. Assuming, of course, that it actually was her. But it was. In his heart, he knew it. He didn’t know how long he stared at it on that first evening, but over the next few days, he found himself continually reaching for it. It was the only photograph he had of his mother.

All the others had been lost in the same fire that had killed her, and seeing her image after so many years triggered a flood of additional memories: the sight of her sketching on the back veranda; her face hovering above him as she tucked him into bed; the sight of her wearing a green dress as she stood in the kitchen; the feel of her hand in his as they walked toward a pond. He still wasn’t sure whether any of those events were real or simply figments of his imagination. Then, of course, there was the man in the photograph… In the letter, he’d identified himself as Harry Beckham, an American. He claimed to have been born in 1914, and to have met Tru’s mother in late 1946. He’d served in World War II as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and after the war, he’d moved to Rhodesia, where he worked at the Bushtick Mine in Matabeleland. He’d met Tru’s mother in Harare, and said that the two of them had fallen in love. He further claimed not to have known that she’d been pregnant when he moved back to America, but Tru wasn’t sure he believed that. After all, if he hadn’t even suspected that Tru’s mum had been pregnant, why would he have searched for a long-lost child in the first place? Tru supposed he would find out soon enough.  Tru continued to labor over the sketch for a couple of hours, stopping only when he thought he had something that Andrew might enjoy. He hoped it might make up for the week they wouldn’t be together.

Heading inside, he toyed with the idea of going fishing. He enjoyed it and hadn’t had much time for it in the past few years, but after sitting for much of the afternoon, he felt the urge to get his blood flowing. Maybe tomorrow, he thought, and instead changed into the only pair of shorts he owned. He found a closet full of beach towels, grabbed one, then went to the beach. Dropping the towel in the dry sand near the water’s edge, he waded in, surprised by how warm the water was. He moved through the first set of mild breakers, then the next, and once he was beyond them, he was chest-deep in the water. Kicking off the bottom, he began to swim, hoping to make it to the pier and back. It took a while to find his rhythm, despite the placid surface of the ocean. Because he hadn’t swum any kind of distance in years, he found it slow going. He inched past one house and then another; by the fifth house, his muscles had begun to tire.

When he reached the pier, exhaustion had set in, but he was nothing if not persistent. Instead of wading ashore, he turned and began the even slower swim back to where he’d started. When he finally reached his house and went ashore, the muscles in his legs were shaking and he could barely move his arms. Nonetheless, he felt satisfied. At the camp, he was limited to calisthenics and the kind of explosive jumps that could be done in confined areas. He ran whenever possible—he would circle the interior perimeter of the guide camp for half an hour a few times a week, the most boring jog on the planet, he’d long ago decided—but on most days, he was able to do quite a bit of walking. In the camp where he worked, a guide could allow guests to leave the jeep and head into the bush, as long as the guide was armed. Sometimes that was the only way to get close enough to spot some of the rarer animals like black rhinos or cheetahs. For him, it was a way to stretch his legs; for the guests, it was usually the highlight of any game drive. Once inside, he took a long shower, rinsed his shorts in the sink, and had a sandwich for lunch.

 After that, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. It had been a long time since he’d had an afternoon with nothing whatsoever on the schedule, and it left him feeling unsettled. He picked up his sketchbook again and examined the drawing he’d done for Andrew, noticing some changes he wanted to make. It was always that way; Da Vinci once said that art is never finished but only abandoned, and that made perfect sense to Tru. He decided he’d work on it again tomorrow. For now, he picked up his guitar and went to the back deck. The sand blazed white in the sun and the blue water stretching to the horizon was strangely calm beyond the breakers. Perfect. But as he tuned his guitar, he realized he had no desire to spend the rest of the day at the house. He could call for a car, but that seemed pointless. He had no idea where he would even want to go. Instead, he remembered that Hope had mentioned a restaurant a little way past the pier, and he decided that later tonight, he’d have dinner there Once the guitar was readied, he played for a while, running through most of the songs he’d ever learned. Like sketching, it allowed his mind to wander, and when his gaze eventually drifted to the cottage next door, his thoughts again landed on Hope. He wondered why, despite having a boyfriend and the wedding of a close friend only days away, she had come to Sunset Beach alone. 

Hope found herself wishing that her hair and nail appointments had been scheduled for today instead of tomorrow morning, just so she’d have an excuse to get out of the house. Instead, she spent the morning going through a few of the closets at the cottage. Her mom had suggested that she take anything she wanted, with the unspoken caveat that Hope should try to anticipate her sisters’ desires as well. Both Robin and Joanna would be coming down to the cottage in the next few weeks to help with the sorting, and all of them had been raised in a way that left little room for selfishness. Because Hope had only limited storage space at her condominium, she had no problem with keeping almost nothing for herself. Still, going through a single box took more time than she’d anticipated. After disposing of the junk (which was most of it), she’d been left with a favorite pair of swim goggles, a tattered copy of Where the Wild Things Are, a Bugs Bunny key chain, a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal, three completed coloring books, postcards from various places where the family had vacationed, and a locket with a photograph of Hope’s mother.

All those items made her smile for one reason or another and were worth keeping, and she suspected that her sisters would feel the same way. Most likely, anything kept would end up in another box tucked away in an attic somewhere. Which raised the question of why they were bothering to go through it all in the first place, but deep down, Hope already knew the answer. Throwing it all away didn’t feel right. For some crazy reason, part of her wanted to know these things were still around. She’d be the first to admit that she hadn’t been thinking all that straight lately, starting with the idea of coming here ahead of the wedding. In hindsight, it seemed like a bad idea, but she’d already requested and received the vacation days, and what was the alternative? Visiting her parents and trying not to worry about her dad? Or staying in Raleigh, where she’d be equally alone, but surrounded by constant reminders of Josh? She supposed she could have taken a vacation somewhere else, but where would she have gone? The Bahamas? Key West? Paris? She would have been alone there, too, her dad would still be sick, Josh would still be in Las Vegas, and she would still have a wedding to attend this weekend.

Ah, yes…the wedding. Though she hated to admit it, there was a part of her that didn’t want to go, and not only because she didn’t relish explaining that Josh had ditched her. And it wasn’t because of Ellen, either. She was genuinely happy for Ellen, and normally, she couldn’t wait to see her closest friends. They knew everything about each other, and had stayed in touch regularly after graduation. They’d also all been bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, starting with Jeannie and Linda. They’d both married a year after graduation and now had five kids between them. Sienna got married a couple years after that and now had four kids. Angie tied the knot when she was thirty, and had twin three-year-old girls. Susan had been married two years ago, and now—as of next Saturday, Ellen, too, would join the ranks of the married. It hadn’t surprised her when Susan had recently called to tell her that she was three months pregnant. But Ellen, too? Ellen, who’d met Colson for the first time last December? Ellen, who’d once sworn she’d never get married or have kids? Ellen, who’d lived life on the wild side until her late twenties, and used to commute to Atlantic City to spend weekends with her then-boyfriend, a cocaine dealer? Not only had Ellen been able to find someone willing to marry her—a churchgoing investment banker, no less—but two weeks ago, she’d confided to Hope that, like Susan, she was twelve weeks pregnant.

Ellen and Susan would be having children at roughly the same time, and the realization made Hope suddenly feel very much on the verge of becoming an outsider in what was once the closest circle of friends. The rest of them were either in or about to enter a new phase of life, and Hope had no idea when, or even if, she’d ever join them. Especially when it came to having kids. That scared her. For a long time, she’d believed that the whole “ticking biological clock” thing was a myth. Not the part where age made it increasingly difficult to have children—every woman knew about that. But it wasn’t something she’d ever believed would pertain to her. Having children was one of those things she’d taken for granted, that it would simply happen when the time was right. She was wired that way and had been as long as she could remember; she couldn’t imagine a future without children of her own, and it wasn’t until college that she learned that not every woman felt the same way. When her freshman roommate Sandy told her otherwise—that she’d rather have a career than children—the concept was so foreign that she’d initially thought Sandy was kidding.

Hope hadn’t spoken to Sandy since graduation, but a couple of years ago, she’d bumped into her at the mall, with her new baby in tow. Hope guessed that Sandy had no memory of the conversation they’d had in the dorm that night, and Hope hadn’t reminded her. But Hope had gone home and cried. How was it that Sandy had a child, but Hope didn’t? And her sisters, Robin and Joanna? And now, all of her closest friends were either already there or on their way? It made no sense to her. For as long as she could remember, she’d pictured herself pregnant, then holding her newborn infants, marveling at their growth and wondering whose traits they had inherited. Would they have her nose, or their dad’s big feet? Or the red hair she’d inherited from her grandmother? Motherhood had always seemed foreordained. But then, Hope had always been a planner. She’d had her life charted out by the age of fifteen: Get good grades, graduate from college, become a registered nurse by twenty-four, work hard at your job, and get your career going. Meanwhile, have some fun along the way—you’re only young once, right?

Hang out with your girlfriends and date some guys, without letting anything get too serious. Then, maybe as thirty was approaching, meet the one. Date him fall in love, and get married. After a year or two, start having children. Two would be perfect, hopefully one of each sex, though if that last part didn’t happen, she knew she wouldn’t really be disappointed. As long as she had at least one girl, that is. One by one, through her teens and twenties, she’d checked those things off. And then Josh came along right on schedule. In her wildest dreams, she never would have believed that six years later, she’d still be single and childless, and she had trouble figuring out exactly where the plan had gone awry. Josh had told her that he wanted marriage and children as well, so what had they been doing all this time? Where had the six years gone? One thing she knew for sure: Being thirty-six was a lot different than being thirty-five. She’d learned that on her birthday last April. Her family was there, Josh was there, and it should have been a happy event, but she’d taken one look at the cake and thought, Wow, that’s a LOT of candles! Blowing them out had seemed to take an inordinately long time. It wasn’t the age thing that had bothered her.

 Nor was it that she was closer to forty than to thirty. In spirit she still felt closer to twenty-five. But the following day—as if God had wanted to smack her in the face with a not-so-gentle reminder—a pregnant thirty-six-year-old had entered the emergency room after slicing her finger while cutting an onion. There was a lot of blood, followed by a local anesthetic and stitches, and the lady had joked that she wouldn’t have come in at all, except for the fact that hers was considered a geriatric pregnancy. Hope had heard the term before when she’d been in nursing school, but as a trauma nurse in the ER, she saw few pregnant women and had forgotten about it. “I hate that it’s called a geriatric pregnancy,” Hope remarked. “It’s not as if you’re old.” “No, but trust me. It’s a lot different than being pregnant in my twenties.” She smiled. “I have three boys, but we wanted to try for a girl.” “And?” “It’s another boy.” She rolled her eyes. “How many kids do you have?” “Oh,” Hope had answered. “I don’t have any. I’m not married.” “No worries. You still have time. How old are you? Twenty-eight?” Hope forced a smile, thinking again about the term geriatric pregnancy. “Close enough,” she responded. 

Tired of her thoughts—and really, really tired of the pity party—Hope figured a distraction was in order. Since she hadn’t bothered to pick up any groceries on her drive down and needed to get out of the house for a while, she first visited a roadside vegetable stand. It was just off the island and had been around for as long as she could remember. She filled a straw basket with zucchini, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and peppers, then drove to a neighboring island, where she purchased some Spanish mackerel. By the time she got back to the cottage, though, she realized she wasn’t hungry. After opening the windows, she put the food away, poured herself a glass of wine, and began sorting through more boxes. She tried to be selective (while keeping both Robin and Joanna in mind), condensing down to a small pile of keepsakes that she returned to a single box she stored in the closet. She brought the rest downstairs to the garbage cans, satisfied with her day’s work. Scottie had followed her out, and she stayed with him at the front of the house, not wanting to chase him down the beach again.

Checking the clock, she fought the urge to call Josh. He was staying at Caesars Palace, but she reminded herself that if he wanted to talk to her, he knew the number of the cottage. Instead, she thought, why not a little me time? What she really needed was a nap—the lack of sleep the night before had caught up with her. She lay down on the living room couch…and the next thing she knew, it was midafternoon. Through the open windows, she could hear the faint sounds of someone playing the guitar and singing. Peeking out the window, she caught a partial glimpse of Tru through the railings. She listened to the music for a few minutes while she tidied up the kitchen, and despite her gloomy thoughts of earlier, she couldn’t help but smile. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been attracted to someone right off the bat. And then she’d gone and invited him over for coffee! She still couldn’t believe she’d done that. After wiping the counters, Hope decided that a long bath was in order. She enjoyed a good bubble bath, but the rush of her daily life made showering easier, so baths were something of a luxury. After filling the tub, she soaked for a long time, feeling the tension slowly ebb from her body. Afterward, she swaddled herself in a bathrobe and pulled a book from the shelf, an old Agatha Christie mystery.

She remembered loving the books as a teenager, so why not? Taking a seat on the couch, she settled into the story. It was easy reading, but the mystery was just as good as what she found on television these days, and she got halfway through the book before finally putting it aside. By then, the sun was beginning to dip at the horizon, and she realized she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten all day, but she found she wasn’t in the mood to cook. She wanted to keep the relaxing flow of the afternoon going. Throwing on some jeans, sandals, and a sleeveless blouse, she did a quick pass with her makeup and pulled her hair back into a messy ponytail. She fed Scottie and let him out in the front yard—he was visibly disappointed when he registered that he wouldn’t be going with her—and locked the front door. Then, she left the house via the back deck, strode down the walkway, and descended the steps to the beach. Whenever their family had come to Sunset Beach, they’d always eaten at Clancy’s at least once, and keeping up the tradition felt right on a night like tonight

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