Saturday, December 31, 2011
Book Spotlight: Sanctuary Cove - Chapter Excerpt
by Rochelle Alers
Sometimes love is the simplest choice of all.
Still reeling from her husband's untimely death, Deborah Robinson needs a fresh start. So she decides to pack up her family, box up her bookstore, and return to her grandmother's ancestral home on Cavanaugh Island. The charming town of Sanctuary Cove holds happy memories for Deborah. And, after she spies a gorgeous stranger in the local bakery, it promises the possibility for a bright, new future.
Dr. Asa Monroe is at a crossroads. Ever since the loss of his family, he has been on a quest for faith and meaning, traveling from one town to another. When he meets Deborah, the beautiful bookstore owner with the warm eyes and sunny smile, Asa believes he has finally found a reason to stay in one place.
As friendship blossoms into romance, Deborah and Asa discover they may have a second chance at love. But small towns have big secrets. Before they can begin their new life together, the couple must confront a challenge they never expected . . .
With nearly two million copies of her novels in print, Rochelle Alers is a regular on the Waldenbooks, Borders and Essence bestseller lists, and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Gold Pen Award, the Emma Award, Vivian Stephens Award for Excellence in Romance Writing, the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award and the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Award.
For more information, please visit Rochelle's website at www.rochellealers.org/
Barbara, are you sure you don’t mind looking after Whitney and Crystal for
the week? You know I can always take them with me.”
“Deborah Robinson! Do you realize how many times you’ve asked the same question and I’ve given you the same answer? No, I don’t mind at all. Now go before you miss your ferry. And no cell phone calls from the car.”
As the boat headed in a southeast direction she stared at the island shorelines of Kiawah, Seabrook and Edisto Islands before the ferryboat slowed, chugging slowly and docking at Cavanaugh Island. She was the las“Thanks for everything,” Deborah whispered, hugging her friend. “I’ll call you from the island.”
Deborah ran across the front lawn, jumped into her car, fastened the seatbelt and pulled away from the curb. Smiling at years of happy memories as she drove through the back streets of Charleston, Deborah made it to the pier before sailing time. She drove onto the ferry, turned off the car, and got out to stand at the rail, instantly refreshed by the cool breeze. This time her return to the small community of Sanctuary Cove wouldn’t be for a weekend or mini-vacation, but to air out the house she’d inherited from her grandparents in order to make it her home and to look at a vacant store she’d rented where she’d open her bookstore.
Two blasts from the ferry’s horn echoed it was time to sail; a man on the pier tossed the thick coil of hemp to another worker on the ferry, freeing it; below deck engines belched, coughed, and rumbled. There came another horn blast and the ferryman deftly steered the boat through the narrow inlet until he reached open water.
Resting her elbows on the rail, Deborah watched as steeples and spires of the many churches rising above the landscape disappeared from view t one off the boat, and waved to the captain as he tipped his hat.
Driving off the ferry, she felt herself blinking back tears, remembering the last time she’d come here. It had been Thanksgiving and she, Louis and their kids had decided to celebrate the holiday at the Cove rather than in Charleston. Louis never could have imagined as he’d carved turkey that a week later he would become embroiled in a scandal. That he would be seen in a compromising position with one of his female students.
Despite declaring that he was simply comforting her, and there was nothing improper going on between him and the student, Louis Robinson was suspended pending a school board hearing. Tensions and emotions were fever-pitched as Charlestonians formed opposing factions while Louis awaited his fate. Deborah blamed those who were quick to judge her husband for his death, and all of their condolences fell on deaf ears when the truth was finally revealed. The truth had come too late. She’d lost her husband of eighteen years and Whitney and Crystal their father.
Slowing and coming to a complete stop, she reached for a tissue and blotted the tears, praying for a time when the tears wouldn’t come without warning, or so easily. It took several minutes, but after taking a few deep breaths, she was back in control.
Stepping on the accelerator, Deborah drove slowly along the paved road, boarded on both sides by palmetto trees and ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss.
She maneuvered onto the quaint Mail Street and suddenly felt another
rush of sadness, but this one was not personal. Like so many small towns across the United States she realized the Cove was slowly dying. She noticed more boarded-up storefronts; the sidewalks were cracked and even the Cove Inn, a boardinghouse and one of the grandest houses on the island, needed a new coat of white paint.
Deborah drove into the small parking lot behind Jack’s Fish House. After only a cup of coffee earlier that morning she needed to eat before throwing herself into the chore of cleaning the house. There were more than a dozen cars in the lot; some she recognized as belonging to local fishermen.
The winter temperature on Cavanaugh was at least ten degrees warmer than in Charleston, so she left her wool jacket in the car. Reaching for her purse, she walked up from the lot to the entrance of the restaurant, an establishment that was known for serving some of the best seafood in the Lowcountry.
The familiar interior of Jack’s Fish House hadn’t changed in decades. Tables hewn from tree trunks bore the names and initials of countless lovers, ex-lovers, and those who wanted to achieve immortality by carving their names into a piece of wood. Only the light fixtures had changed, from bulbs covered by frosted globes to hanging lamps with Tiffany-style shades. A trio of ceiling fans turned at the lowest speed to offset the buildup of heat coming from the kitchen each time the café doors swung open. The year before the Jacksons added a quartet of flat screen televisions, primarily for the fishermen who went out at dawn and returned midday with their nets laden with crabs, oysters, and shrimp.
Deborah walked past restaurant regulars and few strange faces to sit at a round table for two in a far corner. The mouthwatering aromas coming from dishes carried by the waitstaff triggered a hunger she hadn’t felt in weeks. She knew she’d lost too much weight, and although she cooked for Whitney and Crystal, she would take only a few forkfuls before feeling full.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over the table and her head popped up. Luvina Jackson, wearing a pair of overalls and a bibbed apron, arms crossed under her ample bosom, gave Deborah a sad smile. Her gray hair was covered with a hairnet. “Stand up, baby, and let Vina hold you. I’m so sorry about Louis.”
Deborah couldn’t hold back tears as she sank into the comforting softness of Luvina’s well-rounded figure. The smell of yeast and lily of the valley wafted in her nostrils, a fragrance Luvina had worn for as long as Deborah remembered.
“Thank you, Miss Vina.”
Luvina rocked her back and forth. “You know the Cove would have turned out for you if you hadn’t had a private service.”
“I know that, Miss Vina. But I would’ve lost it if the hypocrites who were so quick to judge Louis would’ve shown up to pay their so-called respects.”
“All you had to do was say the word and we would’ve been there for you with bells on. Ain’t no way we gonna let dem two-face, egg-suckin’ vultures hurt one of our own. We would have turned it out.”
“Then we all would’ve been on the front page of The State or The Post and Courier, not to mention footage on the local television news,” Deborah murmured.
“I just want you to know we would have been there for you, baby. How are your kids doing?”
Easing out of her embrace, Deborah met Luvina’s eyes. “They’re coping as well as they can. But kids are kids and they are much more resilient than grown folks. They’re spending the week with friends until school begins again.”
“Thanks goodness for that. Enough talk. I know you came in her to git somethin’ to eat. Whatcha want?”
Deborah smiled. Even though she’d been born and raised in Charlest
on, coming back to the Cove and listening to the different inflections interspersed with the Gullah dialect made her feel as if she had come home. “Do you have any okra gumbo?”
Luvina’s broad dark face, with features that bore her Gullah ancestry, softened as she smiled. “I jest put up a long pot earlier dis mornin’.”
Deborah returned Luvina’s smile. She liked Jack’s okra gumbo because they fried the okra with oil to reduce the slime and added corn to the savory dish. “I’ll have a bowl with a couple of buttered biscuits.”
“Do you want rice?”
"No, thank you. But I’m going to order something to take home for dinner.”
“Whatcha want fo’ dinner?”
“Anything that’s good, Miss Vina.”
Eyes wide, Luvina stared at Deborah. “Now you got to know that everything we makes at Jack’s is good. Have you been gone so long that you forgot that?”
“Let me put somethin’ together for you. You like oxtails?”
“I love them.”
“Good. Then I’ll fix you some oxtails with ham hocks. I’ll also give you some rice, because you need some meat on your bones. Collards and a slice of my coconut cake should fill you right up.”
“That’s sound good, Miss Vina.”
“Rest yourself and I’ll be right back.”
When Deborah sat down, closed her eyes and pressed the back of her head to the wall behind her, she realized she was hungry and unbelievably tired. Tired from the stress that had worn her down like a steady rush of water over a pile of rocks.
Her parents had come up from Florida for the funeral and had all but begged her to move down there, but Deborah told them she couldn’t uproot Whitney and Crystal. Whitney was in his last year of high school, and fifteen-year-old Crystal would have problems adjusting and making friends at a new school. Crystal had taken her father’s death much harder than Whitney, who’d grieved in private.
Her musings were interrupted when Luvina’s granddaughter walked over to the table with a large glass of sweet tea and a plate with two biscuits. “Sorry about Mr. Robinson, Miss Deborah. All the kids cried for days when we heard he’d drowned. He was the best math teacher in the whole high school.”
Deborah smiled at the girl, who lived on the island but went to high school with her children. “Thank you, Johnetta. How are you?”
“I’m good, Miss Deborah. Right now I’m applying to nursing school up north, but my momma and daddy don’t want me to leave the state, so I have to apply to one here.”
“Charleston Southern University has a school of nursing. You can live here while you’re taking classes. That would save you a lot of money.”
Johnetta smiled, displaying the braces on her teeth. “You’re right. I could take the ferry or get my father to drop me off when he goes to work.”
“That sounds like a plan.”
“Thank you, Miss Deborah. I’m going to go and bring out your food.”
Deborah stared at the tall girl, who’d at one time admitted she liked Whitney, but he’d acted as if she didn’t exist. She’d wanted to tell Johnetta that Whitney was more interested in sports than he was in a relationship with a girl. It wasn’t as if he didn’t like girls, but sports and academics were his priority.
Johnetta returned with a bowl of okra gumbo and after the first spoonful Deborah felt as if she’d been revived. The soup was delicious, the biscuits light and buttery and the sweet tea brewed to perfection. She’d tried over and over but whenever she brewed tea it was either too strong or too weak. Too strong meant adding copious amounts of sugar or too weak made it taste like sugar water.
She finished her lunch and paid the check, reminding Johnetta she’d come back to pick up her takeout order. Leaving Jack’s, Deborah strolled along Main Street, stopping to stare through the windows of stores and shops. Grass had sprouted up through the cracks in the sidewalk. There had been a time when there were no cracks and the only thing that littered the sidewalks or curbs was sand and palmetto leaves. The sand-littered streets added to the charm of the town, but dead leaves and debris were swept away by shopkeepers every morning.
She continued her stroll, turning onto Moss Alley, and then came to a complete stop. Moss Alley was appropriately named because of the large oak draped in Spanish moss on the corner. Shading her eyes, Deborah peered through the glass window of a store that had once been a gift shop. The
space was particularly wide, but deep enough for her bookstore. And what made it even more attractive was it had a second floor – space where she could store her inventory.
A flutter of excitement raced through her. It was perfect for The Parlor. It was off the main street, but on the corner where anyone walking or driving by would notice it. With hand-painted letters on the plate-glass, a colorful awning, and furniture resembling a parlor, it would generate enough curiosity to draw in customers.
She walked down the street, stopping at the opposite end of the block. Smiling, she waved through the window of the Muffin Corner at the woman behind the counter, who beckoned her.
She opened the screen door and was met with tantalizing aromas of fruit and freshly made cakes, pies, and donuts. Lester and Mabel Kelly had opened the shop the year before. Both had worked as pastry chefs for a hotel chain, but had tired of the frantic pace of baking for catered parties and returned to the Cove to open the Muffin Corner.
Mabel Kelly flashed a gap-tooth smile when Deborah walked in. Coming from behind the counter, she hugged her. “How’s it going, girl?”
Deborah returned the hug. “I’m good.”
Pulling back, Mabel narrowed her eyes. She and Deborah were the same age, thirty-eight, but there was sadness in Deborah’s eyes that made her appear older. “I’m sorry about Louis, Debs. It’s a damn shame folks accused him of something he didn’t do, and would never think of doing. I can tell you that folks here were ready to get in their cars and start some mess Charleston hasn’t seen in a while.”
“I know that, Mabel.”
“Is that why you decided to have a private funeral?”
“It was one of the reasons.”
“You know I called your house but some woman named Barbara answered. Damn, you thought I was trying to set up a lunch date with President Obama the way she interrogated me. In the end, I told her to let you know I’d called.”
“She did, Mabel. And, I do appreciate you calling.”
“Can I get you something?”
“No thanks. I just came from Jack’s.”
Physically Deborah and Mabel were complete opposites. Mabel was barely five foot and had what people call birthing hips, yet she’d never had any children. She said she didn’t want any because she’d helped her father raise six younger siblings after her mother got hooked on drugs. The year she’d turned fourteen her mother had taken the ferry to Charleston to score and never came back. There were reports that someone had seen her in Savannah, strung-out, but it was never confirmed.
The wind chime over the door tinkled musically. “Excuse me, Debs,” Mabel whispered. “Let me take care of this customer, then we’ll sit and talk.” Her smile grew wider. “Afternoon, Asa. Can I get you to sample today’s special along with your black coffee with a shot of espresso?”
“No thank you, Mabel. I’ll just have coffee,” she heard the man reply.
Deborah sat, enjoying the aromas of the shop before her gaze lingered on Mabel’s customer. He was a tall, slender, middle-aged black man. Though he was dressed casually in khakis, long-sleeved light-blue button-down shirt, and black leather slip-ons, Deborah couldn’t take her eyes off the handsome stranger. He didn’t look familiar, so either he was a newcomer, visitor, or tourist. Cavanaugh Island didn’t get many tourists during the winter months, but the balmy seventy-degree temperatures attracted a few snowbirds from the northeast and Midwest.
Without warning, he turned and caught her staring. Their gazes met and fused, and they shared a smile. He continued to stare and Deborah couldn’t control the rush of heat in her face; she lowered her eyes and didn’t glance up again until the wind chime tinkled when the door closed behind the very attractive man.
“I like what you’ve done with the shop,” Deborah said to Mabel when she joined her at the table.
“We don’t have a Starbucks here in the Cove, so Lester and I decided to offer something other than regular coffee to go along with the muffins. Business has really picked up since we put in the tables. We mostly get retirees who order their favorite muffin, coffee, and read the newspaper whenever it gets too hot to sit in the square, or during rainy weather. It’s a big hit, especially with the snowbirds.” Mabel bit her lip. “If it wasn’t for the snowbird businesses in the Cove would really have a hard time staying open.”
“It’s that bad?” Deborah asked.
“Just say it could be better. Most of us are hanging on by the skin of our teeth, waiting for the summer season. Take Asa Monroe, the man who just left.”
“What about him?” she asked. For a reason she couldn’t fathom, Deborah wanted to know more about the stranger who unknowingly intrigued her.
“He rents a suite at the Cove Inn, been here about six weeks. He eats lunch at Jack’s, sends his laundry out and comes in every day for his black coffee with a shot of espresso. Multiply that by twenty or thirty snowbirds and it’s enough revenue to keep small shopkeepers afloat until the summer season.”
Deborah nodded. “I noticed a few more vacant stores since the last time I was here.”
“The gift shop closed up last month.”
“I just rented it.”
A beat passed before Mabel said, “You’re kidding?”
“No, I’m not. I’m moving to the Cove and –”
Deborah nodded again. “Yes. I’m also moving my bookstore. I called the chamber and they gave me a listing of the vacant stores. Once I found out the gift shop had closed, I realized it would be perfect. It has more square footage than my Charleston store and having a second floor is a bonus.”
Mabel leaned closer. “What about the kids?”
“Nothing’s going to change, Mabel, except that they’ll live here instead of in Charleston. They’ll still go to the same high school and hang out with their same friends.”
“What are you going to do with your house on the mainland?”
“I’m putting it up for sale. I know the real estate market is soft,” Deborah said quickly when Mabel opened her mouth, “but I’m willing to accept a reasonable offer because I don’t want to rent it.” She glanced at her watch, then stood up, Mabel rising with her. “I have to get back to the house. I’ll drop by in a couple of days.”
“How long are you staying?”
“I’m leaving New Year’s Eve. I promised the kids I’d be back in time to bring in the new year with them.” Extending her arms, Deborah hugged Mabel.
She left the Muffin Corner, stopping again at the vacant store on Moss Alley that was soon to be the new home of The Parlor bookstore.
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