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Sweet Salt Air


Charlotte Evans was used to feeling grungy. As a freelancer, she traveled on a shoestring, getting stories other writers did not, precisely because she wasn’t fussy about how she lived. In the last twelve months, she had survived dust while writing about elephant keepers in Kenya, ice while writing about the spirit bear of British Columbia, and flies while writing about a family of nomads in India.

She could certainly survive a mizzling, as the Irish called it, though the heavy mist seeped through everything— jeans, boots, even the thick fisherman’s sweater she wore. The sweater was on loan from the woman under whose roof she was sleeping on this least populated of the three Aran Islands, and though Charlotte did have a fireplace in her bedroom, hot water was in short supply in the small stone cottage. She could have used a steamy shower, a thorough washing of her clothes, and a solid day of sun.

Her assignment was to write about the youngest generation of Inishmaanknitters, women who were adapting traditional patterns in breathtaking ways, and as with the pattern on her own sweater, she could now describe moss stitch, panel repeats, right and left twists, andcable designs. It was time to leave. She had to go home to put the story together and get it to Vogue Knitting, before heading to the Australian outback to do a piece on aborigine jewelry- making for National Geographic, a coup that one. Still, she stayed here.

Part of what kept her was the woman who owned the house, as warm and motherly as any she had ever met; part was the craft that permeated the place. No knitter herself, she could watch these women for hours. They were at peace with themselves and their world, enviable for Charlotte, who had no roots at all. So close to her age that they might have been schoolmates, they were trying to teach her to knit. She told herself this was cause enough to stay.

Bottom line, though, it was the island that kept her here. She had loved islands from the time she spent her first summer on one. She was eight at the time. Thirty- four now, she still felt the island aura— an isolation that made worries seem distant, a separation from the real world that lent itself to dreams.

Her eyes went to the horizon, or where the horizon would have been if the mist weren’t so dense. Thick o’ fog they called it in that other place, and it lent a sheen to her skin and a bulk to her hair here as it did there. She pulled those dark curls back now, fingers lost in the damp mass, and turned just enough on the scruff y cliff to face a few latitudinal degrees south.

There, on the far side of the Atlantic, would be Maine, but despite the shared ocean, her island and this one were worlds apart. Where Inishmaan was gray and brown, its fragile man- made soil supporting only the hardiest of low- growing plants, the fertile Quinnipeague invited tall pines in droves, not to mention vegetables, flowers, and improbable, irrepressible herbs. Lifting her head, eyes closed now, she breathed in the damp Irish air and the bit of wood smoke that drifted on the cold ocean wind. Quinnipeague smelled of wood smoke, too, since early mornings there could be chilly, even in summer. But the wood smoke would clear by noon, giving way to the smell of lavender, balsam, and grass. If the winds were from the west, there would be fry smells from the Chowder House; if from the south, the earthiness of the clam flats; if from the northeast, the purity of sweet salt air. Oh yes, across the Atlantic would be Maine, she mused as she opened her eyes and tried to penetrate that great distance through the fog, and this being April, she would think if it regardless of where she was. That was ingrained. Spring was when she started to plan her Quinnipeague summer.

Or used to. But no more. She had burned that bridge ten years ago with one stupid act. She couldn’t go back, though she wished it sometimes. She missed the spirit of summer on Quinnipeague, so much more intense for being apart from the rest of the world. She missed Quinnielobster rolls, which tasted better than lobster rolls anywhere else. Mostly, she missed Nicole, who had been as close as a sister to her once. She had never found another like her, though Lord knew she had searched. Perhaps that was what staying onInishmaan was about. The women here could be friends. They understood independence and self- sufficiency. Charlotte had felt such instant rapport with several that she sensed they would keep in touch.

Would? Maybe.

More likely not, the realist in Charlotte admitted. For all the writing she did for a living, she was a lousy correspondent. Within a day or two, she would leave Inishmaan behind and return to Brooklyn, and from there? In addition to Australia, she had go-aheads to do stories in Tuscany and Bordeaux, the appeal of the latter being the lure of Paris before and after. She had friends there— a writer, a ceramist, and a would- be fashion designer whose clothes were too bizarre for mass appeal but whose personal warmth was winning.

Would it be the same as Quinnipeague time? No.

But this was the life she had made.

Nicole Carlysle lived in blissful ignorance of the past. She had enough to handle in the present, though no one knew it, and that was the problem. No one knew. No one could know, which meant no outlet, no emotional support, no badly needed advice. Julian was adamant about silence, and, because she loved him, she gave in. She was his lifeline, he said, and what woman didn’t want to hear that? But the strain was awful. She would have gone out of her mind if it hadn’t been for the blog.

Whether she was writing to tell her followers about a local cheesemaker, a new farm- to- table restaurant, or what to do with an exoticheirloom fruit that was organically produced and newly marketed, shespent hours each day scouring Philadelphia and the outlying townsfor material. As spring took hold, the local offerings were growing.

On a different mission now, though, she sat in front of an iMac in Julian’s study. There was no view of the Schuylkill from this room, as there was from most of their eighteenth-floor condo. There were no windows here at all, simply walls of mahogany shelves that held medical books Julian had either inherited from his father or collected before publications had gone digital. Nicole owned shelves here, too, though fewer in number. Hers were filled with the novels she couldn’t part with, and books about entertaining that were both resource and inspiration.

Organized as she was, the papers to the left of the computer— jottings, printouts of fan comments and endorsement requests from vendors— were neatly arranged. Her camera sat behind them, hooked to a USB port, and, in a ceramic bowl on the computer’s right, lay the newly photographed subject of her upcoming blog: a head of purple cauliflower, still cupped by the veined green leaves within which it had grown. A leather sofa, with a matching side chair and ottoman, filled the room with the smell of lemon oil and age.

But that smell wasn’t foremost in her mind as she read what she had already typed. “I go to farmers’ markets all the time. Field-to-table is so my thing. But none of the herbs at any of them comes close to island herbs. Those herbs make Quinnie food— well, those herbs and freshness. Quinnipeague was growing organic and cooking local before farm-to-table was a movement, but, still, we think of the herbs first. I can’t write about island cooking without talking about them, but I can’t not talk about the people, either. That’s where you come in, Charlotte. You’ve eaten Dorey Jewett’s lobster stew and Mary Landry’s clam fritters, and you always loved the fruit compote that Bonnie Stroud brought to the Fourth of July dinner each year. These people are all still around. Each has a story. I want to include some in the book, but I’m better at writing about food than people. You write about people. And you’re so good at it, Charlotte. I google you all the time.Your name shows up in the best of the best travel magazines.”

She paused, thinking about those pieces as she studied the mirror of her own eyes in the gloss of the screen. Just then, they were sea- green with worry, wondering what the chances were that her friend would accept. Charlotte was big- time professional, certainly used to having her own byline. She would have to split the billing here, and Nicole’sadvance wasn’t all that much. If the book sold well, there would bemore, but for now all she could offer was a small stipend, plus roomand board in one of the nicest homes on the island— plus reading and talking and hanging out, all that they used to do before life got in the way.

She typed in the thoughts, rewording once, then again. Finally, tired of parsing, she added a blunt, “I need you, Charlotte. A Quinnie cookbook won’t be the same without your input. I know you’re busy, but my deadline is the fifteenth of August, so it’s not the entire summer, and you’ll get stories of your own out of this. It’ll be worth your while. I promise.”

Her eyes rose above the computer screen to find Julian in the open doorway, and she felt a visceral flicker of warmth. It was like that whenever he caught her unaware— had been since the first time she’d laid eyes on him in a Starbucks in Baltimore twelve years before. Back then, as a new environmental studies graduate of Middlebury, she was getting her feet wet writing publicity pieces for a state agriculture organization. Hoping to work during her afternoon break, she had set down her grande-caramel-frappucicno-with-whip on a table without noticing much of her surroundings, until she opened her laptop and became aware of an identical one, identically opened and angled on the table beside hers. Having made the same observation seconds before, Julian had an amused smile waiting.

He was a surgeon, in town from Philadelphia for a seminar at Johns Hopkins, and he had a quiet strength. That strength had been sorely tested in the last four years and yet, seeing him in the doorway of the study, she still felt the pull. He wasn’t a tall man, but his bearing had always been regal. It was no less so now, though regular workouts helped with that. His hair had grayed in the last year or two, but even after a full day at the hospital, he was a good- looking forty- six. Tired, always tired now. But good-looking.

Wearing a smile, he approached. “Doing a write- up of last night?” he asked. They had eaten at a new restaurant with friends, a working night out for Nicole, who had insisted that everyone order different dishes and evaluate each while she took notes.

By the time she shook her head no, he was facing her with a hip on the desk by the keyboard. “The cookbook, then,” he said as his smile grew knowing. “You always get that look when you think of Quinnipeague.”

“Peaceful?” she acknowledged. “It’s April. Two more months, and we’re there. You’re still coming with me, aren’t you?”

“I told you I would.”

“Willingly? It’s an escape, Jules,” she urged, momentarily serious.

“It may be only for a week, but we need this.” She recaptured lighter thoughts. “Remember the first time you ever came? Tell the truth. You were dreading it.”

His brown eyes laughed warmly. “What wasn’t to dread? A godforsaken island in the middle of the Atlantic—”

“It’s only eleven miles out.”

“Same difference. If it didn’t have a hospital, it wasn’t on my radar screen.”

“You thought there’d be dirt roads and nothing to do.”

He gave a wry chuckle. Between lobstering, clamming, and sailing, then movie nights at the church and mornings at the café, not to mention dinners at home, in town, or at the homes of friends, Nicole had kept him busy.

“You loved it,” she dared.

“I did,” he admitted. “It was perfect. A world away.” His eyes saddened.

“And yes, baby, we need this.” Taking her face in his hands, he kissed her, but there was sadness in that, too. Hoping to banish it for a few more seconds— especially in the wake of the baby that always turned her on— she was reaching up when he took her hands, pressed them to his lips, then smoothly slid behind her. With his arms braced on either side, cheek to her hair, he read the words on the screen.

“Ahh,” he said with a sigh. “Charlotte.”

“Yes. I really want her on board.”

He angled away only enough to meet her eyes. “You don’t need her,

Nicki. You can do the cookbook yourself.”

“I know that,” she said as she had more than once. “But she’s an accomplished writer, and she has a history on Quinnipeague, too. Add her people pieces to my food ones, and the book’s that much better.”

“She hasn’t stepped foot on the island in ten years,” he said in the measured way that spoke of knowledge. Oh, he was knowledgeable— a pioneer in his field, always savvy on a personal vein.

But Nicole wasn’t deterred. “How better to lure her back? Besides, if you’re gone after a week, and Mom won’t be there, I want Charlotte.” He was quiet. Nicole heard the argument even before he said, “She hasn’t been the best friend. She called your dad her surrogate father, but she didn’t even make it to the funeral.”

“She was in Nepal. She couldn’t possibly get back in time. She did call. She was as upset as we were.”

“Has she called again since?” he asked, though they both knew the answer to that.

“We e-mail.”

“Often? No. And you’re the one who initiates it. Her replies are short.”

“She’s busy.”

He touched her cheek. “You haven’t seen each other in ten years.

You have different lives now. If you want to lure her back to recapture what you once had, you may be in for a fall.”

“I miss her.” When his expression grew guarded, she insisted, “No, it is not about that. I promised you. I will not tell her.” She grew pleading.

“But it’s like all the stars are aligned, Jules. There’s the cookbook, and your being in North Carolina for the month, and Mom not wanting to go to Quinnipeague and needing someone to pack up the place— like I want to do it? That’ll be bad enough, but being alone there while you’re away? This is the last summer I’ll ever have at the house, and Charlotte is part of what that place means to me.”

He was quiet. “You don’t even know where she is.”

“No one does. She’s always on the go. That’s why I e-mail. She’ll get it wherever. And yes, she always answers.” He was right about the brevity of her replies, though. Charlotte never shared much of her life now.

And yet, from the first mention of this project, Nicole had pictured her taking part in it. Oh yes, Charlotte knew Quinnipeague. But she also knew Nicole, and Nicole needed to see her. She and Julian were going through a rough patch, tender moments like this one— once commonplace— now further between. A month at Duke training incoming doctors in the technique for which he was known would be a much- needed distraction for him. And for her? Charlotte could distract her. The memories were good; she and Nicole had always been in sync.

If there was any fun to be had this summer, Charlotte was her one great hope.

Julian tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear. His expression was aching— and Nicole might have reached for him again if he hadn’t cupped her head. “I just don’t want you hurt,” he said and kissed her forehead. Then he held her back. “Do you think she’ll accept?” Nicole smiled, confident in this at least. “Absolutely. I don’t care how much time has passed. She loves Quinnipeague. The temptation will be too great to resist.”

Sweet Salt Air
by by Barbara Delinsky

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250007038
  • ISBN-13: 9781250007032