He hadn’t expected Ash that Saturday morning, hurrying down the weathered wooden pier in her rope-soled wedges and skinny jeans, a slouchy silk sweater slipping down to reveal one perfect shoulder. He hadn’t expected the way his stomach seized and his throat constricted at the sight of her blunt-cut brown hair, swinging glossily just below her chin, or the stab of pain when her eyes slid past him and widened happily at the sight of Matt on the main deck. It was Matt she waved to, not him; Matt who took control, leaping to the stern to extend a hand for Ashley’s canvas tote and her rolling overnight bag.
“Welcome aboard,” Matt said, teeth flashing in his tanned face. It might have been a beer commercial, the gorgeous girl stepping onto the three-million-dollar yacht and into the arms of the hunk with money to burn. In a second, the guitars would crash and the camera would switch to the pair of them high in a hot-air balloon, fingers hooked around longnecks. Or a rave on a tropic beach under the stars, both of them barefoot in the sand.
—While he stood paralyzed, the third wheel, his mind racing in search of a way out. Staring dumbly at Ash, the unforeseen complication. Which is what she’d always been.
“I thought you had to work today,” he attempted. “I thought you were on the weekend schedule.”
“Jen offered to cover,” she said simply, and turned to grin at Matt. “What fool would pass up an invitation like this?”
“This” being Shytown, a Hatteras M75 Panacera, complete with an elegant main cabin seating area, state-of-the-art galley, and a lower deck fitted with staterooms for eight. Which he and Matt intended to power up the coast from its Long Island slip to Martha’s Vineyard and then Provincetown over the next week, stopping at Block Island along the way.
He watched Ashley drop her canvas bag on the stern lounge and hug Matt. Matt’s hands skimmed her hips. A halo of midafternoon sun seemed to bind them, the kind of light that always blurred his vision when Ash appeared.
Could this get any worse?
“Somebody needs a drink.” Matt was smiling into Ash’s eyes as though she hadn’t screwed up their plans entirely. Had he invited her knowing she was scheduled to work, and assumed she’d say no? Or had he been drunk when he asked?
“Follow me.” Matt grabbed Ash’s suitcase and ducked down the gangway that led to the lower deck. “We’ll stow your stuff in the aft stateroom. It’s the largest.”
Matt’s stateroom, of course. Would he be moving to a guest cabin? Unclear. He’d probably wait and see how the day went. How easily the steaks and lobster tails sizzling on the Weber grill, the endless vault of stars overhead and the reggae on Shytown’s expensive sound system, persuaded Ashley to share her mattress.
Cursing under his breath, he moved forward to the bow and began to loosen the mooring hitch, glancing as he did so at the horizon. Clear as glass. The swells were gentle. A slight breeze caressed his cheek. Unbelievably gorgeous weather, in fact, for late September. Matt always expected him to plot their course well in advance for these runs, building in options for alternative stops and routes, which meant studying not only charts and GPS but checking the NOAA weather forecasts, and calculating what all of it might mean for Shytown’s schedule over the next several days.
Because Matt trusted him like blood.
He’d earned that trust over the past year. And he’d done his homework for the coming week. Then he’d carefully arranged his lies.
“Hey, man!” Matt yelled from the flybridge. “We good?”
“Aye, aye,” he called back, coiling the mooring line on the deck cleat. The twin diesel engines purred to life. In a matter of seconds, Shytown slid cleanly out of the marina slip and headed for the channel.
Ashley joined him, a salt-rimmed margarita glass in her hand. “Want one? There’s a whole pitcher.”
“Not when I’m crewing, Ash.”
She pecked him on the cheek. “You’re so responsible. This boat is fabulous. Like something out of a movie.”
“Indeed it is,” he agreed.
And promised himself he’d keep her alive.
Dionis Mather pulled the hood of her oil-stained gray sweatshirt over her tousled black ponytail. The wind was rising off Madaket Harbor and the temperature falling as five o’clock closed in. Gooseflesh rose on her bare calves. She huddled on the seat of her beat-up fiberglass work skiff and vigorously rubbed the chilled skin her cutoffs had left exposed.
It had been sunny and hot during the multiple runs she’d made that day to Tuckernuck, the small island trailing like an afterthought off the western end of Nantucket Island. She’d rejoiced in the wind and salt spray that ripped past the gunwales of the boat, because it felt like summer on the water—without the dense traffic of Summer People. There was all the bliss of the deep emerald sea arrowing from the bow and the curve of Nantucket’s western shoreline, the throttle under her palm and the narrow black band of Tuckernuck coming up on the horizon. Not another craft in sight. Until the clouds rolled in, Dionis had been happy.
She and her dad, Jack Mather, ran a family business that kept them plying the waters between the two islands for at least six months each year. Tuckernuck was a private place off the electrical and cyber grid. There were no paved roads, no market, no bar or restaurant, not even a beachside kiosk selling coffee. No clam shack, no gas station, no place to buy suntan lotion or a boxed lunch or rent a beach chair—and only a handful of ancient cars with their noses tipped into the dunes. Cell phone coverage was sporadic, and internet nonexistent. What Tuckernuck did offer was roughly 900 acres of gloriously pristine beaches, ocean views, and moorland, privately owned by the families who’d built its houses. Some of those houses were brand new, and some of them were centuries old. None of the folks who’d inherited Tuck’s isolation and privilege lived on the island past mid-October, and only a few owned boats for independence.
The rest relied on Dionis and Jack Mather—Tuckernuck caretakers—for almost everything they needed to survive: deliveries of milk, fresh produce, and bread. Packages from the Nantucket post office; toilet paper and kerosene for storm lamps; lawn mowers, for those indulgent enough to lay sod in front of their ancient saltboxes; sod brought over on the Mathers’ construction barge. Batteries; cases of wine, vodka, and beer; bottled water. Steak. Salad dressing. Playing cards. Roof shingles, and panes of glass for replacing broken windows. I-beams and insulation for new additions. Dog food and trash bags. Solar panels, for those who disdain propane generators. Propane, for those who mistrust solar. Down comforters. Citronella candles and insect repellant. Outdoor table umbrellas and rose secateurs. Guests and their baggage—both physical and spiritual—delivered by golf cart from the Tuckernuck Lagoon’s dock. Sometimes the Mathers even ferried medical technicians from Nantucket, to evacuate the sick to Cottage Hospital.
Today, on a Sunday at the tail end of September, only a few of Tuckernuck’s houses were still inhabited. Dionis and Jack had been doing mostly end-of-season maintenance runs. Pulling garbage. Tidying flower beds. Draining the plumbing systems of the houses already vacated for the winter, so that pipes did not freeze and burst. Easy work, in Dionis’s estimation, after the craziness of July and August.
But now she was cold and the transient happiness of sun on water had fled from her veins. Her muscles were sore. She wanted a beer. And her father was late picking her up at Jackson Point.
The sound of a truck engine drew her head around. Dionis rose to her feet, following the battered Dodge Ram with narrowed eyes as it lurched past the entrance to the Jackson Point lot and came further on, swaying to a halt at the boat landing’s edge.
Her father jumped out, leaving the driver’s side door open. “Hey,” he said. “Let me give you a hand.”
She was already lifting some of the knotted plastic bags of garbage from the belly of the work skiff, swinging them toward Jack, who grunted as he hoisted them into his truck’s flatbed. A week’s worth of trash—some of it the unholy detritus that surfaced at the end of the season—had to be delivered to Nantucket’s public waste and recycling center. The bags were already sorted and separated by garbage type: compost, landfill, plastic, and glass. This was the third load Dionis had brought across Madaket Harbor today.
“Temperature’s dropped,” she observed.
Jack scanned the sea, noting the freshening chop. Crow’s feet tightened at the corners of his faded blue eyes. “Nor’easter in the forecast.”
“You’re kidding.” Dionis frowned. “It’s way too early in the season, Dad.”
“Climate change.” Her father shrugged. “Sea’s getting warmer, weather’s getting weirder. Seasons don’t mean anything now, you know that.”
She hoisted the last bag of trash and glanced over her shoulder, toward the town of Nantucket some six miles to the east. Its gray-shingled landscape was impossible to pick out beyond the clutter of new buildings on the Madaket shoreline. But the sky was still relatively clear in that direction.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said skeptically.
“You do that.” Jack grinned at her. “Nothing’s like it used to be. Remember the polar vortex?”
Involuntarily, Dionis shivered. The previous winter had been brutal. Madaket Harbor froze solid between Jackson Point and Tuckernuck, the ice wave reaching so far inland on the Nantucket shore it had swamped the thresholds of houses. It was true; everything seemed more volatile these days, more extreme. But nor’easters usually didn’t hit until well into fall.
“They say there’s a chance this one misses us,” her father added as she joined him in the cab of the truck.
“Let’s put the table between the sofa and the windows,” Meredith Folger suggested, her hands on her hips. One long strand of blonde hair had escaped from its clip and was grazing her chin in a way Peter Mason was tempted to fix, but her green gaze was focused on the bare floor and her lips were set in a firm line. She screamed efficiency and purpose. He knew better than to trifle with either.
Peter surveyed the half-empty living room of the two-hundred-year-old captain’s house. He and Merry were readying themselves for an onslaught of wedding guests. There were nearly a hundred expected in the house Saturday for the reception after the ceremony in the Congregational church, but Peter’s family arrived Thursday and would expect food and beds in the ancestral Mason home. Merry wanted it to feel welcoming. She had already banished a pair of heavy Victorian upholstered rockers and a matching love seat—all of them hideous and uncomfortable, but tolerated by habit—to the attic. As neither Peter nor Merry actually lived in the white clapboard mansion on Cliff Road, and both worked full time, he as a farmer and she as a police detective, they had crammed their weekend with far too much lifting.
“You mean, the dining room table?” Peter had hidden under the mahogany Chippendale as a boy, the sunburned legs of various adults a sprawling stockade that protected him from the world. The difference between the table’s scarred and cracked underside and its glowing surface was an early lesson: things were more complicated than they looked, and rewarded inspection.
“The oak trestle table from the hallway,” Merry corrected patiently. “It’ll work for family dinners in here, in front of the fire.”
“We’re using the dining room on Saturday, though, right?”
“Just for cocktails. A small-plates buffet. Tess is serving the sit-down dinner outside. The tent people start setting up their poles tomorrow.”
Tess da Silva was one of their dearest friends, a restaurant owner recruited to cater the reception. The tent people were coming because Peter’s sister, Georgiana, had convinced Merry to lay down a dance floor and to cover the rear garden with billowing acres of draped canvas. The tent would block half the house’s spectacular view of the granite jetties sweeping into Nantucket Sound, but weather was too variable on the island in late September to risk an unprotected party.
“Once your sister gets here Thursday, we need a place where everyone can gather. The kitchen’s too small.”
She was right, of course—Georgiana was bringing her husband and four kids. The kitchen was an old-fashioned galley, long overdue for a complete renovation—if any of the Masons ever decided to inhabit the house full-time. For all its history and grandeur, the Cliff Road place was used solely for a few weeks each July and August, the family’s real lives being led elsewhere. Only Peter had made Nantucket his permanent home—and he lived miles outside of town at Mason Farms, surrounded by the shifting beauty of the moors and his cranberry bogs, his sheep and the transient cloudscapes that swept over the island.
“This room will feel more casual if we eat in here—more welcoming,” Merry persisted. “We can use the side chairs from the kitchen and those matching ones at the ends.”
She gestured toward a pair of faded, sea blue wing chairs positioned on either side of the hearth. Peter could not remember ever sitting in them. But he could see a shadow of his dead father now in the one on the left, grasping the arms like a throne.
The two of them lifted books, pewter candlesticks, crystal hurricane lanterns, and a decorative porcelain flower bowl from the oak trestle in the hall, piling them willy-nilly on some Windsor chairs. Then they hoisted the table and carried it carefully into the airy living room.
“Right here,” Merry ordered. “Ranged along the front windows. Leave enough space on each side for all of us to squeeze in.”
Peter obliged, then stood back and surveyed the effect. The windows were draped in fern-colored silk. Two worn linen sofas, liberally strewn with squishy needlepoint pillows worked by generations of Mason women, flanked the large open fireplace. Woven mohair throws from Nantucket Looms lay folded on their rounded arms. The trestle table sat perpendicular to these, exposed to the warmth of a log fire and anyone casually grouped around it. The previous summer, Georgiana had swapped out the frayed Chinese carpets that some forgotten Mason whaling captain had brought back from a Pacific voyage for a thick rectangle of woven sisal. The heavy mat would absorb salt air, sand, and sound.
Merry unfurled an embroidered linen runner down the length of the table and set the hurricanes and the porcelain bowl in its center. “A few dahlias from the garden, and we’re good.”
“The room feels less fussy,” Peter admitted. “I might actually like being in here.”
It was, he supposed, a metaphor for his life. Once he’d met Meredith a few years before, all that was rigid in his mind and soul had gradually relaxed into something far healthier. Almost, but not quite, as effortlessly as moving the table—it began, he thought, with seeing his space differently. As mutable rather than fixed. Open to change, instead of resistant to it.
“Your mother will hate how I’ve messed with her house,” Merry said.
“Yes, she will.” He reached out and pulled her into the crook of his shoulder, where her head briefly rested. Julia Mason stood for all that was most constricting and suffocating in Peter’s life. She was sarcastic, unrelenting in her criticism, and convinced that by choosing Merry, her son was marrying beneath him. She once used the archaic term mésalliance, and when Peter exploded, shrugged that Merry would never understand the word anyway. His mother’s impending arrival to the island was tiresome but necessary; Peter refused to let it ruin his happiness. He had allowed Julia to ruin too many things in the past.
“Will it be a problem?” Merry asked. “If your mom’s annoyed?”
“Not for me.” He touched her forehead, smoothing away a pucker of concern with one fingertip. Merry was looking tired. She had to work a full shift starting at 6 a.m. the next morning. At this rate, she’d be exhausted by Saturday. She was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Do you know that I can’t wait to marry you?” he asked.
Merry kissed him, and moved without another word to gather up the books they’d piled on the hallway chairs.
From Death on Tuckernuck by Francine Mathews. Used with the permission of the publisher, Soho. Copyright © 2020 by Francine Mathews.