Castle in the Sand

Castle in the Sand

Claire’s returned to Nonesuch, the beach house she shared with her friends…but she’s not alone. Past love finds her there even though she’s not looking. Malcolm want something Claire might not give him — a second chance.

Castle in the Sand was orginally published as Sand Castle

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Excerpt:

Some things change.

And some things don’t.

The key in Claire Munroe’s fingers slipped into the lock without effort, but though she had no trouble turning the key, the door itself wouldn’t open. She put her shoulder against the weathered, once-white painted wood and pushed. It still wouldn’t budge.

“C’mon, you bugger.”

Dale and Kevin, two of the eight who’d dubbed themselves “the Fellowship” during their college years, had found the door at a junkyard and brought it to Nonesuch because of its beautiful and amazingly still-intact stained glass window. Claire had never had difficulty with it before, but like everything else about the house, the door was worn and sometimes cranky.

Claire Munroe had been coming to Nonesuch for a long time. She’d done her share of cleaning and repairing. She’d given this unassuming beach house her share of sweat and toil, and yes, even her share of blood. She had the scars to prove it–there on the palm of her hand, where the splintered wood of the deck had once gouged her deep enough to leave a mark.

She tried again, the metal gone warm in her fingers. Almost hot. She took her hand away and shook it, blowing on her fingertips as though they’d been burned, though of course there was no way the key had heated that much no matter how hard she was pushing it.

She shaded her eyes and peered through the squares of blue and red to the cozy, familiar kitchen inside. Had someone arrived before her and somehow padlocked the door from the inside? She looked over the splintered balcony again. No other cars, and besides, it was her turn this year to open up the house.

Clouds blew across the sun, which should have been bright with the promise of summer, but instead was a pale, lifeless disc against a gray and unhappy looking sky. Some weather for June, she thought with a shudder that wracked her from her head to her toes. It was cold and looked like rain. They’d be lucky if they got any time at the beach at all. She removed the key, rubbed it on the sleeve of her cardigan, then slipped it back into the lock.

“C’mon, baby, open up for mama.”

The door opened with a creak and groan that made Claire smile and shake her head. “Sand in your joints? I know how you feel.”

Once inside, she hung her keys on the hook below her name and the laminated photo of her from ten years before. In all this time, they’d never changed the pictures. Claire paused in front of the purple-painted piece of molding one of them had hung so many years ago. Eight hooks. Eight photos. One for each of them.

She touched them all in turn. “The Fellowship.”

The name had begun as a joke in the dorm in which they’d all lived, but it had lasted through four years of college and ten years of friendship since. They’d been together through final exams, frat parties, panty raids, job interviews, marriages and births. Dale, Tracey, Kevin, Lisa, Joe, Alisha, Claire…and finally, the last face…Malcolm.

The smile left her lips and Claire turned away from that last picture. She didn’t want to think about Malcolm. If he even bothered to show up this year, she’d do what she always did. Let her eyes slide past him. Pass him the salt at the dinner table and make certain their fingers never touched. She’d had years of experience ignoring Malcolm McGregor. She’d get by. She always did.

The thought sent another chill skittering down her spine, and she rubbed her hands briskly along her arms. It was too cold for June. Claire rubbed her hands together to warm them. She realized she was gritting her teeth at the memory of his face, and she forced herself to relax.

Stop stressing about him. He’s not worth this much effort. Don’t even spare another second’s thought.

She looked around the kitchen where she’d spent most of her vacations for the past ten years. Nonesuch wasn’t one of the big fancy beach houses tourists shelled out exorbitant amounts of money to rent during the summer. If it had been, not even the Fellowship teaming up together financially could have afforded to buy it.

The house had been, and always would be, slightly ramshackle, no matter how much time and money they put into it. It was two stories, set on stilts, with multiple decks and balconies, a screened porch and a modest, cozy kitchen. They’d turned the top floor, originally only an attic space, into a sleeping area. They’d also redone the dining room and an old laundry room as well to give Nonesuch five bedrooms.

The single, narrow bathroom boasted a leaky shower and a toilet with a pull-chain. There was rarely enough hot water for everyone to shower with, and the only air conditioning came from the open windows, while an ancient, cranky gas stove provided a modicum of warmth in the rare winter months they visited.

Claire loved it. Not to live in all the time, of course, since she did like her creature comforts. But for the week every year they all came together, and for occasional weekends, Nonesuch was perfect.

Sleeping space was awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, and there was never a question about which room Claire chose. She climbed the steep, narrow stairs, which opened directly into the attic space. The sloping roof made walking a hazard, unless you kept to the middle of the room. A double bed and matching dresser took up most of the space, while a smaller single bed had been tucked away beneath the eaves. A rag rug Claire had found in town gave a splash of color to the bare wooden floor.

There was nothing extravagant about this room, just as there was nothing luxurious about the rest of the house, but it was Claire’s favorite for one reason. The view. Two windows, one on each end, let in bright light and gave a view of the sea from one and the small stand of evergreen trees on the other.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean, she went to the bed and knelt on it to peer out the window. Claire frowned, then ran her finger along the glass. It came away black with dust. She wrinkled her nose. No wonder the room had seemed so dim. She looked down at the bed’s comforter. She remembered it as being a wildly colored patchwork quilt of vivid reds and blues. Now the red looked more like pink, and the blue had faded so much it was nearly white. She blinked, then looked again. Had someone changed the cover? The pattern looked the same, but the colors…the colors just didn’t seem right.

Claire got up and looked down at the rug. She had bought it in a local artisan’s shop four years ago, loving the splashes of color and texture, but not quite willing to have such a crazy piece in her apartment. It had been perfect for the attic room. Now, the colors she recalled as being so vibrant and clashing looked muted. Pale. She bent and touched the twists of rag. It was the same rug…wasn’t it?

Disturbed, she got to her feet and looked around. The sea air destroyed everything, slowly but inexorably. Things faded. The constant grit of sand underfoot had worn the linoleum in the kitchen downstairs to the wood beneath. Maybe it had worn the rug, too.

With a shrug, she put the rug and the coverlet out of her mind. She’d clean the windows and put fresh linens on the bed. Maybe she’d buy a new rug again this year.

Feeling better, Claire went back downstairs to the kitchen. A dark shape stood silhouetted in the doorway and she let out a cry. Her heart flew into her throat and she stumbled back.

The man stepped toward her. Instant recognition swept over her, and embarrassment flooded her. “You scared the life out of me!”

“Hello, Claire. I wasn’t certain you’d be here.”

He pronounced it “sair-tin,” in the faint lilt of a Scottish burr that hadn’t faded though he’d spent nearly twenty years in the United States.

“The list goes around in December.”

Tracey, the most organized of them, had been in charge of the duty roster since the Fellowship had bought the house. Every year, she sent around a list of whose turn it was to open the house and make it ready for their shared week. Whose responsibility it was to shut it up at the end of the season. Who was in charge of contacting the local realty company that handled the rentals during the times none of them were using the house. The list changed from year to year, so everyone had a turn.

Claire crossed her arms over her chest. “You knew it was my turn to open up. I just…I just didn’t realize it was yours…

His hair was tousled and damp. His white T-shirt clung to him, and his jeans were dark with wet. The sudden flash of lightning and the patter of rain told her why. He bent and pulled a brightly colored beach towel out of a mesh bag at his feet and used it to scrub his hair toward dryness.

“It’s not. Dale had to work this weekend and couldn’t get off until later in the week. So I came in his place. I wanted to get in a swim before dark. The storm caught me.”

Claire and Malcolm hadn’t shared house-opening duties since…before. She chewed on her lip for a moment. Surrounded by their friends, with laughter and companionship to cushion the distance between them, she’d always been able to ignore him. Now, without anyone else around… Claire lifted her chin. She’d be fine. In a few days, the others would be here. Surely she could stand to be alone with Malcolm for two days. Three at the most.

What’s the worst that could happen in three days?

“I know you’re surprised to see me. And not pleasantly.” He finished with his towel and hung it on the back of a chair, then stepped closer to her.

Claire caught a whiff of salt and sand. The scent filled her head and made it spin. She took a deep breath and kept her expression carefully blank.

He moved closer still until he stood directly in front of her. His feet were bare. He’d cuffed his jeans. Her eyes traveled the height of a body she’d once known as well as her own, and she finally looked at his face

He’d changed the least of them over the years. He still had the same rounded, boyish features and thin-lipped mouth that could quirk into a playboy’s smile in an instant. His hair was still the color of wet sand. His eyes remained the color of the sea, sometimes green or gray or blue…or a mixture of all three.

Malcolm tilted his head. “I wasn’t sure you’d see me.”

How could she have ever thought she’d be able to ignore him? Claire backed away until she hit the edge of the counter. “Of course I see you. This is the only place we ever see each other.” Anymore. It hadn’t always been that way…

He nodded. “I always see you here. But, Claire, you never see me.”

Claire’s jaw clenched, and she forced herself to relax. “Don’t be silly.”

He came closer and lifted a hand, as though unable to help himself. He touched the length of her hair, which had come loose from its ponytail and now draped over her shoulder. His fingers caught in the strands, tangled, tugged.

Claire jerked away from his touch, then stalked past him toward the tiny living room. Her heart pounded so hard in her chest she thought it was going to leap right out of her skin. Her head spun. Chills ran up and down her spine, rapidly, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. She took in a breath, then another, but couldn’t seem to fill her lungs. She was going to faint. What was wrong with her?

She shook her head furiously, like a dog shaking off water, and bit her tongue. Sharp pain gave her focus. Her knees still shook, a little, but she straightened them along with her back.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Malcolm said from behind her. “Claire, believe me, I didn’t.”

Her voice came out harsher than she meant it to. “No. You never mean it, do you? Is that supposed to make it any better?”

She glared at him over her shoulder. He scrubbed at his face, then ran his hand through his hair. His accent thickened, and Claire remembered how the way he’d pronounced his words had once made her stomach tumble.

“Maybe…no. But it’s all I can give you.”

Fury ignited in her. She’d spent years being pleasant to this man, when the very sight of him had made her want to scream. She’d taken pride in never allowing him to get under her skin, in being the better person, in not succumbing to the waves of anger and grief that could have ruined every summer. Now, with nothing more than a few words, he’d broken her. She hated him for that, and hated herself for allowing him to do it.

“It’s not enough!” The words dropped from her lips like toads in a fairy tale curse, and she regretted them instantly for again having given away too much of herself.

He shrugged, then held up his hands. Silent in the face of her fury. But then, what could he really have to say?

Claire shivered. Her feet and fingers were numb, icy despite the anger that should have brought heat to her cheeks. “It’s been eight years. In all that time, I haven’t ever raised my voice to you. I’ve never made it hard for us all to get together here–”

“You’ve never raised your voice because you don’t talk to me!” He moved toward her again, but this time, Claire stood her ground. “I’d take your anger if it meant you spoke to me, not around me! But you don’t even look at me, Claire. You don’t see me, and you haven’t in eight years!”

“It’s easier that way!” Her throat threatened to close on the words, but she forced them out. “Damn it, how do you think it is for me to spend a week every summer in this house with you? Sure, I could stomp and scream and gnash my teeth, but to what purpose? There are six other people who come to this house. Six other people I consider my very dearest friends. People I love, and who love me–”

“And who love me, too,” he put in quietly.

“And who love you, too,” Claire replied. “And because they love you, and they love me, I never wanted to make it hard for them. I never wanted to let what happened between us turn everything sour. I didn’t want to ruin Nonesuch for everyone just because…just because it had been ruined for me.”

Then, to her horror, tears slid in burning lines down her cheeks. A sob tore from her throat. Claire’s hands flew to her mouth, startled, to hold back the cry, but only managed to muffle it.

“Damn you!” she croaked. “Damn you to hell and back again!”

“Believe me,” Malcolm told her. “I swear I’ve been there already.”

Nausea swam up from her gut and she coughed. She pushed past him to the kitchen, where she ran the water cold and splashed her face, though she was already freezing. She felt him watching her, but he wasn’t speaking, thank God. She wiped her hands, took a deep breath, and turned to face him. “I should just go.”

“No!” The vehemence in his words made her lean back against the counter. He softened and held out his hands as though to placate her. “No, please. Don’t go. I’ve waited a long time for this.”

“For what?” Claire gave a derisive laugh. Her damp hair tickled her cheeks, and she swept it away with a fierce hand.

Malcolm sighed. “It’s been eight years, Claire. Do you no think…do you no ever think you could possibly forgive me?”

She laughed again. For the first time in a while, the hunger for a cigarette picked at her. She swung toward the cupboard and pulled out a box of peanut brittle instead. She’d stashed the box, still sealed in its plastic wrapper, in case of just such a craving. Her fingers worked at the slippery plastic, which denied and defeated her every effort at tearing it. She tried again to wedge a fingernail beneath the corner, but failed.

“Here. Let me.” Gently, he took the box from her and slit open the plastic by running his nail along the box’s opening. He held out the box to her, and Claire took it. She put it on the counter, suddenly having lost her appetite for the candy.

“It’s been eight years,” she said at last. “Why don’t you just let it go?”

“Me?”

His face transformed when he laughed. How could she have forgotten that? The way his mouth curled and his eyes crinkled?

“Me let it go? I’d have let it go years ago, Claire. You’re the one who’s been hanging on.”

“Yes, you would’ve let it go, wouldn’t you? It was easy for you to do that.” She sniffed and turned her head, not willing to look again at his easy, charming smile.

“No. It wasn’t easy for me to do it. It was never easy.”

She replied in a voice pitched deliberately low, wanting to make him work to hear her. “Fine. You want me to forgive you? Forget about it? Fine. I’m over it. I’m over you.”

“I’m sorry!” His anguished cry made her look up from her study of the worn linoleum. “If I could take it all back, I would! I swear to God I would! I was just a stupid kid, Claire! I didn’t know–”

“Then take it all back!” Now she advanced on him, her fists clenched at her sides. More chills ran over her. Her teeth snapped together, and she had to force the words through their clatter. “Make it all go away! Make it so you never kissed me that first time. Take back the first time we made love. Take back the way you told me you loved me! Take it all back!”

He said nothing.

“And while you’re at it–” Now she spat the words that had lain in her heart for so long, festering, spat them like they tasted bad, because they did. They tasted like bile. Like venom. “Take back the night you came here, to our place, and fucked that slut on the beach then lied to my face about it not even two hours later. When I could still smell her on you, you lying, cheating son-of-a-bitch.”

She breathed deep, took in the scent of sea and sand, and of him. The smells washed over her. Relentless. Claire struggled for control of her tears…and lost. She closed her eyes and they still slipped out. “But you can’t! Don’t you know there’s no such thing as a second chance? You can’t take it back.”

“I wish I could.”

Her eyes flew open. “So do I.”

The house rocked as though a giant fist had thumped it. Claire staggered. Malcolm’s hands held her upright. Kept her safe.

“What the hell?” he cried, just as another thump came.

This one was louder and stronger. It rattled the windows and the glasses in the cupboard. A third rumble rocked the old house on its stilt foundation. The key holder fell off the wall and split apart on the floor.

Claire realized she was in Malcolm’s arms after a moment of silence. “What was that?”

He bent and lifted the broken key holder. “Look.”

Six of the eight pictures had scattered in the fall. Only two remained, face up, side by side, untouched. Claire and Malcolm.

Malcolm picked up their photos and put them on the table. His eyes, gray-green at the moment and open wide, met hers. He reached for her hands and she let him take them. “Not an earthquake.”

Airth-quake. Her stomach tumbled the way it used to. “No.”

“Something else.”

She nodded then looked to the kitchen ceiling, where the overhead light still swung to and fro. “Something…odd.”

He didn’t seem as frightened by the strange occurrence as she might have guessed he would. But then, strangely enough, neither did she. The noise and the vibration had been fierce and unexpected. Definitely out of the ordinary.

A sensation, not quite pain, throbbed in her temple. Claire rubbed the spot. Something was different. Something had changed.

She looked again at the man who had broken her heart so long ago, and this time, the sight of him did not make her want to scream. She’d kept her anger and grief close to her for a long time, but now she felt it slipping away from her like a handful of dry sand. He pulled her close. His breath fluttered on her cheeks. She turned her head, but could not find the desire to push him away.

Oh, it had been too long. Too many years without him. Why had she run away? Once, what had happened that day had seemed so important. It had seemed like the end, a tragedy from which there could be no return. And now, with his hands making her warm at last, Claire discovered she could barely remember that day at all.

“Maybe,” Claire said slowly, “I do believe in second chances after all.”