A Peaceful Coastal Town…Threatened by a Storm of Secrets
It’s 1916 when newspaper woman Anna McDowell learns her estranged father has suffered a stroke. Deciding it’s time to repair bridges, Anna packs up her precocious adolescent daughter and heads for her hometown in Sunset Cove, Oregon.
Although much has changed since the turn of the century, some things haven t. Anna finds the staff of her father s paper not exactly eager to welcome a woman into the editor-in-chief role, but her father insists he wants her at the helm. Anna is quickly pulled into the charming town and her new position…but just as quickly learns this seaside getaway harbors some dark and dangerous secrets.
Early June 1916
Anna McDowell hadn’t been home since the previous century. In fact, she’d never planned to return to Sunset Cove at all. Not until she received the telegram last week regarding her father’s serious condition. But now that she and her daughter were almost there, Anna had serious misgivings. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to change her mind. They could get off at the next station, catch the northbound train back to Portland, and forget all about Sunset Cove and Mac McDowell.
It wouldn’t be easy to swallow her pride and beg for her job back, but that was what came from burning one’s bridges prematurely. Anna should’ve known better. Still, there’d been some satisfaction in telling her stodgy old boss what she really thought of him and his prehistoric attitude toward women journalists, even getting him to admit he’d never heard of Nellie Bly.
“Why are you scowling like that?” Katy asked as the train slowed down for a station.
Anna looked out to see the Dalton Springs sign. Their final destination was less than twenty minutes away now. “Scowling?” Anna forced a smile for her sixteen-year-old daughter, watching as an elderly couple made their way through the coach car.
Katy’s forehead creased, obviously mimicking her mother’s. “Yes, scowling. You were jazzed about this trip, Mother. You said you missed Sunset Cove.”
“That’s true.” Anna nervously tugged at a kidskin glove. “Mostly true.”
“Really, Mother, I’m the one who should be steamed. I had to leave my friends and the city behind—for the whole summer!”
“Oh, Katy, you should embrace this as a great, new adventure.” Anna reached over to tuck an escaped curl back under Katy’s wide-brimmed straw hat. This was just one more piece of the McDowell legacy—wild, untamable auburn curls. Anna’s father had passed them down to Anna. And then poor Katy, who longed for sleek, bobbed black hair, had been similarly “blessed.”
“Visiting a rinky-dink town on the Oregon Coast does not sound like a great, new adventure to me.” Katy’s lower lip jutted out. “It sounds more like a great big mistake—and not at all like I’d planned to spend my summer.”
“Sometimes life requires more of us.” Anna feigned confidence as the train’s brakes hissed and it slowly chugged out of the station. “My father may be dying, Katy. We have been estranged for too long and—”
“I know, I know.” Katy waved an impatient hand. “Your father is a tyrant who never forgave you for marrying when you were only seventeen. You’ve told me all this before. If you ask me, the old bully deserves to be estranged. I don’t see why you’d want to go back…to that.”
Anna pondered her daughter’s words as she gazed out the window, watching as green trees, a bubbling creek, occasional farms, and milk cows passed by in a blur. Before long they would catch a whiff of sea air…and then Sunset Cove would appear. Little had changed in the past seventeen years. Well, except for her. She turned to look at her daughter. “I didn’t tell you everything, Katy….”
“What do you mean?” Katy’s brown eyes widened with interest.
Anna pursed her lips. This was a story she’d planned on telling her daughter eventually…in adulthood. Katy was only sixteen but already proving herself to be a strong and capable young woman. And, to be fair, Anna had only been a year older than Katy when this story began.
“What is it, Mother?” Katy’s countenance softened. “Please tell me.”
Anna estimated she had about fifteen minutes to get this story out, and so she jumped in. “As you know, I met your father when he was a traveling salesman. Darrell passed through Sunset Cove in late 1899. He seemed like such a modern man, so full of exciting dreams and fresh ideas… Well, I was only seventeen and I got rather swept away by all of it.”
“And he was very handsome,” Katy added. “I’ve seen your wedding photograph. You made a striking couple.”
“Yes. Your father was extremely handsome. And I was extremely naïve. Oh, I thought I was rather grown-up at the time, but looking back, well, I see it differently.”
“So you got married and moved to the city and—”
“Hold on, Katy. I’m the one telling the story. The part you haven’t heard is that your grandfather took an instant disliking to Darrell. For some reason, Mac completely disapproved of my beau.”
“Who in the world is Mac?”
“Mac is my father.”
“You called your father by his first name?”
“Well, I got into the habit while working at the newspaper. Everyone called him Mac. It just made life simpler. And he didn’t mind.”
“Oh, I see. So Mac didn’t like Darrell. Why not?”
“To be honest, I didn’t really know why at the time. But Mac was convinced that Darrell was, well, a bit of a scallywag.” That was an understatement, for sure, but Anna wanted to respect that she was talking about Katy’s father…and it was unkind to speak ill of the dead. Still, she wanted to be as truthful as possible. Katy deserved honesty.
“Was he a scallywag?” Katy’s head tipped to one side.
Anna sighed. “I’m afraid he was. Oh, Darrell had a sweet, endearing side to him too. He was well spoken and intelligent. Truly, most people were quite taken with him, and he was a persuasive salesman. My goodness, that man could charm the stripes off a snake. But, truth be told, he had a very dark side as well.”
“How so?” Her brow creased.
“It was fueled by his fondness of drink. Of course, this was well before Oregon outlawed alcohol last year.” Anna weighed her words, trying to decide how much to say. “What you don’t know, Katy, but what you may find out someday…is that your father got involved in some serious legal problems. He was arrested for fraud. And when he passed away, back when you were still a baby, he was incarcerated.”
Katy looked genuinely shocked.
Anna reached for her hand and clasped it in her own. “I never planned to tell you this…not until you were grown-up. I didn’t want you to think your father’s mistakes were any sort of reflection on you. In many ways, your father was a fine man.”
“But…but he was a criminal?” Katy’s voice had a slight tremor.
“He got caught up in some criminal schemes. He wanted to get rich quickly…he lacked discernment, Katy. And it backfired on him.”
“Did you know he was like that, Mother? When you married him, did you know?”
“No, no, not at all. As they say, love is blind. I certainly was. I thought Darrell Devlin was my Prince Charming. It seemed he’d come to rescue me from the tiny town that I felt certain I’d outgrown. But somehow your grandfather saw right through Darrell. I’m not even sure how, but he did. Unfortunately, I refused to listen to Mac.” Anna smiled sadly. “And yet, I’m glad that I didn’t. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have you, darling. That makes up for everything.”
Katy looked confused. “You just said my father’s name was Darrell Devlin.But our last name is McDowell.”
“After your father was sentenced to prison, I returned to my maiden name. I had it legally changed for both of us. It seemed the prudent thing to do at the time…to separate ourselves from a name associated with crime. I felt we needed a fresh start.”
Katy’s eyes grew misty. “I don’t know what to say, Mother. I feel like my whole life has been a complete lie.” She pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket.
“No, it hasn’t been a lie, Katy. It’s just that I didn’t think you were ready to know the whole truth before. If we weren’t going to see your grandfather now, I probably wouldn’t have told you today. I realize how shocking it must be. I’m sorry.”
“So is that why you never went back to see your father? Because of—”
“My father was a stubborn man. He told me he would disown me if I married Darrell. I said a few things too…things I’ve come to regret. But Darrell and I ignored Mac’s warning. We snuck away in the middle of the night and eloped. Then when it turned out that my father was right, I was too proud—and like him, too stubborn—to go home and admit failure. It grew even harder as the years passed by.”
“Does your father even know about me?”
“I haven’t spoken to him since I was seventeen, Katy. Not since I left.”
“How did he know how to reach you?”
“It was his doctor who actually sent the telegram.” Knowing they were now just minutes from Sunset Cove, Anna quickly explained how her father ran the Sunset Times. “As a newsman, he’d always read the Oregonian. I suspect he observed my byline…and probably mentioned it to his doctor.”
“But everyone assumes A.R. McDowell is a man,” Katy reminded her.
“I’m sure Mac could put two and two together. The telegram was delivered to the newspaper office.”Anna still had regrets about giving up her job…especially after working her way from lowly secretary to society writer to her recent promotion to an editorial position, albeit under the pretense of writing as a male. Anna was well aware that her begrudged promotion was greatly due to the war in Europe. Although the United States was not involved, some eager young men were already joining the military with the expectation that it was right around the corner. Most members of the press believed it was inevitable, and a few adventuresome reporters had recently vacated jobs at the Oregonian to do “their duty.” So, like her boss had warned, Anna would likely be demoted in the event the U.S. avoided the war…or at the latest, when it ended.
“Are you nervous about seeing your father again?” Katy peered curiously into Anna’s eyes.
Anna simply nodded.
Now Katy took Anna’s hand. “I’ll stand by you, Mother.”
Anna smiled. “Thanks, darling. And, like I said, if we both decide that we really hate it in Sunset Cove, we are free to leave whenever we like. But I just can’t bear the idea of Mac dying without repairing our relationship and without having met his only grandchild.”
“What about your mother?” Katy’s brows arched. “Will she be there too?”
“My mother…oh, she left us years ago.”
Anna shook her head. “No, my mother packed her bags and went away. I was only six and had no idea why she left or where she’d gone. Later on I heard rumors that she hated small town life, and I suspect it was true. She came from San Francisco. I remember her as being very flamboyant and colorful—completely unlike the other women in Sunset Cove.”
“Why did she move there, then?”
Anna got a glimpse of the ocean as the train went over a small rise, which reminded her that Sunset Cove was only a mile away. “My father inherited the newspaper from his father but wanted to modernize it, so he went down to San Francisco to pick up a new printing press. That’s where he met my mother. She was quite a beauty, but somehow he swept her off her feet. They married down there, and he brought her home along with the press.”
“That sounds rather romantic.”
“Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out romantic for either of them. I eventually learned that my mother got a divorce and remarried in San Francisco.” Anna had heard that her mother’s new husband was a much older man—and according to the scuttlebutt, quite wealthy.
“Did your father ever marry again?”
Anna stood as the train slowed for the station and retrieved her small bag from the overhead rack. “Not that I know of, but it’s been seventeen years. Anything could’ve happened.”
“Maybe this will be an adventure after all.” Katy’s brows arched as she stood. “Anyway, you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
As the train stopped, Anna realized that she’d aroused her own curiosity as well. What would they find in Sunset Cove? Had her father remarried? And what about the newspaper? Was it even still there? Thanks to the popularity and increased distribution of large papers, like the Oregonian, many small-town papers had failed in recent years.
Anna’s biggest questions were regarding her father’s health. All she knew from the telegram was that he’d been incapacitated after suffering some sort of stroke—and that was more than a week ago. Was he even alive? And if so, how would he react to seeing her again? Would he even allow her into his home? Did he live in the same house? And why hadn’t she sent a telegram to inform him she was coming? What if a surprise like this proved too much for him? What if the shock brought on another stroke…and he died? Then what? Anna closed her eyes, silently praying that her father was still alive…and that he would survive their visit.
Mac McDowell had always been a stubborn man. He’d never been one to give up on anything, but this morning he felt like giving up on everything. As he pushed his barely touched breakfast tray aside, he decided to remain in bed. In fact, he had no intention of getting up again…ever. He vaguely wondered how long it would take to die from starvation or thirst. And, really, would anyone care? With each passing day, he’d reached the conclusion that his life no longer mattered. Maybe it never had.
Somehow he needed to come up with a workable plan to put an end to it—the sooner the better. Too bad he hadn’t taken the time to write his own obituary. He’d promised himself to do that for his sixtieth birthday, but that wasn’t until next winter.
He knew that writing an honest obituary would’ve been painful. So much brokenness, so much loss, so many mistakes…and what did he truly have to show for all his years? A newspaper that barely covered expenses? A drafty old house with too many empty rooms? And now his bad health on top of everything else. His right arm was useless, he could barely walk, and his memory was a mess.
Mac thought about friends who were his age. They always seemed happy. Lately some of them had been making retirement plans, looking forward to leisure. Harvey Rollins had recently gotten a new boat and planned to do some serious fishing when he quit the police force. And Wally and his wife were planning to drive their new car down the beach road, camping along the way until they reached the California redwood forest. But Mac was an invalid, stuck in bed, and feeling like there was nothing left to live for. Why prolong his demise?
“Come on, Mac,” his housekeeper urged as she entered the bedroom. “The doctor said you need to get up and keep moving if you want to get well.”
“Don’…feel…li’e…” He hated how incoherent his words had become since his stroke—babbling like a baby. For a man known to have a silver tongue, it was humiliating. Turning his head to the wall, Mac made a low growling sound. Hopefully that would send Bernice the message—leave me alone!
“Well, then let’s at least open this place up.” Bernice jerked on the cord on the drapes, flooding the bedroom with blindingly bright light. “Not everyone has an ocean view out their bedroom window like—”
“Ge’ ou’ here!” He tried to swear, but the words jumbled. “Lea’ me ’lone!”
Bernice just chuckled, talking cheerily to herself as she bustled about the room in her usual, energetic way, picking up and straightening things as if he hadn’t just blasted her—or attempted to. Bernice and her husband, Mickey, had been Mac’s live-in helpers for nearly forty years, the closest thing to family he had—and he felt bad for treating her like this. But he just couldn’t seem to help himself. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone?
With his eyes adjusting to the light, he gazed over the ocean—a sight that used to bring him pleasure…back when he’d been whole. But as he looked at the white topped waves rolling toward the shore, he wondered…
Perhaps the ocean held his answer—a quick and easy way out.
“Dr. Hollister will be here at eleven thirty.” Bernice picked up his breakfast tray, then frowned. “You sure didn’t eat much, Mac. Can’t get well without good food.”
He made a sour expression, narrowing his eyes. “Go…’way.”
Ignoring him, she set the tray aside, then laid his dressing robe at the foot of his bed. “Don’t want the good doctor thinking we live like a bunch of pigs ’round here.” She chuckled as if amused. “Come on, Mac. Time to rise and shine.” She leaned forward, peering into his face. “You need me to help you sit up?”
“No!” Irritated at her helpfulness, Mac labored to push himself up in bed with his left hand. His right arm remained useless, hanging lifelessly against his side. A bit of strength had returned to his right leg, but he was still clumsy and awkward and couldn’t get around without a cane. Even then it was a challenge. As if to add insult to injury, he knew the right side of his face still drooped like a deformed monster…and, of course, he stumbled over words like a drunkard. Why should he want to keep living like this?
“Mickey’s on his way to help you dress.” Bernice picked up the tray again, watching with what Mac knew was pity as he struggled to sit upright.
Mac considered protesting Mickey’s help but knew it was pointless. Besides, it would go better with the doctor if Mac was showered and shaved and dressed. Mac didn’t need another lecture. Doc Hollister had some peculiar ideas about stroke recovery—and they did not include languishing in bed, no matter how listless the patient felt. Instead, the young doctor had prescribed a salt-free diet which made food taste like paste, daily doses of Bayer Aspirin, and silly exercises with rubber balls and strings and things.
But Mac was sick and tired of being treated like a child. Why couldn’t they all just leave him be…let him die in peace? He looked out over the ocean again… Yes, it could work. When the timing was right, he would do it.
Feeling motivated by his evolving plan, Mac slowly dragged himself out of bed and was nearly into his dressing robe by the time Mickey arrived. Mac had been home from the hospital for more than a week now, and Mickey had a well-established yet merciless routine for putting him through his paces each morning. He’d help Mac just enough to get him moving and then he’d step back and let him struggle on his own. Only intervening when absolutely necessary. Another part of the young doctor’s “treatment.”
First, there was getting into the shower where Mickey had set a wooden bench for Mac to sit upon. Mac wasn’t overly concerned with his hygiene these days, but he tried to humor Mickey, who usually enjoyed a smoke while Mac sat in the shower’s spray, attempting to get clean, and then dried with one clumsy hand. But left-handed shaving was still tricky, and when Mickey eventually stepped in to help, Mac didn’t protest. Eventually, Mac managed to get himself mostly dressed.
As usual, Mickey was a man of few words. And for this, Mac was grateful.
“Than’ you,” Mac mumbled as Mickey helped him to button his shirt.
“Glad to help.” Mickey straightened his collar. “You’re doing better, Mac. Didn’t take nearly as long as a few days ago.”
“Tired.” Mac reached for his cane and, limping and wobbling, slowly made his way through his bedroom and into the attached sitting room. It felt like hours before he finally reached the easy chair by the window, but he eventually sank into it.
“You rest.” Mickey tucked a pillow behind Mac’s head. “I’ll tell Bernice to bring you some coffee. And I smell something good in the oven too.”
“Than’ you.” Mac used his left hand to lift his right arm, laying the lifeless appendage across his lap with a weary sigh.
It wasn’t long before Bernice reappeared with the tray again. This time it was coffee and sweet rolls. Obviously, her attempt to get him to eat something. And now that he was clean and dressed…and not planning to die from starvation…he decided to comply. It was easier, and less likely to arouse her suspicion.
Mac was just finishing his coffee when Bernice announced that Dr. Hollister had arrived.
“Good morning, Mr. McDowell,” the doctor smiled as he entered the room.
“Mor’ing,” Mac mumbled back.
Bernice pointed to the tray, explaining to the doctor that she’d brought plenty for him, but he just thanked her as he set his doctor’s bag on a side table. Then, after pulling a straight-backed chair over, he sat down across from Mac. “How are you feeling today?”
Mac grimaced. If he could get the words out, he’d give the good doctor a cynical answer. Instead, he just scowled.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something?” Dr. Hollister’s dark eyes twinkled as if he found amusement in tormenting Mac into talking.
“I am…fine,” Mac mumbled sourly. “Jus’ fine.”
“Good. I’m glad to see you’re working on your language skills.” Now he pulled out his stethoscope and began going through the usual steps of his examination—poking, prodding, listening, and looking. Appearing satisfied at last, the doctor began putting Mac through his rehabilitation paces with the rubber balls and strings and whatnot, until Mac couldn’t stand one more minute.
With a sorry attempt at a swear word, Mac threw the disgusting rubber ball across the room, hostilely glaring at the doctor. “No more!”
Dr. Hollister simply nodded. “I know this is hard on you, Mr. McDowell, but—”
“Ma—ac!” he insisted. “Call me Mac.”
“Good, good.” The doctor smiled. “Mac. Let’s work on forming some words and sounds that are—”
“No!” Mac firmly shook his head. “No more.”
Of course, this was the good doctor’s invitation to lecture Mac, explaining how some stroke victims showed great improvement with modern rehabilitation therapy. He explained about how he’d been reading up on the latest treatments and how important it was to keep moving and trying, never to give up.
If only he knew, Mac thought, glaring daggers at the optimistic doctor. Not only did Mac intend to give up, he was currently making plans for his own demise. He glanced out the window toward the ocean again, imagining his permanent getaway. His house was situated high on the bluff…and as soon as the tide came fully in, Mac would limp outside, go across the terrace, toss aside his cane, and take what would hopefully look like an accidental stumble that would plunge him over the edge of the cliff. He would fall into the sea, where the ocean would finish him off. It would be an easy exit and a welcome escape from a disappointing life. And, truly, who would care?
I loved Joy’s first book, Love, Lace, and Minor Alterations, so I have been anxiously awaiting Weddings, Willows, and Revised…