Read The Gilly Salt Sisters Online

Authors: Tiffany Baker

The Gilly Salt Sisters (34 page)

“But that’s ridiculous,” Claire said. “Look at Jo. The salt hasn’t done a damn thing for her. What makes you think you’d do any better with the place?”

Whit puffed up his chest. “Because I’m a Turner, that’s why. Jo and your mother and the women before them have always had the salt backing them up. Everyone knows it. That’s why the Gillys have always been feared. Nobody wanted to marry them when they had nature on their side. But I wasn’t afraid. I married you, didn’t I? Once the salt is in my hands, everything will turn around.” He took a step closer and gripped Claire’s shoulders too tightly. “You better not stand in my way. I mean it.”

Claire tossed her head, trying to squirm free of Whit’s painful grasp. “If you’re so broke, what are you going to use to buy the place? A set of dishes isn’t going to get you far, even if the land
is
cheap.” She thought about the portrait of Ida she hated so much hanging over the stairs. If she was lucky, Whit would sell that, but she somehow doubted it. Ida was to blame for this mess in the first place.

Whit pushed his face close to Claire’s. “If I have to dump this place to get my hands on Salt Creek Farm, I will. It’d be worth it.”

Claire finally worked one of her shoulders free from his grip and flicked her braid, staring straight into his eyes. So Whit had never loved her. That was fine. She’d never really loved him either. They were even. “The only way you’re going to buy the marsh is over my dead body,” she said, trying to keep her voice from quivering and her temper calm.

Whit smiled then, but not all the way. Not with his eyes. He took his other hand off Claire’s shoulder, leaving that spot of her skin chilled. “Don’t tempt me,” he said.

W
ith great sorrow and much deliberation, Claire poured a second scoop of sugar into her coffee and stirred. It was very early spring, the first week of Lent, and when dawn did break, Claire suspected, the sky would hold all the appeal of a dented tin canteen.

She was sitting in a back booth at the Lighthouse, and, as usual, she was the diner’s first customer of the day. She gazed through the front windows but was confronted by nothing but her own reflection: a hard ghost flattened onto a lifeless surface. She flicked her eyes down to the table, but then, her stomach cramping, she glanced up again, squinting to make sure that neither her eyes nor her heart was playing tricks. They weren’t. Outside on Bank Street, she saw Ethan Stone marching toward the diner.

Her heart started thumping so loudly she thought it might crack the glass as she shrank back into the booth. She watched Ethan shiver and wrap his coat tighter, as if trying to stave off the intrepid spring wind. He appeared older than Claire expected, his hair cut very short, his lips more defined. He also looked numb, damp, and hungry, and she saw immediately that his image in the window was still dear to her. She sat up a little higher and watched as he considered the Lighthouse, still unaware of her presence. She hoped he wouldn’t come in—she wasn’t ready to
face him yet, never mind in public—but the cold won out, and he pushed his way inside, setting off the bell over the door.

Ethan loosened his overcoat and stamped the mist from his boots. He looked around for the row of brass hooks to the left of the door and then spied Claire hunched down over her cup of coffee in the booth. He froze, as startled as she was, and then he smiled, and Claire saw with deep regret that the light in his eyes was the same as ever.

“May I?” He gestured to the bench opposite her, and she hesitated.

“Hello, Ethan,” she finally managed to say. She watched him flush and adjust the band around his neck. She wondered if his skin felt too exposed and raw when he removed it at night. Maybe it was a relief to put it back on again in the morning. Then she scolded herself for having any kinds of thoughts of Ethan at night.

“Claire,” he croaked, and offered his hand. When he laid his palm against her skin, she almost gasped, for at his touch the years between them dissolved. If Claire had closed her eyes at that moment, she would have sworn they were once again eighteen and about to embrace under the carved-up pear tree.

She looked up and saw Cutt watching from behind the diner counter. He spent an inordinate amount of time, Claire noticed, loitering at the cash register when he wasn’t cooking—all the better to collect the local news, she supposed, much of which she knew involved her. She took her fingers away from Ethan’s and laid them back on the table, innocent and alone. Her diamond wedding band caught the light, a glaring circle, bright as any lighthouse beam.

She put her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry about your father passing,” she said, even though it was a lie. No one in town had been sorry, not even Ethan’s uncle Chet, who had taken over Merrett’s boat and doubled his seasonal haul.

Ethan sighed. “Thank you. Maybe the ocean misses him, but I doubt anyone else around here does. My uncle’s doing well,
though. He keeps offering me my old job back.” Claire blushed, and just then Cutt appeared with a menu and hung over the table while Ethan contemplated his choices.

“I’ll have the pancakes,” he finally said, and Cutt took the order with the temper of a man who bathed in vinegar and washed his feet in lye.

“I’ll send Dee over with the coffee,” he barked. Ethan nodded thank you, and Claire noticed a few beads of sweat clinging to his hairline. In manhood he looked more like his father than he used to, but his mannerisms were the opposite of Merrett’s. Ethan’s gestures were circumspect, almost stilted. Even the way he blinked seemed deliberate, as if in every movement he was reminding himself that he wasn’t his own master.

He gazed around the diner, taking in all the changes, and then his brow wrinkled. “What happened to all the salt?” he said.

Claire flushed, but before she could answer, Cutt’s oxen-boned daughter arrived with a half-empty coffeepot atilt in one of her hands and a plate of pancakes in the other, her mouth hanging open in an unattractive stupor. Claire wanted to slide out from behind the table and press the child’s lips together, but it wouldn’t have done any good, she suspected. Everything on the girl was so loose it rattled, including her brains. Dee leaned over to refill Claire’s cup and accidentally dribbled coffee on her sleeve, the girl’s mouth falling open even wider as she watched the stain bloom.

“Don’t worry about it,” Claire said, dabbing at it with her napkin. “This shirt’s old.” She looked up at Dee’s plain features. She wasn’t exactly pretty—her face was too bland for that—but Claire could see how there was something about Dee that might make a man want to strip her bare and see all of her at once. She put her hand on Dee’s wrist. “I know you wouldn’t be dumb enough to deliberately ruin my clothing, would you, dear?”

Dee blushed an impressive scarlet but didn’t say anything, and Ethan looked shocked at Claire’s rudeness, but Claire didn’t care, she decided. Twelve years was a long time. Ethan had no idea that
there were times, moments like this, for instance, when she felt more like Ida Turner than the heartbroken girl he’d left sitting in the sand. Claire waited until Dee clomped off, her chubby hips swinging, and then she leaned forward, lowering her voice.

“What made you really come back here?” she asked. He opened his eyes and blinked again in his new and annoyingly assured way, and Claire was suddenly glad she’d deprived him of the familiar taste of her family’s salt. Maybe missing it would remind him of all the other things he could no longer have.

He put down his fork and shook his head. “I don’t half know, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t my idea. Father Flynn called me home, and my superiors approved it.”

Her stomach relaxed a little. His return had nothing to do with God or her, then, and everything to do with the fickle tempers of men. Claire put her coffee cup on the table and smeared her palms flat on the booth’s sticky leather. When she moved them, they left sweaty prints. Ethan glanced up at her and smiled, and his eyes seemed to get bluer. “Do you still go to church, Claire?” he asked.

She inched back in the booth, her heart pounding slightly, overly aware of how dark the wood trim was around the door, how thick the air, and how Dee was also now holding her head cocked in their direction over at the cash register. “Whit and I attend.” She raised her voice a little so Cutt and his bovine daughter would hear. “You’ll see us there on Sunday.” She knew that Ethan was waiting to see if she’d bring up Jo, but it had been twelve years since her sister’s name had dropped out of Claire’s mouth, and she was damned if Ethan Stone was going to be the first person to hear it.

There was so much you didn’t know at any given moment, Claire thought—namely, not to discount the weight of the past on your future. At that instant, sitting across from Ethan again, she began to suspect that the tidy rows of her life were little more secure than dominoes lined up on a warped floor. She shoved her mug to the center of the table and stood. Outside the window she
could see Icicle stamping his feet and exhaling great clouds. Her chest felt like it had bricks sitting on it, and her voice came out higher than usual. “I have to go.”

“Wait.” Ethan tried to put his hand on top of hers, but she moved it just in time. She didn’t turn to look as he followed her outside. “Saints and sinners,” he muttered under his breath, and watched as Claire mounted Icicle, tucking her braid down the back of her blouse. Before she could step to the side of the road, Icicle whinnied and reared, kicking his forelegs out, narrowly missing Ethan’s chest.

“Icicle! No.” She lurched in the saddle, then tugged the reins and brought him back down to all four feet. Another brief struggle, a subtle squeeze of her thighs, and he soon stood quiet, snorting and shivering beneath her.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to Ethan. “He’s not usually like this. Are you all right?” Her tongue felt swollen behind the cage of her teeth. He nodded, but before he could answer, her eyes flashed. “You should be more careful. Prospect isn’t quite as sleepy as it used to be. Cars will pop out of nowhere now, especially in the summer.”

She could tell that there was much more Ethan wanted to say, but she didn’t feel like giving him the chance. She slapped Icicle’s reins and took off back to Plover Hill, back to her husband and his stern habits, back to hushed rooms and the tick of the clock in the upstairs hall, back, in short, to the flesh-bound life of a marriage she never expected to make but couldn’t turn away from now.

W
hit and Claire were on their way to Ethan’s first Mass at St. Agnes when Claire discovered an earring that wasn’t hers in the car. They were running late, and Whit was speeding, driving with hard jerks and turns, something she hated. “Can you just slow down?” she begged, but Whit ignored her, so she reached her hand out to the dashboard to turn on music but then hesitated, her eye caught by something shiny stuck between her seat and the center console.

Glancing over to see if Whit was watching, she pulled out a plain hoop earring, not too large, not very expensive, and certainly not hers. She let it wink in her palm for a moment and then slipped it into her pocket before Whit took his eyes off the road, all the while keeping her face relaxed in spite of the murderous thoughts reeling through her mind. Learning of your husband’s infidelity wasn’t a sin, Claire knew very well, but the desire to kill him probably was.

She leaned her head back against the car’s leather seat and wished she were at home, wearing the softest breeches she had and a thick barn jacket topped with a ratty scarf. She would shake her hair down from its complicated updo and fix it back into a braid. She’d grab a beat-up riding helmet with one hand and a pair of gloves with the other, and then she’d fling open the kitchen door and let the spring air sting her cheeks. Instead she let Whit hold the door of the car for her as they reached St. Agnes. She climbed out and smoothed her skirt, then followed him up the church steps the way she’d done hundreds of times before. She knelt down next to him, folded her hands with deceptive peace, and bowed her head, the picture of deportment.

The service went on around her like a dream, and Claire watched it all from the center of a terrible calm. Faces always revealed so much when they were sunk in worship, she thought, especially when the new priest was young and handsome and everyone was aware that he used to be in love with the town’s richest woman.
Used to be
, Claire thought. No one loved her now, apparently not even her husband, and they weren’t nearly as rich as everyone thought. She lifted her head and forced herself to gaze upon Ethan in prayer.

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