From Reese’s Summer of Promise by Libby Malin
(Tales of Bethany Beach, Book One)
Reese Newhouse jammed her hands in the pockets of her parka, one fist curling around her smartphone as if to crush it and the email she’d just read on its small screen. She stared out at the churning Atlantic, leaning into the corner of the boardwalk railing, blinking her eyes fast to keep from crying.
Dammit. She wouldn’t cry. Couldn’t cry. Not now.
This officially had to count as the Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.
With a sniffle, she squinted through bright sunshine to watch intrepid surfers, clad in special wet suits, riding the chilly waves that still roared into the shore from a Nor’easter that had slipped up the Delaware coastline miles at sea the night before. In its wake was a sparkling dusting of snow on the sand and boardwalk, creating a glistening winter wonderland at odds with the dark, ugly thoughts in her heart.
The town felt deserted, as if all its residents had been alerted to an emergency and only a few diehards remained. But it was February, not the “season.”
Even when Bethany Beach was bustling, though, it still had the air of a small town about it with a short boardwalk and three-block main street filled with quirky stores, eateries and the usual national franchises. Most folks thought of bigger resorts for their summer fun, but Bethany, along with the 117 miles of seacoast that made up Delaware’s eastern border, was a hidden gem.
Today, Reese was glad Bethany was so quiet, with few people about to observe her heartache.
She breathed deeply. She had to put on a good face. Must not let her father and brother and aunt see her like this. Not today. Not on this occasion.
She heard their steps coming up behind her and turned, forcing her muscles into a slap-happy grin of greeting that she hoped would fool them all.
“You should have gone in. It’s cold out here!” her father, Theodore Newhouse, said as he hugged her, pressing a light kiss on her cheek.
“Such a beautiful day,” she managed to mumble, her cheeks already feeling stiff from her plastic smile. Her brother, Dan, looked as grim as she felt, his face white as the snow with two bright red spots on his cheeks from the cold. He nodded to her, his hands stuffed in his pockets, his collar turned up against the chill. “Besides…I thought we’d…do the ceremony first…then eat…” She gestured to the restaurant behind them and peered over their shoulders, scanning the walkway. “Where’s Aunt Nancy?”
“She’s got a bad cold,” her father said, an odd sense of relief in his voice. “Didn’t want to make the drive from Wilmington.” And then she noticed that no one was carrying…the box. The box that contained the urn with her mother’s ashes. And she knew. Once again, he was postponing scattering them, using Aunt Nancy’s absence as an excuse, most likely, and that of her sister and her family, who’d had to beg off when the storm had left them stranded in their Virginia home waiting for a power outage to be fixed.
“Dad…” she said, softly, her own pain now pushed aside as she considered his. She reached out to touch his arm, and he turned his head away toward the sea, as if studying those surfers was an assignment he had to complete before they went in.
She swallowed. She noticed Dan grimacing and shaking his head slowly, staring at his feet. He’d obviously tried convincing him already to go through with their plan, to no avail.
Their mother had been gone since December, and their father had yet to honor her wishes by scattering her ashes along the shore she’d loved so much. They’d finally convinced him to do it today, Valentine’s Day. And they’d planned a family meal together afterward in the expensive new hotel restaurant on the Bethany Beach, Delaware boardwalk, to take the edge off the sad task.
But once again, her father had found a reason to delay the task, to keep his beloved Jean near him.
She couldn’t fight this battle again. Not today, at least. Not after…that email.
Struggling with her own pain, she straightened and let her phony smile fall. She had to shepherd this group to some sort of peaceful ground and put aside her own heartbreak. She was the senior sibling here, with her older sister, Sarah, stuck in Virginia.
“Come on,” she said, putting her hand through the crook of her father’s elbow. “Let’s go in and raise a glass to Mom, at least.”
At that, he turned to her, and his lips twitched up, as if to offer thanks, but she saw the unshed tears in his eyes and looked away, afraid he’d see hers, as well.
Together, the three of them entered the restaurant.
A painful two hours later after a meal of good food they’d hardly touched, she bid them farewell in the restaurant parking lot, whispering in her brother’s ear as she kissed him goodbye, “We have to talk.”
After she saw them get in Dan’s car and drive off, she got into her own truck and pulled out her phone again to face the reality she’d tried mightily to push aside during the family dinner.
Fingers trembling, she slid the message into view, part of her hoping she’d misinterpreted it the first time. But, no, her reading comprehension skills had been spot-on.
A “Dear John” letter. But she was the “John.”
“Dear Reese,” it read, “I’ve been putting off writing this, but just can’t anymore. I wish you all the best in the world, but I’m just not ready to get married…”
Her fiancé, Lieutenant Sam Bakersfield, was dumping her. Did he even know it was Valentine’s Day? Probably not. He was deployed in Afghanistan. Special forces. Maybe even at an FOB with minimal communication ability. Maybe that’s why he’d chosen today, knowing it would be hard for her to try to Skype or FaceTime with him once she got his bad news.
As she stared at the device and swallowed hard, it rang. Sarah. She didn’t want to take it, but she knew why Sarah was calling.
“He didn’t do it,” Reese said on a cough as she answered the phone.
“Why not?” Sarah asked. “It wasn’t because I couldn’t make it, was it?”
Her sister’s absence had probably provided their father with a convenient excuse, but if he wasn’t ready to let go, would it have helped to push him where he didn’t want to go? Her strong, self-assured father was no more. In his place was an indecisive, distant man she didn’t know how to reach.
She wiped a tear from her eye. “We had a nice lunch. It was okay. Dan was here.”
“Should I come up?”
“No.” She couldn’t face Sarah at this moment, beautiful, confident Sarah with the great husband and great kids, the perfect life. She couldn’t even tell her yet. Not now. “Look, can we talk later? I’m in my truck. And I’m cold.”
They ended the conversation, but still Reese didn’t move, her gaze fixed on the phone in her hand, wanting to look at the offending message one last time, wanting never to see it again, caught between before and now.
With a growl, she pulled the small pear-cut diamond ring from her hand, intending to throw it to the floorboards. But as she raised her fist for the toss, angry resolve left her, and she instead arced her clasped hand to her lips, her grip so tight the diamond cut into her cold fingers.
A strangled cry broke from her throat, and she leaned on the steering wheel and sobbed.
Four months later
Beep-beep-beep! The backhoe’s warning cut the air as Reese slid the big piece of equipment into Reverse, then cranked the gears to move forward to another patch of ground, manipulating the boom and dipper to punch and dig the earth before her.
She wiped her brow with a gloved hand. Sweat collected under her hard hat in this late May heat wave. Although it was morning, her shirt already clung to her frame under her vest, and her feet swelled in their tightly laced work boots. And she had a headache.
No rest for the weary, she thought, as she soldiered on. She was only operating the backhoe because the guy they’d hired for this job had left for a better gig in New Jersey two days ago. Usually Reese was in the construction trailer managing the site work, as VP of Newhouse Construction, or at the office going through paperwork. Her father was the president, but he wasn’t on the job much.
As she pushed the machine into another gear, she saw the crew chief, Ben, waving at her. She halted the backhoe and turned off its engine, quickly dismounting the mammoth vehicle with the agility of a gymnast. Working on her father’s sites since high school, she knew how to operate almost every piece of equipment they owned, a skill that came in handy when they were short a worker on a tight deadline. Like this one.
“What’s up?” she asked Ben, pushing her hard hat off her brow and pulling off the hot gloves.
The stocky rusty-haired chief pointed at a spot near the tree line of the big brown muddy area they were working, prepping it for a housing development, a contract that had to be finished in record time. She’d been the one to agree to the deadline when she’d bid on the job. They’d lose money for every week they went over it.
“Found something. Might be an artifact.” He sported a half smile, and Reese realized that habit of his annoyed her. It was as if he was always…sneering…at her. Prior to her father’s absence from the job, Reese had handled a lot of the business’ paperwork while her dad had interacted with crew and staff. Six months into her expanded leadership of the team, Reese wasn’t sure that Ben had completely accepted her as a boss. Others had, and she’d been proud of how she’d managed them. Ben was a bit too old-school in his attitudes toward women on the job, though.
“Crap.” Heaving a sigh, she followed him to the spot. Finding any kind of historical artifact on a work site meant delays at the very least and complete cessation of the project at the most. Reese loved and respected history. Just not on her work sites.
When she saw what the item was, she breathed a sigh of relief. Just a metal lockbox of some sort, nestled in a pile of sandy moist soil, the only kind there was this close to the Delaware coast. It lay open and empty.
“We shot photos of it,” Ben said. And then he pulled a wad of papers from a big pocket on his work vest. “These were in it.”
Her relief buzzed back to anxiety as she took the bundle from him. Tied with rotting string, the mildewed, deteriorating bunch could still be identified through some scribbles on the top—they were letters. From the 1940s.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
Being a resident of the area, she knew its history and that of the stark watchtowers that still dotted the Delaware coast. Round silos of concrete—poured quickly in one piece, the history went—they had slits for the lookouts who were meant to keep an eye out for enemy efforts to block the Delaware Bay during World War II. Even a lost ship would be a win for enemies in these waters. A ship sunk in that bay where Lewes, Delaware looked across at Cape May, New Jersey, could have kept precious fuel at upriver refineries from reaching important destinations. An old fort at Cape Henlopen—Fort Miles—had big guns aimed at the sea to forestall any unwanted naval traffic in the area. They’d never been fired on enemy ships, but thousands of men had been stationed there before ultimately being sent overseas to Europe and Asia at the end of the war.
A piece of history from that era might be valuable.
“At least it’s not bones,” she muttered, but Ben heard and nodded. Unearthing an old cemetery or Indian gravesite would mean a complete shutdown as experts poured in, making it an archaeological and not a construction dig.
“I should hand this over to somebody,” Ben said, as if she wouldn’t have thought of it herself. And then, he added, “We haven’t found anything else.”
“Okay,” she said making a decision. The last thing she wanted was local or state authorities rapping her knuckles for not doing the right thing. “Don’t work this area today. Just keep leveling the ground near the road. I’ll take these into town and figure out what to do with them.” She placed the packet in her own work vest pocket and grabbed the handle of the lockbox. “Keep things moving,” she said.
She looked at her watch. If she hurried, she could take the find to the local historical society, then pop over to the office and finish the paperwork on Newhouse Construction’s next bid, then run to the store and pick up some groceries her father needed, and drop them at his house in time for lunch, which she’d promised to have with him today. She’d be back at the site this afternoon.
Reese liked being busy, but this was getting ridiculous. Ever since her broken engagement, she’d poured all her energy into work. And for good reason. Her dad was still mourning, working half days when he worked at all, often not coming into the office. She’d gotten used to not bothering him with decisions after he’d snapped at her more than once when she’d asked the same questions several times.
Now she was used to working independently.
As she tramped off the site toward her truck, her hat tucked under her arm and the lockbox dangling from her fingers, she noticed a lone figure approaching from the road. She’d seen him around before, mostly on the beach, horsing around with other men, playing volleyball. Or at least trying. He had a pronounced limp most of the time, and Reese suspected he was military from the short cut of his brown-blond hair, the muscular build, the all-business air. Military in town to do Pain and Torture at Dover Air Force Base up the road was her guess.
Physical therapy—but the soldiers, sailors, airmen who had to go through it called it pain and torture. Reese knew because her best friend, Anne Lee, was head of PT at the base health center, a civil service position that she loved. She handled PT for a variety of military—army, navy, air force, marines—at the inpatient health facility there.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for Reese Newhouse,” he said when their paths crossed. He shot a glance over her shoulder toward Ben, as if he expected her to lead him there. It wasn’t the first time she’d had men think Reese Newhouse wasn’t a woman.
“What do you want with Reese?” she said without rancor but with a no-nonsense tone.
“I wanted to talk to him about the backhoe operator position,” he said. At least he looked her in the eye when he spoke instead of scouring the worksite for the “real” Reese Newhouse.
“I’m Reese Newhouse,” she said. “Talk away.”
If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. Instead, he thrust out his hand for a firm handshake and looked her in the eyes. His were a mesmerizing crystal-blue.
“I’d like to apply for the job,” he said, pointing to the now-silent piece of equipment. “I saw your ad online.”
She’d posted it just hours after getting notice from her former worker. She tilted her head, taking stock of him. If he was military, as she suspected, why’d he need a job?
Not her business, she thought, as she evaluated him further. Strong, capable-looking, muscles straining at a dark green T-shirt. The limp wouldn’t be a problem if he had experience.
“Did you fill out the application?”
He nodded. “Yup. But thought I’d stop by to seal the deal.” He grinned, and she could tell from his confident gaze he was used to charming people with that smile. Dimples formed on either side of a perfect mouth, and warmth emanated from his face, as those blue eyes sparkled with good will. Even she was sucked in. And after Sam, she’d sworn off military, even military types.
Nope, no soldiers, airmen or sailors for her. When she returned to dating, she was going to look for teachers, doctors, lawyers, librarians or even mime artists. No more pumped-up bravado and machismo. She saw enough of it on construction sites, and all it did, she thought, was muddy a man’s thinking. She’d take straightforward and bland, someone honest with her and honest with himself, thank you very much.
Still…those eyes…those muscles…
But he wasn’t date material. He was worker material. And he’d shown up at the work site instead of just filling out the online application. She had to give him points for initiative.
“Okay. I’ll look over your app during my lunch break. If you stop by the office at, say, one-thirty, I’ll give you an interview, assuming your application passes muster.” She wasn’t one for being coy, and she’d not been flooded with apps since posting the position. Now that construction season was underway, machine operators were sometimes hard to find.
“Good enough,” he said, and put out his hand to shake as confirmation. This time, his grip was gentler, as if he had nothing more to prove. “Name’s Zack Davies, by the way. And I printed out my application…just in case.” He pulled two neatly folded sheets of paper from a back pocket and handed them to her. Initiative and preparation—she was impressed.
“Okay, Zack.” She took the papers and did a brief glance. As she suspected, he was military all right. Army. That meant he was probably from around here if he was doing PT at Dover. The military would let members do therapy near their homes, even if it was at another branch’s base.
“I’ll look this over,” she said, then nodded and moved past him, headed for her truck. As she walked, she couldn’t escape the feeling that he was watching her, staring at her back. She shook it off. It was nothing except the satisfaction of having a good-looking man give her a positive once-over. She’d take the compliment and get on with her work.
(c) Libby Malin Sternberg 2019
Reese’s Summer of Promise is available now in paperback and for Kindle.