Wendell Griggs was big on promises. Always had been. On their first date, he’d promised Riley Nolan she’d never want to date anybody else. When he’d presented her with her engagement ring—a three-carat diamond bigger than any of her girlfriends had—he’d promised it was the start of a life that would be big and rich and exciting. No doubt about it, her husband was a dreamer. And a schemer.
But lately, Wendell’s promises meant nothing. Just talk. Hollow words meant to placate or stall. Nothing more. What was it her grandfather used to say?
“All hat, no cattle.”
Like today. Wendell had promised—sworn—he’d meet them at the ferry dock at Southpoint in time to make the last boat over to Belle Isle.
It was Memorial Day weekend, a tradition they’d established even before they’d gotten married, kicking off the season on the island where Riley’s family had summered for the past hundred years.
And yet, here she stood. She brushed a stray lock of dark brown hair from her eyes and squinted down at the screen of her smartphone. Still nothing.
Her fingertips raced over the keys.
WHERE R U?
All caps. It was the texting equivalent of screaming. And that’s how she felt, like screaming.
The late afternoon sun shimmered off the water’s surface, and the light breeze whipping the surface of the river carried the faint scent of honeysuckle. It was the prettiest day in weeks, but Riley Nolan Griggs was oblivious to all of that.
She glanced again in the direction of the parking lot, willing his car to appear. The black Jeep CJ. What a stupid car for a grown man. Vehicles were streaming into the lot now, station wagons, big SUVs, all of them carrying people intent on making the last ferry of the day. All of them with the distinctive oval BI sticker connoting membership in the tribe of Belle Isle. Vehicles pulled to the curb in front of the ferry terminal to unload everything needed for another summer on the island. Passengers spilled from the cars, lugging coolers, wheeled suitcases, bicycles, leashed dogs, and fishing gear. Deckhands, most of them deeply tanned college boys in navy blue BI-logo golf shirts and baggy cargo shorts, scurried around the baggage area, loading all the freight into aluminum carts that would be rolled onto the ferry.
Women greeted each other with that peculiar high-pitched Southern squeal of delight. “Heeeeyyy!” What did Wendell call it? Oh, yes. “The mating call of the ivory-breasted Tri-Delt.”
It was six thirty. The boat would leave at seven on the dot. He knew that, knew how crazy it made her when he cut things this close. But there was no sign of the black Jeep. She checked to make sure she hadn’t missed a call, and checked her e-mail too, but there was still no word from him.
Selfish bastard. He was doing this to torture her, she was sure. Waiting until the last possible minute to make an appearance. She could already picture the moment. He’d stroll across the pavement, just as the Carolina Queen was blasting the “last call” horn, maybe make a quick dash before the deckhands pulled up the metal gangplank.
Her face reddened, her stomach twisted, and she felt the familiar acid taste in her mouth.
He’d promised. Sworn to her he would make the last ferry today, no matter what. Most importantly, he’d sworn it to Maggy. Even with things as crappy as they were between them, he didn’t usually break a promise to their daughter.
She turned. The woman was bearing down on her with laser-like intensity. She wore a pink-and-lime-green cotton Lilly Pulitzer shift and pink Jack Rogers sandals. Riley, trapped, managed a weak greeting in return.
“Oh, hey, Andrea.”
“It’s so great to see you!” Andrea Payne gushed. “You look terrific. I swear, I wish I had your metabolism. Have you lost a ton of weight over the winter?”
Without waiting for a reply, Andrea wrapped her slender arms around Riley’s neck and hugged her close. Too close. Riley was already tense and overheated, and the last thing she needed right now was a volley of nosy questions.
Riley managed to subtly loosen herself from Andrea’s grasp. She took a step backward.
Andrea turned to her companion. “Melody, doesn’t Riley look fantastic?”
Andrea’s friend Melody Zimmerman dutifully nodded her head in agreement. “Fantastic.” She gestured at the handbag slung casually across Riley’s shoulder. “Is that a Michael Kors? OMG, I love it so much.”
“Um, maybe,” Riley said, glancing at her bag. It was an oversize leather number in trendy turquoise, with a large, dangling gold-monogram charm that Riley secretly found just the tiniest bit gaudy. But she knew the gift had been expensive, and besides, it did hold a lot of stuff. “I mean, I’m not sure. Wendell gave it to me for my birthday last year.”
“It’s adorbs!” Andrea pronounced. “Are y’all going to the full-moon party tonight? Is Maggy here, or did she decide to do summer camp this year? Where’s Wendell?”
Riley deliberately sidestepped the issue of Wendell’s whereabouts. “I haven’t really been dieting. Maybe just eating healthy. And yes, Maggy’s here. For now, anyway.” She looked around for an escape route and conveniently spotted her daughter weighted down with tote bags and a backpack, struggling to keep Mr. Banks, their unruly pug puppy, under control.
“Maggy, hold on. I’m coming!” Riley called out. “We’ll catch up later, ladies.”
“You and Wendell have to come over for drinks, before the party,” Andrea burbled. “Right, Melody?”
“Absolutely!” Melody agreed, bobbing her head.
“I can’t wait for you to see my new kitchen tonight,” Andrea said.
“OMG—she got an eight-burner Wolf range,” Melody said. “And a Sub-Zero fridge. It’s my dream kitchen!”
“Oh geez,” Riley said, looking in the direction of the parking lot. “Sounds great. But I really need to go give Maggy a hand with that crazy dog of hers.”
Andrea tapped Riley’s arm. “So, I won’t take no for an answer. You’re coming for drinks. Right?”
“We’d love to.”
* * *
“Said nobody, ever,” Riley muttered under her breath. She hurried away from the ferry dock, the soles of her rubber flip-flops slapping against the furnace-hot asphalt.
Her daughter had come to a dead stop in the middle of the parking lot and was tapping furiously on her cell phone, oblivious to the oncoming stream of cars, her mother, and Banks, who was squatting down on one of the carefully manicured landscape islands, amidst the grass and pink Knock Out roses, doing what puppies liked to do.
“Maggy! Don’t let him…”
But it was too late. Banks finished his toilette and came scampering toward his mistress, his plump little body wriggling with happiness and relief.
Now Maggy looked up. “Huh?”
Riley picked up the pair of overstuffed totes and nudged her daughter out of the path of a looming white Mercedes SUV. “Sweetie, pay attention! While you were busy Snapchatting with your girlfriends just now, you nearly got run down. And Banks managed to drop a deuce on those rosebushes over there.” Riley rummaged around among the groceries in the tote bag until she found a roll of paper towels. She tore off a sheet and handed it to her twelve-year-old daughter.
Maggy recoiled. “Gross. No way.”
Riley took her daughter’s hand, deftly removed the phone, and replaced it with a paper towel. “Way. He’s your dog. Your responsibility. Your poop. Now go clean it up before somebody rats us out and we get issued a littering citation.”
Maggy rolled her eyes but handed the dog’s leash to her mother before stomping off in the direction of the landscaped island.
Riley was struck by how much her daughter had grown over the past year. Micro short shorts showed off Maggy’s long, tanned legs, and the tank top that left bare a two-inch strip of her abdomen also revealed a modestly developing bustline. She’d let her taffy-colored hair grow out over the spring, and although she wore it now in carelessly fashioned pigtails, Maggy was already starting to raid Riley’s bathroom for her expensive salon shampoo, conditioner, and styling products.
No more sweet-smelling baby shampoo for Maggy. No more baby anything, for that matter, Riley thought ruefully. In October, Maggy would officially be a teenager.
Despite the heat, a shiver ran down Riley’s spine. Banks pressed his muzzle between Riley’s sweaty calves. She absentmindedly scratched the dog’s ears and glanced down at her daughter’s phone.
It was the latest model iPhone, of course, ensconced in a neon purple case with a florid monogram on the back, and the screen was littered with a dizzying array of unfamiliar app icons. Riley’s own phone was at least two years old. She’d told Wendell it was ridiculous to buy such an expensive cell for a kid who’d already managed to lose two phones in one year, but Wendell, being Wendell, had overruled Riley’s objections.
“I want her to have a good phone. What if her blood sugar gets low? Or she needs to get in contact with me?”
Maggy’s diagnosis earlier in the year with juvenile onset type 1 diabetes had thrown them both for a loop.
Riley remembered that particular “discussion” with crystal clarity. She’d stared back at Wendell, startled by what she was suddenly seeing.
Her husband had changed in the past two years. His thick black hair was streaked with silver. He’d started wearing it longer, letting it brush his shirt collar. He’d stopped wearing the business suits she’d always enjoyed picking out for him, instead buying his own skinny designer jeans and Armani designer shirts. His blue eyes, made brighter by new contact lenses, narrowed.
“What if I need to get in contact with you?” Riley asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wendell demanded. “Are you going to start in on this again? I call you every night. I talk to Maggy every morning. I’m working, Riley. I’m trying to save Belle Isle. Trying to make a living for my family. For us. You think I want to work all these crazy hours? Think I don’t miss spending time with my kid?”
Snippets of those tense conversations over the past year played in an endless loop in Riley’s mind.
Maggy was back. “Hey! No snooping.” She snatched the phone out of Riley’s hand.
“I wasn’t snooping,” Riley said. “Who were you Snapchatting with?”
Riley raised one eyebrow.
“Okay,” she relented. “I was texting Daddy, letting him know we’re here at the ferry dock.”
“Did he text you back?”
“Not yet,” Maggy admitted. “But the ferry doesn’t leave for another twenty minutes. He’ll be here.”
Riley squeezed her daughter’s narrow shoulder. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. You know how busy he’s been. He’ll probably have to catch the morning boat.”
“He’s coming tonight,” Maggy insisted. “He promised. For the full moon party.”
“I just don’t want you to be disappointed if he doesn’t make it.…”
But Maggy wasn’t listening. “Parrish!”
The leggy redhead in a white tank top and black capri pants darted across the parking lot toward them, teetering dangerously atop stylish, red, alligator-skin, three-inch, cork-soled, platform sandals.
Maggy flung herself into Parrish’s outstretched arms. “You dyed your hair! I love, love, love it!”
“Thank Gawd somebody does,” Parrish drawled. “Your uncle Ed detests it. He says I look like a hoochie mama.”
She grinned at her best friend over the top of the child’s head. “What’s your verdict?”
Riley lifted a lock of hair and considered. “It’s different.”
“Always the diplomat,” Parrish said, laughing. “Tell the truth. You hate it, too.”
They started to make their way back toward the ferry dock, arm in arm, with Maggy and Banks bringing up the rear.
“No, really. It’s cute. You just took me by surprise, that’s all,” Riley said. “This is definitely not a hoochie-mama shade. I think it suits you. What made you decide to go red?”
“No special reason. I was bored with being blond.”
“You’re the only woman I know who could get tired of being a blond bombshell.”
“More like a cherry bomb than a bombshell,” Parrish corrected. “Hey. I spotted you chatting with Belle Isle Barbie when I pulled into the lot. What did your new best friend want?”
Riley didn’t want her daughter to overhear the two of them dishing up a serving of snark on Andrea Payne.
“Mags, it’s too hot out here on the asphalt for Mr. Banks. Why don’t you take him over to the shade of the loading area and pour some cool water into his bowl? It’s in that tote with the blue handles.”
Parrish watched the girl and her dog lope toward the dock. “My Lord. She’s grown another inch just since I saw her at Grayton on Easter. And did she just now sprout boobs, or is that my imagination?”
“She’s growing like a weed and already wearing an A-cup bra, although she’d kill me if she knew I’d told you that. She’s so self-conscious about her body right now. I think she’s going to take after Wendell’s side of the family.”
“Let’s hope she’s not a hundred-percent Griggs,” Parrish said, rolling her eyes. “How’s that going, by the way? Is Wendell coming, or do you think he’ll be a total no-show?”
“He promised both me and his daughter that he’d be on the ferry with us this afternoon. But so far, no sign of him. He hasn’t returned any of our calls or texts or e-mails. Not even Maggy’s, which isn’t like him.”
“He’d never break a promise to Maggy,” Parrish agreed. “But to his wife? Different story. Right?”
Riley wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. “All too true.”
“Typical passive-aggressive bullshit. He doesn’t want to be the one to break his kid’s heart.”
Copyright © 2016 by Whodunnit, Inc.