When Chloe Henning opens the front door, she stifles a gasp, for before her is possibly the best-looking man she has ever met--tall, at least six feet three inches, with large green eyes flecked with hazel and a beautifully sculpted nose and mouth. Braden Willis is wealthy and cultured, and his passion for Chloe disrupts her quiet existence in Pentwater. A golden life in Chicago beckons. But first Chloe needs to free herself and her family from the heartache brought about by the events of the black summer nine years before. A promise Chloe made to her sister before she died must now be broken in order for the Hening family to move forward and for Chloe to find love--again.
It was the middle of August, which brought with it mid-August things: end-of-season sales at the gift shops and hazy, muggy days topped by dry, papery-green leaves. And though the harbor still churned with growling power boats and sleek sliding sailboats, a quiet knowledge hung over the little lakeside berg of Pentwater, Michigan, like a mist. A change of season was due.
Chloe Hening pushed on the heavy wooden screen door of “Art at Pentwater,” stepping into the hot ripe sunshine.
“Thanks, Mrs. Chartel,” she called out over her shoulder. “I’ll be back next week.”
Chloe paused, carefully placing the “Art at Pentwater” receipts into a large briefcase. With her shiny ponytail, casual top and jean shorts, Chloe didn’t look like a bookkeeper, except for the battered briefcase she lugged from store to store. Talk in Pentwater was that Chloe Hening had become a most attractive woman as she reached her 27th birthday. This was surprising, since her earlier years had been less than promising.
The shy, skinny girl with mouse-brown hair had filled out, ever so slightly, streaked her hair either by bottle or the sun—it was hard to tell which—and brought attention to her very blue eyes with the careful use of mascara. With these outward changes came more confidence and poise. But, of course, she was 27 and no longer a child. The shop owners still felt a jolt when those blue eyes twinkled at them in adult-to-adult jest. They remembered the little girl tucked behind her father’s legs or trudging, head down, around corners on her way to school. But now they trusted her with their books, their very livelihoods, and with good reason, for Chloe was an excellent bookkeeper.
It seems she was born to take care of finances. In her teens she was always hanging around her father as he grumbled his way through the accounts at Manitou Inn, the resort hotel he owned and ran. Each year she handled more of Manitou Inn’s accounting chores until, at 18, Chloe took over entirely. Her father’s bragging about her—and the fact Manitou Inn was thriving—led other Pentwater business owners to entrust Chloe with their books. For this reason, without the benefit of college, Chloe was well-employed. Since her clients were generally seasonal businesses, her work dropped sharply in the fall and started up again during tax season. But fall was the time for repairs at Manitou Inn, where Chloe lived with her father and her sister’s child, Lilli.
As Chloe trudged down the street, briefcase in tow, her fingers patted the pocket of her shorts to feel the crispness of the letter she had just picked up from the post office. It was an official notice that Braden Willis from Willis Properties, Inc., would arrive in Pentwater on Friday, exactly four days later, to talk to Chloe and her father about updating Manitou Inn and making it part of their chain of hotels.
Chloe paused as she reached Manitou Inn and tried to analyze it impersonally. The summer home of an industrial baron from Chicago, with five turrets and a huge pillared portico—neighborhood children dubbed it “the castle”—it was built in 1904. Manitou Inn was an architect’s dream and a handyman’s nightmare. It was a nightmare especially for her also aging father, now 60, who had purchased it for a song 25 years ago and done extensive remodeling that was now showing some fray around the edges.
Chloe sighed and marched in the front door, past the visitor’s lounge and through the door in back of the front desk that led to the family’s living area.
“Hi, Pops,” she called, flinging her briefcase onto a worn green brocade sofa.
A muffled “Whazzat” from the kitchen led Chloe there, only to see her father belly up under the sink, his legs jerking with the effort of tightening a pipe.
“Pops, you know you’re not supposed to be doing that. Where’s Charlie?”
“How do I know? Resting under a tree, I suppose,” came the muttered reply. “Dad-gummed rotten pipe keeps breaking.”
Chloe half bent over. It was useless to argue with her father.
“Well, can I run to the hardware store for some more rotten pipes or joints?”
“No. Someone has got to cover the desk. Find that lazy nincompoop Charlie, wherever he’s hiding, and send him to help me.”
“I’ll call him,” Chloe said. “Don’t worry. I’ll cover the desk.”
As soon as Charlie had been dispatched and Chloe answered a few phone calls and gave extra towels to guests in Room 10, Lilli walked through the door, fresh from her art class.
“How was Mr. Weatherspoon, darlin’?”
“Mean. But we drew birds. Want to see?”
Blowing up the dark bangs sticking to her forehead, Lilli pulled out charcoal sketches of birds in flight from her portfolio that looked—well, in their accuracy and proportion, nothing like the drawings of an 8-year-old. More astounding was how Lilli caught the motion of flight.
Chloe sighed. “Beautiful, beautiful.”
“Oh, they’re really not that good,” Lilli said, sniffing. “And he didn’t give me time to finish. Can I go to the beach, Chloe? Then I’ll watch the birds and sketch some. Can I go if I promise to stay out of the water?”
Chloe looked wistfully at Lilli’s wide, shining brown eyes.
“Lunch first, sweetie. Maude’s waiting for you in the kitchen with your peanut butter sandwich. I don’t want you at the beach alone. And Grandpa’s busy. How about if I take you at 2:00 p.m., when I’m done posting this account?”
And with a “Maude, I’m home,” Lilli unceremoniously dropped her portfolio and sprinted for the kitchen.
Chloe settled her briefcase on the worn desk, thinking how much she too needed a walk on the beach, to dig her toes into the hot sand and watch the gulls flying through the blue fathomless sky while Lilli drew. She only wished the closeness she felt to God and the peace she experienced by the lake extended back to the house with her accounts. But no matter. They had to be done. She opened her ledger book decisively.
Later, after she and Lilli splashed in the waves and fed the gulls part of a bag of stale bread that Lilli was using now to entice the birds close enough to draw, Chloe lay back on the beach blanket and closed her eyes.
Lilli and the secret. Chloe thought of it more and more lately. She couldn’t help feeling keeping the secret hurt Lilli, no matter how good the intentions were of its instigator, Lilli’s mother.
What a black impact that summer nine years ago had on her family, with the exquisite exception of Lilli who, by her very nature, must be a treasure always. It all began when Lilli’s father, a painter—a married painter—arrived in Pentwater for a summer. He came to paint water colors of Pentwater and Lake Michigan, as well as give his two school-age children a vacation while his socialite wife visited Europe with her parents. Chloe was 18 then; her older sister Marie, 20. Chloe and Marie often babysat his children at the beach while he would set up his easel and paint. His painting was exceptional; his personality even more so. The stories he told! Just being around him made life an exciting adventure. He was always “on,” always alert, always living, with his dark penetrating eyes and shock of unruly black hair. Even Chloe felt the electricity surrounding him, though she was dating Mark that summer. But it was Marie who began to worry her.
It was so unlike Marie, serious and responsible, the one who took over as mother when Chloe’s mom, who suffered from a weak heart, had an “attack”. Chloe could feel the joyful glow radiating from her sister when this artist fellow was around. She could read the love in her sister’s eyes because that was the summer of Mark, when Chloe’s heart too was full of the exhilaration first love brings. But David Trassault was a 35-year-old man, a husband, a father. Nothing good awaited her sister there, Chloe knew. And Chloe’s feelings for Mark—indeed that whole summer—were affected, tinged with the darkness of the passion that was engulfing her sister.
Her parents, busy and oblivious, didn’t notice their elder daughter’s absorption with this guest. So Chloe could only look on anxiously as David laughed, painted, told stories and played his guitar to the soft smiles of Marie and watch them come together like a magnet. Her fears became certainty when she caught the two of them in a tight embrace on a moonlight stroll after putting his children to bed.
David and his children left Manitou Inn during the second week of August, but by then the damage was done. Chloe watched her sister suffer in summer’s mellow aftermath. But Marie was silent until November, when she informed her astonished parents she was pregnant. Pops’ angry demand that David be told of his baby only made Marie more stubborn. She wouldn’t hurt David and his marriage. And in the end she made the family give a solemn promise that David should never know about Lilli. How that vow would have been kept had Marie not died of a blood clot three days after Lilli’s birth, Chloe had no way of knowing. But since it was Marie’s last request, the family felt it should be honored. Her death sealed their vow. Unfortunately, it also, in effect, made Lilli an orphan, an orphan without cause.
Chloe watched the thin little girl with the long dark curls sketch demurely with one hand while with the other hand she scattered bread crumbs for the gulls. If only David had come back to Manitou Inn, he would have known in an instant this was his daughter, so strong was the resemblance. This must be truly fate, for they heard nothing from him in the nine years since the summer of Lilli’s conception.
One hour stretched into two until Chloe and Lilli at last departed, after a final wallow in the waves to replace the sand grains with water droplets which cooled the sun’s fry on their block-long walk home.
When they arrived, her father was cutting bushes in the front yard.
“Pops,” Chloe called. “It’s too hot for that. Give it an hour to cool down, and I’ll do it.”
Uncharacteristically, her father laid down the clippers and headed, red-faced and perspiring, for the house.
“You’re right. I’m exhausted. I think I’ll take a nap.”
Later in the twilight, when the bushes had taken their toll on her in scratches, woodsy fragments and sweat, Chloe grabbed the letter from her dresser and headed downstairs to find her father. He was tucked in his armchair watching TV. Lilli had gone to Maude’s for the night, to further her tight companionship with Maude’s granddaughter, Melanie, over Barbie dolls and videos.
“Got the letter today, Pops,” she said.
“Oh, you know, from Willis Properties. They’re sending Braden Willis up on Friday to talk to us.”
“Great. Some big-time Chicago schmuck trying to steal our business out from under us.”
“Or saving you from an early demise fretting about this place.”
“Well, my blood pressure is going to skyrocket when they come in here and ruin everything.”
“Oh, Pops,” Chloe said with a sigh. “We’ve been through this before. You know running the hotel is too much for you now that you’re older and alone. It was hard enough when Mom was living and you two were in your forties.”
“I just can’t stand strangers telling me what to do, with all their newfangled ideas.”
“Give them a chance. Okay? I mean a real chance, because you need help desperately, and you know it. I’m surprised Charlie hasn’t quit on you by now.”
With a grunt of disapproval, her father resumed his TV show. Chloe hoped this Braden Willis was a good salesman, because he would have a tough sell convincing her father to agree to a partnership with his chain of hotels where they would renovate, help run the hotel and make it part of their advertised chain for a 50/50 profit split.