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I invite you to join the Salt Marsh Book Club-

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Veronica

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CHAPTER 1

        “There’s a Sergeant Thacker to see you.” My assistant, Jennifer, stood in my office doorway. Her face flushed with concern and a touch of curiosity.
        “I don’t know anyone by that name.” I grabbed my purse. “I’m late. Ask Melinda to help him.”
        “He’s a uniformed police officer. And he’s asking for Owen Landers’ mother.”
       Black squiggly lines swam in my periphery, and I gripped my desk.
       Jennifer stepped aside, and a man in a dark blue uniform ducked through the opening. His shoulders drooped as if posture was the last thing on his mind. His puffy brown eyes held remnants of dread.
       I braced for the inevitable hit, the way you do at a stoplight when you glance in the rearview mirror and see a car racing forward. “Owen?”
        “Yes. But your son’s not hurt.” He waved a palm roughly the size of Owen’s catcher’s mitt toward my desk chair. “Maybe you should sit, Mrs. Landers.”
       I heard my mother’s voice in my head. This is going to be bad. I tightened my grip on the edge of my desk. “Where is my son?”
        “In the hospital.”
        “Hospital?” My head spun like I was half-drunk or fighting a bad case of the flu.
       He stretched his arm across my desk as if to catch me. “The hospital’s just a precaution. Your son suffered a few scratches. No broken bones. No stitches.” He rounded my desk and clasped my hand in his, patted it the way my grandmother had turned a pinch of dough into a biscuit. Three quick taps. “A bystander pulled your son from the Porsche in time.”
       The room hushed, as if the air and the lights and the officer hung in suspension waiting for further explanation. “In time for what?”
        “Your husband.” He released my hand. “Adam Landers. He died at the scene. I’m sorry for your loss.”
        “Ex-husband.” The words escaped my lips before I could grab them back. “We’re divorced.” I pressed my hand to my mouth. My mind felt pushed, compressed. “Adam’s dead?” I should cry. I wanted to cry. To weep for Adam. But I had no tears left for him. Still, the officer’s news emptied me. Owen would be devastated. “Which hospital?” I ached to touch my son. See him. Hold him. Comfort him.
       He handed me a card. “Your son’s at Children’s Hospital. Can someone drive you?”
I must’ve walked out of Morgan Stanley and climbed into the passenger seat of my car, but I didn’t remember taking those steps. When my mind resurfaced, Jennifer was driving, and Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital loomed dead ahead.
       Questions bounced in my brain.
       Where was the accident?
       Did Adam die on impact or did he linger in pain?
       Did Adam’s sister Vivienne know?
       Who pulled Owen from the wreckage?
       I wanted to kiss that person’s feet.
       Then I remembered my text message threatening to haul Adam back to court for breaching our custody agreement. My stomach lurched, and the bitter taste of bile coated my tongue.
       Jennifer parked the Hummer, the only valuable asset Adam asked for in the divorce and didn’t get. She grabbed our purses in one hand and my arm in the other.
        “The police officer said he wasn’t hurt,” I said. “He’ll be in the emergency room.” I ran through the lobby, down the hall, and stared at the receptionist with beautiful silver hair and pink lipstick the exact color of her smock. “My son—” An uncontrollable tremble shook my body.
       Jennifer arrived out of breath. She threw our purses on the counter and wrapped her arm around my waist. “Hang on, Kate.” She spoke to the receptionist. “Ms. Landers’s son was in a car accident this afternoon. Owen Landers, he’s eight-years-old.”
       The pink lady nodded and typed something on her keyboard. Picked up her phone.“Owen Landers’s mother is here.”
       I paced a five-foot circle in front of the pink lady’s counter, and finally, a nurse in green scrubs walked from behind a pair of swinging doors. “Who’s the mother of Owen Landers?” She looked from me to Jennifer.
        “I am.”
       She settled her gaze on me. “We moved him to the second floor. Room 212. But you need to go to admitting—”
        “Elevator’s that way.” Jennifer pointed down the hall.
       I flew down the corridor, dodged a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair, and punched the elevator call button. The doors slid open with a rush of air. Jennifer and I jumped inside and pushed the second-floor button.
       Owen’s room was in front of the nurse’s station. Inside, the only light came from a small lamp on the table beside his bed. And Owen slept. He wore a blue-striped hospital gown, a white sheet folded across his chest. And on his forehead a small bandage, the only sign he’d survived a fatal accident.
       Another nurse in green scrubs followed me in. “Are either of you the mother?”
        “Why is he sleeping?” No cuts. Only a bruise on his forehead. No blood. I ran my hand over his chest. “Is he hurt? The police officer said he wasn’t hurt.”
        “The doctor gave him a sedative.”
        “Why? What happened?”
        “I don’t know. He just arrived five minutes ago.” She placed a clipboard at the foot of Owen’s bed.“Dr. Sanderson is on rounds, but she’ll be here soon. There’s a message on his paperwork—you need to go downstairs to admitting, sign forms, and give them insurance information.” The nurse rushed her words, clearly in control, but not in an unkind way. A no-nonsense tone. It was one I recognized and often used with my customers.
        “I’ll go later. I’m not leaving my son.” I smoothed curls from Owen’s forehead, ran my hand down his arm. My fingers lingered on a scratch above his elbow, not bandaged. I eased the sheet off his legs, ran my fingertips over his feet, counted his toes.
       A few minutes later an admitting clerk arrived with a laptop, and I answered endless questions, provided ID and insurance cards. She finally left.
       I repositioned a chair close to the bed, sat and held Owen’s hand, determined to be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes.
       A young woman charged into the room as if responding to a code blue. She stopped at the sink and washed her hands. “I’m Dr. Sanderson.” She wore her knee-length white coat unbuttoned and looked to be in her early thirties. Her blonde ponytail and short black skirt might’ve swayed my impression.
        “Why is Owen sleeping? Is he hurt?”
        “He was agitated when he arrived. I ordered a sedative.” Dr. Sanderson dried her hands, walked to the far side of the bed, and lifted one of Owen’s eyelids. She seemed satisfied and plucked the clipboard from the end of his bed. “I’ve scheduled a child psychologist to examine Owen. I’ll have to consult with him before he can be released.”
       My heart banged in my chest like an unlatched screen door in a storm. “A psychologist?”
        “Your son arrived inconsolably.” Dr. Sanderson made a note on the chart and put it back in place. She must’ve noticed my shock because her hazel eyes filled with compassion. “Requiring a sedative, in this case, was understandable. Owen witnessed his father trapped inside his burning vehicle. It must’ve been gruesome. Three seasoned paramedics were still visibly shaken when they brought your son to the ER.”
        “Oh, my God.” I attempted to conjure the image in my mind, but the picture refused to form.
       The no-nonsense nurse handed me a glass of orange juice. A whiff of antiseptic followed her hands. “Sip this. You’ll feel better.”
       Dr. Sanderson touched my shoulder. “I’m going to keep your son tonight for observation. I’ll review Dr. Cooper’s report, he’s the psychologist, and we’ll decide from there when Owen can be released.”
       I set the juice on the side table and held Owen’s hand. “Sweetheart, it’s Mommy. I’m here, baby. Mommy’s here.” I ran my fingers through his curls, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek.
       The doctor and nurse left.
        “I’m going to step down the hall and grab a bottle of water,” Jennifer said. “Can I bring you anything?”
        “No, thank you.” I had no clear idea of the time. “I’m going to stay with Owen tonight. You can drive my car home, but I should call my Mom.”
        “I’ve already called Roslyn. She’ll be here by nine o’clock.” Jennifer removed a five-dollar bill from her wallet. “And the nurse said Adam’s sister Vivienne called to check on Owen, so she knows. Is there anyone else I should contact?”
       Owen would have to attend his father’s funeral. “No. There’s no one else I need to call.” I gripped my son’s hand and kissed his fingers. Tears welled in my eyes. I let them flow.
       Four hours later, Mom arrived. She slipped into the room and mimicked the same rituals I’d gone through to ensure Owen was okay. She kissed his cheek and then turned her worried gaze on me. She placed her tote bag on a chair. “I stopped downstairs and bought you a Diet Coke. It’s in the bag. I brought you a few things you might need, a toothbrush, a comb.”
       Jennifer hugged Mom and whispered something I didn’t catch, then gripped both my hands. “I’m leaving, but I’m only a phone call away.”
       Mom folded me into her arms, and I clung to her, blubbering through a new wave of tears. “Adam burned to death, and Owen witnessed it.” Even during the worst of our marriage battles, when I hated Adam to the core of my being, I hadn’t wished him dead. The muscles in my thighs trembled, and I leaned against the bed frame for support. “Adam and Owen were on their way to a baseball game in Gainesville, even though Adam knew I’d made plans to take Owen to the rodeo in Kissimmee. When Adam didn’t drop Owen at the bank at noon, I sent a text and threatened to haul Adam back to court if he didn’t have Owen at the bank by four o’clock. The car accident was my fault.” I said it more to myself than to Mom.
        “Adam flipping his car was not your fault.”
        “I knew the text would set Adam off. But I sent it anyway.”
        “Adam was driving.” Mom wrapped me in another hug. “And today’s your birthday, of course, you were angry. He ignored your request to have Owen with you.” She held me at arm’s length. “You should come home.”
       I pulled away, found a box of tissues on the table beside the bed, and wiped my tears. “Orlando is home. The doctor said Owen was distraught when he arrived. She had to sedate him. And a psychologist has to examine Owen before they release him.”
        “After the funeral, come back to Savannah, let me help you through this.”
        “Mom, I can’t discuss this now.”
        “Adam’s death means the custody battle for Owen is over, and you have two beautiful homes sitting empty in Georgia. There’s no reason to stay in Florida now.” Roslyn the fixer. She saw a problem and swooped in with a solution.
        “The Barry House is Calvin’s.” My voice had a subdued, bruised note, and the space between my eyebrows and down my nose tingled. Any minute the tears would start to flow again. “Once Cal calms down, he’ll want it back.”
        “Then spend the rest of the summer in Shell Hammock, at Spartina.” She opened the tote bag and handed me the Diet Coke. “Spartina’s the perfect environment for Owen after this nightmare.”
       Mom hated Spartina, but she knew my grandfather’s home held a special place in my heart. I could practically hear Mom lining up her debate points. Roslyn wasn’t a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-later kind of woman. She planned. She argued. She usually won.
       “You’re a single parent now and traveling three weeks out of four is no longer an option.”
       Her trump card struck the intended mark. My gaze locked on Owen. “I could transfer to another department.” But at my management level, no positions would offer flexible forty-hour workweeks.
              Adam’s voice joined in the fray. You're analytical, Kate, born without the mothering gene.
        “You’ve run the family trust and worked full-time at the bank for the last three years,” Mom said. “You need to slow down.”
       It was an ongoing conversation Mom and I had at least once a week.
        “Spartina’s kitchen renovation is almost complete.” Her voice laced with hope. “And the river’s a magical place in the summer.”
       Memories of my granddad’s summer home, afternoon breezes on the water, horseback riding, kayaking trips to the island, played like a film in my mind. “Owen’s been begging for a horse.” I had the means now, thanks to my grandfather’s inheritance six months ago, to offer my perfect and peaceful childhood to my son. No bad memories. Nothing to remind Owen of the horrors of today.
       Vivienne swept into the room with two nurses in her wake. “Don’t give me a lecture on visiting hours. I’m his aunt—” She spotted Mom, and her face froze, but then she zeroed in on Owen and rushed to his side. “Owen.” She leaned over the bed and spoke into his ear. “Aunt Viv’s here.”
       I watched to see which Vivienne was in evidence.
       The kind sweet girl I’d known in high school kissed Owen’s cheek. But inside that toned petite body lurked another woman with a malicious heart and a mouth of venom.
       Vivienne shook Owen’s shoulder. “Honey, Aunt Viv’s here. Wake up.”
       I leaned over the bed and gripped her hand. “Viv, Owen’s sedated. The doctor wants him to sleep. Don’t wake him.”
       She ran a loving hand down his arm and kissed his forehead. Then she turned. Her beautiful pixie face contorted into gargoyle ugly. “You.” She stabbed her blood-red fingernail at me. “You killed my brother.ˮ