<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> Meridith Ward surveyed the mess cluttering Delmonico's kitchen and shuddered. The staff scurried in quick, jerky movements, but then, it was lunch hour, and a hundred St. Louis business people had to get fed and back to their jobs. <p> The owner, Angelo Bellini, burst through the swinging door, nearly slamming into Meridith's back. "Please ... we were not expecting you," he said over the din of clattering pans and voices shouting orders. <p> "That's kind of the point, Mr. Bellini." Meridith opened her notebook and continued the inspection. <p> The owner discreetly removed raw chicken breasts from the sink, setting them in a nearby skillet. He did not wash his hands. <p> Meridith made another note on the list of infringements. <p> "Meridith ..." His accent caressed her name. He flashed his dimple. <p> She shot him a look. <p> "Ms. Ward," he continued, "we have had an unusually difficult morning. My cook, he called in sick, my prep boy did not even show up, and I have our host cutting vegetables." He gestured wildly. "He does not even know what he is doing. Such a day!" <p> Meridith strolled through the kitchen, still writing. The cook staff wove around her as though their moves had been choreographed. Despite the disorder, the savory smells of garlic and roasted chicken filled the air. <p> "I cannot even tell you!" Mr. Bellini continued. "Please, we can do this another day. I would be happy to show you around myself tomorrow." <p> Meridith's phone vibrated in her pocket. "Excuse me," she shouted over the whir of a machine roaring to life. <p> She retreated to a quieter corner of the kitchen and opened her phone, so eager to escape Mr. Bellini she didn't check the caller ID. "Meridith Ward." <p> A moment's silence made her wonder if she'd missed the reply. <p> "Hello? This is Meridith." <p> "Meridith Ward?" A male voice, unfamiliar. <p> "Yes, may I help you?" <p> "Do you know T. J. Ward? Terrance James Ward of Nantucket?" <p> It was a name she hadn't heard spoken in years. A name she tried not to think about, usually with success. The name sucked the moisture from her mouth, set her heart racing, stole the reply from her tongue. <p> "Hello?" <p> It was just a phone call. She cleared her throat. "Yes, you have the right Meridith. How may I help you?" <p> "My name is Edward Thomas. I need a moment of your time, but it sounds like I've caught you in the middle of something." <p> Her excuse to avoid this altogether. She could hang up and never accept another call from Edward Thomas. But problems didn't resolve when you ignored them; they got worse. She scanned the kitchen. Case in point. <p> She drew a shaky breath and pulled herself to her full five-foot-three inches. "Now is fine, Mr. Thomas. Go ahead." <p> "I'm an attorney on the island of Nantucket. First of all-and I'm so sorry to relay this over the phone-we've been trying to locate you for two weeks. I'm afraid that your-that T. J. Ward and his wife, Eva, were involved in a boating accident. They didn't, that is ... I'm afraid neither survived, Meridith." <p> Her racing heart skipped a beat, like the wheels of a tire hitting a speed bump, then continued on its frantic way. They were gone? Both of them, just like that? <p> She waited for the numbness to dissipate and the wave of pain to wash over her. But it didn't come. <p> She should feel something. Something other than this cold void. Was there something wrong with her? Maybe she needed time to process. Two weeks ago, he'd said. The funerals were over by now. It was all over, and there was nothing for her to do. <p> "Meridith?" <p> She watched Mr. Bellini continuing his belated cleanup. She remembered her relief at the call and realized now that she'd chosen the worse of two evils. <p> "Thank you for notifying me, Mr. Thomas. I appreciate your taking the time to locate me, but I really must return to work." <p> "Wait, Meridith, I-I'm afraid there's more. I handled T. J. and Eva's legal matters." <p> Of course, there was the matter of his estate. This was a lot to digest. <p> "I'm sure you're aware that T. J. and Eva ran a bed-and-breakfast-I'm not certain how long it's been since you've seen them." <p> "Quite awhile." <i>Years, actually.</i> <p> Mr. Bellini was yelling at the prep guy, making imaginary chops with the side of his hand. <p> "I surmised as much. Nonetheless, T. J. and Eva were very clear in their provisions, should the unthinkable happen. They wanted Summer Place to go to you. Furthermore, they've named you as guardian of the children." <p> Summer Place ... the <i>children</i>? <p> An inappropriate bubble of laughter caught in her throat. <p> "I know this must come as a shock. I'm not unaware that-" <p> "There must be some mistake." Her hand worked its way to her throat. The children? Three of them. How old were they now? <p> What did it matter? This was a mistake. A clerical error. <p> "I spoke with T. J. and Eva myself. The will was drawn up several years ago, but I've spoken with them regularly since then. We were friends as well." <p> <i>Then they should've left the children to you!</i> Meridith pressed her fingertips to her forehead. Impossible. What did she know about children? Especially these children? <p> "I don't know what to say, Mr. Thomas." A gross understatement. <p> "This is a lot to take in all at once, I understand. But we're in a bit of a pickle here. An elderly neighbor has been staying at Summer Place, caring for the children. As I said, it's taken two weeks to locate your number. Mrs. Hubbard is in poor health, and there's no one else. Your presence is needed rather immediately." <p> "My job ..." <p> "Might I suggest a short leave of absence?" <p> There had to be somebody. Somebody <i>else</i>. Eva had a brother, didn't she? <p> As if reading her mind, Mr. Thomas continued. "We've been unable to reach Eva's brother. He's traveling, and last the children heard, he was in Georgia, but that's all we know. You should know that he was named as a possible guardian in the event that you declined the task. But again, the need for help is immediate." <p> She played with her engagement ring. She couldn't leave Stephen, couldn't leave her job, could she? The thought of leaving St. Louis, leaving all that was familiar, even for a short time, brought a tidal wave of anxiety she hadn't felt since college. She drew a deep breath, then another. <p> "The fact is, the children are in dire need of your assistance, Meridith. Since Mrs. Hubbard fell ill, members of the church have been taking shifts. Very kind of them, of course, but it can't go on. If you don't come quickly, I'm afraid I'll have no choice but to alert Child Protective Services. I'd hate to see the children go to foster care, even temporarily. And there's no assurance they'd be placed together." <p> Foster care! Meridith imagined suited men coming into their home, carrying them off. She imagined the littlest, a boy, screaming for his mommy. <p> From somewhere deep inside compassion swelled, followed quickly by a surge of protectiveness she didn't know she was capable of. She had no doubt there were decent foster homes. But the thought of the children being separated seemed cruel when they'd just lost their parents. Besides that, they were orphans. And didn't the Good Book admonish them to look after the orphans? <p> She had to do something. It was her responsibility, even if she'd never met them, because T. J. and Eva had named her the children's guardian. And because, like it or not, she was their sister. <p> <p> <h3> Chapter Two </h3> "Summer Place Bed-and-Breakfast, please." Meridith buckled her belt, settling into the cab's cracked vinyl seat. <p> As the driver accelerated, Meridith eyed the pedestrians strolling the brick sidewalks. So this was it. The place where her dad had started a new family with his young wife. It was a far cry from the St. Louis neighborhood that had been her childhood home. No window-barred stores here. No sign of potholed pavement or littered curbs. Nantucket boasted shingled storefronts and pristine tree-lined streets made of cobblestone. How quaint. <p> She folded her hands in her lap. She didn't want to think about her father today. As it was, her stomach churned, not from the waves that had rolled under the ferry, but from the stress of being away. She hadn't traveled since college, and now she remembered why. She longed for her tidy lawn, her garden window over the porcelain sink, even her nappy rug that welcomed her home. <p> Soon enough, she comforted herself. After receiving Mr. Thomas's call, she'd decided she'd stay with the children until their uncle returned from his vacation. They had a relationship with him. He was the obvious person for the job, and as soon as he returned, she'd be on the first plane back to St. Louis. Surely that was as far as her Christian duty extended. <p> A bed-and-breakfast. What did she know about running a business? <p> Meridith stuffed the fear down. How hard could it be? She knew how to cook and clean and be professional. She'd probably only be there a week or two. Her boss hadn't been happy about the leave of absence, but he'd reluctantly granted her two weeks. <p> When the driver turned down a pebbled lane parallel to the shore, Meridith read the street sign. Driftwood Lane. She was nearly there. The houses were parted by generous lawns that sprouted barren trees. Skeletal flower beds lined the walks and drives leading to the shake-shingled homes. Come spring, the lawns would probably blossom into a virtual fairy tale, but winter hadn't yet released its cold grip on the island. <p> "Here we are." The driver pulled into a hedge-lined drive. Gravel popped under the tires as he drove down the lane and stopped by the walk. <p> Meridith got out, removed a few bills from her bag, then surveyed the house while the driver retrieved her luggage. Like most of the island homes, Summer Place was clothed in weathered gray shingles and trimmed in white. A widow's walk perched on top and no doubt provided a stunning view of the harbor. A shaded porch stretched along the house's front, wide and welcoming. Between the porch's columns, a handmade shingle proclaiming "Summer Place" swung in the breeze. Wasn't this cozy. <p> Meridith paid the driver and started down the flagstone path, pulling her suitcase. The house looked older as she neared. The white paint was peeling in spots, and the thick vines that crawled up the house hadn't appeared overnight. The porch was not quite level, as if time and gravity had weighed it down. <p> A plethora of wind chimes stretched the length of the porch, bits of shells, glass, and bamboo tinkling and rattling together. She wondered if Eva had collected them. If her dad had gifted her with the chimes on her birthday, on their anniversary. <p> The detail made everything too real. Her dad had lived here. His kids were inside right now. Her brothers and sister. <p> Something thudded hard inside her, and she told herself it was only the echo of the suitcase bumping along the walk. She steadied her breathing as she approached the steps. <p> A woman's voice leaked through the screen door. "She's here ... Come on, Max. Noelle! Hurry up, honey!" <p> Meridith lowered the suitcase's pull bar and carried it up the wooden steps. The porch spindles were poorly spaced, she noted. Just wide enough for a child's head. <p> The screen door opened, and through it came a plump brunette. Her dark hair was cut in a long bob so glossy it looked like a bottle of sunshine had been poured over it. A cluster of faint freckles covered her nose, and a twinkle lit her eyes. <p> A small body was latched on to her right leg. <p> "Welcome! You must be Meridith." <p> A large dog darted out the door and sniffed Meridith's hand. <p> "Yes, hello." Meridith pulled her hand from the dog's slimy nose and extended it to the woman, but found herself enveloped in a fleshy hug. She stiffened. Her fingers tightened on the luggage handle until her nails bit into her palm. <p> "I'm Rita Lawson from the church," the woman said, drawing away. "And this is ... Ben, honey, you have to let go just for a second. Give your sister a hug." <p> Your sister. <p> The sandy-haired child turned his face toward Rita's waist. <p> <i>I understand just how you feel, buddy.</i> "That's okay," she said to Rita, then addressed Ben. "Hello there, Ben." Meridith extended her hand, but the little boy only buried himself more deeply into Rita. She saw little of her father in his face. <i>He must favor his mom.</i> <p> Rita ruffled his short hair. "He's feeling a little shy, I guess," she said, then mouthed <i>Later.</i> "Ben is seven and a little sweetheart, aren't you, honey?" Rita rubbed the dog behind the ears. "And this is Piper. Such a good girl!" <p> The golden retriever wagged her tail. <p> "Well, come in, Meridith, you must be tired after a long day of travel." Rita let Piper inside, and Meridith imagined the dog hairs flying around on the loose, getting in guests' food. <p> She followed Rita, stepping over a high threshold. Tripping hazard. <p> She noted the wide staircase that undoubtedly led to the room where she'd be sleeping and left her bag at the base. The house smelled of something savory, a hint of lemons, and a faint essence of Old House. The wood floors creaked under her feet as she followed Rita and her extra appendage across a living room that was dominated by a massive cobblestone fireplace. Original, Meridith guessed. Antique furniture circled an oval rug, driftwood sculptures posed on every table, and paintings of beach scenes on the walls reminded guests they were on vacation. <p> She had a sudden mental image of the apartment where she'd grown up. Sticky carpet and Goodwill furniture, tiny rooms with dirty walls. This was a far cry from Warren Street. <p> Clomping footsteps on the stairs drew her attention to a dark-haired boy. He had a stout build that probably had him shopping in the husky department and chubby cheeks that dimpled when he smiled shyly. <p> "Max, come here." Rita encouraged him, but the boy willingly extended his hand. <p> "Hi." He ducked his head, but not before Meridith saw her dad's brown eyes. <p> "I'm Meridith. It's nice to meet you." <p> Rita gestured to one of the vintage mahogany-framed sofas that flanked the fireplace. "Have a seat." <p> Ben settled into Rita's side on the other sofa, Max beside him. Piper plopped down on Max's scruffy tennis shoes. <p> "Max is ten," Rita said, looking toward the stairs. "Noelle, honey, come downstairs, please!" She addressed Meridith. "You must have a million questions, and I'll try to answer as many as I can, but I have to leave in about"-she checked her watch-"ten minutes to pick up my daughter from cheerleading practice and my son from wrestling. Then there's homework and dinner, but you don't need to hear all that!" <p> "Do we have guests at the moment?" <p> "Not until the weekend, and even then, it's only one couple. This is a slow time for tourism, as you can imagine. Mrs. Hubbard probably knows more about running the place, but bless her heart, she's recovering from pneumonia just now." <p> "She goes to our church too," Max said. <p> "Well, I'm certain I'll figure things out. I appreciate all you've done for the children, Rita." <p> "Oh, it's my pleasure. Max, will you go tell your sister to come along?" <p> "I already did." <p> "Well, go get her, please. Ben, you go with him." <p> After the two boys were up the stairs, Rita leaned closer to Meridith. "I wanted a few minutes to chat with you in private. The kids have had a terrible blow, of course. You saw how clingy Ben is, and Noelle ... well, she's thirteen, and you know how that is even under happier conditions." <p> Meridith nodded. <p> "Max is probably the most stable of the group. He likes to talk, build models, and I think that helps him cope. But of course their loss is devastating and their world is suddenly unstable." <p> Meridith knew all about unstable. "Do the children know I've been granted guardianship?" <p> Rita nodded. "You might as well know Noelle isn't happy about that-no offense, she just doesn't know you. The boys have been less vocal about their opinions. I left their schedule on the island in the kitchen and wrote down everything I could think of that might be helpful." <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Driftwood Lane</b> by <b>Denise Hunter</b> Copyright © 2010 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.