Summer is here! Time for days at the beach with lots of sun, sand, and romance. Grab your sunblock and join your favourite Austen characters in their adventures at the sea.
Marianna & Ellen — two polar-opposite sisters inspired by Jane Austen’s Dashwood ladies — encounter new summertime adventures at the seashore in Marilyn Brant’s modern romantic women’s fiction story, STRANGER ON THE SHORE!
It’s been nearly two years since I first debuted on this blog a handful of scenes from my early draft of a contemporary story I’d originally titled “Gifts by the Shore.” Do some of you remember that?! 😀 The novel featured two very different sisters by the names of Marianna and Ellen — and, yes, the nod to Sense & Sensibility was intentional! — who are dealing with love and family issues, major life changes, and their sisterly relationship during one summer when Marianna is staying at Ellen’s vacation bungalow on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Well, I’ve gotten quite a few questions about what happened to that story over the past couple of years from readers asking when it would be finished… Questions I can now happily answer!! Many of you already know that I began a series of standalone romances last year that take place in the fictional Chicago lakeside suburb of Mirabelle Harbor. As soon as I began work on that series, I realized that Marianna and Ellen’s story fit perfectly within that world. I could imagine these sisters growing up in Mirabelle Harbor and knowing the Michaelsen family. I could see them interacting with the residents of the town. In fact, I knew immediately that Marianna would be very good friends with Olivia Michaelsen (the sister-in-law of Chance from Take a Chance on Me, Sharlene from The One That I Want, and Blake from You Give Love a Bad Name). So, as I completed and then published those first three stories in the series, I kept working on this fourth book, which is finally ready for release on June 26th under its new title, Stranger on the Shore!! Here’s a little bit about the novel:
On the verge of turning forty and having just lost her job, Marianna Gregory flees Mirabelle Harbor for the summer with little more than a suitcase, her beat-up car, and the blessings of her good friend Olivia Michaelsen. Her ex-husband is living a new life in California. Her college-aged daughter is spending her vacation with her boyfriend in Michigan. And the house Marianna once called her own finally sold, so she has nowhere to live in Illinois now anyway.
However, her wealthy sister Ellen owns an empty bungalow on the beach in Sarasota, Florida, so Marianna turns to the sea for a chance to go shelling, regroup, and figure out what to do with this new chapter in her life. She doesn’t bargain on having to face down several family crises while she’s away, nor does she count on meeting a handsome beachcomber who bears a striking resemblance to Elvis. Just as surprising is the craft project she gets roped into volunteering for and the new group of friends who might just change the way she views the world and her future.
The most unexpected gifts can be found where the land meets the sea. STRANGER ON THE SHORE, a Mirabelle Harbor story.
Given our theme of “Austen at the Seaside” this month, this long, double excerpt below includes both Marianna’s first visit to the Sarasota’s Siesta Key beach and an introduction to Gil, a man she meets on the shore. (Note: Stranger on the Store is now up for pre-order on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Kobo, and it’ll soon be available in paperback!!) Hope you’ll like it!
A mix of cerulean with teal for the furthest watery depths.
A dabbling of silvery sunlight, whiting out patches of sea and sand like a spotlight.
Gil Canton studied the shoreline with the practiced eye of an artist. Which was what he was, he reminded himself. Never mind the low, deep voice from decades’ past that told him otherwise. That told him he should be using his powers of observation on “a worthier, more lucrative cause.”
A faint blend of burnt umber and goldenrod in a subtle line underscoring the crisp cottony tufts of rolling waves.
A flash of gray and green as the sunfish tangled with the seaweed just below the surface.
Anyone with a heart knew the creatures of the ocean were as worthy as anything out in the world. That the Gulf was not only a visual feast for a painter, but it was a composer’s symphony, a poet’s playground.
Anyone with a heart…ahh. But that was the problem, wasn’t it?
Gil grimaced. Calf-deep in the warm water and strolling languidly along the Siesta Key shoreline, he picked up his stride to outrace that old, familiar voice. It didn’t work. It never the hell worked. But he turned his attention to the passersby in hopes of a distraction.
Shades of skin color in a palette of creams, tans, bronzes, chocolates and, sometimes, sunburned reds.
The fascinating discordance of fabric hues and textures and patterns, draping the wearer in a manner that left no question as to whether the individual wanted to be noticed…or wanted to blend into the seascape.
He knew he looked at the beach differently than he had when he’d first moved here twenty-six years ago. And, unlike the appreciative but unobservant gazes of the bikini-clad tourists, he needed to distinguish between the various ranges of blues and greens, the buffet of multicolored accessory images and the differing degrees of whiteness from the sand to the bungalows—for the sake of his passion. His paintings.
Why was it so easy, so natural for him to be both loving and discerning in one area of his life but not in another?
With a canvas, he could step back and assess it. If he saw he’d done something wrong or, more frequently, had neglected to do something completely right, he would be able to see the problem area with the help of a few feet of distance and, then, correct it.
With relationships—parental, romantic, professional or otherwise—it was never that simple. Stepping back was harder for the other person to accept. And it tended to create more damage, even when the objective was to do just the opposite. To achieve a fresh perspective. Clarity.
Art and life? Not so much the same.
He kicked lightly at a broken conch with the tip of his water shoe. Even with a chunk of its shell missing, it was still beautiful. There was almost heartbreaking beauty on this shore.
Seagulls squawking above and around him in a flying dance of circles and landings.
Children splashing and frolicking, often with a battalion of siblings and water toys.
An old woman dressed all in white, someone he’d seen many times, stood several yards from him, chatting with an attractive younger lady—an obvious newcomer. He couldn’t help but check out the new woman. She was a tad overdressed in her pinkish t-shirt and navy shorts. Untanned and pensive. Awed by the Gulf setting in that mystified tourist sort of way. The coast was full of visitors like that. Nothing wrong with them, he supposed. His business depended on them, after all. But it was hard to get to know many people well in such a transient environment.
With a shrug, he returned his focus to the water—the rhythmic breaking of the waves trying their darnedest to drown out his father’s voice once and for all until, a few minutes later, a sound he couldn’t ignore pierced his concentration.
The white sand enveloped my feet.
It was so powdered-sugar like that my poor toes, unprotected in flimsy pink flip-flops, weren’t safe from the thousands of granules of warmth that attacked them and my heels with every sinking step on my trek to the water’s edge. Warm sand, yes, but not scorching. That surprised me.
Ellen was right. Sarasota was not Mirabelle Harbor. And the Siesta Key beach was not remotely like a visit to the chilly, rocky shores of Lake Michigan. I felt myself to be a stranger in a strange land.
I’d barely had a chance to register this thought when, in spite of the jarring differences between my home state and this all-natural water park, I began getting caught up in it.
The colors grabbed me first. Had I not known better, I would’ve sworn they were fake. I gazed out into the Gulf and that blue was so vibrant, so very azure that I was sure it’d been dyed. Nothing in the real world could possibly look that blue. I recalled photos of tropical places I’d seen in magazines like National Geographic and always figured they’d been touched up somehow. Tinted, so as to make the landlocked Northerners envious.
But I could see now that—no—reality actually could be this stunning. This utopian. And that the photographs were only able to capture the images, not the pervasive scent of sand, salty water, and sunscreen. Not the sound of the squawking seagulls and chattering beachcombers. Not the feel of the hot sand granules, the sweat beads sliding down my arms, neck, and spine. Not the shocking warmth of wading into the Gulf, like sinking into the most amazing Jacuzzi ever.
A giggle rose in my throat, and I was that five-year-old girl again, discovering the world freshly after our move to Mirabelle Harbor. How magically different my new home had seemed to me then…as this one did now.
With a degree of impulsivity I hadn’t felt in a while, I kicked off my flip-flops and carried them, stepping along the undulating seam where the waves lapped rhythmically against the shore, caressing it. Every stride was a brand new stitch, connecting me, however tenuously, to this exotic, amphibious fabric of a place.
The further I walked, the faster my blood pumped. I could feel my heart rate increasing, and not just from the exercise. My pulse was matching the heartbeat of the sea—the ebb and flow of the Gulf’s ever-shifting tide—marking the passage of time like a ticking grandfather clock. The waves were a swinging pendulum of seconds, beating the minutes, hours, days, and reminding me of years that had passed, of relationships that had come and gone, of emotions I’d once felt and now ceased to feel.
And then the harmonious unity of my footsteps in flawless synchronicity with time came to a crashing halt.
“Ow!” I squealed aloud, the pain in the sole of my right foot too sharp to ignore.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been looking at where my feet were landing, but I knew I’d have to remember not to lose focus in the future if I wanted to keep my toes.
I spotted the offending object jutting out of the water-packed sand. The jagged edge of the twisting shell was serrated enough to cut flesh. I inspected the bottom of my foot for blood. None, although there was an indentation where I’d stepped on that thing. I rubbed my sole for a moment then reach to pick up the shell. On first instinct, it reminded me of a funnel cloud, like a palm-sized Midwestern tornado. I dipped it into the seawater, shook the sand and grit from it, and held it up to the light.
It was beautiful.
I’d seen shells like this before in shops, but I never imagined just finding one in the wild. On closer inspection—save for the broken ridge I’d stepped on—the shell was so perfect, it was almost edible. Brown lines drizzled dark color down the cream and gold sides, like chocolate syrup over a vanilla and caramel cone. The top swirled into a point, managing to make it look at once both delicious and dangerous. Tempting enough to wish I could take a bite.
“That there’s a lightning whelk,” an old lady’s voice informed me. “It’s unusual to find a nice one like that this late in the day. Best shelling is in early morning.”
I shaded my eyes against the sun’s glare and squinted at the woman. She was probably about the same age as Mr. Niihau but, unlike his dark hair and deeply bronzed, weathered skin, this woman was a study in white. Her hair was as snowy as Mrs. Claus, worn in a bun and covered with a wide-brimmed sunhat. Her milky complexion was textured with dry, pale wrinkles, and her swimsuit and wrap were varying shades of ivory. Standing next to her in the burning midday sun reminded me that I desperately needed to buy sunglasses, a beach hat, and more sunscreen. SPF 50 at least.
“Thanks,” I said brightly. “I didn’t know its name. It’s pretty.”
The woman nodded. “You looked like an out-of-towner, girlie.” She pointed further up the beach. “If you get out here at five or six in the morning and keep walkin’ about a half a mile that a-way to the rocks, you’ll find some real stunning ones.” She motioned toward my flip-flops. “And you’ll wanna put them back on or get yourself some Beachwalkers like me.” She lifted up a foot to show the only dark piece of clothing she had on—slip-on water shoes, like the kind marine biologists or serious snorkelers might wear.
“I will,” I promised her, glancing behind us, surprised to see how far I’d already ambled down the coast.
The older woman caught her gaze and stabbed her bony index finger at the hotels in the opposite direction. “Walk that other way another mile or so and you’ll find yourself at some pretty ritzy hotels and bungalows and such. But you don’t need to be rich to enjoy the beach.” She flung her arms out on both sides, as if to capture the air. “The beach is free for everybody.”
“I’m not rich,” I murmured, pondering for a split second what it must be like to feel comfortable like that. Never having to wonder where the next rent payment or doctor’s fee would come from. Never having to make a choice between buying a much-needed coat for yourself or new school clothes for your child. Never having to worry about selling your house because you can’t swing the mortgage or the insurance or the utilities…
“Me neither, girlie.” She tapped her chest with the flat of her palm. “I’m Vivian, by the way.”
“Marianna,” I told her, as the woman stuck out her hand to formally shake mine. Vivian’s grip was strong and sure, grounding me to the present.
“I walk all the way down Siesta Key beach and back, twice a day. Two and a half miles each way,” Vivian informed me proudly. “So, I’m sure I’ll see you again. And you just ask me if you have any questions ‘bout anything, you hear?” She patted her chest again and grinned. “Fourth generation Floridian. Not one of them newcomers.”
I grinned back. “Thank you,” I whispered, a lump rising in the back of my throat for a reason I couldn’t begin to justify. When had the simple act of a stranger being kind to me reduced me to tears?
Vivian waved and was on her way, and I was left swallowing back an emotion I was too anxious to let myself fully feel. But I did eye the people on the shore a little more closely now.
There were lots of women in bikinis with perfectly even tans and trim bodies—showing off their butterfly tattoos on their shoulders, their silver or coral anklets, their diamond-studded belly piercings—and hard-muscled men jogging along the shore with shades and waterproof watches. The youngsters frolicked like water nymphs, and even the older people had a lean, outdoorsy look about them.
I felt frumpy in my t-shirt and shorts. A pale-faced tourist in paradise, carting only my bungalow key, a pair of flip-flops, and a shell. A simple existence, really.
I spied a family with three or four…no, five kids under the age of eleven or so. The youngest ones were a set of twin boys—a handful from the looks of them—about four years old. Probably similar to what Chance and Chandler Michaelsen had been like at that age. These young boys were racing each other to the water as fast as their brown little legs could carry them, giggling, with maniacal expressions on their faces like Thing One and Thing Two from The Cat in the Hat. Their beleaguered mother was calling after them, but she had the three older kids hanging off of her. Literally. One of them was pulling at the straps of her swim top.
I heard her shout, “Steve! Get them!” in an exasperated tone, motioning toward the adult male nearby, ostensibly the twins’ father, who was occupied blowing up a beach ball for the siblings. He dropped it and began to chase the little terrors into the Gulf.
I found myself mildly amused by this scene—half relieved, half wistful at having those parenting days long behind me—and I couldn’t help but reflect on what it might have been like for me, Donny, and Kathryn if there had been other children in our little family. Kathryn had always been such a quiet little girl, only starting to emerge from her room and explore the world more once she got into high school. The blow of her father leaving when she was just sixteen stunted that growth for a time, but she soon found more consolation from her friends than from me. Maybe all teens did. Certainly, Kathryn now preferred her new college pals, her boyfriend, and her exciting university life to another dull summer with her mother.
Again, I felt the lump of emotion rising in the back of my throat and forced it down once more. There was no use crying. I just needed to regroup. To take a few deep breaths. Get back into the swing of things. And slog away even harder this time. That strategy had worked in the past and, by God, I’d make it work again.
I felt a splash on my legs and the sudden hot breath of Thing One as he raced past me, deeper into the water. Quite a few yards away, the father had nabbed Thing Two and was holding him firm with one arm and waving wildly at me with the other. “Please stop him!” he shouted.
So, I threw my flip-flops and new seashell on the sand and plunged deeper into the Gulf after the boy. But he was fast, and I…was not. He zigzagged in and out of the water, in between people, around clumps of seaweed, giggling demonically the whole way. I reached out to grab him on the shore but, just like some hapless adult in a kids’ sitcom, he slithered out of my grasp and I slipped in the wet sand, falling to my knees.
“Ow!” I cried, not sure what jagged object I’d landed on this time, only that everything out here—be it on land or sea—seemed to be conspiring to cut or bruise me.
I heard a deep, throaty laugh (not maniacal, not demonic) and a voice beside me that said, “This one yours?”
I turned to face the sound and stood up, brushing the sand from my limbs and spotting a collection of cat’s paws in a heap where my knee had been. “No—” I began, but then I focused on the man and, for a moment, found myself actually tongue tied. He was holding up the four-year-old as easily as I’d hold up a coconut…if it had legs and were kicking.
This was not what was remarkable about him, though.
The Sunshine Coast, while full of heavenly bodies in varying states of undress, had presented me with someone wholly unexpected. Although roughly my age, the man had jet black hair—slicked back—full lips, twinkling baby-blue eyes, and a tanned, toned frame, like he’d just stepped out of a late-1960s beach movie. There was just no other way to say it: He looked like Elvis Presley in some film like Clambake.
I blinked at him. “Do you sing?”
“What?” he asked above the noise of the still-squealing kid.
“I, um—” I swiveled around in frantic search for Thing One’s father and, suddenly, he was there.
“Sorry, sorry,” the dad said to the Elvis lookalike and to me. “Thank you for grabbing my boy.” He snatched the kid from Elvis’s capable hands and the giggling and squealing came to an immediate stop. As the father marched the child back to his family, Elvis chuckled and said, “I do not envy that man.”
I laughed. “Or his wife.”
We shared a fleeting smile.
“Thanks for catching him when I couldn’t. I slipped…”
“I noticed.” He squinted at my feet. “If you’re going to run on the shore, you should get some Beachwalkers.”
“I know, I know. You’re the second person to tell me that today.” I noticed he was wearing some very sporty-looking black water shoes with red stripes to match his long swim trunks. “Do you know a good place to buy some? I just got to Sarasota.”
“Yeah, you looked like an out-of-towner.”
My awe at his resemblance to The King began to wear off and a splinter of irritation took its place. “Do I have a sign on my back or something?”
“Nah. It just takes one to know one. I’m not a native either, but I’ve lived in Florida for a long time.” He checked his watch (waterproof, I was sure) and added, “I’ve got to get to work, but the best beachwear outfitter around is just a few miles down the road in St. Armand’s Circle on Lido Key. Take Tamiami Trail to 789 North and follow the signs. The shop is called Castaways, and it’s on John Ringling Boulevard, just past the circle. They’ve got clothing, bathing suits, snorkel gear, footwear—everything you need for your visit. Lots of other great shops on the block, too. The Beaded Periwinkle and The Golden Gecko are a couple of my favorites and they’re right next door. You should check ‘em out.”
“Hmm,” I said, noncommittally. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He paused, flashed me one of his twinkly grins and waved like he was The King himself. “See you around.”
I waved back and watched him stride down the beach, finding it hard to believe our paths would really cross again. He had the gait of someone who didn’t spend a lot of time idling on sand drifts and talking to frumpy divorced women, however even his tan and effortless his manner.
But, then, people always said insincere things like that to each other. Probably even more often in a beach-culture environment, where the population fluctuated with the tide.
I grabbed my pink flip-flops and new lightning whelk—both half buried in the sand—patted my pocket to make sure my key was still there and, finally, began my trek back to the Siesta Sunset bungalows. Where the rich people stayed. I knew I didn’t belong there, but I was getting attached anyway.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you might like to share on these two scenes — I really hope you enjoyed them — and perhaps you even remember some segments of the above from my earlier draft back in 2014! If you’d like to read a couple more scenes from the story, I have a different one on the Amazon page and yet another on my website. I also have a private “Mirabelle Harbor Lounge” group on Facebook, where I post extra scenes, fun pictures, and early info on sales and special events. Any friend here is always more than welcome to join ;).
Wishing each of you a very happy June and a lovely weekend!!
p.s. A GIVEAWAY FOR EVERYONE: In honor of Father’s Day, my book filled with parenting essays — Wanderlust in Suburbia — is FREE on Kindle worldwide from June 17th through the 21st. Hope you’ll pick up a copy or share one with someone you love! xox ~Marilyn