eye of the storm ~ chapter six

For the record

Chapter Six 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

Grace never imagined she would spend the Saturday after her second week of work at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee flat on her back on a stretcher out at the beach with bandaged eyes and fake blood smeared on her cheeks, arms and legs. 

“Let’s get you into the ambulance, sugar,” a gruff male voice said. She felt dizzy as the stretcher lifted and she was awkwardly dropped. “Sorry about that, darlin’,” a whiskey and cigarettes female voice said. “We’re kinda new at this. Are you okay?” 

“Uh, sure. Is my part over yet?” 

“Not quite, sweetie. Not ‘til we get the all-clear from our team leader.” Grace felt a calloused hand pat her own hands which were clasped over her mid-section. “You just relax. Won’t be long, now.” 

Yikes. If they had dropped me in the parking lot, I really would need to go to the hospital. 

Grace relaxed and thought about what happened so far today. An astonishing array of people walked around with hard hats and clip boards. There were emergency medical vehicles, utility company ladder trucks, and volunteers including elementary school children who giggled and made faces at each other as they were painted with fake blood. Lively seniors wore “We’re Ready for Anything” tee-shirts. A convoy with National Guard troops stood by. The last thing she saw before her eyes were bandaged was a line of folding tables with folks typing away at laptop computers under a tent with the county logo on it. 

When Grace left the condo at Balconies on the Bay that morning at seven o’clock to drive to the beach, she felt like a teenager on Spring break. If this is work, I’m going to love it. Bill Hansen, one of the senior partners of her new law firm, assigned Grace and several other young lawyers to represent the firm as community service volunteers in Escambia County’s annual hurricane preparedness drill. It was serious business, of course, but she looked forward to a day of playing make believe on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. 

Surrounded by so much water, Grace felt like she was sailing by the time she was at the mid-point of the “Three-Mile Bridge.” The bridge traversed Escambia Bay to connect Pensacola with the chic bedroom community of Gulf Breeze, which she was told had the best schools and subdivisions in the area. Gulf Breeze was set on a finger of land in Santa Rosa County that insinuated itself between the mainland town of Pensacola and the barrier island of Pensacola Beach, both in Escambia County. The peninsula spanned more than 40 miles between Escambia Bay on one side and Santa Rosa Sound on the other. 

Grace was blown away by the beauty of the sparkling cobalt water. Her pick-up truck felt tiny on the long bridge and swayed slightly when convertibles and SUVs sped past her. 

She drove slowly through Gulf Breeze, taking it all in. The medians were lined with majestic Royal Palm trees. The restaurants, marinas, and shops all looked new. 

Just before hanging a right turn onto the short toll bridge that crossed Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Beach, Grace noticed a large hospital and medical offices complex on her left. She smiled at the huge, funky 1950’s style neon sign that sported a cartoon bill fish pointing the way to the beach. This bridge was only about a mile long. She pulled over into the break-down lane for a minute to take in the view. Just past the toll booths, there were tall hotels and condominiums that looked like tropical wedding cakes and a great-looking combination restaurant and marina called The Grand Marlin. Large water tanks beside a sound-side marina were painted bright blue with murals of leaping dolphins on them.  Now, this really feels like a beach should. Grace flipped down her visor to use the mirror to reapply a light peach lip glaze and was struck by how much she looked like a happy young kid. She laughed and stuck out her tongue at her reflection. 

Grace was eager to find the hurricane drill site. She left the condo early in hopes of having time for a quick look-around and maybe a short walk on the beach. Once through the toll place, she spotted a convenience store, parked and came out a few minutes later with coffee and a package of soft oatmeal cookies. 

She followed the curve of the main road to the left and saw a big parking lot where drill organizers were setting up tents, tables and signs. Grace pulled in to the far end of the parking closest to the beaconing Gulf of Mexico. She glanced at her watch, then grabbed her coffee and cookies, along with a lightweight cotton cardigan, locked up the truck and made a beeline for the sandy beach. She wore mid-thigh-length khaki cargo shorts and one of her usual black tee-shirts. It was almost the middle of May and the day would get hot later, but right now, at 7:30 in the morning with a breeze blowing off the water, the light cotton sweater tied around her shoulders felt good. 

Grace stepped out of her flip-flops as soon as she moved from asphalt to sugar white beach. Oh my God, I’m in love. She squiggled her toes in the damp, soft sand. She could feel her short hair curling in the windy, humid air, but she didn’t care. It felt great. She walked until a glance at her watch told her it was almost time for the drill to start. Better get a move on. She jogged back toward the asphalt and retrieved her flip-flops. 

She put her cardigan in the truck, grabbed a water bottle and started walking toward the crowd gathered around the tents. But she wasn’t sure where she ought to be, so when she saw a guy with a clip board and a name tag looking at her as she walked in his direction, she smiled and said, “Pretty morning for a hurricane drill.” 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” the fellow said in a deep baritone voice. Great legs, good build, nice voice. Too bad that hard hat and mirrored sunglasses cover up his hair and eyes. Grace felt a pleasant buzz. 

She introduced herself and asked for directions. He pointed her in the right direction, but they got interrupted by some guy waving and hollering and walking in their direction before her almost new friend could tell her his name. Couldn’t that guy have waited another minute? 

 Grace thanked the fellow for his help and jogged off in the direction of the Red Cross tent. 

And now, here she was, laid out like a mackerel, name tag stuck to her black t-shirt. Grace was pretty comfortable in the ambulance with her flip-flopped feet and coral-colored toenails sticking out in the breeze. The crowd noise outside faded and she shook herself when she heard someone snore. Oops. That was me. Grace laughed at herself and hoped no one else heard. 

“Hey, you don’t need to wake up on account of me. I just have a couple of questions.” Grace jumped when she heard that vaguely familiar baritone. She peeked under her eye bandage to identify who it belonged to. 

The morning sun created a slight glare through the open ambulance doors, but she could make out a guy with a clipboard and a hard hat, wearing a pair of goofy, retro, mirrored sunglasses. It was the guy she met in the parking lot earlier. 

Grace tugged at the eye bandage and yanked it off, pulled in her legs and sat cross-legged. She squinted up at Mr. Hard Hat. “Hi there! We almost met earlier. Can you recognize me with all this fake blood?” 

He laughed. “Are you kidding? I’d know you anywhere. You’re the bright-red-pickup-truck girl.” 

“Yep, that’s me, all right. Did you say you have questions?” 

“Just a couple. It’s a survey for the drill.” 

“Okay. Does that mean I can come out now?”  Grace scooted toward the opening. There’s no graceful way to get out of an ambulance. 

He laughed and offered an arm. “Of course. May I be of assistance?” He slipped one hand under Grace’s elbow to steady her as she hopped out of the ambulance before she had a chance to answer. 

“Thank you, kind sir.” 

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Ringer.” 

“Grace, please, but who are you?” 

“I forgot we didn’t get that far earlier.” He pulled off the hard hat and stuck out his hand. Forgive me, I’m Jess. Jesperson Powell Harper, at your service.” 

Grace’s eyes widened. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harper.” 

“Jess, please. Mr. Harper is my dad. Well, actually, he’s Dr. Harper, but my Granddad is Mr. Harper. Anyway, I’m a volunteer today, just like you. They’ve got me filling out these survey forms to assess how things went today.” 

Grace still couldn’t see his eyes or much of his face, but she enjoyed getting a closer look at Jess’s tanned, muscular legs, plus she was standing close enough to him to smell a subtle herbal scent, and then there was that voice. Nice time to be covered in fake blood and bandages, damn it. 

Jess asked his questions, putting check marks on the clipboard. “Are you new in town?” 

Grace cocked her head and gave him a crooked grin. “Is that question on your clipboard?” 

Jess smiled. “Nope, but I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen you before.” 

Oh, wow, my first come-on since I moved here. She was about to bat that ball back into his court, when someone shouted. “Jess! Jess! Miss Agnes fainted. Can you help?” 

Jess looked over and saw the perennial volunteer and well-known birdwatcher Miss Agnes slumped over. “On my way!” Jess hollered back. 

“Is she okay?” Grace asked. 

“I expect so. This happens every year. Too much excitement for her, I guess. Sorry, I’ve got to go.” He turned to go, but turned back to say, “Stick around for an early supper over there.” He motioned to a big yellow tent that looked like a beehive of activity. “It’s for all the volunteers.” He flashed a big grin. “I’ll find you.” 

Jess turned and sprinted over to the crowd surrounding the semi-conscious elderly woman who passed out. She thought about going over, too, but realized she would just be a gawker. She saw Jess with his arm around the lady helping her to sit up while an emergency medical technician listened to her chest with his stethoscope. 

Grace looked at the yellow food tent Jess had pointed out to her, and decided to find a public restroom where she could do some much-needed repair work on her face. Cargo shorts were great because of all the pockets. She had tucked in a few essentials before leaving the condo earlier: a couple of moist towelettes, tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, concealer, blush and lip gloss. She washed off the fake blood, threw away the bandages, and fixed her face. The hair’s hopeless, but at least I won’t frighten small children now. 

Even before she emerged from the restroom, Grace heard the unmistakable sound of live music. She joined the crowd as volunteers converged on the big yellow tent. A gaggle of rag-tag musicians played rough, happy music with a toe-tapping beat. It was like nothing she ever heard before, an odd mix of fiddles, accordions and rhythmic rasping sounds. It was infectious. Folks broke into impromptu jigs as they drifted toward curlicues of delicious-smelling smoke rising from cookers at either end of the tent. Drawing closer, she heard shouts of “Aiyee!” and lyrics that sounded half-French and half-English. 

Curious and hungry, Grace stepped inside the tent and could hardly believe her eyes. At least a dozen beach restaurants were set up to feed all the volunteers an early supper. Long tables festooned with banners identified each restaurant and were arranged so volunteers could walk through the line with a sturdy paper plate and graze to their heart’s content. She saw signs for Flounders “Better to have floundered and lost than never to have floundered at all,” Peg-Leg Pete’s, Crabs We Got ‘Em, Evangeline’s Beach Shack, and a bunch more. 

She ogled the food and moved to the irresistible beat of the Zydeco music. Someone took hold of her elbow. It was Jess Harper. 

“Hello again,” he said. 

 “Is Miss Agnes okay?” 

“Oh, yes. Poor thing lost her home to Hurricane Ivan back in 2004. She was already a widow when that happened. She comes out to help with the emergency drill every year, but I think it brings back a lot of bad memories, and at some point in the day, it’s just too much for her and she has to rest in the EMT tent for a while and chill out.” 

“She’s got some grit to come out and volunteer, given what she’s been through,” Grace said. 

“Her and a lot of other folks,” Jess said. 

Grace nodded over at the food set-up. “This is fantastic. What a spread!” 

Jess laughed. “The beach businesses throw this party every year. It’s the secret weapon that guarantees lots of people will participate in the drill.” 

“I can see why. I’m already thinking about next year.” 

“Hungry?” Jess asked. 

“Are you kidding? I’m starved!” 

“There’s one thing I need to do first. Would you grab a couple of plates and hold a place for me? This’ll only take a few minutes.” Jess turned and disappeared into the crowd. 

The music stopped with a flourish of high, sweet violins followed by enthusiastic applause. Grace looked up to see a tall woman with a crazy swirl of long black hair at the microphone. She looked somewhere between 40 and eternal, like a beautiful femme fatale from another century, a chic gypsy. 

The woman waded into the crowd with the band’s microphone in her right hand, her left hand coquettishly on her hip. Grace wondered what was coming next. 

“Bonjour à tous mes amis et bienvenue à la plage. Good afternoon, my friends,” she translated, “and welcome the beach. I’m Evangeline. I run a funky little bar and grill down the beach that some of you know all too well.” She laughed, a deep, rolling sound. She waggled a long red fingernail at several in the crowd. “For sure, I mean you, chere, and you. 

“Enjoy the party and bring your families and friends out to see all the great beach businesses. We need the money.” Evangeline spoke in a light Cajun accent with a husky voice that could charm a snake. 

The crowd clapped and hooted. She tamped them down, hands stretched out in a downward motion. “Chill now, all y’all. I’m supposed to introduce somebody important now, so listen up.” 

Knowing chuckles spread through the crowd. Much to Grace’s surprise, Jess Harper approached the microphone. “Put your hands together for the downtown guy, my stepson, Jess Harper, Mayor of the fair city of Pensacola!” 

Mayor! That cute hunk? Grace’s mind was officially blown. 

Evangeline threw back her head and laughed. Mayor Harper removed his sunglasses and blushed to the roots of his wavy black hair. He took a bow to the accompaniment of good-natured whistles and cat-calls. 

Finally, Jess cleared his throat, and spoke in a baritone honeyed bourbon voice. “Okay, okay, settle down, everybody. For all of you that don’t already know it, I’m Jess Harper, and I’m here to tell ya’ll that what we’ve done together today might save some lives when the big one hits. Lots of you were here when Ivan tore our home all to heck and gone. This beach looked like a bomb hit it. I got word a little bit ago that the weather service is predicting an ugly storm season. In fact, they’re keeping a close watch on the second named tropical storm of the season. It’s ‘Bart.’ Let’s hope and pray he doesn’t turn into big bad Hurricane Bart.” 

“Thanks for coming. And thanks to all the great beach folks who have, once again, thrown a heck of a free party for all the volunteers. Can I get an Amen?” 

The crowd erupted into a chorus of “Amens,” whoops and applause. 

“Oh, and one other thing. All this great music you’ll be boogieing to is provided free by several of our local bands, so be sure to go by and shake their hands.” He paused a beat for effect. “They probably wouldn’t be mad if there was a dollar in it.” Laughter from the crowd and a chorus of “Yeah!” from the musicians. “And after you’ve enjoyed this fabulous food, stick around if you can and stop by one of these fine establishments for an adult libation or a desert and coffee, or both.” Jess grinned, and everybody laughed and clapped some more. 

“Okay, then, laissez les bon temps rouler! For those of you new to our neck of the woods, that’s Gulf Coast-speak for ‘Let the good times roll!’” 

Grace gaped at Jess as he strode towards her and nonchalantly took a plate. “You didn’t tell me you’re the mayor,” she said. 

“You’ll still eat supper with me, won’t you?” 

Grace had an image of a town mayor as some cheesy politician with a bad comb-over, glad-handing voters and kissing babies. “Oh, sure,” she giggled. 

“Turn back around then and don’t hold up the line. I’m hungry as a bear.” 

Grace held out her plate as servers heaped it with sample-size portions of shrimp jambalaya, smoked mullet, cheese grits, grilled Cajun hot wings, a miniature crab cake, cole slaw, fried oysters, and shrimp etouffee with Louisiana long-grain rice. She kibitzed with the restaurant folks as they put delicacies on her plate. “Thank you. Thank you so much. Everything looks and smells great. Is that a copy of your menu? Can I take it with me? Ooh, thanks. Yum.” 

Jess laughed when he saw her plate. “Good God, girl, when’s the last time you ate?” He gestured over to a guy at a picnic table on the water near the tent. “Hey, there’s my buddy, P. J. He’s staked out a table for us. Follow me.” 

“Sure,” 

Hey, P.J. what’s up, man?” 

“Nothing much.” P. J. looked at Grace. “Eat that while it’s hot. His Lordship the Mayor will fetch you a glass of iced tea, right?” P. J. grinned at Jess, who bent low in a mock bow. 

“Absolutely. You two get acquainted and I’ll be right back. Right back. Got it, P. J.?” 

P. J. grinned wickedly and dismissed Jess with a wave of his hand. Jess put his plate down beside Grace. “Don’t worry. P. J.’s bark is worse than his bite. Besides, I’m pretty sure he’s had all his shots.” 

“Hey, big guy,” P. J. called after Jess. 

“Yeah?” 

“Corky made a vat of gumbo. Bring some.” 

“Will do,” Jess said. 

Grace had a shrimp halfway to her mouth. “Gumbo?” 

“Gumbo. Loaded with shrimp, crab, oysters, and Cajun soul. Not to be missed.” P. J. watched with amusement as Grace contentedly munched her way through the loaded plate. “Well, I know you’re beautiful and I know you’re hungry and I know if Jess likes you then I will, too, but one thing I don’t know, and that’s your name.” 

Grace grinned, put down her fork, and stuck out her hand. “Oh my goodness, where are my manners? I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer.” 

“Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. I hear the south in your voice, but I can’t quite pin down the neighborhood.” 

Grace started to speak. 

P. J. held up his right hand, palm out. “No, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” He put both hands on his temples in mock concentration. “Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Hillsborough County, Florida?” 

Grace was stunned. “Yes! How could you have possibly guessed that?” 

P. J looked very pleased with himself. “Saw you walk up to the red pick-up truck just before the drill started, talk to Jess, and head out to get bandaged and painted up for the drill. Saw you talking to my buddy, Jess. I could tell his ears were up, so I walked by and checked out your tag and your campus decal. 

Grace didn’t know whether to feel flattered or put out with this likable, impudent fellow. “What do you mean, Jess’s ears were up?” 

P. J. was about to answer when Jess threw a leg over the picnic table and sat down with a tray full of glasses filled with iced tea and Styrofoam cups of fragrant, hot seafood gumbo. 

The three of them ate in near silence for a few minutes. It was 5:30. The sun angled toward center stage almost due west over the silver blue Gulf waters. 

“Well, Grace Ann, Jess, I got to go. Minnie Pearl’s waitin’ for me at the boat.” 

Grace cocked her head. “Is Minnie Pearl your girlfriend?” 

The guys laughed. Grace asked, “What’s so funny?” 

Jess spoke first. Minnie Pearl is P. J.’s bloodhound. So ugly she’s cute. She supposedly guards the marina P. J. manages.” 

“You manage a marina?” Grace turned back to look at P. J., who was gathering up his plate, napkin, plastic fork and spoon, gumbo cup and iced tea glass to throw away. 

“Sure do. Love it.” 

“Sounds like a dream job.” 

“Yeah, mostly it is, except for a few drunk assholes, uh, I mean jerks, who come around on the weekends with their fancy boats and trophy wives and stink up the place.” 

He gave Jess a look. “You know who I mean.” 

Jess scowled. “Yeah, I do.” 

P. J. got up, threw away his debris in a nearby container, then came around to shake Grace’s hand. He took her small, long-fingered hand in his big rough paw. “Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. We didn’t get to talk much, yet, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of you with this here dude.” He jerked his head in Jess’s direction. 

P. J. released Grace’s hand, took a step toward Jess and clapped him on the shoulder. “You be good, now. Don’t do nothin’ to run this gal off. Unless I miss my guess, she’s a keeper.” 

P. J. loped off and fired up his enormous black big Dooley crew cab truck. Jess grinned and shook his head. “That P. J. He’s a hot mess.” 

“I can tell. Have you known each other a long time?” 

“Oh, yeah, sure. We just about kicked out the sides of the cradle together. 

“Grace laughed. I swear. I thought the country folk in North Carolina had some funny expressions, but I do believe you’ve got them beat.” 

“Where did you say you come from?” 

“I’m not sure I did. I grew up in a nice little central Florida town called Brandon. It’s pretty much in the middle of the state. Got my undergraduate degree from Florida in Gainesville.” 

“Oh, no,” Jess said in feigned horror. “A Gator.” 

“Yep,” but after that I went to law school, and just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill.” 

Grace and Jess heard the roar of a big truck engine and saw that P. J. was headed back in their direction. He lowered the truck window and called over to Jess. 

“Are we still on for tomorrow morning out at your grandparents’ place?” 

“You bet. Ten o’clock good for you?” 

“Uh-huh. We’ll figure out how to throw a clod in the churn of those damned out-of-town developers that are trying to get the county to run a road through the farm.” 

“Thanks, P. J. We’ve got to stop those sons of bitches,” Jess glowered. “Bring Minnie Pearl when you come. We’ll see how she takes to my new pup. And come hungry. Granny said she’d have some lunch for us after we walk the woods.” 

Jess and P. J. didn’t notice Grace’s reaction. She sat up straight and drew in one corner of her lower lip, which she sucked on while she listened to words that felt like glass shards raining down on her. I have a file sitting in my new office with those “sons of bitches’” name on it. The law firm represents them, and I’ve been assigned to bird-dog this project. Grace felt nauseous. Here I am, enjoying a cozy supper on the beach with the Harper’s sexy grandson, like some spy. Damn. Sounds like the end of a perfect beginning. 

“Grace? Hey, Earth to Grace!” P. J. broke through her trance. “Where’d you go? 

Grace shook herself and smiled. “Sorry, P. J. Guess I must have zoned out for a minute. Nice meeting you. Catch you later.” 

“Right back at you. Later.” 

“That P. J.’s smart as a tree full of owls,” Jess said, and began to gather their plates. 

Grace’s hand made contact with Jess’s when he slid his right hand over the table top toward her to get her gumbo cup. “Jess?” He stopped in mid-air and looked straight into her eyes. 

“Yes?” 

She couldn’t get the words out. Just a few more minutes of heaven, then I’ll tell him. “Thanks for being so kind to me today.” Before she could withdraw her hand, his left one came over on top and sandwiched hers between his. 

“First time I’ve actually enjoyed one of these drills, thanks to you.” Jess squeezed her hand gently, and then released her. “Hey, look at that. Is this your first beach sunset?” 

“Yes, and it’s even more gorgeous than I imagined.” 

“There’s hardly anything better than a walk on the beach at sunset. Do you have time?” Jess asked. 

Grace gazed at the sandy beach as the sun dropped lower toward the water. A walk on the beach. I’ll tell him there. Maybe he’ll understand. Maybe he won’t get angry with me. Maybe this won’t end the way I think it will. 

Grace looked solemnly at Jess. “I can’t imagine anything I’d like better.” 

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