For the record
Pensacola Beach, Florida
Grace hesitated. She knew she had entered a danger zone. A better person would meet the conflict head on. The setting sun made streaky patterns across the sky and into the water.
She stood, slung her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Jess. “Race you to the water.”
Jess laughed like a little boy and took off after her.
They walked and talked about the hurricane drill.
“Are you really concerned there might be a big one this year?” Grace asked.
“I’m always concerned, but I’ve been studying all the models, and this new tropical storm, Bart, has my attention. It’s early in the season for a big storm, and usually you’d think the water is still too cool for a bad one, but this year we hardly had any winter at all, and the spring so far has been hotter than normal, too. Have you ever been in a hurricane?”
“Sure. I grew up in central Florida, but we were a hundred miles inland, so wind and rain were a problem, but we never worried about storm surge, thank goodness. I can’t imagine being on this barrier island during a major hurricane.”
“Well, that’s why we have these drills every year.”
Something caught Jess’s eye out in the water, and he pointed. “Look, Grace, dolphins.”
“Oh, my God, they’re beautiful.” Grace watched the dip and sway of the sleek gray mammals. She moved closer to Jess and whispered. “Where do they go when a hurricane comes?”
Jess angled his body slightly to protect Grace from the cool breeze that had begun to kick up. “In some ways, they’re luckier than people. Bottle-nosed dolphins are incredibly smart. They have keen senses that tell them when barometric pressure changes so they’ll know a storm is coming. That’s when they close ranks, swim closer than usual in their pods and head out to sea. They’ll stay there until the storm passes.
“Every now and then a mother and her baby will get stranded in shallow water, but that’s rare. They’re smart and intuitive. We could learn a lot from them. I’ve been watching them and swimming with them in the Gulf since I was a kid, but it still gives me a thrill to see them.”
The soft, silvery light that comes during a certain time just between sunset and twilight lit Jess’s face. It’s not harsh or metallic, more like liquid mercury. He solemnly observed the dolphins breach the waves and disappear from sigh. Grace watched Jess. Her breath caught in her throat. How can you be afraid to lose something you don’t have?
“Jess?” The breeze ruffled his dark hair. Rays of the sinking sun shot sparks close to the water’s surface, spraying out in all directions. They stood together, their widened pupils quivering in wordless communication. Grace took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”
“Yes, we surely do.” Jess gently took her chin in his hand and bent his head toward her mouth. Impulsively, her mouth lifted toward his.
They were suspended in time for only about twenty seconds of real time, but it was one of those forever moments when synapses fire rockets and light up emotion centers in two persons’ brains, instantly creating irrevocable neural pathways between them. It has been called a coup du foudre, literally, a “thunderbolt.” Most of us have heard of it as “love at first sight.” When it happens, the couple is instantaneously transported into a deep chasm of brilliant colors and deafening sounds. They fall as two separate people, but emerge shaken to their core and melted as though by a metallurgical process into one. Neither knows at that moment that they have been lucky enough or cursed enough to fall in love at first sight.
Grace twined her arms around Jess’s neck and the tender kiss that began with a soft pressing of lips warmed to a simmer and then boiled over. Jess pulled back for a moment, put both of his hands on either side of Grace’s face, looked deeply into her eyes and kissed her again. When his tongue lightly moved over her lips, she moaned softly and opened her mouth to welcome this unexpected intimacy. She moved her hands down to the small of his back and pulled him closer. Jess moved his hands to Grace’s waist, his arousal unavoidably apparent. That seemed to cause them both to remember they were standing on a public beach at dusk. They pulled out of the clinch. Looked hotly at each other and fought to regain control over their ragged breathing.
Jess pursed his lips in a low whistle. “Wow.”
“I’ll say. Where did that come from? We must both need to get out more often.” They laughed.
The Grace stepped out of the embrace, her countenance clouded by anxiety. She gave Jess a bleak look. It was time.
“Hey, what’s wrong, Grace? You went from happy to sad in ten seconds flat.”
“Can we walk, Jess?”
“Sure, let’s head toward the pier. What’s up?”
“Well, it’s just that you don’t know anything about me, Jess. You might not like me at all when you learn why I came to Pensacola.”
“Hush,” Jess said, placing his right index finger on her lips. “Look, I’m almost thirty years old. I’m not a kid. I know we don’t know much about each other yet. What I do know is that there is something unusual happening here. Whatever you’re worried about, we can work it out. Trust me?”
“I’m inclined to, Jess, but . . .”
“Okay, then. I get to go first. Then we’ll stop in a Evangeline’s for a drink, then you can tell me about yourself, and we’ll walk back to our vehicles and head back to town. How’s that for an itinerary?”
Grace caved. “I can see how you got yourself elected mayor. Okay, we’ll do it your way. Just don’t blame me later.”
Jess laughed. “How bad can it be? Good. Now that’s settled, I get to talk about me.” He laughed like a child anticipating show and tell day at school. “I was born on a dark and stormy night . . .”
“Silly,” Grace smiled.
“Yes, that I am,” Jess said, taking her by the hand. “Let’s walk.”
“Have you lived here your whole life?” Grace asked.
“Yes, the whole Harper clan is here, including my grandparents. My granddad’s father was a native, too, and his great-grandfather emigrated here from Ireland.”
“Gosh, I can’t imagine having a family with roots like that,” Grace said. “Oh, I meant to ask you if serving as mayor is a full-time job.”
“No, it’s not. I’m a community banker full-time. I run the Trust Department for First Community Bank and Trust downtown. It’s my Uncle Marty’s bank, and it was founded by my grandfather.”
“I guess you have brothers and sisters, too?” Graced watched stolid sea gulls and petite sanderlings pick their way through shells on the sand, occasionally darting with their long beaks to snatch up an edible tidbit. Thousands of pastel coquinas washed in on the white sand with each wave.
Jess raised his chin and ran a hand through his hair. “Sure do. My brother, Grant, is a couple years older than me. He used to be an FBI agent in New York, but missed home, the beach, and the south generally, and came back and started his own private investigations firm a couple of years ago.”
“Oh, yes.” Jess smiled and rolled his eyes. “The twins.”
“Twins!” Grace said. “How cool. I’m an only child, and adopted to boot, so the whole idea of siblings is very exotic. How old are they? Are they identical?”
“Kate and Belle just turned twelve. And yes, much to the confusion of everyone, they are identical.”
“They’re a lot younger than you and Grant.”
“Yep. They’re our half-sisters.” Jess stopped walking and touched his right hand to Grace’s left shoulder. “Look there.” He pointed with his left hand. “See the ghost crabs?”
Grace bent down to get a better look. The diminutive crabs were nearly transparent. Their eyes poked out on skinny stems. They really did look ghostly, especially washing in the pearly twilight, scuttling along at water’s edge.
“Oh my God, Jess, look at the sunset. The water looks like a bed of diamonds.” They stood side by side watching the show. Every step down this road is making it harder to tell him. Maybe I’ll just quit my job.
“How old were you when your parents were divorced?” Grace asked.
Jess hunkered down in the sand. He picked up several large pieces of broken shells and began to chunk them into the water. “They didn’t get a divorce.”
“But . . .” Grace started to say, but stopped when she saw the pained look on Jess’s face. Without even thinking, Grace reached out and put her hands on his shoulders. “Oh, Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so insensitive.” She squeezed his shoulders, then moved her hands and stepped to the side, feeling suddenly clumsy.
Jess stood up, dusted the damp sand from his hands and looked at Grace. His eyes were wide open, the pupils large. He held her gaze for a long moment, his mouth tight. Then, he took a deep breath and smiled a hurt smile that made him look like a vulnerable young boy. He spoke quietly. “It’s okay. It happened a long time ago.”
Jess took her hand and they walked along in silence for several minutes. Lights were coming up at homes and businesses all along the shoreline. Families and couples of all ages walked, sat in beach chairs, or jogged. They passed one family with the young-looking mom and dad spreading out a blanket and beginning to unpack a picnic basket while their two young children sat nearby and filled small pails with sand. The kids screamed with delight when a wave washed up to bathe their pudgy legs and fill the newly dug holes with salty water.
“My mother’s name was Kate – Katherine Powell Harper. Nobody even knew she was sick until it was too late. Ovarian cancer.”
“I’m so sorry, Jess. How old were you?”
“Fifteen.” They kept on walking. Jess squeezed Grace’s hand, then dropped it and pointed toward a small restaurant up ahead. Tiny white lights strung around an outdoor deck and up into palm trees flanking it twinkled in the approaching darkness. A ruby-toned neon sign flashed: Evangeline’s Beach Shack.
Jess flashed a bright, pain-free smile at Grace. “Evangeline’s makes the best margaritas on the beach. Sound good?”
“Sure does. This is shaping up to be the law school graduation party I never had.”
“Great. Then it will be my turn to quiz you about who you are. Maybe I’ll even find out what genie in a bottle sent you my way.”
Grace still felt uneasy and dishonest about leading Jess on, but went with the flow and switched emotional channels along with Jess.
“Hey, isn’t Evangeline your step-mom?”
“Yes, and more than that. She’s got a great heart. She saved our family’s life, especially my dad’s. I honestly don’t know what would have happened to us without her. People come into your life for a reason, Grace. You just have to trust it.”
The outside deck was filled with a combination of locals and tourists. Jess took Grace’s hand again. “Come on. Let’s sit at the bar. Okay with you?”
“I think it’s the best seat in the house,” he said. “Great for people watching.”
Two bright-eyed, black-haired, olive-skinned young girls yelled out, “Jess!” and came toward them at a dead run, nearly colliding with a serving carrying a large tray of empty margarita glasses from the deck. They wrapped long arms around him and then noticed Grace. They tilted their heads in the crazy-making identical twin way, and started to giggle. “I’m Belle,” said one. “And I’m Kate,” said the other. Their mischievous dark brown eyes fixed on her as they blurted out in unison: “Are you our brother’s new girlfriend?”
Grace was fascinated. The girls looked just alike, but the one who identified herself as Belle had long straight hair, dangly plastic earrings made to look like a rainbow, and was dressed in a pomegranate-colored tank dress. Very girly. Kate, on the other hand, was dressed in khaki safari-style Bermuda shorts with a matching short-sleeve jacket with shoulder epaulets. She wore ankle-top hiking boots. Her hair was chin length and curly. She had a camera and a small pair of binoculars strapped crosswise across her chest.
Grace felt tongue-tied. Evangeline strode toward them and rescued her with a big smile. “Kate! Belle! Mind your manners.” She extended lovely, long tapered fingers to Grace. “I saw you with Jess at the drill today. I’m so glad he brought you to see us. Follow me. There’s space at the bar. Come get settled and then we’ll talk.”
Grace watched as Kate and Belle each grabbed hold of Jess’s hands. He pretended to resist as they dragged him toward the bar. He grinned over his shoulder at Grace, mock-helpless.
“Homework time, girls,” Evangeline said. “Run along, now, and leave Jess and his guest alone.”
Jess and Grace settled onto cherry wood bar stools with leather seats and backs and shiny brass foot rings. Evangeline instructed the bartender to make two margaritas.
Evangeline pulled up a stool beside Grace. “Sorry to be in such a rush around here. Let’s start again.” She took Grace’s hand and patted it. “I’m Evangeline Harper, Jess’s step-mom and friend. Welcome to my funky beach shack. Please call me Evie.”
“Thank you, Evie. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Grace Ann Ringer. I just moved here from central Florida – a small town called Brandon. This whole day has been very unusual, to say the least. The twins are adorable.”
Evie laughed. “Those two are a mess. They keep me on my toes. Sometimes they’re too smart for my own good. They think their big brothers are their own personal property. Grant’s married, but since Jess is single, Kate and Belle are endlessly fascinated by any female he shows up with.”
Grace cut her eyes around at Jess, but the Mayor was studying the menu with great concentration. “Hey, chere,” Evangeline put her hand lightly on Grace’s arm, and spoke in a low voice, “If you think Jess is good-looking, wait ‘til you see his father. Whoa, that man is ooh la la.”
“Evie, cut it out. You’ll scare Grace away,” Jess said.
“Oh, shoot, I’m just having a little fun.”
“I don’t mind,” Grace said, smiling at Evie.
Evie glanced at her watch. “In fact, I’m about to take the girls and head home to meet Ryan for dinner. He should be finishing rounds at the hospital about now.”
“Jess told me Dr. Ryan is an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Yes, and he won’t leave that hospital until he’s seen every one of his patients”. Her eyes glimmered. “Good man. Good, good man.” She jerked her head toward Jess, leaned in to Grace and said quietly, “Him, too.”
Grace didn’t know what to say. This kind of open emotionality was totally outside of anything she had ever experienced.
Evie threw one arm over her shoulder and the other over Jess’s. “Okay, kids, I’ve got to run. Order yourselves something if you’re hungry.” She took Grace’s face in her hands. “Come again, soon, okay?”
“Thanks, Evie. I’d love to.”
Evie was already calling for the twins. “Bell! Kate! Get it in gear, now, your dad will be waiting for us at home.”
And with that, Evie blew right out of there like some benign tropical storm, throwing kisses and smiles to her regular customers along the way. Kate and Belle danced behind her as though they were following the Pied Piper.
Grace suddenly felt exhausted. “Whew!” she said. “What a whirlwind day this has been.”
“Yes, and I know just the medicine for this kind of a day.” Bobby the bartender handed her an icy, pale green margarita in a wide-mouthed, stemmed glass. A wedge of juicy-looking lime was balanced on the edge.
Jess picked up his and proposed a toast: “To the best hurricane drill ever!”
“I’ll drink to that.” They clinked glasses.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Jess said, “but while you and Evie were talking, I went ahead and ordered us a small West Indies salad to share. It’s a specialty of the house. If we’re still hungry after that, we’ll get another one.
“I’m still stuffed from that feast we had a little while ago, but I have to admit, that sounds scrumptious, Jess. Thank you.” A basket of warm, toasted garlic bread slices arrived just then, followed by the chilled crab salad served on a bed of shredded lettuce in a white, shell-shaped dish. “That looks amazing,” Grace said. “About the only seafood I’ve eaten in the last three years of law school at Chapel Hill has been tuna salad.”
“So, Grace Ann Ringer, enough about me,” Jess joked, “who are you, little lady, and what are you doin’ in my town? Tell me what I want to know, or you’ll be out on the range with the coyotes and no horse tonight.”
Grace held up her hands. She smiled, but her eyes were solemn. “Okay, Mr. Mayor, no need for threats. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. It’s awfully noisy in here, though. Can we get a to-go coffee when we’ve finished our salads and find a picnic table down the beach on the way back to the parking lot?”
“Good idea. I know just the place.”
After dinner, Grace and Jess took their coffees and walked down to the water’s edge. They walked north along the shoreline until they reached the public fishing pier. Wood bench seats were built in the whole length of the pier, but they were crowded with people fishing, families playing and tourists hanging out. Jess spotted an empty picnic table a few more feet down the beach.
“Let’s grab that table before somebody else has the same idea.”
They jogged over and sat on benches facing each other.
Any pretense at merriment had gone from Grace’s face, and the one margarita she had drunk wasn’t enough to make her forget what she had to say to Jess.
He picked up on her mood immediately. “What’s worrying you?”
She removed the plastic top from her coffee, and took a tentative sip and looked Jess in the eye. “It’s my job.”
“Your job? Aren’t you a lawyer?”
“Yes, in fact this is my first job since I graduated last month.”
“That sure doesn’t sound like a problem.”
“You don’t understand,” Grace said.
“Okay. Explain it to me.” Jess put his coffee down and leaned toward her with his forearms resting on the table.
“The first file on my desk at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee is to work on securing all the permissions for the new town planned for 30,000 acres in the mid-county.”
“What?” Jess stood up. He went from relaxed to agitated in ten seconds.
“Jess, please. Sit down. There’s more.”
“I don’t think I need to hear any more. Look, I’m sorry, but tonight was a mistake. We shouldn’t even be talking. It’s a conflict of interest.”
“Please. At least let me finish.”
Jess sat back down and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve got one minute. Talk.”
“The most important part of my job initially is to persuade Tom and Sally Harper, um, your grandparents, to grant the county a right-of-way easement through their property so that West Sutter road can be straightened out and extended to link to the new town site and a new interstate highway ramp to make an east-west corridor for hurricane evacuation.”
“Is that why you came out here today? Did they send you to try and soften me up?”
Jess was on his feet again. His face was flushed with anger and his eyes had turned cobalt as the Gulf in winter. “Hurricane evacuations, my ass. That’s the way Barrows and his boys sold it to the county. I feel like a damn fool, rolling out the welcome wagon for the developers’ bird dog.” He spat the words out like bitter herbs and swung one leg over the bench as if to leave.
“Wait,” Grace pleaded. “Can’t we talk about this?”
Jess swung the other leg over and stood up. He folded his arms over his chest and glowered down at Grace. “We’ll talk about it, all right. We’ll talk about it when my grandparents sue the pants off the county and those vulture developers. Should give you plenty of job security down at that Skin-ums and Cheat-ums law firm you hooked up with.”
“Damn it, Jess, that’s not fair.” Grace stood up, tripped on her own foot, and fell into him.
Jess caught her, held her stiffly at arm’s length, then pulled her to him hard, bent down and kissed her roughly. She twisted and pulled away at first, then kissed him right back. Jess broke it off and shook his head. “Damn!”
He spun around and stalked off back up the beach toward the parking lot, leaving Grace stunned. This was worse than she thought it would be.
She thought about running after Jess. She even moved a step in the direction he was fleeing her.
Then she stopped, put her hands on her hips and just stood there watching the angry man walking away from her. Suddenly she was angry, too. Of all the arrogant, obstinate jerks. She blew air out of her cheeks. Forget him. I’ve got a job to do, and by God, I’m going to do it.
Grace sat back down to finish her coffee and pretend to enjoy the dregs of the sunset. And to be sure Jess was gone by the time she got back to the parking lot.
Grace picked up the pace as she walked back to her truck from the beach picnic table. The last rays of the sunset were gone, and it was almost dark. There were still a lot of people out walking or having beach blanket suppers.
She walked close to the water. The hard-packed sand felt good to her bare feet. She began to jog and then broke out into a wind sprint. She ran until her breath came in huge gasps. Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Grace felt so worked up, she wasn’t sure what would come out of her mouth.
Laugh! She bent over double laughing, still breathing hard from the exertion. Oh, boy, you showed yourself for a small town girl, today! Way to go, Grace Ann. Kiss the Mayor and make him – mad! I guess P. J.’s my sworn enemy now, too. Oh, well.
Grace threw her head back and laughed some more. She never saw the sallow, skinny man wearing baggy jeans and a Red Man cap watching her from the nearby pier.