eye of the storm ~ chapter eleven

For the record.

Chapter 11 

Brandon, Florida 

Claire pondered her diminishing options for years. If she had only herself to worry about, it would be easy. She would work at her job until one day there was a hit and run, or a drive by shooting. At least she could continue taking care of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital and maybe do some good right up until she was killed.  If she were the only one in the picture, she would have taken her chances and contacted her parents years ago. Maybe. But even that would have likely put them all in danger. She went over it in her head a thousand times, trying to figure a way out of this mess. 

Sometimes a young person makes a decision that irrevocably changes the course of their life forever. That day twenty-five years ago when she ran away with Pete Hunsicker was such a move. Claire was 17, a junior in high school, and pregnant, the latter a fact that she did not share with Pete until they were well away from Waynesville, North Carolina and living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Orleans near the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender and ran the illegal video poker room at a dive off Rue Morgue. 

Claire thought running away to New Orleans with Pete, a good-looking, slick-talking older guy, a friend of her Uncle Rory, would be a romantic adventure. She had dreams of becoming a writer or an actress, and figured this episode in her life would be a fun lark, something she could tell her grandchildren about someday. 

Besides, her parents were consumed by building their company, Berringer Software, and probably wouldn’t miss her, anyway. Such were the thoughts of a lonely 17-year old. 

Pete blew up when Claire told him about the baby. He gave her enough money for an abortion, but when she refused, he told her how dumb she was and that he had no intention of being saddled with her and a kid, slapped her, and said “You will take care of this. Tomorrow, okay?” She worried about it all the next day, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the family planning clinic and kill her baby. Pete went a little crazy with her when he found out she didn’t go. He shook her, got right in her face and told her if she didn’t go the next day, he would take her himself and then throw her out on the street. So she promised she would go. 

When he was at work that night, she packed her one small bag, wrote Pete a note telling him he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore and left. There was enough cash from the abortion money to rent a cheap room in another parish across town. She got a job a waiting tables at a café next door. It was a local place with a trade that mostly included the drunks that came from any one of several neighboring bars to get cheap omelets, beignets and chicory coffee. 

Claire poured herself a tall glass of vodka over ice and muttered to herself as she walked around the house making sure all the doors and windows were locked. She took the bottle of liquor and a small ice bucket to the bedroom, turning off lights as she went. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Hot tears collected behind her eyes. No. The time’s past for that, idiot. Time to protect Grace if you can. 

Claire had been preparing for this day ever since she got the first anonymous threatening card more than twenty years ago. She hated lying to Grace all these years, hated the mess she made of her own life, hated the bastard that made her life a living hell, hated Pete Hunsicker, and hated herself. 

She especially hated lying to Grace on their last phone call. She wrote the points she wanted to cover on a small sticky note which she flushed down the toilet after they said good-bye. 

Claire researched how to check if your telephone was bugged. Pretty simple, really. When she found the bug three weeks ago, she couldn’t stop shivering. She was so mad she wanted to rip it out of the wall and drown it in the bathtub. 

That’s when she knew “he” – whoever “he” was – wouldn’t quit until she was dead. She had to convince him or them that she never told Grace who she really was. And she hadn’t. So she needed to concoct a little bit of theatre for the listener’s benefit and then cut off any potential of a future leak at its source, which, sadly, was herself. 

Claire’s access to substances from the hospital would guarantee a quick, certain, painless result. She cautiously gathered them for months. She sensed there was a narrow window of opportunity to do this thing once Grace graduated from law school, took her after-graduation trip to Italy with her friend Ariel, came home to pack up all her belongings, and moved to her new job in Pensacola. But she couldn’t drag it out. She was convinced she was a dead woman either way. At least by following her own script there was a chance she could save Grace. 

The one dumb thing she had done was to send the bear made out of flour sacks, Elisha Walter, “E.W.,” with Grace. Putting the big stuffed bear in the Grace’s car was a last minute irresistible impulse. She still didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, and hoped her rash act never endangered Grace. 

E.W. held a secret in his belly. Claire used a surgical scalpel to make an incision along one of the flour sack seams on his back. She carefully removed part of the packing material and inserted a thin scroll of papers into E. W.’s mid-section, re-stuffed him, and resealed the seam with tiny stiches. 

That thin scroll was the only evidence in the world that proved Claire Ringer was born Ann Mathis Berringer, only child of Troy and Mary Alice Berringer, billionaire founders of Berringer Software. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter ten

For the record.

                         Chapter Ten 

By the time Grace got home to the condo and changed into what she called her “soft clothes,” – an old t-shirt and some running shorts with the elastic nearly worn out – she had become more philosophical about her roller-coaster of a day. 

She thought about it while she brewed a cup of Zen green. Just my luck. Meet the man of my dreams, charm him and then turn him into a sworn enemy all in one day. Oh well. I’ve got job to do and there’s more than one good-looking guy in Pensacola. 

She took her mug of tea and a ginger cookie out to the balcony. What a day. It wasn’t just meeting Jess. The whole day was wild, from the hurricane drill itself, to the great music and food, the gorgeous beach, meeting P. J. and Evangline and the twins, and, well, Jess. It really started and ended with him. I’ve got a feeling we’re not done, yet. 

Grace sat in a patio chair facing the water and watched as a gleaming trawler angled into its berth at the marina next door. She enjoyed watching the waterfront comings and goings of boats, people and their dogs. 

One of her favorites was a sailboat “live-aboard.” The owner was a fat guy who looked for all the world like he was wearing a muskrat on his head. His dog, a tiny, feisty Yorkshire terrier, had fuschia bows in his fancy dog salon hair, and wore a set of designer canine water wings. Grace knew the harness was a floatie, because earlier in the week she saw him try to get fresh with a big black female Labrador retriever. When the retriever’s belly fur got tickled by the bodacious little Yorkie walking under her and sniffing, the Lab gave a loud bark and ducked her head under her chest to grab the little dog. The alert owner yanked on the Yorkie’s leash which propelled the little dog straight into the water. Grace leaned over the balcony and watched the big man scoop up the floating dog. It looked like a wet rat. Together they disappeared into the cabin of the sailboat, leaving the Lab looking like “What did I do? 

Grace spent a few more minutes on the balcony, listening to the strains of music floating over from the marina, and suddenly realized she was exhausted, and went in to bed. 

The next morning Grace woke up early, pulled on her running gear and headed out. After only one week in Pensacola, Grace had developed a great enthusiasm for living downtown.  Her law firm was only three blocks away in the core of downtown offices and government buildings, and she loved being able to walk to work. There were sidewalks everywhere, just right for runners. She decided to jog by her office building first and then explore the downtown core by running a grid pattern. 

She ran by all sorts of little shops and restaurants sandwiched in between City Hall, the post office, the courthouse, and countless lawyer’s offices, including her own. There was a beautiful old Episcopal church that showed Pensacola’s Spanish heritage. She passed a French bakery with adorable little black iron chairs out front. People sat at round tables reading the morning paper and chatting. Smells of café au lait and croissants wafted across her nose and made her stomach growl. 

The ornate wrought iron balconies with cascading flower baskets on second floor loft apartments above shops on Palafox Street caught her eye. She stopped to snap a couple of photos with her cell phone. 

“Grace! Hey, Grace!” She turned at the shouted greeting and saw P. J. Whitacre motioning with his hand. “Come on over!” 

He was sitting by himself at an outdoor café. A jowly bloodhound that had to be Minnie Pearl was sprawled on the sidewalk by his side. 

“Good morning, P.J.!” Grace said as she headed over toward him. 

“Come on. Sit down and have a cup of coffee with me.” 

“I’ve been running. You may be sorry you asked.” 

“Shoot. Set down.” 

“Are you by yourself?” 

“Right now, I am.” He signaled the server to bring another cup of coffee. “Sit.” 

She sat. Minnie Pearl raised her head to sniff at the newcomer. Grace reached over and stroked the dog’s long, soft ears. Then she cocked an eyebrow at P.J. “You must not have talked to Jess since last night.” 

“Sure I have. You remember that old “Godfather” movie?” He looked serious. 

“Sure. I’ve read the books and seen all the movies several times.” 

“Remember where the Godfather says, ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?’” 

Grace felt like she had been struck in the face, looked down at her shoes, and started to scrape her chair backward as if to get up. Then she heard a low rumbling chuckle. It was P.J. 

“Grace Ann,” he said, laughing. “You ought to see your face. Now stay put and drink your coffee, girl.” 

“But, P.J., this isn’t funny. This is awful.” 

“Look, I know it’s bad. Jess is sulled like an old possum. But you didn’t plan to meet him yesterday, did you?” 

“No.” She frowned and shook her head. “I had no idea until you brought up Tom and Sally Harper that I would become a black hat all of a sudden.” 

“Well, it’s a serious matter for Jess and his whole family, Grace. No doubt about it. And it’s a damned shame that you’re going to caught up in the middle of it.” 

“I guess Jess is really close to his grandparents?” 

“Sure. Old Tom and Sally are two of the best people ever put on God’s green earth. Wish they were my grandparents.” 

“I guess the whole family’s close. I met his step-mom, Evie, and his little sisters last night.” 

“Jess was 15 when his real mom died. It was bad. Jess and Grant and their dad, Doc Ryan, were messed up for a long time. Everybody worried they were going to just dry up and blow away. Jess was bad to fight there for a few years. Look close at him and you’ll see that nose of his has been broken a couple of times.” 

“How old was Jess when Dr. Harper and Evie got married?” 

The server drew near their table with a carafe of coffee. P.J. motioned with a nod and an index finger to Grace’s mug and his own.  “He was 18. That’s easy to remember, because we were both just about to head off to college. Hard to believe that was almost 12 years ago. 

Grace smiled. “Evie’s really something. She really made me feel at home.” 

“Yep. She’s the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to that crew. Her and those two little girls.” 

“I can see why. I got to meet Kate and Belle last night, too.” 

“Yeah, they’ve got Jess totally wrapped. If you ask me, I think Jess is hankering to settle and have some rug rats of his own. If he could find the right woman, that is.” 

Grace felt color in her face, but she tried to act casual. “Has he had any near misses?” 

“Only one. That would be Miss Logan Nicole Westmoreland.” P.J. spoke her name like some historical figure he didn’t much care for. 

“What happened?” 

“She and Jess were high school sweethearts. She went to FSU in Tallahassee when we did. He sure was crazy about that little gal. She had modeled some in high school, was queen of the debutante court, all that stuff, then got into FSU’s theatre program.” 

“Sounds good, so far.” 

“Yeah, it was all good for the first three years. She and Jess got engaged, and set a date to get married soon as they graduated. But something happened in our senior year. She decided she wanted to live in New York and work in musical theatre on Broadway; that she didn’t want to get married and live in a small Southern town where she’d been all her life.” 

“Is she still there?” 

“No. Last I heard she had moved to California to try and get into movies or TV and wound up marrying several guys along the way. ” 

“Not at once, I hope.” 

P.J. laughed. “Oh no, she’s a serial marrier, that girl.” 

“Well, I guess she broke Jess’s heart.” 

“Yeah, but he’s been past that for a long time. It made him wary, though. Half the girls in town want to marry Jess, or at least dance around some with him. Good lookin’ cuss. That black hair and blue eyes gets ‘em. I should be so lucky. They don’t seem to notice he’s a little sawed off and most of them are taller than he is when they put on those spike heels. Plus, he’s courtly, almost like one of those Texas cowboys. Got that from his dad and his granddad. Add to that the fact he’s vice-president of the family’s bank and the youngest person ever elected Mayor of Pensacola,” P.J. grinned, “what’s not to like? But nope, none of them have rung his bell . . . at least not for more than a few weeks. The most important female in Jess’s life right now is that damn dog. Nothin’ more loyal than a good dog.” P.J. reached down and scratched behind Minnie Pearl’s left ear. She snuffled and yawned, her long pink tongue curling up to her nose. 

Grace sighed. “I’ve never had any kind of a pet before. No brothers or sisters, either. In fact, I was adopted, and I don’t even know who my real parents are, so all this big family stuff, with grandparents and dogs and family history is new territory. Unfortunately, there’s a conflict of interest that precludes a personal relationship. Any advice?” 

“Not really, Grace. You’ve got a job to do. Jess has his family’s interests to protect. The fact that ya’ll met and hit it off is what some old politician used to call an ‘inconvenient truth.’ Before he ran off with a sweet young thing and left my mama and me about ten years ago, my daddy used to say, “Son, sometimes the only way around a thing is through it.” 

“That’s your advice? What the heck does it mean?” 

“Well, it’s the best I can do on short notice. P.J. looked past her and said, “I guess right about now is as good a time as any to test that advice.” 

“What? What do you mean?” 

“’Morning, Jess. Pull up a chair. Hey, Angus. Come here, puppy!” 

Jess pulled up a chair and gave Grace a professional politician smile. “Good morning, Grace.” His face was smooth, unreadable. 

It cut her much worse than if he had been cold or hot with her. That studied neutrality made her ashamed and angry at the same time. She could feel her face grow hot. 

“Hello, Jess – oh my gosh, that puppy is adorable!” Grace forgot all about Jess and their conflict. If a puppy could possibly be dignified, this one was. She sat up, forepaws crossed like she had just graduated from finishing school, with her deep brown intelligent eyes and shining black coat. 

Grace surprised herself by reaching for the pup. “May I?” 

“Of course,” Jess said, and transferred the pup to Grace’s waiting arms. “This is Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet.” 

Grace nuzzled the puppy, who cuddled in her embrace. “Angus, you are even softer than velvet.” She was feeling some brand new connection. She was falling in love with a dog for the first time. 

Jess looked on without speaking. P. J. said, “Hey, now, Grace, ya’ll are gonna hurt old Minnie Pearl’s feelin’s. You didn’t make over her like you’re doing with Amanda there.” 

Grace looked up, embarrassed. She held Amanda close. She was clearly reluctant to let her go, but smiled at P.J. as she gently passed Amanda back to Jess. “I’m sorry, P.J.  I’ve never held a puppy before. Guess I got a little carried away.” 

She stood. “Thank you for the coffee, P.J.  She looked over at Jess, looking as though she was about to cry. “Thanks for letting me hold the pup, Jess.” 

Jess didn’t speak, just looked at her steady with his poker face. 

Grace took off down the sidewalk in a slow jog back toward the condo. 

“Got it bad, don’t you, son?” P. J. said, bumping Jess’s knee with his own. 

Jess looked at P.J., tight-lipped. “Drop it, P.J. I’m a big boy. That,” he said, pointing toward the disappearing Grace’s trim form, “isn’t happening, okay? You ready to head out to the farm?” 

eye of the storm ~ chapter nine

For the record.

Chapter Nine 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

            Well, now, ain’t love grand. When Bo Perlis chuckled, a nasty sound came out of his mouth, gritty like old coffee grounds. He didn’t sound amused. He leaned against the pilings of a fishing dock, boots anchored in sugar white sand. Perlis lit one cigarette from the butt of another, and occasionally lifted a small pair of Leica bird-watching binoculars in Grace’s direction for a closer look. He had caught her and his Honor’s conversation thanks to a small deer hunter’s “bionic ear.” 

Perlis picked his teeth with a mother-of-pearl toothpick he got off a high-roller he knifed in a Las Vegas storm drain under the Luxor Casino. Bo liked souvenirs, and this was one of his favorites. He remembered that fat sucker, how his red-veined blue eyes bulged with surprise as he watched his own bright arterial blood pump and spurt. 

Bo spat, remembering how he jumped out of the way to keep from getting blood on this boots. Jesus Christ, I’ve had some good times. Who else gets to do this kind of stuff and get paid for it, too? 

He stashed the toothpick in his pocket, and brought his hand-held video camera up and zoomed in on Grace and the Mayor at a picnic table a hundred feet away. Damn, she’s hot. He zoomed in to get a better look at the girl’s long legs. Perlis felt a familiar swelling begin in his tight Levi’s. Down, boy. Patience. Got to save this sweet thing for later. 

Bo watched them earlier when they walked on the beach. Couldn’t keep their hands off each other. But now, the couple’s mood had changed from play to argument. He kept on filming and angled the bionic ear microphone to try to pick up their conversation. It was windy, though, and he could only get snippets. Clearly, the Mayor was angry. Perlis saw him jump up from the bench, practically assault the woman, and high-tail it down the beach. 

He continued to watch Grace until she got up from the table and half-walked, half-ran back toward the parking lot. 

Shit. I hate the damned beach. Perlis left the pier and stepped as lightly as he could back to the asphalt parking area, trying to avoid getting sand in his boots. 

He pulled in a few cars behind Grace’s red pick-up truck and followed her back across the bridge. He broke off when she turned into the gated entrance at Balconies on the Bay, punched the key pad and disappeared from sight. 

Perlis drove on a few blocks, and then pulled into the busy parking lot at Sam’s Seafood. He found an open space at the back of the lot beside a scraggly looking scrub oak tree. His nondescript rental car looked like half the other vehicles in the lot. By now, it was fully dark and right in the middle of the restaurant’s dinner hour. Perlis lowered his window, turned off the ignition and flicked a cigarette butt onto the pavement. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the one number he had on speed dial. 

“Report.” The voice creeped Bo out every time he heard it. It was sultry and breathy like a Marilyn Monroe clone. The client used some kind of voice changer software. Bo suspected the client was actually male, but there was no way he could know for sure. 

“I found the girl.” 

“And?” Damn, that come-hither voice was distracting. 

“Nothing suspicious. Acts like any young kid on their first job. Spent the day at the beach participating in a community hurricane drill; then made out on the beach with the town Mayor, got into an argument with him; he left; she drove back to her condo. End of story.” 

“Did you say ‘mayor’?” 

“Yeah. He looks like a kid, too. Must be the youngest mayor in America.” 

“And the argument?” 

“Don’t know for sure. Something about her job. It’s real windy out on the beach and I didn’t catch every word.” 

“Her phones?” The real voice might have a slight southern accent, but Perlis couldn’t place the region. 

“Got her land line at the condo. The place is on the market for sale. The woman is a glorified house-sitter. A realtor gave me a nice little tour of the place. I came back later and got the phone and placed a couple of cameras around.” 

“Just remember you’re there for information, not for fun. What about her cell phone?” 

“No luck yet with her cell.” 

“Not a matter of luck, Mr. Perlis. Skill. The cell phone is critical. Nobody under thirty uses a land line anymore. I was told you could do this. Do not disappointment me. Get it done and report back tomorrow.” 

That was the longest speech Bo had heard from his client so far, not that he was crazy about the content. “Will do,” he said. 

Goodnight, Marilyn. Jeez, that’s weird. Bo put the phone back in his shirt pocket and reached under the seat for the pint bottle of Early Times he kept there. He took a long pull, recapped it, lit up another smoke and drove away from Sam’s in search of a drive-through double cheeseburger and fries. Bo hated any type of seafood: fried, stewed or nude. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter 8

For the record

Chapter Eight 

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.” 

“Any sisters?” 

“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?” 


“She’s gorgeous.” 

“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. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter seven

For the record

Chapter 7 

Mary Alice Berringer sat with her friend, Aileen Smathers, on the porch of The Nutmeg Bakery Café in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was the first week of May, perfect weather to enjoy outdoor dining before the crush of Florida people hit the pretty valley seeking relief from hot summer temperatures. 

Aileen and Mary Alice had been friends almost their whole lives, and now they were enduring widowhood together, too. It had never mattered that Mary Alice had co-founded Berringer Software Company with her late husband, Troy, and one of the richest women in North Carolina, and Aileen hadn’t worked outside her and her husband’s modest home since their children were born. 

Physically, they couldn’t be more different, either. The white-haired Aileen was a quintessential “mama” type, medium height and huggably soft. Her figure suggested she was a fine home cook who enjoyed tasting her own cooking. Mary Alice was more like a stork, tall, all angles and planes, her hair chemically maintained in the natural copper red shade of her youth.  Despite her usual command presence, Mary Alice’s vibrant personality normally became girlish and totally spontaneous anytime she was with Aileen. 

“Oh, my, don’t that look good,” Aileen said as a nice-looking young man sat a Waldorf chicken salad with fresh fruit and poppy seed bread on the table in front of her. 

“I’m sure it is,” Mary Alice murmured as she picked at a fillet of perfectly seared tuna on spring greens. She put her fork back down, sighed, patted her mouth with her napkin, and took a sip of iced tea. 

Aileen’s wise eyes knew what the trouble was. She lost her husband more than five years ago, but for Mary Alice, the loss was fresh and still an open wound. 

Mary Alice looked up to see Aileen’s eyes on her, and tried to smile but her eyes filled with tears. Aileen’s hand reached out across the table to grasp Mary Alice’s. 

“I’m sorry, Aileen. I thought I was ready. Guess I’m not.” 

“You just take all the time you need, honey. Would you like to leave?” 

Mary Alice squeezed Aileen’s hand, then let go, twisted her neck around like an athlete, took in a deep breath and exhaled, then picked up her fork. 

“Hell, no, Aileen, Troy would be embarrassed to see me acting like some little school girl. Let’s eat this good food.” 

Aileen chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’m havin’ a big old piece of that coconut pie I saw in the case when we came in.” 

“It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a dessert, Aileen, my system would problem go into shock. But you have that pie, and I’ll at least have a cup of that fancy coffee The Nutmeg’s so proud of.” 

“Atta girl,” Aileen said. 

Troy Llewellyn Berringer died in a bizarre car crash on a narrow mountain road six months earlier. He had just turned 70 years old. The years of mountain hiking, running a business with the love of his life, Mary Ann, and a commitment to diet and exercise kept Troy looking and feeling at least ten years younger. Same for Mary Ann, who, at 68, looked no older than mid-fifties. 

They had been seriously thinking about selling the business and their home and becoming world-travelling nomads for a while. 

“Why not?” Troy had said. We’re fit. We feel great. We’re sure as hell not ready for the porch and slippers routine.” 

Their doctors told them that they were likely to live past one hundred, given the pristine state of their blood work and lifestyle. They laughed together about that and decided maybe it was time to sell the business and go play, especially since they didn’t have any heirs. 

Well, there was Mary Alice’s nephew, Rory, and he wanted in the worst way to inherit the business from them, but neither Troy nor Mary Alice could quite see their high tech baby in Rory’s rough hands. And since their only daughter disappeared 25 years earlier, they felt like they would rather sell it to a well-managed corporation who would continue to run the business responsibly and retain their long-time employees. Either that or offer the employees a chance to buy themselves out. 

The day of the accident, Troy called Mary Alice from his Rotary Club meeting in Waynesville to ask her to meet him at Patrick Condon’s office at 1:30 that afternoon. Pat was in his mid-nineties, but still came into the office almost every day to make sure the legal interests of his long-time clients like Berringer Software were taken care of. 

Mary Alice remembered how excited Troy was when he called. “Hey, woman, you’ve got to meet me over at Pat’s office today at 1:30. He’s got the papers on an offer from a buyer for the business!” 

“Really?” Mary Ann said. “Wow! How is this happening so fast? We haven’t even looked for a buyer.” 

“I know, I know, but apparently somebody whispered in somebody else’s ear and Pat got a call. Can you be there?” 

“Sure, Troy. You won’t have time to come back to the office first so we can go together?” 

“Wish I could, sugar. I got a call from somebody I need to see between Rotary and Pat. Probably nothing, but I got to go.” 

Mary Ann felt a familiar pain. Even after 25 years, every month or so they would get a call or letter from somebody saying they knew where Ann Mathis Berringer, their missing daughter, was. Sometimes the person making the contact was genuinely trying to be helpful, even though they were always mistaken, but most of the time it was some scurrilous scam artist out to make a buck on their suffering and loss. Either way, though, Troy would go to the ends of the earth to find the tiniest clue that might lead them to their daughter. 

“Of course, my love. I understand. I’ll see you at Pat’s at 1:30. 

And that’s the last time she ever heard her dear Troy’s voice. 

“Mary Alice, where’d you go?  Earth to Mary Alice.” 

“Oh, Aileen! I’m sorry. I swear, it doesn’t take anything for me to drift off into a cloud of memory. I guess you’ve been there, too?” 

“I sure have, darlin’. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish one of them clouds of mem’ry would just take me right on up to heaven so I could be with Jack again.” 

Going on without Troy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Aileen. At least you have your girls and the grandchildren. Does that help at all?” 

“Oh sure, and I’m thankful for them. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Still, when it comes time to shut the lights and turn back the covers, there’s no hand to pat mine and tell me, ‘Sweet dreams, Aileen.’” 

The two old friends sat and looked at one another. Finally, Mary Alice said, “Yes, well, I sure do need Troy’s wisdom right now to know how to handle selling the business and how to handle Rory. It’s delicate. He’s been a little too helpful ever since Troy died. Feels like he’s trying to take me over, and the business, too.” 

“I haven’t seen Rory in a long time. How old is he now?” 

“He turned 50 last month.” 

“Fifty! I can’t believe it. Did he ever get married?” 

“No, he never did.” 

“I don’t guess he’s likely to have any young ‘uns at this stage, then.” 

Mary Alice chuckled. “No, I can’t imagine Rory being a daddy. He’s like a kid himself, in a lot of ways. More interested in his toys than other people. He tries to keep it quiet, but I know he’s a regular over at Cherokee, and he goes down to Biloxi frequently, and even Las Vegas several times a year.” 

Aileen leaned forward and whispered. “He gambles?” 

“Oh, yes. And that’s not all.” 

Mary Alice signaled the server for the check. “He’s sneaky, Aileen. I shouldn’t be talking like this about family, but to tell you the truth, in my heart you’re the closest thing I’ve got to family, now, and I just have to tell somebody.” 

“My word, Mary Alice, what is it?” 

Mary Alice signed the check and waited until the server was out of earshot. “He’s pressuring me to make him CEO and give him 50% ownership of the company. He wants me to retire and let him run all the day-to-day operations of the business. Says I’ve ‘earned’ it.” 

“Well, you have. That’s true.” 

“That may be. But I don’t trust my nephew not to raid the company to pay for his fun, and run the business into the ground. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. I’d much rather sell the business to a reputable buyer like Troy and I planned; someone who will keep our employees and continue to grow the business.” 

“Does Rory own any of the stock now?” 

“No. Troy never felt comfortable with selling or giving away any of our stock. Rory’s always been on a salary with full benefits and a bonus schedule.” 

“Does he do good work?” 

“Well, okay,” Mary Alice sighed and reached for her purse, “but the hard truth is, if he wasn’t my late sister’s son, we would have run him off years ago. His job I more of a “make work” position than a necessary part of our operations.” She scraped her chair back and stood up. So did Aileen. “I need to get back to the office.” 

The friends walked out to the gravel parking lot. They were parked side by side under a spreading oak tree. “I’m so sorry you’re having this trouble,” Aileen said. 

Mary Alice smiled and hugged her. “This, too, shall pass. Thanks for listing. I promise to be more cheerful next time.” 

“You call me if there’s anything I can do.” 

“Will do. Say hi to those girls for me.” 

“I surely will. And let’s get together again soon.” 

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.” 


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. 


“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. 


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.” 

eye of the storm ~ chapter five

For the record

Chapter Five 

Pensacola, Florida 

Jess awakened slowly to the delicious feeling of a warm tongue licking his neck, then his chin, then his chest, then his . . . “Angus! Stop that!” Jess laughed and shifted Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet, a 12-week-old black Labrador retriever pup, so that he was splayed out on his naked chest. He squinted through the white plantation shutters of his downtown loft apartment, and then looked at the lighted dial of his wristwatch. It was 5:50 a.m. Jess rubbed Angus’s soft ears and stretched lazily in the comfortable California King bed. 

Angus was a gift from his grandparents, Tom and Sally Harper. They had Angus’s sire and dam, Duke Blackvelvet and Spunky Darlin’, at the old home place on a Longleaf pine preserve in the midsection of the county. Jess’s brother, Grant, had a pup from the litter, too, and had named the poor dog Goober. Hate to go through life with a name like that. Thank God I’m just Jess to most folks and don’t have to go around with my full name: Jesperson Powell Harper. Now there’s a handle that would scare away almost any woman. 

“Hey, ouch, Angus, that smarts.” Angus peppered Jess’s fingers with his tiny puppy teeth. He wiggled and yipped, and his tail whipped from side to side. “Okay, I get the message, little guy. Let’s go for a short walk, then breakfast for you and I’ll hit the shower. Today’s the hurricane drill. I’ve got to head out to the beach.” 

An hour later, Jess was in the driver’s seat of his Jeep. Angus was at what Jess referred to as “doggy day care.” Mrs. Brinkley next door was his go-to puppy sitter. She thought she was too old to get another dog, but it was clear she missed the hell out of having one. She took care of Angus and got her “dog fix” and Jess could rest assured that his pup was well cared for in his absence. Once Angus graduated from obedience school, Jess planned to take the pup to his office at the bank and even to City Council meetings. He figured there was nothing as effective as a fine Labrador retriever to improve the image of a banker and politician. 

Jess fixed himself a thermos of coffee and a trail mix bar as a take-along for the ride out to the beach. When he turned on the ignition, the radio was already tuned to the local drive time favorite, C-ROCK, the country/rock station all the locals called CROCK. They served up a mix of music and talk from the CROCK Jocks. Everybody under 65 listened. Some even older, like his Grandma, Sally Harper. She loved it. As he headed for the beach bridges, a popular tenor crooned about how love was standing right in front of him. Yeah, right. Don’t I wish? Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. I must be getting old. 

It took Jess about 40 minutes to get to the drill site. He planned to keep a low profile during the drill itself, and just wander around with a clipboard checking on things. His speaking role as Mayor of Pensacola didn’t come until the end, when all the volunteers and government participants would gather and he would address them on behalf of the city. The County Commissioners and members of his own council would all be there electioneering, too, no doubt. 

The sight of the thin barrier island sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico never failed to provoke in Jess a nightmare image of a tsunami rolling over, drowning everything in its path. 

Jess swallowed the last sip of his coffee and eased his bright blue Jeep into a diagonal parking space next to a tomato-red Ford F-150 pick-up truck in the big lot nearest the beach. He reached over and picked up his clipboard from the passenger seat, got out and locked the Jeep. 

Fire trucks, ambulances, and several fleets of Gulf Power, telephone and cable trucks were set up around the fringes of the parking lot. Volunteers swarmed. He saw a school bus emptying a gaggle of excited kids and next to it several vans from local retirement centers disgorging their cargo of enthusiastic seniors who volunteered to help. He knew many of the senior folks lived through Hurricane Ivan that scored a direct hit on Pensacola Beach in 2004. Their wisdom would be helpful when the next big one came along. Glad to see a good turnout. I’ve got a bad feeling a big one may hit this season. 

Jess was about to walk to the big tent housing the Governor’s emergency training team when he saw a striking young woman jogging his way. 

She was a tall, angular girl with short copper-colored hair. She ran with a purple flip-flop in each hand and closed the distance between them fast. She wasn’t paying any attention to him, though. He watched as she took both flip-flops in one hand and fished for something in a pocket of her cargo shorts. Just as she reached the asphalt, she came out with a key ring sporting a pink plastic flamingo and veered slightly toward the red pick-up. 

“Jess! Hey, Jess, come on. We’re about to get started.” Ben Jones, his executive assistant, stood by the big tent, calling over to him. 

The young woman looked up at Jess and smiled. “Pretty morning for a Hurricane drill,” she said. The sibilance of her voice startled him. It was low-pitched, musical. 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” Jess said. The girl took a water bottle out of her truck and walked toward him. 

“That’s why I got here early – to take a walk on the beach.” By this time, she was right beside him. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer. You look like you’ve been to this rodeo before. I’m supposed to be a victim today. Can you tell me which way to go?” 

Jess stood there half tongue-tied for a few seconds, starting stupidly at Grace. He was vaguely aware of his Executive Assistant, Ben Jones, a few feet away waving his arms and shouting for him to come to the big tent. Jess wasn’t sure that this stranger was actually beautiful, but the whole package came together in a way that stunned him. The wild hair, high cheekbones, gold-flecked green eyes full of smarts and curiosity, and that mouth – nothing angular about that full, soft, peach-colored mouth. C’mon, Jess, stop staring. 

“Um, yes, ah, oh sure, you need to go over there to the small tent with the Red Cross symbol on it,” Jess said, pointing. “They’ll fix you right up.” He was about to introduce himself, when he saw Ben walking rapidly toward him. 

Shoot, damn his time anyway. “Guess I’d better go. Catch you later.” 

“You bet.” Grace flashed a smile that made Jess go weak in the knees. “Thanks for the help.” She took off toward the Red Cross tent at a relaxed trot. 

Ben caught up to him. “C’mon, Mr. Mayor,” Ben said. The Governor’s rep is here and the TV crew wants a quick shot of the two of you together.” 

eye of the storm ~ chapter four

for the record

Chapter Four 

Brandon, Florida 

As soon as Grace disappeared from sight, Claire walked slowly back into the house, locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Thank God she’s gone. If Grace knew the truth, she would want to stand and fight. But I never said a word. Claire lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in with a shaky breath. Then she looked around the living room as if she had an audience and shouted, “Hear that, you bastard! I never said a word.” 

She walked through the living room and down the short hall to Grace’s sunny yellow bedroom. It exuded her personality. The rest of the house was completely anonymous. On purpose. Grace had never known about her efforts to hide in plain sight. Not that it mattered anymore. She had been found ten years ago. Her efforts to be invisible all these years had failed. 

Claire sat down on Grace’s neatly made bed and put her face in her hands. Her cell phone chirped. Claire fished it out of her jeans pocket. Grace. She’s barely been gone a half hour. 

After their brief conversation, Claire stood up and smoothed the covers on Grace’s bed, then went back to her own bedroom. She didn’t pull back the covers, just lay down on her back and fell into a deep sleep, even though it was nearly mid-morning. She barely slept a wink the night before, fretting about everything. 

Claire slept straight through until dark, when she awoke with a start and grabbed for the cell phone on her bedside table. There was a message from Grace. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here safe and sound. I’m at the apartment and in for the night. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.” 

Claire showered, dressed for work, and microwaved a frozen dinner, which she washed down with hot coffee. She didn’t mind working the graveyard shift in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brandon Hospital. Nurse burn-out rate was high. Happy outcomes for the high-risk infants there were not assured, and it was considered a tough place to work. Not for Claire, though. She had been on the unit twenty years, ever since she arrived in Brandon as a young nurse with a toddler of her own. She understood more than most that once you’re born, it’s too late. Life itself is a high risk proposition. 

The NICU unit was Claire’s home. Her work there felt like a calling, a duty, maybe even a penance. She had spent many nights just like this one, where even with all the high-tech equipment, the low-tech remedy of holding a premature, sick infant in your arms in a rocking chair and humming “Hush Little Baby” was still the best medicine in the world. 

Claire left her station shortly after 11 for a quick break. She was in the nurse’s lounge with hot coffee and a cinnamon roll when her cell phone chirped to alert her to an incoming text message. “Love u. Wish u were here.” Claire pushed #1 to speed dial Grace’s cell. 

 “You won’t believe this, Mom. I am sitting out on the balcony of the condo watching a full moon over Escambia Bay. I can see three beautiful sailboats and a huge shrimp trawler that looks like something out of another century. It’s incredible.” Claire had never heard her daughter talk so fast. 

“It sounds amazing. Did you get some supper?” 

“Sure did. I picked up a frozen veggie pizza at Publix. There’s a little round glass-top patio table and a couple of chairs out here, so I sat in one, propped my feet in the other, and enjoyed my dinner while I watched pelicans dive-bombing the bay for their dinner.” 

“That’s wonderful, Grace. You’ve earned it. Makes me happy to know you’re happy. Enjoy the rest of your weekend before you start work Monday.” 

“I will, Mom.” 

“Well, time’s up. I’ve got to get back to work..” 

“Okay, Mom. Hope the rest of your shift goes well.” 

“Thanks, honey. Oh, and Grace?” 

“Yes ma’am?” 

“Don’t forget to keep an eye out for strangers.” 

“Well, Mom,” Grace laughed, “that’ll be pretty hard to do. Everybody here is a stranger to me right now.” 

“You know what I mean. There are friends you haven’t met yet, and then there are strangers.” 

“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. You raised me right. Besides, I’ve been pretty much on my own for quite a while, now, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m always careful.” 

“Twenty-four years old and a lawyer. You really are almost a fully-grown bear, aren’t you?” 

“Just about.” 

“I’m glad we could talk, Grace. Sets my mind at ease, for now anyway. Love you, baby girl. Talk to you soon.” 

The rest of Claire’s shift was uneventful. She moved from the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital as the sliding front doors whooshed her into the cool morning air. She crossed the street to reach staff parking at the back of the lot, then slid behind the wheel of her small silver car, started the engine and turned onto the nearly deserted road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. 

Claire drove past the Waffle Shop. It was a brightly lit rectangle in the still-dark landscape and looked inviting. Half a dozen cars were in the parking lot. She could see people in booths and at the counter through the big plate glass windows. Memories of the seductive aroma of yeasty waffles, crisp bacon, butter pecan syrup and stand-you-up coffee seemed to invade her car. She almost stopped in for breakfast. She longed to immerse herself in the comfortable chatter of strangers who lived in a safe world, but she drove on by. 

She was still thinking about the sickest baby in NICU and murmuring a little prayer for him when she turned at her road, South Bryan Circle, and pulled up onto the concrete pad of her carport. She moved her small Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol from her purse to her right hand, held her keys in her left hand and walked the short distance to her front door on the narrow sidewalk. She wasn’t expecting a problem, but it had become a habitual precaution. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, and she hoped to be in bed asleep before full sunrise. 

Claire smiled when she saw the neon pink flamingo stuck in the ground by the front door step. Even in the dim light of approaching morning, it was hard to miss. That was Grace’s doing, and it was the one touch of whimsy in the minimally landscaped yard. Grace brought the garish souvenir to Claire from Pensacola, when she went there to interview. 

Claire spent the last two decades trying to get Grace ready for the moment when she could launch out into the world, far away from Brandon, mostly far away from herself, from anything or anyone who might harm her. She would miss Grace, but she was glad 500 miles separated them now. 

Claire bent to unlock the front door, both key lock and dead bolt. She simultaneously opened the door and wiped her feet on the mat. Something hard and jiggly grabbed her. It rattled and moved as she screamed. “Let me go! Let me go!” She almost fell over backward as her right arm jerked when her pistol fired. Whatever it was that had hold of her let go and fell to the floor with a noisy clatter. Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, Claire flipped on a ceiling light with the butt of the pistol on the light switch just to the right of the front entry. 

A skeleton. Damn it. It’s a toy. The white plastic skeleton was a Halloween prop. It was suspended by the foyer light fixture with fishing line. Some of the hideous bones were still dangling from the light. Claire looked at the mess at her feet. She saw the skeleton’s bony hands were wired to hold a large rectangle of stiff white card stock which now had a bullet hole through the middle of it. Her shot hit the card a few inches below the message, which was printed in large black block print stick-on letters: 


Claire turned on the porch light and looked around to see if any neighbors were reacting to the gun shot. She didn’t see anyone, so she came back inside, double-locked the door, and walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went. 

He’ll never quit as long as I live. He’ll never believe I won’t tell Grace who she really is. By the time Claire completed her search and satisfied herself that no one was in the house, she knew what she had to do to stop this. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter 3

for the record

Chapter Three 

Brandon, Florida 

Something about the little red pickup truck out there on the used car lot with all the beige sedans tugged at her. “Me! Pick me!” 

She set the GPS for 702 Balconies on the Bay, Pensacola, Florida, her new home some 500 miles northwest, interstate all the way, and then went back in the house to get the rest of her stuff. 

After four years in nearby Gainesville at the University of Florida, where she came home about once a month, and another three years of law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, she had been nearly on her own for seven years. Chapel Hill was more than 700 miles from Brandon, a small town near the bulls-eye middle of Florida; much too far to come home often.  

Life in a small apartment near the campus there had felt like moving from darkness to sunlight. She loved her mom, and she knew Claire was devoted to her. God knows, she had sacrificed her life to see that Grace had everything she needed, from clothes and piano lessons, to the extras at college that scholarships didn’t offer. It’s just that her mom seemed so lonely, unhappy and anxious. Grace remembered awakening to the sounds of her mother crying even when she was in high school. But Claire resisted all of Grace’s efforts to learn why she was so sad and isolated. 

Grace looked around her bedroom one last time. The white chenille bedspread with yellow throw cushion, stuffed animals, books and other childhood mementoes arranged on a bookcase beside the bed.  Lots of memories here. It looks like the museum of child who will never return. Grace sighed and slipped out the door. 

“Mom?” I’m just about ready to go.” 

“I’m in the kitchen, honey.” 

Grace found Claire standing at the kitchen sink. She was holding a cereal bowl in one hand and a dish towel in the other. She stood with her slender left leg cocked and balanced against her right knee, unmoving, leaning in slightly and looking out the window as though she saw something far away. Grace wondered for the thousandth time why her mom had never married or even had a boyfriend. No dates. No friends. Not even church. All she did was work at the hospital and come home. 

She had been so pretty, too. Still was, except for frown lines that had developed on either side of her mouth, and the way her shoulders hunched, making Claire look shorter than she was. 

Suddenly, Grace didn’t want to go. 

“Come with me, Mom?” 

“Oh, Grace Ann, you know I can’t.” 

“But, Mom, Pensacola is a regional medical hub. You could get a great job there in a heartbeat. I’ll bet you would love the beach, maybe even have some fun for a change. Besides, you’ll be here all by yourself.” 

“Well, not exactly by myself. You found out I do have a life, after all, right?” 

Grace put up her hands in self-defense. “Okay, okay. You got me.” They both laughed. 

“Besides, those little babies in neonatal need me, plus I’ve got young nurses to train as they come along. I’m old school. You know that. Anyway, hey, my life is almost done. Yours is just beginning. You’ve got to go find your life.” 

Almost done? At 42? She almost had me convinced until she said that. Grace tried to fathom who this secretive person really was. 

“Well, at least promise me that now I’m off your payroll, you’ll make some friends and learn how to play and have some dreams of your own. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.” 

Claire’s sad-eyed smile reminded Grace of the paintings she had seen in books and on the internet of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It was equally enigmatic. “Come on, now, and give me a big hug before you go.” 

Grace figured she was too much of a loner to ever marry or have children, but she sure didn’t plan to live like her mother did. No way. She planned to make her own money, travel the world and play with some gorgeous men, but never fall in love. 

Big talk for a little girl. Here she was, headed off for her first job with her newly minted law degree. She hadn’t even passed the Florida Bar yet. 

“Okay, Mom. Are my sandwiches in the fridge?” 

“I stuck them on top of your little cooler. It’s right here,” Claire said. “I’ll take it out to the car.” 

“Great. Thanks.” 

They finished loading the hatchback together, then shared one last hug. 

Claire stood straight, shoulders back, and looked intently at Grace. “I’m so proud of you, daughter. You’ve worked hard for this. You’re going to make a fine lawyer, my beautiful girl.” She ruffled Grace’s short, copper-colored hair in a gesture of affectionate dismissal. Claire folded her arms over her chest. “You have a long drive and a lot of work ahead of you, sweet-pea. Better get going.” 

“Come see me soon?” 

“Soon,” Claire said. She threw her arms around Grace and held on tight. “Don’t you ever forget I love you,” she said, her voice suddenly thick. She squeezed Grace hard, then took a deep breath and stepped away. Her face closed like a heavy, hardback book. She laughed and gave Grace a little push and a pat on her bottom. “Now off with you.” 

Grace turned the key in the ignition and lowered the driver’s side window. 

“One more thing.” Claire’s voice had turned sharp, her demeanor tense. “Look in the console.” 

Grace cocked her head at Claire, then turned away from the window and opened the console. She touched the hard surface of a black hand-gun and jerked her hand back. “What the hell, Mom?” 

“It’s a nine millimeter Beretta. Loaded. Point and shoot. Soon as you get situated in Pensacola, sign up for classes and get yourself a concealed carry permit.” 

“Good grief, Mom, don’t you think this is a little over the top?” 

“Just do it, Grace. Indulge a crazy old woman, okay? And that canister beside the gun is pepper spray. Steer clear of strangers, stay awake and aware, and call me when you get in. I’ve got the night shift, so I’ll sleep from about 2 this afternoon ’til around 8, but I’ll have my cell phone close by.” 

 She looked again at the pistol, and then closed the console, making sure it clicked securely. She wondered what demons ran around in her mom’s paranoid brain. Time to get out of Dodge, all right. 

“Okay, Mom, will do. Thanks for everything. I’m gone. Love you.” 

Claire stepped away from the truck and gave Grace a thumbs-up that turned into a wave. “Bye! Drive careful!” 

Grace backed up, pulled out of the driveway of the white concrete block house and watched as the waving figure of her mother grew ever smaller in the rearview mirror. 

“My life is almost done.” What on earth was she talking about? Sometimes her mother drove her crazy. She was so full of contradictions. Every time Grace tried to ask her questions about her background, Claire just gave her a song and dance about being an orphan herself and that that’s why she had adopted her. As for no husband or friends, Claire insisted she was married to her job and had just never found the right guy. 

Claire had never been a real drinker, but sometimes she would drink Tennessee bourbon and get a little weepy. Grace found her this way once when she came home a day early from Gainesville. By the time she was away at law school in North Carolina and didn’t come home nearly as often, every time she came home, she noticed that bourbon and rocks was Claire’s constant companion, and a new cigarette was lit from the end of an old one. The straight vodka was a new wrinkle. She remembered reading somewhere that vodka was the drink of choice for alcoholics. 

Grace asked her to see somebody she could talk to, but Claire just blew her off. It scared Grace and made her angry, too. And then this thing with Randy, or whatever his name was. 

Grace suddenly realized her hands had such a death grip on the steering wheel her knuckles were white.  Turn around. Go back. Turn around. Go back. She felt hot tears stinging the back of her eyelids. 

A huge 18-wheeler right on Grace’s tail shook her awake and she realized she was going several miles per hour under the speed limit. The truck zigzagged dangerously around her. 

Grace pulled off onto the next exit. She pulled into a parking space at a gas station supercenter and pushed a speed dial number on her cell phone. 

“Grace, is everything okay?” 

“Sure, Mom, I just wanted to hear your voice.” 

Claire laughed. “You’ve only been gone a half hour.” 

“I know. I stopped to get gas and some coffee and a cookie for the road and, well, I guess it dawned on me that I really am going off to make my own home, now. This isn’t like going away to college.” 

“You’re going to have a good life, Grace. Now get after it.” 

“Yes ma’am. I’m on my way. Love you, Mom.” 

“Love you, too. Drive careful.” 

She said “Bye,” but Claire had already broken the connection. 

She topped off her gas tank and got a big black coffee for the road a few blocks from her house. When she returned to the car, she chuckled at Elisha Walter buckled into the passenger seat, looking straight ahead like a docile pet. 

Grace shook her head and laughed. Mom, again. Elisha Walter was a big teddy bear made from the flour sacks of a long-closed fabric mill somewhere in North Carolina. “E.W.” had been around as long as she could remember. A gun and a stuffed bear. Maybe Mom really is nuts. Grace smiled over at the bear, accelerated onto the interstate ramp and cranked up the radio volume on an oldies station. Beach music. Perfect. 

It was late afternoon when Grace exited I-10 onto the I-110 spur to downtown Pensacola. She stopped off at the Publix grocery store on 9th Avenue for a few items for supper and breakfast, and then drove on to her new home at Balconies on the Bay. 

She had really lucked out with the condo. It belonged to one of the partners at her new employers, the Hansen, Brautigan and Lee law firm. Opal Lee had inherited the condo from her late mother, and she had been trying to sell it for months. She made Grace an offer she couldn’t refuse. If Grace would agree to keep the nicely furnished, waterfront condo in “show” condition and let realtors continue to show it, then Opal would rent it to her for much less than market price. Then, if it sold while Grace was living there, she would have 90 days to find a new place, plus Opal would pay her a $500 bonus on the way out. When her friend Ariel got word she’d been hired by the University, she and Grace made a deal to split the rent on the condo. 

Grace pulled into the condo entrance and tapped in the key code for the gate. It rose slowly and she drove through to her designated parking space. Opal had sent Grace keys plus a packet of written details on the condo. Grace filled her arms with her store purchases and entered the lobby. Beautiful. She took the polished-brass elevator to the seventh floor, and found No. 703, a waterfront end unit.  

She opened the door to the two-bedroom unit that exceeded her dreams of the perfect waterfront apartment. It was decorated in colors and textures that stylistically evoked the beach and tropical warmth. Ocean blue and sea grass tones were punctuated with splashes of the corals and reds of a Gulf sunset. Wow. Feels like I tripped and fell into somebody else’s life. 

Grace found the kitchen and quickly stashed her purchases, then ran all seven floors down the stairs to the lobby, where she found a cart and used it to make several trips unloading the Escape.  She checked out the bedrooms and picked the master for herself. It had a set of sliding glass doors onto the balcony and a nice set of windows looking out over the bay. 

With the last load, it dawned on Grace that she hadn’t even opened the drapes to check out the view. When she did, the sight of a sailboat drifting in the bay, gulls and pelicans wheeling, and a gorgeous sunset greeted her. Incredible. I hope this place never sells and I get to stay here forever. Ariel’s gonna love it. 

Grace turned on the oven to pre-heat, and then changed into a pair of comfy old jeans and a black t-shirt she pulled from her suitcase. She pulled the cork on a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir, an inexpensive, but mellow and tasty red wine, and took it out to the balcony to sip on while her veggie pizza cooked. She remembered seeing a fat candle in a glass hurricane shade in the kitchen, and went back inside to get it and some matches. 

Grace put the candle on the small round patio table, lit it, and said a silent prayer of thanks for her new home and job. Even a law degree from a prestigious school didn’t guarantee a good job these days, and the chance to live in solitude in paradise was icing on the cake. Grace was humble enough to know she was living under a lucky star. 

Grace ate her pizza slowly, and raised her glass in a toast to the moon shimmering on the water over the placid bay. She stepped inside for a couple of Dove dark chocolates and her cell phone. She just had to call her mom and share the moment. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter two

for the record

Chapter Two

Brandon, Florida

The last thing Grace Ann Ringer expected to see when she turned the key at her childhood home was a half-naked young guy in surfer shorts, toweling his white-blond hair dry.

“Hey, you must be Grace. Your mom’s at work. You’ve been away in Italy on some archaeology thing, huh?”

“Who the hell are you?” Grace stared.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and closed the front door in her face.

Oh sure. It’s only my house. Take your time. Grace sat her suitcase down on the porch, and started to fish around in her purse for her cell phone to call Claire. The guy was back before she could dial. His bare chest was covered now in an egg-yolk yellow T-shirt. He put on a pair of wraparound sunglasses and stepped out onto the porch.

“Sorry about that.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Randy.”

Grace did not remove her own glasses or shake his hand. Instead, her hands closed around her cell phone, pulled it out of her purse and started to punch her mom’s work number.

“Randy” held up his hands in mock surrender and grinned. “Gotta run!”

He jogged off to a Harley parked across the street that Grace hadn’t noticed when the taxi dropped her off. The back of his T-shirt had a graphic of a beer mug overflowing with suds and “Spread Some Cheer Grab Me A Beer” printed beneath it. The motorcycle fired up and the boy toy was gone.

Had Claire moved? Grace saw the pink plastic flamingo she had given her mom stuck in a low shrub by the porch steps. Nope. This is the right house, all right. Maybe menopause has changed mom’s personality. Whoa, there’s a thought. Grace couldn’t remember anyone ever being in the house when she was growing up, except for a walk-through by an exterminator or an appliance repairman. Not family. Not friends. Never a boyfriend.

“Wow…” Grace shook her head and laughed, picked up her bag and went in. The flight from Rome to Tampa via Madrid and Miami was grueling. She was eager to shuck the clothes she’d been in for more than a day, take a hot shower and crash for a few hours. She had a pile of laundry to do, mostly jeans and tees, her “dig” uniform, but that could wait.

Damn, mom. Can’t believe you’re a nurse and still smoking. Grace found a can of air freshener and walked through the small house spraying as she went. The central Florida spring morning was still cool enough to open the windows and let in some fresh air, which she did in her bedroom and the bathroom.

On her way back to lock the deadbolt on the front door, she picked up several full ash trays and dumped them into a plastic grocery bag, tied off the end, and put them in the kitchen trash can. A nearly empty glass caught her eye in the living room. Grace picked it up. Sniffed. Booze. Great. It’s not the drinking, it’s leaving it messy like that. Knowing I’m coming home. Grace herself was fastidious to a fault, and she knew it. She sighed. Just let it go. She picked up the glass and put it in the dishwasher.

Grace went back to her room, took off her travel clothes and sat cross-legged on the bed to call Claire.

“Grace! Are you home? Did you have a good flight?”

“Hi, mom. Yes, I’m home. Long flight, but no problems. I can’t wait to see you and tell you all about Italy. When we you get in?”

“My shift ends at two, so I should be home in a couple of hours.”

“Great. I’m going to take a hot shower and crash. Wake me up when you come in.”


“Oh, and mom?”


“Why didn’t you warn me about Randy?”


“You know. Randy. Your boyfriend.”

“Sweetheart, I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. I’ve got to go. One of the preemie’s alarms is beeping.”

“Okay,” Grace said, but the phone had already gone dead.

~ ~ ~

“Sorry, boss. I screwed up.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The girl almost caught me.”

“Skeet, I ain’t gettin’ what you’re telling me. Slow down. What exactly happened?”

“Sorry. Okay. I got the cameras in place on the assignment, and was just about to leave when I saw a taxi cab pull up and the subject’s daughter got out with a suitcase and headed straight for the front door, keys in her hand.”


“Tell me about it. I had to think quick. So I pulled off my shirt, threw some water on my head to make it look like I just got out of the shower, and was toweling off when I answered the door.”

“You what?”

“Well, on short notice, all I could think of was to pretend I was the mom’s boyfriend.”

“Of all the dumb . . .”

“Hang on, now. I was caught. What should I have done? Anyway, look, it worked out okay. I pulled my shirt back on, said hi, and was out of there in less than a minute. How surprised will she be when her mom lies to her about having a boyfriend?”

“Huh. You say you got the cameras in place?”

“Yes, sir. And I checked to be sure the phone bugs are still there.”

“Well, shit, Skeet, this couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.”

“What? Does that mean I’m not fired?”

“Hell, no, you’re not fired. Not this time, anyway. Look, this way, the girl figures her mother’s lying, but the mother will know it’s a message from whoever’s been warning her to keep quiet. She’ll be scared shitless.”

“What should I do now?”

“Go to the pad and make sure the cameras and microphones and recorders are working. Stock up on food, so you don’t have to leave. Monitor and report. I want to hear every damn word those two women say until the daughter leaves for her new job in Pensacola next week.”

“Got it, Mr. Perlis.”

~ ~ ~

Grace almost fell asleep standing in the fine spray of the shower in the hall bath. Say what you will about the romance of the Italian countryside – and it was considerable – there was nothing like good old American plumbing. She luxuriated in the plentiful hot water, and after drying off and slathering on lotion, pulled on an old cotton sleep shirt and crawled under the covers in her bright yellow bedroom. When you’re travel-tired and jet-lagged, sleep either comes heavy like a near coma, or eludes you entirely. Grace was lucky.

She didn’t even dream, and when she woke up, the late afternoon sun leaking through the wooden shades of her room made a striped pattern of light and dark. She pulled both arms out from under the covers and stretched them up behind her head. Had it been nine months since she had been home? It felt like only a few days, and yet she knew it would take weeks to process all that had happened in Italy. Leaving Carlo had not been easy. It was probably for the best that she would be plunging into a new town, a new job, and a new life in less than a week. Besides, travelling light was her signature, and while the lithe Carlo was charming and fun, she had never thought of him as the love of her life. Truth was, she couldn’t wait to start her first professional job as a staff attorney with Brautigan, Hansen and Lee in Pensacola.

Grace heard the “thwack” sound of the aluminum-frame of the shower door down the hall, threw back the covers and slid her feet into the fuzzy old bunny slippers that were right where she had left them the last time she was home.

“Mom?” Grace called, walking down the hall.

“In here. Come on in.”

Claire’s thin frame was swallowed by a large bath towel wrapped around her and tucked at the top. Her wet brown hair was swaddled in a towel turban, and she was squeezing a line of toothpaste onto a blue toothbrush when Grace pushed open the door.

Without makeup, the new lines on Claire’s face and dark shadows under her eyes were shocking. She seemed to have aged ten years in the past nine months. What on earth’s been going on since I left? Grace recovered herself and put on a bland smile.

“Hi mom.” She learned over and gave Claire a peck on the cheek.   “Throw on some jeans and let’s go over to the hibachi grill.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be ready in fifteen.”

~ ~ ~

The neighborhood hibachi grill restaurant was a little run down, but comfortable. It didn’t matter how empty or full the tables were, Mr. Nota, the owner, insisted that customers wait at the bar for the stars to align themselves for the requisite number of diners at one of the hibachi tables. Grace and Claire perched on rickety stools at the small bar counter. A young man who looked like a younger version of Mr. Nota handed them a laminated sushi menu and asked what they wanted to drink. “Two for one Happy Hour,” he said.

Claire spoke first. “Dirty martini, vodka, dry, two olives.”

“Up or rocks?” the young bartender asked.


The bartender looked at Grace, one black eyebrow raised.

“Uhm, ah, I think I’ll have cold sake, please.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sushi?”

“Yes, thanks. You guys still do those crunchy shrimp rolls?”

“Sure do.”

“Great. Bring us an order to share.” Grace looked at Claire, who expressed her assent with a non-committal thumbs-up. Sharing a sushi appetizer at the little restaurant had been a ritual for them all during Grace’s high school years, then later when she would come home from college in Gainesville, law school at Chapel Hill, and now Italy.

Her mom looked smaller than she remembered, and her skin had the sallow tones of a smoker. When had she started biting her fingernails? Claire drank the first of her two-for-one martinis like she was very thirsty and it was a glass of water. She had only eaten one of the crunchy shrimp rolls. Grace was ravenous and had eaten her share and drunk down a glass of water before she had even taken a sip of her cold sake.

She didn’t mean to be evaluating Claire like she was a specimen, but hanging around Ariel for six months volunteering on an archaeological dig had given her a scientist’s eye that had learned to draw conclusions from physical clues of the long dead. A living subject practically screamed. It was clear her mother was unhappy, worried about something, fearful or all of the above. Was Claire ill?

When Mr. Nota gave the signal, they moved from the bar to a nearly full hibachi table. A couple with two young kids in the four to six range were on one side, a moon-eyed pair who looked like they might have just invented sex anchored one end, and Grace and Claire the other. The hackneyed show provided a foil for quickly delivered egg-drop soup and cucumber salad, followed in rapid succession by shrimp and chicken with veggies and fried rice.

By this time, the small restaurant had filled, and the din of clanging knives, the whoosh of sudden columns of fire from the middle of the grills, and shrieks of delighted or terrified children created a hurry-up-and-eat-so-we-can-get-out-of-here feeling in Grace. She had grown accustomed to the laid-back ambiance of the Italian countryside, and this noise and culinary hucksterism jangled her nerves.

She sipped the bitter green tea and dipped bites of shrimp into the ubiquitous ginger soy sauce in a small octagonal white bowl set in front of her plate while she made a mental list of the things she had to do before leaving for her new job in Pensacola next week. Number one on the list was buying a vehicle. She sold her beat-up old Honda that had carried her from her senior year of high school all the way through college at the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new office was only a few blocks away from the condo she and Ariel had rented, and she imagined she would walk to work. Still,  she needed reliable, gas-efficient transportation. She hoped to spend a lot of time at the beach, and that was about six miles away, across two bridges.

Next on her shopping list was a new wardrobe. How in the heck does a young lawyer in a small coastal town dress? Had she missed the graduate school course on that little nugget? Her current wardrobe consisted of running and hiking gear, black tees and jeans, a couple of pencil skirts and strappy high heels.  She figured a trip to J. Crew, Express, and Ann Taylor would handle the basics to look professional at a reasonable price. Lucky for her, she was going to a beach town, where shorts and t-shirts were acceptable nearly everywhere. On the weekends, she planned to live in her running gear.


“Sorry, Mom. I was just thinking about how much I’ve got to get done before I leave. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but it’s probably just jet lag catching up with me. Let’s stop by the grocery on the way home and pick up some coffee ice cream and eat it in our jammies like we used to.”

“Sounds good. I haven’t done anything that fattening since the last time you were home.”

“You’re way overdue, then, and so am I.”

They paid the tab, picked up two pints of ice cream at the neighborhood store. At home, they changed into their soft clothes and met back up in the living room for ice cream and talk.

The two women chit-chatted about Grace’s trip to Italy. Grace showed Claire photos on her laptop of the villa where she and her best friend, Ariel Lopresti, stayed.  Ariel would be Dr. Lopresti soon, now that she had completed the archaeological project work in Italy that was the final step in the research for her dissertation. She angled for, and got, a job with the University of West Florida’s Anthropology Department, and she and Grace would be sharing a rented condo on the bay in downtown Pensacola where they would both begin new jobs. Grace could hardly wait.

Claire didn’t have a lot to say. Grace tried to pry something more out of her. “Have you been feeling okay, mom?”

“Sure, why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little tired, or something. I just worry you’re not taking good care of yourself.” Truth is, you look miserable.

“Don’t be silly. I’m fine. It’s just this shift work. I’ve been doing it since you were a kid, and you know I love my job, but those revolving shifts can mess with your sleep cycles and make it hard to get enough deep sleep. Plus, you know, I can’t help but fret about those sick little babies in NICU. “ She reached over and patted Grace’s knee. “I’m fine, sweetie. Really.”

“Well, okay,” Grace said. “But Mom, have you considered joining a gym and maybe getting into a smoking cessation program? You’re still young enough to get fit so you can go run with me on the beach when you come to see me in Pensacola.”

Claire laughed and shook her head. “Nice try, kiddo, but that’s just not me.”

“But Mom. . . “

“Hey, I almost forgot to ask you what you meant today when you said I should have warned you about my “boyfriend.” What the heck were you talking about?”

Smooth way to change the subject, Mom. “You really don’t know? Bleached blond boy toy? Kinda cute, kinda young. Rides a Harley.”

Claire sat up straight and turned the three-way lamp on the end table a notch brighter, and leaned in toward Grace. “Grace Ann, what on earth are you talking about? Where did you see this guy?”

Grace could see from her mother’s expression that she was serious. “Here, Mom. He was in the house when the taxi delivered me from the airport this morning.”

Claire looked like she could jump out of her skin. She said, “Tell me exactly what happened. Every word.”

So she did, and as she spoke, Claire seemed to grow increasingly distraught.  “Mom, should we see if anything’s missing? Should we call the police?”

That seemed to get through to Claire. She leaned back in her chair and looked at Grace without saying anything.

“Mom? Are you okay? What about the police?”

Claire ran her right hand up and over her forehead through her hair, then stroked her nose with an index finger for a moment. Grace knew that familiar gesture.

“No, Grace, we don’t need to call anyone.” Claire’s mouth formed a smile. “The truth is, I have been seeing. . . ah. . . Randy, but I felt a little foolish about it and hadn’t planned to tell you. He shouldn’t have still been in the house when you got home.”


Claire looked sheepish and shrugged her shoulders.

“Way to go, Mom!” Grace said. “Far out! Are you serious about him? How did you meet? How long have you been together?”

Claire stood. “Down, girl! I’m way too tired to wade into that swamp tonight. I’m going to bed.” She reached over and squeezed Grace’s right hand, then picked up her pack of cigarettes and lighter and headed toward her bedroom. “Goodnight, Sherlock!”

“Night, Mom.” Grace double-checked to be sure all the doors were locked, then fixed herself a glass of water and turned out the lights as she walked to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she stood at the sink in the hall bathroom brushing her teeth. Mom’s a crappy liar. She doesn’t know that guy from Adam’s house cat.  Why would she lie about that? What the hell? Maybe she does and just wants to shut me down. Who knows?

Grace was still rolling the mystery around in her mind after she had gone to bed. She lay there in the dark, pondering, when she saw a light go on in the hall and listened as Claire went into the kitchen. She heard the unmistakable tinkle of ice cubes, then her mother’s footfalls returning to her room. The lights went off.

Grace turned her thoughts to Carlo and wished he were here under the covers with her. That was her last conscious thought of the night.