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?” 

“Herself.” 

“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?” 

“Sure.” 

“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?” 

“No!” 

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 six

For the record

Chapter Six 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

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

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

“Uh, sure. Is my part over yet?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, kind sir.” 

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Ringer.” 

“Grace, please, but who are you?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she okay?” Grace asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello again,” he said. 

 “Is Miss Agnes okay?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hungry?” Jess asked. 

“Are you kidding? I’m starved!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” 

Hey, P.J. what’s up, man?” 

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?” 

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

“Will do,” Jess said. 

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

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

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

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

Grace started to speak. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure do. Love it.” 

“Sounds like a dream job.” 

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

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

Jess scowled. “Yeah, I do.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you say you come from?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“You bet. Ten o’clock good for you?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Right back at you. Later.” 

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

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

“Yes?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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. 

Ten Forty-Five on a Piney Woods New Year’s Eve

THE GOOD OLD BOYS deep in these panhandle Florida pine woods couldn’t wait until 11:59 to kick up a fuss.  It’s only 9:15 when I hear the first muffled whumps and booms of roman candles, aerial repeaters and shells, and firecrackers.  When I step outside I feel a frisson of electricity in the air and hear the crackle of sparklers. The cloudy night sky erupts into a poor-man’s kaleidoscope.

Buck is writing at his desk in a bright circle. I’m already in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows, listening to a Spotify playlist for a random search of the word “Talisman,” and typing on the extension of my fingers also known as a Surface Pro 2, my all-time favorite gadget tool.

Ah, here he comes now with our treat for the evening, a bag of Dove dark chocolates.

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Earlier this evening we lightly steamed a pound of blue crab claws (the little, cocktail size) and nearly two pounds of sweet and tender Pensacola Bay shrimp. Buck stirred up his special dipping sauce, a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a smidgen of mayonnaise. I doused a small plate of sliced Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and house-roasted meaty red peppers with olive oil, ground pepper and oregano. We took our feast to the room we call the Snow Porch (the naming of that room is a story for another time), along with a bowl of Naked Pita chips and our drinks, and fell to.

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Tonight is merely an arbitrary convention to delineate one measure of time from the next, but I welcome it as a conscious pause button, a mindful thumb on the scale.

I washed our bed linens today, the Oxford stripe blue sheets and the warm gold duvet cover.  The serene blue and burnished gold please me.

I’ve moved past the Talisman music and have gone to a favorite created playlist for my characters, Grace and Jess. They still have a lot of mountains to climb, a lot of growing to do.

Eons ago when I worked as Director of Communications for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, we began each year with what we called a “Program of Work.” I have a loose program of work of my own to start the year off with a bang that includes a challenging ten-week online course hosted by Creative Nonfiction, called Boot Camp for Writers.  It begins next week. Mid-month brings a six-week online course, Advanced Fiction. I’m fired up and ready to go.

So am I blogging again?  The title is The Do-It-Yourself Writer, subhead Elizabeth Westmark’s Scribble Space.  Maybe the sub-subhead should be Making It Up As I Go Along.

Hope you chase down or get covered up by clouds of bliss this year.