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?”