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The setting sun casts gold upon the white beach, and the azure curl of surf takes on a lavender cast as it rushes the shore and spreads a mantle of foam. The waves crest inches from my bare feet, a rhythmic tidal pull that comforts me, promising that life continues. The end of an October day is nothing less than stunning on the small barrier island named for French royalty: Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Graf Milieu, my fiancé, is in the beach cottage I've rented for a week. My hope is that Graf will find walking in the sand good therapy for his gun-shot leg and the island's beauty healing to his injured spirit. Graf's wounds go much deeper than a shattered bone, and they are my fault. He was abducted, shot, and held prisoner without medical care because my private investigative work spilled over into his life.
But that is the past and cannot be changed, no matter how hard I wish it. What I'm planning with this Gulf Coast getaway is to protect the future.
Sweetie Pie, my loyal hound, roots her nose into the back of my armpit, letting me know she sympathizes with my worry. My dog and Pluto, the black cat who lives with us at Dahlia House, my ancestral Mississippi Delta home, are here with me at the beach to aid in Graf's recuperation. I need all the help I can get.
The wind is chilly off the water, and my butt is damp from sitting in the sand. Pluto struggles toward me, his dainty little paws sinking with each step. With a kitty sigh, he plops into my lap. He has only contempt for the surf and for anyone who admires water—even the dazzling aqua waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Water is necessary for fish, and that's as far as Pluto is willing to go.
"Where's Graf?" I ask the critters, hoping he is not far behind them.
They both look back toward the beach cottage. Sweetie's long, delicate ears droop more than usual. The critters are worried about Graf, too. He's been in a terrible state since he was shot. The surgery to repair the bone was successful, but the recovery has been painful. The doctors saved his leg, but there is a chance he will always limp. Graf is an actor with a good chance of becoming a movie star. Physical disabilities don't fit into that equation. He's fighting hard against the anger, fear, and depression that are normal emotions accompanying such an injury.
And have I mentioned this is all my fault?
The wind whips off the water and sends a salty spray into my face, and for a moment I remember this same beach some twenty-five years earlier, when I vacationed here with my parents. The beach cottages were much plainer, less luxurious, and no oil-drilling rigs dotted the horizon. The sand was pristine then and hadn't suffered the thousands of gallons of oil from BP's Deep Water Horizon well that blew and polluted the Gulf. My parents were alive, and I was safe, expecting only the best of a bright future. Life has certainly taken me down a peg or six.
Sweetie's cold nose against my armpit brings me back from those carefree childhood days. The sun has dropped below the horizon, and the skyline to the east is swiftly changing from peacock-blue to indigo. Time to gird my loins and do battle against Graf's worries. I shall bring joy back to his life. I shall do it with my bare intention and will.
I stand up suddenly, just in time to catch the image of a woman clad in widow's weeds on the other side of the sand dune. She is there one moment and gone the next. Sweetie sees her, too, as does Pluto, who puts on his Halloween arch. Like most felines, Pluto disdains unexpected company.
"Who was that?" I asked, even as I loped over the sand in pursuit of the strange figure.
When I rounded the dune, the light was fleeing the sky, but I could make out the feminine silhouette. Her antebellum dress grazed the sand and belled out behind her as the Gulf wind struck the skirt. A black veil floated like the banner of a dark empire. What the hell was going on?
Sweetie passed me and gave chase, but she wasn't baying like she would if she was on a scent. Pluto, too, for all of his heft and waddling belly, outdistanced me. The phantom floated across the deep sand while I floundered.
"You! Wait up!" I called. No one—not dog, cat, or woman—slowed his pace. I notched it up to a full-fledged run. "Hey! Stop, dammit!"
The stranger slowed and confronted me. Her gown and veil popped in the gusting air, and I was reminded of Deborah Kerr in the The Innocents, the film adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw." Brilliant and terrifying.
The figure seemed to wait for me, and I thought of death. I'd always expected the Grim Reaper to be male, but this black-clad raven of gloom persuaded me otherwise.
"What do you want?" I slowed to a stop in the deep sand two dozen yards from her. She was slender with perfect posture, but her features were obscured by the mourning attire.
She said nothing.
Sweetie and Pluto were frozen in place only a few feet in front of me. They made not a sound.
If this was death come to lurk around the shadows of my life, she would not find hospitality. "You've taken too much from me. Get away from here. You have no business with me or the people and animals I love. Be gone!"
"I've lost, too," she said. "More than anyone should."
In the softness of her voice and the plaintive tone, I realized this was no threat, but someone who knew suffering. "What are you?"
"A widow from the distant past?" Judging from the dress style, I'd estimate the mid-1800s. It took me a moment, but then I knew. "Jitty?"
She lifted the veil, and I saw sorrow etched in her mocha skin.
"Funeral crepe? That's the best you could do for a beach costume? No polka-dot bikini? No tawdry flip-flops and big hat? Miss Fashion Plate, where is your style?" I vacillated between relief and annoyance. "You scared the life out of me."
"I'm a haint. That's what haints do—we frighten people."
"But you're my haint, and upsetting me is not allowed. You live by the rules of the Great Beyond, but I live by Delaney rules, and I just wrote that one."
Her chuckle seemed to hold the fading sunlight for a moment longer.
"Why are you here, Jitty, dressed like a mourner from the eighteen hundreds?" My momentary humor was gone, and worry returned.
"Life is a cycle, Sarah Booth. You know this."
"I do. I don't like it, but I know it. I'm in the summer of life, and so is Graf. There's no cycle crap happening here that needs widow's weeds."
"Perhaps not." She made no promises. It was against the rules of the Great Beyond for her to tell me anything about the future. "But remember the wheel of life turns again and again."
"If you're warning me Graf is in some new danger, just spit it out."
"The French call orgasm ‘the little death.'" Her smile was luminous. And still sad. "At the peak of joy is always the descent into death."
Too bad there was only sand around. Had there been rocks, I would have picked one up and thrown it at her. "Say it plain."
She shook her head. "So much history has happened on this island beach. The French settled here and named it Massacre Island because their first discovery was a mound created from human bones. It was a Native American burial site." She looked out toward the water, and the last lingering bits of peachy light played across her face. "Not a bad place to meet an end."
"And not a good place either. Who are you mourning here? Coker died in the war, not on a barrier island."
"Very true. My husband died on a blood-soaked battlefield with Alice's husband, your great-great-great-grandfather. But there's history here on Dauphin Island, Sarah Booth. Important history. I suspect you'll find out soon enough."
She flickered in and out, as was her wont when she was ready to take a powder.
"Jitty, will Graf be okay?"
But there was only the sound of the surf and the wind whipping my shirt like a tattered flag. Sweetie, Pluto, and I turned toward the three-story cottage. A light bloomed in an upstairs window, a smudge of cheer against the star-spangled night.
It was time to make dinner for Graf. I had a plan to enliven his spirits. A secret plan. And it would work, because I had no other alternative.
* * *
I took the stairs to the second floor. All of the beach cottages were built on pilings, a precaution against a tidal surge, but it also gave us a primo view of the Gulf. I found Graf on the balcony, leaning on the railing and staring out at the wind-whipped water.
I poured glasses of red wine and took them outside. I handed him a glass and then snaked my arm around his waist. He'd lost weight, and he didn't need to.
"Thank you, Sarah Booth. You've been a perfect Florence Nightingale."
"Florence Nightingale died a single woman. Not going to be my fate, Graf Milieu. Just giving you a heads-up."
The long drive and then the lengthy walk on the beach had tired him. I traced the lines in his face with gentle fingertips as he spoke. "Once I'm healed, I promise, I'll make an honest woman of you." He drew me close and kissed me with lingering tenderness. "I'm getting stronger each day. Walking on the beach and climbing the stairs at the cottage—exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you for convincing me to come here."
"I am your Gale Storm with full attention to social and recreational activities, and never forget it." I tiptoed and kissed his chin. "I've booked a tour of the old fort for tomorrow. This place has a fascinating history. Native Americans, French, Spanish, British, Confederacy, and United States. This area has been ruled by a number of different nations."
"You take the fort tour and I'll work out on the beach." Graf sipped his wine and gazed at the crashing surf. The wind ruffled his dark hair. He needed a haircut and a shave. He'd come so close to dying, and he'd fought so bravely to regain the use of his leg. Sometimes, though, depression snuck up on him. Doc Sawyer had warned me to be on the lookout and to keep him distracted.
"Aarrgh! Disobey me and ye'll walk the gangplank!" I used my finger to poke him in the ribs like a sword.
"Am I going to have to endure pirate parodies for the whole week?" he said teasingly.
"Maybe. I discovered the Gulf waters were swarming with pirates and buccaneers. And the fort here, Fort Gaines, played a vital role in the War Between the States. Also in the two world wars."
"I never realized you were such a history buff, Sarah Booth. I always viewed you as a girl of the moment. All flash and dazzle and heat. Some very interesting heat."
My heart surged with hope. Since the gunshot, Graf had avoided intimacy. I'd seen him staring at the nasty wound on his leg and now the glaring scar. He was no longer physical perfection. I didn't care, but he did. I had to play this cool. "Wars don't interest me a lot. But pirates—now that's another story. I love pirate tales. Especially stories involving treasures."
"Shiver me timbers." Graf swept me backward, bending me over his arm as he held me and rasped his beard along my cheek and neck.
I tried to push him away, but he was too strong. "What does that even mean? You've been watching bad pirate movies. Next thing I know, you'll have an eye patch."
"And maybe a parrot." He drew me to my feet with ease. "Actually, I know a little about sailing. The phrase comes from the ship pounding up and down in rough seas or battle. The concussion would rattle the mast, which was made of wood."
"I may have to reconsider my engagement." I held out my left hand with the beautiful diamond. "I'm not sure I want to marry a know-it-all."
"No danger of that. But I can read. Maybe you should give it a try."
I punched his arm lightly. "Oh, I brought some books for the beach. I intend to enjoy the surf and an adventure while you complete your physical therapy. I can watch and make sure you're doing it right."
Before I'd packed to come to Dauphin Island, I'd met Doc Sawyer, my friend and family doctor, at Millie's Café for a cup of coffee and a chat. I needed his professional advice on dealing with Graf's emotional and physical wounds.
"Graf has to find his way, Sarah Booth. It isn't just the shattered bone and the pain. This injury has changed how he sees himself. It's shaken loose everything he ever believed about his life and his future."
"I have to help him."
Doc took my hand and gave it a hard squeeze. "Be there. Be strong. Supportive. Caring. But don't make the mistake of pandering to him or trying to make this easier. He'll resent you, and he'll hate himself because you pity him. Don't coddle him and for God's sake don't let him act like a tyrant."
I clung to those words as I inhaled the salty air and gripped the railing of the balcony. "I brought some cards. Care for a few hands of poker?"
"In a little while. I'm happy here, listening to the surf. To be honest, I'm tired. I never thought learning to walk could be so exhausting. How do babies do it?"
"They don't know any better," I said, kissing him. "I'll put the salad together. We can eat when you're ready. No rush." I picked up his empty glass and left him in the night and wind.
I turned slowly, trying to disguise the hope I felt. Would he suggest an appetizer before dinner? "Yes?"
"I love the way you help me. You don't have to, though. I don't blame you for what happened."
"I blame me."
"Stop it." He spoke gently. "I'm healing, and you have to do the same. If you continue to blame yourself, this will always be between us. No one could have predicted what Gertrude would do. It wasn't your fault."
"Right now, let's focus on getting you back one hundred percent. After that, I'll work on my guilt issues."
"It's a deal." He blew me a kiss. "Just remember, I love you."
I took that tiny grain of joy and savored it as I went to the kitchen and threw together a curried shrimp salad, one of his favorites.
* * *
Sunday dawned with a mantle of lavender and gold. October was closing out, and the beach—normally filled with tourists and surf lovers—was empty in the chill morning. Graf had fallen asleep on the sofa, and I had left him there. It hurt me that he hadn't come to share my bed, but Cece had given me a primer on the subject.
Cece Dee Falcon, my friend, knew more about body image than most psychologists. She'd once been Cecil. Only her strong will and intense self-knowledge had given her the strength to fight family and often her community in a quest to become the person she was meant to be.
"Graf feels diminished," Cece had warned me. "Don't push intimacy. He has to see himself as sexually desirable before he engages. Let him come to you, Sarah Booth. And don't take it personally. This isn't about you. It's all about him."
So I tiptoed past him with Sweetie and Pluto following, and we went out on the sand so I could smoke a cigarette. I didn't do it often—had in fact fought and beaten the demon tobacco for years. Now I was cutting myself a little slack. Graf and I would both recover our strength and put this behind us, including the smokes.
A child's laughter caught Sweetie's attention, and she bounded over the sand dunes and disappeared. She was a gentle dog, but I didn't want her size to intimidate a kid. I stood up and followed with a disgruntled Pluto at my side. The cat was not a fan of early mornings either. The tang of salt in the air only made it worse for the water-disdaining feline.
I stopped on top of the dune. Down the beach, Sweetie Pie ran circles around a child with flowing brown curls that hung to her waist. She looked to be eight or nine. When Sweetie paused, the child spun cartwheels in the sand. She was too far away for a clear view, but her delight in the beach and water was obvious.
I'd been happy at her age. Endless laughter and adventure. The joy of sun and sand and movement. Shading my eyes with my hand, I searched for an adult. The surf could be dangerous, and the girl was far too young to be outside alone.
A slender woman with long blondish curls waved a scarf, and the child skipped to her and took her hands for a swing. Mother and daughter, I thought. They knelt side by side and lavished affection on Sweetie. One day Graf and I would have a child that beautiful. Two. A girl and a boy. Or two girls. Or two boys. It really didn't matter, as long as they were healthy.
Fear had kept me from starting my own family. I lost everyone I loved, and I didn't believe I could recover if something happened to my child. So I'd run away from the possibility. I'd held Graf off, postponing wedding dates and potential children. My miscarriage hadn't helped. Now, though, I was done with fear and running. Graf and I would build a family. I was strong enough now.
Not to mention the thing Jitty kept a countdown on—my biological clock was ticking away. This week, while my fiancé and I were on the beautiful beach, I would commit to Graf and a bicoastal life that included children, movies, horses, travel, and a deep and abiding love for my husband. And Jitty, of course.
The mother and daughter raced down the beach, and Sweetie returned to me, ears flopping and tail wagging with delight. Pluto, on the other hand, stared at me with golden-green eyes that seemed to say, "Look at that stupid hound. There is nothing more pathetic than a dog."
"Let's make some coffee," I suggested. "Graf and I have a guided tour of Fort Gaines at ten. Time to roust him up and get him ready for the day."
* * *
Fort Gaines was built for people much shorter than my height, and poor Graf had to stoop to pass under some of the arched entrances. The group for the Sunday morning tour was small, a handful of fall beachcombers taking advantage of the October weather. In the summer, I could imagine the fort would be crowded with tourists.
Our tour guide, Angela Trotter, was a slender young woman with navy blue eyes and a love of the old fort and its checkered history. Originally used as a port and defense point by the French explorer Iberville, the barrier island, which has shifted and changed shapes and locations as a result of hurricanes, played a role in the development of the Gulf Coast rim. Military strategists had used Dauphin Island to defend the vulnerable—and valuable—inner waterways. The island had also been a waypoint for pirates, and Angela Trotter brought the past to life.
"One of the most colorful pirates to sail these waters was Jean Lafitte. A French nobleman by birth, he attracted the best sailors, some of them French nobility who were more in the model of anarchists than Black Beard pirates."
Angela outlined Lafitte's colorful career—the island stronghold he built off the coast of Louisiana on an island in Barataria Bay, and how he declared the island a free state, where slaves kidnapped from the cotton, rice, and sugarcane fields were given the full privilege of citizenship.
"One such highborn lieutenant of Lafitte's was a pirate named Armand Couteau," Angela said. "It's rumored he hid a treasure worth millions on Dauphin Island. Many have hunted for the lost gold using all types of equipment, but nothing has ever been found. Most believe the hiding place is now underwater. Savage storms have shifted the island's contours too many times to count."
Unfortunately, I couldn't give the tour my full attention, because I was worried about Graf. He'd gone for a long walk up and down the beach before we came to the fort, and now his face was pinched with exhaustion and fatigue. He was trying too hard, another thing the doctors had warned me about.
When the guide moved us along the barricades that gave a glorious view of the Gulf, Graf lagged behind. I dropped back to walk with him.
"Go with the group," he urged me. "My leg is hurting, and I'll take it slow for a little while. Make notes so you can tell me all the stories." His smile was more grimace.
"Let's head back to the cottage. I'm tired, too."
"Don't mollycoddle me." He ran his hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap. I'm just spoiling it for you. Go listen to the tour. I'll catch up in a bit."
"I came to spend time with you," I said. "The tour isn't important. Look"—I pointed to the south—"This is the place where Union naval commander Admiral David Farragut tried to navigate the mine-salted Mobile Bay and declared, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.'"
Movement across the fort's yard caught my eye. The blond woman from the beach disappeared into one of the old powder buildings. If she was on the tour, she'd dropped out to pursue her own interests. Maybe she was a local who already knew the history. I was about to ask Graf if he'd seen her when footsteps alerted me that someone approached.
The young tour guide joined us. "You guys okay?" she asked. "I haven't bored you into a coma, have I?"
"We're just enjoying the view," I answered. "My fiancé is a little tired."
"We'll wait for you in the hold." She didn't give us a chance to decline. She hurried away to catch up to the group.
"Ready to rejoin?" I asked.
"Let's see this to the end. Then I'm going to need a hot soak in that lovely bathtub and a long nap."
"You've got it." I turned to follow him and saw the blond woman. She was half in shadow behind the powder house, and her attention was directed at Graf.
I wondered if she recognized him from one of his films, or if she was wondering what injury he'd sustained. With any luck, he'd heal perfectly before the Hollywood gossip machine found out he'd ever been hurt.
Copyright © 2014 by Carolyn Haines