Ten Years Earlier
Sand flung itself over Carolina DeAngeles as a handsome young man clad only in board shorts crashed into the beach just in front of her, his momentum gouging a trench in the sunbaked sand.
“Edward!” Carolina brushed the sand from her arms and reached a hand to work her fingers into the roots of her hair. Drawing out the tangled strands, she shook her head to get it to fall cleanly at her shoulders. It wasn’t as if she cared if Edward liked the way it looked. He had seen her much worse. Little brothers were just that. They were simply there, fixtures in one’s life.
She let her eyes rest on his face for a moment, then she looked off down the beach as if searching for someone.
“Well, aren’t you the sour thing!” In a scramble of flying sand, his golden body flung itself from the trench and stood just for a moment, the foam football in his hand raised over his shoulder, and his muscles bunched. Then, like an over-tensioned steel spring, all the young man’s energy was released in one smooth snap that sent the ball flying into the midst of a group of similar golden boys just down the beach. With a quickness that only extreme youth can offer, he flung himself to the sand to sit at her side.
“A penny for your thoughts.” He cupped a handful of warm sand in his palm and let it dribble across her knee.
She reached to brush it off, and when he laughed and continued, she sighed and gave up. “A dollar, shouldn’t it be?” She pursed her mouth and chewed the corner of her lip.
Edward laughed, punching her playfully on the shoulder. “At first I thought it was my wonderful older sister dragged down by the thought of summer school.” Picking up and dumping a second handful of sand on her leg, he finished and wrapped his arms around his own legs, resting his chin on his knees. He watched the people on the beach, smiling as several girls, probably still in junior high, were chased by the incoming surf, squealing when it caught them off-guard. “Now I see the truth of the matter.”
“What truth does my Antarctica-bound brother see here on this warm, Carolina beach?” Carolina cut her eyes to him as she reached once more to work her fingers into the roots of her hair. She wasn’t exactly tugging at it, revealing her internal feelings, as her mother would say, but she pulled her hand away when she realized the action was telling her brother more than she intended.
He laughed soundly. “That’s just a dream, sis. Mum and Dad won’t turn loose of me just yet.” He looked at Carolina, chuckling. “If I could, however, I’d be there now. Enough of me, though. Where’s that boy you’ve been looking for?”
Carolina snorted her laughter at him. “Edward! You can’t tease me as if I’m fourteen all over again.” She reached for a handful of sand of her own, and she dumped it across his back, watching as it skittered across his bronzed skin, the grains chasing themselves back toward the beach.
He just grinned. “I deserved that. Most of it went inside my shorts, though. Thank you, Carolina.”
“You’re very welcome, little brother.” She wasn’t ready to let go of his earlier remark, though. “What truth?”
Edward reached a finger to his side to trace out geometric shapes in the sand. “I can see cause and effect, you know. Sis, you love this beach. You come home, and you light up with anticipation until you get on the sand. Then, I see you here today with that hangdog expression on your face, and your eyes keep roving up and down as far as you can see. Look at you, even now!” He reached and slapped her on the leg.
“What!” Carolina glared at him for a moment, then turned her eyes back to the shore in front of her.
He laughed. “See? You can’t look at me for even two seconds. You’ve met a boy, haven’t you? A man, I should say, right, sis?” He flipped sand on her. “Do I know his name?”
Carolina sighed. Edward always could see through her. She reached both hands up, worked her fingers back into her hair, and looked at the sand between her feet. She laughed, but it carried a sound of disappointment.
“I don’t even know his name, Edward. Rather, he doesn’t know mine.”
Edward brushed his hand off on his shorts and placed it on his sister’s shoulder. He squeezed it in a brotherly fashion and spoke quietly, “A man of mystery.”
Carolina pulled her hands from her head and shook her hair back. She took a deep breath and laughed at her brother’s words. “A man in an airplane cowling was more like it. He said he lives here. I’d just hoped . . .” Her voice caught.
“So, he’s not come to find you, yet.” His hand dropped, and in one quick motion, he was standing. He reached to grab his sister’s hand. “The beach is huge, sis, and you’re one tiny girl. He’ll never find you if you sit here and mope. There’s a Frisbee on the sand. It’s waiting on us.”
Carolina worked her hand free, and she dropped it to the sand at her side. “I don’t think I want to play, not today.” She motioned with her head to where the football game was still going on. “Your friends. They’re still playing.”
“Better not let Mum and Dad see you like this. Margarete, either. They’ll grill you like toast on a Sunday morning, even if Mass has to wait. See you, sis!”
In a flurry of sand, he was gone, his skin glistening in the brilliance of the coastal sun. Carolina’s eyes followed him for a moment, his slender body belying the strength and quickness she knew he had. Then she let her eyes flick to others who were out on the beach, looking for a golden head of hair streaked with the summer sun, and a face with dimples a mile deep in each cheek. She looked, because she remembered his words to her. She’d seen his name on his shirt, and in the few moments they had stood in each other’s presence, she had felt an attraction that had taken her by storm.
Now, in a blur of longing and emotion, two words were sharply in focus in her mind, and they were all she could think of.
Tears blurred the beach around her. He’d also told her something else. “Hilton Head? I’m from there.” With those words, she’d known hope, and today she was learning disappointment.
She stood and laughed sourly. Her father would tell her to quit moping, to pull from the strength of the Southern iron in her blood. Her mother would say to use her good, Southern breeding, and not feel sorry for herself. Carolina would say she had a lack of choices. She couldn’t make Alaska come to find her, could she? She’d have to buck up and go on without him.
However, as she brushed the sand from her legs, readying herself to go to the house, she did leave herself one small remnant of hope. She was only home for this one weekend. When she flew back to Atlanta for the upcoming summer school session, she’d look for him again. Perhaps he’d be on the tarmac, and he’d be searching for her.
She knew it was silly, but she could hope, couldn’t she? After all, she was only nineteen, and she could still dream.
As she walked toward the house, she heard her name called from down the beach, and a sudden, bright hope grabbed at her. Then she remembered she hadn’t told him her name. She turned to see Edward waving. As she waved back, he smiled at her and turned back to his game just in time to catch an incoming football and fall laughing into the sand.
Carolina remained standing, watching her brother, and tears filled her eyes. Her Alaska boy wouldn’t come find her, and although she knew it was silly, it left her feeling empty inside.
She reached her hands to her face and brushed the moisture away. She sniffed and laughed at herself. Narrowing her eyes at her brother, she muttered, looking at him as he scrambled to his feet to throw the ball back to his friends, “Edward, you’d better keep this to yourself, if you know what’s good for you. Mum doesn’t need to know, or Dad, and especially not Margarete.”
That made her feel a little better, and she turned and marched toward the house.
“I WANT to be the one to buy the flowers.”
Carolina whispered her words as she stood and looked through the window. An executive assistant at one of the top electronics companies in California, she was adept at dealing with stressful situations where other people were concerned. However, this time the events that pressed in on her were more personal. She searched but couldn’t find the Southern iron her father had always said ran in her blood. Instead, grittiness rubbed her eyes raw, and she felt as if her soul was torn in two. How she needed the God she had been taught about so many years before in her parents’ church in Hilton Head!
She didn’t feel Him with her today, though.
For some strangely cruel reason, it was another void that ached inside, a loss from a decade earlier that unaccountably gripped her soul. She liked to pretend she’d long ago excised that day from her life. Her lie hovered in the glass before her, the image of a man she’d run into on the Savannah airport tarmac. His face was as clear as the time she’d spoken with him, and he’d promised to come find her. Filled with an ill-defined longing, she reached her hand to the shimmering surface and placed it there, the heat of the afternoon just on the other side of the glass wrapping around her fingers as if to draw the sorrow of the day’s news from her skin.
Guilt at thoughts of this boy rather than her parents’ deaths churned her thoughts. She’d finally come to realize she’d run to California. She’d deny that to anyone who asked, but it was true. After he didn’t come to find her on her beach, she’d continued to look for him. Unable to bear the memories of her foolish searching, she’d fled, leaving her home and parents far behind. She hadn’t escaped, though, as evidenced by his smiling face in the window at her fingertips.
Feeling the warmth of tears start down her cheeks, the image of her parents took his place, and she felt the first vestiges of real grief begin to take hold. The unexpected accident in faraway Hilton Head! How could something so horrendous have happened? Carolina repeated her words to the image of herself she could see reflected in her office window.
“I want to be the one to buy the flowers.”
THE SUN filtered through the polished glass windows, and the sea glittered across the sand. Carolina was home for a short visit, and her mother’s news was a surprise to her.
“Your cruise! Oh, Mummy, I’m so jealous.” Carolina laughed, placing her hand on her mother’s arm. The paperwork strewn across the dining room table was filled with glossy photos showing a glamorous ship filled with exciting venues. One pamphlet centered on an elegant couple dining in a star-studded restaurant, the gleaming brass rail at their side opening to a vast cathedral of shipboard banqueting experiences. Another was filled with sun-drenched activities centered on poolside locations, with a glittering sea in the distance. All the participants were young, toned, and laughing.
“That’ll be me.” Carolina’s mother pointed to the glossy image of one young couple. She cocked her head to the side. “I’ll be thirty again. The travel agent has assured me so.”
“Daddy, too? Thirty?” Carolina stifled a smirk, her pleasure in her mother’s teasing making her glad she’d traveled all the way from California to her family home on Hilton Head Island.
Her mother leaned in, her voice husky with mock conspiracy. “Your father only thinks he’s thirty. He forgets he’s been married now for that many years.” She chuckled, her eyes twinkling.
“Your anniversary.” Carolina turned and looked out the window. Her mother’s words were a wakeup call. She was nearly thirty herself, her younger brother Edward was in Antarctica doing research—on a perpetual basis it seemed—and she’d been in California as Mr. Warner’s executive assistant for years now. “Thirty years of marriage, Mum.” She turned back and smiled, forcing her pensive thoughts out of her mind. This was a vacation, not a time to feel sorry for herself.
“And they’ve been wonderful.” Her mother’s laughter tinkled. “I’ve finally got your father to let the reins of the business go. Charlie is very capable, I told him. That’s why you hired him as manager. Let him manage, and let’s take that cruise you’ve always promised. Now, we’re off. First Class, too. A suite with all the amenities.” Sweeping the cruise information from the table and standing to put it into a drawer, she turned to her daughter. “How is that puppy we gave you? Is he keeping you from being lonely?”
“Getting bigger every day.” Carolina pursed her lips, stepping to the window. Ricotta. The puppy had carried its unusual name to California, and Carolina hadn’t had a choice in the cumbersome moniker. Rotten Ricotta Cheese should be more like it.
“Puppies do that, my dear.” Her mother stepped to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Daddy’s at the dealership today?” Carolina truly loved Ricotta, in spite of her complaint, but the dog wasn’t what she wanted to talk about right then. Her mother’s reference to the airport reminded her of that boy she’d seen so many years ago, and the memory surprised her. She’d thought him long forgotten.
“Do you wish to call him, Carolina? I left my cell phone in the next room, but Margarete can bring the house phone for you. I’ll be glad to ring for it.” She reached her hand to let it hover over a small device on the table at her side, the red light on its top just beneath her finger.
Carolina turned and gave her mother a hug. “Leave poor Margarete in peace. I think I’ll go walk the beach for a bit, Mum. I always forget how beautiful the island is, and you get to see it every day. I want to take some of it home with me, even if I really can’t.”
Her mother gave her a second kiss as she shooed her out the door.
On the beach, Carolina walked along the surf, the pale sand underneath her feet warm in the afternoon sun. The wind swept her hair across her face, and she reached a hand to pull it back, tucking it behind one ear. When a seagull barked at her, she laughed, knowing it had claimed the beach as its home, and Carolina wasn’t welcome to intrude. However, it was her beach, too, and the seagull could certainly share for the few hours until she returned to her California life.
Tears crept unbidden into her eyes. She claimed California as her residence, for she worked there, and her good friend Sha’Cretia Washington waited on her return. Even so, each time she left her Carolina beaches, she left a little bit of her heart here, and when she was in California, this was always where she wanted to be.
There was one other thing. Each time she stepped onto the tarmac at the Savannah airport, her eyes invariably searched for that boy from so many years ago. If only he’d come to find her as he’d promised a decade before, she’d never have run away.
With a laugh, the heat of the sun-drenched sand bringing out the Southern fortitude flowing through Carolina’s veins, she brushed that boy away. It was summer, she was on her beloved beach, and her mother waited on her to return from her walk. What better life could she ask for?
As Carolina once again pushed her hair from her face, her palm brushed against windblown sand caught in the dampness on her cheek. She would have denied it if asked, but it didn’t seem that boy from the Savannah tarmac had been banished so very far from her thoughts after all, even if her bright expression claimed he had.
THE WIND whistled through the Alaska hills, and as it slipped through the trees, it calmed, reaching slender fingers to caress an unnamed stream. With a soft touch, it lifted Kodiak Leberge’s fly-fishing line in a dance of sparkling beauty. Scattering the surface of the water into a million wavelets, it sang its melodies to the lone fish shimmering just under the surface of the stream.
“Beautiful girl,” Kodiak whispered, winking at the scaled creature. “If I ever met you on an airport runway, I’d not let you get away again.”
The young man, sandy blond and not yet thirty, let his eyes jump for a moment to the brilliance of the blue sky visible between the mountain peaks in front of him. His hair was a thick mass atop his head, unruly and filled with the sun and the wind. He smiled at the feeling of the day against his back. It wasn’t winter today. The cold had been brutal this year, for the last two, actually. Today, though, he could endure all the brutal winters in Alaska, if only for a handful of days like this one.
His line tightened, and his reel sang. His offering to this beauty before him had been accepted.
“Today, you will be mine!”
His vibrant words broke the crystalline air as he began to work his line, and pulling his rod high, then letting it fall, teasing the fish, tiring it as they played, he began to step forward, planning his final gambit. At last he released his line, and it stilled its dance to float on the surface of the stream. His opponent had tired, relinquishing its freedom, giving it up to the master of the catch.
“Gotcha!” Kodiak called, unable to contain his enthusiasm. “Wahoo! I am the best!” He leaped over the stones in the riverbed, scrambling to get his net under his fish. This would be a day of feasting, that was for sure, and he would eat well.
He reached into the net and pulled out his prize, shaking the hook from its mouth. He held it up in the sun, and as its rays flashed along the moistened scales running down the finned creature’s side, he was taken back to a time years earlier. His wife. His ex-wife, now. When he’d felt his childhood faith pulling him back to the Church, she hadn’t joined him. He’d felt trapped with her, just like this fish he held in his hand.
In that moment of reflection, before he could stop himself, his fingers opened. As if in a slow motion sequence, each second stretching to fill minutes, the scales of the creature shimmered in the sun, and with a splash, it was gone, free to live another day.
Kodiak looked around at the beauty of the Alaska wilderness. He grinned. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a new fly and attached it to his line. He would eat tonight, even if his hand had turned his dinner free. He knew everyone needed a second chance now and then, but he wanted a meal. That fish had better watch out. There’d be no third chances. He had a frying pan waiting, and it wouldn’t be patient forever.
“YES, MR. WARNER?”
The day was early, yet, and the news of her parents hadn’t yet assaulted Carolina’s morning. Her voice was bright with enthusiasm. Even so, it was her formal business face she wore. It had been weeks since she’d been home, and she missed her parents unmercifully.
“Carolina, please come in.” Her boss stood, stepping around his desk. “Please, have a seat.”
She moved into his office, letting the door gently swing closed behind her. Mr. Warner took her elbow, guiding her to a pair of chrome and leather chairs that sat next to each other. As Carolina lowered herself into one, he dropped heavily into the other. Just behind, banks of curtained windows wrapped two walls of his corner office. His voice had been warm and gentle, but there was something else, and it caught her attention.
“There’s a problem, Mr. Warner?” Carolina pushed her hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. She thought of her parents, even though there was no reason to do so. Still, an image of them at home in Hilton Head flashed through her thoughts, their house on the beach, her mother driving one of her father’s Cadillacs along the tree-lined streets searching for the shops she wanted, barely able to see the signs that were no higher than the hood of her massive luxury car. Pushing the familiar memories aside, she smiled, crossing one leg over the other.
“Your parents, Carolina.” Mr. Warner paused, taking a deep breath. “There’s been an accident.” He stood, and he grasped the front of his slacks along the creases, shaking them out. Then he quickly sat again, licking his lips.
She laughed, relieved it was something so simple. She imagined her mother forgetting her glasses and sideswiping another car as she looked for a new store she had heard about. Carolina had complained for years about her hometown’s refusal to allow signs any taller than the hood of her mother’s big car. She was forever turning in at the last minute because the sign she searched for was hidden behind a low shrub.
When her boss didn’t elaborate, Carolina reached a hand to rest it on his suited arm. “I’m sure everything’s all right, Mr. Warner. What did they say happened?”
“Carolina, neither of your parents survived.” The words were choked out. He reached to her, taking her hand in his.
Carolina felt the sudden and gray world of disbelief wash over her. She woodenly stood and walked to the window. Pushing the drapes aside, she rested her forehead against the glass and watched the city around her, one hand unconsciously tugging her hair. The sun glittered in the summer sky. Each building stood in the same location it had occupied on the way to work that morning. Cars filled the streets below, and people scurried along the sidewalks, going about their busy lives.
Carolina loved this city, or at least she did when her memories of Hilton Head weren’t pulling her home. She loved the sounds of the traffic, the people carrying on their public conversations without regards to who might overhear, and even the smells of the traffic that filled the streets.
However, as she looked out over the great metropolis that made up the sprawling city of Los Angeles, it was all a world of gray fog to her.
How could this vast and cold place ever be home again?
KODIAK was just out of high school, and he wrestled with the engine of the prop-driven passenger plane. It was a warm day, even beautiful, and he felt lucky to have gotten this job at the Savannah airport. Mechanical work had always been easy for him, the skills learned as a teen working on his father’s old airplane. The pilot of this small commercial craft had radioed in an unusual noise, unwilling to risk taking it aloft again without it being checked out. Kodiak could find nothing but a loose cable that might have been bumping the engine housing. He used an industrial zip tie to snug the cable to a bracket and backed out to close the cowling. He turned to see a stunning girl watching him, and he grinned. Her eyes glanced at his shirt and back to his face. A sparkle was in her eyes, and she was beautiful.
“Alaska!” She called the word to him with a laugh and a wave. It was just a word, but to Kodiak, it was so much more. When she spoke, her voice was the ripple of a summer stream across glistening smooth stones. The wind caught her hair, and she reached a slender hand to tuck it behind one ear.
“Alaska?” For a moment he was caught off guard, but that didn’t stop him from noticing the girl’s shining hair, the cast of her eyes, or the cut of her lips as she smiled in return.
“Your name. I love it!” She pointed to his shirt.
His name! He laughed. “You’ll be on Hilton Head all weekend?” It was where all the small planes were headed.
“I live there.”
“I’ll come find you. Look for me on the sand.” He turned, startled as the pilot sounded the airplane’s horn at him. He didn’t remember airplanes having horns.
The scene began to shift, and Kodiak opened his eyes to the underside of his old truck. A vehicle’s horn blared again in the silence of the cool Alaska morning as someone called to him.
“Kodiak! Is there a Kodiak in here? If so, where are you?” The loud honking reverberated a third time.
Kodiak rolled out from under his old truck, shaking his head to bring himself back to reality. Here under his truck, attempting to tackle his ancient rust bucket, Old Red, he’d dozed only for a moment, and that girl from all those years ago had been back with him. He thought he’d forgotten all about her. He had no idea what brought her to mind now. At this exact moment in his life, he had other fish to fry. His transmission had been giving him fits, and he’d wondered whether he should pull the entire thing, or if he could drive it a while longer. It was only functional now because most of the rugged Alaska roads he drove rarely required him to shift any higher than second. Forcing it into third had become a workout, and he’d already decided that if he was going to sit in the shop with no work to do, then perhaps it was time to tackle this.
Wiping a hand across his face, he grabbed the truck’s step rail and pulled himself to his feet. He noticed the grease smeared across his palm, and he knew it was now all over the side of his face. There was nothing to be done about it now, though. There sitting outside his single garage door was the longest white limousine to be found anywhere on the Alaska Coast. He had work to do. Old Red would have to wait yet again.
He smiled at that.
He stepped outside the door, glancing back at the sign he’d just installed the week before. Kodiak Leberge, it read. Master Mechanic. In smaller letters he’d added, Aircraft, Cars, Small Machines. If It Runs, I Can Repair It.
“You’re Kodiak, right?” The man next to the white car narrowed his eyes, only relaxing when Kodiak nodded.
This man might not know Kodiak, other than his name from the sign overhead, but Kodiak had dodged this vehicle a few times. This man was a reckless driver, taking corners at fantastic speeds.
“I need my brakes checked on this limo. I have it rented at three for a cruise tour, and it’s squealing like a woman with her credit card cut off.” The pristinely dressed man looked down at his watch and then up to the sky, pursing his lips as if expecting the unlittered expanse of blue to cloud up and rain just to make his day more difficult.
Kodiak moved his truck and pulled the limo onto the rack. From watching this car as the driver hauled his tourists around, he wasn’t surprised to hear the brakes were gone. Not only was the limo huge, and Kodiak understood that meant heavy, but he knew what to expect any time he saw it coming down the road. Move out of the way. Everyone moved out of the way of this limo owner. He was fast, and he was dangerous.
When he pulled the first wheel off, it wasn’t a revelation to find that in addition to the pads, the rotors also needed to be replaced. Getting new rotors in this remote location was going to slow this car down for a while. He had none in stock and would need to fly to the next town to get them.
Kodiak whistled as he walked back into his small office. He placed a worn brake pad on the counter. “Gone,” he said, looking up to the man’s face. He tried to stifle a grin as he continued. “The rotors, too.” He glanced down and rubbed a fingernail across the edge of the worn pad to draw the man’s attention to just how bad they were.
“Rotors? Are those important?” Panic invaded the limo owner’s face.
“Well,” Kodiak drawled in his best Low Country voice, “Only if you want to stop to avoid hitting any errant caribou that might be wandering across the road. If you’re out with a group of hunters, maybe not so much.” Kodiak glanced up at a clock on the wall. “Might be tight on time, but if I took my plane, I think I could fly to Koko’s Auto Supplies to get your new rotors, as long as I leave now. It’ll be extra, though.” There would be plenty of time, but this was an opportunity to get up in his airplane, and he suddenly wanted to be there.
“Koko’s? That’s up in the next town, isn’t it? How much extra?” The man had pulled his wallet out, and he made as if to drop it back into his pocket. “It’ll be a lot, won’t it?”
“Gas for the Cessna sure hasn’t gone down the last few months.” Kodiak nodded across the road where his small plane could be seen tied up to a dock. He opened a drawer underneath the counter and flipped through his latest surfing magazine. Pursing his lips, pretending he was evaluating the cost, he shook his head as if the total was surely too much. He continued, playing up the expense angle. “Two-fifty would just about do it, I think. Is it worth it to you? If not, I could get the rotors delivered tomorrow, if you can do without the car that long.” Gently, he closed the drawer.
“Two-fifty? You can guarantee it by three? I lose nine hundred if I have to cancel.” The limo owner nervously glanced at the airplane and back to his car. The beading sweat on his brow told Kodiak just how much he wanted this.
“Guaranteed? No, I can’t promise that. Too many variables when I’m flying. Try. That’s all I can do. Is it a go?” Kodiak looked back at the clock. “Gotta go now if I’m going to have any chance to do this.”
“Do it. You have a phone around here, a land line? My cell’s dead. Never gets reception off the main street, anyway.” He grinned with relief when Kodiak pulled an old, black rotary phone from under the counter. “I need to call my partner to let him know I need to be picked up.”
Kodiak watched his visitor dial in the number, then he rapped the counter with his knuckles to let the man know he was on his way, heading out the door. He’d call in the order on the shortwave radio as soon as he got in his plane. Koko’s would have it ready for him when he arrived. The man nodded to Kodiak as he began his conversation into the old, outdated phone.
With his checkbook and wallet in hand, Kodiak stepped briskly to the dock and his airplane. He was unworried about the shop. Bears were more of a concern than any thieves in this part of the world.
He breathed in deeply. Alaska. He’d hated the past two winters, but this was a day he didn’t regret being here at all, even if it wasn’t the Low Country he’d been born to. The weather today was faultless, and the sun glistened on anything that had been sprinkled with the morning’s moisture. The crispness in the air would make for a perfect trip. It wasn’t often he got paid two bills plus some just to take his airplane up.
In addition to having plenty of time to cruise by his cabin and see how things were going, with the cruise ship coming in, he’d get a really good view of the tourists’ activities, too. More importantly, he’d get to watch it from high in the air, and that was just where he wanted to be, away from the commotion that would overwhelm his small town while the cruise ship was docked. He’d have the freedom of the skies, even if only for a couple of hours, unlike the life he’d lived in that hated condo on his ex-wife’s beloved East Coast beach.
He brushed that reminder from his mind, letting his enjoyment at prepping his craft for the flight occupy all of his attention.
Soon aloft, he glanced around, lowering the visor against the brightness of the morning. The clarity and warmth of the weather during this time of year was uncommon but very welcome. Laughing at a series of breaking waves in an otherwise calm sea, he recognized them for what they were, a pod of whales. His father should be here now. If not for him, there’d be no plane and no Alaska.
Touching down in the protected cove near Koko’s, Kodiak idled up to the dock and was soon off for the limo’s needed rotors. He’d gotten through on the shortwave while en route, and he fully expected the goods to be packaged and waiting when he stepped through the door.
As he climbed the dock’s ladder to reach the level of the street, he looked back at the float to admire his Cessna floating in the water. His heart swelled. The winters could certainly be brutal in this wild land, but seeing his love there, his airplane floating in the gentle swell of the cove, made it all worth it.
A motion caught his eye, and Kodiak laughed. It was Old Man Tuck from down by Kodiak’s place, and he was pulling up to the waterfront in his old Cherokee. He had a reputation as having the ugliest four-wheel drive in the state, and Kodiak had to agree. Not only was it four different colors—unintentionally, from several body parts that were mismatched—but rust had painted it a tie-dye red. The old man had probably spent the better part of three hours navigating the back roads to get here, and it’d take him just as long to get back home.
“Hey, Tuck!” Kodiak raised his hand to greet the old man. “God certainly gave us a beautiful day today.” He laughed when all he got was a snort and a mumbled reply.
“New-fangled planes. Give me a good old Jeep any day.” Tuck glowered as he walked by. He ignored the comment about God. He always did.
Poor old Tuck, the younger man laughed silently to himself. He was stuck on the back roads, and he didn’t even know what he was missing.
Kodiak loped up the final few steps to the parts store to find they had indeed followed through. His packages were wrapped and ready for him as promised. With a flourish of his name on a check and a humorous joke to the cashier, he was back out the door into the sunshine. He closed his eyes in the brightness of the glare, letting the warmth wash across his face.
The girl’s remark that day. Alaska. He supposed it had stuck with him because of his mother telling him of how he was as close to her dream of Alaska as she’d ever get. When Julianna had demanded his plane be sold in the divorce, he’d taken off for the one place in the world that he considered his.
You were my worst nightmare, Julianna, he muttered. However, he wouldn’t be in Alaska if it weren’t for her wanton lifestyle and outrageous demands. After all, he was flying the skies of the most wonderful state in the Union, and today, there was no better place to be.
“OH, SWEET baby!”
Sha’Cretia Washington barreled through the door, dropping the files she carried into a convenient chair. Her coal-black hair was piled high on her head, and she wore a perfect coat of polish on each hand. Her white blouse boasted ruffled sleeves over a tight burgundy skirt. Dark skin set off her equally red pumps. She was perfectly refined, with every outrageous element neatly matched.
Today even her eyes were red, although it was unintentional. She held her arms out, ready to offer consolation.
Taking a deep breath, Carolina laid down the report she’d been reading. Since leaving Mr. Warner’s office an hour before, she’d tried to focus on her work. She really had. Reports were piled on her desk, ones she felt responsibility for. Disbursements were waiting to be sent, and overtime pay needed to be credited. People had to be taken care of, even if a disaster had taken her personal world and shredded it to clippings.
On the other hand, she couldn’t deal with someone else’s issues through her fog of disbelief. She knew she needed to buy a ticket to return to the East Coast as soon as she could arrange it, but it was as if it were someone else’s ticket, not hers.
She took a deep breath, pushing away the throbbing in her temples. Grief would hit her hard. It just wasn’t here yet. She must be in shock. She must.
“Yes, Sha?” Carolina ran her slender finger along the edge of the thin folder in the middle of her desk, the report captured inside. Someone’s life was in that folder, someone who hadn’t had the best part of everything they knew ripped from them. She felt her eyes burn, and she couldn’t even greet her best friend properly. Numbness kept her from running to those welcoming arms just across her desk.
“Honey bunch, I’m so sorry.” Her friend moved around the desk, with each step a graceful waltz across the floor, and put a carefully manicured hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I was just at the manicurist getting a polish, and when I walked in, I heard the news. You know you’ve been my best girlfriend here.” She reached to flatten a crease in her skirt, and she looked up with tears trailing mascara down her face. She laughed, whispering, “I can’t even see myself, and I already know I should have splurged on the waterproof stuff. If my daddy hadn’t been black, then I’d really look a mess.”
Carolina drew in a deep breath, and in that moment she felt something ease inside. Just seeing Sha’Cretia’s brightly made-up features was the rainbow of life through Carolina’s gray gloom of acid-washed sorrow. She reached out her arms and gave her friend a big hug, certain her presence would keep the tears at bay for a little while, anyway.
“Sha, you know you always brighten my days, no matter how bad they are. How can I endure the East Coast this time without you?” She gave her a kiss on the cheek, reaching her thumb to wipe some of her running mascara away. “Let me get you a tissue.”
“Girl, you are a winner.” Sha’Cretia’s brushed her long, polished fingers across one side of her face, and she stroked her cheek softly to make sure the moisture was gone. “You go give those people in the East a piece of your mind. Make them do your parents proud.” With those words, her eyes welled up again. “Oh, Carolina,” Sha’Cretia wailed. “I wish I could go with you. Just thinking of you going alone is breaking my heart.”
Carolina smiled, truly warmed by her friend’s giving nature. She turned to the sound of a voice at the door.
“Ms. DeAngeles, the driver is on his way.”
“Driver?” She turned to Sha’Cretia.
Sha’Cretia stepped to Carolina and cupped her elbow in her hand, moving her toward the door. “You were kinda out of it, sweetie. Mr. Warner called his car for you. Go. I’ve got this handled. I’d be there with you, but then this place would fall apart.” She smiled and patted Carolina’s shoulder. “Go. Stay until you feel better. I’ve got your house and that big lug of a dog under control.” Then she grabbed Carolina and gave her another firm hug. “I only met your parents once, and I loved them like my own.”
“Oh, Sha,” Carolina whispered, her face going numb.
Sha’Cretia smiled and looked directly into her friend’s eyes. “Sweetie, I loved your parents even more than my own, actually. Mine showed me the front door and took my key the night I put my first designer dress on, and it was a classic Dior A-line. However, even I can see that you’ll never cope with just my silly stories. What can I do for you, baby?”
Carolina’s voice was ragged as she turned to the window. “Sha, I want to be the one to buy the flowers.”
Sha’Cretia wrapped her arms around her and hugged her for a minute. Then she called another assistant to help her out. With her most cheerful face, Sha’Cretia moved to shoo Carolina out the door. The driver arrived to meet them at the office and assisted Carolina toward the company car waiting just outside.
Out of the presence of her friend, Carolina felt her energy drain from her like melting butter in the heat of a California summer. Exiting the building, Carolina’s feet dragged along the sidewalk, lifeless, and she tugged at her hair, barely able to cope. At the car, she placed one hand on the door, soaking up the heat in the metal. What did it mean, her parents on one side of the continent, and her on the other? Now, they were gone, and she wasn’t there.
Before climbing inside the long, black company car, she put on her best office smile and teased with the driver. “Just be glad you have me and not Sha’Cretia to drive around today.”
“Sha’Cretia is a handful, I’ll give you that. My condolences on your sad news today, Ms. DeAngeles.” The driver tipped his hat.
That reminder was a blow to Carolina’s false front. Dropping into the luxurious automobile, she felt her momentary bravado collapse inside of her. She desperately wanted to say a prayer, but that never seemed to work for her. Even the sumptuous smells of leather and exotic woods that usually triggered her love of fine things had no effect on her. Her life had begun unraveling around her, and all the extravagances in the world could not repair the damage that had been done.
KODIAK was able to pick up the parts and get back to the shop to get the new rotors on the limo with plenty of time to spare. Of course, he would’ve had even more time if he hadn’t stopped by his favorite backwoods stream on the return for a quick bit of fly-fishing.
Looking out from his airplane, the sparkle of the sun on the stream had called to him, a beautiful siren with a voice of beauty beyond compare. It would only be a quick hike from the small lake he could land his airplane on. The scramble through the wooded hillside would use up precious fishing time, but driving there would take even more. He hadn’t been able to resist. If he didn’t get the brakes fixed because he was out on his stream, he hadn’t exactly promised, had he? And anyway, his airplane was gone from the dock. Who would be there to tattle on him?
The tradeoff was worth it.
It wasn’t until he caught his third fish that he remembered Old Man Tuck. “Drive a Jeep!” He’d been seen at Koko’s, and there was no doubt Tuck would vent to everyone he met about that darn airplane that had invaded his precious Alaska coastline.
Kodiak pulled his line in and gathered his fish. He now regretted they’d seen each other. All because Tuck preferred Jeeps. Why, when an airplane was much better?
Flaming bear turds!
The tension was broken, and Kodiak laughed aloud as he scrambled through the brush back to his airplane. He’d lost his garbage to marauding bears three weeks in a row. One morning, he decided no bears were going to get his trash again. He’d burn it from then on. He’d followed through just that once. He hadn’t known several cubs had been sleeping in his metal drums and leaving him gifts afterwards. He’d dumped his trash in, doused it with a good jug of gasoline, and thrown in a match. Talk about brutal! Those bear droppings had wafted their awful odor for two weeks, and the wind had been kind enough to blow it directly towards his cabin the entire time.
Once back at his shop, and after gladly accepting a well-padded envelope of money for what amounted to a simple brake job, Kodiak pulled down an old box from on top of a storage cabinet, putting a portion of the money inside. After the divorce he’d had trouble making his alimony payments as well as paying rent to his friend for the shared room he called home. Now he wondered if he’d ever save enough money to buy his freedom back. He’d run to the only place no one knew about except him and his father, their old fishing shack in Alaska. Weeks passed as he’d continued flying west, working his way farther and farther toward the Pacific. He’d worked temporary jobs at the airports he stopped at along the way, from repairing engines to washing the aircraft, anything to make money.
His own airplane had finally given up on him, and he’d left it behind in Edmonton until he could earn the money for repairs. Eventually he’d stepped off a bus, and he’d been in Alaska. It was only Tok, but still, Alaska!
Anchorage had come later, and there’d been a job at a mechanic’s shop to earn money to repair his airplane. At first it had been everything he’d hoped. Then, he’d barely survived his first winter in the old fishing shack he and his dad had once cobbled together. After that, he’d found the motivation to put together his own much-better-built cabin. It was small, but it was warmer than stuffing wads of cloth in knotholes to keep out the winter wind. He’d even managed to salvage much of the old shack in the new cabin’s construction.
Now, here he was in Alaska with the things he treasured most. He had his father’s old fishing cabin, completely rebuilt; a mechanic’s shop of his own; and his father’s airplane, now his, of course. However, on quite a few cold nights, he’d trade it all for one pretty girl to smile at him as he drew his head out of an airplane cowling, only this time he’d insist on her name. He might have to give up living in Alaska to hold her in his arms, but it’d be worth the cost.
He was certain of that.
“MS. DeANGELES? We’re here.”
Carolina looked out the window to see her house coming up. “Pull beside the house, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The driver turned into the drive, the front wheels dipping into the depression along the curb, and the rest of the massive machine sliding after it into the driveway. No more did Carolina have her car door open, than Ricotta barked twice, bounded over the fence, and leaped through, his enormous body filling much of the back seat of her boss’s massive limousine. Carolina laughed through her tears, grabbing his furry head.
“Ricotta, you rotten thing! How I’ve needed you!” She wrapped her arms around the animal’s neck, pressing her face against his fur. “I have to get my things, and no, you can’t go with me. Sorry, you rotten cheese.”
She laughed again when he began to lick her face.
She stepped into her house and packed a light bag, letting the driver load her single case into the limousine’s trunk. After she entered the car, the driver stood, holding her door, and asked about her dog.
“Ms. DeAngeles, I believe I’ve been told your pet is welcome to accompany you.”
“To the airport?” Carolina wadded her tissue in her hand and looked up at the man holding the door. She’d been fighting her tears, and she didn’t wish him to see.
“Certainly. Mr. Warner has approved the animal’s transport. I can return him here afterwards.”
Now, Ricotta was with her, and she could cry into his fur, and no one need know.
The window separating the passenger compartment from the driver slipped down. “He missed you, I see.”
Carolina glanced up to see a smiling face watching her in the rearview mirror. “I’ve missed him more. Thank you for all your help.” The black window rose smoothly into its track, sealing her into the back of the long car. With barely a sound, she felt it begin to move down the street, taking her toward Hilton Head.
She jumped at a piercing beeping from just to her side. Her attention was quickly riveted to the blackened glass separating her from the driver’s compartment. It slipped down, and the driver held up a corded phone. “Ms. DeAngeles, the call is for you. If you’ll look in the armrest, you’ll see a phone like this one.” He caught her eye in the mirror, and he waited until she looked down and saw the blinking light on the armrest. She opened the compartment to see the phone. “Just pick it up and you may begin speaking. Hang up when you’re finished.” He glanced away and the window was closed, even before Carolina could reach beside her.
Next to the phone was a small container of tissues. Pulling a fresh one out, Carolina dabbed her eyes and then her nose. Lifting the receiver, she tried to be bright and brave as she spoke to the unknown caller.
“Carolina speaking. How may I direct your call?” Immediately she felt silly. She wasn’t at work, and besides, who even knew she was here?
The voice was Mr. Warner’s.
“Oh, Carolina!” She heard him laugh out loud. “You may not direct my call anywhere. You’re not at work, and I expect you to focus on yourself. When my wife died, I was inconsolable. Then, after Gabriella was killed in that horrible carjacking, no one could make me see farther than the end of my nose. You’ll be the same. I’ve arranged for you to take the company airplane. Your pet can ride anywhere with you, even in the next seat.”
“Ricotta’s going to the East Coast with me?” Her eyes welled with tears of gratitude. “Mr. Warner, you’re too good to me.” She pressed the tissue to her eyes. It was as if the flow would never cease.
“My driver tells me you just left your house. When you reach the airport, he’ll help you carry your things. Please have a pleasant trip, if that’s possible. This will be a time of extreme sorrow for you, and I hope my arrangements will make it as easy as possible. Take your time and come back when your affairs are in order.”
Carolina could barely whisper her gratitude before hanging up the phone. If Ricotta hadn’t been at her side, she didn’t think she could have stood it at all.
KODIAK climbed up and leaned onto the wing of his airplane. He glanced up at the sky and could tell that the weather was due for a change. He looked around and grinned. He knew he’d had a treat with the clear flying conditions he’d lucked into the past few days. It had been great to be able to get up in his airplane, and at someone else’s expense, too. Sometimes he cursed the way the cost of fuel had put a crimp in his flight time, but when someone else paid, then, well, it just didn’t matter.
As much as he hated winters here, he accepted the tradeoff. Being up north was a major factor in being able to fly regularly. It was the distance between towns, and the inaccessibility created by poor roads and severe terrain. Flight was often the only way to get from place to place.
He reached to make sure the fuel filler cap was tightly secured. On one occasion—and one only—he’d flown with water in his fuel lines. He’d had his ex-wife with him, and she hadn’t really wanted to be there that trip.
She had been the reason for the water.
He’d worked extra-long hours that summer to make some needed repairs on his airplane just so he could get it up in the air. When his ex had wanted to spend a week in Naples, he’d offered to fly them down. She’d fought him, preferring to travel First Class in the style of her preference, having filet of something and a saucer, er, glass of bubbly. That was her idea of a fine trip, not riding the winds of a hurricane in a tin can for two. Her words, not his, he told people when he shared the story of his life.
On that trip, he’d filled the wings with fuel, and when he’d stepped down to put the filler hose away, she’d done something very unusual. When he moved to secure the cap, she smiled, very pleased with herself, telling him she’d already replaced it, so please get his tin can in the air in order for them to get there.
“Wine, well-seasoned fillet, and a nicely salted bath. Just get me to the hotel.” Her smile had quickly turned into an irritating whine.
Kodiak hadn’t felt right about it. He always made a practice of checking the airplane himself, never trusting anyone else. However, it had been the first time she’d done anything to help prepare for a flight, and he’d wanted to show her he trusted her and appreciated what she’d done.
Then came the rains. All the way down into Florida. After that came the spitting and the coughing of the engines. Every highway had started looking good to him about that time. It had cost him a bundle to have the tanks and fuel lines flushed, too. That’s why he twisted the fuel cap just to be sure.
Nearly biting the dirt just because of a loose fuel cap was not his dream way to land a plane.
CAROLINA stepped from the company jet. Savannah! She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. The salt in the air, and the smell of the greenery. The greenery! The brilliance of the light! Oh, how she forgot each time she was away! The air was so moist, and the smell brought back such memories. She could, she would put her grief away just for this moment. Her parents would want that from her. They would expect her to grieve, but they would expect her to continue to live and love life, also.
She smiled, soaking up the intensity of the experience, her eyes kept tightly closed. In her mind, she saw something no one else could: a golden-headed boy; his sun-kissed skin. It’d been nearly ten years, but he could have stayed on, even still be single, possibly still looking for her. It was conceivable in her dreams that the pilot had radioed in an imperceptible problem with the airplane, demanding a mechanic be on the tarmac to check it out, and her boy would come running. He’d see her and wave. She’d find his face breaking into a smile, and the dimples she’d dreamed of so many times would split his cheeks in two. He’d ask if she was going to the beach, Hilton Head, of course, and she’d take him home with her.
Carolina jerked, catching herself, opening her eyes, the late afternoon sun suddenly harsh on her face. Her boy faded away, and she caught the attendant looking at her. She smiled as if caught exposed, her embarrassment written in the warmth crawling up her neck. She put her hand to her collar, pulling it close as if cold, although the air was quite warm.
“Missed it, huh? I understand you’ve been away quite some time.” The flight attendant smiled at her. “I feel this way every time. Stop and smell the sea air. It never gets old. You’ll be on the island soon enough.” He patted his pocket. “I’ve been given a list of your local contacts, and I’ll be on the phone immediately to take care of your needs.” His face sobered, and he took a moment to reassure her. “I’ll be available your entire visit if you need me. I’ve been asked to reassure you of the love of all your coworkers.”
“My dog, Ricotta. I mustn’t forget him.” Carolina turned to the airplane, her grief building inside, as the memory of why she was here flooded through her. How could she have forgotten Ricotta? He was the one love left in her life.
The attendant reached at his side to pick up Carolina’s case. “The pilot will be bringing him. Don’t you worry.” He paused, and seeing a long black automobile drive up, he nodded. “Your car. You’ll be staying on Hilton Head. However, I also understand there are some stops for you to make here in Savannah. Now, your Ricotta.” He nodded his head towards the airplane.
Hearing a familiar whine, Carolina turned to see the pilot being tugged along by her dog.
“Our pilot was a woman? She flew so well, too. She’s very pretty.” Carolina covered her mouth and laughed, her thoughts of her parents set aside for a moment. She glanced at the attendant. “I wish I’d known. I might have asked to go forward to say hello.”
The pilot, a petite woman in a dark suit, wrestled the large dog up beside Carolina. She was laughing. “He certainly knows his master. He couldn’t wait to get over here to you.” She handed Carolina the leash. “He’s a cutie. I noticed his name on the kennel’s tag. Isn’t that a type of cheese?” She stepped up to the attendant and slipped her arm around his waist.
“Only in the world of fine cuisine. In this case, Ricotta means rotten dog. He’s pedigreed, though, no matter how wicked he is.”
“Seriously?” The pilot laughed. “Pedigreed, with a name like that?”
“His name’s really Rotten Ricotta Cheese Soufflé Flambé. It’s those crazy AKC names. I couldn’t imagine calling him Rotten except in teasing. Cheese? Even worse.” Carolina rubbed the animal’s ears as he leaned hard against her legs. “I never even considered Soufflé or Flambé.”
“I understand why.” It was the attendant responding this time, and he leaned down and kissed the pilot on the forehead.
Carolina knelt, rubbing both sides of Ricotta’s head, looking directly in his eyes as he opened his mouth and let his tongue hang out in excitement at all the special attention. He gave three sharp barks. “Actually, now that I’ve had him a while, I’ve figured out that he really is rotten, but I’m used to Ricotta. So, Ricotta it is.” She continued to peer into the animal’s eyes a moment before she stood. “You two are a couple?”
The pilot smiled. “Married. We pilot together. This gig with the company’s been a dream come true. I fly and Marcus stewards. Then we switch. I steward and Marcus pilots. On the way back, you’ll have me in the cabin with you.”
Carolina paused, hesitant to suggest their apparent mistake. “I haven’t made any return plans, yet. What if I don’t fly with you when I return?” She reached to Ricotta, rubbing his ears pensively. The thought of breaking even the tenuous connection with the airplane’s crew was suddenly very distressing to her, as if she were suddenly being forced to face the details of her parents’ impending affairs all alone. She couldn’t share her grief, not really, but this was just one more layer of isolation added to all the rest. She felt her eyes begin to burn, and she looked away to keep her composure.
A hand reached to Carolina’s arm, and a voice soothed her fears. “We have no return plans, either. Mr. Warner has requested we stay here at your convenience. I thought you’d been informed. We’ll bring the airplane onto the island for the return leg of your trip.”
Carolina knew she might have been. However, with the fast-moving events of the day, not everything had stuck with her.
The pilot continued, “When you’ve completed all you need to take care of, just give us a call.” She looked at Marcus. “Have you given her the phone, yet?”
“Oh,” and he smiled, reaching a hand to his jacket pocket. “Your satellite phone. Our numbers are preprogrammed in. Press two and it calls me. Number three calls Melissa. That’s my wife. Number four is your driver. He’s yours for the trip. Mr. Warner really must think a lot of you. This is first class all the way.”
He nodded at the car, reaching to tap on the glass. An older, suited driver wearing a military-style cap emerged. With a smile, he stepped up to Carolina.
“Such a pretty miss you are, my bonnie lass. Carolina DeAngeles, I hear. My name is Bill White, and I’m yours for your time here in Savannah and on the island.” He stepped forward and reached to take the bag from Marcus. “I’ll put this in the trunk, and we can be on our way.” He nodded with a continued smile, running his free hand over Ricotta’s snout, getting a lick in the process. “Plenty of room for a good dog like this. Looks to be a good breed, too.”
Carolina just laughed. A good breed? She didn’t know about that. However, Ricotta was good for lifting her spirits. “Rotten Ricotta Cheese, that’s what he is. Thank you, though. He’s my emotional bastion on this trip. Good old Ricotta will get me through. Won’t you, boy?” She rubbed the side of his face and down his neck as he looked up at her.
Turning to her transporters, she took one of each of their hands in hers. “The both of you have made this leg of my journey so much easier. I’ll eagerly anticipate joining you for our return flight. I suppose the kennel can remain on the plane? It’s rented, you know.” At Melissa’s nod, she smiled at them, wrapping her grief into a small place in her thoughts as she let Bill help her seat herself in the limousine’s rear accommodations. She held up the satellite phone. “I’ll keep you abreast.” She smiled again and waved as the door enclosed her into the buttery leather of the machine’s luxury.
Just then the opposite door opened, and in bounded Ricotta with a yelp of excitement, putting his paw on her lap and nuzzling her around the face.
“You thought I’d forgotten you again, you rotten dog. Too bad. Just like rotten cheese, I’m stuck with you forever.” She patted the floor, and he obediently lay down for the ride. She snorted. If he’d just behave that well outside of a car, she’d find him much more agreeable, but then that wouldn’t be Ricotta, would it?
As the car pulled away, Carolina’s eyes unconsciously looked to the front of the airplane in which she’d flown across the country. Just for a moment, her breath drew in a fraction more quickly, and she blinked her eyes a little faster. There was no boy walking around from the other side, though.
She settled back and reached one hand to Ricotta’s head, letting him lay it in her lap as she idly scratched the base of his ears. She whispered to him, “Ah, well. He’s probably married with three kids, has a potbelly, and is half bald by now. I wouldn’t know him if I saw him.” Then she closed her eyes, and within moments he was there with her, running in from the surf, the water glistening on his skin, and a surfboard under his arm. He laughed with the joy of being on the water and with the pleasure of returning to his found-again love. He leaned down to Carolina as she sat on her chaise, and he kissed her wetly on the cheek. Carolina’s breath came faster as she reached her hand to laughingly brush him away. Her hand met with a bearded face, and she opened her eyes.
She sat up laughing, and then she sighed, her eyes burning. “Ricotta, get down. Can’t a girl even have a good fantasy without you putting your muzzle in where it doesn’t belong? Now my parents’ deaths are on my mind again.”
She pushed him back into the floor just as she noticed a light blinking on her armrest. Remembering the limo in California, she reached to open the compartment she knew must be there and wasn’t surprised to see a similar phone nestled inside. She picked it up. “Yes?”
“Ms. DeAngeles, this is Bill. Marcus just called, and the funeral home would like to know if you feel up to stopping by on your way to the hotel. What should I tell them?”
Carolina paused for a moment, soaking in the information, her chest suddenly tight. It had been such a relief to be on the airplane with others responsible for the moment. Then, in the limo, she’d felt the same relief. Now, her parents’ death was once again real, an intrinsic part of her day, and even the fantasy world of luxury jets and dream cars couldn’t intrude for long.
Taking a deep breath, barely able to push aside the rising grief, she replied, “Of course, Bill. We can stop by.”
“Thank you, Ms. DeAngeles. I’ll let them know.”
“Yes, Ms. DeAngeles?”
“I didn’t know Mr. Warner had a hotel for me. I’d thought to stay at my parents’ house. Do you think that will be all right?” Her tears were threatening again. She needed the comfort of her parents’ beachfront home, and as she rubbed her dog’s forehead, poor Ricotta looked up at her with his great, sad eyes, his tongue hanging from his mouth in a slow pant.
“I’m sure that can be done, Ms. DeAngeles. May I make a phone call for you to see that the house is ready?”
By this time, Carolina could no longer contain her tears. Barely able to speak, she whispered into the phone, no longer wishing to push Ricotta away as he sensed her distress and began to edge into her lap, his front paws and head threatening to overwhelm all the space poor Carolina had available.
“They have a housekeeper. Full time. She’ll be there. Do you need the address?”
“It’s already on my GPS screen, Ms. DeAngeles. Would you like to bypass the funeral home at this time?”
“No, no, Bill. I’ll be fine. This is hard, that’s all.” She sniffled, reaching inside the armrest for the tissues she knew would be there. “I’m already better. Carry on, James.” She said the words with bright enthusiasm, mimicking an old movie she’d once seen.
Bill chuckled over the phone. “Bill, Ms. DeAngeles, but you may call me by any name you wish.”
Carolina exhaled soundly, and she smiled, glad for the feelings of distress to be momentarily broken. “Bill, thank you. I’d like for you to call me Carolina. Will that be okay with you?” She could hear the pleased expression in his voice as he assured her it would be more than acceptable.
Carolina hung up the phone gently, grateful that Mr. Warner had so thoughtfully gone out of his way once again to care for her. Now if only that boy would make himself known. Then her life would be just what the doctor ordered.
She took advantage of the quiet of the limousine to lean her head back and close her eyes, letting her hand gently run over Ricotta’s furry head. In several minutes, they would make a quick stop by the funeral home to tidy up matters, and then to her parents’ home on the island. However, in the soft hum of the tires on the pavement, she was finding her boy from so long ago to be an escape from this hard time, and she was discovering a certain amount of pleasure in her memories of him.
This time, though, she tried to imagine him not as an overweight father of three, but as the older, more mature single man he would surely be. Perhaps married, but now divorced, he’d never been happy, because he’d been constantly looking for a girl he’d once seen as he’d completed a final checkup on a small airplane as it had headed out from Savannah for the island of Hilton Head. He still liked to ride the surf, keeping his full head of hair bleached to a golden blond.
She dreamed, warmed as she remembered those long-ago words.
CAROLINA was finally at home, her real home. The funeral arrangements had been depressing, but that was quickly concluded. Bill had watched Ricotta in the car, and the staff had made her visit as painless as humanly possible.
She stood in front of the open window, letting the ocean breeze brush past her into the interior of the house. Her mother would have a fit, she knew. “Carolina! The moisture will warp all the inlays on the furniture.” Then her father would laugh. All the times he had opened the windows in the house only to have her mother follow after him, shutting them all. Today, Carolina’s grief kept her from doing anything other than what felt good to her.
The window was open.
She glanced to see Margarete walking down the hallway, her white apron neatly tied behind her into what Carolina knew would be a deftly snug bow. Carolina sighed, well aware what was coming. Her mother and Margarete had been so well suited for each other.
“Oh, my sweet girl. You must miss your mother so.” The mature, lined woman reached up and patted Carolina’s face. “But she would tell you to close her windows. The salt air will ruin all her fine furniture. Would you make your mother turn over in her coffin?” Margarete paused, looking up at the ceiling, crossing herself. “God rest her poor soul.” She tugged the great window closed. Reaching to the console table sitting in front of the window she’d just sealed, she ran her finger along a section of inlaid ivory and exotic woods. “Good. Nothing is pulled loose, yet. Your mother can sleep soundly.” She looked at Carolina. “Your father, he would not care so much. Get new furniture, he would say. So wasteful!”
Carolina reached and gave the housekeeper a hug. “You make me feel at home, Margarete. I just needed to feel the air. At times, my grief overwhelms me. If you didn’t chide me, I wouldn’t know you. Thank you for being the strength that will help me to get through.”
Margarete reached in her pocket and peeled off a tissue from an ever-present package. “Here, dear. Use this. Do not stain your mother’s furniture. Your family will be here soon.” Then she smiled. “Do not ask me to tell, but one surprise is waiting on you. My favorite, too.” When Carolina gave her a bemused look, the old woman began to smirk. “No, Carolina. You will not get the admission from me, but the surprise will cheer you up. You go to your room and get yourself ready. Shoo, now. Your parents would want you to be at your best.”
Up in her old room, and without Margarete to close her windows, Carolina sat in the window seat, her finest black A-line lying on the bed across the room. She glanced at it for a moment, thinking it was no Dior, but still she wouldn’t cut a Vera Wang up, as Sha’Cretia had done with her Dior, no matter how good her legs looked.
She turned to the window, her humor buoyed by her memory of Sha’Cretia’s rendition of the night she’d been thrown out by her parents. If only her friend had been able to fly out with her, then Carolina would be able to bear all that this week would surely entail. Her spirits began dropping as fast as they had soared a moment earlier, and she leaned her arms on the windowsill and rested her chin on them. Her eyes caught a father and daughter throwing a Frisbee across the sand. On Little Estero in Ft. Myers Beach, the water was far across the sand. Here, it was just outside the window. The sound of the surf washed over her, and she could see the laughter on the little girl’s face as she grabbed for the flying disk. The sand flew, and she scrambled to retrieve it as it darted just out of her grasp.
Carolina felt the muscles behind her eyes tighten and her vision blur. She and her father had played those very same games in that exact spot. Now they never would again. Carolina rolled over, resting her head on a pillow, letting the sounds of the little girl and her father flood over her, bringing to mind memories of times that could never be lived again except in her thoughts. At least she still had the memories, and lying here would not get that A-line over her busty chest, as Sha’Cretia would say. Tonight when she was alone would provide plenty of time to cry into her pillow. Now, she must present her best face.
Standing, she reached into her closet for a black slip, the very one she’d worn to her parents’ thirtieth anniversary celebration just last year. She knew it would still be hanging where she’d left it. Dropping her lightweight shorts and blouse, she dusted her face lightly to remove the shine, gave herself a dose of Chanel, and slipped the black lace over her head, watching in the mirror as it settled into place over her ample chest and somewhat less ample hips with nary an extra ripple in place.
Smiling, she reached for the Vera Wang, and with the same motion, she slithered it over her head, knowing it would fit just as well as its undergarment. Glancing at her dressing table, she saw where Margarete had laid out her graduation clip-ons. Oh, these would hurt, she knew, but her father had loved their old-fashioned glamour. The gold was like filigree. The diamonds were what added the weight.
She clipped them to her earlobes and glanced at herself. She smiled, and running a comb through her hair, she returned it to the table just as the doorbell chimed its first warning of the events to come. Her guests were here to offer her their condolences. She wondered how many of them she’d have to console, instead. Her strength would be taxed today.
Then she remembered Margarete’s surprise.
A surprise for me? Come on, Margarete. Do your best. Surprise me, then, old girl. I might even surprise you by not acting surprised at all. Ha!
It was a childhood game, and she and the housekeeper had played it many times. Sha’Cretia was the one time Carolina had truly seemed to catch the old woman off guard, and then Margarete had fallen in love with her just as everyone else seemed to do. Carolina blinked, grabbing a tissue to dab the moisture pooling in her eyes at the thought of her old friend. She needed Sha’Cretia here with her.
Steeling herself with a bright smile on her face, she pretended she was in her office, and she had a business meeting to attend. Yes, she could do this. It was just another gathering of the office personnel. She stepped to the door and grabbed the knob. She whispered with barely a quaver in her voice, “So, who wants to be voted out of the office today? Beware!”
Her face was tough, and her smile was bright, but behind it was hiding a tender woman who was feeling very crushed, indeed.
THE STORM beat at the windows. Kodiak took another log and slipped it into the wood stove, jumping back as the sparks flared. One landed on his hand, burning his finger, and he dropped the log inside.
“Flaming turds, that was close!” He used the poker to latch the glass door shut, then he sat, sucking on the burned place on his finger. He couldn’t even see his airplane out the window through the heavy weather, and it was cold!
He ran his free hand through his thick hair and fingered the wetsuit draped across the stool at his side. He glanced up at his surfboard hanging on the wall above the stove. The heat wasn’t good for the wood, but he didn’t know if he would ever ride it again, anyway.
Alaska! He couldn’t imagine what he’d been thinking. That first winter, the surf had been huge, and all he’d been able to think about was getting out there. All he’d needed was a wetsuit and his surfboard.
He could have bought a new board for what it’d cost his friend to ship this one to him. He never imagined courier costs would be so high. His board, however, was custom built of lightweight and exotic woods in a small shop near his home on Hilton Head, a very particular style special to that shop. To most people, a surfboard was a surfboard. Longboard. Shortboard. Surfboard. Not to Kodiak. He wanted his, and his good friend obliged, as long as Kodiak was paying.
The wetsuit hadn’t been much cheaper.
Then, he’d gone out onto the ocean, and he thought he’d be dead before he got back to shore, a human Popsicle. How the townspeople had laughed at him, but then that spring was when he’d started to get a little business at his shop. The people would stop in just to talk to him about his crazy antics.
“Hey, how are the waves, today?”
“Great,” Kodiak would reply, and their lawn equipment would be back to them in a day or two. Soon, a truck would drive up, or sometimes be towed in.
“Hear the surfing’s good out past the breakwater.”
“Yep,” he would reply, and the truck would soon be running again.
He’d gotten his first airplane repair that way. That man had wanted to know if he’d ever windsurfed the Alaska coastline, and Kodiak had invited him up to check out his board. Now, he had his sign up. But he’d never surfed again.
Now he wished he never had to face another Alaska winter again. Fly-fishing on a warm day? He’d take that. This storm? Gads! And it was still summer! He closed his eyes and laid his head back.
“Give me a Southern beach and a girl with a soft, Southern drawl. If one should walk up to me, I’d snatch her away, and Alaska would be history.”
As much as he might dream, he knew that would never happen. Good Southern girls never made it to Alaska, and besides, there was always Julianna, with her hands out and her lawyers on call should he ever set foot on his Low Country shores ever again. Kodiak guessed he would be stuck in this freezer forever.
He opened one eye and was glad to see the log had kicked the fire up. It was burning brightly. Warmly? It was working on it. For now, he guessed brightly would have to do.
THE SKY glowed outside the windows.
Carolina was slightly tipsy, but she poured herself another shot. Then she passed the bottle to Margarete. She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “I’m not a decorator, but that sunset is beautiful, Margie. If I were a decorator, and we all know I’m not, I’d name that particular hue Sunset Salmon, and they’d put it in a can. I’d have so much money, I could pay God to give me that view every day.”
Margarete hiccupped. “Easy, my girl. I have another way to get that sunset every day.” She reached behind her and opened a cabinet door. Putting her hand inside, she pulled out a small video camera. “Set this in the window. Then put a really big TV in the place of that window. When you want a sunset, just turn it on.” She beamed with her suggestion. “I like that idea. Is it as good as my surprise?” She reached out and patted the hands on either side of her.
Carolina laughed. “You turned my tables, you old woman. Last time I sprang Sha on you, and this time you surprised me with her. How did you get her out here?” She looked over to see her friend blinking her eyes, not entirely focused on the two women’s discussion. Sha’Cretia had imbibed far more than either Carolina or Margarete. Carolina leaned in to whisper in an obvious stage voice, “And I think that’s her Dior from her sixteenth coming out party.”
Margarete’s eyes were wide with humor. She nodded her head in the affirmative as she poured herself another nip, the liquid not quite all making it into the glass. “I stitched the top. She was not careful with her scissors at all, but it now makes a nice Dior skirt.” She giggled.
Finally, Sha’Cretia gathered herself enough to speak. “Girls, I think I’ve had enough. I’m sleepy.” Then, her head crashed to the table.
It was later that night that Carolina lay in her room just down the hall from the woman who was her very best friend, listening to her light snore through the wall, and thinking of what she would choose, if she could pick the man of her dreams. He’d be a manly type of man, outdoorsy and with a touch of southern charm, Carolina Low Country style.
She watched the ceiling in the dark, lonely. If she ever got a man, she guessed God would have to dump her on the side of the road and let him almost run over her. Otherwise she’d never see him coming. The only man she could claim was a boy working on the engine of an airplane, and she’d only seen him once. She realized what she’d done. She’d built up an ideal that no man could ever match, and so no man ever would.
She sighed and laughed to herself. At least she had Sha’Cretia and Margarete. And Ricotta. She reached out a hand to find him sprawled on the bed at her side. Only then did she realize it wasn’t Sha’Cretia she’d heard snoring. It was the dog.
She rolled over and snuggled up next to him. He was warm, and the breeze through the open window was cool.
In the darkness, the alcohol from the evening’s merrymaking made Carolina’s head buzz, and she knew it also helped her to push the emptiness of her parents’ deaths aside. The crushing burden of what had happened to them would return in the morning, but she could be at peace for this one night.
As she snuggled, she heard her pet making the small sleeping sounds that animals make, and it was comforting. She felt herself slipping into a dream, one that was full of warmth and companionship, but it was not of the people under her roof. Her dreams were of a surfboard, golden hair, and an airplane, one that was just the right size to carry two people far away to a land where love could be found. For some reason, as she dreamed, she shivered with the cold, and only her companion next to her was able to warm her skin.
Her heart, however, was another matter. It would take a different kind of companion to warm her there.
SHA’CRETIA moaned. She’d joined Carolina in the early hours of the morning, claiming it was too cold to sleep alone. “Sunlight in the heavens, girl, turn off that sun!” She rolled over and covered her face with a pillow.
Carolina laughed loudly at the complaints of the woman in her bed. “No one told you to drink two full bottles last night.” She reached and yanked the covers off her friend, leaving her lying in a set of bright pink undergarments.
Sha’Cretia turned and threw her pillow at Carolina, missing by half a room.
Carolina laughed again. “Open your eyes and you might actually be able to aim next time. I saved your Dior, by the way.”
Sha’Cretia’s eyes popped open. She sat up in a befuddled panic, looking around. “My Dior? I still had it on at the drink fest last night? I didn’t spill anything on it, did I?” She looked down at what she was wearing. “Oh, you haven’t seen my new things, have you? I have on the matching thong underneath. What do you think? You can order them through Neiman’s.”
“I don’t think so, Sha.” Carolina reached to a hook and took down a robe. She tossed it onto the bed. “Put that on. Sorry it’s not pink.” She smiled. “Your Dior is in the closet.”
“Thank my lucky daddy.” Sha’Cretia sat up on her elbows, the robe just covering her feet, and she wiggled it around. “My daddy was really lucky, you know. First, he married my momma, and then he won the lottery.” She glanced up, smiling when Carolina gave her a disbelieving look. “It wasn’t a big lottery. We held it each year at the church, you see, and it paid out in good deeds. House cleaning, frozen turkeys, and the like. Then the big payoff happened, and he was really lucky that time.” Sha’Cretia dropped her head back to the bed, luxuriating in the finery of comfortable linens, the sun across her bare limbs, and the sounds of the sea just outside.
“And, Sha?” Carolina walked over and sat on the end of the bed, shaking Sha’Cretia’s foot under the robe. “What was the big payoff?”
She sat up and grabbed Carolina’s hand, kissing it before releasing it. “Me!” She jumped up and walked in her slinkiest shimmer toward the bath. “He’d have to be lucky to get me, sweetie! See ya’ in a bit. I need some shower time, and I need it alone.” She began to close the door, and then she peeked back around one last time. “You’re good for me, sweetie. I love ya’, Carolina. I love ya’ a lot.” She blew her a kiss and gently shut the door.
Carolina sat on the edge of the bed as the sounds of water started up a symphony in the shower. She smiled as she heard Sha’Cretia add her own vocal accompaniment. She looked out the window at the clear, blue sky, and she ran her hand over the bed where her friend’s warmth still lingered.
“No, Sha,” she said, knowing her friend couldn’t hear her words. “You’ve got it all wrong. You’re the one who’s good for me, and for that, I love you more than anyone I know. Even more than Edward. At least you came when I needed you most, and for that, I love you most of all.”
She stood and walked to the door, stepping out onto the beachfront deck. Leaning against the railing, she looked up and down the beach, knowing she still had a funeral and a meeting with the lawyer today. Her parents were gone, and somewhere inside, she knew she must be numb. She felt like she was being strong, or she at least hoped so. After all, she had no choice. Her brother couldn’t be with her, and this was a day she’d have to be outside of herself. She didn’t know if even Sha’Cretia would be enough to buoy her once her day came crashing down around her.
She did know of one person she could love even more than Sha’Cretia, someone who could console her in her grief, but he was there for her only in her imagination, and besides, he had three kids already. He was also fat and bald. If he still had a head full of hair and rode that surfboard, he’d have come for her already. Surely he’d have come for her already.
A level of frustration crept over her. She really did want a man in her life. That hadn’t been her luck, though, and her loneliness was intense sometimes. Now, with her parents gone, it was overwhelming. She’d gone to the beach and waited all weekend. Every airport, and she still looked for him. He was never there. Had he only teased with her? Alaska! May Alaska freeze until it was frostbitten! She’d take her warm, Carolina beach any day.
She felt a hand at her shoulder. “Those are tears, baby girl. Oh, you let Sha’Cretia wrap her arms around you. You’ve got no parents anymore, no brother here for you, and no man to warm your heart. Only little Sha’Cretia is here for you in your time of need. Oh, my poor baby. You’ve got nothing except me, and I ain’t much, I know that. But I’ll give you all the hugging you can take.”
As Sha’Cretia wrapped her arms around her, Carolina hugged her back. “Sha, right now, you’re all the friend I need. Thank you for being here. My parents are gone, and I have no one. I love you, you know.” Sobs began to rack her body.
“Yes, girl, I do. I love you, too. I also know I’m not all the friend you need, but that you’ll have to fix on your own.” She laughed. “A girl as pretty as you will get someone going, though. Trust me, you pretty thing. Just relax. You never know. Someday you may be walking along a road, and your knight in shining armor might just come up and run right over you.”
“Sha, what did you say?” Carolina sniffled and froze, her tears momentarily put aside.
“What, honey? I said a lot of things. What part?”
“The last part, the one about a knight in shining armor.”
Sha’Cretia paused, putting her hand to her chin, her brow furrowed in thought. Then she brightened. “Oh, that part. I said a man might just run right over you, and you’d never see him coming.”
Carolina kissed her friend on the cheek, feeling better already, wiping her damp eyes and clearing the last of her tears. “I’ll be looking for him, Sha. He’d better watch out, too, because then I’d never let him go.”
Sha’Cretia brushed her girlfriend’s hair away from her face, smiling when she saw her tears were gone. “That’s the spirit, girl. You give him what all it’s worth. He’ll love you the more for it.”
“He’d better.” Carolina laughed. “Come on inside, Sha. We’ve got a funeral to attend.”
“MARGARETE, honey, you are family. Where else would you sit if not with me?” Carolina looked out the car window at the passing greenery, the occasional glimpse of a business or resort entrance visible past the living wall that her beloved island provided as a screen against all that humanity had slashed across this beautiful Low Country land. She turned back to Margarete, and seeing the redness in her eyes, reached to place her smooth, pale hand over the old woman’s dark, worn one. “It’ll be okay. Mummy and Daddy would have been so happy at this beautiful weather for their final service. Going out in the best of style, Mummy would have said.”
Carolina laughed at her jest, and the sudden sound finally got a rise from the mound of brown fur lying in the floor at their feet. She reached and rubbed a hand around Ricotta’s inquisitive ears. “You know something’s wrong, just not what, huh, boy? You just be good today, and it’ll soon be over.” Carolina looked up to see Margarete smiling at her.
“He cannot understand you, you know. He is a dog.”
“He knows my tone, and it soothes him. At least I think it does.” Carolina closed her eyes and smiled at the chiding. She knew that in her grief, she needed someone to reassure her, and Ricotta had become her outlet.
“Yes, you are probably right. I hope so on this sad day.” Margarete’s pursed lips showed she understood the younger woman’s motivation and was willing to admit it.
The muted sun flickered through the tinted windows of the long car heading toward Holy Family Catholic Church. Carolina opened her eyes and watched outside the car, oddly disoriented in her jumble of thoughts. She lifted the armrest at her side, reaching to pick up the phone inside. She waited with it at her ear for a moment, trusting Bill to answer. He’d told her this was their method of communication when the window was up.
“Yes, Ms. Carolina? How may I help you?” The unseen voice was helpful and reassuring, and she could picture Bill’s kind face as he voiced his question, his eyes crinkling with pleasantness.
“Bill, Holy Family. You know it’s on Pope, right? At Woodhaven? Don’t go to 24.” She could feel her palms growing moist with the uncertainty in her question. “I’m sorry, Bill. I’m just at loose ends today. I’ve lost my concentration, and I haven’t been home in a while. What street are we on?”
“Cordillo Parkway. We’ll be turning on Pope in about two blocks. I have it right here on my GPS. Trust me, Ms. Carolina. You’re in good hands. The services start in about twenty minutes, and I’ll have you there in ten. By the way, Ms. Carolina, you’re doing just fine.”
Carolina looked up to see the glass divider sliding down into its recess. She smiled when she saw a suited arm show itself in the opening with a thumbs up hand signal flashing at her. As the glass closed, she spoke softly into the phone, “Thank you, Bill.”
“You’re very welcome, Ms. Carolina. One more thing. Will Ricotta be attending the services with you?”
She looked up at Margarete, covering the phone receiver with her hand. “The dog. Inside the church or outside?” Seeing the woman’s perplexed look, she clarified her question, “During the services.”
Margarete looked aghast. “The dog! Inside? What would your mother say? Your father, him we will not ask.” She dabbed her tissue at her eyes and pursed her lips in disdain for the very concept of having a dog, no matter how treasured, attend memorial services inside the church building.
Carolina smiled, finding Margarete’s refusal humorous in its intensity. Still, Carolina knew that with Ricotta in her thoughts, she’d be able to hold herself together.
She spoke into the phone, “Bill, may he stay with you in the car?” After a moment, she replaced the phone into its recess and turned to Margarete. “He’ll remain outside, Margarete. The church will remain sacred.”
At the woman’s satisfied expression, Carolina closed her eyes and sat quietly for the remainder of the trip, her thoughts on seeing her best friend once again. Sha’Cretia would also be a reservoir of strength for her. She had gone on ahead, and then Bill had returned for the two remaining women.
In her reverie, Carolina smiled. Those society matrons who didn’t know Sha’Cretia wouldn’t recognize her for a lowly office worker today. She was in one of her mother’s finest outfits. Sha’Cretia had been pleased to find the two wore exactly the same size, and Carolina had been glad to let her look through her mother’s closet, even offering to let her take home anything she thought she might wear. She’d chosen a beautiful sequined Gucci for the day, one of her mother’s favorites. Carolina hadn’t the heart to tell her it wasn’t really appropriate for the events they’d be attending. She’d seemed so pleased as she’d run her hand down the glittering fabric, and it did look very flattering on her.
Carolina laughed, and she opened her eyes to see Margarete looking at her with a mystified expression on her face. She just waved her attention away, letting her know the unexpected laugh was nothing to pay a mind to, and she reached to rub Ricotta’s ears. What would she do if one of her mother’s friends tried to match a bachelor son with the beautiful, exotic friend of the deceased’s daughter? Even bowed under the grief this day had already begun to slash her way, Carolina had no trouble imagining the absurdity of the situation. No doubt Sha’Cretia would jump at the opportunity.
However, Carolina knew she’d have to keep her friend reined in. Sha’Cretia was no debutant, and she had a job waiting on her on the West Coast. Three people depended on her friend to be here for one reason only, to support Carolina in her time of need. Well, four if she counted Bill. Five if Ricotta were included. She reached to rub her friend’s ears one more time.
“You count, my friend, as rotten as you are. You can be in on the joke, too.”
Margarete smiled. The car slowed to pull into the Holy Family Catholic Church lot, and the parking was packed. That was very satisfying. Everyone should be here.
Carolina’s parents deserved that.
“SWEETIE, I’m so sorry to attend your services and run. I could only take these two days, and I have to be back to rescue Mr. Warner from the workaday wolves.” Sha’Cretia wrapped her arms around Carolina and reached to wipe the remains of tears from her friend’s watery eyes. She stepped back and brushed Carolina’s nose with a manicured fingertip. “I only spent time with them that once, but I loved your mother and father so much. You take your time, you hear me? I’ve got you covered back in L.A. No worries for you, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m still wearing the Gucci.” She ran a hand down the front of the skirt. “I never wore a complete designer outfit before.”
Carolina laughed, turning to glance around the church lot, folding the tissue she held in her hand. She touched it to one eye. “Sha, I’m glad you want to wear the dress home. Mumsy would be so pleased. Everyone seems to be waiting on me, though. I’ll be watching you, you know. You leave all those college boys here.” Her eyes crinkled in mirth, the burning around her eyes at odds with her forced humor. “Even if they do seem attracted to you like flies to candy. You’re so sweet to have come all this way for me.” She reached her hand to press it to Sha’Cretia’s face as her eyes misted once again. “Thank you, Sha. I wish you could be with me when the will is read this afternoon, but I do understand.”
Sha’Cretia grabbed her hand and kissed it as a taxi pulled up beside them. “Be a beast, my beautiful Carolina. When those lawyer sharks show their teeth, growl back and make them do it your way. Ship your momma’s wardrobe to me, girl. I want every outfit.” She laughed and dropped into the taxi, waving as the door closed behind her.
Reaching the lawyer’s office and stepping out of the limo, Carolina moved aside as Ricotta unfolded from the car, his leash attached to her hand. At Bill’s raised eyebrows, she smiled, her voice unnaturally bright. “Bear with me, Bill. With Sha gone, I cannot do this without my second-best friend. The lawyers can tolerate him being at my side just this once. Margarete would like to be taken home. She’ll need to finish preparing for the events this evening. I have my phone if you’re not back when I’m finished.” She patted the handbag she had draped over her shoulder.
Stepping toward the building, she heard the limo as it pulled away. Pausing, she gathered her strength, then she took a deep breath and let it out. She patted Ricotta’s head. “Let’s go, you rotten dog. You must help me be strong. I just wish I had Edward for support. A handsome airplane mechanic would be even better, but the one I found ran away from me before I could tell him my name.” She knelt and let Ricotta lick her face, laughing as he did so. He was certainly proving himself to be the bastion of strength she had hoped she would find in him.
“You’re all I’ve got, my friend. You must be strong for me. This will be the hardest part of my day, even worse than the services. At least Sha was there to entertain me. Can you do any tricks? No?” She stood and sighed. “I thought not. On to the wolves! Forward, Ricotta! Rotten cheese and all!”
CAROLINA leaned toward the desk, Ricotta raising his head as she did so. “But this is a great deal of money. You mean it’s all to be wasted?”
“Ms. DeAngeles, your parents were in excellent health. The trip had already fully funded before their deaths, and they felt they had no reason to purchase trip cancellation insurance. My office has gone over the details of the contract, and there are no applicable conditions under which the cruise line will accommodate our requests for a refund of any already paid monies. I’m so sorry.” He shrugged. “If the dates for the trip were further out, then perhaps, but not within the current timeframe.”
“Transfer? Can I at least give the trip to a friend of the family?” She thought of Sha’Cretia and how she would love to take a cruise to Alaska. She was out there covering for her at her job, and this would be an excellent way to repay her for coming to support her in her time of need. “I could do that, couldn’t I?”
The lawyer pressed his lips together and shuffled the papers on his desk as if hoping to find the answer his client so wanted to hear. Then he looked up at her.
“Only an immediate family member can substitute for the original purchasers of the tickets. You and your brother,” and he looked at his forms to find the name, pointed with a finger, and continued, “Edward, I believe, are the only two people who fulfill the requirements. If the two of you, or just you alone, Ms. DeAngeles, cannot go, the tickets will be forfeit, and the cruise line will be legally free to resell the accommodations. I understand your brother is in Antarctica for the summer?”
Carolina nodded. “Researching. I’ve been in contact, but it has to be by email. He’s there until October or November. I forget the exact time the ice opens back up. He goes every year, you understand. It’s just that I needed him this time.” She looked around, blinking the moisture from her eyes, finally settling on Ricotta. She reached to rub one furry ear between her fingers. “Good boy, you rotten soufflé, you. Even old cheese is better than no cheese at all.” She looked up to see the lawyer smiling at her. “Can I get the mail and the phone services forwarded for a time to my address in Los Angeles? There are bound to be items I can’t plan for, and I must return to the West Coast within the week.”
That was something he could do. He reached for a pad and started to make some notes. “Phone and mail services. What about email? If you’ll provide me with your address and home phone, I’ll get these requests taken care of. In addition, my firm will be at your disposal for any additional questions or services you might require. You’ve not asked about your father’s business. However, not to worry. Your father was very forward-thinking in this. A trustee will be appointed to run the business, with your approval, of course. Your brother’s, too, if he can be contacted. The house should transfer into your name within six weeks or so. I’m afraid it will be in yours and your brother’s names jointly. If you decide to sell eventually, it must be a joint decision.” He looked up, catching her eye before going on. “You’ve requested your housekeeper to remain in residence. We’ll be paying her from your parents’ accounts, yours and your brother’s, now, of course. I do hope a quarterly statement will be satisfactory. If you’d like us to provide a monthly accounting, just let us know. Is there anything I haven’t covered?”
He paused, watching Carolina for a moment, before sliding a slim checkbook across his desk toward her.
“You can access the funds in your accounts after twenty-four hours. Just give my office a call when you need to replenish your supply of checks. I can set up a debit card on this account if you wish.”
Carolina reached to take the leather book from the desk. “No, this will be fine.” She stood, holding the checkbook up as if to hand it back to the lawyer. “Nearly thirty years, and this is all I have left of my parents. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
He stood and pursed his lips before speaking. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem fair at all.”
Carolina turned, dropping the checkbook into her purse. She felt it bump the satellite phone, and she reached to adjust it so they fit side by side. At least she had that. She could call and fly home anytime she wished. She could just leave all this behind. She felt pressure against her leg and looked to see that Ricotta had stood and was leaning against her, providing the support that somehow he sensed she needed.
“Do you think I’d forget you, you rotten thing, you? No. Today, I’m lost without you.” She turned to the lawyer. “I can see myself out. You’ve been very helpful. Please continue to work with the cruise line. My parents will be losing a great deal of money . . . I’ll be losing a great deal of money. I’m sorry. This is just hard.”
She turned, her eyes burning, and let Rotten Ricotta Cheese escort her from the room.