THE MID-CENTURY MODERN house hovered, perched on the barest sliver of steep hillside, its foundation of tall, angled pilings of wood and steel reaching for the sloping ground far below, unleashing stunning views of the Pacific a hundred feet farther down. Decks leaped down the hillside, revealing the concrete footings anchoring the bottom of each piling. The music of the pounding surf drifted through an open sliding glass door.
Inside, Geraldine Gossamer Ridgway sat at the dining room table, her eyes half closed and oblivious to the sounds of the surf, with her thoughts far away. The floors were bare, and furniture was almost nonexistent. The massive windows spanning the back of the house were all the embellishment the old place needed.
An outsized Golden Retriever charged past, his four paws pounding the floor in a lumbering run, a pair of blue-checkered boxers in his mouth. The room vibrated as he tore past, belying the robust appearance of the building that clung stalwartly to the side of the steep incline. Half a century boasted stability. The shaking said otherwise.
The table began to skip to the rhythm of the big dog’s feet, and the chattering of the table’s legs was the staccato beat of a Cuban rumba. In that moment of musical musings, Geraldine found herself on a beach far, far away.
“Ah, Pablo. Another one of these.” She held up her empty glass, its paper umbrella askew, the clear, scalloped lip catching in the late afternoon sun. She and Daggett always had their afternoons by the pool, and later they would wander to the sea. To wade in the warmth of the Caribbean surf was heavenly, unlike the cold California waters of home. “With rum, if you please, Pablo.”
“Si, Senorita.” He backed away, his head bowed.
She twirled her fingers in the air. Of course, she knew he understood no English, and he would bring her whatever he wished. However, rum seemed so, so . . . so very Ernest Hemmingway. It was all so very exotic.
Then, as Cuban rumbas will do to unattached crockery, her plate began to vibrate violently.
“Flotsam,” she cried, catching sight of the dog disappearing into a hallway. Her sand and waiter were gone, stolen from her, and she was dismayed. She’d enjoyed her time on her tropical beach. Just before her dish vibrated off the table, she grabbed it, lifting it into the air.
“Daggett?” she called. She refused to think about the floor, and what might happen in the next earthquake. The bedrock that made up the side of the hill had dropped again in the last one, and now the table was several inches lower on the left than on the right. Soon she’d need to put bigger blocks under the two legs on the far side.
Even worse, the master bedroom was yet another foot closer to the ocean.
Holding the plate, and not hearing Daggett’s reply, she shrugged. The house was standing, if precariously, and the view from the windows was as stunning as the day she’d moved in. For now she was satisfied simply to save her breakfast.
She peered into the plate and picked up three peas, the most she could grab with her fingers at once. With a quick movement, she popped them into her mouth. When the floors began to vibrate again, she let out a short laugh. It seemed that Flotsam had snagged her boyfriend’s last pair of boxers. She expected Daggett to appear within seconds.
With a grin, she heard him. Today, it seemed that Daggett Damon Priestly had no patience for the big animal's shenanigans.
“Flotsam! I can’t even take a nap without you snatching my underwear! Where are you, you big ugly shorts-stealing mutt?” With curses flying, he came running through the living room, bare-skinned as the day he was born.
“Daggett?” Geraldine smiled and pointed at the man in front of her as he stood highlighted against the brilliant sky.
“Morning, Baby,” he called with a wave of his hand, and then he was gone, leaving only the sparkling of the waves in the distance for her admiration.
Setting the plate down and closing her eyes, she let herself return to her beach, with the sun shimmering in the island heat. Warmth twisted through the trees, and the only pockets of cool were in the shade of the palms. She reached for her replenished drink, and it was refreshing against her fingers. Oddly structured island music hovered in the background. She looked forward to a night on the town in brightly colored clothing, with a flower in her hair.
“Pablo, have you seen Mr. Daggett this morning?”
“Si, Senorita.” He smiled, and he laid a fresh towel at the foot of her chaise lounge. Dipping with a half bow, a white cloth formally draped over his arm, he backed away.
She smiled to herself, letting the expression spread languidly over her lips. Mr. Daggett? Of course Pablo knew where Mr. Daggett was. He knew the answer to any question she might ask, as long as the answer was si.
The sun drifted behind a solitary cloud, and with a chill down her arms, the beach was gone. Opening her eyes, the familiar old house that she had called home for the past two years surrounded her once again, its vanilla and wild rose smells pungent and wonderful. One of the sliders at the back of the house was open, and sea air gusted in, washing her with the memories of days spent on the water surfing with Daggett.
The table began to vibrate again. She turned to see Daggett barrel back into the room. He braked to a stop in front of the bank of windows stretching across the back wall of the living room. The glare of the sun silhouetted his trim waist against the vastness of the ocean in the distance. Golden hair perched in a tousled mess atop his head, with longer strands curling along his neck. It would need to be cut before long, but for now, she found it raggedly charming. Freckles sprinkled his golden shoulders, the result of days on end during which she had watched him attempt to tame the wild California surf. Sinewy, muscled legs spoke of hours on any number of favored surfboards.
Surfing was his life, and this house allowed him to be on the water every day. The awkwardly askew floors whispered of the foundation’s compromised integrity, but the view was twenty-eight feet of the most beautiful Pacific Ocean on God’s green earth. Once the house came down, he’d never be allowed to build on this site again, but as long as the hillside held firm, it was home. To take time to repair it? Anything that took him away from the ocean was a waste of his time.
Geraldine was content with that. After all, she loved the ocean almost as much as Daggett.
She popped another pea into her mouth and smiled. She also suspected it was part of the reason why she was still here after two years. He’d not felt the need to “fix” her, either. Thank God for that!
He turned to face her, a puzzled look on his face.
“Um, have you forgotten something?” She pointed. “Your underwear?”
He looked down, then turned back to her as if just noticing for the first time. “That dog! What does he want with my clothing, anyway?” With a growl, he was off again.
However, this time, nearly two hundred pounds of human flesh shook the dining room floor instead of a mere eighty of animal, catching her by surprise. She reacted when she saw her plate jump, but not fast enough. It bounced once, then skittered in a series of clattering leaps to the edge of the table. Finally, it teetered for a moment, almost as if teasing her. She grasped for it, hoping the plate, the last of the heirloom dinner service from Daggett’s grandmother, could be saved, only to realize her peas were still dashing toward the Pacific side of the dish. At the last possible moment, the plate leaped from her touch, flinging its bounty of green peas across the room. She cringed as she heard the china dish shatter on the floor. Across the room, a chorus line of rolling peas danced across the wood, searching out the lowest points in their dash over the canted boards.
She sighed, closing her eyes and letting it go; and she smiled at the new scene that leaped into her vision. A sailboat plied the waters in the distance, and her rum and umbrella were at her side once again. A quickening breeze blew a strand of hair across one cheek, and the equatorial sun was sharp against her skin. She caught her napkin before it fluttered from the table, but she couldn’t catch her drink decorations. The small, colorful umbrella skittered away like a butterfly in the breeze.
With a slender finger, she pushed the hair back into place, mildly disappointed to feel the breeze drop away. Walking across the sand was her young man from earlier. His slicked hair gleamed in the sun. He grabbed at the lost items, but a freshening wind whipped them away.
“I am so sorry, Pablo,” she called to him with a languid wave of her hand; and letting it drop, she sighed. It was just as well. The Cuban sun had grown warm in the fullness of the approaching afternoon, and Daggett was probably at the beach already. He’d said he planned to surf if the wind picked up.
She glanced up to see Pablo back with the tiny paper umbrella. She smiled when he closed it with a flourish, pushing it firmly into the sand-filled ashtray at her side. He backed up a step and waited, as if he required a word from her before he could head elsewhere.
“Thank you, Pablo. You are very kind. You take such good care of me.” She smiled and fluttered her fingers, watching her ring flash in the sun.
“Pablo, I’m headed to the beach. I’m sure Daggett will be there ahead of me already. May I sign for the tab?” The gold pen sparkled in the sun, and her name pirouetted across the paper, a ballroom dance of exquisite proportions. She stepped to the edge of the decking and looked out over the sea. It was the most beautiful view she had ever seen. She pressed her eyelids closed and turned into the sun.
When she opened them, the beach and Pablo were gone once more. The peas were not, though. Three of them disappeared into a crack in the wide wooden planking that had appeared when an aftershock had shaken the house several months ago. That very crack was what had saved the house, she was sure. Wood floors flexed when they shook, giving under the stresses of an earthquake, and then returning to their original location. However, in the aftershock a fifteen-foot long gap, about half an inch wide at the center, had opened up in the living room just past the dining room door.
That gap had just eaten three of the peas.
“You stupid dog! I’ll pull every hair from your tail if I get my hands on you!” A door slammed. Flotsam bounded back into view, the checkered boxers still flapping from his muzzle.
The man was yet to be seen.
The big dog looked at her, his great, long tail wagging in excitement. She could have sworn he grinned at her. Then he dropped the shorts, a length of tongue leaped out, and seven more of the peas were gone. The rest continued on their march toward the far wall.
“Flotsam!” Daggett panted at the door, sweat from the chase gleaming on his skin. His nostrils flared. Seeing Geraldine sitting at the table watching his antics, he snorted a quick laugh of recognition before his eyes jumped to the boxers lying on the floor. They were finally out of the dog’s mouth, and he locked on them with an intentness that rivaled that of a hunting cat. His muscles, honed by a lifetime’s dedication to his surfboard, tensed, and he flung his body smoothly across the room. With one arm outstretched, he did his Superman thing in order to reclaim what was rightfully his.
Flotsam was a smart animal, though, either that or too stupid for anyone to tell the difference, and with the seven peas gone, his quick teeth snatched up the boxers once again. His feet scrabbled on the wooden surface, and he was gone, this time turning a corner toward the front door.
Daggett crashed to the floor, his shorts already in flight before he could reach them. He yelled, “No, Flotsam! Not outside!” Leaping up, he threw his long body after the dog, disappearing from Geraldine’s sight. Then, a sun-bronzed hand grasped the doorframe, and a grinning face reappeared.
Geraldine caught Daggett’s eyes, and she saw them twinkle. A wink told her more than words could say. The screen door slammed, and she knew his drawers had exited to the front yard.
“Go,” she called, waving him way. “Your dog wants to play.”
He winked a second time at her and whispered theatrically, “Elvis has left the building.” Then he yelled, “Flotsam!” With a scrabble of his feet, he was out the front door after him.
She laughed and glanced back into the living room. Four of the peas had been taken out by Daggett, and she was pretty certain that had been during his Superman landing. The final three peas had made it to the far wall and now rested against the glass just under the view painted across the back side of the room. She stood, stepping around the broken bits of china. That would have to be cleaned up, but she was still hungry. Reaching the windows, she knelt and picked up the peas.
Holding them in the palm of her hand, she looked out the window. Off in the distance, layers of wispy clouds wove patterns of lace through the sky, and whitecaps rippled along the surface of the ocean. To the left and right, breakers tore at the rocks strewn along the bottom of the escarpment. It was a great day for surfing, and she knew that if the weather held, Daggett wouldn’t be able to resist.
A rough trail heading toward the shore marred the lushness of the coastal vegetation. There was a small beach below the house, but it was just out of sight. Somewhere in between was their washing machine that had fallen through the floor in the last aftershock and tumbled down the side of the hill.
She chuckled at a flash of blue. It was Flotsam running down the path. Not far behind was the man she had grown to love, one hand cupped between his legs, and the other raised in a fist over his head. He’d never catch the dog, she knew. To Flotsam, it was all about the chase.
With a certain sense of satisfaction, she turned from the window. She grabbed one of the peas between two fingers and popped it into her mouth. After all, they were undamaged. She might as well eat them while they were still warm. No one else would.
Walking back to the table, she wound carefully around the broken bits of crockery on the floor, seating herself at the table. She chewed the final two peas slowly, looking out across the living room, enjoying the view, and waiting.
Then, when she was about to give up, the front screen opened and slammed to, and she heard the scramble of toenails on wood. Flotsam tumbled into view. He immediately stopped to lick at the remains of the peas smeared across the floor.
Almost without a break, a tall, tanned body wearing blue-checkered boxers flung itself into the room. With flailing arms, unable to stop, he crashed into Flotsam, tripping over him, and sprawling across the floor. When he came to rest, he was on his back, and a grin was on his face. He looked at Geraldine and winked.
“Surf’s up, Geri. Gotta change. I can’t go around in my underwear all day. Are my board shorts clean?”
She moved to stand over him, her willowy limbs telling their own story of sun and the beach. She smiled and stuck out her tongue before answering. “As clean as they were when you took them off yesterday. Do you remember losing the washer in the last big quake? I only visit the Laundromat every other Friday.”
He held out a hand. “Yeah, that’s right. How could I forget? Help me up, won’t you?”
“Say uncle.” She put a bare foot on his chest and grinned. When he just laid his head back and laughed, she insisted. “Uncle, Daggett. Say it if you want up.”
He grabbed her leg and yanked, throwing her off balance, catching her as she came down on top of him. He wrapped his arms around her and rolled her over so he was on top of her. With a kiss on her lips, he leaned his mouth to her ear before whispering, “Uncle.”
She laughed, and it was breathless. “Want to play for a while with your uncle?”
“I just got my shorts on.” He nibbled on her ear, though, and his answer wasn’t no at all.
However, Flotsam had different ideas. Having finished the pea paste on the floor, he saw the two adults he lived with wrestling together, and he wanted to be part of the action. With a leap, he was in the pile, and his long tongue let them know how much he enjoyed their attention.
Daggett let go of her and wrapped his arms around the big dog. “So, you want to be part of the action, too? Then come and get it.” He laughed as he rolled with the animal, until they crashed against the windows. He reached for Geraldine, only to find air.
“Geri,” he called, seeing her heading into the kitchen. “I thought you and me, um, were playing uncle.”
“With the dog? I don’t think so.” She shook her head.
“He just wants to be part of the fun.”
“And that breaks the mood for me. You have fun with your dog, and your board shorts are in the bathroom. If you get in the tub, bounce a few times before you turn on the water. I think the floor’s getting weak, and it’d be a long way to fall. Before long, we may be down to the shower in the master.” She leaned her head back into the room for a moment. “I’ll be watching for you out on the water. Oh, and remember, I have to go in at five today. Sweets!” She put her finger to her lips and flicked a kiss toward him. Flotsam leaped up as if he knew just when to intercept it.
“Flotsam! Give that back!” Tanned arms grabbed the dog, pretending to snatch the kiss from the air. However, when Daggett looked toward the kitchen with a grin, Geraldine was gone. He turned to the dog, “You love me, don’t you, boy? You’ve always loved me, no matter who else was around. Well, I love you, too.”
However, Geraldine wasn’t gone. She’d paused just around the corner. She bit her upper lip and quickly blinked several times to clear the sting away. She wanted that wonderful man out there to say those words to her, but he never had. He was a wonderful, crazy fool, and when he acted like he loved that dog more than her, she wanted to run away before he abandoned her.
She brushed a tear from her eye, knowing it was her own fault. She’d meant to be strong and keep her distance, to not get hurt again, but here she was. She loved a man who cared for his dog more than he cared for her. How could she have been so stupid?
However, she dealt with it the best way she knew. She opened the broom closet and grabbed the sweeper and dustpan. The last of Daggett’s heirloom china was on the floor, and after all, it did have to be cleaned up, didn’t it? And it would get done, if she had to smile and pretend her eyes weren’t the tiniest bit raw.
“HEY, BOY! Want to go for a swim?”
Daggett was in the bathroom to change, and the dog was with him. The room was large, one of two in the big old house. The decor dated from decades before, and hadn’t been redone in the years in between. He pulled a piece of old gum from his mouth. When the big dog barked and jumped forward, Daggett admonished playfully, “Down, boy!” The animal jumped on him, a tongue finding one of his eyes. He laughed, rolling the dog off and pushing him away.
Flotsam barked rapidly several times, leaping on Daggett once again. In the roughhousing, the gum was lost, and he turned to see it resting at the back of the toilet.
“Flotsam! Bad dog!” He laughed, pushing on the animal’s chest and reaching for the messy wad. “I could have gotten one more day from this.” He held it in front of the dog. “You want it, boy? Would you like to have a go at some gum?”
“No, Daggett. I can hear you in there, you know. Do not give that dog your gum. It sticks in his stomach, and it’ll make him sick.” A rapid series of brisk taps vibrated the door, and Geraldine’s steps were rapid staccato drumbeats as she walked down the wood-floored hallway.
“Quiet, boy,” Daggett whispered. “Now, if you want this, you have to keep it a secret from Geri. She’ll be all over us both if you chew it to where she can see. Here. Take it if you want it.”
The dog seemed to wink, lifting one side of his upper lip, then his tongue lapped out, and the gum was gone. His front paws pulled at the sides of his face as he dropped to the floor and smacked at the treat.
“Like it, boy, do you?” Daggett ruffled the dog’s fur down one side, then he rolled his lean body and stood in a smooth and easy motion. He flipped the water on and splashed his face with water. With a wet hand, he ran his fingers through his hair before turning to the swim suit on the side of the tub.
“Trunks time.” Holding them to his face, he wrinkled his nose. “Maybe they’ll smell better after an afternoon in the ocean.”
Flotsam wagged his tail, nudging Daggett as he changed from his boxers to the trunks. He barked twice, then attempted to wrestle the undershorts out of Daggett’s hand.
“Want to play, boy?” Daggett held them high overhead, shaking them.
The dog growled and barked again. Daggett opened the door and threw them down the hall, laughing to see the animal tear out of the bathroom and down the hall after them.
“That’s why the animal takes your shorts, you know.”
Daggett turned to see Geraldine standing at the back bedroom door, one shoulder against the doorframe, her arms crossed. The wall of windows behind her flooded the room with light, reaching out to wrap its fingers around her, surrounding her with an ethereal glow. In that moment, she was as beautiful as the night he’d first set eyes on her, down at San Jose, just over two years ago.
What a weekend that had been!
DAGGETT’S most recent girlfriend had bailed on him several weeks earlier, and he’d been alone. With the emptiness of the house, he’d felt the need to get away. There was a big blowout on the beach down near San Jose, and he hitched a ride with his cousin’s girlfriend, Ronnie Bertram, in her Volkswagen Beetle. His cousin was already there, and she’d welcomed the company for the ride down.
The Beetle was circa 1964 and had been flooded out in a storm once, sitting half buried in the surf for two days. Her brother had torn the engine apart and crudely rebuilt it. The body was hopeless, though. It was little more than rust held together by occasional pieces of metal. There was a hole in the passenger side floorboard covered by an old piece of plywood. Safety first, Ronnie always laughed.
The little Bug ran, though not well, spitting black smoke and occasionally coming to a coughing stop on the side of the highway. However, it was more of a car than Daggett had. She’d even let him strap his surfboard on top for the Moonlight Surf Tour. They arrived after dark, as pockets of fog began to reach fingers along the beach, and there were cars everywhere. Daggett had unstrapped his board, and they’d made their way through the maze of vehicles, aiming for the light of the bonfire in the distance. It was red and brilliant, blurring in the haze, and flickering against the darkness of the star-studded sky. Somewhere along the way, they picked up another couple, not that he and Ronnie were a couple, but they were together, and that made them one. The other couple had sticks of weed in their hands, and they offered Daggett and Ronnie a toke. Ronnie laughed and said she was game, but Daggett intended to be on his board all weekend.
Then Daggett’s cousin appeared from inside a van, with a girl on his arm, one who looked about fifteen, and Ronnie went berserk, smashing the joint into the girl’s face, and kneeing Daggett’s cousin in the groin. She left a few scratch marks on his face in the process, and Daggett was glad he’d done nothing to upset her on the drive down. However, with the blood, Ronnie started to cry, and she wanted to make up, apologizing for kneeing him so hard.
Daggett couldn’t take the drama, so he wandered off toward the party. The other couple hadn’t waited as long as he had, already high on their weed, so he was alone with his board. Before he’d gotten past the next car, the girl from the van stepped from a patch of fog and latched onto his arm. She had on swimsuit bottoms, with only a thin shirt on top, with one button fastened just below her breasts. She leaned into him, pressing against his arm, and when she looked up at him, he could smell the liquor on her breath.
Poor girl, he thought, a surf groupie who should be in her bedroom doing her homework.
Once he got to the beach, he sloughed her off, letting her find her own way through the night. She was just a kid, and she’d find a friend somewhere to keep track of her. If not, he couldn’t watch over all the stupid people in the world.
“Daggett! You young whipper-snapper, you!”
He snorted, surprised to be recognized in the dark. The owner of the voice was no stranger, however. A burly redhead with bare shoulders and wearing giant flower-print shorts came stumbling out of the fog, a can in his hand. The big man owned a board shop up in San Fran, and when Daggett was about sixteen, they’d made a surfing run down to Baja, spending six weeks on the beach, doing nothing except chasing the perfect wave.
He should have known he’d find Corky Maiterson here. Beach, water, beer, and a roaring fire equaled one Corky. Always. And those four things were present that night in full measure.
Of course, Corky had been half the man he was now, but Daggett was glad to see him. Corky was the parent he’d never known, even when his mother had still pretended she loved him, occasionally showing up at his grandparents’ to pick him up for a Sunday afternoon ice cream cone.
“Corky!” Daggett dropped his surfboard, throwing a long arm around his old friend’s neck, and slapping him on the back. Stepping away, he laughed. “I could have caught a ride with you, you old surfer, you. I probably would’ve had a pleasanter trip.” He pictured the VW that had spent as much time on the side of the road as traveling down the highway.
“I’m sure. I would’ve loved a young pup along to navigate. Like when you and me went down to Mexico. Remember then?”
They were back to Corky’s resting spot, and the big man pulled a sausage off a small grill. Slapping it into a toasted bun, he handed it to Daggett.
“Yeah, I remember.” It had been the first time in his life that he’d felt like someone loved him for who he was instead of who they wanted him to be. “Good sausage. Ones you made?”
“Stuffed them myself.”
That was Corky, independent and with a hand in everything, including grinding and stuffing his own meat. Daggett also knew he made his own boards to sell in his shop. Nothing was too gritty for the big man to delve into.
Laughter closer to the bonfire caught Daggett’s attention, and he turned to see a group of bare-shouldered surfer boys crowded around a fog-shrouded girl he couldn’t quite make out. One of the surfers looked like Zac Dirkson from Big Sur—American born, Aussie honed, and deadly on the water.
“What’s going on there?” He turned back to Corky, biting into the meaty sausage, ducking his head and dodging the dripping juices as he watched them dribble at his feet.
“Going on?” Corky reached to the fire to pull the rest of the sausages free.
Daggett nudged him and nodded at the boys by the fire. The girl was still in the center of the crowd, but in the flickering flames and the dancing shadows, she seemed more a ghostly vision, a goddess of the night, destined to be hidden from mortal man. One of the boys on the edge of the group laughed. His voice had a rough sound, one that spoke of hours of falling into the cold water just off shore. Laughter rang from the girl. She must be beautiful, Daggett was certain, to have garnered such a crowd of spectators.
“There?” Corky nodded toward the goddess, at the same time digging in an ice chest for a moment, and handing Daggett a cold can. “She won’t have time for you, you know. She’s been here all day, and everyone on the beach wants her attention. Come on. I’ve brought a new board. I was hoping you would work your way down for the surfing contest. This board is one I built just for you.”
“And if I hadn’t shown up?” The sausage was about gone, and he stuffed the end of it in his mouth. His next words mumbled out, “Would it still be just for me?” He grinned.
A shower of sand was his only answer. It was going to be a fun night, and it was only beginning.
DAGGETT struggled out of the sleeping bag he’d borrowed from Corky. It smelled like the beach, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. He bunched the front of his shirt and pressed it to his face, taking a deep breath and coughing at the intense aroma of fire and sausage. There were also overtones of an unwashed, sleeping man.
“That bad, huh?”
His eyes found his inquisitor, and for a moment, the ceaseless surf just down the sand quieted its incessant pounding, his shirt no longer antagonized his nostrils, and he forgot all about his rumbling stomach. The goddess from the crowd stood in front of him. Her limbs were long and lithe, and flowing hair with the texture of silk cascaded in a sweeping waterfall from her head. Then he caught her eyes. They were deep pools of ocean blue with just a hint of a summer shower. A shimmering wrap enclosed her torso, and what a torso it was!
He was in love.
“Okay, what does that look mean? I don’t see any headlights, but if it were nighttime, I’d guess we were in Colorado, and I’d just caught a deer in mine.” She laughed lightly, brushing one hand through her hair, the silken strands gliding through her fingertips like hot butter across an ear of corn. As she lifted her arm, she was silhouetted against the foggy sea, and she was exquisite in every way.
He coughed roughly, laughing at himself. He glanced at his sandy feet, and sudden pressure on his bladder made him aware that this wasn’t heaven, even if he had an angel standing in front of him.
“You know, you stuck that shirt to your face for some reason, and then you screwed up your nose like you’d never smelled anything that bad. No man should be forced to wear anything that distressing. Here. Let me help you.”
And sucker his soul if she didn’t walk right up to him, grab that shirt just where it lay against his waist, and pull it hard up, forcing it over his arms and his head.
She stepped back, holding the shirt at arm’s length, and she surveyed him critically. He rubbed his arms, suddenly cool in the California morning. It was early yet, and there was no sun. He felt goose bumps rise on his skin.
“Not bad. Your board, I’m guessing.” It lay beside his sleeping bag. “With that body, I’m guessing you’ve been on the water since your first flight of puberty. What, twelve, thirteen?” She laughed brightly, tossing the shirt off to the side, as far as it would go.
“Hey,” he cried, taking a step forward, then stopping himself for some reason he couldn’t quite define. “That’s my shirt.”
“You’d wear it again? Don’t bother. If you can’t stand the smell, it’s not worth washing. Buy you another if you need it.”
She untied her wrap and adjusted the strap. As she did so, he could see the shadowed outline of her form darker within the thin cloth. Then she pulled the belt tight again, and she disappeared back into the wrap, the tease just that—a tease.
She continued, “You’ve known Corky long?” The man lay to the side wrapped in a dirty quilt, snoring softly. She chuckled. “He’s quite a character.”
“Pretty long. Corky and I go way back.” A lifetime, he thought.
“Way back, huh? You’re twenty-six, maybe, twenty-eight at a stretch. How far back can you two go?” She reached for his hand and pulled him away from the sleeping bag. “I want to know all about my way-back boy.”
She smiled, and he couldn’t resist.
They didn’t talk for a time, though. The sand scrunched under their feet, causing them to crab along in a sideways walk until they reached the wet sand closer to the shore. Foam had built up in little piles, forming ridges like miniature breakers on the sand. Every now and then they were forced to step over piles of drying seaweed, the remains of the tide that had risen during the wee hours of the morning.
At one point, he picked up a sand dollar and made to toss it out to sea like a skipping stone. Before he could release it, she grabbed his arm, and she brought it to her, turning his wrist and slowly opening his hand. She held it for several minutes, the sand dollar lying in his palm, as she brushed her fingers along his wrist.
“Nice,” she said, and then after a moment more, she picked the shell up and slipped it into a hidden pocket in her wrap. “For luck,” she said.
It was unclear whether her first word had meant the shell was nice, or that touching his skin felt so, but to him the luck was obvious.
“So, how do you know Corky?” She had his hand in hers again, holding it as they walked along. With her free hand, she kept pushing her hair from her face. Occasionally she would brush it over her shoulder, only to bend down and have it slip past again. Once he knelt beside her and lifted it over her shoulder for her, and he noticed a blush leap into her skin just at the base of her neck.
“Corky’s my father.” He said the words softly.
She laughed. “Now that is not the truth.”
He let go of her hand and crossed his arms over his chest. He tried to contain his grin, but it escaped from him regardless.
He turned and started off down the beach, faster this time. Just once he turned to see if she followed.
“Explain how.” Her hand pulled at his arm, and she worked her fingers back into his. “But before you do, you must understand that I know Corky. You can’t pull anything over on me.” She leaned against him, her fingers entwined with his.
“Okay, he’s not my real father, but he’s my only father. Does that suit you?”
“Only father? That tells me a lot. Does that mean you’re adopted?”
“Yeah, adopted.” In spirit. In love. In his heart. “In the best way possible.”
“Yet, you don’t call him much, do you?”
He stopped walking and looked at the girl with him. How could she know that? Was she a girlfriend? Worse, a wife?
“Nah. You can’t be.” He chuckled as he began to walk again. Corky was twice this girl’s age. People did that, he knew, but he couldn’t imagine his friend in a May-December marriage. Besides, she wouldn’t be walking with him here, holding his arm so tightly, if she were involved with Corky.
“I can’t be what?” There was humor in her words, as if she knew more than she let on.
He took a chance. “Corky’s girl.” He looked her way, grinning. The pressure on his bladder was long forgotten. This girl was the cause.
“You could say that.” She looked down and straightened the fabric of her wrap before she looked him in his eyes. “Yes, you could say exactly that, except Corky doesn’t know.” Her eyes were redder than they’d been moments before, although the difference wasn’t obvious, not to anyone who hadn’t just looked into those blue eyes and wanted to fall inside them forever.
“A secret love? Or just an admirer?” He couldn’t help himself. He’d never dreamed Corky to have a secret admirer. Corky was just Corky, a good friend, an even better surfer, and the man he considered his father. He wouldn’t trade him for a hundred other people, but to be the sole focus of a girl’s admiration, one half his age? It boggled the mind.
“Both.” Her word was whispered. Off in the distance, a sea lion could be seen on a distant rock. It brayed its defiance to the sea, or perhaps it was a love song, and no one except a sea lion could tell. Pulling a slender strand of hair from her lips, she murmured, “All of the above, actually.”
“You’ve never told him?” He’d heard her words and chuckled. “Does he know he has a secret admirer?”
“Oh, he knows.” She brightened her voice. “He knows every bit of who I am, well, almost every bit. There are a few secrets I keep hidden deep inside. The thing is, you don’t know who I am.” She held out her hand as if to shake.
“You hold my arm all the way out here, and now you want to shake my hand?” He couldn’t help himself, and he laughed.
“Introductions, you know. They must be done formally. Don’t be afraid. If I haven’t bitten you by now, I think you can safely assume you will emerge from this handshake unscathed.” Her hand was still in the air between them, and she nodded at it.
Grasping it, he bowed in his bare-shouldered, surfer-best form, intoning, “Daggett Damon Priestly, like Jason the actor, except much better looking.”
“Oh, I can certainly agree with that.” Laughter imbued her words. “Geraldine Gossamer Ridgway, named for a children’s book character. My middle name, anyway. Geraldine is for my grandmother. Most people know me as Geri.”
“I’m glad to formally meet you, Geri Gossamer Ridgway.” He bowed again, making as if to tip an imaginary hat.
“And the same to you,” she giggled, “Daggett Better-Looking-Than-Jason Priestly.” She glanced at his askew hair and the freckles scattered across his skin, and then she giggled again.
He wrapped her arm in his as if on a formal Victorian stroll. “Now, my beautiful Geri, what else do you wish to know about your exceedingly handsome companion?”
“Thank you, good man. Now, how’s Corky your father? I’m unaware of any children he claims as his own, and as far as I am aware, he has none that are adopted.”
“Ah, what does adopted mean? That’s the question, my good woman.” His eyes turned sideways to her, and he pumped his eyebrows in teasing.
“Like a son. An adopted son. Are you really Corky’s?”
“Really Corky’s?” He made as if to ponder the question, his lips pursed, his eyes raised to the skies. After a moment, he put his finger to his chin and frowned. “Am I really Corky’s?”
“Come now. It’s a very easy question. You’re making this difficult on purpose.”
“I’d like to turn your question around. Is Corky mine? I have no compunction at all in saying that I’ve adopted Corky as my own, and he is indeed my father.” He smirked as if that settled it. He knew he thought of Corky as a father, and he hoped Corky felt the same about him. He was pretty sure most of the time, but still, he’d never pushed the matter with the older man. He didn’t dare risk something so fragile.
“Bully. I still don’t know my answer.” She pretended to pout, but her expression was washed away before too many steps were gone.
Over the next rise, they were surprised to see a small waterfall, a storm drain still shifting runoff from the interior of the city to the wide ocean. It tumbled over several stone steps, and it was quite pretty. It burbled like a country creek.
She turned to him, a frustrated smirk on her face. “Daggett, seriously. What’s your relationship with Corky? I have to know.”
She didn’t get her answer. With the sound of the burbling water, his bladder did a somersault, and it reminded him that he hadn’t relieved it, yet. With a yelp of impending disaster, he tore for the nearest sand dune, diving over the top, leaving only the sound of his actions to reveal the reason for his sudden exit.
LISTENING to a double waterfall, one natural, and the second very man-made, Geraldine giggled. She quite liked this guy, and she barely knew him. She would be green with envy if he really were Corky’s. It would be so unfair for Corky to claim this man as his son, especially if he had no biological connection to him. However, anyone involved with Corky couldn’t be too bad. And if so, then that was a chance she would simply have to take.
“YOU REALLY care about Flotsam, don’t you, Daggett?” Geraldine stood against the doorjamb, with her arms crossed. Her question flayed his moment of fun, laying bare his flouting of her earlier demand.
“Care about my best friend?” He stood contritely, although mimicking her stance. “How can you even ask that?”
“I see what he has in his mouth. Gum.” She left her final word hanging in the air.
A dozen years before she’d owned a miniature pincher. Just a kid, she had doted on the animal, taking it everywhere with her, letting it sleep under her covers, and feeding it from her own plate. She had even shared her gum with the animal, and it had been funny to watch it chew the sticky substance until it managed to swallow it down.
When the dog was two, it began to have stomach problems, throwing up and enduring bouts of constipation. One night after constant retching, the vet in the animal hospital’s emergency room told her the gum had clogged its digestive track, and there was nothing she could do.
Until Flotsam, that was the last dog she had owned. Of course, Flotsam was Daggett’s, not hers, but still, here they were. For all practical purposes, the animal was hers just as much as his.
“Come on, Geri. It’s just a bit of gum. Flotsam loves it.” With loose joints and a grin on his unshaven jaw, he wrapped long arms around her, planting a quick kiss on her cheek. “Wind’s up. I’m out on the water in a bit. See you, Baby. I’ll wave to you. I want you to be looking.”
He took off down the hallway, his bare feet slapping the floorboards. One hand grabbed the frame of the door into the living room, and just before he disappeared, he turned, winking at her.
Off behind him, she could see a sliver of ocean through the living room windows. The sun glittered on the waves, darkening his face to near invisibility. His wild hair glowed, a halo of golden light around his head. He blew her a shadowed kiss, one hand flinging it her way.
Immediately calling to Flotsam, he bounded out, the house shivering as he ran. Barking came from somewhere unseen, and a few moments later, the screen door slammed a second time.
The house was quiet once again, and Geraldine leaned her head against the wall, closing her eyes.
“Puis-je vous aider?”
The exotic words washed over her. With a smile, she let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and opened her eyes. She realized she could see her breath in front of her face. Rubbing her arms, she wasn’t surprised to feel a down jacket covering her arms.
Laughing, she whispered, “What else would one wear on a ski vacation in the French Alps?”
After all, there was snow all around, a steaming cup of dark cocoa on the small bistro table at her side, and the air was crisp and cold.
“Puis-je vous aider?” The smooth sounds wrapped her once again, cajoling her, drawing her attention.
She turned to see a liveried waiter at her side holding a tray of steaming beverages. His black hair was slicked against his head, and a handlebar moustache dripped from around his mouth. He didn’t seem cold, although there was a thick layer of snow covering the ground just past the portico.
“Yes. Could I possibly get you to check on my skis? I gave them to the maître d’hôtel for a quick wax. I would like to go out on the slopes this afternoon, and I didn’t bring my backup pair.” She could just see his name on his jacket. Paul. She had known it would be.
“Oui, mademoiselle.” He reached out and deftly slipped her cup from the table, sliding it among the filled ones on his tray, and placing a fresh offering at her side. Atop its dark surface, a billowy dollop of whipped cream floated languidly. “Avec ceci?”
Avec ceci? She had no idea what that meant, and she giggled. She didn’t know what puis-je vous aider meant, either. It was just as well. At least Paul always gave her one answer she understood. Oui. Yes. As long as she asked him questions he could answer with oui, then she could have anything she wanted.
“Rum, Paul? I do believe I would like some rum in my chocolate. Just a bit, please, as I intend to visit the slopes as soon as my skis arrive. Oh, and I haven’t seen Daggett since arriving. Could you please locate him for me?” She smiled brightly, and in that moment realized she was wearing a woolen scarf. She tightened it around her neck, sheltering against the chill of a stiffening breeze.
“Oui, mademoiselle.” Paul flipped a cloth off his arm and pressed it against the tabletop, neatening up some perceived affront to the perfection of the small restaurant. With equal aplomb, he adjusted the second chair at the table as if for an anticipated arrival, setting a second cup of cocoa next to hers.
“Thank you, Paul.” She touched him gently on his white sleeve, her gratitude made stronger in that one small motion. The second cup meant Daggett was on his way.
Paul turned, and in a fraction of a second, he was gone, as were her down jacket, the blanketing snow, and the steaming cocoa. The doorjamb pressed into her shoulder, and her calves ached from standing too long. The sound of a dog in the distance caught her attention, and she moved down the hall. This bedroom opened to ocean vistas matching those seen through the living room windows. Far below, Daggett ran down the trail, his board held in both hands high over his head, followed by a mass of barking dog. It was Flotsam that had drawn her from her French vacation. However, what amused her were Daggett’s knees as they jerked high in the air with each step, dodging roots and branches on the overgrown trail. Flotsam nipped at his heels, bouncing along like he was part of a pinball machine. The animal had energy, enough to keep pace with his master like few others could.
She placed her hand flat against the glass, and she smiled as she turned away. Soon Daggett would be far out in the waves, and she could watch him, using the binoculars in the kitchen if she wished. Except for needing to be at work later in the day, she might consider joining him, but there would be other times.
It was then that she felt the floor shift under her feet, and she knew another earthquake was underway.
“DAGGETT!” Geraldine let the word loose as fear grabbed her stomach and forced it into a knot. Moving away from the glass—always sensible—she prepared herself as best as she could with no warning.
Then, as her world twisted out from under her, she felt her arms go wild, and her vision begin to spin. Outside she could see the tips of the trees begin to sway, and strange popping sounds echoed throughout the house. This time she was certain the old building would dance off its foundation supports and leap skyward, flung at the distant ocean like a Frisbee in flight.
Something somewhere crashed to the floor, and in that blistering moment of fear, the world became still once again. After a tense moment of silence, she released the tightly held breath she didn’t even know she clung to. Looking outside, the sea continued its rhythmic journey toward the shore, and the occasional cloud overhead hung serenely still. A speck on the water could easily be Daggett, paddling out as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
In reality, he probably didn’t. The house could come crashing down, and he’d crawl under the surviving floorboards, using whatever remained of the structure as shelter, surfing his days away.
As her heart pounded in her chest, she realized she was perspiring, and she ran a finger just under one eye, the motion one she remembered from long ago. Her mother’s funeral. What made her think of that?
The phone began to ring.
She laughed, and it sounded hysterical, even to her. The phone! It was ringing, just as always, as if nothing had happened. She laughed again before covering her mouth with her hand and regaining control. How she loved the phone telling her that the world was still in one piece, and she wasn’t all alone!
Moving to the bed, she picked it up and breathed into it, murmuring, “Geri, here.” With her words, she let the moment of the impending disaster slip away.
“Excusez-moi, madomiselle. Jusqu’à présent nous avons un problem. Un avalanche.” The genteel voice over the phone exuded polite help, and she looked up to see snow piled high outside her window. Glancing back, the bed, clearly one in a high-priced luxury hotel suite, was rumpled in a fashion showing two people had recently nestled between its linen sheets. Her eyes jumped to a bathroom visible through a double door. She wondered whether Daggett was inside. Peering through the opening, she found a sunken marble tub with two Doric columns flanking each side and extensive mirrored walls, but there was no Daggett to be seen.
“Daggett?” She called to him, waiting a moment on his answer. He might be able to talk to the person on the phone. Surely he knew French, as he’d been the one who had planned this trip.
“Madomiselle?” The receiver called to her.
“Certainly!” She spoke brightly into the hand piece, as if she’d understood every word spoken to her. “That will be fine. Si! Or rather, Oui!”
It bothered her that Daggett hadn’t come when she called.
Feeling rather foolish, she placed the receiver gently on the cradle and stepped to the window. Three of the words she thought she knew. Excuse . . . problem . . . avalanche, although she didn’t see what that had to do with her. Did the resort have regular drills, like on cruise ships? Perhaps that’s what the man was telling her.
Looking down to the parking lot, she noticed someone walking across the drifts, and he carried a snowboard with him. Daggett! She rapped on the window firmly, hoping to get his attention, finally resting her palm against its cold surface. He’d snuck out without her, leaving her alone in the room. He could have at least kissed her and reminded her to have a good day.
She felt the glass begin to quiver, and looking up, she realized what the phone call had been about. Coming down the mountain was a wall of snow a hundred feet high, and Daggett was directly in its path. He had to see it and run. However, at just that time, he glanced back at the building and waved to the window where she stood. He wasn’t watching ahead, simply walking forward, a smile on his face, not a care in the world.
“Daggett,” she pleaded, the sound useless, even to her.
Then, an ear-splitting crack echoed throughout the room, and she closed her eyes, not wanting to see the disaster that she knew must have torn the outside world apart.
“Geri? Honey, are you there?”
The phone prodded with its gentle words, and she opened her eyes, not sure what she would see. There before her was sunshine, a plate glass window stretching from floor to ceiling, and on the other side, ocean as far as her eyes could see.
Placing her palm on the window, she let it rest for a moment, then slid it across the smooth surface. Frowning, she retraced her hand’s path, realizing she’d felt something unexpected. Finding it again, she ran her fingernail across the spot. It was what she thought, a hairline crack.
“Did you survive the quake?” The voice on the other end of the phone tittered nervously. “Geri? Honey?”
“I’m here, Mrs. Nettleworth. We’ve got a cracked window, I think. I haven’t inspected anything else.”
She hated the window damage. Structural plate this thick was hard to come by, and besides, if the quake had cracked the glass, what else in the house had taken damage? The glass had never cracked before, not in any of the windows. Why this one just now?
“At least you don’t have a cracked head. My son tells me that all the time, with me living near the San Andreas Fault. I tell him that’s in Southern California, near those crazy movie stars!” Mrs. Nettleworth giggled until she coughed. “Is Daggett doing okay? I knew him when he was just a boy, you remember. He spent more time with his grandparents than he ever did with that unusual mother of his.”
“Hm.” Geraldine let the comments go. She didn’t intend to discuss Daggett’s past life with anyone. Mrs. Nettleworth might feel free to express her opinions, but Geraldine didn’t have to get involved in them.
Something sparkled on the windowsill. Small slivers of glass. The crack seemed to be on the inside only, though. The lamination sandwiched between the panes had held. She felt relieved.
“Not injured, is he? You can tell me if he is.” Mrs. Nettleworth seemed lonely, as if the quake was her chance to strike up a conversation.
“He’s fine. He went down to the beach, and I’m sure he doesn’t know we’ve had another one. I appreciate you asking about him, Mrs. Nettleworth. He’ll be pleased to know how much you care.”
“Well, I’m bringing him down a strawberry pie. I had some in the freezer, and I decided I needed to use them up. It’s for you, too, dear. Don’t go hungry just because you and Daggett aren’t, well, married. It’ll happen when the time’s right. I know about that. I didn’t marry Mr. Nettleworth until I was twenty-five. It’ll come to you. Trust me, dear.”
Then the voice over the phone was gone, and she replaced the receiver. Apprehensive in spite of her reassurances to Mrs. Nettleworth, she scanned the water in the distance, looking for Daggett. Something was out there, catching the light, brighter than the sparkling whitecaps.
Hurrying to the kitchen with a speed she didn’t think was exactly safe—and didn’t care particularly if it was—she opened the top cabinet and pulled out the binoculars. Adjusting the eyepieces, she made her way to the expanse of windows that made the house so beautiful, and she held them up, searching the sea. Then she saw him, and she smiled. He was poised on his board atop a wave, and the sun glistened on his skin. The board jerked and bobbed under his feet, a rooster tail shooting from the back, and he looked as if he were strolling down a country lane. Then his legs tensed, and he jerked. In a series of rapid switchbacks, he danced on the wave with a grace that would have shamed many a ballroom instructor. That was her Daggett, secure in his world, even if his world was the sea and the surf and a house that was falling into the ocean.
She felt a moment of intense longing, although she didn’t know for what. Then she let it go. Her life was what it was. Her world had become Daggett and his collapsing house, and jinx her soul if she didn’t love him for it anyway.