The Widows of Sea Trail- Tessa of Crooked Gulley

The Widows of Sea Trail- Tessa of Crooked Gulley

 Prologue

The Covenant Revisited

Wouldn’t you know it? My Friday the 13th is a rainy one. I, along with my two closest friends, Cat and Viv are squashed into a wet golf cart. I am Tessa, short for Contessa, a royal moniker my mother forced on me, and together with my friends, we were three fun-loving widows hell-bent on procuring new mates. I say, “were” because one of us, Catalina, has already secured her golden knight.

Each turn of the cart path has us all sliding on the cold, damp seat despite the plastic cover T.J. had so gallantly put on the cart for us.

“It’s pourin’,” I moan as I fight to stay on the seat. Viv is driving and as we bounce along on our way to the tenth tee of the Maples Course, Cat, short for Catalina, has to grip my shoulders to keep me from being jettisoned with each bump.

“Stop complaining, we need the rain!” Viv said. Her name is short for Vivienne. It is because of her namesake that we are here, trying to conjure up a mate for me.

“If it had waited just another hour before lettin’ loose, I wouldn’t have to subject my new perm to the frizzies. I just had it done, and you know what’ll happen if it gets wet.” I am not usually overly concerned about my appearance. Okay, yes, yes I am. But I know how important the first few days of a perm can be. I want gentle curls not frazzled corkscrews. A bad hair day for me is something to be avoided at all costs. A full month of bad hair days is unthinkable; I would be inconsolable. I would earn my title, as I would surely be a royal bitch.

“Well, there’s not much chance of it getting wet, is there? What’s this under your hood?” Cat muttered as she stuck pinched fingers under the front rim of my raincoat hood and tugged. I felt my shower cap slide forward and in a panic, grabbed for it.

“Leave it alone! I don’t care how I look right now; no one’s going to see us out here in this monsoon. And I absolutely cannot get my hair wet! Let’s just get this over with so I can finish packing for the cruise.”

Viv slammed on the brakes and the three of us bounced up off the seat and almost tipped the cart over.

“Viv! What the hell?”

“Some cat just ran across the path. I couldn’t just hit it now, could I?”

I looked over to where she was pointing. A sleek black cat with white markings was running along the tree line, gracefully lengthening its body between each soft footfall. I watched as it ran behind a tree, came out on the other side, and promptly sat in front of it facing me. The cat’s long tail unfurled and lazily whipped back and forth as its gray-green eyes focused on mine, and for a moment I was woozy with vertigo as if looking down from a great height. I watched the cat as we passed and when the path curved to the left, I turned so I could look back at it, but it was gone. “Striking cat. I wonder who it belongs to?” I said mostly to myself.

“Anyone who feeds it I imagine,” Viv said. “I went to Ray and Carmella Zetts’ lecture at the Museum last month and was amazed to hear how successful they’ve been with the feral cats on the island.”

“Slow up, Viv. There’s our tree,” Cat said.

At just that moment the rain picked up and the drumming on the roof drowned out Viv’s reply.

“What?” I hollered.

“Whose flippin’ idea was this, I said! Gosh, I’m getting soaked! And here’s why, the cover has a big ol’ tear in it right at the roof line!” Viv put her hand up to the roof to keep the rivulets of water from seeping in and wetting her coat further. Her Wild Currantacrylic nails were as always, perfectly squared off and elegantly long. They were the only bright spot in this miserably bleak day, everything else was in sepia.

“I believe it was yours, Viv. Yours and your mother’s anyway,” I answered.

“Yeah, the story she used to tell you, about Vivienne, your namesake,” Cat added.

We’d all heard it more than once. And this had been Viv’s idea. We were drinking margaritas out on my deck, waving to the golfers as they passed by on their way to the 16th tee of the Jones and we were feeling no pain. The subject of Viv’s mother had come up. Viv’s mother, who was into mythology, read just about everything she could about wizardry and actually considered herself an apprentice witch. The woman dressed as Endora for Halloween every year, concocted potions using ingredients usually fed to snakes, and had named her only daughter Vivienne. Had she had a son instead of a daughter, Merlin would have surely been bestowed instead.

According to legend, Vivienne’s namesake had been Merlin the Magician’s favorite student; some said he had even been in love with the enchanting Vivienne. And for that very reason, he had neglected to be firm enough to instill the right attitude of wizardry in her. Vivienne, having decided that Merlin did not practice magic as she believed he should, that his was not the true wizardry, imprisoned the Great Merlin for all eternity in an oak tree. She had come upon him sleeping under it and without much thought, had waved her wand and performed her dark magic. From that day forward, Merlin’s spirit was melded with the wood of the tree.

Viv, Cat, and I were on our way to fancifully weave the spell known as “Vivienne’s Circle.” We were going to appeal to Merlin through the elf living in the tree to reconcile us to new loves. Merlin, it was said, had the power to bring true love, because he knew all that love should be, and all that it should not be. As it was believed that Merlin’s spirit lived in any tree that was over a hundred years old, we were calling on the elf living in this tree, the oldest Live Oak on the Plantation where we all lived.

As odd as this sounds, we’d already tried the magical spell and it had actually worked! Catalina had been the first of our trio selected for the Affecting Spell and within days she had met Matt. A whirlwind courtship, complete with a major misunderstanding and a dramatic reconciliation, had ensued and within months they were engaged and married. This had been in the spring, right around Easter; it was now October and I was next in line to be chanted over. I was anxious to get this lunacy over with because I was leaving for an eleven-day cruise in three days and I still had a lot to do. This cruise was my personal way of celebrating five years of being cancer-free so I wanted everything to be perfect.

Viv pulled up to “our” tree, the old, majestic Live Oak we envisioned Merlin residing in. “Okay, let’s get organized first. It doesn’t look like this rain is going to let up anytime soon.”

“I have my branch right here,” I said as I whipped it out from under my hoodie. I had the olive branch, pilfered from one of the trees among the grapevines at the Silver Coast Winery. It was just a foot-long now, dry and brittle, but still adorned with a few leaves. It was to be waved back and forth while we chanted.

“Got mine,” Cat said as she produced a baggie with two bits of cloth and a green-tipped thumbtack inside. She handed it to me, as it was now my turn to attach the pieces of fabric to the tree. I handed her the olive branch in return.

Vivienne opened her tote bag and took out the philter, a bottle of rose oil she’d found at Scents Unlimited that had been mixed with some Sagittarrio olive oil, and a crystal saltshaker. Now we had all the items necessary for our little “magic show.”

The little squares of fabric symbolized remnants of banners, referred to as “fairy flags.” They represented gifts given to a man and a woman by fairies. Each square had a dove as the female on one side and a unicorn as the male on the other, and the background was mostly green, the best color to assure the success of a Venus project such as this. The rose oil combined with the olive oil would symbolize mating and the olive branch and salt were truth and peace.

We all pulled our hoods close around our faces and Viv bent to dole out the umbrellas she’d stashed under our feet. “Ready?”

The tree was right in front of us and interestingly enough, the fabric we’d put there in the spring was gone but the pushpin that had secured it was still there marking the spot. We were all staring at it, remembering.

The weather today was far removed from what we’d experienced that day, a beautiful spring day, fragrant with new blossoms and vibrant with stirrings of new life. Today’s weather, if it was reminiscent of anything, it was the story of Noah’s Ark.

“Okay, we run over to the tree. Tessa, you mate the swatches and pin ‘em to the tree, Cat you wave the olive branch and pour the philter while I sprinkle a circle of salt around the base of the tree. When Tessa gets the pin in, she’ll start the chant and we’ll join in, and remember, we have to do it three times. Okay, let’s go!”

We all scrambled out of the cart and ran for the tree where we hastily performed each rite. I was careful to face the dove and unicorn as if mating and began fastening the fabric scraps to the tree just below the green pushpin that Cat had used for her turn. When I started the chant, the others joined in and we all raised our voices and intoned:

“Oh wise Merlin, mighty wizard of Pendragon, magical defender and wise enchanter of the sword Excalibur, use your power to bring a love that is true to the woman holding the pin and pricking your skin.”

Three times we recited the verse, each time adding more of the philter, more of the salt and I tried to press the pin further into the tree. Cat, having sprained her thumb last time on the impenetrable wood trying to get the pin in, had thoughtfully brought a thumbtack this time and a tiny hammer. I gently tapped the tack in until it was flush with the bark. The pieces of fabric were already so wet that they didn’t even flap in the wind.

Cat was waving the olive branch and sprinkling the wonderfully scented oils while trying not to slip on the gnarly roots. I looked down to gauge the progress Viv was making on the salt trail. She was supposed to circle the tree with a ring of salt but it was dissolving as fast as she could shake it out. I was wondering if she remembered where she’d started when a shiny object caught my eye. I bent to pick it up. It was a small circular piece of glass. I rubbed my fingers on its smooth surface as I turned it around to examine it.

“What did you find?” Viv asked as she finished her circuit around the tree and came to stand beside me.

“It looks like a cat’s eye marble,” I said. The swirls in the center of the glass orb resembled an iris and were the exact color of the eyes on the cat I had just seen, a striking gray-green—light sage with hints of smoke throughout. The little glass ball felt warm to the touch as if it had just come out of a kiln. “That’s odd, it’s hot when it should be cold.”

Viv touched it and nodded, then piped up, “Remember when I found that four-leaf clover last time? Must be another good sign!”

“How is a cat’s eye marble a good sign?” I asked with some cynicism.

“I don’t exactly recall. We’ll have to call my mother and have her explain all that.”

Both Catalina and I groaned. Viv’s mother, who fancied herself a modern-day witch could prattle on forever, especially if she was on a meaty topic such as sorcery or magic, charms or spells, serious chants or silly hocus pocus. Though we loved her to death, we’d rather not have to contend with a lengthy dissertation on talismans and good luck charms, even if it meant being able to savor the chocolate spider legs, delectable shortbread witches, toasted marshmallow ghosts, or brownie coffins that invariably accompanied her visits.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s get out of this hurricane!”

“It can’t be a hurricane, we’re past the season,”
Cat said.

“Not really, the season’s not over until the end of November. It would be rare to have one now, but not unheard of,” this from Viv who was running for the cart as she yelled back at us, her umbrella practically turning itself inside out.

“Whew!” I said as we all dove under the cover and shivered against each other.

“Whew is right, this is just plain miserable. So much water all at once. And now it’s getting really chilly!” Cat said.

“Well at least you get to go away to someplace tropical next week. I wonder . . . could all this water mean you’ll find someone on the water. Maybe even on your ship? How weird would that be?” Viv asked.

“Too weird,” I replied. “I don’t want to find someone on this trip. This vacation is just about me; I really don’t want to share it with anyone. Besides, getting involved with someone who’s not local would be disastrous.”

“Why would that be?” Cat asked.

“I could never leave Sea Trail, this is where all my friends are!”

“Who says you have to move? Do what Cat does. She and Matt use their house in Sea Trail as a home base while they travel up and down the coast. We see them often enough, whenever they can find their way out of the bedroom, that is.”

“You know girls, this is all academic. So the chant worked once, that was just a fluke. Believe me, there’s no mystery man in my future, no unicorn to my dove. This was fun, but I only did it to humor you. Now humor me and let’s go to Brassie’s so I can get a nice, hot Irish coffee!”

“Good idea, I’m freezing!” Cat said.

“Yeah, me too. Make mine a hot buttered rum!” Viv said as she turned the cart around and headed back to the clubhouse.

I looked on the way back, but didn’t see any sign of the black cat with the prominent white markings and the fathomless gray-green eyes.

Chapter One

 Forelock Warlock?

 I was up with the sun as usual, bending and stretching my body in a series of movements long since memorized. Yoga, a savior of sorts since my breast cancer days, kept me centered, focused on keeping my body in shape, and gave me a good feeling about myself. I could see that we were coming into port and as I used the banister of my balcony to stretch my calves, my eye was drawn to a small military-styled boat bearing down on us. It had a large P painted on the cabin in the center. I was on a huge cruise ship so it didn’t so much unnerve as intrigue me to watch the boat gather speed and barrel toward us.

It was not until it swept out in a huge arc and circled back that I realized what it was about. Of course, that was the pilot boat. My dinner companions had told me just last night that as we reached each island, a launch was sent out with a harbor pilot aboard who would transfer to our ship to guide us in. I hadn’t thought much about it, but now as I saw that the boat was slowing down, I hesitated and held my pose. The marine gray boat came alongside, and looking down, I could see a man in white uniform pants standing and removing his navy blue jacket. He was tall and tanned with dramatic black hair streaked with white, the collar length hair was whipping around his head; he looked like fury personified.

Under his jacket was a short-sleeved white shirt with dark slashes on the shoulders. And although it was tucked into a narrow waistband, the breeze billowed through the starched material determined to free it. I admired how he was able to stand, legs spread, hands on his hips, gripping the jacket while the boat bounced over the waves. Then before I knew what was up, he had thrown the windbreaker to the floor of the boat, stepped out onto a small platform and leapt onto our ship! I had never seen anything like it. He had literally flown from his boat to ours and as I leaned over the rail I was just in time to see him cling to a ladder, hold for a moment as if to get his bearings, and then masterfully climb up the side of the ship and into a recessed opening.

Jeez! Was that the harbor pilot? His uniform was the nautical type—long, creased white pants, man, he was tall, and a short sleeved white shirt with what appeared to have been epaulets on the shoulders, both separated by a white canvas belt. That was my impression anyway. It had all happened so fast that my brain had only registered, Officer and a Gentleman without the hat. An older version for sure, from the shock of white hair mingled with the black.

I took one final pose, stretching my arms high over my head before reaching back and grabbing my instep. Sometimes even I was amazed at how limber I had become. I leaned over the rail to see if I could get one more glimpse of that amazing man who had climbed up the side of our ship with all the agility of a monkey climbing a palm tree. Nope, no sign of him. But I felt the ship doing strange things and making new noises. I actually quivered to think of that man at the controls guiding this monstrous ship into the port of St. Thomas and the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. I would have always given that type of man a second look, but now I doubted that he’d return the favor. It was deflating getting old.

I reflected back on this past year and all the changes it had wrought. Watching Cat and Matt fall madly in love had brought me out of my own mourning and then ultimately forced me to take a good, assessing look at myself. During the years spent grieving for Tom, my body had secretly slid past middle age and began the downhill decline toward the senior generation waiting for me at the bottom. Things had shifted, faint crinkles had blossomed and my joints no longer allowed even a modicum of abuse. The use-it-or-lose-it age was clearly upon me and I was being reminded of that on a daily basis. And as there were certain things I definitely did not want to put to pasture yet, I had to face it, it was time to get out and circulate.

After much thought, and enough hemming and hawing to drive Tessa and Cat crazy, I finally decided to augment my hair color to keep my youthful blonde halo. I ended up having reverse highlights put in to give it more life and definition and to hide the gray that was steadily creeping in. Due to breast cancer I was no novice to plastic surgery, I’d seen the wonders it could do, so I’d been vain enough to have some skin brought up and the scars tucked behind my ears. No hint of jowls for me, just smooth firm skin. Then Cat talked me into having my lips plumped and permanently colored by Johnnie McCarty at Permanent Makeup in Calabash for that voluptuous, pouty look men seem to be going ga ga for. Yoga kept me limber and toned, and at five foot eight, I was fortunate that I carried my weight well. I had never had to diet. I knew what looked good on me so I was able to maximize my looks with the right kind of clothing—it was a knack I’d had from the cradle. A spray tan finished everything off, giving me a subtle glow and erasing the imperfections of age spots and freckles. I was a fifty-four-year-old who often couldn’t convince anyone to give me the over-fifty senior discount. I counted myself lucky, except for the fact that I’d lost my husband years
before I should have.

I grabbed my water bottle off the little lounge table and went into my stateroom to shower for my day in St. Thomas. I could hardly wait for the ship to dock. But first, I would enjoy a scrumptious and bountiful breakfast. I turned on the shower to warm the water, thinking about a waffle, each tiny hole filled with butter and syrup, and a huge pile of strawberries to go with it. It wasn’t my usual fare, but I was on vacation, and I was sure to walk it off traipsing all over the island of St. Thomas.

The tiny room was steamy as I stripped off my yoga togs. I like how a blurred mirror improves my looks. Thanks to my mother’s great genes, I am still quite attractive, but I do have some quirky things going on. One of them is breasts like a twenty year-old—ironic, now that I didn’t have anyone to appreciate them.

My husband Tom died just over four years ago. He drowned rescuing a shipmate when their sailboat capsized in Winyah Bay. Just a few days earlier I’d finally had my breast reconstruction surgery done and I was home recuperating. We were planning on having the “unveiling” on our anniversary. Instead, I attended the funeral with a chest so sore that I thought my broken heart would shatter inside me and I’d bleed from all the fresh wounds. I loved him so much. I still wear his surgical scrubs as pajamas, disgustingly grubby because I refuse to wash them. His scent is all I have left. I can’t remember his smile or hear his voice anymore and that bothers me more than I can say.

I enjoy the hot water running down my body and despite concerns for water conservation, I stay many minutes longer than I should. I justify it by calling to mind all the hours I’ve spent volunteering for the lowly oyster recycling campaign back home in Brunswick County. Each one of those suckers can filter fifty gallons a day! Amazing!

My gel-coated hands slide easily over my body as I have very little body hair. This is by choice as I had it lasered off when it started growing back after the chemo treatments. I had missed the smooth, slick feel of my hairless skin. I told you I had some quirks.

Stepping out into my room, wrapped in a fluffy towel, I make my way over to the balcony and to the rail while crimping my hair into floppy spirals with tight fists. I step back a foot from the rail when I realize that we have docked and many people are out on their balconies now. The partitions between the balconies shield me from the passengers on either side while allowing me to enjoy the straight-on view. I look down and see him, the tall, virile-looking man with the distinctive head of black hair that seems to have been shocked white in a thick stripe just to the left of a prominent widow’s peak. Ummm, very sexy. He is standing with three other men. I am just about to turn and go back into my room when he looks up and our eyes meet. I stand rooted to the spot peering down from thirty feet up. Even from this height I can feel the intensity of his eyes, they are a searing gray-green and as they travel down my body, I feel as if he can see right through the towel with the big X logo of Celebrity Cruises on the front, either that or up and under it.

It’s covering me from my boobs to just above my knees but I feel as if it’s not there at all. And his eyes are widening in such a way that I am convinced I have dropped it. I look down to see if my hand is still holding the knot above my breasts and let out a sigh of relief. When I look back at him, he has turned to talk to another man, the Captain, if I’m not mistaken. They shake hands and then the nautical dreamboat in his pristine white uniform turns his broad shoulders away from the ship and makes his way down the cement pier leading into St. Thomas.

I watch as he is swallowed up by the throng of people leaving the ships. Twice, he turns to look back at the ship. I can’t seem to move from the spot. I drink in every movement he makes as he walks away—the sway of his slender hips in his precisely pressed pants, his thick hair as it lifts in the ocean breeze, the progression of his wide shoulders delineated by the dark line of his epaulets on each as he moves through the crowd. His distinctive hair draws the eye so completely that I am able to pick him out until he turns to the right and takes a side street. I think of Lillian of the old Munsters TV show and her prominent white forelock. I know it’s a phenomena called poliosis because my friend Viv has it, but there’s just something mysterious and commanding about it. I sigh heavily as I turn to go back inside, acknowledging to myself that our harbor pilot has to be just about the sexiest man I have ever seen.

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