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Sunrise on Cedar Key
By Terri DuLong
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Terri DuLong
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was awakened to the insistent ringing of my cell phone on the bedside table. My glance at the digital clock told me it was five-thirty. Who on earth would be calling me so early?
I answered to hear the voice of Jim Jacobs, Cedar Key's fire chief.
"Miss Gracie ... I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. We had a humdinger of a thunderstorm here on the island during the night. I hate to have to tell you this ... but lightning struck the coffee shop, setting it on fire. The volunteer fire department got the call about three, and when we arrived, the building was fully engulfed. At three in the morning, with nobody out and about, it got a pretty good head start. That wind was blowing about twenty-five to thirty miles an hour, and that sure didn't help. I'm so sorry to have to call and tell you this."
Lightning? Fire? Coffee shop? What the hell was he talking about? Shaking my head in an attempt to clear it from sleep, I said, "Oh, my God! Was anybody hurt? Are you telling me my place is ... gone?"
"No, nobody was hurt. But yeah ... I'm afraid there isn't much left of the structure. I know you're in Brunswick helping your aunt with her move. When were you planning to return to Cedar Key?"
"Later today. After the movers load up the furniture. They came for the boxes yesterday, so we were planning to leave here this afternoon, but we could get on the road sooner. Oh, God, I can't believe my place is gone!"
"No, no, you take your time. There's no rush for you to get back here, but do me a favor and call me when you come off Three forty-five and hit SR Twenty-four. I want to meet you at the scene. And Miss Gracie ... I can't tell you how sorry I am, and I know sometimes words don't help, but I'm sure glad you weren't in your apartment when the fire started."
I knew he was right—but at the moment my only thoughts were focusing on all that I'd lost. Sitting on the edge of the bed I tried to visualize what my former residence and business must look like now—ten years' worth of my life, literally gone up in smoke.
A wet nose nudged my elbow, and I looked down to see Annie gazing up at me with soulful brown eyes. Looking more like a stuffed toy than a fifteen-pound cream-colored canine of questionable ancestry, she always brought a smile to my face. My vet placed her heritage somewhere between a schnauzer and a poodle, with maybe a tad of spaniel. An orphan, she'd found her way to the door of my coffee shop during a downpour a few months before, and her exact combination of breed would remain a mystery. Which was fine with me. I attempted to find her owner, but it was apparent the poor mutt was indeed an orphan. Hence, the name Annie. I took her to the vet and was informed she was about nine months old and needed to be spayed, have her shots and a flea treatment, and get started on heartworm protection. All of which I did, and when I went to bring her home, the look in her eyes and exuberant wag of her tail convinced me we were meant to be together. Especially since I'd lost my precious Mr. Whiskers only a few weeks before Annie's arrival. A sudden heart attack took him to the Rainbow Bridge at age fifteen.
I patted her curly head as I felt moisture filling my eyes. "And now we're both orphans, Annie."
A soft knock on the door caused me to swipe at my tears.
"Gracie, are you awake?" I heard Aunt Maude say.
I got up and opened the door to find my aunt tying the sash on her cotton robe.
"I thought I heard a phone. Is everything okay?"
"You did; it was my cell phone. I'm sorry it woke you."
"No, no. I was awake. What's wrong?"
Her love and concern brought forth the flood of tears I'd been trying to hold back and propelled me into her waiting arms.
"Oh, Grace, sweetie," she murmured into my ear. "What's going on? Who called you?"
She then led me to my bed, where she sat beside me, one arm around my shoulder.
"It was Jim Jacobs, the fire chief from Cedar Key," I relayed, and went on to explain what had occurred a few hours before.
"Oh! Lord! What a terrible thing to happen. Was anybody hurt?"
I shook my head, sniffled, and reached for a tissue from the bedside table. "No, thank goodness. But everything is gone, Aunt Maude. Gone! My apartment, my business ... everything."
I felt her soothing hand brushing back the curls that framed my face.
"I know. This is a terrible shock for you, but we'll get through it. Like we've gotten through other crises. Together. Did Jim think you should leave now to go back?"
"No, there's not much I can do at this point. From the sound of it, there's nothing for me to salvage. I told him the movers were coming this morning and that we'd be there by early evening."
Aunt Maude stood up, her full five feet seven inches hovering over me. "Okay. Then why don't you take your shower and I'll go downstairs to get coffee and breakfast started. Then we'll figure out what you're doing."
Leave it to my aunt. She'd always had a wonderful way of taking charge, and even during some difficult events of my life she made me feel there was always hope.
I watched Annie follow her into the hallway and downstairs before I headed to the bathroom.
After stepping out of the shower, I applied my favorite L'Occitane body lotion. The scent of verbena filled the room and lifted my sprits momentarily. Looking into the mirror, an oval face, dark green eyes, and a cloud of shoulder-length auburn curls stared back at me. I didn't look like a thirty-six-year-old homeless person—my entire life had changed, but I still looked like me.
After applying minimal makeup and throwing on jeans and a T-shirt, I followed the wonderful aroma of coffee down to the kitchen, where I also now caught the additional aroma of Aunt Maude's croissants baking in the oven. That smell never failed to remind me of the days I had spent in France with my aunt, soaking up the Parisian way of life at a terrace café, sipping strong coffee with the fragrance of baked goods from the local patisserie in the air.
Maude stood at the counter, her back to me, placing various cheeses and meats onto a platter. She showed no signs of osteoporosis with her straight posture. Snow white hair was pulled back into a classic French twist, and she looked a good five years younger than her seventy-two years. My heart swelled with love for her. She had always been more of a mother to me than an aunt, especially when both of my parents were killed in an automobile accident in France. Due to my parents' antique business and travel, I had spent the majority of time here in my aunt's house. A house that also became mine after my parents' death. Aunt Maude raised me from the age of twelve, always giving me a sense of love and security.
She turned around to the sound of Annie running up to me.
"You look better after your shower. Coffee's ready, and it won't be too much longer for the croissants. I'm just reheating them."
"Thanks," I said, leaning down to give Annie a pat. Then I poured the rich, strong liquid into a mug and took a sip, savoring the flavor. "The movers arrive at eight, right?"
My aunt nodded and joined me at the table. "Yes, and I don't know what I would have done without you here this past week to help me get all those boxes packed."
I smiled. "Are you kidding? To have you move to the island permanently, I would have done anything."
My trip back to Brunswick, Georgia, the previous week had been my first in ten years. When Aunt Maude had supported my decision to relocate, she understood my reluctance to return to Brunswick. It had been agreed that she would be the one to make the trip to Cedar Key a few times a year so we could visit in person, rather than just having our daily phone calls. So Aunt Maude faithfully crawled along I-95 in her oversized blue Cadillac to visit the niece that she'd raised. Not once did she make me feel selfish or foolish for not wanting to return to my hometown—and risk the chance that I might bump into Beau Hamilton.
But the previous year she'd been diagnosed with macular degeneration, and we both knew that her driving days to Cedar Key were over.
My aunt laughed. "Well, I'm not sure if I should call it luck, divine intervention, or serendipity, but when you told me about the Coachman House going up for sale a few months ago, I knew it was time for me to begin a new adventure, and if that adventure brought me to where you were, all the better."
The thought of what I'd lost came rushing back to me. "And now I'm homeless," I said, hating the whine in my tone.
"Grace Ann Stone, you are not homeless. You will stay with me tonight at the Faraway Inn. Tomorrow we'll get my new place in shape, and don't forget, Coachman House has another apartment on the second floor. Even though I knew you had your own place above the coffee shop, I thought that apartment upstairs from me would be ideal for you, and now ..."
"Really?" I hadn't given that a thought since I'd received Jim's phone call. "Weren't you going to rent that apartment?"
"Well, since I have nobody lined up yet, of course you can have it. As I said, when I thought about buying the place, I knew it would be perfect for the two of us, but I certainly didn't expect you to give up your own place, so I knew I could find somebody to rent it."
Things were suddenly beginning to look a tad brighter. Jumping up from the table, I leaned over to kiss my aunt's cheek. "Consider me your new tenant, and of course I'll pay you rent."
Maude pulled me into a tight embrace. "There's plenty of time to discuss that," she said.
A low growling sound drew our attention to the hallway off the kitchen.
Annie was curled up at one end of the hall having a staring match with Aunt Maude's cat. I think it could be safely said that Lafitte probably tipped the scales a good five pounds higher than my little pooch did. Lafitte was a robust (being kind here) gray and white Maine Coon cat. This breed was known for their increased size, and Lafitte had an increased amount of attitude to match. Not in a mean way, but more in a patriarch sort-of way. He was in charge, and from the moment Annie arrived, he'd made sure she knew it. Poor little Annie was still trying to decide if this humongous amount of feline fur was friend or foe.
When she saw me enter the room, her tail started wagging, but she didn't give up her post.
Wiggling her leash in my hand, I said, "Hey, girl. Are you up for a short walk around the square?" Certain things in life caused Annie extreme joy—her leash and the anticipation of a walk was one of them. She came racing over, temporarily forgetting the staring match. She jumped in circles and whimpered, which I took to be an emphatic yes.
"I'm just going to take her out for a quick walk," I told my aunt. "I'll be back shortly to have one of your delicious croissants."
Chapter TwoFollowing Annie's walk and breakfast, I headed upstairs to my bedroom. After stripping the bed of linens, I placed them into a plastic bag to be laundered once we arrived on Cedar Key. Looking around, I let out a deep sigh.
This house held so many memories for me. Not all of them good ones. I had always loved this bedroom. The Victorian style boasted a mansard roof, creating my private domain from age twelve until fourteen years later—the day I got a phone call making me realize it was time to leave Brunswick for good. The events of that day and the ones that followed had turned my life upside down. But I had survived, and I would survive the recent upheaval in my life—once again, with Aunt Maude's love and support.
"How're you doing up there?" I heard her holler up the stairs. "The movers will be here in about twenty minutes."
"Good," I hollered back. "Be right down."
Standing at the window, I took a final look outside, across the square to the house my parents had once owned. Staring at the two-story Victorian left me devoid of emotion. No warm and fuzzy feelings for the house I'd been brought to as a newborn. No childhood remembrances of Christmas, Thanksgiving, or birthday parties. If my parents had even been home for these events, they were exhausted from the travel their business required. Therefore, all of these events, along with most of my childhood memories, had been experienced here, at Aunt Maude's house.
Going downstairs, I heard the phone ringing and walked into the kitchen to hear my aunt say, "Good morning, Suellen. Yes, she's right here. Hold on."
I felt a smile cross my face as I took the phone. There's a lot to be said for a childhood friend you've known since the first grade.
"Hey, what's up?"
"Well, you sure don't sound as perky as I thought you'd be this morning. You're heading back to your beloved Cedar Key and taking your aunt with you."
I let out a deep sigh. "I'm afraid I got some really bad news a couple hours ago," I said, and went on to explain about Jim Jacobs's phone call.
Suellen's audible gasp came across the phone line. "Oh! My God! I can't believe this! Are you saying your coffee shop and your apartment are ... gone?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying. Totally gone."
"Oh, Gracie, I'm so sorry to hear this. What are you going to do? Where will you live? Where will you work? Is there anything at all you might be able to save from the fire? What can I do to help you? Just tell me. I'll do anything to help you...."
Suellen hadn't changed since the first time I met her. She was easily excitable, and sometimes her speech raced along faster than the Daytona 500, causing me to lose half her words. For a Southern girl, her pace in speaking was more like a Yankee.
I laughed. "Take a breath, slow down," I told her. "I honestly don't know what I'm doing, except that tonight I'll stay with Aunt Maude at the Faraway. She had booked there for two nights because the movers won't have everything unloaded from the truck till sometime tomorrow afternoon. I won't be on the street homeless—my aunt has already said that she wants me to take the apartment upstairs from her. Beyond that ... I honestly don't know."
"Well, I was planning to go down there in a couple weeks, but I could come now if you need me. Really, it wouldn't be a problem. I'll just call Miss Dixie at the Inn and tell her I need a few days off."
"Suellen, you're too sweet. Really. But no, let's stick with the original plan. Come and visit me in a couple weeks. I should be pretty well settled in my new place by then."
"Okay, if you're sure. But if you need me, you know I'm just a phone call away." She paused for a moment and then asked, "And you still haven't seen Beau since you've been here?"
"No, and we'll be leaving this afternoon so I managed to avoid that." Damn. Why did just the mention of his name still have the ability to speed up my heart rate? Not wanting to discuss Beau Hamilton, I said, "Thanks for your help, Suellen. I'll call you later to give you an update on the fire."
With Aunt Maude beside me, Lafitte in his cat carrier, and Annie curled up on the backseat, I made the drive from Brunswick to Cedar Key. Minimal conversation between my aunt and me allowed my mind to race and try to sort out what had happened, but when I stood on Dock Street and stared at the remains of my business and home, I still couldn't comprehend the impact of my loss.
I heard Jim and Aunt Maude talking as if from a distance while my eyes took in the charred structure that no longer resembled my pride and joy. My second-story apartment had pretty much ended up in the ground floor coffee shop. Three walls of what had been my living space had disappeared. Only black rubble was left for the entire world to see. My beautiful sign, Coffee, Tea and Thee, now hung at a grotesque angle with the wood buckled and the words barely legible. How could this happen? How could all that I loved and valued be taken from me in a heartbeat?
Before I even realized what was happening I felt tears streaming down my face as my legs turned to jelly. The scene before me blurred, and I felt strong arms go around my shoulders to support me.
"Miss Gracie? Miss Gracie, are you okay?" I heard Jim Jacobs say with concern.
Okay? I'll probably never be okay again, I thought, and only continued to sob harder.
Then I heard another male voice. "Maybe we should get her away from here for now. I have the golf cart. Why don't we go over to the bookshop for some coffee?"
Excerpted from Sunrise on Cedar Key by Terri DuLong Copyright © 2011 by Terri DuLong. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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