“Shuffle, ball change, flap, step, shuffle, ball change, flap, step,” Marie’s demanding voice boomed from the front row of the St. Simon’s Island Senior-itas tap troop.
Lizzie Shaw focused on the feet of the lady two rows in front of her. Blocking out the clicks of the other dancers’ tap shoes required concentration; especially in a stuffy community center on a humid night in Georgia’s Golden Isles. And even more especially when Rose, her dearest friend and septuagenarian, insisted on standing next to her, dancing a half beat out of time.
“Shuffle, ball change, flap, step, shuffle, ball change, flap, step,” came the count again.
She mouthed the words along with the dance troop leader.
Rose missed the flap and stepped on the wrong foot. The rustle of Rose’s jewel-toned tracksuit warned Lizzie too late. Rose stepped in her direction, her elbow pushing into Lizzie’s ribcage. Lizzie’s worn tap slid across the polished maple floor and she landed on her back.
“Lizzie, are you okay?” Rose exclaimed, her soft gray curls hovering around her head like a halo.
Immediately the clacks and clatters stopped as everyone surrounded the youngest member of the St. Simons Senior-itas dance troop. Lizzie looked up at the concerned faces hovering over her. Being the same age as most of their granddaughters had earned her a special spot as the unofficial mascot. Rose bent down to offer her help and several other ladies joined in, lifting Lizzie up to a seated position. Another member ran over to offer a water bottle.
“I’m fine, thank you everyone. Really, I’m okay,” she assured them, sipping from the cool water.
“Then let’s finish this practice,” a steely voice replied.
The crowd in front of her parted and the wafting smell of White Diamonds perfume stilled Lizzie from further reply. Marie Smith-Thomson stood glowering down at her. Lizzie reached to Rose to help her stand up, averting her eyes from Marie’s unrelenting stare. As a Rockette, Marie had high-kicked her way into the best society in New York with not one but two glamorous marriages. Lizzie’s cheeks burned hot with embarrassment. From under her eyelashes, she watched Marie nod before turning on her heel and returning to the front of the room.
“Sorry,” Rose whispered, squeezing the hand she still held.
Lizzie nodded but didn’t otherwise reply, dropping her friend’s hand to form her own row a few feet behind Rose. After three more eight counts and a flourishing shuffle off to Buffalo, class ended.
“Ladies, let’s see if we can tighten up our spacing next week,” Marie announced.
Sweeping her eyes over the group, Marie finally settled on Lizzie in her rogue line. Don’t flinch, don’t move, don’t breathe. Lizzie remained perfectly still, not even exhaling. Marie suspended dancers from performances and rehearsals for even the slightest infraction. Drawing the woman’s eye twice in one night, was practically insubordination. Lizzie wouldn’t mind be kicked out of the group. But Rose would and Lizzie hated to let her down.
Finally, Marie nodded her head. “Until then, please keep practicing.”
Exhaling, Lizzie walked to the side of the room. She slid down the wall, stretched her legs out in front of her, sweat rolling down her back. Their practice space stood on the edge of the Pier Village overlooking a small park and the ocean. With only a few windows to catch the breeze and one overhead fan, the room quickly went from comfortable to suffocating when practice started.
“Are you coming out with us tonight?” Rose asked, ambling over and carefully lowering herself to the ground.
“I know you aren’t coming. I thought I’d offer all the same. One day you might actually take us up on it.”
“I think you’d approve of my reasons for missing out tonight.”
“Do you have a date?”
Lizzie shook her head. When did she have time to go out to dinner or a movie? And besides, where would she even meet someone?
“Rose, I don’t think I’m ready for dating. Besides, I work every weekend and who wants to go out on a weeknight?”
“Plenty of guys. But what’s your reason?”
“They’ve opened up a new position over on Jekyll. It would be a big deal for me. So I’ve decided. I’m going to get this job, I’m going to get Patrick off my back, and then my life will be perfect.”
“That’s the spirit. And then, when you do, I’ll set you up with my friend’s grandson.”
She sighed. Rose missed the entire point. Lizzie didn’t need a guy or a relationship. She needed to become financially stable so she could stay on the island. She wanted to put down roots.
“Are you trying to wear me down?” Lizzie asked. “If I wait long enough maybe, this friend you’ve been trying to set me up with for the past year will get married to someone else.”
“It’s okay honey. My grandsons have a lot of friends.”
Grabbing her giant carry-all off the ground, Lizzie stood and followed Rose and the rest of the ladies out of the building. The sun had set during class and the street lamps dotting the sidewalks illuminated the unofficial downtown. The other ladies made their way toward the bars and restaurants, their laughter and conversation filling the night. Maybe she should go out, even just once. But, she didn’t want to start talking about the accident again.
Questions, offers of help, kind words, she couldn’t handle any of it, no matter how well intentioned. Her shoulders tightened, a knot forming and she rolled her shoulders. No, she couldn’t go out with them. Not yet. First she had to fine tune her resume, nail the interview, and get that job. She needed to get on with her life, even if moving forward terrified her. She had to focus on this job and land it. Then everything would be perfect.
Walking back to her car, her phone vibrated in the giant purse flung over her shoulder. She peered into the cavernous bag and shook the contents, trying to find the phone. Work shouldn’t be calling on her day off.
“Of course,” she muttered, reading the number.
Strolling across the parking lot, she let the caller stew for a few minutes. She answered on the last ring before her voicemail picked up, as she reached the well-light cobble path winding through the park.
“Hi Patrick, how are you?”
“Lizzie, honestly, why do you always make me wait? Could you save me the ulcer and answer on the first ring?”
“But where would the fun be in that?”
After twenty-five years as his little sister, she’d learned exactly how to push his buttons. For the most part, she loved Patrick and tried to be a good sister. But sometimes annoying him proved to tempting to resist.
Continuing past empty benches, she settled herself on top of a picnic table under several mighty live oaks. During the day the trees beckoned to passersby, offering relief from the blazing sun. At night the friendly trees transformed into the gnarled caricatures of children’s nightmares.
“Okay Patrick. Now I’m ready for you to yell and lecture me like you do every night.”
“I don’t yell…every time.”
“No. Just most of the time.”
“Lizzie, come on. Give me a break,” he pleaded.
His voice sounded weary, making her pause. She hadn’t stopped to think about how the circumstances affected Patrick. Unlike her, he had more than himself to worry about. But that didn’t mean she wanted his constant haranguing.
“Patrick, please stop with the nagging.”
“Frizz, what am I supposed to do?”
She could picture him on the other end of the line. He’d have his head resting in one hand, massaging his temples.
“You’re my kid sister. You’re my responsibility.”
“You’re only five years older than me. I’m grown-up. I’m fine,” she massaged her clenched jaw.
No one could frustrate her as much as her brother, and vice versa. She’d often marveled that they had the same parents. They were two completely different people. Mom and Dad might have understood and accepted who they both were, but Lizzie didn’t know if either she or her brother would be able to do the same.
“I don’t think you’re fine,” he muttered. “Time is running out here, for both of us. I hate the position our parents put us in and you know I’m not pressuring you for myself. I just want to know what is going to happen, to prepare.”
“I know. I understand. I do.”
Her words wavered. She bit the inside of her cheek. Was it too early to tell him? Not if I already told Rose.
“I have news. I haven’t wanted to share anything yet, because I didn’t want to set any expectations. But there is a new position opening up. I’d be perfect for the job, there’s no competition at the Club, and this would be a huge promotion for me.”
“What is it?”
“Manager of Special Events for Jekyll Island. I’d be in charge of overseeing the corporate and special events.”
“So your hours would still be awful.”
She rolled her eyes even though he couldn’t see her.
“Patrick, I work events. It’s a different lifestyle from a boring desk job.”
“How much money?”
“Enough, more than enough. And to be completely honest, I love what I do. I’m good at it. And I don’t mind the hours. Having Monday and Tuesday off is actually nice when you live in a resort town.”
“Frizz, this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“Well, nothing is how it’s supposed to be, right?” she asked, her voice bitter as the sour taste in her mouth from all the tears she’d shed. She hated the way things were. “Aren’t we both just trying figure out what to do next?”
Gazing out across the park to the ocean, the black water crashed against the rocky shoreline. The waves were rough, choppy, and unforgiving in the moonlight, just like her mood. She hated so many things about their situation, but none more than the impossible position Patrick had been put in. What had they been thinking? Why complicate an already tenuous relationship? What was the point?
“I guess so,” he relented.
“Just be happy for me. And promise you’ll come down to help me celebrate in a couple weeks.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Patrick warned. “But I will be in town next month. And you know why I’m coming.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. Already time for the next meeting? She thought they had at least two more months. She needed the job and the paycheck now.
“Yes, yes, fine,” she recovered in quick, hasty assurances.
Her mind whirled liked the palm trees in the park during the heavy winds of a storm. Considering all the potential questions she’d be asked by the lawyers and how she’d propose to solve her quandary. Pressure built behind her eyes and she rubbed her temples. If she didn’t get the job and the raise then she’d have to leave and go to grad school. Otherwise, she and Patrick would be cut out of their inheritance.
“How long will be you here? Are the girls coming?”
“No, I think they’ll hang back. Jen isn’t feeling great with this pregnancy and Marcy is the busiest two year-old I know. She’s in dance, music, art, everything.”
“Another time then. Give them my love and I’ll let you know what happens.”
“Okay, I will. And yes, please let me know how your interview goes. But don’t forget, I’m coming,” Patrick cautioned. “Put it on that calendar of yours, it’s happening no matter what.”
“Fine, good night. I love you,” Lizzie replied and hung up before he could reply.
Anger and frustration boiled up inside her, thinking again about upcoming deadline. She slid off the table and stomped down the path towards the wooden pier, wanting to feel the breeze in her hair. The wind whipped on the pier even when the air stood still on the shore. She wanted to blow away the negative thoughts. She’d never needed something to happen. She’d always been in control of her life.
But now she needed this job and for all her assurances to her brother, she didn’t know if she’d get it. She couldn’t let herself think like that. She had to be in charge of her destiny again, on her terms. Barreling down the Pier, her footsteps echoed against the wooden planks as she passed a few couples out enjoying the beautiful spring evening.
Listening to the crashing waves below and the vague ambient noise of the bars and restaurants nearby, she didn’t hear the man’s approach. With her face raised to gaze at the moon, shining as bright as the noon sun, she didn’t see the raised board. Without warning, an arm grabbed her around the waist as her toe caught in a plank as she began to tumble forward.
“Are you okay?” a man asked her.
He held her upright against his solid ribcage. Her chest rose and fell rapidly with each shallow breath as his grip tightened against her waist, his palms warm through the gauzy material of her shirt. A stranger held her, and yet she felt no urge to extricate herself from his grasp. Or run. She slowed her breathing, hoping to steady her nerves and ignore the way her skin tingled at the contact.
Taking in one more deep, steadying breath, the salt air mixed with the smell of sweat and a faint hint of wood and citrus. Lizzie shook herself. What was she doing? Was she going to stand around in some guy’s arms all night? She broke out of his grip and took a few steps back.
Appraising her savior, her pulse raced anew. She guessed he stood somewhere over six feet, he had at least six inches on her own five six. Wearing a muscle tee and basketball shorts, he glistened in the moonlight like he’d been out for a run. Broad shoulders and muscular arms, browned by the sun, tapered into a trim torso and lean legs. His dark hair was neatly trimmed. As far as she could tell in the moonlight, he was in his early thirties.
“Are you okay?” he repeated.
Her cheeks burned. She’d been too busy appraising him to answer.
“I guess I shouldn’t be out here alone,” she said, finding her voice.
“Or maybe just not at night.”
“Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine. But I’d feel better if you let me walk you home. I’d be doing my part for civic order. Getting one more dangerous female off the streets of St. Simons.”
Pursing her lips, she wrapped her arms around her chest. She hadn’t interacted with a man who wasn’t family or client in a long time. Was he flirting with her? I can’t even read the signs anymore.
“I’m teasing,” he replied. “But it’s not a great idea to be out here alone at night.”
“I know. I’m on my way home. Thank you.”
“No worries. But can I help you get home? Can I walk you there?”
“That’s not necessary. My car is in the lot over there.”
Lizzie clamped her lips shut to stop from rambling. He stared at her mouth and she pressed her lips together, tasting the cherry of her lip-gloss. Thank goodness I’d thought to put some on before practice.
“How about I walk you to your car then?”
Nodding, and careful to avoid the raised board, she retraced her steps down the pier. The man fell into step beside her. Despite their height difference, she noticed that they seemed to have the same gait. Her arm prickled from the heat rolling off him.
“Do you do this a lot? Hang out on the Pier at night to save unsuspecting women?”
“Only the once. But maybe I should.”
“He’s cute, give him a chance,” Rose’s voice filtered into her head.
“Mark, by the way,” he extended his hand.
“Lizzie,” she replied, shaking his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Lizzie. Are you a local?” he asked, dropping her hand.
Her reply stilled on her tongue. Was he? She clasped her hands together behind her back. Disappointment crashed over her. Of course she’d meet someone just passing through. An obvious hazard of living in a resort town, she’d never considered before. You’ve never been interested in anyone before…
“I’m a local,” he offered. She raised an eyebrow at his decidedly un-Southern drawl, very like hers. “Okay, transplant. But I’ve never seen you around.”
“I’ve been here for a couple of years. But I work on Jekyll so I spend most of my time there.”
“Small world. I do too. Where do you work?”
“In the historic district,” she offered. Not that you work around there. Another glance at his bronzed skin and well-developed muscles, she doubted he spent much time behind a desk. He had to work outside somewhere, maybe over by the beach or the waterpark.
They reached her car and she pulled her keys out of her purse. He held open the door for her. She hopped in, turned the keys in the ignition and rolled down the windows. He closed her door and leaned into the window.
“Thanks again for…” she began and quickly stopped, her cheeks heating again.
“Don’t mention it. Maybe I’ll see you around work?”
She smiled but didn’t immediately reply. Seeing him again seemed highly unlikely. But maybe one day he might wander over to the historic district and knock on her office door. Not likely.
“Sure, sounds great,” she replied. “Have a good night.”
He stepped back from the car and she pulled out of the spot and watched him shrink in her rearview mirror. Get the job, go on a date with him, and then my life will be perfect.
* * * * *
At his desk, Mark Edwards scanned over the numbers on his spreadsheet again before turning away to rifle through the top drawer for Advil. He hesitated when his search turned up empty. Had he used up the entire bottle already?
Walking over to the window, he looked out across the manicured lawn of the Jekyll Island Club’s main building towards the river. Usually the view relaxed him. But instead, he caught a glimpse of his own glowering reflection. The deep frown line that had formed between his brows and the bags under his eyes made him look tired. He rolled his neck from side to side, eager to relieve the tension that had become a constant in the past year.
Last night had been interesting. Wrapping his arms around a beautiful girl to save her from herself. Mid twenties, he guessed, from the lack of wrinkles and the determination in her step as she’d raced toward certain doom. Not that falling was certain doom, but she’d been careening into the unknown. He’d been heading towards the unknown too, five or so years ago.
“Lizzie,” he said, testing the name on his tongue.
He liked how the name vibrated against his lips. He’d liked how he could wrap her slight waist in one arm. Brushing up against her, he’d breathed in the smell of fresh laundry and soap. He’d liked watching her walk away too, her pert behind accentuated with tight leggings.
Shaking his head, he settled in at his desk to review the spreadsheet again. Working in catering, he focused on the bottom line, constantly sifting through numbers in his mind. As far as he could tell, these numbers weren’t in their favor. With the economy bouncing back, the smaller events and weddings should be capitalizing on the surge of demand for their exclusive resort. But the prices hadn’t been raised or adjusted in at least three years. And what’s more, he’d gotten in a stack of contracts locking in another year’s weddings at government bailout era rates.
He shut down his computer, glad again for his insistence in turning down a laptop or tablet in favor of a boxy desktop. One of the few work-life balance choices he’d made. He turned off his light, locked up, and walked down the hall to his boss’ office.
“Hi Samantha, is he in?” Mark asked knocking on the outer door as he stepped into the room.
Samantha Andersen, the indomitable gatekeeper to Frank Cade’s office, nodded. She had the presence of an Eastern European wrestler during the iron curtain decades. Many people were put-off by her stiff demeanor, but not Mark. He appreciated her efficiency. Their boss was emotional and moody enough for both of them.
“Yes, he’s waiting on you. And I’m heading out for the night, so please text me if he suddenly needs me back,” she whispered, standing to put on her coat and hustle toward the door as she spoke.
Waving her off, he took in a deep breath. Frank expected him? He swallowed the lump in his throat. He rapped twice at the door in quick succession, and waited.
“Come in,” the deep voice beyond bellowed.
Cracking open the door, he slid in, careful not to betray that the secretary had snuck out a few minutes early. Tobacco permeated the air of the dark paneled room, resembling a private men’s only cigar club more than office. Frank Cade sat behind the desk, swirling a tumbler of bourbon in one hand as the other hand rested on his desk, the fingers tapping rapidly against the worn mahogany.
The man glanced up when Mark shut the door and gestured for him to sit down. Mark would prefer to stand. He’d prefer to get out of the stale, stagnant air as quickly as he could. He craved the sunshine and warm breezes outside his confines. After a day trapped inside, he longed to dive into the ocean and wash off the dried sweat. But he sat, as obliged.
“Ah, Mark Edwards, good, good. So what do you have to tell me?”
“Nothing that you’ll want to hear.”
Frank took a sip from his drink and nodded. “Tell me anyway.”
“They’ve got to raise the prices in events. We could easily be making more on our end for catering. I hate to even think about how little they’re probably charging for the locations.”
“I thought as much,” Frank agreed, he sighed. “I guess I’ll be getting involved, especially now that I’m overseeing this new Manager of Special Events job.”
Mark nodded, unsure how else to respond.
“Fine, I’ll take a look too and give them a call next week. But I wanted to bring up something else.”
Mark raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond otherwise. He’d learned Frank liked brevity.
“You haven’t applied for the Manager of Special Events job yet. Why?”
“I don’t have the experience. I deal with contracts and vendors, not with the public.”
Frank waved off his concern. “Please, I need you to do this job. I need someone rational, logical, and focused on the bottom line. This isn’t about just making brides happy. This will be dealing with corporate clients and foundations and tourists. And this will be about managing your team.”
Mark nodded. He’d initially considered applying for the job. The position would be a promotion and would be dealing with the bigger picture instead of counting each penny on every contract. But handling clients and the public? Mark primarily dealt with contracts and staff. He didn’t sell to potential customers and knew he lacked finesse in understanding others. At least, that’s what his ex had always said.
“What’s there to think about?” Frank interrupted his thoughts. “I want your resume on my desk by Monday morning. At the latest. You’re at the top of my list, Edwards, but they’re making me open the position up for interviews.”
What else was he going to do? Run off and live off your savings and figure out something you love. Maybe slow down and get outside and stop hiding.
“That’s all. Get out of here, it’s almost five and I want to get home. It makes me look bad, you staying later than me every night,” Frank said.
“Have a good night.”
Frank inclined his head and Mark showed himself out. Wasting no time, he jogged down the stairs, out of the hotel, and burst out onto the verandah. He needed to go for a run and he knew Scooter, his dog did too. He hopped in his car and sped off back across the river towards St. Simons Island.
The sun still shone brightly in the crystal blue sky, he loved how late days lasted in the clear heavens. Growing up in the Ohio River Valley, he’d spent his childhood in the gloom of overcast skies. He parked his car in his tiny, perfectly allotted spot in front of his cottage in East Beach.
The little tabby home sat nestled between palm trees on a sandy lot. Two bedrooms and a bathroom comprised the upstairs in the dormer and an eat-in kitchen, family room, office, and half bath downstairs. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, filling his nostrils with the salty air of the ocean. The smell of seaweed made him feel like he was home more than anything else.
Pushing open the gate on his tiny picket fence, he let himself in the front door. His roommate, best friend, and dog, Scooter, had been waiting and jumped up, nearly knocking Mark over, when the door opened. A Newfoundland and Black Lab mix that he’d saved ten years ago from a shelter years before, had the start of cataracts and spent most of his time asleep.
“Hi buddy, how was your day? Anything good happen?”
Scooter’s massive tail swung back and forth, pounding against the wall.
“Come tell me about what you did today.”
Climbing the stairs to his master bedroom, Scooter followed close behind. Mark took off his suit, inspected for paw prints or dog fur before handing it for one more wear and changing into workout clothes. He kept the cottage tidy and neat, valuing efficiency even at home.
“You ready for a walk?”
Scooter played along with their nightly routine, leading the way back downstairs. The dog walked over to the hall closet, pulled his leash off the handle, then sat patiently while Mark clipped the leash onto his collar.
“Okay, let’s go.”
Together, the pair of them set off for the beach, careful to walk against traffic and avoid trudging through yards and driveways whenever possible. Mark waved at a few faces as he passed by their houses, but only got blank stares in return. Maybe if I took this job, I’d actually get to know my neighbors.
After a few blocks, the thin road opened into a large parking lot. Crossing the wooden plank bridge that extended out over the dunes and tall grasses, they stepped on to the powdery sand and trudged through. At the hard packed sand at the water’s edge, Mark unhooked Scooter’s leash and put it in his pocket. During low tide, the beach seemed to extend all the way across the St. Simons Sound to Jekyll. The waves rippled the sand as it retreated, littering the ground with tide pools full of starfish and sea urchins, like perfect miniature aquariums. But tonight, the high tide didn’t leave much room for them to maneuver.
“Okay, remember, go at your pace and I’ll come back. Right?”
Scooter’s wagging tail was all the agreement Mark needed before he set off at a light jog. He needed to run off some steam and frustration. Neither medicating himself with sleeping pills nor drinking alcohol every night appealed to him for relaxation. He didn’t want to become weak or dependent. He wouldn’t let his ex walking out conquer him. She had made that choice, he hadn’t. She had been the liar, not him. Everything Mark had done had been true and honest. He refused to see it any other way or to let doubt enter his mind.
Running until his heart pounded in his ears and sweat poured down his face, he stopped and hunched over to stretch his back and catch his breath. He hung his head between his legs to lengthen the stretch and saw Scooter nearly half a mile behind. He smiled. Years ago, Scooter lapped him. He straightened and jogged back. When Mark reached him, he put out a hand to stop Scooter and sank into the sand.
Scooter sat down next to him, nudging Mark’s arm up with his nose. Mark leaned in for a hug and rubbed Scooter’s belly. The dog had always been a source of comfort, giving his affection freely as long as his needs were met.
“Scooter, what do you think about me taking a different job? I could be home more. We could go to the beach, take more walks, play fetch?”
The dog gave him a wet smack from chin to forehead.
“Okay,” Mark dried his face against his shoulder. “Understood. I guess I’m getting a new job.”