Finally near the top of the hill, she stopped in front of a gated garden. A tall brick fence ran in both directions. Numbers in antique tiles were embedded in the wall, and the address matched the one in Jo’s bag, the one she’d scribbled on the slip of paper but had also committed to memory.
On the other side of the fence, a meticulously manicured tropical garden led to the wide front porch of a large plantation house. Jo gripped the wrought-iron gate and peered through at the house she knew, deep in her gut, belonged to her mother.
Piano music drifted out across the garden. Jo crinkled her brow. Did her mother play piano? She should know that, but she didn’t. She stood there, her hands wrapped around the bars, gazing at the house and straining to hear the music. After a few minutes, the tune ended. Jo exhaled and inhaled sharply, realizing she’d been holding her breath. Her chest ached, and she didn’t know if the hike up the hill or the confused feelings churning through her had caused the pain.
The front door swung open, and a young man exited. Jo had never seen him before, but he had the silver hair—short and spiked—and pale gray skin her mother did. If she understood how her mother’s people worked, she expected the man to be from the same clan as her mother.
He stood on the porch and took a cigarette case out of the inside pocket of his cream linen suit coat. He opened it, withdrew a cigarette, and placed it between his lips. He put the case away and removed a lighter from another pocket.
He lit his cigarette, guarding the lighter’s flame with a cupped hand, and lifted his gaze.
He clearly saw Jo.
Jo released her grip and stepped away from the gate. Without another thought, she turned and jogged down the hill, her old deck shoes slapping against the road’s paving stones.
At the first rum joint, she entered and ordered a punch and an extra shot.
She sat in a cheap plastic chair with her two drinks, an upturned bucket serving as a cocktail table. She downed the shot first, letting it flow through her and warm her as it calmed her. Then she sat back, holding her punch and thinking about how she’d reacted. Sure, she’d been caught, but why run? Why not call out and announce her presence?
What will Mama think?
She’d spent a long time telling herself she didn’t care, that the woman meant little and all Jo needed was her father. She’d also spent years pretending as if she didn’t want a real relationship with anyone.
Then she met Cliff.
And, deep down, that fear of rejection still lurked in her heart, threatening to destroy her future with anyone.
What if her mother refused to see her? Was busy or gone or…what?
And that man she’d seen on the porch. Surely a relative, comfortable at the house. Did he know about her? Wild speculation, completely uncharacteristic of Jo, took over her thinking. Is he my brother?
Perhaps her mother never came to see Jo because she had another family, a full-blooded family—all silver-haired and pale-skinned—who didn’t embarrass her the way Jo probably did.
But her mother had loved Jo’s dark-skinned father at some point. She knew they hadn’t just had a one-night stand, but she needed to hear it from her mother. Jo needed to know that the half of her from that woman was as capable of love and commitment as Josiah Vaughn was.
Right now, she didn’t know.
* * * *
Ollie took Cliff deep into the town, away from the public beach, marina, and city square. The streets were narrow, the buildings Spanish colonial with stucco exteriors and wrought-iron railings, not unlike the French Quarter of New Orleans or downtown Old San Juan.
After weaving into the depths of the old town, Ollie halted in front of a building that appeared more ancient than the others. It had weathered bargeboard sides, gray with age, and heavy wooden shutters. Time had caused the glass in the windows to ripple, obscuring the view of the dark interior.
“You’ll find what you need here,” Ollie said confidently as he hopped off his seat and landed on the paving stones. He pushed open the front door. “Coming?”
“Don’t you need to tie up your mule?” Cliff asked as he climbed down and joined Ollie by the door.
“Nah, da Professor will stay right dere till I need him.” Ollie held the door open, and Cliff pushed past him into the shop.
The inside of the shop was dark, stuffy, and dusty. Antiques dating from the colonial period mixed with junk which looked more suited to a trash pile on the sidewalk. Cliff took in the old typewriters, the vintage souvenirs, the Carnival costumes. He glanced back at Ollie, dubious. Surely this place wouldn’t have what he wanted.
“Come.” Ollie let the door swing closed and led Cliff into the depths of the store. In the back was a very old, very battered showcase with a very old, very battered woman crouched behind it. She had wiry white hair that shot out around her head like a dandelion. Through small, round-rimmed glasses, she peered down at a red, green, yellow, and black crochet project in her lap.
“Grandmoda,” Ollie said as he planted his elbows and leaned over the showcase at the old woman. “I brought you a customer.”
The old woman looked up at Ollie, squinted, then glanced at Cliff.
When he saw her eyes, magnified by the lenses in her glasses, he sucked in a breath. She gazed at him as if she knew him. She smiled, gaps in her teeth and the thin skin of her lips tight.
“A young man in love!” she exclaimed, dropping her crocheting and clasping her hands.
Cliff raised his eyebrows and glanced at Ollie, who nodded.
“My grandmoda knows, mon,” he said.
“I need a ring,” Cliff said slowly. He looked through the smudged glass of the display case, wondering if there was anything in there that would do what he wanted it to do.
Something magical to make Jo his.
The old woman grinned, her smile similar to Ollie’s. She stood, and the yarn and a sleeping kitten tumbled toward the floor. With preternatural swiftness, the cat shook itself awake midair and flipped, landing on all fours with a soft puff of dust. It scampered after the rolling ball of yarn.
The woman wore a white linen shirt and a patchwork skirt of tropical calicos. Her feet were bare, her toes painted a bright orange. She took a few steps forward and rested her weight on the display case as if she was incapable of making it any farther.
With a groan, she leaned down and reached in for something in the dusty, disorganized case.
She brought out a tray of jewelry that mostly looked like glass and paste. Cliff sighed, feeling as if he’d wasted a trip, but then the woman began picking through the tray with her long dark brown fingers.
“A ring,” she breathed, her focus entirely on the tray. Her eyes set deep in her head twinkled in the dim light, like dual candles in a jack-o-lantern. She glanced up sharply at Cliff. “She’s a special girl, isn’t she?”
Cliff furrowed his brow. Of course she’d say that to any man buying an engagement ring, but she seemed to possess more knowledge behind the comment than idle shopkeeper banter. Cliff looked over at Ollie, who leaned against the wall, waiting patiently.
Cliff nodded and returned his attention to the woman.
She held a ring out to him, and Cliff gasped involuntarily.
His friend Todd had married last year, and Todd’s fiancée had chosen her engagement ring well in advance of Todd ever asking her to marry him. The ring came from the most estimable jewelry shop in Memphis—the Tiffany’s of the South, basically—and had a diamond on it that should have been in a museum’s gem collection. Platinum pave band, Cliff remembered hearing again and again and again. Cost a fortune.
He knew Jo wouldn’t want something like that. She wouldn’t risk it getting caught in engines or on fishing lines or lost in the ocean.
But this ring…
“May I?” he asked, reaching for it tentatively.
The woman nodded.
Cliff took the ring from her and gazed at it more closely.
Cliff had never seen anything like it. The ring possessed a band which would cover the entire section of the finger from knuckle to base. The metal shown ghostly in the dim light. Silver or white gold, maybe? A large aquamarine carbuncle sat atop the setting, and mother-of-pearl inlaid the band in swirling patterns, like waves or wind.
Entranced, Cliff nearly slipped it on his own finger, but a smack of the lips and click of the tongue from the woman stopped him.
“One of a kind,” the woman said.
“I can see that,” Cliff replied. The ring had all the sign of a one-off by a master craftsman.
Cliff thought hard about the object. No one would call it traditional, and it looked too large for Jo. He would need a jeweler as skilled as the one who had made the ring to resize it. That would be a challenge. The ring spoke to him, though, and he knew Jo would love it.
He had to have it.
“How much?” he asked.
The old woman’s persistent smiled widened. She named a price.
Cliff swallowed. “You take credit cards?”
She produced, from behind the display case, a smartphone with a credit card reader attached. “Of course. Visa, MasterCard, American Express.”