Authors: Maureen A. Miller
For a moment there was simply the sad whistle of the wind leaking through the Jeep’s chassis, and then Jake shook his head and turned toward her with a droll grin.
“You’re too damn much, Meg, do you know that?”
Feeling victorious over the minor triumph of his smile, Megan laughed. “Did you ever hear the one about the—”
Jake cut her off with the sweep of his thumb across her bottom lip. Megan’s breath hitched in her throat. There was enough turbulence in his stare to challenge any storm.
“You better watch it, Megan Summers—or Margaret Simmons.” His voice was soft and husky. “I’m just liable to say something that will dramatically change the scope of our relationship.”
Megan wanted to believe it was something to mirror her own feelings, but she dared not risk the temptation. How in God’s name could he care for a woman with razor-studded baggage? A woman he couldn’t even address by name?
She opened her mouth to respond, but his thumb continued its soft perusal.
“So,” Jake sighed and reluctantly withdrew. “
is why we are here.”
Her lips formed a small
She cleared her throat and managed, “Oh.”
Jake held her gaze for a weighted moment, a moment during which she heard her heart pounding in her ears. Thump
“Hail,” Jake muttered. “Better make a run for it.”
Before her wits could return, Megan watched Jake jut a long leg out into the mire and then he thrust his whole body into the motion. Still hypnotized, she caught his murky shadow round the front of the Jeep, crossing to her side to haul open the passenger door. A frigid mixture of wind and ice instantly pricked her face, but she mechanically followed Jake’s lead.
Hail pelted the craggy path before her, some exceptionally large pellets bouncing up to assault her legs. Relying on Jake’s arm for support, Megan finally let go and sprinted the last few steps to seek shelter under a sagging aluminum overhang.
Up three unstable steps, she stomped her boots on the rotted porch and shook out her hair. Jake mumbled something to the effect of
as he regarded the deck littered with garbage cans and firewood barely shielded under green tarpaulin. She turned to look at him, but his head was craned in scrutiny of the gutter that had broken loose and surged water into a pool near the stairs.
Preoccupied, she gasped when the front door opened.
Megan recognized John Morse from the brief encounter at O’Flanagan’s. On his turf, under his surly perusal, she felt no less anxious than she had at the inn. He was a dark, severe man and resembled a wild horse with his black mane billowing out in the wind and then cascading back against his face.
“Wasn’t expecting guests,” Morse muttered as he coughed into his fist. Through the screen his features were distorted, but his guarded demeanor could not be concealed. She couldn’t tell if it was hostility or curiosity in those penetrating eyes, but what was obvious was that he was not looking at her. John Morse was staring at Jake.
“I know you don’t know us,” Jake began, “but my name is Jake Grogan, and I’m wondering if I could have a few moments of your time.” He hesitated and held his palm out as if his hand could speak for him. Finally, he managed, “To talk about your uncle.”
The dark eyes did not waver. In the ensuing silence, Megan wrapped her arms about her to ward off the coastal wind as she watched its frigid fingers toy with Morse’s hair. Still, Morse did not move or speak. She glanced over her shoulder at the Jeep already blanketed with a thin veil of snow. She sought Jake’s gaze, but he was locked in a visual tug-of-war.
At last, Morse pushed the screen door open and stepped back to admit them.
Only the assuring touch of Jake’s hand at her waist could propel her forward. For as much trepidation as she felt though, the allure of the warm fire inside suppressed some fear.
“Thanks,” Jake said gruffly, the door slamming shut behind him. “I guess you’re wondering who I am—or what we’re doing here?”
Morse had taken only one step back and crowded Megan and Jake on the unraveled throw rug sitting just inside the doorway. He might have fallen a few inches short of Jake’s dominant frame, but John Morse was no less intimidating. There was an animalistic keenness to his eyes that made Megan instinctively move closer to Jake.
“I know who you are,” he said with solemn resolve.
Taken aback, Jake’s hand clenched. “Oh?”
For the first time, Morse blinked. The swarthy stranger slowly gauged Jake and his eyebrow arched in conclusion.
“You’re my cousin,” he uttered with feigned disinterest.
The floor suddenly seemed unstable. Not made of wood, but something porous that threatened to suck him under. Jake looked at the man—really looked at him
Long black hair was tucked behind one ear to reveal a bronze complexion with shrewd eyes narrowed in scrutiny. Jake searched the broad cheekbones and slightly hooked nose for any resemblance, but it was as if he had a complete mental lapse as to what his own countenance looked like.
Jake sought Megan’s gaze. Just the fact that she was there, with an encouraging smile and a tender touch tugged at something inside his chest, but his plaintive look must have asked the question his lips refused to pose.
“I don’t really see a whole lot of resemblance,” she offered uneasily.
Morse shrugged a flannel shoulder as if he could care less about their opinion.
“Harriet told me you would probably stop by.” Turning his back to them, he moved through the central room that served as a sleeping quarters, galley and hospitality suite. Across the back wall ran a nicked Formica counter from which he grabbed a percolator coffeepot and held it up in invitation.
When Megan and Jake shook their heads, Morse’s dark eyes sliced to the kitchen table.
“Whisky?” He snickered.
Their silent denial made him shrug.
“So.” Morse gave them a guarded look. “Why are you here?”
Jake felt a sense of surrealism in this seaside shanty. Threadbare throw rugs lined a path into the middle of the room. A plaid upholstered sofa with concave cushions sat before a television capped with aluminum foil antennas. Piles of newspapers were stacked up against the wall in an apparent protest against recycling. Drawn roller blinds, some warped, concealed the view of the ocean as a brass lamp cast a dull glow over the uneven floorboards. Only the bare bulb dangling from a wire over the kitchen table truly lit up the place.
The entire sweep of the room lasted less than five seconds. A counter full of dirty dishes, an unmade bed, a heap of clothes thrown into a pile beside the bed, empty bottles on the wood-planked floor—all indications of a man who just didn’t give a damn
Morse cleared his throat expectantly, and Jake remembered that he had been asked a question. He volleyed with one of his own. “How do you know who I am?”
In his periphery, Jake noticed Megan shaking her head.
“Your uncle, Crow, did he…? Was anything ever…?” It was hard for Jake to even form the questions. He had no idea where to begin. “Did he ever tell you what happened?”
Morse lifted the mug to his mouth, tasted the coffee, furrowed his nose and dumped the viscous liquid down the drain. He reached for the whisky bottle and poured an ample amount into his mug. After one hearty sip, his disposition seemed to improve and his sneer turned into indifference.
“I’m not much for conversation,” Morse declared.
Surprisingly it was Megan who fell prey to impatience. She latched a hand on her hip and cocked her head. “This isn’t exactly a social call.”
The grin on Morse’s face could have been enough to deter the faint of heart, but Jake saw through the veneer. This swarthy man, who very likely was his own flesh and blood, seemed to brood and menace to estrange people, but there was a keen interest in those eyes when they settled back on Jake.
Jake pursued a different course. “Did your uncle live here?”
After a pause to refill his mug, Morse gave the back porch an indifferent glance and then turned around, slouching against the counter. “Yeah—yeah he lived here for a while.” He snorted into his mug. “But he didn’t like to hear my father harping on him.” Shadowed eyes met Jake’s and held. “He didn’t want to answer questions.”
Outside, the ocean roared against the cliff. The sound was so close Jake instinctively looked at the kitchen floor, expecting the first licks of saltwater to pool there, but the cracked linoleum remained dry.
“Your father?” Jake guessed the answer before Morse confirmed it.
“I’m sorry.” And he truly was. Suddenly, he felt the pain of losing relatives so young in life. “But surely something was said?”
Perhaps the whisky was finally kicking in. Morse tipped back a kitchen chair and lowered himself onto the edge of the seat.
“Everyone knows the tale. You don’t need me.”
“Look.” Jake’s patience ran out.
For thirty-five years he had led a decent life, never knowing his background. In less than
a week he had accrued enough questions to last a lifetime, and was not going to be put off any longer.
“Maybe they do.” Jake’s voice was low, lethal enough to draw Morse’s bleary gaze into clarity. “But
don’t. I’ve heard bits, pieces, but not enough. Not enough to understand what happened. Not enough to accept that I’ve gone through my life never knowing what blood pumped in my veins.”
Morse looked at him sharply now. His hand abandoned the mug. “Does it bother you, then?” he chided, though his heart didn’t seem into the taunt. “Does it bother you to learn that you’re a half-breed?”
Jake had never even considered the term, but looking at Morse, at the bitterness that tightened his lips, he guessed that the man had gone through life with a label.
And now Jake shared that tag.
“What bothers me is the ignorance.” Jake hooked back the opposite chair, but decided he was too uptight to sit. “Dammit, if you know something, tell me.”
Somewhere on the roof, a loose tile flapped in the wind sounding like a finger tapping impatiently.
“My father told Crow he was a fool.”
The low tone arrested Jake’s attention. Weary, he lowered himself into the chair. He saw Megan rest her hip against the worn arm of the sofa. She tried for an encouraging smile, but he could tell she was worried about him.
At this very minute, a madman could be waiting for her back at Wakefield House, but Jake knew that Megan’s fretting hands were solely for him.
“He was a fool to mess around with a white woman.” Bitterness invaded Morse’s features. “My father did it. He married a white woman, but she was a waitress, and the few years they had together, I’m told he was happy.”
“What happened?” Jake’s curiosity took a turn, and he was suddenly concerned for this embittered man who was so far the only living blood relative that he knew of…well, except for Estelle.
Morse reached for the mug again, but never lifted it. “Ask me why I go by my mother’s maiden name.”
“The Musgraves were lobstermen. They were hard workers. They were good men.” Bitterness tainted Morse’s assessment.
“My father married a waitress named Mary,” he continued before tipping the mug back.
“In Victory Cove there are very few families of influence, the rest are working class. Regardless, they were white and still considered one step above us.”
A newfound view on racism wormed its way into Jake’s mind. He never considered himself a racist. Raised by honest and kind parents, he had been isolated from racial alienation, and later in life he was just too busy to build up prejudices.
But now Jake suddenly felt defensive. He felt protective of this newfound ally—and even more so, felt a unique bond.
“I’ll admit to being too ignorant to dispute that. So, why did you choose your mother’s maiden name?”
Morse sneered into his drink. “My father drowned in a storm when I was sixteen. Till that day my last name was Musgrave.” With a twist of his wrist, the man swirled the last ounce of
liquid, but set the mug back down.
“There was no obituary. No accolades for a life of hard work, not even a funeral. His body was lost at sea. My father’s death never even registered in this town. I was so angry—” Morse brushed aside the mug with such a strong sweep it nearly toppled off the edge of the table, “—that I disavowed him too.”
Jake felt the man’s pain like a blanket of cement, something you could never get out from under. He must have revered his father, and when his death was barely considered worth a commentary by the people of Victory Cove, John Morse became so disillusioned, his only defense was to join in their cynicism.
“Your father,” Jake began quietly, “was he as good a lobsterman as Crow?”
Morse was silent for a moment, lost in contemplation. His eyes lifted though, and then he snorted. “Hmmph, there was none better than either of them. They were the best.”
A keen aura of pride suffused Jake. “What was his name? Your father’s name?”
My uncle’s name.
“George.” Morse hesitated, and then broad shoulders drew back on a deep intake. “My uncle called him Gray Fox, on account of him going prematurely gray and all, not some mystical Indian folklore.”
“Gray Fox,” Jake repeated and tried to drum up an image.
“He died too, you know. Your father.” Morse lacked any decorum.
Jake flinched at the words. “When?”
“He left Victory Cove. No one really knows what he did, or where he went, but my father came home one day and told me he was dead.” A moment of sobriety kicked in and Morse mumbled, “Sorry.”
“So that’s what happened?” Jake had to encapsulate to get past the emotions that were pummeling him. “My parents had an affair. Estelle Wakefield disapproved. And I was shipped away—something not to be mentioned in public?”
To his surprise, Morse grinned. The man rose, remarkably agile for the state of inebriation he was rapidly approaching. His heavy boots thumped on the cracked tile and a cabinet door screeched as he swung it open. Wide and tan, his hand wrapped around a Mayor McCheese glass and he returned to the table to grab the whisky bottle. He sloshed some of the liquid into the glass and nudged it forward in front of Jake.
“Yeah, that about sums it up,” he said, and then tossed a nod at Mayor McCheese, quickly adding, “Now are you ready for that drink?”
Thunder pounded in Jake’s head. Instinctively he turned toward the window, and yes the weather was awful, but the thunder existed solely inside him. He stared at the amber liquid, fascinated by the way the overhead light cast through it to spread a diffused golden halo on the Formica surface.
He grunted and reached for the glass.
“Yeah, I’m ready now.”
“Are you okay?”
They sat in silence before the Regal Diner, its huge plate-glass window misted with the exception of a smiley face drawn by a diminutive silhouette squirming inside. The street was empty, the blacktop just starting to mat with a fresh spray of flurries. The flakes were fine, in that transient state between rain and snow, only perceptible when contact was made with the pavement. Just after they left Morse’s shack, Jake pulled over in town to use a payphone,
complaining that his cell signal was useless in this
mecca of oblivion.
He returned to the car, wet and solemn, reporting that his sister was not home, and then he fell back into discouraged silence.
Megan held her tongue and waited for him to open up, but concern ultimately overpowered decorum.
“Jake, talk to me.”
He flinched. She could hear the soft rustle of his suede jacket, and then the deep inflection of his voice.
“I’m fine, Meg.”
Not from what she could see. His hands gripped the steering wheel so fiercely she thought the leather would disintegrate. Normally golden eyes now reflected the gray sky, and the wavy ends of his black hair glistened under the streetlight from his recent jog across the street through the mist. A shift in his jaw was a sure indication he was grinding his teeth.
“Liar,” she chided.
Jake deflated. He tipped his head back against the headrest. His hands fell from the steering wheel onto his lap and his neck angled to face her. Megan was surprised to find the corner of his mouth inching up into a crooked smile.
“You’re a pain in the ass.”
the pain in the ass. You wouldn’t go away. Now you’re here. You have accepted my situation.” Her brow furrowed. “Sort of. So I’m entitled to this concern.”