Brett drove past row after row of spiny-lobster traps stacked like wooden pallets before arriving at the marina restaurant.
“We’re here, Auggie.” Ruth ended her call while she glanced in the sun visor’s mirror. As she finger-combed her dark, shoulder-length hair into place, her sea-green eyes stared back, and she smiled at her reflection, eager to begin her working vacation.
Then she took in the harbor. Sailboats and fishing boats with massive marlin towers stood in sharp relief against the Florida Keys’ azure sky as they lay anchored behind the brightly-painted waterfront eatery.
Stepping out of the car’s air-conditioning into the bright sunlight, she beamed at her dark-haired fiancé. “This really is the Sunshine State.”
Brett nodded while his tawny brown eyes fixed on a place-your-face standee. “Auggie?”
With just their faces showing, a man and his dog posed behind a plywood cutout painted to look like a mermaid and a fish wearing a chef’s hat. Carrying a small dog in his arms, the man stepped out from behind the stand-up painting. “Good to see you.” While he shook hands with Brett, he introduced his furry companion. “This is Diesel.”
“Hello, Diesel.” Brett shook the dog’s paw as it reached over to lick him. Then smiling, he turned toward Ruth. “This is my fiancée Ruth, and this is my uncle Auggie, the one who’s been giving you directions.”
“So, you’re the adventurous uncle I’ve heard so much about. It’s great to put a face to a voice.” Smiling, she offered her hand, but Auggie reached his arm around her to hug her. Pressed between them, Diesel licked her face, while she chuckled at the dog’s tickling tongue and peered at his owner.
Early forties, tanned, sun-bleached hair, wearing a devil-may-care smile, Auggie had the look of a man who had not worn a business suit in decades. His shirt collar unbuttoned, a coin hanging at his neck, he held the wiry, tricolored dog against his chest as if a part of him.
“Uncle.” Auggie groaned as he broke away. “It sounds so old.”
“Nonsense.” Ruth smiled at her future husband. “According to Brett, you’re as ageless as the sea.”
“You’re not calling me an old salt, are you?” Arching a brow, he faked a frown.
Ruth shook her head at his sense of humor. “Never.”
“In that case—” he led them to a thatch-roofed bar a flight up, overlooking the Gulf “—come on upstairs to the best oyster and stone-crab bar in Marathon. Shellfish are cracked to order, and it’s Happy Hour all day.”
After he placed their order, he led them to a corner table in the back with a panoramic view of the Gulf. “What can I get you to drink? Beer? Wine?” He glanced at Ruth.
“A dark local beer’s good,” she said.
Setting his dog on the chair, Auggie turned toward his nephew. “How ’bout you?”
“Same here.” As Auggie sauntered toward the bar, Brett turned toward Ruth. “He’s my mother’s younger brother, from the Maehkaenah, the Turtle Clan. Though he’s closer in age to an older cousin than an uncle, he taught me everything I know about fishing and boating.”
Diesel kept his gaze peeled on his person, barely acknowledging either of them until Auggie returned with the drinks. As soon as he sat, Diesel climbed on his lap.
“This dog sure does love you.” Ruth reached over to pet the dog’s wiry fur.
Auggie gave Diesel an affectionate hug. “He’s a rat terrier mix, descended from the first refugee stowaway during the 1980 Cuban boatlift.”
“That’s quite a pedigree,” said Ruth tongue-in-cheek as her phone pinged. She glanced at it. “My cousin Keya’s here.” She texted back.
Three minutes later, a thirty-something woman appeared at the head of the stairs, wearing sunglasses, a kaftan, a wide-brimmed raffia sunhat over her blonde chignon, and a matching bag.
A striped golden cat peeked from her handbag, and its eyes grew enormous as it took in the scene.
Removing her dark glasses, the woman spotted Ruth and dashed toward her in a whirlwind of woven straw and trailing silk.
Diesel let out a warning yelp, while the cat, still peeking from the bag, hissed back.
“Earnestine,” scolded the woman. “Behave.”
Auggie held Diesel closer, petting him until he calmed down.
When Ruth stood to hug her, Keya’s gaze traveled to her left hand, where she inspected the diamond ring. “Lovely, but where’s the wedding band?”
Ruth caught Brett’s eye before answering. “We just got engaged.”
Keya hugged her, then gave her another affectionate squeeze before letting go. “One ring’s good, but two are better, so encore! Encore!”
“Encore…” Ruth cracked a smile. “You haven’t changed a bit—still the theater major.”
“Theatre, love.” Keya affected a British pronunciation tinged with a certain melancholy. “All the world’s a stage.”
Ruth did a double take at her tone as she introduced the group. “This is my husband-to-be Brett and his uncle Auggie, and this is my infamous cousin Keya, who’s always had a flair for the theatrical. When we were kids, we must have put on dozens of shows for our parents, improvising one-act plays whenever our families got together. After graduation, she left for the bright lights of Broadway.”
“Got as far as off-Broadway, love.” Keya added with an ironic smile, “Close, but not quite the same.”
Brett stood to hug her. “I almost feel I know you. Ruth’s told me so much about you.”
Her violet eyes twinkling, Keya glanced at Ruth. “All good, I hope?”
“I’ve never heard the name Keya before,” said Auggie. “What’s it mean?”
She shared a smile with Ruth before answering. “Turtle.”
“Okay, I’ll take the bait.” He gave her a skeptical smile. “Why did your parents name you after a turtle?”
“They were hippies, living in a California commune.” Keya shrugged. “When my mother dreamt of a turtle walking down a rocky path, she went to a Sioux medicine woman to interpret the dream.
“The woman reminded her that turtles carry their homes on their backs, but people don’t. She said a turtle on the move meant it was looking for a place to nest, and my mother should ‘make haste slowly’ to find a nest of her own because she was pregnant with a daughter. Finally, she advised her to name me Keya in honor of the dream.”
“The medicine woman sounds like she had a good eye for reading people.” Auggie gave her a congenial smile. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Definitely!” Keya turned toward him, pausing a beat as she seemed to appraise his sun-burnished face and amber-brown eyes. “A Pineapple Cinnamon Mojito would be lovely.”
He set down his dog and pulled up a chair for Keya. “Be right back.”
“Thank you.” Then she lifted her index finger as if remembering something important. “Tell the bartender to be sure to muddle the pineapple with a wooden spoon and to add a generous dollop of whipped cream.” She winked.
It was Auggie’s turn to do an amused double take. “Work like a captain; play like a pirate, eh?”
Keya’s eyes glinted as she nodded. “Something like that.”
“So,” asked Brett, “what brought you to the Florida Keys?”
Her violet-blue eyes lost their sparkle and glazed over. Her shoulders slumped, as if the wind had been knocked out of her sails, and the cat climbed on her lap, nuzzling her. “My husband,” she whispered.
Responding to Brett’s panicked glance for help, Ruth filled in. “Keya’s husband passed away three months ago after he’d been in a coma for over a year.”
“Fourteen months to be exact,” said Keya. “He had a stroke just after he inherited the house.” She shook her head. “If his aunt hadn’t left him that property, I believe he’d still be alive today.”
“Why do you say that?” Ruth scrutinized her.
“The stress of dealing with his family’s lawsuit killed him. Relatives crawled out of the woodwork for that phony inheritance claim. Every second cousin, twice removed, wanted his or her cut, and it had nothing to do with any sentiment for Aunt Libby or the house.” Sighing in frustration, she grimaced. “They just wanted their piece of the pie.”
“Why did she leave her house to Jules?” asked Ruth. “Was he her closest relative?”
“From what he told me, Jules and one other cousin were her closest kin, as well as the only ones to keep in touch with her through the years. Though she left it to them both, his cousin disclaimed it.”
“Disclaimed it. I’m not familiar with the term.” Brett squinted as he examined her. “You mean, the cousin refused it?”
Keya nodded. “After he walked away, the estate passed to Jules, who was immediately served with a lawsuit, contesting his aunt’s will. Dozens of distant relatives’ names appeared on it, mostly people he didn’t know and hadn’t met. All the aggravated stress brought on a stroke. He lingered for fourteen months in a coma. Then when he passed away, leaving his estate to me. His family filed another lawsuit, contesting his will.”
Brett shook his head. “Sometimes family can treat you worse than strangers.”
Her mouth taut, Keya nodded.
“Here you go.” Auggie placed her drink in front of her.
Keya’s smile seemed forced as she looked from him to her cream-topped drink, sprinkled with cinnamon and garnished with fresh mint leaves and a cinnamon stick. “Thanks, love.” She took a sip and licked her lips. “Delicious.” Then holding her drink as if in a toast, she called to the bartender. “My compliments.”
The man bobbed his head in a good-natured nod.
As it sniffed the drink, the cat stood on her lap and meowed.
Keya sighed. “All right, Earnestine, one sip, but be quick. We’re in public.” The cat lapped at the mojito’s cream while Keya explained. “Since Jules passed, she’s become my drinking buddy and insists on tasting every drink.”
As Brett’s eyebrows rose, Ruth swallowed a smile. “Keya’s always had a certain…affinity for animals, ever since we were kids.”
Keya nodded. “It’s true, although now more than ever. Animals never let you down. People might, but animals never do.”
“Hear, hear,” said Auggie, raising his beer. “I’ll drink to that.”
Keya lifted her glass away from the cat, who was still lapping at the cream. “Excuse me, Earnestine.” Then clinking her drink against his bottle, she sipped while she cuddled the cat.
Mewing, Earnestine curled on her lap, while Diesel appeared content on Auggie’s lap. Both seemed relaxed in the group’s company.
A waiter brought smoked mullet dip with a variety of crisp crackers to start. Another brought a platter of cracked stone crab claws and peel-and-eat shrimp on a bed of crushed ice with ramekins of tangy mustard and cocktail sauce, while a third waiter brought oysters on the half shell with lemon slices and mignonette sauce, along with paper plates, plastic seafood forks, and plenty of napkins.
Ruth peeled off the shell of a cracked stone crab claw and dipped it in the mustard sauce. As she bit into the firm, sweet meat, she groaned. “Delicious. Tastes something like lobster—yet different.”
They passed the platters family style, sampling the seafood finger foods as they chatted.
Auggie held the dog on his lap throughout their meal, sneaking him bits of shellfish while Keya put slivers of shrimp on a cocktail napkin for the cat.
As she shelled a shrimp, Keya asked, “Do you live in Marathon, Auggie?”
He shook his head. “Diesel and I live aboard a houseboat in Key West.”
Keya’s violet eyes dilated as she studied him. “So, the sea’s your mistress.”
Seeming to gather his thoughts, Auggie laughed self-consciously as he glanced at Diesel. “It is where my heart is—” he gave her an enigmatic smile, “—and it’s home.”
“Don’t you ever tire of sailing and want to settle in one place?”
“Maybe someday.” He shrugged. “Just not yet.”
“I understand the call of the unknown, the wanderlust.” She breathed deeply as if reliving memories. “I’ve always spent a year or two traveling, exploring, and then a year or two regrouping at home.” Keya caught Auggie’s eye as she laughed. “I need both—first flitting about, seeing the world, and then relaxing in my nest—just not concurrently.”
“Plot your own course, I always say.” The glow in Auggie’s eyes flickered. “For Diesel and me, home is where the anchor drops. We’re just two sea dogs happy to sail the high seas.”
“Brett will be living at sea this week.” Ruth turned toward Auggie. “He’s going on a fishing trip with five old college friends. Let’s see if he finds his sea-legs.”
“You’re in for a treat, Brett.” Auggie’s eyes lit up. “Nothing compares to a sea voyage.” Then he glanced at Ruth. “What’ll you be doing while he’s off fishing?”
“Keya landed me a freelance writing assignment where she volunteers at the Turtle Refuge.” Ruth glanced at her cousin. “She’s always had a special gift, and from what I understand, she puts it to good use at the refuge.”
Shrugging, Keya gave a modest laugh. “I don’t do much.”
“That’s not what I hear.” Ruth shook her head before turning to Auggie. “She communicates with animals.”
“Is that so?” Auggie cocked an eyebrow.
Keya nodded. “I help the veterinarians find out what’s wrong with the turtles by talking to them.”
“Talking to the vets?” Auggie’s brow creased.
Keya shook her head. “Talking to the turtles. A turtle’s heart beats only 20 times per hour, so surgery’s limited to an hour, tops, leaving just minutes to explore. To save time and suffering, I ask the turtles where they hurt.”
Auggie’s cynical stare spoke for him.
“You don’t believe me?” Shoulders straightening as she met his gaze, Keya challenged him.
“Let’s just say—” he shrugged “—I’m skeptical.”
“Then allow me to demonstrate.” Keya scarcely concealed a sneer as she whispered to Earnestine. “Sit on Ruth’s lap, while I chat with Diesel.”
The cat gave a low, throaty growl but climbed off her lap, onto Ruth’s.
Then Keya fixed her gaze on Diesel. Making no sound, she seemed to mentally engage him as he first perked his ears and then cocked his head, studying her. After a few moments, he crossed from Auggie’s lap to hers.
Then Keya petted the dog rhythmically, methodically covering his body with her hands. As she touched one point on his rear thigh, he yelped. Keya nodded and massaged the area. “He pulled a muscle yesterday.”
Sitting up straight, Auggie blinked. “He was limping a little last night now that you mention it.”
After a few minutes, Diesel sighed and relaxed against Keya.
“Well, I’ll be.” Auggie laughed. “I’ve never seen him take a liking to anyone so fast.”
“He just needed a woman’s touch.” Still petting the dog, Keya gave Auggie an impish smile. “Convinced?”
“Dogs don’t lie.” He shook his head. “You can’t buy their affection.”
“Unlike some people.” Her mouth twisted in a bitter frown. “Sorry. I just thought of the Erskines’ lawsuit.” She took a cleansing breath and let it go.
Auggie sat up straight. “Did you just say Erskine?”
Keya nodded. “My late husband’s family. Why? Do you—”
“You’d said Jules earlier…” He hit his forehead with the flat of his hand. “You weren’t married to Jules Erskine by any chance, were you?”
“I was.” Stiffening, Keya blinked. “Why?”
“I’m his cousin, August Erskine.”
Keya’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t recognize the name Auggie, but I know ‘August Erskine’ from the paperwork.” Pushing back her chair, she scowled at him. “You’re part of that family’s lawsuit. You and your clan killed my husband with your litigation.”
“Now just a doggone minute!” Auggie reached for Diesel as Keya stood. “I had nothing to do with that lawsuit.”
“No?” She stared him down. “Your name’s on it!”
Auggie shook his head. “An early version of that document included my name—without my consent—but I had it removed. I want nothing to do with that lawsuit—or those shirttail relatives contesting the will.” He glanced at Brett. “Your mother and I’d never heard of that side of the family. They only surfaced after a hotel chain tracked them down and contacted them—and me—about buying the property.” He turned back to Keya. “We share the same name, but that’s it. They’re a distant branch of the family I’d never even met.”
“Are you telling me you don’t want your fair share of Aunt Libby’s place like the others?” Her lip curling, Keya dared him to deny it.
Again, he shook his head. “Diesel and I are happy living away from all that. If I’d wanted Aunt Libby’s house, I would’ve accepted it when she willed it to me.”
Her jaw dropped. “You mean you’re the cousin that disclaimed her house?”
Keya took her seat and studied him as if assessing him. “Why did you refuse the inheritance?”
“Diesel and I aren’t landlubbers. We don’t need any fancy beach house…although…” He drew a deep breath.
Her eyes narrowed. “Although what?”
“As kids, Jules and I used to spend summers there, hunt for treasure on our aunt’s property.” Seeming to look inward, his smile became wistful, nostalgic. “I did regret not seeing the place again…” Then as his smile changed into a grimace, he turned toward Keya. “After what you’ve just told me, I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted nothing to do with me.” He sighed. “But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Would you mind if I visited the beach one last time?”
Keya squinted. “Why?”
“I don’t know—” Auggie shrugged“—for old time’s sake.” He lifted his gaze, silently imploring.
While Keya stared, seeming to wage an internal debate, Earnestine meowed. Keya glanced at the cat, arched her eyebrow, and then turned back to Auggie with a curt nod. “All right.”
His surprised laugh was a cross between a snort and a puppy’s bark. “What convinced you?”
“Earnestine trusts you.” She gave him a begrudging half-smile. “Who am I to question her instincts?”
He stretched out his hand to the cat. “Put her there, Earnestine.” As the cat touched her paw to his palm, Auggie studied it. “She has six toes.”
“Of course, she does. She’s a descendent of the Hemingway cat.”
“Hence the name Earnestine.” Auggie snickered.
Nodding, Keya returned his smile.
As Auggie removed his hand, he glanced at his watch. “I hate to break up this party.” He turned to Brett. “Don’t you have to be in Key West before five?”
Brett checked the time and winced. “Yeah, I have to put the deposit on the boat.”
“It’s a good hour-and-a-half, two-hour drive,” said Auggie. “Give yourself enough time.”
Ruth asked, “What about your friends? Can’t they—”
“Their plane doesn’t arrive until later.” Brett gave her a crooked smile.
If meant to be reassuring, his plan did not work—he seemed to grimace. A week would pass before she saw him again, and an ache began radiating from her chest. “I’ll miss you, you know.” She reached for his hand.
He gave her fingertips a gentle tug. “You, too.” Then standing, he added, “I’d better put your suitcases in Keya’s car.”
“Let me settle the bill,” said Auggie, “and I’ll help you.”
Five minutes later, their group was downstairs, saying goodbye. The separation beginning, Ruth hugged Brett, reluctant to let go.
“Come by tomorrow for dinner.” Keya gave Auggie directions to her house. “I make a mean conch chowder.”
Another five minutes, and Ruth was speeding toward Keya’s home in her cousin’s fire-engine-red convertible. The cat nestled on her lap as she turned one last time to watch Brett’s rental car turn south toward Key West.
“Is this your first time in the Keys?” Keya glanced at her through her oversized sunglasses.
Ruth nodded. “It’s my first time in Florida. Period.”
“In that case—” her eyes on the road, Keya smiled, “—Earnestine and I’ll have to be your tour guides.”
“Sounds great.” Ruth glanced from the highway’s passing scenery to her cousin and smirked. “Just leave me enough time to write the brochure for the Turtle Refuge.”
“You’ll have plenty of time.” Keya reached over to rub the cat’s ears. “Won’t she, Earnestine?” At the cat’s meow, Keya said, “First on the agenda, a tour of the house.” With that, she turned onto a private road, waited for the electric gate to open, and drove through a palm-tree lined lane toward a contemporary beach house, all angles and glass.
After Keya parked, Earnestine jumped out and led the way along the manicured path.
“The landscaping’s beautiful.” Ruth admired the shiny foliage and fragrant flowers as they strolled toward the house. “Do you take care of this yourself?”
“Oh, heaven’s no,” said Keya, unlocking the door. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. A gardener comes once a week.”
Inside the house, everything was white—white-painted walls, white-tiled floors, and an ash-white stone fireplace. The plush, overstuffed sofas and chairs were such a subtle tint of pale blue, they seemed off-white. Glass, stone, and chrome elements infused the rooms.
Then the two window walls came into view. Perpendicular glass walls let the outside in. The beach view filled the house, letting in the warmth the furnishings lacked. A monochrome palette inside, the imposing seashore and sky lent the rooms panache with a vivid turquoise seascape.
It took Ruth a moment to adjust to the stark furnishings, but then she smiled. “I get it.”
Tilting her head, Keya regarded her through one eye. “Get what?”
“Your style.” Ruth nodded as she peered at the beach through the glass walls. “You haven’t decorated as much as you’ve let nature do the honors. You’re letting the landscape shine through.”
A slow smile lit up Keya’s face. “Flamboyance has its place, but not in competition with nature.” She slid open a glass door. “Now let me show you the real beauty of this place.”
They followed a cement path through white sand to a hot-tub and kidney-shaped pool. From there, they walked to the sandy beach, following its contours over a narrow isthmus that led to a bridge, which opened onto a secluded island.
“This.” Keya’s violet eyes glowed as she spread her arms to encompass the beach. “This is the real beauty of the place. My own little key.”
Staring out at the sea, glancing from the palm-fringed beach to the sailboats in the distance, Ruth nodded. “I can see why you say that. It’s beautiful, truly a jewel.”
Keya’s smile became mischievous as she shook her head. “You haven’t seen the best part.” With that, she pointed out the footprints in the sand. “Know what these are?”
Ruth shrugged. “Some kind of animal tracks?”
“Sea turtles!” Keya’s eyes crinkled into a smile. “Because they’re not disturbed, the endangered loggerheads nest here. I love it!”
After glimpsing the inner workings of her cousin’s mind, Ruth glanced at the cordoned-off area. “Is that a turtle nest?”
“Yes. I marked the spot the day I noticed it—May first. Since leatherback turtle eggs take seventy to eighty days to hatch”—she shot Ruth a gleeful smile—“they may hatch while you’re here.”
“Wouldn’t that be something!” Ruth grinned in wonder as she took in the protected beach. “So, this is the real reason you live here?”
“Partly.” Keya frowned as if struggling to put her thoughts into words. “These nesting grounds are the reason I’ve fought to keep this property intact. The Erskines are only contesting the will, so they can flip the land.” She grimaced. “If this beach is developed, the impact will destroy it. I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen, but fighting the lawsuit is expensive. I’d hate to have to sell this place to pay court costs.”
Ruth gave her a sympathetic smile. “But you said keeping the nesting grounds intact is only part of the reason you stay.” Ruth gazed at her. “What’s the rest of it?”
“Call it my legacy.” Keya stood up straight. “When I’m gone, I’d like this beach to remain as nature intended it…for the turtles. Since I’ve never had children—”
Keya gave a dry laugh. “That is, except for my furry, four-legged kids, I’ve never had children. I have no one to leave the property to—other than who or what will make the best use of it. Conveying this land to the turtles would be my way of leaving the world a better place.” She turned toward Ruth. “Does that make sense?”
Ruth nodded and gazed at Keya as if for the first time. Her cousin’s intentions were clear. “But legally, how can you will the property to the turtles?”
“Easy. I leave it to the Turtle Refuge.” Keya laughed inwardly as they meandered along the beach. “And this is where you come in. When you’re writing the brochure, add a few paragraphs about planned giving and charitable bequests…” Her words broke off as Keya stared as if in a trance.
Ruth looked at her. “What’s wrong?”
Her hand shaking, Keya pointed to a shady patch of beach half hidden by sand dunes. A lifeless hand lay tangled in seaweed, its fingernails broken and bloodied.
Racing behind the sandbanks to help, Ruth skidded to a halt, her heels digging into the sand. A woman’s bloated body lay staring at the sun, her eyes opaque and unseeing. “Do you recognize her?”
“No.” Keya shook her head as the cat gingerly approached, sniffing and meowing. “But Earnestine said she smells familiar.”
Note from Karen:
I hope you enjoyed Chapter One of The Keys: Voice of the Turtle! If you'd like to continue reading, please click one of the following links:
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About the Author:
Author of the Sacred Emblem, Sacred Journey, and Sacred Messenger series, Karen is a best-selling author, motivational keynote speaker, wife, and all-around pilgrim of life. She writes multicultural, offbeat love stories steeped in the supernatural that lift the spirit. Born to rolling-stone parents who moved annually, Bartell found her earliest playmates as fictional friends in books. Paperbacks became her portable pals. Ghost stories kept her up at night—reading feverishly. The paranormal was her passion. Wanderlust inherent, Karen enjoyed traveling, although loathed changing schools. Novels offered an imaginative escape. An only child, she began writing her first novel at the age of nine, learning the joy of creating her own happy endings. Professor emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin, Karen resides in the Hill Country with her husband Peter and her “mews”—three rescued cats and a rescued *Cat*ahoula Leopard dog.
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/karenhulenebartell
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