“Will you welcome to the stage, the one, the only… Mr. Magic Mike!” ~Magic Mike
North Carolina’s Outer Banks were legendary. From Cape Hatteras to the isolated island of Ocracoke, the place was ripe with legends and lore. The Graveyard of the Atlantic attracted treasure hunters, fishermen chartered boats, and sun worshipers flooded the place each summer. Albermarle Sound was to the north of Devil’s Cove. Roanoke Sound was to the east. Croatan Sound flowed to the west. And to the south was the inlet of Pamlico Sound.
A swing bridge connected the island to the mainland, and ferries ran several times a day with cars and people starting their vacations or ending them. The town itself was quaint and beachy and was home to generations of families, and would continue to be for generations to come. The beaches on the island…the old fishing pier…the marinas…the protected cove…all of it gave Devil’s Cove its own charm. Its own sparkling personality.
So did Hattie Juniper Pickle. Hattie came from a long line of locals. Her great-great-great-granddaddy had built the house she still lived in. Like so many other old’uns, he’d worked on the water, fishing mainly, but crabbing some. And he’d enjoyed a good, stiff drink—or two—after a day battling the fickle waves of the Atlantic.
Hattie’s great-great-granddaddy had also planted the Loblolly Pine, which stood sentry in her yard, keeping an eye on the residents—both permanent and temporary—on Rum Runner Lane.
Hattie had been born and raised here, and she knew very well that she would die here—but not anytime soon. She’d quit smoking, which, had she kept on, would have been the most likely thing to kill her. Now, she carried around an unlit cigarette, because if she could resist the constant temptation it threatened, well, she could survive anything.
She was, what some call, a free spirit. No one…and she meant no one…was ever going to tell her what to do or how to do it. If she wanted to dye her silvery hair neon green, that’s what she did. If she wanted it purple or periwinkle or orange, she made that happen. The fact of the matter was, her free-spiritedness lived side by side with her rules and boundaries.
Her devil-may-care side meant she used the hottest pinkest lipstick known to man. She wore whatever she wanted—and the closer the colors were to the rainbow, the better. She believed in mixing patterns. Why couldn’t plaid go with polka dots? Who were the fashion police, anyway?
Her rules were that she never left home without a ciggy. She might keep it in her lunchbox, purse, dangling from between two fingers, or tucked behind one ear, but she always had one. And she went to bed every night at ten o’clock. That regular sleep kept her body and skin in tip-top shape.
She had learned over the years to set boundaries. People tried to guess her age—that was fine—but she never…ever…told them if they were right. She drew the line at marrying the same man twice. That lesson had come the hard way when she had jumped the broom with the same man. Husband #1 had also been husband #3. The third time was not the charm. Finally, if someone crossed a person she cared about, she would hunt them down and pounce like a hungry tiger.
Her daddy had often told her she was an enigma wrapped inside a cunundrum. Once she understood what those words meant, she happily agreed. Embraced the idea, even.
The island’s stilted beach houses were painted all the colors of the rainbow, and that made her heart rejoice. Hers was lavender and teal. Sometimes it matched her hair, sometimes her clothing, and it always matched her personality. At the moment, she stood under the Loblolly pine, an unlit cigarette dangling from between her fingers, wondering what in the world she had done. Agreeing to a…to a…date? With a stranger?
The twang of bluegrass music coming from next door momentarily distracted her. Aaron Cox clanked around under the hood of his old Ford pickup truck. “Magic Mike!” he hollered above the music, though not to her, and that was a shame, because she did love her some Magic Mike. Rumor had it that Channing Tatum was going to be in Myrtle Beach over the weekend. There weren’t many things she’d go off island for. Magic Mike was definitely one of them.
Aaron hollered at another man, tall and thick, who leaned against the car. “It’s fixed. A done deal. It’s Magic Mike.”
The friend guffawed. “Whatever. You gotta chase your dreams, dude. Chase your dreams.”
The song ended and they dropped their voices to a normal level. Aaron waved an oil-stained blue rag around. “Nah. Nah. It’s a done deal. Magic Mike.”
The bulky man threw up a hand in resignation. “Okay, man, if that’s what you want, then it’s Magic Mike. It’ll happen. It’s gonna happen.”
A new song started, muffling their conversation. A giggling passel of preteen girls drew her attention across the street. The dark-haired one lived in the house next to Sea Captain’s Inn. What was her name? Tawny? Taylor? Hattie couldn’t remember. They’d moved in a month ago, and from the looks of it, the girl—Tiffany! That was it!—had wasted no time making friends. The girl’s parents—jeez, what were their names?—piddled around in the front yard pulling weeds and trimming shrubs.
Hattie waved her cigarette hand to them. “Mornin’! Beaut of a day,” she said, and it was. Spring had sprung, the temps were sticking in the upper 60s, and flowers were starting to bloom.
“Morning, Hattie!” the woman called just as the music next door faded again.
The girls all stopped and stared at her. One of them turned to Tiffany’s mother and spoke plenty loud enough for Hattie to hear. “Who’s that? It’s like a rainbow threw up on her.”
Hattie arched a brow and notched her hip to one side. Like a bag of Skittles threw up. She’d heard her fair share of comments about her aesthetic: You’re a Garanimals Grammy! No, she wasn’t, in fact, a grandmother. Look! She has rainbow hair! She rather liked that one.
Being compared to a bag of Skittles, that was new. It was the throwing up part she took exception to.
Tiffany came to her defense, batting her friend on her arm. “That’s rude. Miss Hattie’s funny.”
Hattie aimed a toothy smile like an arrow, straight at Tiffany. She knew she liked that girl. She looked down at her pink almost mini-skirt, the striped knee socks that stopped under her boney knees, and her rainbow Crocs. Eclectic, yes. Peculiar, maybe. But Skittle vomit? No.
“Hey ya, Hattie.”
She whipped around at the sound of a man’s voice. Ah, it was Tank Jones and he strode toward her. She and Tank had grown up together. They were friendly, but not exactly friends. His real name was Tracy, but he’d taken enough grief over it that he’d embraced the nickname given to him by his football teammates back in high school. “Tank,” she said. “What’re you doin’ on this side of DC?”
“Came to see how the other half live,” he deadpanned as he came to a stop.
It was true, this side of the island was closest to the water, which made it one of the pricier areas, but Devil’s Cove itself wasn’t the most popular Outer Banks island. Other locales were much more exclusive and expensive. If she remembered correctly, Tank lived in a newer neighborhood on the south end of the island. It was hit or miss if the cookie cutter houses would be able to withstand the hurricanes that blew through every few years. “Educating your taste, as I like to say.”
Next door, Aaron Cox left his Ford and his friend and came to the sidewalk. “Yo, Tank! Good to see you, man!”
Tank lifted his arm. “Yo.”
Aaron tapped an invisible watch on his wrist. “You comin’, or what?”
“Yeah, yeah. Coming.” He lifted his chin at Hattie. “Poker game. Gotta go.”
“Midday gambling. Nothin’ better. Is Maude playin’ today?”
He grumbled. “Every Tuesday and Wednesday.“
Hattie took that to mean that Tank lost money to her old friend, Maude Whistler, every Tuesday and Wednesday. Thatta girl, Maude!
Tank frowned at Hattie’s wide smile. “You can do me a solid and tell her to back off once in a while.”
“No can do, Tank. Would you back off if it was you winnin’?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Good luck.” Sounded like he was going to need it.
She noticed a slight limp as he sauntered past her, following in Aaron’s wake. The bluegrass music stopped once and for all, and the men disappeared inside. She shifted her gaze to Sea Captain’s Inn. As if on cue, Pippin Lane Hawthorne, owner of the inn, appeared on the porch. She spotted Hattie, waved, and practically skipped down the porch steps. She moved as if a load had been lifted off her shoulders. Which it actually had—Irish curses and all that.
Hattie waited for a car to pass then started across the street. Pippin had cut across the patch of grass, intercepting her on the sidewalk. Her eyes skimmed over Pippin. She wore jeans and a plain coral-colored t-shirt and was cuter than a baby dolphin. Most telling, though, was the glow in her cheeks. “You off to see Jamie?”
Pippin smiled. “Close. Book club with Heidi at Devil’s Brew.”
Jamie McAdams ran the bookshop in town, and Heidi was his tween-age daughter. A book club was good for those two. For Hattie? She was too antsy for that. She liked to be up and moving, wearing out the route she took to Main Street, the pier, and everywhere else she went in town.
Pippin was a sweet girl, though. So much like her mother. Cassie had lived briefly with Hattie. She’d rented a room when she’d first come to Devil’s Cove from the West Coast, and then when she’d married Leo Hawthorne, they’d bought the old Hubbard house across the street. Now it was owned by twenty-nine-year-old twins, Pippin and Grey, who had turned it into a successful inn. Even though Devil’s Cove was an off-the-beaten-track island, there was rarely a shortage of island vacationers.
“You’re bright as a star. Did you find them?” Hattie asked. For the past few months, Pippin had been on a hunt for her mother’s old journals. Hattie knew they had existed, once upon a time. She’d caught glimpses of Cassie writing in them, but after she married Leo, Hattie had never seen them again.
“No,” Pippin said, her smile faltering slightly. “I’ve searched everywhere.”
“She loved the garden. Remember she worked at Bloom for years,” she said, referring to the garden center north of downtown.
“Checked, checked, and checked again.”
They’d torn apart the room Cassie had rented before she’d met Leo. Theirs had been a love affair for the books.
If there was such a thing as true love, Cassie and Leo had had it. Maybe Pippin and Jamie did, too. Time would tell.
But would she, Hattie Juniper Pickle, ever find that kind of love again?
Pippin snapped her fingers in front of Hattie’s face. “Are you okay?”
Hattie blinked. “Online dating,” she blurted.
Talk about a non sequitur. Pippin blinked at her. “What about it?”
Hattie pressed her lips together, then popped them apart. Darn, now she needed to reapply her pink lipstick. She looked down. Around. She hadn’t brought it with her.
She scrunched her face up as if she couldn’t bear to think about what she’d done. And then she spilled her guts. “I signed up for online dating! Husband number four is out there waiting on me somewhere. I just hope he’s here on island.”
Pippin cupped a hand to her ear as if she hadn’t heard Hattie, which was, of course, impossible since they were standing three feet from one another. “What?”
Hattie looked up and down the street. Maude’s car was now parked in front of Aaron’s house. Tiffany and the girls next door were traipsing down the sidewalk toward the beach hauling a wagon filled with towels, an umbrella, and who knew what else. The street was quiet again. “I went online to find a…date.”
Pippin pressed her hands to the sides of her face, her smile spreading. “That’s so great! Did you? Find one?”
“Sure, I did. A man named Tommy Leadbetter. I’m not thrilled with the name, though. Leadbetter? Is his lead better than the next guy’s?” she uttered, then immediately giggled.
Pippin swatted at her. “Hattie!”
She flashed a wicked grin. “It’s just too easy.”
Pippin gave her a shrug that said she agreed. “When is the date?”
“Tomorrow. I might cancel, though.” She wanted love, yes, but she didn’t need the actual headache of a man in her day-to-day life. She had her friend, Wen—well, no, she didn’t have that anymore, but that was another story. “Another man’s dirty socks and stinky feet? No thanks.” She waved her hand in front of her nose as if the sour smell lingered at the mere mention of it.
“No, don’t cancel! I don’t know about your exes, but I do know it’s been a long time. There is more to a man than his dirty socks and stinky feet,” Pippin said.
It’s been more than thirty-five years, Hattie thought.
“However long it’s been, it’s high time some lucky man gets to date you.”
Well, that was certainly true. She was a catch for any man who was fishing. She was a prized Blue Gill Tuna. Or maybe a shark. She clapped her hands, re-energized about the date. Tommy Leadbetter had better watch out. She was coming for him.
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