Ten minutes later and Charlie was regretting her decision to let Trace come with her. The man did not shut up and he had an annoying compulsion when it came to the radio. He couldn’t keep his hands off the damn thing. After he changed the channel for what felt like the hundredth time, Charlie had enough.
“Hey,” Trace said after she turned the radio off. “What’d you do that for?”
“Silence is good.”
“I was just trying to find something you might like,” Trace said.
“But I just wanted-“
“Why are you working so hard to get on my nerves?”
“You know you are,” Charlie looked from the road for one hot second to his smug face. “You are!” she screamed. “What is wrong with you?” Trace laughed pleased with himself.
“Hey, just doing my job as wing man. Got to keep you on your toes, otherwise you get lost in that big brain beneath all that beautiful hair. You needed some focus, so I did my job. I focused you. Can’t have you spacing out behind the wheel, can I?”
“Well, if focusing means irritating the hell out of me, pull back a little, okay?” Trace shook his head.
“No can do. We will get to the Bay in one piece if it’s the last thing I do.”
“I’m not a bad driver.”
“Says the woman who nearly took out a minivan fifteen minutes ago.”
“What? No,” Charlie said looking in her rearview mirror before realizing he was kidding- maybe?
“Your head is a million miles away,” Trace said, “And it needs to be,” he pointed two fingers to the road. “Here.”
“My eyes are on the road.”
“They may be on the road, but like I said your brain’s a million miles away.” Charlie didn’t argue for once. Not because he was right, but because for once she didn’t feel like fighting with him.
They drove in silence for a couple of miles. Charlie forced herself to push all of her problems to the back of her mind. Instead she focused on the cars ahead of her.
“At least it’s a beautiful day,” Trace said unable to remain quiet. This time, however, Charlie didn’t try to shut him down.
“Yeah, it is,” she said. “You ever been to Bay St. Louis?”
“Nope. I’ve been meaning to go, but things kept coming up. It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah it is. People are always so surprised by that. I don’t know why.”
“I know why,” Trace said. “Mississippi doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. Its reputation makes most people want to forget about it altogether. They definitely don’t find a need to go exploring once they get here. Might take a wrong turn and happen upon some Klan rally. That’s part of the reason why I hadn’t gone yet.”
“You just say exactly what you’re thinking every time, don’t you?”
“It’s either that or get ulcers.”
“Well don’t let what you know about Mississippi stop you from getting to know it. You’re going to be pretty surprised once we hit Hancock County.”
“Yeah everyone is. It’s not like a few decades ago. It used to be just a bunch of shrimping boats and empty cement blocks left from Hurricane Camille but it has come a long way.”
“What about Katrina?”
“Even from Katrina,” Charlie swerved to avoid a big truck in front of them. “It’s come back even more so in the last ten years. It’s almost like a whole new place. You’re gonna love it.”
“So when did you become such a champion for Mississippi, before or after you opened your restaurant there?”
“Before,” Charlie said. “definitely before. My parents were born and raised here. When I was growing up they were some of the best times of my life. We’d usually stay in Biloxi, but sometimes we’d ride down the coast and head east to Mobile or west to New Orleans for a day trip. But it was always home that fascinated me. Even before the casinos came.”
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it just seemed to have a different energy than anywhere else. Maybe it was because the people there didn’t quite look like everyone else or talk like everyone else. I don’t know how to say it, but Biloxi just felt more diverse. Like you didn’t quite know what you were going to find there- ever.”
“It sounds magical.”
“To me it was. Growing up with my parents and my grandparents was so fun. They had this beautiful house off Main Street. It seemed like every time we went there were like a ton of kids to play with. There was great music, great food. Oh, Biloxi was a sleepy little boating town for sure, but it had sparkle. At least for me it did.”
“What about now,” Trace said. Charlie looked to him for a second a dreamy look on her face, she smiled.
“Even more sparkle now.”
“Wow,” he said.
“Exactly,” Charlie said. “I can’t help it. Biloxi, hell the entire coast, always brings out the kid in me.”
“It looks good on you. Then again everything looks good on you.”
“Even you?” Charlie said sarcastically. Trace had the nerve to look confused. “That’s what you were going to say, right?”
“Whoa, whoa,” Trace said waving his arms and putting his hands over his ears. “Don’t you go putting your mind in the gutter, Ms. Daniels, and expecting me to join you,” he said. “I’m a good Christian man. There will be no hanky panky in the courtyard with me, you understand that now don’t you?” Charlie laughed no longer embarrassed by their brief interlude. “Don’t you?” he repeated looking as indignant as any person Charlie had ever seen before.
“Mm-hm,” she said.
“Well, you best remember that, or you can just turn this car around right now,” Trace said.
“You are certifiably crazy, you know that?”
“You’re crazy,” Charlie yelled.
“Well, can’t say I haven’t been told that a time or two.” That big alligator smile was back again.
“So, what else about you?”
“What?” Trace said shifting in his seat.
“You’re from Texas, right?”
“Yup, born and raised,” he said but then fell silent.
“Well,” Charlie frowned surprised he didn’t continue. She hadn’t been able to shut him up all day and now suddenly when she asked him a question about himself, she couldn’t get him to talk.
“Not really much to say. I was born and raised in Dallas. I went to school there dropped out, enrolled in culinary school. Discovered I made a damn good biscuit and now I’m here.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “Family?”
“Parents both alive. Two brothers and one half sister. Couple of nieces, one nephew, and a whole slew of cousins none of which have probably ever stepped out of Texas.”
“Never,” Trace returned Charlie’s stare. “People in Texas rarely leave Texas. At least that’s true for my family.”
“Well, what made you leave then,” Charlie said.
“I’m nothing like my family,” Trace said. It was the most serious she’d ever seen the man. For once Charlie decided to not push. She felt like she’d gotten way more than he normally would tell anyone.
“So, do you want the quick route or the scenic route?”
“Scenic’ s always better, right?”
“Scenic it is,” Charlie said pulling off the highway. It was about twenty minutes later they hit highway ninety and Mississippi’s sandy beaches again.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Trace said looking out his window. The beach stretched for miles ahead of them running parallel to the highway. To the right there were rows of plantation houses on a raised hill that overlooked the highway and beach. Altogether it was both modern and old fashioned.
“Not what you expected I guessed.”
“Not exactly,” he said looking from the right then back to his left to take it all in. “The plantation homes were kind of what I expected, but not like this.”
“Well, just you wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet. It gets even better.”
“You really love it here, don’t you?”
“Kind of,” Charlie said laughing.
“You never wanted more?”
“What? And leave Mississippi, never. Believe it or not I actually love the South.” Charlie said. “New Orleans is nice, but I think of it more of as a vacation place. When I’m here, it’s to relax. My restaurant is here, sure, but this is my home. It’s like you said, “magic”. You can’t beat magic.”
“You never know, though. It might be nice to permanently stay on vacation. Get out of Mississippi. Try something new. Find a little magic someplace else.”
Charlie looked to Trace. “Are you trying to psych me into leaving Biloxi? Are you that scared of having to compete against me?”
“Who? Me? Afraid of you,” Trace said. “Never.” Charlie laughed with the man glad to have their conversation lighten up some. She didn’t like serious Trace. She still had questions, but they could wait.
“Who? Me?” Charlie mocked his indignation. “Yeah, you.”
“Naw, I’m just looking out for you babe,” Trace said looking out his window. They drove several miles in silence before they finally made it to the Bay. It only took a couple of minutes for Trace to notice the difference.
“I see what you’re saying,” Trace said as they passed several restaurants. “Southerners love to eat, huh?”
“Yup,” Charlie said. “Good beaches, good weather, and good food. Why would I want to leave? The coast has everything you could want.”
“Prime real estate, huh,” Trace said his eyes taking everything in. Charlie pointed several landmarks and tourist attractions before they turned south up a narrow street to park.
“So this is it,” he said as they walked across the street to a small building. Charlie slowed her usual stride to match his as Trace took it all in. “It reminds me of something,” he said staring at the red door. In the window there was a sign advertising ‘fresh honeybees’ for sale. “So you got a copycat, huh?”
“You betcha,” Charlie smiled. “You always remember your first don’t you?”
“That’ s what they say,” Trace smiled back. “They know you coming?” Charlie shook her head.
“Now how did I know that? You seem like that type. The type that likes to shake the table every once in a while.”
“I’m not like that at all,” Charlie said holding the door open for him.
There were two employees behind the counter when they walked in. When they saw Charlie the blood drained out of the young woman’s bright face, and Trace could have sworn the young man started shaking.
“Hey, hey, hey,” a large man suddenly appeared from the kitchen. He grabbed Charlie in a big bear hug.
“Travis, put me down, boy.” Travis gently placed her back on her feet.
“Sorry, I just was so surprised to see you I couldn’t help myself.”
“Well, well, well, so you brought company this time, huh,” Travis said sizing up Trace before waved them in to the kitchen. “Well come on in here.”
They followed the big man into the small kitchen. There were trays of what looked like honeybees cooling on the counter. Charlie ignored Trace’s raised eyebrows as he noticed her signature treat.
“So, what do I owe this surprise visit for? Is there something you’d like to tell me, Ms. Daniels?” as he looked back and forth between Charlie and Trace.
“What? No,” Charlie said. Trace immediately burst out laughing and so did Travis.
“I do believe she’s freaking out. Well, what do we have here? Ms. cool, calm and collected is having a moment,” Travis said laughing. He reached a hand out to Trace.
“Well, hello moment, my name is Travis,” he said. Trace barked with laughter.
“I like him. Name’s Trace.”
“Trace, huh,” the large man said scratching his belly before crossing his arms over his chest. He stared at the couple for a few seconds his face blank, then with a nod of his head started again. “Well, what do we owe the pleasure,” Travis said leaning back on the counter and Trace could see the relief on Charlie’s face.
“Nothing really, just here to bust some heads and chop some nuts,” she said, having regained her composure.
“Don’t you mean chop some heads and bust some nuts,” Travis countered and Trace laughed again.
“I like this guy,” Trace said smiling at Charlie. This time Charlie gave him a withering stare until he grabbed a menu off the counter and left the kitchen altogether.
“Damn, girl, you got him trained already.”
“Shut up,” Charlie frowned. “Will you stop that, dammit.”
“Trying to rile me up. That’s the guy, I was telling you about.”
“Oh, I know exactly who he is. What the hell you bring him here for?”
“You know? I’m keeping my enemies,” she began.
“Close. Yeah, yeah, but that guy? I don’t think you want to play with him. He doesn’t take me as the Darryl type.”
“What’s Darryl go to do with anything?”
“C’mon, girl, you could run circles around him without breaking a sweat, but that guy? You need to be careful with him. You may be keeping him close, but you’re also giving him time to learn your ways. You ain’t gonna be able to run him like you did Darryl.”
“Whatever. Just drop it, Travis.”
“Okay, just don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Travis said before bending down to look in the oven. “I’d be happy to drop it if you would tell me what the hell is going on stopping in here unannounced. Scaring my people,” Travis said smiling before taking a big bite out of a honeybee sitting on the counter.
“Travis, nothing’s going on,” Charlie said.
“Sure it is. You don’t show up here for two months and then Cyndi gets hurt, and no one calls me. Then I heard someone busted the window out your shop. What the hell?” Charlie shook her head.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“And you don’t call me?” Travis said his voice rising. “Why didn’t you call me, dammit? I would have been there yesterday. Had to hear about it on the news.”
“Exactly. There wasn’t nothing you could do there. That’s the reason I brought you here remember? I needed someone who could run things without supervision. Make some room for us.”
“Yeah, but,” he said.
“No buts,” Charlie said. “I needed you here. Cyndi’s in the hospital- no visitors. The doctors said she’s going to be okay, but I haven’t even seen her. As for the shop it was just a fluke,” Charlie said but Travis’ frown deepened. “For real- no relation. It happens Travis. Kids out for the summer, ain’t got nothing better to do. I couldn’t afford for you to come rolling in there on your Harley barking at people.”
“I do look pretty scary on my bike, don’t I?”
“Yeah, you do,” Charlie said glad to see the big man settling down. He could be pretty high strung but Charlie liked his passion. She just needed it directed at something else for the time being.
“If I needed you I would have called, you know that. I call only when I absolutely need it, no other times- remember?” Travis stared at her. His face in a stubborn mask but she could see a softening to his eyes at her words.
Suddenly he wiped his mouth with his apron then pushed his girth from the table his arms wide open. “Just don’t scare me like that again without at least a phone call,” he said wrapping her in his embrace.
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just been so, crazy,” Charlie said right before he released her. Travis was about the biggest softy she knew, he just hated to show it. Clearing his throat, he shoved the rest of the honeybee in his mouth.
“So, what’s going on with the joker out front,” he said between two bites taking two trays of cookies out the oven and placing them on the prep table.
“No shit Sherlock. Why’s he here?”
“I ran him over.”
“You what?” Travis said laughing. “Damn girl I knew you were hard up but have you resorted to knocking them down with your car to get a date?”
“It’s not like that,” Charlie said. “We’re just hanging?” she frowned.
“Is that a question?”
“We’re colleagues,” she said this time more firmly. “I’ve just been driving him around since…the accident,” Travis covered the smile on his face with his hand.
“He just needed a little help getting around. This morning was a pretty rough one and he made me laugh so….”
“So, you roped him into playing hooky with you.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Pretty spur of the moment,” Travis said an appraising look in his eyes. “Nothing like you at all.”
“Absolutely not,” Charlie agreed. No one had ever called her the spontaneous type. She couldn’t really say why she did it. The smarter thing would have been to drop him back off where she’d gotten him, but she’d come up with every excuse she could think of not to.
Also, she’d enjoyed the ride over way more than she cared to admit. Trace was getting to her, and spending the last two hours alone with him hadn’t done anything to cool it.
For the first time since that morning she began to wonder if she’d bitten off more than she could chew.
“I see, you’re finally seeing the situation with clear eyes?” Travis said looking at her knowingly.
Charlie didn’t answer.
“Well, welcome to the land of the living where the rest of us live. Maybe you’re not as much of a robot as I used to say you were in college.”
“Yeah, but you’re still a jackass,” Charlie countered before taking a deep breath then exhaling.
“Alright, Travis show me the books. Let’s get this crapfest on the road.” Charlie followed him through the tiny kitchen to his office.