The Cliffs of Westwood

Girl on California Coast

Tia had been driving for twenty-four hours straight. Well, not really, but it seemed like it. Each landmark she passed, she marveled at the beauty of God’s creation.

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None of it prepared her for the beauty as she turned off the small California roadway into the drive of her new employer’s home. The lush green grass, shrubs and flowering gardens, majestic trees, and the distant waves and white caps splashing against the shoreline spread out before her. It was hypnotizing. Staring, she just sat there in the car.

She startled as a man with piercing blue-gray eyes looked in her window. He could have descended through the clouds simply to mingle with mortals. A shiver ran down her spine. She quickly unlocked the door, and he opened it. Tia struggled to get her emotions under control and form a proper response.

“Welcome to Westwood. I’m Devin, and you must be Tia.” He smiled, his eyebrows lifting. “Red hair and sapphire eyes. Should I be concerned?”

Her mouth was open, but no words came. She nodded, gulped and reprimanded herself. Not a good way to start a new job. Shaking her head, she cleared her throat. “Thank you, and yes, I’m Tia.” Her eyes sparkled again. “What a lovely place, it’s… majestic.” To think she would be working in such a beautiful place!

She had researched the West Family before accepting the position. They had owned vineyards in California for decades and she’d found no skeletons in their wine casks, though it wouldn’t be on social media if there were any. She smiled. The only name associated with the vineyard was Andrew West. She looked forward to meeting him. The position was for the education and training of his daughter, Miss Piper, a precocious five-year-old.

Now that she was here, standing in the driveway of this…this beautiful, but rugged estate, she wondered if she’d brought proper clothing for the task of teaching the daughter of a family of this status. Her gaze wandered to the upper floor, and she noticed an older woman partially hidden behind a curtain, looking down at her. When their eyes met, the woman stepped back, the curtain falling into place.

Devin brought her back to the business at hand. “We were told to expect you early today. Mia, our housekeeper, has been fussing over your room all morning, hoping everything would be to your liking.” He smiled brightly and said. “If it isn’t, please let one of us know, we’ll fix it.”

He reached in to remove her luggage from the back seat but she put her hand on his arm and said, “No.” She felt a tingle as her hand touched his arm. “I can get my own things. I’m here to work, just as you are.” He looked at her, nodding, then stepped back. She reached in and took her overnight bag and two smaller bags. He carried her larger case. “Follow me and we’ll get you settled.”

Her room faced west, wide windowed doors covered with light billowy curtains pulled back to reveal the rolling ocean. She felt drawn to the balcony, standing at the rail, looking out over the scene below. She could imagine someone standing here decades ago. Was it a young tutor waiting to start her first job?

Devin stood just inside the doorway of the room watching her intently. She turned, and said, “There must be some mistake. This is a guest room, and I’m not a guest. Where are the rooms you and the other’s use?”

He smiled, bowing slightly. “I’m sure this is the room meant for you. Miss Piper’s room is across the hall. But still…” He waved his hand, and a young woman entered the room, carrying a tray. “Mia will serve you lunch, and then you may have the rest of today free to look around.” The meal was amazing and the glass of Sauvignon Blanc was a perfect touch. She was already unwinding, but she had questions for Devin. Who was the woman? Was she Andrew’s mother? Piper’s grandmother? Was this wine from The Westwood Winery? Could he give her a tour?

After lunch, she walked around the estate, saving the back lawn and ocean view for last. No one was around. She chose a cool, shaded lawn chair facing the ocean, and sat down. The sun was dipping toward the ocean, and after the long drive and the glass of wine, Tia dozed off.

She woke abruptly, something tickling her nose. Sitting up she saw a child holding a fern stem and laughing. “Are you Tia? Get up! Let’s chase butterflies. Did you know that if you hold your finger perfectly still, one might just sit down and visit with you?” The child was indeed precocious as well as compelling.

“You must be Piper.” She hated being caught off guard, especially by her student.

Piper looked at her for a moment and said, “Oh, don’t worry about the nap, I have to take one every day. In fact, I just got up. Daddy said we didn’t have to start school right now, or tomorrow. We can just spend time getting to know each other, so come on, lets chase butterflies.”

Tia loved the easy-going nature of this child. Why did she need a nanny when the older woman was here? Another question for Devin. Right now, she was going to chase butterflies. Piper took her hand and they skipped through the grass flitting from flower to flower as if they were butterflies. She held out her forefinger and a beautifully colored Monarch fluttered for a moment and perched, sharing its beauty, and as Piper said, “Maybe telling a secret.” Tia laughed and whispered back to the butterfly.

She had found a couple of teachable moments during their play. Gently, when Piper insisted they do it her way, she said, “Maybe your playmate might want to choose a game, you think?” The child pouted. “Who knows, you might enjoy learning something new.”

Piper thought about it, then shook her head. “I’ve never had a real playmate before, so I wouldn’t know.”

They were both flushed and exhausted, and Piper fell to the ground, laughing, pulling Tia down with her. Their next game was finding shapes in the clouds. God had given this child an extra measure of energy and imagination.

She reached over for both of Tia’s hands and they skipped in circles, going faster and faster. Just as their hands started to slip away from each other, Devin grabbed one in each of his. They continued until all three tumbled through the grass, down a gentle hill and onto a small section of beach. They laid back on the sand and let the frothy water lap over their toes. Tia looked up, over her head, shocked to see the woman again, standing with a cloak and a walking stick, watching. To the north, giant rocks and boulders formed cliffs high above them.

Devin looked up, following her gaze, but the woman stepped back. “It doesn’t look so calm and peaceful from that direction, does it?” He said, seriously. “You must always know where Miss Piper is.” A shadow passed over his face. “Those rocks are deadly.”

She sat up, looking out to the ocean, surprised at Piper’s response. “Yeah, my mommy fell from that high rock up there.” In her childlike honesty, she said, “I think someone pushed her.”

Devin looked stricken. Reaching over, he tugged a pigtail. “Okay, Miss Piper, enough of your imagination, it’s time to go in. It will be dark soon.”

As they topped the sloping hill, Tia noticed the woman again, standing on one of the balconies. She appeared cold and impersonal. Turning, she disappeared inside. As if reading her mind, Piper said, “Oh, that was my Grandmother. She tries to tell me everything to do, but daddy said you’re my boss now.”

Looking down Devin said, “That’s enough, Missy. Go wash up for dinner.” He turned to Tia. “You might want to wash the butterflies off, and, by the way, dinner is casual, served on the upper balcony.”

After changing, she found her way through the kitchen and onto the balcony before the others arrived. She stopped dead in her tracks. There, sitting at the head of the table, was Grandmother. Tia was not expecting to eat with the family. Grandmother wore a flowing, floor-length silk dress and a matching ocean blue scarf around her shoulders. Her countenance made Tia feel out of place and unwelcome. There was no invitation to take a seat. “You must be the Nanny. I’ve watched you playing all afternoon. I’m sure you weren’t hired to play.” She paused and gave Tia’s simple dress a once over. “I would expect a more professional appearance from someone setting an example for an impressionable child.” Without taking a break, she continued, “By the way, Devin has jobs of his own, that’s why we hired you.”

Devin walked out with Piper hanging on his arm.

Grandmother wasn’t pleased. “Piper,” she reprimanded. “Young ladies do not cling.” She looked up at Devin. “I’ve already given the Nanny a rundown on what will be expected of her and the proper attire for her job. She also knows not to expect help with Piper, that’s her sole duty…”

He lowered his voice and said, “You have no need to give directions to Tia. Piper’s training is completely up to her.” He then turned. “Sorry about that, sometimes things get misconstrued.” He looked at her for a long moment and said, “By the way, you look lovely, just the right combination for a casual dinner.” Grandmother’s eyes narrowed, seething.

Tia’s mind went numb. Clearly Devin was not an employee, but Piper’s father. Meaning the old woman was his mother. What kind of joke was he playing on her? She felt the warmth of his touch on her arm, as she sat in the chair he had pulled out for her. Conversation was strained, almost non-existent. She picked at her food, not looking at any of them. She was angry and embarrassed. They managed to get through the first course before Tia had to get away from this man who seemed to have enjoyed deceiving her. She asked to be excused and started through the house. Before she left the room she could hear a chair scrape on the slate floor and two voices speaking at the same time. Piper asking if she had to ask to be excused, and Devin calling Tia’s name.

She made it out the door before he caught up with her. “Tia,” he said in a quiet voice, “I’m sorry about what happened back there. She has become very possessive since my dad passed away a few years ago.” He watched her for a moment. “Can we start over?” He took a step closer and she took a step back. “I’m sorry I led you on. I should have properly introduced myself in the beginning. I’m sorry.”

She wrapped her arms around her and said, “No, Dev…I mean Mr. West, it was I who made the mistake. I saw what I wanted to see, maybe a friend, certainly not Piper’s father. Your mother is right, I needed to be put in my place.” She held up a hand. “I promise I will not distract you from your work, and I will dress more appropriately. That is IF you allow me to remain as Piper’s tutor. She is a delightful child.”

He stood looking at her for a long moment, his eyes sorrowful. “Yes, Ms. Wells, I will give you a second chance.” He turned and went back into the recesses of the huge house.

She slept fitfully that night. Much too early Piper hopped on her bed asking endless questions. “What are we doing today? Can we…” Tia held up her hand and said, “No, Piper, we can’t play or chase butterflies or walk on the beach. If you’ll give me a minute, I’ll meet you in the study and we can start teaching you to be a young lady.” Under her breath, she said, “You’re already plenty smart.”

Piper frowned, “I don’t think daddy wants me to be in this stuffy old house, he wants me to…”

Tia took a deep breath. “Please, just wait in the study. I already have lesson plans made out for you.” Piper slowly turned and walked away, pouting.

Weeks passed, summer turning to fall. Tia tried to teach, but Piper distracted them at every turn. Tia felt so out of control, and being in the presence of Grandmother West was wearing on her. Everything she did was under intense scrutiny. The older woman was frightening. Sometimes she believed the old woman could have pushed Piper’s mommy to her death. Devin was gone more than he was home and it was showing in everyone’s attitude.

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, she gave Piper a couple hours to watch a Princess movie, and she took a walk.

The ocean called to her and she walked over to the cliff, looking down at the angry waves. She was careful, but suddenly she caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of her eye. A chill deeper than that of the day filled her. Tia quickly turned and there, standing directly beside the bush was Devin’s mother, so close she could touch her. Raw fear filled her. She put her arms around herself and slipped past the older woman. It was then she decided to give her student the week off for Thanksgiving break. She could not stay here alone with that woman another day.

She went to her room, locked the door, and put in a call to Devin. When he answered, “Devin here,” it took her by surprise. She thought she would get his assistant. She told him of her plans for the holiday and suggested he might want to make time to spend it with his little girl. She felt a twinge of guilt for leaving Piper, but there was nothing she could do about that. She packed a few things and took them down with her to tell Piper.

She found the child laying on the floor looking into the fireplace. She had her chin on her hands and her feet crossed at the ankles. Tia’s heart tugged. Sitting quietly next to her on the floor, she reached out and filled in a puzzle piece. Before she could say anything, the child turned and looked at her pensively, “Tia, are you ever going to be my mommy?” She sighed, “I’m growing up and can’t wait forever, you know.”

Tia was speechless.

“Piper!” Grandmother’s condemning voice came from the doorway. “Whatever gave you that idea? Go to your room and…”

Piper broke in. “No!” She shouted defiantly. “Daddy said if things worked out, he hoped she would someday be his wife. That would make her my mommy!” She sobbed and said to her grandmother, “You don’t know everything!” Tia was speechless, her face blushing.

Piper stomped from the room. Tia caught her at the foot of the stairs. “Piper, wait. I came to tell you we aren’t going to have school Thanksgiving week. I think we both need a break. I’ll be back a week from today, and I’ll only be in town, not far away.”

Piper grabbed her and clung to her leg. “Please, don’t! It will only be me and her.” She pointed back toward the study. “And besides, you can’t say you’ll be back. People say that all the time, but you can’t know if there’ll be an accident.” The reality of her statement hit Tia in the middle of her stomach as if she’d been struck.

Kneeling down, she hugged Piper and said softly, “My little Piper, I will be back, I promise.”

She drove away, tears flowing down her cheeks. Lord, please let me keep that promise. Piper had run out the door and was standing on the porch. She caught a glimpse of Devin’s convertible as they passed each other in the drive.

The small town was mostly for tourists, but it was too cool for many visitors, so she was fortunate enough to get a motel perched high above the ocean. It was late, and she’d had no dinner, but she couldn’t eat, anyway. It didn’t seem to matter what time of day, the ocean was majestic. The setting sun was playing on the ripples, causing them to sparkle amber. She sat on the balcony until the sun fell into the ocean and the moon had risen.

She slept late the next morning, then went into town looking in the shops for warmer clothes. There must be another place the locals’ shop. Only tourists could afford these prices. She found something for Piper, and a trinket for Devin, for Christmas, if…

Treating herself to a late lunch at an oceanside restaurant, she then returned to the motel. Nothing held her attention. She’d only been here two days and was lonely and missing Piper…and if she were honest, her daddy, too. She picked up some fruit and a salad for dinner and returned to the motel.

The darkness of the ocean seemed to fit her mood. She wrapped in a blanket and went out to the cliff overlooking the beach, finding a bench near the edge. The bright moon and crashing waves far below called her name. Were these the sounds that had drawn Devin’s wife to the edge of the cliff? Was she really pushed as Piper believed? Tia thought it was possible. But it was also possible she just stepped too close and had fallen to her death. She suddenly felt a cold wind blow from the ocean, making her shiver. She tightened the blanket around herself and stood. Before she turned, she looked through the mist once more at the ocean. It had an eerie, unnerving effect tonight.

She jumped as she heard the voice behind her. “Tia, would you please move, slowly, toward me?” Devin paused, then said, “It unnerves me to see you so close to the cliff.” His voice sounded haunted and ragged. He still held out his hand to her, his eyes pleading.

She moved toward him, cautiously taking his hand. “Will you go with me to the coffee shop?” he asked. She stood still, staring at him. “Please, Tia, don’t make me beg. I need to talk to you.”

There was fear in her voice. “Devin.” His name popped out unexpectedly. In a whisper, she asked, “Has something happened to Piper? I promised her I would come back. She was afraid to be there alone. She has to be okay.”

“She’s fine.” He grinned. “Her feelings are in a wad because she’s in time out, but she’s fine.”

He thanked the waitress as she handed them both a hot coffee, then turned his attention to Tia with a sigh. “It seems from the time you drove into the driveway the day you arrived until now, everything has gone wrong.” He took a deep breath. “First, I meant to introduce myself when you got out of the car, but you were so open and approachable, thinking I was an employee, I wanted to wait and see if you were anything like I had envisioned you to be.” He sipped on his coffee. “I watched you chasing butterflies with Piper, playing and having fun like a child yourself. It was so good to see my little girl so happy.”

She listened, wanting to ask questions, but also wanting to hear all of what he had to say. All she said was, “Go on.”

He seemed to be lost somewhere in his own thoughts, then he said, “Without a doubt you have some questions. First, I want to tell you about my wife.” He drooped his head and said softly, “ She was only a child herself. We married when she was seventeen and she never took to being a wife or mother and other… forces… overwhelmed her.” He drew a breath, “She became depressed, and that bluff was her solitude. Yes, some say she was pushed. But there was no evidence of that.”

He looked into her eyes for a long time. “I need to explain why Piper thought you were going to be her new mommy.” He drew another deep breath. “When we first got your resume, I made a trip to Dallas.” Looking deeply into her eyes, he said, “I wanted to get to know you from behind the scenes.” He stopped, realizing how that must sound to a young woman just graduated from college. “If I didn’t think I could…”

She seethed, “What?! Stand to be around me?”

“No!” He snapped, then paused, gathering his composure. “I fell in love with you just watching how you interacted with others, the compassion you showed, the passion with which you approached life. Everything about you called to me.” He looked around, struggling to find words. She waited, watching him. “I didn’t want to bring someone into our lives that we couldn’t both love.” He stopped, smiling at her, letting out his breath. “When I saw you playing with my little girl… I knew I would love you forever.”

Tia stood up and walked to the large window, looking out. Why did it shock her to know he’d checked her out? She had done the same. “How do I know you’re telling me the truth…Devin?”

“Because I searched my soul when I saw you driving away and knew I needed to have you, hold you, know you would always be there.” He walked up behind her and through a ragged breath said, “Even my bedroom is no longer mine. You’re always there in my mind and in my dreams.” He turned her around to face him and asked gently, “Tia, will you marry me?”

She relaxed and looked into his eyes, but in her heart, there was still fear. “What about your Mother?” She paled. “Devin, she scares me. She lurks around and is always turning a corner just before I pass, or watching me from the balcony. She makes me feel inferior, with Piper, with you…with life in general.”

“Say yes, and leave the rest to me.” He pulled her to him and whispered, “I love you, Tia.” She lifted her eyes to his and he lowered his lips and kissed her lightly, then a second time.

They walked toward the house hand in hand. Piper ran to meet the car in her p.j.’s. Tia wrapped her in a hug, and Devin joined them. They all laughed. Except Grandmother. Tia noticed the curtain drop slowly.

The next day, everyone was up early preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. By mid-afternoon, Tia let out a deep breath and said, “Devin, I think I need a break.”

The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped, the sun not shining this Thanksgiving Day. Tia walked toward the bluff, enjoying the fresh air. As she watched the gray ocean waves breaking far below, she heard a branch crack. She spun around, seeing the older woman close enough to touch her. Tia froze, the woman giving her a grim smile. “No woman will own my firstborn son. The other one tried, but it didn’t work. Neither will it work for you. You can never be too careful on the bluff.”

Tia squared off, bracing herself from the older woman starting to lunge for her. From far away, she heard Piper screaming her name. The old woman turned and started chasing Piper, limping toward the child, screaming, “You! You were the first one! He didn’t even care about the one who died! He only wanted his sweet Miss Piper.”

Tia broke from her daze and started running toward Piper. Younger and faster than the old woman, she reached her first, standing in front of her, eyes wide, shielding her from the attack.

Devin ran out of the house toward his Mother. Just as he reached her, she turned toward him, grabbing her chest and gasping for air. “Son! I.. couldn’t let.. them have.. you.” She sank to her knees. “They just.. wanted your money.” Whispering, she said, “I loved you so.. much.”

He shouted, “Tia, call 9-1-1. Hurry!” He crumpled to his knees holding her tightly to him, sobbing.

Late that night, Piper finally went to sleep beside Tia. Tia got up quietly, and slipped downstairs, glancing out the windows toward the bluff. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, then walked to where Devin stood, the roar of the ocean echoing through the rocks below.

He glanced at her, unashamed of the tears staining his face. She put an arm around his waist, feeling the silent sobs. After a few minutes, he drew a ragged breath. “I’m sorry. I guess I just didn’t want to admit that mother could do something like that.”

Tia said softly, “She loved you. Maybe more than she should have. You had no reason to suspect her. But her obsession to protect you made her see everyone else as a threat.”

Devin wrapped his arms around her, drawing her to him, shaking his head. “She could have taken you from me. She could’ve taken Piper.” He tipped her chin up to look into her eyes, “Do you think you can still be content, living in this house?”

“This is our home.”

They looked once more out over the ocean, the moon breaking through the skirting clouds. The wind whipped around them, the waves breaking higher on the rocks below. They turned, holding hands, and walked back toward home.

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This story was fun to write! Please share a time you took a huge leap of faith and accepted a job away from home because it fit your calling in life. Maybe the circumstances were less than perfect, but you pushed through. The possibilities are endless.

As always, your favorite Storyteller, and all who follow want to hear your thoughts and adventures. We all have a story to tell, and if you haven’t, sign up to follow by entering your email.

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