Bosom Buddies Episode Two

 

If you missed Episode One, read it here.

 

Wesley

 

I never thought I’d see her again.

Okay, so I hadn’t exactly been looking for Sabrina Hudson in the fourteen years since we’d last been together. For the first year, not thinking about her had been a matter of self-preservation. It had hurt too much, caused me too much gut-deep pain to let my mind linger on memories of her deep brown eyes, the way her whole face lit up whenever I said something she found amusing.

And then . . . well, life had gone on as it does when you’re young and grappling to figure out basic shit like surviving high school, getting into college, and supporting yourself. If I’d thought of Sabrina, it had been occasional and fleeting, with the pang of regret a little more bearable each time.

When I’d seen the name Hudson on the schedule that Linc had sent out to the crew, sure, I’d thought about Sabrina and her family. But as I’d noted a moment ago, it wasn’t exactly an unusual last name. It hadn’t even occurred to me this project we were working—this incredible sleeping beauty of a house—might belong to my Sabrina.

Because that was still how I thought of her. In my mind and in my memory, she was still my Brina girl, the first one I’d loved, the person who I’d most suffered over when Mom and I left town.

She was staring at me now, and in her gaze, I saw a mix of confusion and trepidation give way to disbelief and wonder.

“Wesley?” She breathed my name. “Is it really—how are you—I mean, what are you doing here?”

Of all the questions I was sure Sabrina was about to ask, that hadn’t been the exact one I’d expected. I gave my head a little shake just to get loose of the cobwebs before I answered.

“I work for Kent and Turner. I’m on this project, restoring this—well, uh, I guess your house.” I lifted one shoulder. “How’s that for a hell of a coincidence?”

“Yeah, coincidence,” she echoed, her eyes still stuck to my face. “It’s been—God, I haven’t seen you in—”

“Fourteen years,” I finished for her. “I know. I figured I’d never see you again. Every now and then I check on social media to see if you’re there. I saw a profile that looked like it might have been you, but it was ten years old, and nothing after.”

Sabrina wrinkled her cute little nose, making me want to reach out a finger to stroke down its length and smooth those bumps.

“I don’t do social media,” she said. “It’s not my thing. I had a couple of accounts for half a year back in college, but I hated how it made me feel, so I got rid of them.”

“Ah, so that was you.” I grinned. “You went to Carolina for college, huh? Long way from Waukesha.”

“Yeah, that was kind of the point,” she shot back. “I wanted to start over, far away from everyone I knew back in Wisconsin. I was ready to stop being poor little Sabrina Hudson whose mom died when she was in kindergarten.”

“No one ever thought of you that way.” I frowned, thinking back. “At least I didn’t.”

“You were one of the few. Every year, I had to deal with a new set of teachers who handled me with kid gloves, like I might shatter. And every time there was something in school that involved mothers, everyone looked at me like I was going to have a meltdown. Like the reminder that I didn’t have one was going to break me.” Sabrina pressed her fingers to her temples as though she was holding her head together, and suddenly I remembered that was her stress tell—what she did every time she was grappling with something huge like a killer exam or bickering friends. I hated the idea that I was the one causing her angst right now.

***

“Hey.” I couldn’t help myself. I lifted my hand to brush her fingers away from her hairline. “It’s okay, Brina girl. Maybe the rest of them were idiots, but I always knew you were made of stronger stuff.”

For just a moment, her lips curled into the ghost of a smile, and her eyes met mine with a muted gratitude. And then she seemed to remember where we were and everything that had happened between us. She stepped backward again.

“Yes, you always said I was tough.” The smile turned brittle. “Guess that’s why you figured I could handle it when you left me without a word. You never looked back, did you?”

“Sabrina.” Slowly, I shook my head. “No. That wasn’t what happened at all. It was—I didn’t have a choice.”

“That’s bullshit.” She tossed her head, making her wavy black hair dance. “Everything is a choice, Wesley. You moved away without giving me any notice, any explanation at all. You could have dropped me a note. You could’ve sent me a text. But you decided I wasn’t worth the time or energy.”

“It wasn’t that way,” I began again, but she rolled her eyes and cut me off.

“It wasn’t even the fact that you skipped town the day after—” She stopped abruptly, biting her lip, and I knew what she’d been about to say. “But we were friends, Wesley. You’d been my closest friend since preschool. We went through so much crap together, and I thought you were the one person I could always depend on. In a sea of craziness, you were my reliable float. After you left—” She turned around, giving me her back, but the way her head bowed, I knew she was hiding tears.

That just about killed me.

Who knew that all these years later, Sabrina Hudson still had the ability to rip out my beating heart?

“Sabrina, you have to realize that if there had been any way for me to reach out to you, I would have done it. God, don’t you think it destroyed me, having to leave everything and everyone behind me when we left? And if you don’t know, after all the years we were friends, after I told you that night how much I cared for you, if you didn’t know that you were at the top of the list of people I’d miss, then . . .” I trailed off. “Maybe there’s nothing I can say.”

“I guess not,” she whispered, the sound muffled since she was still facing away from me. “And if there’s nothing left for either of us to say, then I’m going home.” She waved one hand, gesturing vaguely to the space around us. “Tell Linc I was here and everything looks fine. Tell him I’ll be back next week to check on the progress.” She paused. “Please.”

“Don’t you want to take a look around? Check out what we’ve done upstairs?” I hated that my surprise appearance was robbing Sabrina of the joy of watching her house come back to life.

“No, not now.” She turned toward the door, and once again, she held her head between her hands. “I just came off a long shift at the hospital, and I need to get home to sleep.”

There was so much I wanted to ask her. She worked at the hospital, so did that mean she’d realized her long-held dream of becoming a doctor? Where was she living now, while she waited for her house to be ready? How had the last fourteen years treated her? Was she married, living with someone . . . did she have a family to raise in this rambling old house?

But I could tell that she was on the verge of falling apart, and I knew that if I witnessed that, it would only make her resent me more. So I didn’t ask any questions. Instead, I stayed where I was, hooking my thumbs in the beltloops of my jeans.

“Okay, Sabrina. I’ll let him know.”

She nodded and reached for the doorknob, hesitating only a second before she stepped across the threshold.

“I didn’t know what happened to you, Wesley, and I always wondered. I’m glad you’re alive and well.”

Before I could respond, she was out the door, pulling it shut behind her. I listened to the sound of her feet on the porch and then crunching on the gravel of the drive, but I went back upstairs before the slam of her car door.

A few minutes later, I heard the familiar rumble of Linc’s truck, and shortly after that, he climbed the steps to find me.

“Got those nails,” he announced, tossing me a small paper bag. “But we need to order some more from the company because the local hardware store doesn’t stock them on a regular basis.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I thought what we had on hand would work, but these will be better.”

“Agreed.” Linc squinted at me, frowning. “Was that the homeowner I passed on the way in? I slowed down to wave, but she just kept on going.”

“Yep.” Tension made me a little terse. “She came by to check on things, I guess.”

“Didn’t hang around very long, did she? Was she happy with what she saw so far?”

I hesitated, unsure of how much to say. “She didn’t get any further than the foyer. I went downstairs, and I think she was surprised that she wasn’t here alone.” I opened the bag and pretended to examine the tiny finishing nails. “Turns out that she’s someone I knew . . . a long time ago.”

“Oh.” Linc watched me, waiting for me to go on, and when I didn’t, when my face went hot, his eyebrows rose. “Ohhhh. Old girlfriend?”

“Not quite. Kind of, maybe. We were just kids, and things—didn’t end the way I’d hoped. Or the way she’d hoped, I guess.” I closed the bag of nails again, crimping the paper to keep them from spilling. “It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time and a good ear,” Linc offered.

“That’s okay.” I shook my head. “I know you need to get home, and I’ve lost the light here, anyway. Mind dropping me at the office on your way?” All of us working on the house tried to share rides to and from the site to cut down on too many vehicles in the driveway.

“No problem.” Linc waited as I grabbed my tools and stood up to follow him down the stairs. “You know, that offer to listen isn’t going to expire. Any time you need to talk, I’m here.”

“Thanks. You’re a good guy, Linc.”

He paused at the back door, his smile wry as he dug in his pocket for the key to lock up.

“I wasn’t always, and that’s what makes me a good listener. I don’t judge, and I believe in second chances.”

I nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

But as we trudged to the pickup, I wasn’t thinking about Linc’s offer. Instead, I was hoping that maybe, somehow, Sabrina might also be an advocate of second chances.

It was unlikely. She didn’t seem disposed to hear me out or to understand what had gone done all those years ago in Wisconsin.

But a guy could hope.

***************************

What’s the story between Sabrina and Wesley?

And will she give him a second chance?

Read next week and find out!

If you missed Episode One, read it here.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the first four Burton romances,

catch up on them here!

Bosom Buddies Episode One

Sabrina

Everything in life is a tradeoff.

At least, that’s the way I look at things. Take today, for instance. Here I was at the end of a twenty-four-hour shift at the hospital, and by all rights, I should have been heading back to my condo to collapse into bed for a solid eight hours of desperately needed sleep. But instead, I’d turned left out of the hospital parking lot and aimed my car toward the small town of Burton, located about forty-five minutes due west of Savannah.

I wasn’t driving all the way into town today, even though I was tempted to pop into my friend Celeste’s adorable lingerie shop and shoot the breeze with her. No, my destination was about ten miles outside of Burton: I was driving to a picturesque little piece of property that boasted a small lake, two acres of wooded land, and over a hundred years of fascinating history.

Oh, and it also included a rambling old mansion that hadn’t been occupied for several decades. Seeing the beauty it could become hadn’t been easy, but I had a discerning eye for spotting potential, and this house had it in spades. I’d fallen head over heels for the place and made a rare impulsive decision. I’d forsaken the search for a cookie-cutter suburban starter home and committed to another year or two in my soulless Savannah condo in order to fund the rehab of my dream home.

Last month, the work on the bones of the house—the structural support, electricity and plumbing—had all been finished. This week, the company I’d hired to handle the historical rehab was supposed to begin working its magic, and I couldn’t wait another moment to see what they’d done so far.

Hence, the tradeoff. I was giving up sleep in exchange for a quick walk-through of my dream home.

It was late afternoon, so I wasn’t completely surprised to see that there weren’t any trucks in the winding driveway that led to the house. Was I a tiny bit disappointed? Sure. I wanted to think that the people I’d hired were giving my precious project all of their time and energy and attention, but the truth was that they probably had other jobs going on at the same time.

Anyway, being alone would give me a chance to really soak it all in without anyone there to rush me along or ask pesky questions. There you go—yet another tradeoff.

I let myself in through the front door only because I wanted the full effect of stepping into the magnificent foyer. I wasn’t disappointed. The walls were freshly painted in an updated shade of their original color, and the woodwork we’d selected for this space was already up, and even though it hadn’t been finished yet, I could already see how gorgeous it was going to be.

“Oh, baby,” I murmured. “You are going to be so beautiful when they’re done. I’d say we’re restoring you to your former glory, but I think it’s going to be even better than that. Kind of like getting a facelift that makes you look like a sexier version of your twenty-year-old self.” I giggled to myself, thinking of all the women who would line up for that kind of surgery.

Kneeling down, I ran my fingers over the baseboards and craned my neck to examine the molding that ran along the top of the walls, seeing in my mind’s eye the old photos one of my contacts at the county historical society had dug up for me, the ones that we’d used to make style and color decisions. It really was like the original, only better.

I was about to stand up again and make my way toward the kitchen when I heard footsteps upstairs. That was disturbing; if the crew had left for the day, no one should have been here. But there they were again: yeah, someone was definitely upstairs, and whoever it might be wasn’t making any effort to disguise his or her presence.

My mind raced through a number of possibilities, landing on the worst one first. I’d heard that sometimes vagrants or addicts or criminals scoped out empty houses and camped out there when they were fairly sure no one else was around. My place was pretty far off the beaten track, but still . . . if someone happened upon it, they might not like the idea of being chased away, and if they felt cornered or had a weapon, I could be in trouble.

I moved slowly, reaching into my purse and groping blindly. Like most women, I’d learned young the defense method of threading keys through my fingers, and if I could find them now, I might be able to buy myself time to get to my car. I thanked my past self for feeling safe enough out here that I’d left it unlocked. The door was just a few feet away, and if I could get to it silently—

And then the footsteps sounded again—this time louder and coming closer. My heart pounded, and sweat broke out all over my body. I tried to swallow, but my throat was bone dry. I took a deep breath and was about to make a run for the door when I heard a deep voice.

“Sabrina?”

I looked up, lifting my eyes to the banister on the second floor where a man was staring down at me. I blinked, my mind darting this way and that as I tried to make sense of the stranger above me who knew my name.

It wasn’t Linc Turner, the co-owner of Kent and Turner, the historical restoration company I’d hired. I’d have guessed it was one of the men who worked for him, but I hadn’t met any of them. It might have been someone local to Burton—someone I’d met with Celeste or maybe through Young Survival Coalition, the breast cancer support network and organization where we both volunteered. But it wasn’t. Somehow, I knew I hadn’t seen this face in a long time.

But I didn’t know him. The familiarity was frustratingly fleeting and vague. I frowned, rising slowly as the guy who seemed to know me jogged down the steps. My keys were still in my hand, so if he turned out to be psychopath who somehow happened to know my name.

“I didn’t put it together . . . I mean, Hudson is a common name, right? But then I heard your car in the driveway, and when I looked out the window to see who was here, I knew it was you.” He took a step toward me.

I moved backward. “I’m sorry. I don’t . . .” My voice trailed off. “How do you know me?”

He was quiet for a moment, and then a half-smile curled his lips. My heart sped up again, but this time it wasn’t fear making my pulse race. It seemed that my body had realized who he was, but my head was slow to catch up.

And then he spoke, his voice low and husky.

“Brina girl.”

Just like that, it all came flooding back to me, and I knew without a shadow of doubt who was standing in front of me.

“Wesley?”

***************************

Who is Wesley?

And how does he know Sabrina?

Read next week and find out!

Meanwhile, catch up on all of the steamy romance happening in Burton right here!

The First One is only 99 cents today!

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A sneak peek of Intentional Grounding

Grey’s Anatomy meets Monday Night Football. 

Heat and heart clash in this rollercoaster of a love story.

Noah

I’m Noah Spencer, famous football player, all-around good guy . . . and widower.

When my wife died, I knew that part of my life—the part where I could love or be loved—was over. But then I met Alison, and suddenly, I find myself beginning to believe in hope again.

Still, I know the kind of pain love can bring. I know what it feels like when my heart shatters.

Do I have the guts to risk it all again?

Alison

I’m Alison Wakely, physician, perpetual loner . . . and possible bad-luck charm.

Long ago, I resigned myself that true love and happily ever after aren’t in the cards for me. But then I met Noah, and he tempts me to trust in happiness again.

When everything begins to unravel, though, I realize I should have known better. I’m fated to be alone.

But fate has a way of surprising us now and then.

The second trilogy in the best-selling Diagnosis: Love world is made up of two SHAMELESS CLIFFIES before the finale. You’ve been warned. The books release a week apart, so your angst doesn’t have to last long–and the happily ever after in book three is worth the journey.

 

Noah

“Noah?” 

The voice behind me as I stood under the portico at the hotel was hesitant but oddly familiar. I turned around to see a drop-dead gorgeous total babe approaching me from the direction of the lobby. 

“Uh . . . Alison?” I croaked like a boy going through adolescence. “Hey. Um, wow. You look . . .” I gave a little cough to try to get my voice back under control. “Amazing.” 

Her cheeks flushed a very pretty pink. “Thank you. You don’t look bad yourself. Actually, if I’m going for brutal honesty, you look a hell of a lot better than you did the last time I saw you.”

I grimaced. “Not hard to do. I was pretty wrecked that day.” 

“Yeah, I know.” She glanced around us. “So you’re staying here, too?” 

“There wasn’t a lot of choice. Emma said all of the out of town guests who weren’t being put up by people in Harper Spring were coming to this hotel. It was nice of them to spring for the shuttle.” 

“Nice, yes. A good idea, absolutely.” Alison tilted her head. “Think about all the celebrating that’s going to happen tonight. Poor Anna and Jimmy might end up with a house full of unexpected guests who aren’t sober enough to drive back to the hotel if they didn’t have the shuttle option.” 

“Good point,” I allowed. “It works for me, too. I haven’t been cleared for driving yet.” 

“How did you get here from Tampa, then?” she inquired. 

“Car service,” I admitted. “It was the easiest way to go.” 

She fiddled with the clasp on her sparkly little purse. “I would have been happy to give you a ride, you know.” 

It was on the tip of my tongue to make a suggestive reply to her remark, but I reined myself in. After all, Alison and I might have bonded during my time of pain and need, but she didn’t know me all that well. I didn’t want to scare her off. 

“I appreciate the thought, but I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.” 

She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, the shuttle lumbered to a stop in front of us. The hotel doors slid open and a group of people came out, all of them chattering as they headed for the bus. 

“Guess we’re not the only ones planning to get there early,” I observed. “We better get on board, or we might not get a seat.” I bent my arm and offered it to Alison. “Shall we?” 

She grinned at me, and something frozen and nearly dead in my heart began to melt. 

We found two seats together in the front of the vehicle. I stepped aside to allow Alison the inside seat. 

“I don’t mind the aisle,” she said, hesitating. 

I shook my head. “I need to keep my leg straight. It helps with the stiffness.” 

“Ah. Okay.” She slipped around me and took her seat, watching as I settled myself down next to her. 

“At the risk of bringing up a painful topic . . . how is your knee?” She glanced at me. “I felt bad leaving you that day in the hospital, but I figured between your doctor arriving and things calming down in the ER, I’d only be in the way.” She tugged the hem of her short, sparkly dress down over her knee. “I did check on you before I left that day, though. They told me you were already in surgery.” 

“Yeah, I don’t remember much after you left. Emma and Deacon arrived a few minutes later, I think, but I barely saw them before I was wheeled into the OR. And there’s no need to feel bad about leaving. I was out of it for quite a while.” 

Alison nodded. “And now? I’m sure you’re sick of answering the question, but how’s recovery going?” 

I hesitated. “It’s . . . slow. Dr. Taleb determined that I’d torn both my ACL and my MCL. He thought he’d be able to fix them during the initial surgery, but the damage was worse than he expected. Several tendons were, uh, ruptured. So we’re playing a sort of waiting game. I’m doing therapy, working just as much as they’ll let me, resting it when they tell me to.” 

“Are you out for the season?” she asked quietly. “Or do you know that yet?” 

“No one’s saying. The team doctor says it’s too early to make that determination. If it were a few games later in the year, I’d definitely be done.” 

“But since it’s not, maybe you’ll still have a chance.” She offered me an encouraging smile. 

“Maybe.” I didn’t want to be a downer, but I wasn’t optimistic about this season. I was still clinging to hope that I’d be able to start next year. 

“Are you scared?” She looked me straight in the eye as she asked the question, and I found I couldn’t be anything but honest with her. 

“Shitless.” I rubbed my palm on my thigh. “And I’m sick to death of thinking about it. It’s like this huge looming presence next to me, day and night. At first, all of my teammates came by the house to see me. I had a constant stream of visitors. But they didn’t know what to say. They just served up the same old crap, promising that I’ll be back on the field in no time. But I can’t stand their pity. It’s almost the worst part of the whole thing.” 

Alison studied me silently. “I’ve been through a lifetime of crappy, Noah. I know what it is to feel alone, to know that no one else can really understand. I can’t say anything to change it, but I can promise, I don’t pity you. If you need someone who’ll listen to you rant and rave, I’d be a good ear. A decent shoulder if you ever need one to cry on.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Not that big, strong men like you ever cry.” 

“You’d be surprised.” I stretched out one hand to take Alison’s, curling my fingers around hers. “Thank you, Alison. And . . . I need to thank you, too, for sitting with me that day. A lot of what happened is kind of hazy for me, but I do remember how kind and compassionate you were. You hung with me when you didn’t have to, and I’m really grateful.” I huffed out a half-laugh. “And this is something I should have said sooner. I should have gotten your number from Emma and called. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“Oh, Noah. I didn’t expect you to call me. It’s not like I did anything extraordinary. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was glad to do what I could.” She shrugged. 

“Still.” I tightened my hold on her hand. “It meant a lot to me.” I waited a beat. “And having finally done the right thing, now I’m going to ask you for another favor.” 

Alison lifted one finely arched eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?” 

“I think we talked that day in the hospital about how neither of us was planning to bring a date—against Emma’s, uh, persuasion.” I favored her with what I hoped was my most winsome smile. “But I really don’t want to go through tonight by myself. I don’t want to answer the endless questions about my knee, say the same old shit over and over.” 

“I can understand that.” She nodded. 

“So how about it? Would you be my wedding buddy?” 

A slow smile spread over her face, and twin spots of pink deepened on her cheek bones. “Seriously?” 

“If you really wouldn’t mind.” 

“Of course, I wouldn’t mind.” Alison leaned a little closer to me. “You’d be doing me a favor, too. I hate this kind of thing.” 

My face must have reflected my surprise, because she hurried to explain. “That sounded so much worse out loud than it did in my head. I don’t hate weddings, per se. And I’m so happy for Emma and Deacon. But any big family event like this is tough on me. I feel like I don’t belong. I don’t know what to say or how to act . . . and it’s worse if I’m by myself. So . . . yeah. Let’s call this a mutual favor to help each other, okay?”

Something Alison had said while she’d been sitting at my bedside suddenly emerged from my memory. She’d talked about being abandoned by her mother when she was born and not knowing who her father was. We hadn’t talked any more about it because she’d made a remark about her father being Hugh Hefner, and then . . . I couldn’t remember where our conversation had gone after that. 

But now I wondered about it. About her. If she’d never known her mother or her father . . . well, she must have been adopted, right? That wouldn’t explain why family events would make her uncomfortable, unless she’d felt as though she didn’t belong. 

I realized she was watching me, waiting for me to respond. I held her hand a little tighter and said, “Absolutely. There’s nothing I’d like more.”

* * *

“And now, by the power vested in me by the state of Florida and by God Almighty, I now pronounce you man and wife.” The minister beamed down at Emma and Deacon. “Deacon, son, you may kiss your bride.” 

There was spontaneous applause among all of us witnessing the marriage, followed by a outburst of awwwws as Deacon framed Emma’s glowing face with his hands and bent his head to kiss her. 

Next to me, Alison sighed, and I smiled. I got the sense that the good doctor liked people to think that she was impervious to things like romance and sentiment, but the expression on her face as our friends had made their vows gave lie to that idea. 

This was the first wedding I’d attended since Ang had died. I’d had a few invitations from teammates and cousins since her death, but I’d made an excuse for every single one. I’d known all along, though, that I couldn’t miss Emma’s big day. She was too good a friend for me to hurt her that way. In addition to our close friendship, she and Deacon had also stuck by me after my injury, researching doctors, treatments, and therapies that they felt might benefit me. I owed them both more than I could ever repay.

But I’d known being here wasn’t going to be easy. Having Alison by my side, even if it was just through our coincidental arrival, helped more than I’d expected.

The music began again, and Emma and Deacon walked back up the aisle, happiness emanating from their faces. Behind them, the matron of honor, Emma’s friend Jenny, followed escorted by Deacon’s grandfather, Jimmy, who had served as his best man. Jenny’s husband Nico was sitting in front of Alison and me, and he turned to wink at me as the guests began to stand up. 

“Well, they finally did it.” He grinned. “There were times when I was sure they’d kill each other before they got to this happy ending, but I’m glad I was wrong.” 

Alison laughed. “I’ll never forget my last day at St. Agnes. Deacon asked me to update him on a patient, and Emma was there, too. They got into a fight, and I wasn’t sure if they were going to start throwing punches or if Deacon was going to throw Emma onto the couch in his office. Talk about sparks.” 

I sighed. This was exactly why Emma had ended her relationship with me. We never had those kinds of spats. Was that wrong? I couldn’t remember Angela and I battling that way, either. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I just wasn’t capable of that kind of passion. That was depressing as hell. Sure, I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but it was a downer to think that I might not ever experience something that others found so attractive. 

“I’m going to go find my wife.” Nico sketched a wave toward Alison and me. “See you over there, yeah?” 

“Definitely.” I braced my hands on either side of the chair and lumbered to my feet, hating the fact that I couldn’t just stand like other people. I moved like an eighty-year-old man these days. Come to think of it, Deacon’s grandfather was spryer than I was. 

Alison didn’t say anything as I grunted, finding my balance again. I appreciated that. So many people wanted to fuss over me, wanted to give me a hand with something or another. I didn’t like feeling that I needed help. 

“So.” I cleared my throat. “I guess we’re supposed to move over to where they have the tables set up, huh?” 

“As far as I know. Looks like the caterers are guiding people that way. Emma told me that they’re doing a cocktail hour for the guests while the photographer takes more pictures of the wedding party.” 

“Cocktails sound good about now,” I observed, offering Alison my arm again. “Shall we head over there, then? If you don’t mind me moving slow, that is. My leg always gives me more issues after I’ve been sitting for a while.” 

“Take your time.” She slipped her hand around my elbow. “There’s no need to rush. I trust that the bar isn’t going to run out of booze.” 

“Let’s hope not,” I chuckled. “Because I know I’m going to enjoy myself tonight. I usually don’t drink during the season, but since it seems unlikely I’m going to be back on the field in the near future, there’s no reason for me not to have a good time.” 

“I agree. And I’m off for this entire weekend, with another doctor covering my service, so I’m free to get a little tipsy, too.” 

I inclined my head her way. “Dr. Wakely, I believe we’ve just made a plan for this evening. Would you like to begin having fun with a Tropical Orgasm?” 

Alison’s eyes went wide. “Um, what? Excuse me?” 

Laughing, I bent my head to speak close to her ear. “One of the little-known facts about me is that I’m an expert in dirty drinks. My brothers and I went through this phase in college where we competed to see who could find and consume the most cocktails that had really sexy names. One of my favorites was Tropical Orgasm. Trust me . . . you won’t be the same after you’ve had one.” I paused for effect. “But two is even better.” 

Color flamed on Alison’s face, but I saw the piqued interest in her eyes. “I’ve never been a woman who’s shy about asking for orgasms—tropical or otherwise.” She arched one eyebrow. 

“Is that so?” I murmured. 

“It is.” She tossed a coquettish smile my way. “Lead the way.” 

* * *

“You look beautiful.” 

As soon as the words escaped my lips, I wanted to call them back. Not because they weren’t true—they were; Alison Wakely, whom I’d never particularly noticed before in the way a man notices an attractive woman, was undeniably gorgeous tonight. No, the reason I wished I could take back what I’d said was that Ang had taught me never to tell a woman she looked beautiful. It was far better to say she was beautiful. 

Remembering that, of course, brought Angela back to the forefront of my mind, where she’d been lingering all day anyway. It would have been impossible to be at any wedding and not be thinking of her, but I knew how tickled she would’ve been to see Emma and Deacon finally tie the knot. I wondered if somehow, somewhere, she was aware. I liked to believe she was. 

I’d had a lot of time to think since taking that rotten hit on the football field. I wasn’t sure what had changed for me; maybe it was the idea that football, the one element of my life that had remained steadfast since I was a kid, was now in danger of deserting me, too. Maybe it was a brush with my own mortality, the very real fact that life didn’t last forever, that do-overs were rare, and that my time for finding happiness might be limited. 

Whatever it was, sitting here tonight in the near-dark, with sparkling fairy lights all around us, I found myself thinking of possibilities more than I had since Emma had broken up with me. Maybe even more than since Angela had died. It was possible that my shift in perception had to do with the romance of the evening or the multiple sexually named drinks Alison and I had both consumed, but I had a strong feeling that it had more to do with the woman who was sitting close beside me, her arm touching mine.

The woman I’d just possibly offended by saying she looked beautiful. 

But come to think of it, she didn’t seem upset. She actually smiled a little brighter, and I got the sense she’d liked hearing it. So maybe this was one tiny instance of Angela not being a hundred percent right. 

I wasn’t saying it just to be nice, either. Alison looked . . . I tried to think of the most precise way to phrase it. She looked special. Her black hair, which I’d only ever seen her wear pulled up in a tight knot at the back of her head, hung down over her shoulders in fat curls. Her eyes were huge and luminous, and if I wasn’t wrong, they actually looked almost purple. 

But the appeal didn’t stop at her face. No, her body was part of the show, too. She was tall—though not as tall as me, of course—with long legs that were on full display beneath her short sparkly dress. She was slightly on the thin side, but not gangly—I guessed that slender would be the right way to describe her. 

And when she leaned to the side to murmur something in my ear, the neckline of her dress gaped just enough to let me know two essential facts: one, she wasn’t wearing a bra. And two, she didn’t have an overabundance of boobage, but it was enough to make a man happy. 

I hadn’t noticed any of this before. Sure, we’d hung out pretty regularly when all of us were helping Emma build her cabin. There was almost always a bunch of us tackling whatever project Emma had come up with, but when I thought back, I realized that Alison had always sort of faded into the background when we were all together. 

My memories of her were so vague that when I’d first seen her in the hospital back when I’d gotten hurt, it had taken me more than a few seconds to place her. Of course, I could chalk some of that up to the fact that I’d been in the most excruciating pain of my entire life (which was saying something, considering that I’d been playing football since I was six). And I’d also been despondent, worried about what this injury was going to mean to my career. 

Tonight, though, all of that was different. I mean, yeah, I was still worried about my career, given the fact that my knee was still fucked up. I was still in a fair amount of discomfort on a regular basis, and the team doctors were being cagey about what came next. 

Somehow, none of that mattered right now. I was also sitting next to a sexy, gorgeous woman who was funny, smart and sort of sweet. I was enjoying myself. For the first time in a very, very long time, I found myself wanting to spend more time with a woman. And maybe more than just time . . . I realized that I wanted to know Alison. I remembered our game of two lies and a truth, and I recalled her honesty, how she’d described almost jumping off a bridge. It had been that stark truthfulness that had prompted me to lay my own truth on the table, too. For two people who’d only been passing acquaintances at best, we’d opened up quite a bit that afternoon. 

But now, I wanted even more. I wanted to ask her questions and listen to her answers. I wanted to find out what her skin felt like when I ran my fingers down her spine. I wanted to know if her eyes went cloudy with pleasure when someone—and in this case, that someone was me—drove her out of her ever-fuckin’ mind. All of these feelings were new, and part of me deep inside was panicking at the idea of what I wanted to come next . . . but I found that tonight, it was easy to ignore that small, anxious voice. It would be all too easy and wonderful to simply slide my arms around her and kiss her into oblivion. 

I caught my breath. Kiss her? Did I really want to do that? Having a one-night fling fueled by wedding emotions was one thing. Having that fling with someone who was also a friend of the bride might be a risky move. 

On the other hand, though, Alison hadn’t given me any indication that she was looking for a long-term commitment. As a matter of fact, she’d told me that Emma’s constant attempts to fix her up and marry her off were driving her nuts. It was possible that she’d be on the same page as me. Maybe we could pull off a friendly night of passion and still walk away friendly, with no one the wiser. 

Before any of that could happen, though, I had to stop staring and actually say something beyond those last words I’d blurted out. 

You look beautiful.

“Thank you,” Alison was replying even as my mind was rushing to catch up. “I’m not usually . . .” She swept one hand down her front, and her cheeks went rosy. It was enticing. “I don’t usually fuss. But I was so excited about this wedding.” She shook her head a little. “You probably think it’s silly.” 

“No, I don’t. I feel the same way. This . . . watching Emma and Deacon say I do, it was special. It’s a day worth fussing for.” 

Her smile stretched wider. “Thank you for saying that.” 

We’d been together since later afternoon, catching up, talking about the ceremony, the music, the food. But it had taken me this long to say what had been playing in my head since the moment I’d first laid eyes on her today. 

“Alison . . . you are beautiful.” I repeated the phrase with that slight, important difference. It seemed essential, given what she had just said. “Not just tonight, because you fussed. You just are.” 

She stared at me, and a tic jumped in her cheek as she ran her tongue over her lips. “Noah . . .” she murmured. “How’s your knee feeling?” 

I frowned. That question came out of the blue. We’d talked about my knee, my surgery, my prognosis, in excruciating detail earlier. I was a little nonplussed that she’d asked again. 

“Uh, well . . .”

“I mean . . .” Her face went even redder. “How is it now? Are you possibly up to a slow dance?” Her gaze dipped down. “You probably don’t remember it, but you asked me to save you a dance that day at the hospital.” 

“Did I?” I had no memory of that. 

“It was when I was leaving. I think you were already feeling the effects of the pain medication, so I won’t hold you to it if you’ve changed your mind. Or if you don’t feel like your leg can take it.”

“Ohhhh.” I considered. “Yeah. No, I don’t want to change my mind. I think I can manage a slow dance, provided you’re not disappointed that I don’t spin or dip you.” 

“I promise, Noah. I won’t be disappointed in you. I don’t think I ever could be.” 

Pleasure burned inside me at her words. There was something undeniably sensual about a woman who believed in me, whose touch and expression showed me that she felt safe to open herself up to me. And as we made our way to the dance floor and I took her in my arms, I felt as though something inside me that was rusty with disuse was grinding back to life. 

Alison looped her arms around my neck, clasping her hands at the back of my head. I drew her closer to me, my fingers digging into her hips. We swayed slowly to the music, our movements causing our bodies to brush against one another. I thought I hadn’t been so turned on by a dance since I’d been in junior high at my first formal. 

“I like this song.” Her breath tickled my neck. “Country music usually isn’t my jam, but sometimes the words are just perfect.” 

“Whoa, there.” I leaned back and pretended to glare down at her. “Darlin’, country is the only real music there is. It’s all about real life, real people, real problems . . .” 

She tilted her head. “Objectifying women, embracing a false narrative about this country’s past, glorifying gas-guzzling, environment-destroying vehicles—yeah, that’s what I want to blare when I’m driving down the backroads, letting off steam.”

I smirked. “Well, when you look at it that way . . .” 

Alison laughed, her fingers moving in intoxicating designs on the skin just below my hairline. “I’m not actually that militant about country music. I’ve been known to sing along with Dolly and Tanya and Wynonna now and then. Hell, I’ve even been known to enjoy some Brad Paisley now and again.” 

“Those are the good ones,” I admitted. “I’m not crazy about the acts that celebrate the ugly side or the singers who scream about someone prying guns out of their cold, dead hands. But where I grew up in Wisconsin, we had these fairgrounds near us. All the up and coming acts passed through and played, and sometimes the shows were free—or at least cheap.” I smiled a little, remembering. “I have two brothers and three sisters. My mom didn’t work, and my dad almost killed himself to make ends meet and keep us in food and clothes.” My thumbs drew circles on her hips. “Don’t get me wrong—we were happy, and we didn’t lack for anything we needed. We had a nice house, and my parents never told us that we didn’t have enough. My brothers and I played football and my sisters danced, played soccer and softball—no one said that it would cost us too much money to do it. But there wasn’t extra for things like concerts, you know? So from May through August, there’d be these cheap concerts. Mom would pack up snacks and we’d sit on the grass and listen to the bands. I loved those nights.” 

Alison’s eyes drifted closed. “It sounds so wonderful. You’re lucky to have those memories.” 

“I know.” I eased her a little closer, linking my hands just above her tempting ass. “I loved the way I grew up. I wouldn’t change a thing, and I know there aren’t many people who can say that.” I paused a beat, not sure if I should ask the question that was on the tip of my tongue. “Alison, that day at the hospital, you told me that you didn’t know your biological parents. But . . . you were adopted, right? I mean, a healthy, newborn baby—there must’ve been lots of families who wanted you.” 

Her eyes remained shut, and she lowered her forehead to my shoulder for a moment. We swayed in silence until she lifted her face to me again. 

“I went into foster care, and the woman who took me from the hospital planned to keep me. She started the process of adopting me—even named me after her own late mother. I took both my names from her. Or that’s what’s in my records.” 

“What happened?” 

Her shoulder rose and fell. “She was a widow—her husband had died young—and I guess that meant it took longer for her to be approved. And before she was, she met someone and decided to get married. But the guy she fell for—he didn’t want to adopt kids. Or at least, he didn’t want to adopt me.” 

“What the hell was the matter with him?” Irrational anger at a man I’d never known surged within me. “Why would he get involved with a woman who had a baby if he didn’t want to be a dad?” 

Alison shook her head slightly. “I have no idea. Believe me, I’ve spent way too many hours in the middle of the night agonizing over this. Why did he propose to her when he knew she was in the middle of the adoption process? Why did she choose to say yes to him? Did she think he’d change his mind? I have no idea. I don’t remember her at all. My earliest memories are from living in a group home when I was four.” 

“Christ.” I didn’t even know what to say. I felt almost guilty for the nearly idyllic life I’d known. “Alison, I just—God, I’m—”

“If you say you’re sorry, I’ll kick you in your bad knee.” The words were harsh, but she said them with patient humor. “I swear, I will. I don’t want your sympathy.” 

“You don’t have it.” I slid one hand up her back to press her head against my chest. “I don’t pity you, Alison. I don’t feel sorry for you. But I’m damned pissed off on behalf of infant you and two-year-old you. And I’d really like to give all those people a piece of my mind.” 

“Yeah, that was something I dealt with in the psych ward after I didn’t jump off the Golden Gate. And in all the years since. I had a lot of anger built up at a lot of people. It took hours of therapy to finally accept that the mad was only hurting me. You know how they say living well is the best revenge? Well, being successful and well-adjusted is my form of revenge, if you want to call it that. Maybe freedom would be a better word.” 

I bent my head to gaze steadily into her eyes. “You are, without a doubt, the bravest and strongest woman I’ve ever met.”

She blinked slowly. “That’s . . . thank you, Noah. I have trouble believing that’s true, given what I’ve heard about Angela, but I appreciate you saying it.” 

I waited for the typical lurch of my heart at her mention of Ang, but it didn’t come. Instead, I found myself considering what Alison had just said. 

“Angela was brave, yes. In the face of her illness, I think she found out just how strong she could be—and so did I. I won’t deny that I was awed by how well she rolled with the punches. At the same time, though, let’s remember that Angela never lacked for love or support. She was raised by two devoted parents who told her every day that she was their shining star. She had a sister who idolized her. And she had me, too. Being able to face a serious diagnosis was hard, but she didn’t do it on her own. Not like you had to do.” 

Alison didn’t respond right away. Instead, she pressed herself against me again, her arms twining tighter around my neck. After a few moments, I felt rather than heard her whispered words.

“Thank you . . . for seeing that. Thank you for seeing me.” 

I wrapped my arms around her slender body, holding her close, and we swayed to the gentle rhythm of the music.

Read the entire book here!

A very personal post

This was sent out as a newsletter this morning, September 1st. 

Dear friends,

I often begin my newsletters to you this way because, in my mind, you are my friends. I share my stories with you, I let you in on behind-the-scenes action, and I often fill you in on stuff going on in my family. You saw the first pictures of my granddaughter, and you encourage me when things are tough.

Of course, most of us have not met one another. Mostly, we know each other through this interchange of words and ideas. Some of you might follow me on social media, too, and then you’d know a little more about me and how I think.

What I’m sharing today is primarily for my fellow Americans. My beloved friends around the world . . . you’re welcome to read along, too.

A few years ago, when things took a turn in my country, I was advised to keep everything in my professional world apolitical. I was cautioned not to let my opinions and beliefs bleed through in my social media, website, newsletter, and books. For the most part, I’ve heeded this advice. My author page remains non-political. My newsletters are always filled with bookish things. I don’t go down political roads in my books.

If you are friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, you probably know where I stand on some important topics. But I’ve done my best not to let that show in my author persona.

However, a few things have happened recently that have caused me to question this way of doing things.

First of all, when I released The Anti-Cinderella books, I received a small backlash from readers who accused me of ‘shoving that climate crap’ down readers’ throats. Now, to my way of thinking, I wasn’t shoving anything. Yes, Kyra went to school for sustainable agriculture–and I gave her that course of studies because my youngest daughter majored in that. Sustainable ag and sustainability as a whole are passions for my family. But nowhere did Kyra or Nicky proselytize about climate change to the reader–what happened between them and other characters was based on things that have really happened to us, and it was part of their story. This is fiction, but it is inspired by people and events in my own life. That’s my process. I wasn’t making a political statement. I was telling a story.

And then came this year. Oh, my friends, this has been a hard year for all of us. I’ve seen the suffering caused by the pandemic and by the escalation of racial tensions in my country. I’ve cried over George, Ahmaud, and Breonna. I’ve struggled with intense rage over the ignorance of some of my fellow Americans. I’ve seen division and anger and bullying and shameful behavior on the part of our nation’s leadership.

This past weekend, three things happened.

Chadwick Boseman died.
Jim Gaffigan spoke out on Twitter.
I sent an email about football books.
Chadwick Boseman dying would have been a tragedy at any time, but in 2020, it takes on added meaning. I’m not going to delve into the whys and wherefores of that. You’re just going to have to take my word for it. His loss struck deep for me, and judging by the overwhelming response around the world, I’m not alone.

Jim Gaffigan is one of my family’s favorite comedians. We’ve listened to and laughed with him for years. At the end of last week, he began tweeting . . . and well, better to read the story in his own words.

Something Jim wrote as he unpacked his Twitter time struck a nerve for me. So if I believe I won’t sway any voters, why speak out like I did? Honestly, I feel I had no choice at this point. I think Trump is ruining and possibly has already ruined my country. For me this isn’t a debate about the size of government, taxes, health care or even abortion. I miss the days when those were the topics I would discuss with friends. I feel a responsibility to coming generations, my children but selfishly I didn’t want to explain to my grandchildren that I didn’t fight to stop Trump. Maybe they will see that I stood up for decency, rule of law, and equality. That’s way more important to me than selling out an arena.

Responsibility. The word resonated within me. What have I done to fulfill my responsibility to generations to come? How have I been a positive force in this dangerous world? How have I been a light in a world of hatred? I’ve shared posts. I’ve tweeted. I’ve worked for my party during elections.

But have I even begun to sacrifice? I think not.

And then there was the football email.

I think I write about topics that are pretty middle-of-the-road. You know romance is my gig. If you don’t like kissing (AND MORE!!) and sweet nothings and happy endings (most of the time), then you shouldn’t read my books. Some are paranormal; if that spooks you, don’t worry, there are plenty of non-para books of mine out there, too. If you like small-town America, I’ve got a bunch of books you might enjoy.

At one time, I worried that my military romances might offend some people, but silly me–it’s not those. It’s the football books.

Now, you know I love me some football. It’s why fall is my season. I. Love. The. Game. In the past few years, I’ve struggled with this love for a few reasons: the safety and health of the players as we learn more about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and the way Black athletes have been treated by management and how management has so often dismissed the social justice calls of the players.

This weekend, I received a slew of response to my football-themed newsletter, telling me that they won’t watch the game or read the books because football is catering to the ‘criminal terrorists of the BLM’. Some of these emails were mean and nasty. Some called me names. Some were just filled with ignorance. These emails made me very sad.

So this was my click. It doesn’t matter how apolitical I am. It doesn’t matter how often and sweetly I smile and mind my own business, as one reader advised me to do, because no matter what, people are going to take offense at something. And I realized that the people who are working to erode the rights of others, who are standing for prejudice, sexism, racism, fascism, and a bunch of other distasteful -isms . . . they’re not worried about offending me.

I’m tired of worrying about it. And what’s more, I realize that it’s time for me to stop cowering behind ‘what’s good for my career’ and own my convictions.

If you’ve read this far, you might ask yourself, does she really think her decision matters? No, probably not to most of the world. I’m one romance writer in a sea full of them, and the universe is hardly waiting with bated breath to see what I do.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the universe does depend on small decisions like this, on the tiny courage of insignificant people like me, in order to turn the tide of righteousness. I don’t know. It’s possible. Madeleine L’Engle would say it counts.

Will I lose readers? Most likely. That’s okay. If you’re offended by football players and farmers, you probably wouldn’t stick around long anyway. Also, many of you won’t even open this email, so . . . there’s that! And in the end, to paraphrase Jim Gaffigan, owning my beliefs out loud is more important than selling a few books.

Now, here’s the caveat, if you’ve hung around this long. I’m not planning to turn my books, my newsletters, or my author social media into an endless political debate. I’m not planning to change anything, as a matter of fact. My newsletters will still be about books and characters and fluff. That’s what’s fun. The characters in my books won’t be leading marches or attending rallies or delivering long soliloquies on politics or religion.

I don’t want to argue with you, and I’m not trying to change your mind. Please don’t try to change mine.

But I’m not going to pretend that I don’t care anymore. I do care. I care about my Black sisters and brothers. I don’t claim to understand what they’ve lived with, what it’s like to be Black in this nation, but I stand with them now, and I will do whatever I can to learn so I can be better and do better.

I care about the future of my country. I care about electing leaders who embody HOPE, not those who gain power by playing on fear. I want to work to unify my nation in truth and justice for ALL, not just for some. I want to make this world better for my grandchildren, so that they will have clean air and water and the freedom to be who they are, love who they want, and live lives of fulfillment and peace.

It is fitting for me to end this with the words of King T’Challa as played by the incomparable Chadwick Boseman:

Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

Peace and love, my friends. If this is the end of our road together (the unsubscribe link is below my signature), go with God. If you’re going to stick around . . . thank you. We’ll keep having fun. <3

First Chapter Friday: Fifty Frogs

First Chapter Friday!

Get Fifty Frogs here!

 

“STILL FIVE POUNDS OVERWEIGHT.”
A collective groan rose from the line of people behind me. I ignored them all, even as I felt my face going just a little bit redder.
“Okay, then.” I unzipped the rolling suitcase, dug into it and pulled out a handful of clothes along with a random shoe. I tried to stuff them into my carry-on backpack, but it was already too full. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to close the bag as it was.

Still . . . with a frown, I bit my bottom lip and tucked what I’d just removed into the crook of my arm. I’d figure out what to do with it later. “Try it now, please.”
“Lady . . .” The airline baggage check attendant sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s not five pounds’ worth of stuff you just took out.”
“Fine.” With a barely-contained snarl, I replaced the shoe in the suitcase and pulled out more clothes instead. I didn’t stop until the better part of my wardrobe was in my arms. “Please check it now.”
The attendant shrugged and lifted the suitcase back onto the scale. All of us—the employee, the people who’d been waiting not-so-patiently in the ever-growing baggage check line and me, of course—held our collective breath as the numbers blinked, finally settling at an ugly fifty-three.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath.
“Look, just pay the damn fee already, okay, princess?” The man who was next in line behind me had a heavy New York accent. His meaty forearms were covered with tattoos, and he wore a Yankees cap. His baseball fandom alone was enough to make me dislike him. What he did next sealed the deal. “Here.” He reached into the back pocket of his sagging jeans and retrieved a wallet. “What’s the fee? I’ll pay it. Anything to get us moving again here.”
“I can pay my own fee, thank you very much.” I gathered as much dignity as I could, considering I was draped in a mismatched ensemble of clothes. “But I’m not going to do it. The airlines already charge us a ton of money to ride on the plane in a seat that’s barely big enough for a toddler, let alone a regular-sized adult. They let us bring on one flipping piece of luggage. Hell if I’m going to give them more money just because my bag weighs slightly more than the average suitcase. It’s the principle of the matter.”
“Your principles are going to make us all miss our flights!” This time, the complaint came from the woman standing four people back. “Just pay the damn fee.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d hoped my little speech about the injustice of airlines would have the effect of rallying everyone around my cause, until the airline employee just gave in and let me check my bag as it was. But no. They were not standing with me in solidarity against the industry. Instead, they all looked almost ready to lynch me if I didn’t give in and pay up.
The check-in attendant cocked his head, looking at me with some measure of sympathy. “It’s the shoes, you know? It’s not the clothes. Not really. And you can’t carry your shoes all loose onto the airplane. I’m sorry, miss. I think you’re going to have pay the fee.”

“Nope.” I dumped all the clothes I’d been holding onto the floor and began unpacking the backpack, too, adding the clothes there to my pile. Once it was empty, I transferred the shoes from the main suitcase to the carry-on. When they were all out, I was able to add back some of the clothes, watching the numbers on the scale carefully each time I did. When it hit fifty, I stopped, zipping up the suitcase with a triumphant smile.
“Okay, great.” The attendant picked up the bag and tossed it onto a conveyer belt behind him. “Now what are you going to do with all those clothes? You can’t leave them here.”
“I have a plan.” Bending down, I scooped everything into my arms and held the bundle against me before I picked up the stuffed backpack. “Thank you so much for your help. And thanks to all of you for your patience.” I raised my voice and turned my head to cast a quelling stare at the line of people.
“Honey, they won’t let you just carry those on, you know.” The lady who had been so helpful earlier threw a little more advice my way.

I ignored her and marched off, praying that none of those people whom I’d just delayed were on my flight to Florida. I was beginning to sweat under the weight of all the clothes I was carrying, but I managed to get to the nearest women’s room, which, thank God, didn’t have a line but did have a small bench. It was probably there for nursing mothers, I figured, but today, it was going to be a good place for me to organize what I’d liberated from my suitcase.
Once I’d dumped all everything onto the bench, I began to organize it into piles, thanking heaven that I hadn’t packed that many pairs of jeans. Instead, when I’d been choosing outfits to wear during my three-month writing residency on Amerails, I’d gone for leggings, anticipating that they’d be more comfortable on the long train rides. I’d been right about that . . . and now, these leggings were my new best friends.
I was already wearing one pair under a loose trapeze dress. Choosing the tightest pairs first, slowly I tugged each one onto my legs. At first, it wasn’t too difficult, but each subsequent pair felt that much tighter, until by the last one, when I was barely able to get the elastic waistband to the top of my thighs.
“Oh, this is going to be fun,” I muttered to myself. But there wasn’t any time to sit and mope; I still had seven shirts to pull over my head.
By the time the bench was devoid of extra clothes, I resembled something out of an old-time freak show. Or maybe one of those sumo wrestler suits people wore on sitcoms or reality shows for extreme sports. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best look.
My legs could barely move, and I couldn’t hold my arms down to my sides. I’d tied a denim jacket around my waist—it barely reached around my new bulk—and the sleeves of a cardigan sweater were around my neck. My face was beet red and damp with sweat. Limp strands of my brown hair clung to my forehead and neck.
“But none of that matters,” I told puffy, sweaty me in the mirror. “I might look like a lunatic, but it’s okay, because I have my principles. And an extra twenty-five dollars that didn’t go to the airlines.” I snorted, shaking my head. “Yeah. I’m totally the winner here.”
Rolling my eyes at myself, I picked up my stuffed backpack and began lumbering to the gate. Of course, because this was me, the line for security reached to the border of New Jersey. With a sigh, I took my place at the end of the queue, behind a woman with two small girls holding her hands. Dropping my backpack at my feet, I smiled at the child who’d turned to stare at me.
“Mommy.” She tugged her mom’s purse, her gaze never leaving me. “Mommy, why does that lady look so weird? What’s wrong with her?”

“Kelsey, shhhhh.” The mother, who looked cool, calm and completely put together in her cropped cotton pants and sleeveless blouse, patted her daughter’s head and glanced over her shoulder at me. Her eyes went wide.
“Hi.” I tried out my best wide smile. “I know, I look crazy, don’t I? I’m not, I promise. Although I guess even if I were, I might tell you that I’m not . . . but I’m not. I just had too many clothes for my suitcase, and the airline was going to charge me more, and I couldn’t fit them into my carry-on. So . . .” I gestured down my body. “I beat them at their own game. I wasn’t going to pay some stupid fee just because an airline bigwig came up with an arbitrary number for how much my suitcase should weigh.”
The woman’s back stiffened a little. “It’s not arbitrary. The airlines study these things—and the fees are in place to help protect the baggage handlers, so that they don’t get hurt lifting bags that weigh too much.”

“Huh.” I huffed out a breath. “Because of course the baggage handlers get the extra money we pay for heavy bags. Yeah, that’s how it works.” Sarcasm dripped from my words. “It goes to the owners and the board of directors, not to the people who do the real work.”
The other little girl turned around, looked me up and down with one raised eyebrow, and piped up to share her two cents. “My daddy works for the airline.”
Her mother drew both girls a little closer. “Sloan, that’s enough. Stay with me, girls.” She whipped a cell phone from her pocket, her thumb flying over the screen. I hoped she wasn’t alerting her husband who worked for the airline to send security to drag me out of the airport. This day just got better and better.
I made it through security, which was a miracle in itself. Thanks to some deity who was finally giving me a freaking break, I didn’t set off any alarms as I walked through the sensor. I shuddered to think of what a pat-down would’ve meant under these circumstances. They probably would’ve made me take off the clothes, and God only knew how I would’ve gotten them back on.
At the gate, I fell into a chair with a loud exhale, relieved to be sitting for a little while. Digging my cell phone from the outer pocket of my backpack, I scrolled through, looking for the right name.
Vivian: Well, I’m finally at the gate. Wait’ll you hear the story I have to tell you.
I hit send and sat, phone in my hand, watching the screen as I waited for Jeremy’s response. It didn’t come right away, and I frowned, and then shook my head. It wasn’t like he was sitting around expecting to hear from me. I’d only let him know a few days ago that I was on my way home, because the date had been kind of fluid for a while. His response had been vaguely positive, but that was men for you, right?

I flipped back through our conversation until I got to the day I’d left Florida, three months ago. It didn’t take long to get there. Jeremy’s messages to me in the beginning of my residency had been longer and more involved, filled with talk about our future and plans for what we might do when I returned home. I waited for a feeling of giddy anticipation to fill me, that sense of excitement that I was returning to the arms of the man I loved. Instead, though, I only felt an anemic flare of . . . something. It wasn’t joy or pleasure . . . but it wasn’t unhappiness, either. I didn’t think it was.
That was okay, because this was what grown-up commitment felt like. I’d spent three months talking myself into this. Closing my eyes and leaning back as far as the clothes would allow, I remembered the night before I’d left.
Jeremy and I had been seeing each other casually for about a year. We’d met through friends at a birthday party, and about a week later, Jeremy had called to invite me out for coffee.

That had been pleasant enough, and neither of us was too weird, so for our next date, we’d moved on to dinner, and then a few days later, to a movie.
After that, we’d just fallen into the habit of each other. Our friends had assumed we were together, and there hadn’t been any reason not to be. I’d introduced Jeremy to my parents, who lived in the same town I did, and when his mother had flown down for a visit, I’d met her, too. It had all been very calm and easy. Jeremy and I never fought about anything. We never disagreed. If I wanted to do something that didn’t interest him, I simply went by myself, and he did the same. We saw each other a few times a week and chatted occasionally on the phone to confirm plans.
My best friend Teddi, who shared my apartment, said that Jeremy and I had the most mature relationship she’d ever seen. “You never argue. I never hear either of you even raise your voices. Indon’t know how you do it. Shane and I fight about everything.”
I’d smiled but stayed silent. I knew all too well how much Teddi and her boyfriend Shane argued, because the walls in our place were thin, and I spent a lot of time at home. I had a front row seat to their disagreements and to their makeup sex, which tended to be loud and tumultuous. In contrast, Jeremy and I were less . . . physical. The compatibility we had didn’t exactly lend itself to passion. In fact, when I let myself think about it, the distinct lack of intimacy made me wonder exactly why Jeremy and I were together at all.
At first, I’d been impressed that he didn’t pressure me. We’d gone on six dates before he’d tried to hold my hand, and another four before he’d attempted a kiss goodnight. If we’d been sixteen, that would’ve been sweet and honorable. At twenty-six, it gave me pause . . . when I examined it too closely, which I tended not to do often.

There were so many wonderful things about my boyfriend that focusing on the aspects that weren’t awesome seemed petty, especially when my single girlfriends bemoaned their dateless states.
“You’re so lucky you have Jeremy. You never need to worry about what you’re going to do on Saturday nights or special occasions. You’ve got a built-in plus one for every wedding invitation.”
That was all true. And Jeremy did clean up well, although maybe that was the wrong figure of speech to use, because I never saw him get dirty—and I don’t only mean that in terms of sex . . . even if that was true, too. He wasn’t the type to want to go hiking or camping or, God forbid, to the beach. He wouldn’t even go running with me outside, preferring to get his exercise in an air-conditioned gym.
In light of that aversion to outside activities, I’d asked him why he’d moved down to Florida from New England. He’d looked faintly surprised and puzzled as he answered.

“Because the job down here was the best one offered to me. It had the best salary and benefits package and the most promising opportunity to advance in the company.”
“Uh huh.” I’d nodded. “But did you ever think hey, Florida! Sunshine, beaches and year-round summer? I want to get me some of that?”
Jeremy had frowned. “No. The place didn’t mean much to me. If the job had been in Montana or Oklahoma or Maine, I would’ve given it the same consideration that I did with it being in Florida.”
Being a Florida native, I couldn’t really speak to what I myself might’ve done under a similar circumstance. I’d been born here in central Florida, gone to the college where my dad was a professor, and after graduation, I had taken the one and only job I’d been offered. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Jeremy’s logical, practical approach to decisions like this revealed some kind of lacking in his sense of adventure. We were young, after all; weren’t these the years when we were meant to be impulsive and carefree?
But aside from these few concerning differences in philosophy, I didn’t have anything to complain about with Jeremy. He was steady, tolerant and understanding, and if we had a distinct lack of the same heat I saw between other couples, well, maybe that was just because he was so mature for his age.
When I’d been notified that I’d won one of the coveted writing residencies on Amerails, discussing it with Jeremy hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d been giddy with excitement when I’d told him that I’d been selected to spend three whole months riding trains around the US, writing blog posts about changing family travel in the twenty-first century and how the train could be part of that shift.

Because Jeremy was nothing if not polite and supportive, he’d taken me to dinner to celebrate. Over the next two weeks, as I’d run around preparing to leave, I hadn’t seen too much of him. But we’d agreed to spend the evening before my flight together at his townhouse. It had been a lovely night, with perfect Florida spring weather. Jeremy had ordered out from my favorite Italian restaurant, poured me a glass of my favorite red wine, and just before dessert, he’d dropped a bombshell.
“Vivian, I’m so happy about this chance you’re getting, to pursue something you’ve always wanted to do. And I think it comes at the perfect time for the two of us.”
The raviolis I’d just enjoyed suddenly felt like lead in my stomach. Holy shit, was he breaking up with me?
“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” Jeremy went on, studying his hands where they were folded on the table. “Not just over the past few weeks, but actually, for a while before. I’ve weighed pros and cons, upsides and downs, and ultimately, I came to a decision.”
I held my breath, waiting for the blow.
“I think you should move in with me.”
If Jeremy had told me he’d decided to sprout wings and fly around the world, I would’ve been less surprised. I stared at him, my mouth open, for the space of several heartbeats.
“Well?” He smiled and reached across the table to touch my hand. “What do you think? It seems to me the timing couldn’t be more perfect. You told me that Teddi has been talking about living with Shane. If you move here, she could have your apartment. While you’re away, I can put everything into motion so that when you come home, we can have the movers lined up.”
“Jeremy.” I found my voice. “Um . . . I know it will sound trite if I say this is so unexpected, but it really is. I had no idea you were even considering this.”

He shrugged. “We’ve been seeing each other for a year, Vivian. This is the next logical step. It makes sense.”
The nausea that had come on when he’d first begun to speak hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, now it was much worse. Jeremy sounded as though he were proposing a merger, not something romantic and exciting.
“Right.” I nodded. “The thing is, Jeremy, I haven’t been on the same wavelength as you, I guess. This is coming out of left field. So I can’t give you an answer tonight. Would you let me take this time while I’m away to think about everything? When I get home, we can see if you feel the same way—”
“Oh, I will.” He looked faintly amused that I’d suggest otherwise. “I told you, I thought this through. My decision is made.” He patted the back of my fingers. “But you take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you come home. You’re worth the three month wait, Vivian.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out something sarcastic, but I knew he was being earnest. This was what passed for sweet nothings in my boyfriend’s head.
For the first three or four weeks that I was away, Jeremy texted me regularly—and I responded. We didn’t talk on the phone, because it was virtually impossible for me to have any kind of real privacy on the train, and the cell phone signal was usually iffy at best.
I did think about what he’d said, though. At first, my gut response was to say no. His suggestion had made me realize that I’d never considered a long-term future with Jeremy. I’d been fine with things between us as they were, but I had never pictured myself marrying him or settling down for the rest of our lives. Maybe this was the perfect time to make a break that was long overdue, even if it meant I’d be single again. I realized that impending singleness was more upsetting to me than the idea of not having Jeremy in my life. That was telling.
But as the weeks slipped by, I began to change my mind. I watched families on the train, and I thought that maybe I did want that sooner rather than later. And there was no question that Jeremy was an excellent candidate for responsibility and commitment. He’d be a very good father, not to mention a steady, reliable husband. I began to hear a voice in my head that remarked, “You could do worse.”
Now a voice not in my head but over the loudspeaker interrupted my ruminations, announcing that the flight was beginning to board. When my section was called, I rolled onto my feet, clumsily slinging my backpack over one very padded shoulder, and joined the line.
By the time that I got into the plane, seats were limited, and I could tell by the expressions on several faces that I was the last person they wanted sitting in their row. I guessed I couldn’t blame them; aside from how nuts I looked in my multi-layers, I was probably not smelling as fresh as the proverbial daisy.
I finally found an empty aisle seat in the back, next to an older lady who beamed at me as I stuffed my bag into the overhead compartment and settled myself alongside her. We exchanged small-talk pleasantries until after takeoff. When the pilot announced that we were at cruising altitude, the woman turned to me with a smile.
“You said you live in Florida. What do you do for a living?”
I perked up. “I’m a writer. A journalist, actually. I work for a local weekly journal, writing about the leisure opportunities in our community. I had a three-month residency on Amerails, traveling on the train all around the country, and I’m going home now that it’s over.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun. What an adventure to have while you’re still young and . . . unattached?” She took a sip of her complimentary ginger ale. “Do you have a special someone in your life?” She eyed my left hand meaningfully.
“Well . . .” I paused. “I think I do. Actually, I’ve been dating this guy for a year, and right before I left for this residency, he asked me to move in with him. I was shocked because I never considered us that serious. But now I’m thinking I’d be crazy to turn him down.”
“Oh.” She folded her hands, her face softening. “Are you just completely in love with him?”
“Um.” I fiddled with the corner of my napkin on the tray. “He’s really a great guy. He’s got an amazing job at a bank, and he’s smart about money and all that. He’s courteous, and he dresses well, and he takes care of himself. He treats me with a lot of kindness and respect.”
“Hmmm.” She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”
I threw up my hands. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t be in love with a man like that? So yeah, I guess I am. I think I’m going to do it, too. My roommate’s boyfriend moved into our apartment while I was gone, and they just boxed up my stuff and stored it at my parents’ house, along with my car.” I nodded decisively. “I’m going to go to my mom and dad’s garage, put all my crap into my car, and move it to Jeremy’s townhouse. That’s the grown-up thing to do.”
“Are you sure about that?” She looked dubious, this stranger on the airplane who was dissecting my life at thirty-nine thousand feet above the earth.
“Yes. No. I think so.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a good reason to say no.”
“That might not be the best reason to say yes,” she observed. “Okay, tell me this. Is he madly in love with you?”
I hesitated again. “Ummm . . . he likes me. He finds my company enjoyable, I think.”
Judgy woman made a sound in her throat. It sounded very skeptical. “Is he anxious for you to be back with him in Florida? Has he been calling you? Texting you?”
I picked up my phone, reminded that Jeremy had never responded to my last message. “That’s just not who he is, you know? He’s not the lovey-dovey type. He’s not physically demonstrative.”
“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips. “And how are things in the sack?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me? I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
She lifted a shoulder. “None of this is, when you get down to it, but you brought it up. Or maybe I did, but it doesn’t matter. We’re both in deep now. And let me tell you something, sweetie. If this man doesn’t blow off the top of your head when you’re in bed together now, it’s not going to get any better. Trust me. My first husband and I had amazing chemistry. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Now, we were young and stupid, and we ended getting divorced over something trivial, but the sex never stopped being fantastic.” She sighed. “My second husband was the steady, dependable type, but he couldn’t get me off to save his life.”
My face, which had already been flushed, thanks to the layers of clothes, went even hotter. “Ummm . . .”
“And then one day, I got smart. I left the dud, went back to husband number one, and told him that if we agreed to have sex every time we wanted to argue, we’d be fine.” She grinned and elbowed me. “That’s been forty-two years and counting.”
“That’s, uh . . . nice.” I shifted a little. “But I’ve never met anyone like that. Before Jeremy, I never really had any steady boyfriends, just guys I dated a little, here and there. So maybe I’m not the type to get the top of my head blown off.”
“Honey, we’re all that type. You just haven’t met the right one yet. From what you’re not saying, I assume this Jeremy doesn’t get the job done?”

“Oh, he never leaves me unsatisfied. I mean, he hasn’t in the three times we’ve, um, done it.” I swallowed and stared straight ahead at the seat in front of me. Nothing like admitting to a seventy-something woman that she had a hotter sex life than I did.
“Three times?” Her eyes went wide. “In a year? Holy cannoli, honey. You need to call this one. Code blue. Run in the opposite direction.”
I sighed. “But what if I never meet anyone else? What if he’s my one shot?”
“In that unlikely event, you’d still be better off alone than with a man who you can only tolerate. Trust me, sweetie.” She craned her head back, taking me in. “And look at you. You’re pretty. I mean, under the undeniable crazy of wearing all your clothes at once, which I’ve shown remarkable restraint in not asking about, you’re probably a very nice-looking girl. Do you have a cute little shape?”

“I covered my face with my hands. “I don’t know. I guess. Maybe. I’m not fat when I don’t have eight layers on me. I could have a little more in the boob department, but I think I’ve got a decent ass.” Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes. “And why the hell am I talking to you about this?”
“Well, why not?” She laughed. “We’re stuck together for three hours in a tin can careening over the earth. We could stick to boring small-talk, which is a waste of time and energy, or we could get to know each other a little better, and maybe part as friends. I take this flight every two or three months when I visit my sister in Winter Haven. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to know this way. We’re all friends on Facebook.”
“That’s wonderful.” And it really was. I hoped that in fifty years, I was full of life and making new friends. “I’ve got a couple of people like that in my life. Only we didn’t meet on airplanes.”
“Doesn’t matter how it happens, but it’s always good to have a support system. A man in your life is a wonderful benefit, but a girl still needs her posse, right?” She reached over and patted my leg. I couldn’t feel it through all the leggings, but it was a nice gesture. “Now, I hope when we land, you’ll think long and hard before you make any decision about your future with this young man. Life’s too short to waste it with the wrong person, darling. Take it from me.”
I nodded. “I’ll definitely take everything you said under consideration. But it’s not easy out there, you know? I dated in college and afterward. It was never serious, just guys I knew through friends or met in classes. But the idea of being back out there, trying to date, makes me feeling slightly nauseated.”
“That could just be all the layers you’re wearing, hon.” She snickered. “I do understand. But trust me. Someday, you’ll look back and regret it if you don’t at least take some time to consider what you could be getting yourself into. Don’t settle for less than the man you absolutely can’t live without.” She drained the plastic cup in front of her and set it on my tray before flipping her own back into position. “Now I’m going to take a little rest. My sister has tickets for us tonight to the all-male revue, and I want to make sure I’m wide awake for that.”
She leaned back then and closed her eyes. I would’ve done the same, but the seven shirts I was wearing made it tough for me to rest my head against the seat. Instead, I laced my fingers together on my lap and considered my seat neighbor’s advice.
I’d thought I’d made up my mind. Now . . . I wasn’t sure about anything. Hearing myself talk about Jeremy reminded me why my gut reaction had been to tell him no. I tried to picture a future with him, getting married, having children and growing old together. It made me feel claustrophobic, as though I was going to jump out of my own skin.
But was I willing to give up a sure thing if the alternative was being alone?

Read the rest~

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