Meet Jenna and Linc . . .
I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by persuading Trent Wagner, the guy I’d been crushing on for months, to sleep with me. When he broke my heart and crushed my dreams by rejecting me afterward, I did the unthinkable. I tried to end my life.
Over two years later, I’m finally finding my balance again. My job at the county historical society is steady and predictable, two elements I appreciate right now. I’m living on my own, and my world is peaceful, if lonely.
That is, until hot single daddy Lincoln Turner comes to town.
When my wife was killed in a car accident, she left me with two small children and a bleak future. Six years later, I’m a recovering alcoholic who’s just gotten my kids back. I’m ready to tackle a new position as co-owner of a building restoration company.
I’m not looking for any attachments. But I’m also not ready for the irresistible attraction I feel for Jenna when a huge project brings us together.
The road to true love has more bumps than we could imagine. Making our way to a happy ending won’t be easy. But when two bruised souls find their way to each other . . . forever is possible.
“The water feels amazing.”
I turned my head toward the glare of the ocean as Abby Donavan—uh, Abby Kent now, I had to remember that she was married—dashed up the beach to where I sat next to her husband Ryland. I had to smile; I still wasn’t used to this more spontaneous, impulsive version of the contained Miss Abigail Donavan. When I’d met her a few years back, she had been our boss on the restoration of an old hotel, and I’d described her as steely. Maybe even a little bit icy. The lady had definitely melted, and I knew for sure it was more than the heat of the Florida sun that had done the trick.
In the beach chair next to me, the man who was responsible for most of Abby’s melting grinned. “Looking good there, Mrs. Kent.”
She shot him a saucy smile before dropping to the beach blanket in front of me, where my daughter sat with her arms around her knees. “Becca, come out with us! It’s so much fun. You can body surf with Ollie and me.”
Becca’s jaw tensed as she shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m fine here.”
“Bec.” I nudged her rear end with my foot. “Why don’t you go enjoy the water? This is your first beach trip. Don’t you want to play in the ocean? Have some fun, darlin’.”
My daughter replied without turning her head to look at me. “No, thanks. I don’t want to go into the ocean.” She paused a beat before adding, “It’s not safe. See that flag? It means there’s a rip current. People get carried away, and they can’t swim back.”
“We’re not going that far out, sweetie.” Abby pulled a towel out of her bag and dried off her legs. “I’m keeping my eye on your brother, too. We won’t go any further than just our hips, okay?”
“No, thanks.” Becca hugged her legs a little tighter as she repeated the words. “There could probably be jellyfish, too. And there can be bacteria in the water. Sometimes people die just from putting their feet in.”
I fought the strong desire to roll my eyes. “Becca, don’t be—”
Ryland jabbed an elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Becs, how long have I known you?”
She glanced back at us, frowning. “Ummm . . . I don’t know. All my life?”
“Yeah, just about. Did you know you were the first baby I ever held? Your mom didn’t give me a choice about it. She just plopped you into my arms. Now, would your mom have done that if she didn’t trust me?”
She gave a tiny headshake.
“Okay. And you know how much I love both you and your dweeby little bro?”
For the first time all day, my daughter’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “Yeah.”
“So you also know I would never, ever let you do anything where you might get hurt, right? Never. I’d throw myself in front of a speeding train to push you out of its path. Take on a grizzly bear if it were chasing you. You got that?”
“Then do you think, really think, that I’d let Aunt Abby take you down to the ocean if there were anything the least bit dangerous there?”
She pursed her lips and lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Ryland cocked an eyebrow at her. “We got to stick to logic here, tootsie roll. And logic tells you the truth.”
“But Uncle Ry—”
“Hey.” He pointed to her. “Not finished yet. Because I want you to think of something else. Do you know how much I love Aunt Abby?”
Becca sighed. “Yeah.”
“So you know I’d never want her to do anything where she might get hurt either.” Ry glanced at his wife. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t even told your dad. Aunt Abby and I are going to have a baby.” He paused, letting that news sink in. “As much as I love you and Ollie, as much as I love Aunt Abby and this little peanut in her belly, would I sit back and let all of you do anything where you might get hurt?”
Becca’s head swiveled in Abby’s direction. I could almost feel her struggling to accept what Ryland was saying, to let it begin to overcome the fear. Finally, she gave a tiny shake of her head.
“Okay. I’ll go down.” She stood up, brushing sand from her legs. “But only a little bit in, right? Not deep.”
Abby rose, too, and extended her hand. “I promise, baby girl. No further than you want.” Over my daughter’s head, Abby smiled at me and winked. “We’ll just play around by the surf.”
Hands linked, the two tripped across the sand. I watched them go, grinning when Ab body-checked Becca and pretended to be sorry. It gave me a sense of relief to see my little girl finally relaxing a little bit. She might’ve been going on twelve, but she was always going to be my baby.
Which reminded me . . .
“So.” I tilted down my sunglasses and folded my arms across my chest, fastening Ry with a glare that was more bark than bite. “Something you needed to tell me?”
His smirk was huge and not at all repentant. “Hey, the situation called for something big, so I gave it to her.”
“Yeah, jackass, telling my daughter before me that you’re going to be a dad. What the hell, man?” I couldn’t hold the faux-mad any longer. Reaching across between the chairs, I punched his arm. “Congratulations, bro. ‘Bout time.”
The expression on Ryland’s face could’ve lit up NRG Stadium. “Yeah, right, about time. More like a miracle. Between Abby working so hard to get the hotel up and running and me being on the road all the time, trying to move the business down here, what’s more amazing is that we were in the same state long enough to make it happen.”
“So is this the reason you’ve decided to stop traveling altogether?” I pushed my glasses back into place and leaned against the webbed chair.
Ry shrugged. “Well, it was in the works anyway, you know. It was always the plan, for me to move all the operations down here, so we could start a real life together. We figured that we’d talk babies after that, but it turned out someone had other plans.”
“Babies are like that.” I stared out into the blinding blue of the ocean. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but Becca wasn’t exactly planned. Sylvia and I had only been married about seven months, and we were living in this cramped apartment, barely more than a room. Working for Leo Groff back then, remember, but still pretty far down the food chain. Syl and I had plans—we had that crappy little apartment so that when I had to travel for a job, she could come with me. I came home one night, absolutely dead on my feet. Filthy from a project we’d just started. I remember I was pissed because I could tell she hadn’t started dinner yet, and I was starved. Syl was curled up in the corner of this ratty old sofa we’d inherited from her aunt, and she’d been crying. I finally got it out of her that she’d taken a pregnancy test.”
“Oh, man.” Ry’s voice was filled with empathy. “What did you say?”
“What could I say?” I lifted one shoulder. “I mean, it was a done deal. And she hadn’t exactly gotten knocked up by herself. Takes two to tango, and let’s just say, I always liked a good tango. So I hugged her tight, told her she’d just made me the happiest man on the planet, and we started picking out baby names. After Becs came along seven months later, neither of us could imagine our lives without that kid.” I sighed a little, remembering. “All this stuff works out for the best.”
“Yeah.” Ry fidgeted, his chair creaking as he settled again. “You know, Linc, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve heard you talk about Sylvia without . . . I don’t know. The deep pain. Like maybe you were about to lose it. It’s good to hear you say her name again with a smile.”
“We had good times. We had a great marriage, and I’ve never regretted one minute of our life together.” I hesitated, waiting for the usual boulder of grief to roll over me. But this time, as it has been lately, the feeling was not as devastating. I still missed Syl every day. I still sometimes talked to her when no one else was around. But the pain didn’t feel like it was going to consume me anymore. It was sadness, but it was no longer despair. “It’s not that common to find the love of your life when you’re seventeen. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m never going to forget it.”
“So you believe that?” Ryland regarded me with curiosity. “That we all get only one great love?”
I dug trenches in the sand with my heels until I hit the cooler damp layer. “Don’t you? Isn’t Abby your one and only love?”
“Of course.” He didn’t miss a beat in replying. “And I’m counting on us having at least a hundred years together.” When I raised one eyebrow, he lifted his hands. “What? My family is very long-lived. But if something wacky happened and I bought the farm after five years, I’d like to think Abby might find someone else. Someone not quite as attractive as me, of course, because hey, you can’t expect to hit the jackpot twice.”
“Don’t forget humble,” I added dryly.
“Never would. I’m just saying, maybe sometimes second chances come along. Look at Jude and Logan.”
Jude and Logan Holt owned the hotel whose restoration had brought Ryland and me to Crystal Cove two years before. They’d been married as long as I’d known them, but Ry had told me their story: Jude had been married to Logan’s best friend and business partner, Daniel, for over twenty years before he passed away from cancer, leaving her with two nearly-adult kids, her own beach-front restaurant and their company’s unfinished projects. Apparently, although he’d never let it be known, Logan had secretly loved Jude all those years. It was only well over a year after Daniel’s death that he’d begun to court his friend’s widow.
Knowing them now, as I did, I couldn’t imagine any other ending for those two. Logan clearly worshipped the ground Jude occupied, and she was head-over-heels for him. They shared not only their businesses—which had only expanded in the past years—but also her grown children and her two grandchildren.
“Yeah, that’s true.” I gave Ryland a brief nod of agreement. “But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the people I know who end up married again, or in another relationship after they lose a spouse, don’t find the same fire. They’re together for comfort and companionship. And that’s great, but it’s not an epic love. I don’t think anything can ever touch that first time you fall.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ryland fisted sand and let it sift through his fingers. “So, you ready for this change? Ready to become a man who stays in one place again?”
“I think so.” I stretched out my legs, letting the sun bake them. “It’s going to be good, I’m pretty sure. Burton seems like a nice town, and it’ll be a fresh start. For all of us.”
“And you need it.” My friend stared out ahead of us. “How’s it going, anyway? The transition with the kids, I mean. They seem to be doing okay.”
“It’s hard to tell yet.” I rubbed my fingers over my forehead. “We haven’t settled down to real life yet, you know? I picked them up from their grandparents’ house just about a month ago, and since then, we’ve been on vacation, more or less, down in Orlando and then up here visiting with you and Abby. That’s nothing different than what we’ve done other summers. The real adjustment will come when we’re alone in our new house, just the three of us, and I have to enforce the rules all the time. I’ll have to come up with a routine, and they’ll be getting used to new schools. That’s going to be the test.”
“Still.” Ryland cast me a sideways glance. “They seem happy.”
“Mostly.” I wanted to be optimistic, but the truth was, realism served me better. “But you see Becca. She’s scared of everything. Afraid to move and afraid to stay still. We were at a theme park last week, down in Orlando, and she got a little ahead of me in the crowd. I didn’t worry, because I had my eye on her the whole time, but when she looked around and couldn’t spot me, she freaked out. Took me nearly an hour to calm her down.”
“Hmmm.” Ry frowned. “That seems a little extreme.”
“It is. Maybe not for a five-year-old, but Bec’s almost twelve.” I lowered my voice, although there was no way either of the kids could hear me down in the waves. “That’s Doris. She’s always been a little bit of a worrywart, but since Sylvia’s accident, she sees disaster and tragedy around every corner. Becca’s picked that up, and it’s going to be a tough habit to break.”
“Maybe once you three are settled in Burton, she’ll relax a little. Have you thought about therapy?”
I nodded. “Both kids have had some counseling over the last six years. We might have to step it up a little in Becca’s case, though.”
“Ollie seems pretty happy.” Ryland watched my son as he splashed the females and made them squeal.
“Yeah, but he worries me, too. I don’t think the kid has quite wrapped his mind around the idea that they’re living with me now, for good. The other day, he said something about when he goes back to Texas. You know, he was only three when Sylvia died. He doesn’t remember her at all, and Doris and Hank are the only parental figures he knows. I was more like a visiting uncle than a dad to him.”
Ry gripped my shoulder briefly and then released me. “It’ll come together, man. Don’t stress it too hard. Kids are resilient, right? Isn’t that what everyone says?”
“I guess.” I sighed. “We needed this week in the Cove. I appreciate you and Abby letting us stay.”
“Hey, our hotel is your hotel.” He laughed. “Or something like that. And don’t worry. When we find a house, we’re going to make sure it has plenty of room for you guys to come down whenever you want.”
“You’re seriously going to move out of the Riverside?” Since before their marriage, Abby and Ryland had lived at the hotel that our company had restored. Abby was the manager, so it was easier for her to be on property. They had a roomy, comfortable apartment, and I’d never heard either of them complain.
“We are. We thought about trying to make it work there for a while longer, but the truth of the matter is that no hotel guests want to hear a crying baby in the middle of the night, and I’m given to understand that sometimes babies do that. Cry at night.”
It was my turn to smirk. “Now and then.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, Ab wants to do up a nursery, and I want a place where I can put in my own workshop. I’ve talked Cooper into partnering with me on some local projects, and it would be nice to have a place to do some of the work at home.”
“You’re becoming domesticated, Ry.” I ignored the twinge of envy I felt. “It looks good on you.”
“I never could’ve gotten here without you, buddy.” Ryland cleared his throat. “If you hadn’t come on as my partner and agreed to head up the new headquarters of Kent and Turner, I’d still have to be on the road. I’d still have too much responsibility to handle the local stuff, the artisan work. So . . . thanks, Linc. I can’t tell you how much Abby and I appreciate it. How much we owe you.”
I coughed away the lump in my own throat. “You don’t owe me anything. You . . . Ryland, you stuck by me when everyone else was ready to give up. When I was an ugly mess from the booze, when I cried my way through every day after Sylvia, you’re the only one who stayed. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, and my kids would be orphans, raised by their grandparents. And you gave me the courage and the wherewithal to take them back, too. If you hadn’t believed in me, I’d have let Hank and Doris keep them. I’d still be miserable, alone. So don’t think I’m doing you some big favor. You’re giving the kids and me a way to start over. To make a new life.”
“Guess we’re both good for each other.” Ryland didn’t look my way, which was fine by me. After all, we were men, and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes wasn’t our thing.
After a few minutes, I felt like it was safe to speak again. “Really appreciate you hooking me up with Meghan Reynolds, too. She found us a house that looks to be perfect for the kids and me. I’m looking forward to getting up there and settling in.”
“I think the location will be just what we need business-wise, too.” Ry took a swig of his water bottle. “There’s still a lot of historical restoration work going on in the greater Savannah area, and you’ll be central to jobs in Atlanta, too. Alex Nelson gave me some contacts from when he used to live there.” Alex and his partner Cal now ran the Hawthorne House, a bed and breakfast that was also owned by Jude and Logan Holt. Before he’d moved down here to the Cove, Alex had worked in corporate event planning in the Georgia state capital.
“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you.” I smacked the arm of the chair. “I had an email this morning from the Baker Foundation. The approval came down from the state on restoring that old plantation house, and we got the contract. So my first big job is going to be local to Burton.”
“Dude.” Ry lifted his hand for a high five. “That is huge. How’d you forget to tell me?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it on my phone right as we were leaving for the beach, and then Ollie couldn’t find his other shoe, and with one thing and another, I guess it just slipped my mind. Oh, and keep it quiet for now, okay? The local historical society hasn’t been informed yet. This was just a heads’ up from one of the Baker Foundation board members.”
“Will do. But hey, this is awesome. I’m jealous, though. A plantation? I’ve always wanted to take on that kind of project.”
“You’re welcome to come up and put in some hours whenever you want. Bring Abby, so she can see our new house and hang out with the kids.”
“We’ll plan on it. Don’t worry, I won’t be able to keep her away from checking out your new digs. Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s gotten attached to your kiddos.”
We both looked down to the ocean. Becca had ventured far enough in that the water hit her knees, and she was giggling as she watched her brother pretend to be a dolphin. My breath caught for a moment; I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard my daughter laugh with that kind of abandon.
“I think the feeling’s mutual.” The edges of my mouth curled. “Makes me wonder if we should’ve settled here instead. The kids would have you and Ab, and there’d be a sense of familiarity, at least.”
“Maybe. But at the same time I’d love to have all of you right here in town, I think it’s like you said. You need a fresh start, and in Burton, you’ll get that. You won’t be that far away from us, and we can visit.”
“Yeah.” A lump rose in my throat. “I guess there’s part of me that’s scared shitless I’m going to screw this up. The kids, I mean. Becca’s growing up. She’s going to hit those teen years before I know it, and how do I talk to her about all the ‘your changing body’ shit? That was supposed to be Syl’s job.”
Ryland blanched. “Dude, don’t look at me. I guess you’ll have to find some female up in Georgia who can help you out. Ask Meghan. She’s a chick.”
“But that’s just the beginning. There’s always going to be stuff I need to handle, not just as a dad, but as a mom, too. It’s terrifying, Ry. You think this baby part is going to be a tough gig? Just you wait, buddy.”
“Thanks, Linc. Appreciate all the encouragement.” He shook his head and gnawed at his thumbnail. “You know what, though? It’s going to be okay for both of us. We’ll make it through, ‘cause we’re both strong manly men. We got this.”
Scooping up a handful of powdery sand, I let it sift through my fingers. “I hope so, Ry. I really hope so.”
I’ve had a crush on Smith Harrington since we were in college together. I knew he didn’t see me as anything more than his friend—just one of the guys—but that didn’t stop me from weaving sexy fantasies about him.
Now, after years of maintaining a long-distance friendship, Smith’s moving to Burton to be my partner at the veterinary clinic—and he’s living upstairs at my new house. After all this time, I should be able to handle working and living with him without getting hot and bothered.
Or maybe not.
I’ve wanted Maureen Evans since the first day I saw her, but she never seemed interested in taking things to the next level. Eventually, I figured we were destined to stay in the friend zone. And although we’ve lived hundreds of miles apart for years, to me, she’s still the one who got away.
When Maureen asks me to be her partner at the veterinary clinic, I jump at the chance. Maybe all hope is not lost. Maybe with a little effort on my part, we can finally have our shot at love. So even as Maureen tries to maintain our just-friends bond, I push those boundaries . . . until flirting crosses the line into something more.
When friendship is no longer enough, there’s always love.
Read the first chapter now!
“Have no fear, reinforcements are here!”
I heard Meghan’s voice before her red head poked around the corner of my bedroom door. She grinned at me and held up the pile of flattened packing boxes she’d brought. “As promised. And I’ve got some wrapping paper and tape in the car. I’ll go grab them.”
“Why don’t you hold on for the moment? We’ve got enough to get started, and we’re tight on space.” I gazed around my room, sighing. Who would think that thirty years of living in the same house, with a brief hiatus during college, would let me accumulate this much crap? And yet here we were, knee-deep in boxes, knick-knacks, books, and clothes.
“Okay, where should I start?” Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the scene. “This is your show. I’m just a hired hand.”
“Yeah, well, don’t expect anything in the way of recompense, toots. This is strictly a charity gig. I’m poor now, you know.”
“Don’t worry. The only expectations I have are paper cuts and maybe a pizza and a couple of beers.”
“That I can handle. Why don’t you start with the books? There’re a few sturdy boxes from the liquor store in the corner.”
“On it.” She retrieved one of the boxes and began pulling books from the tall shelves that lined my walls, stacking them carefully. “I passed your mom on my way in. She seemed a little, ah, preoccupied. Everything okay?”
I blew my bangs out of my eyes. “Yeah. She’s picking up the pizza.” I concentrated on wrapping a small crystal box. “She claims it’s not true, but I think on some level, she’d started to think I was going to live here with her forever. You know, the widow Evans and her spinster daughter.”
“Shut up. You’re not a spinster.”
I nodded. “Oh, you’re right. I forgot about the husband and kids I have. Crap, where did I leave them now?”
Meghan rolled her eyes. “I just mean, you’re hardly old and dried up. Lots of women stay single later nowadays. You’re a modern career gal.”
Snorting, I reached for another pile of paper. “Sure I am. Or I’m the oldest single woman in Burton under fifty.” I watched my friend try to work out what I’d said. “No, it’s true. I figured it out the other day. Miss Charity, who works at the bank, is in her mid-fifties, near as I can figure. I don’t think there’s another unmarried woman in town my age or older until you get to her.”
“Maybe if you dated a little more instead of spending your Friday nights thinking about that stuff, it’d be a moot point.” She taped up the first box of books and moved on to another one.
“Uh-huh. That reminds me, I need to send a change-of-address notice to the men knocking down my door, begging to take me out.” I lifted my own finished box and carried it to the hallway. We were getting a nice little collection out here. Pretty soon, I could build a tunnel.
“I’m not going to argue and point out that if you wanted to go out on dates, you could.”
“Yeah, with who? You took the last decent available man in town.” I thought about Sam Reynolds, who’d been more like a brother to me than anything else, and I gave a little shudder. “Not that I was interested in Sam that way. Ever. I’m glad he ended up with you.”
Meghan smiled. “Me, too. But while I’ll admit I happen to think my husband is the sexiest, most incredible man in town, I find it hard to believe he’s the last one.”
“Okay, maybe Rilla’s the one to blame. She snapped up Mason from under our very noses.”
“Were you interested in Mason?” Meghan’s voice was equal parts surprise and amusement.
“Not one bit. I mean, the man is seriously hot. He’s built for sin, he’s a huge flirt, and he’s sweet as sugar to boot. But other than that, not my type.” I flipped up the top flaps of a half-packed box.
“So exactly what is it you’re looking for, if it’s not someone like Sam or Mason?” She started on a new shelf of books.
“Ah, I didn’t say I wasn’t looking for someone like Sam or Mason. But there are definite aspects of those men I’d love to have in my OAO.”
“OAO?” Meghan’s forehead wrinkled.
“One and only.” I winked at her and then tilted my head, thinking. “I guess I’m looking for someone . . . easy. Someone who I can hang out with, who knows me and likes me for who I am. Someone I don’t have to pretend with.” Smiling, I stood up and stretched my back. “Physically, I’m not that picky. A little taller than me, in good shape but not too built, you know? I don’t want to be intimidated by how much he works out. A regular guy.”
“There’ve got to be tons of regular guys around Burton. Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places.”
“Oh, yeah? And just where do you think this battalion of regular guys hangs out, pray tell? At Mason’s? At church? Out at the farm stand?”
Meghan threw up her hands. “I don’t know, Reenie. But you have to put yourself out there to meet people. Your—what did you call him? Your one and only isn’t going to just walk up to your front door and ring the bell.”
“Maybe he’ll bring in his dog to the clinic. We’ll lock eyes over his only-a-little-bit sick pet, and he’ll say . . . ‘Hello, Dr. Evans. I’m just a regular guy, and I’ve been looking for a girl just like you.’”
“You’ve been reading too many romance novels.” She lifted a stack of paperbacks. “Exhibit A.”
“Yeah, whatever. Why shouldn’t my life be like one of those books? I deserve a beautiful happily-ever-after.”
“Of course you do. I’m just saying you might have to do a little something to make it happen.” Meghan lifted up the box and carried it out of the room. “So is your mom really upset about you moving out?”
“No. I don’t think so.” I stopped moving for a moment. “I mean, I think she’s a little sad. I’m the last chick to leave the nest. Iona’s been gone since she left for college and Flynn . . .” I rolled my eyes. “He left with all the big drama, of course.”
“And came back in the same way.” Meghan dropped onto the floor and began to put together one of the flattened boxes. “But it all worked out.”
“Yup.” My baby brother had left our small town the day after his high school graduation, full of ambition, determination and with a badly broken heart, since his long-time girlfriend Ali Reynolds had changed her mind at the last minute about going with him. He’d only returned about a year and a half ago when our father had died suddenly. He’d been as surprised as the rest of us to learn that Ali’s daughter Bridget was actually his child.
As Meghan had said, everything had worked out. Ali and Flynn had gotten married about a year ago, and now they divided their time between New York City and Burton, where they’d built a small house on the Reynolds’ family farm.
“Still, I don’t think it bothered Mom so much because I was here. Or Dad was. And when I told her my idea about buying the old Walker house, she was as excited as I was.” I wrapped another piece of crystal. “But over the last few weeks, she’s been pretty moody. Maybe it just hit her that I’m really leaving.” The thought of my mom rambling around this big house, lonely and sad, hurt my heart.
Meghan stepped around boxes and piles of stuff to sit on the bed next to me. “Maureen, this is a good thing. It’s a move forward. You’re buying your own home, and now you own the clinic, too. Your mom knows that, even if it’s going to be an adjustment at first.”
“I know.” I sniffled a little and dug in the pocket of my jeans for a tissue. “I guess change is always hard.”
“Helloooooo!” A familiar voice floated up the steps, and I smiled.
“Up here!” Meghan answered, and we heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps running lightly up the stairs. A few seconds later, my sister-in-law’s head peeked around the corner.
“What’s this? I thought we were working. Packing and shit.”
“Ali!” Meghan popped up and clambered over everything blocking her way to the door. “When did you get into town?”
“Just now, basically. We pulled into the farm, and Sam told me where you were. I left Bridge and Flynn to unpack and settle in. I figured y’all could use some help.” She surveyed the room. “Seems I was right. Shit, Reen, how the hell did you accumulate all this stuff?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. And I swear I didn’t have this much crap until I started packing it. Maybe it multiplied.”
“That sounds possible. Point me in the direction of boxes, and tell me what to do.”
I pointed to the shelves. “How about helping Meghan finish up the books? That seems like the biggest priority.”
“On it.” She grabbed a box and began pulling books from a shelf Meghan had begun. “Okay, bitches, tell me all the news. Email and texting are great, but I feel like I never get the real scoop until we talk.”
“First of all, can we discuss how you talk when you come back from being up north? Since when do you call your friends ‘bitches’?”
Ali laughed. “Sorry. I need to stop talking Yankee when I hit the Mason-Dixon, huh? But stop trying to divert me, Reenie. I need to know what’s going on with you and one Mr. Smith Harrington.”
My face grew warm, and I dropped the marker I was using. “Nothing. What do you mean?” I bent over to retrieve the pen.
“I mean, when we left for New York after Christmas, you were living here, working at the clinic, clinging to the status quo. Then about a month ago, I hear from your mom that you’re taking over Dr. Yancey’s practice, buying a house, and the guy who made your heart go pitty-pat all through college is moving down here. Moving in with you.” She dropped two books into the box and threw up her hands. “What the fu—uhh, I mean, heck? Tell me what happened.”
I reached for a pile of notebooks and slid them into the box I was packing. “First of all, Mom’s not here, so you don’t have to worry about her yelling at you for your language. Second, Smith isn’t moving in with me. He’s going to rent the upstairs part of my house. Mrs. Walker converted it to a duplex a few years back.”
“But how did Smith end up being your renter? I didn’t even know you were still in touch with him.”
I’d forgotten that Ali would probably remember Smith—and that she was one of a very select group of people who’d known about the huge crush I’d had on him. She and I had still been friends early in my college years; our estrangement hadn’t happened until the summer before my junior year. Crap.
“Yeah, we did. Keep in touch, I mean. Nothing big, just emails, social media, that kind of thing.” I worked hard to keep my voice casual. No way did I want Ali making a huge deal out of this. “He was looking around for a new practice, and I knew I didn’t want to try to run Dr. Yancey’s on my own. I’ve got some good ideas for expanding it, but I can’t do that without a partner. So it worked out well.”
“Mmmmmhmmmmm.” Ali finished her box and began taping it. “And is Mr. Smith Harrington married?”
I didn’t look up. “Um, no.”
“And is he currently involved in a relationship?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“And are you planning to jump his bones?”
“I don’t—God, Ali. Seriously? Are you fifteen?”
“Nope. Just morbidly curious.”
“Well, stop. That whole thing with Smith—that was a long time ago. And keep your mouth shut when he gets here because he never knew about any of that craziness. Thank God. I’d have been mortified.”
“Okay, I feel like I just walked into the second act of a play. What’re you talking about?” Meghan looked from our mutual sister-in-law to me. “I thought Smith was just an acquaintance from college. Did you guys date?”
“No.” I filled that one word with as much emphasis as possible. “We did not. We were very good friends. We still are. And that’s all we’ll ever be.”
Ali nodded, her face poker straight. “That’s right. They were very good friends. Smith was the very good friend Reenie wanted to screw silly.”
I groaned and dropped my head into my hands. “Ali. You’re making me regret telling you all my deep-darks way back when.”
“Too late. And tell me it’s not serendipity, him deciding to move down here. You’ll be in the same town, in the same house, working together . . . sounds like the perfect set-up to me. Time to make some of those sexual fantasies come true.”
“When did you get such a dirty mind?” I stood up and crossed my arms over my chest.
“Blame your brother. We’ve been making up for lost time, and he’s very creative. Just the other night, we—”
I clapped my hands over my ears. “La, la, la, la—I don’t need to hear the disgusting details of your sex life with my little brother.”
Meghan came over to sit next to me again. “Don’t worry, Reen. If she gets out of hand, I’ll just make sure I talk about what her brother and I did last weekend down at the lake.”
Ali made a face and held up one hand. “Okay, okay. You win.” She shook her head. “When did it happen that my sisters-in-law ganged up on me like this?”
“That’s what happens when you spend six months out of the year in the big city, little sister.” I picked my way across the room and folded her into a tight hug. “But we love you anyway. Thanks for coming over to help, even if you are a pain in the ass.”
“Maureen Ann, language!” The front door slammed shut, and my mother’s words sailed up the steps.
I rolled my eyes. “Why is it always me she catches? You two could out-swear sailors and she never hears a word.” Raising my voice, I leaned out into the hallway. “Sorry, Mom.”
She appeared at the top of the stairs, lifting her curling black hair off her neck. “It’s hotter than hades out there. Ali, come here and give me a hug. Look at you, you’re more beautiful than ever.” Mom wrapped Ali in her arms then leaned back, studying her daughter-in-law. I saw my mother’s eyes narrow a little, but she didn’t say anything before she released her. “How’re you girls coming up here? Almost done?”
“Oh, uh, we’re getting close.” I glanced behind me at the partially-packed boxes and piles of assorted stuff.
“Hmm.” Mom raised one eyebrow. “Well, pizza’s waiting for you downstairs. Let’s go eat while it’s hot.” She turned and headed down the steps.
I slung an arm around Ali. “You know what the best part is of you and Flynn and Bridge being back in Burton? It means Mom has three other people to worry about and pester.”
Ali sighed and shook her head. “Oh, joy.”
I laughed. “Welcome home, little sister.”
First Chapter Friday!
“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~